I forget the first time someone smiled at me. I forget whether anyone ever looked at me the way you do when love is so strong that your face glows and your body can barely contain the enormity of your love. I do, however, remember when I realized what that looked like.
I bit my lip nervously as I checked into the women’s retreat at Bear Trap Ranch. Already out of my comfort zone, I had ridden with someone I had only known a short time. I had no means of escape.
My new red and black striped pajamas were tucked away in my luggage, for a much-needed boost of confidence. They silently told the lie, “Why yes, I always wear nice new color-coordinated things to sleep in. I would never sleep in faded, holey un-matched things.” My dresser had looked at me with disdain as I packed, quite aware of my deception.
The weekend involved a lot of silence. I felt I was on the outside looking in. Individual conversations faded, specific words lost, mostly because I didn’t talk much. I was fairly new to the church and just finding my way. I don’t recall the speakers, or most of the activities, and think I may have led music with Del. I just remember slowly relaxing around Lori, Sandy, Dori, Kelli and Ellen, who seemed so calm and comfortable with each other.
The air was crisp with the tang of pine resin, and the gravel crunched beneath my feet as I walked the property alone, to relax from trying to fit in. I secretly longed to go rappelling, but I was nervous that I would be unable to climb the steep bank to reach the 130-foot rock face, or be unable to physically manage the descent. I stood for over an hour watching others rappel down the cliff, the longing so strong it tightened in my chest to the point of pain, but could not overcome my fear of embarrassment.
In the evening, we gathered in the timbered lodge. Peals of laughter came from one group of women in the game room area. The lodge had a shelf of old hymnals, the covers frayed, smelling of dust and old paper. The women thumbed through them, laughing a bit in puzzlement at this other, old-fashioned style of worship, and the musty, dusty books. I knew those hymnbooks backwards and forwards, so the evening dissolved into several of us gathered around a heavy wooden table with years of wear scarring its surface beautiful. Someone would call out the words of the first line of a song and I would sing all the verses I knew. I knew nearly every one with “the Baptist verses” memorized. “First, second and fourth as the last,” just as the song leader would have called from the pulpit. Lori looked delighted every time. I was embarrassed, but pleased to be able to recall the songs I’d sung since my childhood.
We drank hot cocoa from heavy ceramic mugs, and ate popcorn and chocolate chip cookies someone brought with them, and Lori and I sat up late talking. I told her about walking in on a family member molesting a young girl. “I’ve been angry with him ever since.” I confessed. “I’ve never forgiven him.”
“Has he ever said he was sorry? Has he asked the girl to forgive him?” her voice was earnest, angry.
“The only thing he ever said is when he followed me out of the house, still zipping his pants, and said, ‘You’re not going to tell are you?’ It was awful.” I never tell this story, and am not sure why I told it then, to a near stranger. The dark night wrapped around us.
We talked of forgiveness, grudges and other hurts, things that I don’t recall, and while someone started a movie in the other room, I wandered off to bed in the snug, rustic cabin, happy to be wearing presentable night clothes.
Soon after chapel started in the morning, Donna tried to slip in unnoticed with her new foster-baby, given into her care the day before.
I wish I could preserve that moment forever. It was precious, quiet, momentous and, dare I say it, holy. Donna had miscarried many pregnancies and the deepest longing of her heart was to be a mother.
As she looked into the eyes of the baby who would eventually be adopted into her family, time and space ceased all meaning. The love on her face radiated a beauty that hurt. it was so powerful, and so intense. It was too beautiful to look away and yet so holy and private that looking felt as if I was desecrating this sacred moment.
That love could be felt to the edges of the room and beyond. I realized that I was seeing true love, mother love, for possibly the first time in my life. My ears were filled with silence that pushed away nearly all sound but the those of that infant and that mother. Space seemed a fluid thing, containing gaps that had no meaning. This moment was more important than space, than time, than sound. It was the essence of humanity at its purest and best. In her face was something otherworldly—a love too pure to be contained by the mere firmament. In that moment, I swear I saw the face of God.
I’ve replayed that moment many times over the years, Donna’s makeup-free face glowing like a Madonna in a room full of women who probably knew what that was like. I hope I have looked at my darling children the same way, but can you ever fully give what you never received?
That moment is sacred, woven with the scent of pine, with dark timbers and fading carpet, with shared joy, with red dirt, with granite cliffs, and with the beauty of one woman’s face as she beheld her child. The rest of that weekend may be details fading into soft oblivion, but one thing stays with me—I know what love looks like.