I’m relaxed and it’s not the Prozac, it’s the scenery. The shift from the green flat, Virginia Beach to the gradients of red in the Shenandoah Valley trees is my visual treat for nearing the end of my drive. The parallel line of trees meet in the horizon with a foggy blue outline in between. The first glimpse of the mountain range pull my shoulders away from my ears. The leaves rusting in the wind signal me to unfurl my brow and release my jaw. The climbs and descents of the road push me to take a double deep breath that ends with a surprising gasp. It feels like I’ve driven into the last five minutes of yoga class where you lay still in savasana, ready to release any tension brought on by class or life. Though here, the image outside my windshield is my teacher, encouraging my body to lighten as I near my destination, Charlottesville.
Every city I return to, or activity I pick up again is like putting on a new pair of glasses. I don’t know what it will look or feel like until I try, but I do know that if it’s wrong it will start to hurt. Cities steeped in our happily ever after hurt too much, so to save myself from that pain, I don’t often return. I didn’t know how I would feel visiting Charlottesville. As a student of The University of Virginia the end of this drive was sometimes coupled with the stress of assignments, the sadness of returning home after a visit to see Ra’Shaud in South Carolina, and just the ebbs and flows of college life. Ra’Shaud and I have many happy memories in Charlottesville, but it’s not tainted with what could have been, what should have been. It’s just what was and mostly, what was mine.
Only a few days before this drive, a college best friend suggested to our group that we spend a weekend back at our alma mater and I was quick to agree. I’m not doing much these days, so my schedule was wide open. Two, I can count on one hand the amount of times the four of us have been together since our 2017 graduation. Three, I felt like I’d exhausted the best of nature experiences available in the Virginia Beach area, and was eager to see the mountains. So I leave early Friday afternoon and head north.
As I enter Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park, I’m a little sticker shocked at the $30 entrance fee. I hand over my card and try to think of it as a donation to the park, and not like a ticket to an experience I’m only going to spend 45 minutes in. I’ve gotten pretty good at just handing over my card these days. I guess that is what happens when you spend three years saving every penny in preparation for your dream wedding that never happened. You’re left with money and no plan.
I thank the ticket man, turn off my GPS and just drive, admiring the change in tree color compared to back home. Nature feels different here. It’s a whole world, an ecosystem that has intentionally been honored and appreciated. It’s not just an accessory, it’s the main event. As I drive the bends and curves, I imagine the satisfying crunch of the leaves as the tires of my Ford Explorer roll over the ones that drift in it’s path. About three miles in, I reach the first overlook. I’m not alone, families, college students in cute workout clothes, and young couples are all there too. I stand at the overlook and feel small in the midst of the Blue Ridge. At eye level, the mountain range overlaps itself into the distance. Below is a patchwork of lush green farmland partitioned off with white picket fences and red barns that look so small it could be Old McDonald play pieces in a kid’s toy set.
This view, this perspective is why I am here. Standing here at the alter of nature, the noise of other visitors fade into the background, as I enter into a bubble of just me as the sounds of nature become a softly played hymn in the background of my thoughts. The whistling of the wind across the branches, the squirrels scampering down the edge of the overlook, the leaves tumbling and getting caught in ever larger piles of its own kind.
When everything in my world seems to have fallen apart, I stand here and am reminded that the mountains still stand, the leaves still turn and fall in the wind, and the sun still shines. Standing here, outside my parked car I’m in more than just a relaxing space, I’m acknowledging my emotionally and spiritually reality. Standing here, I’m grasping for anything to ground my faith in. I’ve tried to pray. I’ve tried to read the Bible and believe the written words. I’ve had conversations with others, hoping their faith and their hope would open my eyes. It hasn’t and I don’t suspect it will. I have to do it for myself. I have to start from the very beginning.
