When the thin horizon of a plan is not clear at all…

Bertelson6A friend of mine, Lia Mallini Bertelson, wrote this reflection almost two decades after suffering multiple heartbreaking tragedies.  All of us will suffer some kind of heartbreak at some time in life and I think it helps to know that we will survive.  So I asked her if I could post her story and she said okay…

When I was a senior in high school, my group of friends lost three of our number to tragic accidents within a month.  Two days before prom, my date-to-be and another friend were in a terrible car accident returning from senior skip day at the springs.  Mike died immediately and Trevor died Monday after spending the weekend in ICU.  That Monday, many of us gathered at the duck pond outside the hospital, waiting for news, being together. I think maybe a group prayer was led. Our friend Nick’s father emerged from the hospital to address the group on behalf of Trevor’s family and let us know that Trevor had died. Just a few short weeks later, it was Nick who died.  We were on a graduation trip.  Nick had met a girl from another school and they were talking while she sat on a balcony ledge.  She lost her balance and tried to hold on to Nick, pulling them both over.  She broke her leg and he died.

We felt robbed.  We were devastated and heartbroken.  Just at the moment when we were set to go off into the world, the world became a different, scary place.  I had been eager to go away to college since about middle school, and suddenly I felt terror at the thought of leaving the friends who knew the pain I was in and who were feeling the same pain.  One night I dreamed that I was at college and Trevor was there too.  That dream left me with enough courage to go.

During this time, The Wood Song by the Rocky RideIndigo Girls soothed me…

The thin horizon of a plan is almost clear
My friends and I have had a tough time
Bruising our brains hard up against change
All the old dogs and the magician

Now I see we’re in the boat in two-by-two’s
Only the heart that we have for a tool we could use
And the very close quarters are hard to get used to
Love weighs the hull down with its weight

But the wood is tired, and the wood is old
And we’ll make it fine, if the weather holds
But if the weather holds, we’ll have missed the point
That’s where I need to go

No way construction of this tricky plan
Was built by other than a greater hand
With a love that passes all our understanding
Watching closely over the journey

Yeah, but what it takes to cross the great divide
Seems more that all the courage I can muster up inside
But we got to have some answers when we reach the other side
The prize is always worth the rocky ride

But the wood is tired, and the wood is old
And we’ll make it fine, if the weather holds
But if the weather holds, we’ll have missed the point
That’s where I need to go

Sometimes I ask to sneak a closer look
Skip to the final chapter of the book
And then maybe steer us clear from some of the pain it took
To get us where we are this far, this far

But the question drowns in its futility
Even I have got to laugh at me
No one gets to miss the storm of what will be
Just holding on for the ride

But the wood is tired, and the wood is old
And we’ll make it fine, if the weather holds
But if the weather holds, we’ll have missed the point
That’s where I need to go

The beautiful imagery made it easier to believe that this tragedy was part of a tricky plan that would one day make some sense.   I did feel that my friends and I were on a journey together—crammed in a small boat, holding on for the ride and being rocked to the point of sickness.  I wanted to believe that our suffering was necessary, that it was leading us somewhere, and that once we got there we would see the sense of it.

A few years later, my parents divorced.  As most divorces are, it was very painful and messy.  It was not just the relationship between my parents that changed, but their relationships with my brother and sister and I also were affected, as were our relationships with each other.  We had always been a close family and the distances wedged by the separation of our parents and our different responses to it felt physically painful.  My parents had made holidays special times as we were growing up, filled with family traditions.  Suddenly it seemed I would never have a holiday (or any time at all) with my whole family together again.  Once again, The Wood Song gave hope and beauty to the pain I was feeling.

Eighteen years have passed since we lost Mike, Trevor and Nick.  Thirteen years have passed since my parents divorced.  This Thanksgiving, my husband, our two children, and I spent the holiday with my whole family. My brother and sister, each with their spouse and two children, my mom, my dad, and my dad’s wife.  This was not the first time we had all been together peacefully—major strides had been made in the past year and a half, and this was about the third or fourth family event with all sides present.  We have healed from the brokenness of our past.

