I suppose we all have our special places. Places that are paradise to us, not just in beauty, but also in feeling, experience, and memory. No matter how the years pass, they retain a sort of magic for us, or are perhaps a balm to our souls. We may have more than one, or several that each represent a different stage in life or memory. At least I hope we all have them, to one degree or another.
I have Gig Harbor. It’s not my only special place, but in many ways it stands alone and above all the others.
Two months ago I went back. I hadn’t gone on a trip alone since before I was married and it was both wonderful and strange to leave. The wife and mother in me felt guilty for leaving but deep inside I knew it was the right thing to do. I’d known it for years.
My friend Wes passed away on December 31st, 2014, and on January 24th a memorial service was held in Gig Harbor, Washington to celebrate his life. Twenty years ago in January I first went to Gig Harbor as a missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and met Wes shortly after arriving there. I spent seven months in that area, and the impact both the people and the place had on my life was profound. You see, one of the reasons I was sent to Gig Harbor as a missionary was to meet Wes. It turned out that my association with him was life-changing, both for me and for him and probably for a lot of other people too. His wife asked me to come and tell the story at his funeral.
I worried a little. I’d never spoken at a funeral before. It was a story I rarely spoke of, as it seemed too sacred to speak of often, and somewhat embarrassing. They all knew me as a young, energetic college student in her early twenties; now I’m a forty-something mother of 8 children whose long brown hair has turned mostly gray and blonde. I felt like a sorry substitute for who I once was, and as happy as I was to go back, I was also afraid.
It was one of the happiest weekends of my life. Everything was familiar to me, as beautiful as I remembered it, unchanged and yet improved, magical still. The longer I was there, the larger my smile grew and the love, the overwhelming feelings of love that permeated my days in that city so long ago seeped back in and filled all the cracks and holes in the deep corners of my heart.
The funeral went well. I spoke easily and the story practically told itself. Those wonderful people who loved me and invited me into their homes and trusted me so long ago welcomed me back with more love and sincerity than I could have thought possible. All the changes I was afraid they’d dwell on meant nothing. They loved ME. They were happy to see ME. I was still Sister Sheffield to them. In a moment of total wonderment I considered the possibility that THIS might just be what it will be like to go home when we leave this life.
I drove and walked as much as I could, stood on my favorite street corners, breathed deeply of the scent, laughed with joy at the rain, teared up at the fog, stared at the skyline. I grinned like a giddy little girl at the Tacoma Narows bridge.
On Sunday afternoon I drove down Peacock Hill toward the harbor after a precious hour visiting with another couple I taught all those years ago. The sun had come out and it was a brilliant, blue, beautiful day. As I approached Harborview Drive I remembered the night I drove down that same hill and was literally overcome by the beauty of the place. In that moment I had the distinct realization that ALL the good I could do for the rest of my life couldn’t begin to repay the Lord for just the gift of THAT beauty on THAT night. To borrow from my all-time favorite book, it was my waters of Mormon. The scenery of Gig Harbor fed my soul in unspeakable ways and it’s never really left me. To be experiencing it again so many years later seemed almost too much. With these memories in mind I turned the corner and looked to my left… hoping.
And there it was. Mount Rainier in all it’s beauty, bigger, more luminous, more magnificent than I’d remembered, better than any of the photos or paintings I’ve saved. I literally shouted for joy, feeling like the luckiest of people. Remembering the doubtful laugh of the woman on the plane when I’d told her I was hoping for a glimpse while there, I shook my head at the kindness of our Heavenly Father. Such a gift, such a perfect, personalized gift.
I went to pay tribute to a most amazing man and came home more whole than I’ve felt in years.
This post has been half-written for seven weeks. Today it was time to finish. Today is also Palm Sunday, and as I have pondered the events of that day, my heart rejoices. I rejoice that Jesus Christ is who and what he claimed to be. I rejoice that because of Him, death has no victory. I rejoice in his infinite ability to give good gifts, in his ability to give us eyes to see those gifts, and in the masterful way in which the gifts are delivered alongside the chastening and stretching and everyday experiences of life. Sometimes I feel like the good, bad, fun, happy, sad, frustrating, easy and difficult things of life are packed so tightly together and then mixed around so vigorously that I hardly know which way is up. But I DO always know that I can LOOK up, and help always comes. On this Palm Sunday, I joyfully claim Jesus Christ as my king of kings and Lord of Lords. And I thank Him most gratefully for being at work in my life – in spite of me – and for not giving up on me. For giving me Gig Harbor – more than once. For giving me my family. For helping me discover what it means to be me. I am forever indebted.