Once upon a time, before my daughter Laurie was diagnosed with cancer and I began this pilgrimage through grief and grace, I tried my hand at writing a children’s story about Laurie and her best friend, Sharon, who lived next door to us. The girls were both about five at the time, both were the same size, and both wore their hair short, with straight bangs across their foreheads. But while Laurie was fair-skinned and blond, Sharon was dark-complexioned, with the blackest hair I think I’ve ever seen. Sitting together at the picnic table, they looked like Yin and Yang.
My story told of Melilia and Gotha, two little girls, one with blond hair and one with black hair, and began just after some catastrophe had befallen the world —I can’t remember now if it was a nuclear war, or if the earth had been bombarded by asteroids, or if creatures from outer space were stealing children for slaves. Anyway, Melilia and Gotha journey along the rockbound coast of Maine, following the instructions of Melilia’s dying parents, who tell her if she can get to the Celestial Islands off the coast, she will find peace and safety. As Melilia and Gotha struggle over the rocky bluffs, they are set upon by side-hill badgers, so named because the legs on one side of their bodies are longer than those on the other side, which allow them to move quickly around the piles of rocks, the males moving clockwise and the females counter-clockwise. The side-hill badgers are odious and ferocious creatures and Melilia and Gotha might have been captured and eaten had it not been for a pipe-smoking sea turtle—I smoked a pipe in those days—who comes out of the ocean to drive the badgers back to their caves.
I never got any further in the narrative than this and probably would have forgotten all about the story, except that ten years later, I read that Sharon, whose family had moved away earlier, had been murdered, stabbed in the back some fifteen times. Police arrested a thirty-one year old patient at the Augusta Mental Health Institute, who over the last ten years had attacked three different women with knives, but who, for some reason, had been given court-authorized permission to leave the AMHI campus unsupervised for several hours a day.
Three years later, a routine biopsy of a cyst on the back of Laurie’s head revealed a malignant tumor at the base of her brain. Nine months later, two days before Christmas, my daughter died.
All the books and articles on pilgrimage I’ve read stress the importance of traveling light. I agree, but my experience has been that there are also things I have to carry with me. The story fragment of Mililia and Gotha is one of those things; and I’ve carried it now for nearly thirty years.
I suspect many of you carry your own stories.
Right after Laurie died, my story of two innocent girls beset upon by catastrophe was like a great weight. Why couldn’t Laurie’s mother and I have been the ones to die like they do in the story instead our daughter and her friend? Why couldn’t I protect them the way my avatar, the turtle, did? And a celestial home of peace and safety? Hah! All I could see was a world of nastiness and death.
So I tried to throw the story away. I spent a lot of time in my den, drinking myself into forgetfulness. I read existential philosophy, especially Albert Camus’s Myth of Sisyphus, in which the author sees Sisyphus—condemned by the gods to forever roll a rock to the top of a mountain, from where the stone falls back because of its own weight—as representing how humanity tries to impose meaning on a meaningless world, a condition the author labels “absurd.” Made sense to me. To look for any meaning in Laurie’s cancer and Sharon’s murder was, I decided, absurd. Their deaths were statistical accidents, like being struck by lightning. The story of Melilia and Gotha was merely that: a story. Get rid of it, I told myself. Otherwise it will continue to roll back on you, like Sisyphus’s stone.
Except I couldn’t and it didn’t. Although I certainly felt for a long time that I was pushing the same rock up the same mountain, gradually I became aware that I was actually on a journey similar to Mililia and Gotha’s—picking my way along a rocky coastline of shame, sorrow, and despair, beset upon by any number of nasty creatures (many of my own making), but saved by an equal number of protectors—loved ones, counselors, spiritual mentors—who appeared out of an ocean of love when I most needed them.
Which makes me realize—perhaps for the first time—that I’d always envisioned some kind of ocean bay beside Mililia and Gotha on their travels, but had never thought about it because I’ve always taken oceans for granted. Still, the sea has always been for me a source of healing, of cleansing. I grew up in a coastal community in Maine. I first learned to swim in Casco Bay. After living in Vermont for four years, I moved back to Maine because I missed the ocean. When I was teaching, I almost always took the long way home from work so I could drive by water. Whenever I’ve made pilgrimages, I’ve often sought out places close to the sea.
On August 9th of this year, as celebration of what would have been Laurie’s forty-sixth birthday, my wife Mary Lee, my sister Jaye, and I took a cruise around Casco Bay: a mini-pilgrimage, in homage to the young woman we loved. For the first time in years, we cruised by islands that we’d all visited years ago, often with Laurie. It was a great day. Jaye remembered taking Laurie with her digging clams off Little John’s, the two of them plastered with mud and seaweed. Mary Lee remembered the summer of Laurie’s chemotherapy, when we took her and her stepbrothers on a whale watch, and instead of Laurie, it was Mary Lee who got seasick. I recalled coming through the channel between Long Island and Chebeague Island with Laurie and Mary Lee, a wave catching our little sixteen-foot boat and throwing it just inches from a humongous ledge.
Even on pilgrimage you can’t leave the past behind. But I’ve found that what a pilgrimage can do is redeem the past—give it back to you, transformed, healed, enfolded. George Fox, founder of the Society of Friends, or Quakers, wrote in 1647:
“I saw that there was an ocean of darkness and death, but an infinite ocean of light and love, that flowed over the ocean of darkness. In that, I also saw the infinite love of God…”
At one point on our cruise, the captain called our attention to two dolphins playing in the channel between our boat and an island. As I watched them roll and leap and plunge, it seemed to me that I could see Melilia and Gotha riding on their backs, laughing and singing, on their way to the Celestial Islands.