Highway to Heaven


The week after Mark’s birthday was good, bad, wonderful, awful, emotional, meaningful, and 50 more adjectives. Sarah and I were involved with Vacation Bible School at our church – something I really love, something both kids grew up doing every single summer. For 12 years, in fact (from 1999 to 2011), I was the co-coordinator and I have SO MANY happy memories of carting a van-load of kids to VBS, with trips to the pool or home for a play-date afterward. Such sweetness. Those kids are now grown people, who say it is a fond, fond memory as well.

Every year, there is a “mission” focus for the kids at VBS and this year it was to raise funds for an air conditioner for someone served by SPY, in Christiansburg (Service Project Youth — see my Mothers Day post for more info). Last summer, Mark had noted during his SPY week – as he helped out at Mary’s flimsy trailer home, putting in a badly needed new living room floor – that she did not have an air conditioner, and it was beastly hot. He said, “Mom, that woman was SO sweet, just incredibly sweet. She kept talking to us about how much she loved us.” He and I talked about just buying her one but that detail got lost in life as we got him and Sarah ready for returning to college. But I remembered it at his memorial service, and told the folks from SPY the story, so I knew Mary would be getting her air conditioner while we were there the following week. I made it through VBS until Friday, when old videos and pictures from SPY – look, there’s Mark! – shown to this crop of VBS kids, pushed me right over the edge.

The next morning, July 2, we left home and drove to church, meeting up with the majority of people headed to SPY with us. There was an amusing pep talk/prayer about being flexible and positive (the college-aged staff at SPY having never hosted a multi-generational, bossy group like us — we imagined them a little petrified), and we were off.

To get to Christiansburg from the DC area, you drive west on I-66 and then south on I-81. This is a popular pathway for airplanes, too. As we drove, there were numerous contrails – old and fresh – tracing our route in the cobalt-blue sky above us, summoning a smile. I imagined Mark rocketing along in the sky, jetting ahead of us, excited to know how many people he loved were coming to one of his favorite places.

Even though Steve, ever the Troop Leader, was constantly reminding us all that “you know, the Boy Scouts prohibit caravaning because it isn’t safe!”, there’s something lovely about traveling in the midst of friends, on your way to spend time together doing good stuff. It only got better when Jim and Kathy H (and their beautiful baby girl), who’d come from another direction, just happened to join us along the highway. What perfect timing! A few minutes later, our friend Georgi and her daughter Emma passed by our car, waving madly (they were headed south for a wedding and suddenly recognized my well-stickered van), and the feeling was complete: it was like we were all pilgrims making our way together toward heaven’s gate.

Fieldstone UMC is the site for SPY and its staff and campers, and the church is actually an old furniture store — more like a warehouse. The interior is roughly partitioned into large spaces for gathering, supplies, worship, classrooms, offices, baths/showers and sleeping spaces. As I set my stuff down in the women’s sleeping area, a nickel sat waiting on the floor. As I walked into the area where everyone dines communally, I saw it was the same as the one in my dream in Sanibel. The TV sat on the stand. Could my emotions be any more stirred?

8c5e1d_d8ab963ab08748c6892418b000bc5c08-mv2_d_2448_2448_s_4_2Working on Mary’s trailer that week – continuing the work Mark and others had started the previous August – was inordinately poignant. We discovered active rot under the floor in multiple places, and so had to first chisel out the sub-floor and repair leaks under the bathroom sink before we could lay the new flooring. I felt we were putting fingers in the dike – her trailer is slowly disintegrating – but we also knew its immense value in her life, which held so many difficulties and sorrows. Etched forever in my mind is her profound delight, after being presented with a bouquet of flowers from SPY: she said, “I’ve only ever gotten flowers one other time in my life!” One other time, in all her 50-some years. The things I take for granted…

We presented her with the a/c unit on the second day, and installed it. I’d realized by then it wasn’t clear if Mary remembered Mark, and decided not to add to her sorrow. As the week came to a close, we gave her a little canvas we’d painted, with an encouraging bible verse and our names around the edges. Caleb, a friend of Mark’s, suggested adding Mark’s name to the canvas. And so I did, drawing a little halo above it, and then I did tell Mary the story. She said, through her tears, “Let me see his picture again!” and upon inspection she pronounced, “OH! I remember him! He’s the one who would talk to me all the time!” Yes.

Steve and I were presented with honorary SPY staff shirts (SPY was going to offer Mark a job as a counselor this summer); Mark was a part of some of the devotional talks. I was overwhelmed a lot. We cried a lot, individually and collectively. I found 3 dimes; Lynn found one, too. It felt like he was all around us, enmeshed in the Spirit of love and goofy joy that permeates that place and those people. Apparently Mark was known for walking around and singing while also brushing his teeth. Everyone still laughs at the one line joke he and his friend, Craig, told one year, in the talent competition. I hope we can go back again.

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