My faith at this point is a puzzle. I’m confident that one day I’ll be able to put the picture back together, but right now I’m doing it without looking at the image on the box. It’s too abstract. I need something tangible, something I can see, touch, and smell. At six months out from Ra’Shaud, my fiancé’s sudden death, I’m doing everything I can do. I’m going to therapy. I’m on medication. I’m trying to engage in relaxing daily activities like painting and baking. I’m at the end of myself and I know I need bigger. I’ve tried flipping the switch and believing in God in the way I did when Ra’Shaud walked this earth, but I don’t and I won’t fake it. Before I can believe that God is a good God, I need to first believe in the God of Genesis. The God that creates. The God of beginnings. Standing here, I see the mountains He chiseled, I feel the drop in temperature alerting me to seasons, I smell the scent of cold in the air. Right here, right now, I’m experiencing this tangible goodness of God’s doing with all of my senses, and right now, that will just have to be good enough.
I get back in the car and continue moving farther into Skyline Drive, yet cognizant of the clock as I want some alone time to get my favorite coffee and spend some time writing before my friends arrive. At each overlook, I stop, get out, take a few pictures on my Dad’s old Nikon, then return to the car. After the fifth time, I turn around to head back into town. My mind is quiet at the overlooks as I simply feel, but it is pacing and processing as I drive the winding roads sandwiched in between the trees. In the car there is doubt. Out there I have a reason to believe.
I’ve had many people encourage me to get outside as I work through this initial wave of grief head on. In my introductory session with my therapist she asked “What is your terrain? Where can you go and breathe?”
I didn’t think this was a particularly salient question for me at the time, but it would become more important as the months went on. “The trees. The mountains.” I answer.
Another widow told me to “try to still see the beauty in life, like flowers, sunsets, the water…” I’ve never looked or thought about nature in the way they suggested, so it makes sense that I didn’t put too much thought to their words. Just pushing them off as something well intentioned, but not anything applicable to me. Turns out, who I am is in flux so while I didn’t consider myself an outdoor person before, maybe that’s changing now. At first it was walking through a trail in my neighborhood. Then a state park near the beach, and then a trip to Charlottesville to see the mountains. On the most basic level, it was good to just leave my house and get fresh air. Though maybe more important to my sanity, I am learning how many lessons nature has to teach us and I’m just now peeling back the layers as to how vital their advice will be for me.
Losing your person is so tragic, so life altering, so painful that it feels like every other good thing is ripped from you as well. There is no hope, no will to go on. BUT try to see beauty in creation, I was told. This isn’t advice in the vein of toxic positivity. This is advice for survival. If you are going to be here, live here on this earth, it has to be for something. The beauty, wonder, and unpredictability of nature is helping me understand my faith again. I don’t operate in mystery or unknowns. But Ra’Shaud did. He had spontaneity and a blind trust that things would find a way when no way was clear or present. I’m the opposite, I operate with plans and spreadsheets, and not stopping until there is a clear and logical solution. I can be all or nothing. Black and white. In explaining this to my therapist she asked if I could take some of that spontaneity and trust that Ra’Shaud had and try to apply it to my current relationship with God? Do you think you can move out of a space of black and white with God and be okay with the grey for a little bit?
Questions like that caught me off guard, but with each session I’m seeing how half of this is about grief and half of this is about getting over my own self. I need to be okay with grey. When I stand in front of a raging tide, or see a flower bud, or see a vulture pecking at a dead animal on the side of the road I don’t need an explanation for what is happening. Sure, I could search for answers, but that doesn’t change what I’m looking at. Life and death. One of the most consistent phenomena in nature. Yet, it is still good. Still beautiful.
I’ve spent months reading and researching to figure out what version of God allows for this to happen, what version of Him I can be okay in still trusting, and why I think those things of Him in the first place. One day I hope to have come to more concrete conclusions about who God is for me, but maybe that desire is the problem in the first place.
Whatever conclusions I subscribe to does not change the fact that I am here and Ra’Shaud is not. So for now, I’ll stand in awe of the mystery and the unknowns. I’ll stand to find beauty in looking at what God made that is good, and wait patiently for the time when I can believe that He himself is good as well.