In the 1880’s my great grandparents purchased a sizeable plot of land on the Lake Michigan shoreline. The family farmhouse stands as a testimony to that generation’s labors to grow fruit that could be shipped out from Pier Cove to the great city of Chicago, just a jaunt south in the great lake.
My siblings and I spent our own summers at “the Farm”, as my grandfather called it, each working our first jobs in the nearby tourist town of Saugatuck. These dunes are holy ground for me. With an Air Force upbringing I cannot claim any other space as being particularly meaningful to me. To turn onto Lakeshore Drive in the summer and make my way down a curvy gravel road through the woods to our homestead is a great blessing.
Living on the edge of such a great body of water for generations, our family has witnessed the daunting and sometimes destructive power of nature. Some years we have a wide and sandy beach. Other years we have had large chunks of our private dune collapse into the lake after the water has pounded relentlessly against it in a harsh winter. About two miles north of our address, Lakeshore Drive literally washed out into the lake thirty-some years ago. When I run on this scenic drive I can only go that far before I have to turn around and retrace my steps to our own hallowed ground.
As I start out on my run there is frequently a car that pulls out of a driveway and carefully swerves around me. The drivers smile at me, sometimes even waving in our shared appreciation for the beauty around us. I pass people who are walking their dogs. We greet each other with a nod or a monosyllabic greeting. People are out in their yards, nurturing plants that flourish in sandy soil. Repair trucks and landscape workers drive past me after doing their jobs. The way is shaded by age-old trees that may have even been there when my grandfather walked this road.
As I approach the dead-end things begin to change. The traffic thins out. The only folks travelling this part of the drive are those who live here. There is no throughway to other destinations. This is the stretch that lost so much frontage to erosion in the 70’s. So the lake is starkly visible on the west side of the road, having pulled any lakefront cottages over the edge in its winter fury. On the east the houses are set far back from the road, a safe distance from the shifting sands of the shoreline. I seldom see much human activity in these homes. Approaching the dead end things get more quiet and lonesome. It is the road less travelled because only those who live there or their guests have reason to come that far. To reach the blockade that forces a turnaround is depressing because it recalls our powerlessness against the forces of nature and the great loss for those who perched too close to the shore.
So I happily pivot when I reach the final cul-de-sac. I want to leave behind the stark reminders that our human efforts can be met with defeat when God exhales. Our own cottage had to be moved back through the woods just a decade or so after we built it because our bluff was eroding into the lake, threatening to take us with it. Fortunately we had enough of a perimeter to our yard that we could move it back a safe distance from the pounding waves. But this dead end in Lakeshore Drive reminds me that not everyone had that same luxury to move. Heading south the land on the west side of the drive expands until I once again see houses boldly built overlooking the lake. Traffic picks up slowly and the activity level on those properties increases. The loneliness of the dead end is replaced with the bustle of activity that comes with proximity to intersections and destination points peopled with customers. I leave behind the depressing reminder of loss from our own natural disaster on Lakeshore Drive. Heading south toward our homestead I meet up with people who feel relatively safe in their perch further back from the bluff. That sense of safety translates into greater joy and subsequent friendliness.
It’s easier to enjoy life where the traffic flows freely and people dwell secure on the land and the road doesn’t tumble into the watery abyss below. A friendly nod to neighboring strangers comes more readily when we feel like we are part of a community that can embrace the future without worry. Turning into our driveway two miles south from the forced pivot of the dead end, I enter into the contentment of my ancestors who chose this part of Lakeshore Drive 130 years ago.
There are times when we find ourselves heading toward a dead-end with no option to turn around. In 1998 my mother’s cancer returned after a 14-year-long remission. It was stage 4 esophageal cancer that prompted a siege of chemo treatments. Courageously she fought to stay in the hub of family life. Friends would stop by to see her at first and she had energy on occasion to converse. But the initial success of the treatment was short-lived. Five months after it was first re-diagnosed, the cancer was labeled “terminal.” Mom was pivoted toward the dead-end she had been fighting to avoid. She was told she had to walk all the way to the spot where the road tumbled into the vast watery abyss below. With a sickening sense of defeat my father, my five siblings and our families took turns walking along this increasingly isolated section of her journey.
As her health deteriorated she was unable to receive guests at all. She had long since given up any vanity over her appearance but she simply had no strength to talk. My mother had lived a vibrant life of loving family, travelling the world and ministering alongside of my father for 42 years. She could see dead end options from a great distance and invited God to steer her away from them to green pastures and still waters. As a Social Worker she was adept at helping others find their way back from poor decisions that ground their lives to a halt. So, even when forced to face her mortality squarely, she let us know that even this was not a dead end for her.
My mom’s faith never faltered though she never easily accepted her terminal cancer diagnosis either. While waiting in a doctor’s office with her once my father and I talked quietly as she lay on the gurney behind us. She was waiting for the doctor to arrive to examine her stomach tube (which never did work for her). This was, not surprisingly, a very painful exam, even for a woman who had endured great physical trials in fighting the disease. I called over to her, asking her what she was doing. “I’m praying,” she answered quietly. “About what?” I asked, surprised. “That the doctor will be gentle and the exam will be manageable for me.” When facing the end of the line with less and less control over her weakening body, my mother continued to express concern over all of us and affirm her faith in the God of abundant life. She assured us that she wasn’t afraid of the dead end because she knew it was actually a launching pad for a completely new journey. But she was concerned about surviving the pain and weakness required to get her new lease on life.
When my mother’s cancer was re-diagnosed in March of 1998, she hoped she would be able to get up to the cottage one last time. At first, it seemed like she would have the strength to make it. She could picture turning off the highway onto Lakeshore Drive, passing the farmhouse where she had spent summers with her grandmother and aunt, and heading back into the woods to the house we built together as a family. She had a community of family and friends from that part of her life. But she never made it. Instead she was told that she was heading inescapably toward a dead end with a suggestion from her doctor that she take anti-depressants to soften the blow. She said, “No thank you.”
It turns out that, if you’ve lived life on well-travelled paths of God’s choosing, there can be no dead end. Though her world narrowed to a hospital bed at home or in the hospice center, she continued to teach us of God’s relentless love through her own words and actions. The land chosen by her grandparents, a safe distance down from the fall-off, had shaped her and sustained her even on this last leg of her journey. Surrounded by her children and husband, and blessed into eternal life by our tears and prayers, she turned a dead-end into a homecoming with those ancestors from the “farm.” Thanks be to God!