The day after Thanksgiving, we all gathered at my sister Ginny’s house to celebrate my dad’s birthday.  Again, we were all there.  After dinner, many of us were sitting on their huge sectional sofa and wondering if we were setting a record for the number of people to sit there at once.  That led to the question: can we all fit on here and take a picture?  We did.  Children on laps, or standing on the couch in between grown-ups, my mom, my dad, and my dad’s wife.  In harmony.

As we sat there, my husband Mike started singing “Joy to the World” under his breath.  Mom heard it and said “Mike, sing louder!” and she joined in.  Then we all joined in.  Then little Natalie said “Let’s sing Rudolf!” so we did.  And then we sang several more songs, looking at each other, laughing, thinking “Is this real?” and  “I am so glad no one can see us right now!”  As we sang, smooshed together on the couch, all smiles and laughter, I remembered that at one time I thought I would never have my parents in the same room again.  My heart felt full as I looked around and let all the images of what was going on burn into my memory: three year old Neily standing apart, pretending to take our picture with an Elmo camera; four year old Jack holding two month old Julia; Ben and Erin, each one and a half, pushing dolls around in toy strollers; four year old Natalie sitting on the ottoman smiling in an adorable outfit and ridiculously messy hair.  My mom and my step-mother sitting next to each other, admiring the baby, sharing laughter.  I never want to forget that moment.

The next day, I traveled to a friend’s mother’s memorial service.  In the car alone, I listened to The Wood Song.  It struck me that I am comfortably on “the other side” of these tragedies and heartbreaks.  Time has passed, forgiveness has been offered and accepted, wounds have healed.  And now the song seems all wrong to me.  Though we have made it through, no plan is evident at all.  While we are no longer in pain, I would not say that we are better off for having suffered these losses.  I still don’t believe that it was necessary for my friends to die.  As happy as our family time is now, I don’t think we are happier for having gone through divorce.  It doesn’t seem right to say that “we get to have some answers when we reach the other side, the prize is always worth the rocky ride.”  If anything the prize IS the rocky ride—because the only alternative is to not be in the boat at all.  There is no smooth ride option—it is rocky or nothing.  And I don’t think that that is because the greater hand is constructing a tricky plan in which teenagers die and families are torn apart for His glory.  No! These heartbreaks happen because we are human, and we make mistakes, and we love people who make mistakes, and we love people who are hurt by the mistakes of people we don’t even know. There is no way to live without hurt. God is not making the boat crash against the rocks—God is in the boat with us, holding us as we thrash.

I don’t believe that “if the weather holds, we’ll have missed the point” or that it takes pain to “get us where we are this far.”  I do believe that weather does not hold.  Weather changes, storms rise, and we are moved by the world around us.  Things happen that are painful.  There is no way to avoid that and still experience life and love.  The good news is that no matter how stormy the water, we can find God right in the boat with us.  Perhaps we won’t have the satisfaction of seeing how our heartbreak fits into a grand plan or results in the greater good, but we can experience grace right where we are.

I can’t say that I am glad that three of our friends died in high school.  I can’t say that I am glad my parents aren’t married to each other anymore.  I can say, though, that I am glad I was in the boat.  I am glad that my friends and I stuck together, despite the close quarters and the weight of our love and sorrow.  I am glad that I have remained close to the friends who shared that pain.  I am grateful that my family has stuck together in a new, different way instead of splintering permanently.  I am glad we are in the boat together.  The prize is the rocky ride.


Lia’s story is posted on April’s blog.  April is a progressive Christian who writes about scripture and spiritual disciplines. See her latest book, James in the Suburbs.  

3 Comments on “When the thin horizon of a plan is not clear at all…

  1. This is so honest and true, Lia. I admire your strength and clarity in this and felt so close to it all when I read your reflection.


  2. Lia this is beautiful. Thank you for sharing. I have always admired you and thought you were rather remarkable; even more so now! You are a blessing!


  3. “God is not making the boat crash against the rocks—God is in the boat with us, holding us as we thrash.” Wow, Lia that is beautiful. Thanks for sharing this.



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