In October of 2011, my family, my daughter's family, and two other families decided to start a new tradition for fall break and camp at Beartree in southwest Virginia. We had camped a lot together--but this time would be a bit different. Camping at Beartree is real camping with no hook-ups or cell phone service. There are, however, bears and raccoons and other critters. It is a beautiful state park--in the wilderness.
The weather that weekend was perfect, and the fall foliage was at its peak. Kids and adults settled in, playing games, building fires, riding bikes, and engaging with one another. In other words, we got busy making the kind of memories that last a lifetime. Looking back, even three years later, I still consider that weekend to be one of the best of my life.
On Saturday, the majority of our group was shuttled to the top of the mountain to bike the Virginia Creeper Trail. It was the first time for my youngest daughter and three of my grandchildren. They loved the scenic, downhill ride through the state forest and back country so much that they returned the next day to do it again! You might say that my family's love affair with the trail and the area started that weekend. For me, it was to be the beginning of something much bigger than I could have imagined at the time. A small seed had been planted that was destined to grow a journey.
my family, my daughter's family, our friends
Just nine months later, my world would be shaken so violently that hope would have to be hunted down with an intensity of new dimension for my very survival. The sudden, accidental deaths of my eleven-year-old grandson, Nate, and his friend, Noah, on July 4, 2012, would cement the nagging need I had to discern the purpose of God for what remained of my life. I could no longer live life hoping there was a purpose.
Yes, the tables were turned for me and my family that day. Gone--at least for a season--were the carefree days of laughter and whimsy. Profound grief was now our constant companion, and he was an uninvited and unwelcomed guest.
But there were other children to consider and other memories yet to be made. There were other broken hearts to be mended. There was hope yet to be found.
So I prayed. And when I couldn't pray, others prayed for me and with me. And my family held on for dear life as we navigated waters uncharted and unfamiliar. The loss was so very great and the trauma of the accident so very haunting.
And slowly, glimmers of hope did begin to emerge as we allowed ourselves the luxury of enjoying momentary feelings of peace and even pleasure amidst the pain. Laughter crept in without us noticing from time to time to do her work on our souls. Hard decisions were made by each individual affected by Nate's and Noah's deaths. They were personal, very personal.
Some would seek times of solitude. Some would surround themselves with friends and family. Some would cry a lot. Some would hold it in. Some would want to do new things. Some would want to keep old traditions.
When October came around again, the family and friends decided that we would return to Beartree. We would ride the trail again. For Nate. For all of us.
The same four families set up camp, but things were not the same. How could they be? Nate was missing, and the cold, wet weather added no cheer. Our intentions toward healing were thwarted by discouragement and doubt. Perhaps this was a tradition that should have been released.
There is, however, something magical about the spirit of a child and its ability to distract from what should be or could be. If allowed, it will embrace the wonder of the moment, releasing a contagious hope that is a force to be reckoned with, giving the weak in spirit a reason to at least try what once came effortlessly--mere living.
So, on a very different Saturday than the year before, we once again set out for the top of the mountain with what I think were unrealistic expectations--expectations which were totally based on the assurances of the eternal optimist of the group who discounted the cloudy skies.
He somehow convinced us that the threatening rain would await our arrival at the bottom and greet us then and only then. Unfortunately, as sometimes happens, in its excitement, the rain showed up several hours early and decided to accompany instead of greet.
If someone would have asked me what I was passionate about prior to that fateful day, I would have said, "I am passionate about making memories with my family."
So many of our memories were tied to summers on the lake-- the site of the accident--with friends. And that October, just three months into the weary road of grief, I was still very raw, mourning not only the loss of two dear boys, but the loss of our "place" on the water where we had spent years making great memories.
I so wanted another place to do that. I needed another place to do that. Even if the others could return to the water--and I prayed that they would--I knew that for me, the pain was too great to keep that tradition alive. I did not have the benefit of youthful resilience.
So I began dreaming of a new place of escape from the pressures of our lives. I wanted to have faith to believe that God could and would restore a portion of what was taken from my family that day.
And as I came down the trail, on that cold, rainy day in October, I saw her, the Little Cabin on the Trail. Of course, that was not her name then. I do believe that my heart skipped a beat--and it was not from the 11-mile exhilarating ride in the rain that it took to get there.
CABIN FOR SALE BY OWNER wasn't just a sign about a piece of real estate for sale. It was a sign from God. My merciful God heard my cry for hope, and He sent it to me that day. That little cabin was "it" and I knew it. God rarely answers my prayers with something as grand as a piece of property; but at that moment in time, I was sinking fast, and He knew that I needed a lifeline. I needed a reason to go on living in the present. He knew that I needed to hear His voice telling me that it was okay to live life again.
One month later, we were the owners of the Little Cabin on the Trail, and the process of making her our place began. The renovations became my husband's and my distraction from grief and pain. God sent us a job to do to restore our hope. And that job was a huge one. My husband and I had to compromise on the renovations. He wanted to go big and add a second story. I wanted to be able to use the cabin by the summer of the same year. In the end, we agreed that the inside would be totally gutted and reconfigured, but the outside would remain the same, keeping the cozy charm of its mere 600 square feet.
It has been two years since God showed up in a big way and gave us a cabin. I still have a hard time believing it. I knew then, and I know now--for sure and for certain--that the cabin came with strings attached. I am not sure if I attached them or if God did. Those strings enable us to never take His gift for granted. They require us to remember the prayer of dedication I offered over that little slice of real estate in the Virginia mountains.
My prayer was that God would give my family opportunities to serve others from that cabin. We had been shown such kindness by God's people in the days and weeks following the accident that I knew we had to play it forward. The opportunities have indeed come--so many, that I have lost count. We consider it a privilege to be able to share with others the love of Christ--a love that we did not fully understand until it saw us through an unthinkable loss.
Nate would have loved the Little Cabin on the Trail, and sometimes I feel guilty enjoying it without him. Sometimes I consider what the cabin really cost us, and I am overcome with tremendous sadness--which brings me right back to the feet of Jesus. Again and again I must accept the fact that good things do follow tragedy, but I don't ever have to deem the tragedy worth it. What happened that day will always be horrible; it does not have to be justified. So I accept the pain, and I also accept the good gift of the cabin. I accept the loss, and I also choose to serve others in spite of it.
That truly is a model of the Gospel.
The tagline on the cabin sign reads where memories are made and hearts are healed. That is my prayer--every time we go.