It began with a stump. A stump on a hike, following a prolonged time of struggle in 2014 and 2015. First, our younger daughter, who has a serious and incurable heart and lung disease, had a setback that nearly took her and landed us in the hospital for months, a stay that was almost immediately followed by my own diagnosis of cancer. For over a year, it was a little bit like the wheels had come off an already wobbly cart. A sick mom trying to take care of a very sick child, with a dad who’s working like crazy to keep the income and insurance onboard, while trying to help the both of them, and a sweet other daughter and sister, trying to put her own needs aside while getting through eighth grade. There’s an entire other story to be told about what the details of that sinking ship looked like, but suffice it to say, it was not pretty.
And yet, by the grace of God and a thousand mercies delivered from the hands of a loving company of family, and friends, and community, and church, we did not sink but found ourselves on the other shore of tumultuous waters, battered for sure but mostly intact. And so one Thanksgiving while in Minnesota visiting my in-laws, I took my battered old body out for a walk at ? State park. This was particularly significant because despite my lifetime love of long walks, I hadn’t been able to muster many of them in the 12 months that had preceded this. The thing about cancer, like many kick-in-the-pants diseases, you don’t even look like yourself let alone feel like yourself. Let’s be honest, for all the brave, bold rockin’ of the chemo head, if I had ever truly wanted to be bald (and eyebrow-less for that matter), I would have shaved my head years ago when I was in my 20s, thinner and cuter and a fan of Sinead O’Connor. But what is far worse is loosing the sense of self by not being able to do the things you love, even simple things like taking a walk in the woods.
So this day, this walk, was that much more meaningful than even my weirdly growing in bunny-hair curls. And it was also bittersweet, because my husband and father-in-law were with me on this walk, but not my girls. They were at home with grandma, a walk like this being way out of the realm of doable for our one kiddo at this point. So despite the joy of a long-awaited hike in nature, it is also possible in this space between getting better and loved ones still struggling, between reprieve and loss, between maybe, possibly, and definitely not to all the questions and hopes and uncertainties that comprise the human life, to feel terribly alone and sad, regardless of the beautiful trail and your husband and father-in-law behind and before you on it. And that probably describes my location in the universe at that moment better than any GPS data point.
However, that’s when I came across the stump. I found it—not my companions—as we paused and wandered around a vista point. A long-lost young tree, sawed down smooth, revealing a perfectly shaped heart. What can I say? In its worn beauty it was nothing short of a message of love, all the more poignant in that it was years in the making and seemingly thought out from eternity to meet me at this moment in space and time. To the theologians out there, I fully acknowledge: this was a sawed-off log, not a burning bush. To the unbelievers: perhaps this was nothing more than a sweet, coincidental crutch for my weak and chemo-addled mind. So be it. In either case, I am as wary as the most skeptical among us about finding messages from God in Bibles falling open or the timing of buses.
On the other hand, I had just spent more than a year confounded by an unseen single cell as complicated as the universe and as rebellious as my sinful soul. Could not God, Maker of universes and single human cells reach out and say to me in a way so very particular to my need: In your brokenness here is my beauty, in your loneliness here is my love. Because that is what I saw—God who allowed His own Son to be cut down to save me, ordained my steps to that stump to remind me of His love. Despite things not being perfect. Or even great. But still His love.
And so I took a picture of it. But that is not where it stopped. The more I walked in the days that followed—around my neighborhood, around my town—the more hearts I found. In strewn leaves and snowy footprints. In ten seconds of a dispersing cloud. In a crushed and matted muddy wrapper. Suddenly there were hearts everywhere. And I was the crazy lady hunched over them with my phone documenting the sheer abundance of God’s love. Because once you look, there it is. Everywhere. Hearts appear in the center of your bagel and in the squashed core of your toilet paper roll. They are crud stuck to your sticky kitchen floor and on the pavement in the smashed, brilliant body of a dropped crabapple. And because I didn’t die in 2014, I keep taking pictures of them. But also not just because I didn’t die, and our daughter didn’t die, and for now we all four are still together on this planet. Theologians and unbelievers and every member of my family know this also will one day not be the case. I keep taking pictures of these hearts, because if I don’t I am at risk of doing what I’ve done a thousand times before: taking God and goodness and love for granted because they are always always always there.