Desert Light

My existence had become like the winter desert, gray and somber, lifeless.

My favorite photograph of my mother was taken at Donkey Lake on the Boulder Mountain in southern Utah. She had been married to my father just a few months then. Wearing a sweater and light-colored slacks, with a scarf over her blonde hair, she sits on a cot in a grove of aspens. She looks very young and happy and beautiful. Even though the photograph is black and white, somehow I know it’s fall. Fall was her favorite season. The way she looks in the photograph is the way I will always see her.

It was midnight, December. Outside my parents’ bedroom window, snow fell lightly, softly, beautifully. The earth was covered with a layer of white like a shroud. I sat on a chair next to my mother’s bed watching the snow. The house was silent. The only sound was my mother’s breathing. Her breath came in such long intervals I wondered how anyone could live on so little air. I realized how close death was for her.

Early in the fall, after four years of chemotherapy, radiation treatment, and surgery my mother came home and said, “Enough, I won’t go back.”

In the following months she grew thinner and weaker and the pain she felt seemed to increase every hour. It was all so gradual, like watching summer turn to fall and fall turn to winter, but with a terrible twist. My mother had always taken care of herself, eating right and exercising, but by Thanksgiving she was too weak to take more than a few steps.

In the first week of December, when the powerful drugs my father gave her with an injection began to wear off, the pain would leave her screaming. Something in some untouchable secret part of me began to unravel.

A few weeks later she slipped mercifully into a coma, and then we took turns sitting with her day and night. We didn’t want her to be alone when she died. Somehow all of us felt she knew we were there.

Sitting with her in the night it seemed a darkness settled over me. How do I explain what I felt? I never realized anything could reach me so deeply.

I thought of the winter I almost drowned. I was about ten. It was December then too. All the ponds in the area had frozen over. A friend and I decided to go sliding on the ice on the reservoir above town. The reservoir had steep banks surrounded by willow branches. I ran ahead of my friend onto the shining ice. It was a warm cloudless day, and the sun had melted the surface of the ice. It was slick, perfect for sliding. I was wearing my new Sunday shoes, the best shoes I had for sliding. Like mercury on glass, like light on water, like a lizard’s tongue flicking out after a cicada, I flew over 50 feet out onto the middle of the reservoir in one long beautiful slide.

“World record,” I yelled. “You’ll never beat that.”

Then I heard a breath of cracking sound, the sound you get when you pour water into a glass of ice cubes on a summer day. I looked down at my feet. Small white cracks, like a spider’s web, raced from beneath my shiny brown wing tips. Water came suddenly onto the ice through cracks, reflecting a turquoise sky. A month earlier two boys had shot a snow goose on another reservoir. Like an angel falling from heaven, the white goose had dropped out of the blue winter sky onto ice, landing 30 feet from shore. Walking out to get the bird, both boys had fallen through the ice and drowned. As I dropped I felt the burning cold shock of the water and saw the blue sky vanish into darkness and thought of the two boys. I could see them drowning in the dark water surrounded by white, the white goose with blood on its wings lying dead next to them.

The icy water brought with it a feeling of certain death. The cold made me gasp, and water quickly filled my lungs. The reservoir was only six or seven feet deep, and I hit the bottom and pushed hard with my legs. My head crashed into the ice, and there was a flash of dark red light. I felt a numbing warmth coming to my body. I was still conscious but barely able to move. There was a feeling of total helplessness. I felt life leaving my body and terrible darkness coming over me. It was one of those things where seconds turn into a million years. I have no idea how long I was under the ice. It was an eternity. What did I feel? Darkness, pain, helplessness, lost, anger are good words, but they’re not strong enough. A black sadness settled on me darker than anything I’d ever known.

Somehow, not even knowing what I was doing, I pushed against the ice and felt my body hit the bottom of the reservoir again. I pushed off toward what seemed a shaft of light. My head came up in the hole I had fallen through. Choking for air, somehow I managed to get my arm onto the top of the ice. By crawling flat on the ice my friend reached me, caught my arm, and pulled me to safety.

What I felt sitting with mother was much more terrible and darker than what I felt under the ice. This thing cracked the very bones of who I am, and I knew I would never be the same again. It’s not death that hurt this way. Death is hard but I could accept it as a natural process, something which happens to all of us. What hurt and what challenged everything I thought and believed and felt was watching someone I love suffer incredible pain for months. It’s an age-old question, an ancient nightmare rune. How can God let this happen? At midnight, at one o’clock and two o’clock, with the weight of this question a darkness settled over me like snow covering the earth out the window, and I felt the faith and belief I had slipping through my hands like water.

A few weeks later, just before Christmas, my mother died. It was a good funeral, but there was no answer to the question burning inside me. For months I moved through life an awake somnambulist. Why? Why is there so much suffering in the world? Why does God allow it to happen?

Early in the spring, a few days before Easter, I went out into the desert country of western Utah. I had been there a month earlier and had been amazed at the silence. There was nothing moving, no life, only the gray color of the earth and the sagebrush and a somber winter sky. This time I got there in the night and listened to the coyotes and great horned owls calling until morning.

With first light I climbed to a high peak and watched the sun rise over mountains a hundred miles away. As the sun cleared the mountains, golden light fell on a desert floor covered with red flowers and green grass. Thunderclouds 30 miles away swept across the valley floor. There were mule deer and antelope. A doe and her fawn walked within 20 feet of me. Great flocks of small birds, chickadees, wrens, finches, and juncos flew over. The desert had come to life with the spring.

It’s funny how you can know something and not know it. I thought of another desert and another spring. I thought of Easter and of what it means, of life coming from death, of death coming from life, of resurrection, of living again, and for the first time I began to understand. It was like my friend’s hand pulling me out of the water onto the safety of the ice.

I would like to say everything changed then. It didn’t. Some of the hurt I feel from the way my mother died will always be with me. The morning in the desert was just a beginning, a change in direction. It is a direction I think will take me a lifetime to complete. What I felt that morning, what I feel strongly and what I am still learning, is that no matter who we are, if we live long at all, we will lose people we love and feel the pain of it. We can’t always control how long we’ll be with them, but we can choose how well we love them while they are with us. Even if we spend an entire life with someone we love, there still is never enough time for breakfasts in bed, for giving flowers, or for doing dishes, or for giving small compliments, for forgiveness, for telling and expressing what we feel.

How deeply and broadly we love and how we show it is the only real choice we have. No matter what happens to us, no matter how badly others treat us, no matter how great our physical pain, we still can choose to love and to show it.

The pain we feel can give us understanding and compassion for the pain others feel. In the Garden of Gethsemane the Savior voluntarily suffered for the sins of the world. The pain he felt was so great he bled from every pore. Because of his suffering, the Savior’s love, compassion, and understanding of our pain and of our lives became perfect. With his suffering he became one with us.

With my mother’s death I came to learn there is no love without pain, without discipline, without sacrifice. But with the suffering, love brings the greatest potential for joy and understanding, for everything of real value in life. How well we love determines everything. It is the great law (see Matt. 22:36–40) and the great test. It is the basis of everything the Savior taught. It requires a lifetime of struggle and work and pain.

Without love there is only emptiness. With it we become one with the Savior, one with the people we love, and one with ourselves.

We choose.

[photo] Photography courtesy of Laird Roberts

[illustration] Snow Squalls, Central Utah by Wilson Hurley

[illustration] Towering Cumulus by Wilson Hurley