I recently finished reading “Pilgrimage through Loss” by Linda Lawrence Hunt, a poignant, sometimes heart-wrenching book written by an author, teacher and scholar whose 25-year-old daughter, Krista, was killed in a bus accident while she was in Bolivia with her husband doing humanitarian work.. I obtained the book last fall after attending my high school reunion in Spokane, Wash.., where I stayed in the retreat center that Linda and her husband, Jim, created on their property as a memorial to their daughter.
This facility, called “The Hearth,” is a beautiful two-story house with living room, dining room, full kitchen, two bedrooms, 2.5 baths and a library, constructed on the site of a former barn behind their hillside home -- the home that my parents owned for 12 years and where I spent my formative years..
As I read this sensitively written account, I found myself on the brink of tears much of the time as Linda recounts her sojourn through the darkness of the loss of their beloved daughter, sharing not only her own personal story and those of family members, but the stories of many other families she came to know, who have likewise traversed this searing and unwelcome landscape.. Her intention was to create a work that could offer solace and guidance, and, yes, perhaps even understanding, to all those grieving the loss of a loved one, but most particularly anyone who has lost a child..
Somewhat ironically, when I was staying at The Hearth it had only been 6 months since the passing of my mother at the age of 92.. My 90-year-old father had preceded my mother in death by three years, so I had now lost both parents.. (They had relocated across the state to Longview after they sold the house in Spokane..) This was the first time since their passing that I had revisited my childhood home, and I was still actively grieving my mother and awash in memories of all that had transpired in this warm and inviting neighborhood, which I had left with deep regret at the age of 15 when we joined my father, who was career Army, in Augsburg, Germany..
Thanks to the kindness and generosity of the Hunts, I had stayed at The Hearth before, a decade earlier when I attended a previous reunion, and I had seen and experienced the transformation in the property since Krista’s tragic accident. The grounds had been turned into something of astonishing beauty -- park-like, with waterfalls and koi ponds, a variety of trees, shrubs, flowers galore, bridges, benches, statuary, nooks for contemplation.. The verdant lushness of the setting, lovely when my family had lived there, now took my breath away.. Though I didn't talk about it with the Hunts, I intuitively knew that all this exquisite beauty was their way of honoring their precious daughter and dealing in a tangible way with this shattering tragedy..
This earlier visit took place before Linda had written “A Pilgrimage Through Loss,” and both my parents were still alive at the time, so although I was touched and even inspired by all that I saw, the experience did not have as much impact on me as on this more recent stay when I was going through some measure of the kind of loss -- albeit quite different since my parents died in accord with life's natural progression at a ripe old age -- that had under-girded all this transformation..
As I gazed down from the second-story bedroom window at The Hearth onto the back of the house -- including my childhood bedroom, now Linda’s office -- and the yard where my two younger sisters and I had cavorted with our dogs, built makeshift tents on the clothesline, slept out in sleeping bags under the stars, played badminton and fashioned angels in the snow, there was a bittersweet quality that had not been there before.. Time’s relentless march had stripped away the preceding generations that had been an integral part of my life when we lived there.. My father’s parents had resided in a small one-bedroom guest house adjacent to the main house, and at one point, my mother’s parents had lived in our basement, so we had two sets of grandparents on the premises.. Now both sets of grandparents and my parents were gone.
Part of a hillside had been cut away to accommodate the barn, so on the back side of the structure the ground was actually at roof level. There was only about a 2-foot gap between the barn and the hillside, and so as kids we were constantly scrambling up on the gravel-shingled roof and perching on the peak, then running down the side and jumping back onto the hillside -- something that would have appalled my mother had she known about it. Linda recounts how one day Krista and a friend had dipped their hands in paint and applied hand-prints to the door. When the barn was demolished, that section was saved and, with some added ornamental paintings, used to adorn at The Hearth's entrance.. So the old barn, with Krista's imprimatur, is memorialized.
It’s a little confusing, this intensity.. I feel it all so acutely.. As I read this book, their story and my story, are intertwined.. Because of my childhood memories I feel quite proprietary about "their" home.. My life there, in that same place, though it exists only in memory, is no less real than is theirs, happening now in time and space.. In a sense, this truth is perfectly illustrated by all tangible transformations throughout the property created out of love for Krista, who herself exists now only in memory.. So their lives and mine are interwoven, and I feel deeply related, not by birth, but by place -- and by the universality of the human condition.. None of us goes through life without loss, some more devastating than others.. Like it or not, at some point or another, we all are called upon to dig deep into ourselves, to face sorrow and disappointment, question our beliefs and assumptions, excavate ourselves from emotions that threaten to bury us and move forward when we have no idea where we're going and there seems no point or purpose..
Linda's book does not try to pretend that it's easy or that they will ever get over Krista's absence, but it does illustrate how we all can be tempered by such adversity and the positive changes that can result, both internal and external. While nobody wants to suffer great loss, there is no doubt that with it something in us can deepen and soften, and we feel the connection with all of humanity.. But this happens only if we can open completely to all our feelings, allowing them to reshape us as only the fire of such ego-annihilating events can do.. Our human condition is very fragile, and we are kidding ourselves if we believe otherwise.. What is not fragile, however, is the love that created and sustains us -- whether you call it God, Consciousness, the Self, the name is immaterial -- it remains with us through all the ins and outs, ups and downs of our lives.. It does not always give us what we want, but it always, always offers a beacon, even in the darkest hours, that can lead us home..
In my case, with this particular journey with the Hunts, it is to a recognition that home is not a place.. I had to bid farewell to this childhood home in Spokane that I cherished.. I was uprooted and forced to move on.. A part of me has always wished that my family had never sold that house and wondered how my life might have been different had we not moved.. I realize now that although it would have been different, it would not necessarily have been better. I had my own path to follow and it led me away from Spokane, to foreign shores and eventually to California, where I have lived most of my adult life.. And so, nostalgia notwithstanding, I make my peace with this phase of my history and share this legacy of place with another family, feeling gratitude for this connection that allows me to return again and again.
True home is in the heart, and the heart is portable.. It goes wherever I am, and, as I have found after many years of meditation practice, exists only in the present moment. Anything else is imagination.. In the most real sense, there is no past and no future, only now. So while it is entertaining and sometimes illuminating to revisit old memories and speculate on how things could have been, the present holds the real riches.. Everything in the material world is impermanent, which is the deepest lesson of great loss:. All things will pass.. So the more we can open fully to the present, the more we loosen the grip of suffering and can feel love and beauty that is always available here now.
For further information about the Krista Foundation visit Kristafoundation.org.