A significant step Larry and I took after Jennifer’s death occurred in July of 2002 down near Cleveland, Tennessee. We wanted to hike the trail where Jennifer fell to her death in April. We needed to see the place where she died. We made plans to meet Josh, her fiancé, at his family’s cabin near the Cherokee National Forest.
This trip was part of our grieving process. There was no doubt from either of us that this trip was something we needed to do. We both felt this need to have a picture in our heads of what she saw and where her life ended. Walter Wangerin says “it is human nature to believe that by comprehending something totally that one takes control of it” (Mourning Into Dancing, p. 230). We didn’t expect anything would change in our sadness, but it felt like this would be a pilgrimage for the two of us to take along with Josh’s family who grieved along with us.
That April weekend in 2002 Jennifer and Josh were spending the weekend with Josh’s family at their cabin near the Cherokee National Forest. Josh, Jennifer, and Katie, Josh’s 13 year old sister, hiked in the national park on a rugged trail up Star Mountain. In July Larry and I drove down on a Friday night and stayed with Josh’s family. We got up Saturday morning and drove over to the mountain after breakfast.
This is my journal entry from our trip to Star Mountain.
Saturday, July 20, 2002
We climbed the mountain today. We drove a few miles from the Sesler’s house, down a dusty gravel road. A few cars were parked on roadside, and hikers were preparing to climb. Gee Creek ran along beside the trail, but it was almost dry. We decided to first go to the spot where she fell – midway up Star Mountain.
The trail was so steep, we were immediately struggling to climb. It was much more difficult to climb than I imagined. We had to grab small trees or exposed roots to pull ourselves up. Josh and Katie easily climbed it and then waited for us to follow.
The trail leveled off once we reached the cliffs. At one point we encountered a group of kids from a camp. Their leader was using the rocks as a metaphor – Jesus is our Rock. We had to wait for them to finish before we could move on up the trail. We went under a ledge, around huge rocks and squeezed through an impossibly narrow passage before we could climb up and over.
Josh led us to the spot where Jennifer fell. We were delighted to find a cable had been placed in the wall of rock. Josh’s parents had lobbied the national park staff constantly to make this spot safer. The staff had placed a cable in the exact spot where she fell. Once we were standing on the ledge the image that had been in my head was erased. This looked so dangerous to me.
Larry held on to the cable and stood where she stood, leaning over to look down. She had to sit on the point of the ledge and pivot her feet around to the other side. Without the cable she lost her balance as Josh and Katie came down from the top of the mountain. It looked like she would have hit the rocks below, but Josh said she was further out and fell in the underbrush.
Larry and Josh’s dad walked across the point and looked out over the whole valley. Josh did not cross it. We stayed for some time taking pictures, asking Josh and Katie questions. Getting near the edge made me very nervous, so I lay down on the rock to look over the ledge.
We walked down to where she landed; there was no path, so we had to walk almost sideways. It was thick with underbrush and trees. Josh showed us places where he jumped down to reach her when she fell. They were huge drops, and he could have broken a leg. Josh had told us how hard it was for the rescuers to climb up to the place where Jennifer lay. Katie and Josh had to clear rocks and trees to make a path for the rescuers who were training in the forest that day. I don’t know how they were able to carry her down on a stretcher.
Josh located the spot where he thinks she rolled and landed. We planted a lily in the dirt while Josh prayed and talked about the spot where Jennifer met God. After we climbed down, we drove to the other side of the river to take a picture of the cliff face. We located the spot directly across from the cliff. We all felt that it had been a good thing to do together. Josh said he could not have gone back up that mountain without us. It was not as emotional as I thought it would be – perhaps because we had to focus on the physical struggle to climb the mountain.
We headed home late Saturday afternoon and were at our home church Sunday morning. I wrote this in my journal on Sunday.
Now that it is done, I’ve been “leaky” – last night and today. Sundays at church are still hard; after church I have a sadness I just need to welcome in. It comes and goes all day. Telling others about our journey is harder than actually making the climb.
A week later I wrote:
Monday Emalie came over. I showed her the pictures on the computer of our climb. All week until Thursday or Friday I could not talk about our journey without crying. The visit made everything fresh again plus we were in Josh’s home, experiencing what Jennifer experienced, knowing it would never be as she and Josh had dreamed. There were times this week I could not bear to look at her picture.
I dropped by school this week (I did not return to work until the last week of school) , and my principal asked me if I knew I was a role model for people. That has not occurred to me because I don’t feel like a role model. Getting up each morning is about all I can manage some days. Oh, to have her her back with us!
These thoughts from Lament for a Son seem to fit how I was feeling at the time.
“The history of our world is the history of our suffering together. . . Suffering may be among the sufferer’s blessings. . . How do I receive my suffering as a blessing while repulsing the obscene thought that God jiggled the mountain to make me better?” (p. 91, 97
I found Psalm 31:8-10 to also fit the state of my broken heart.
Lord have mercy because I am in misery. My eyes are weak from so much crying, and my whole being is tired from so much grief. My life is ending in sadness, and my years are spent in crying. My troubles are using up my strength, and my bones are getting weaker. But you heard my prayer when I cried out to you for help. All you who put your hope in the Lord, be strong and brave.
Counting the joy of understanding that this is what Ann Voskamp calls “hard eucharisteo”, finding joy through the pain and sorrow.