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Through the Valley of the Shadow

05/28/2013 06:18 am ET | Updated Jul 28, 2013
Shannon Huffman Polson

My dad and stepmother died together. They died on a beach along a river, thousands of miles from me, miles away from anyone else, in Alaska's remote and wild Arctic wilderness. They died when a grizzly bear rampaged through their quiet riverside camp and killed them.

Their journey started, I think, with whatever piece inside of each of us longs for something more, aches to connect, prompts us to be brave enough to search, and it ended in its longing, its search, its connection, the place where mine began.

My father and stepmother moved to the wilds of Alaska independently in the 1960s and 1970s. They began adventuring on remote wild Arctic rivers in their 50s. They made their final entries in a waterproof river journal and snapped the last pictures on a tiny camera two days before celebrating their 16th anniversary. The official date of their death is the date their bodies were recovered, June 25, 2005. My dad was 61. My stepmom was 58.

One year later, a flight from Fairbanks, Alaska took me to Kaktovik, a tiny Inupiat village on a barrier island off the northeastern coast of Alaska. From Kaktovik, I flew in a Cessna south to Grasser's Airstrip, the furthest accessible landing point. And I climbed onto a blue rubber raft, and pushed off into the waters of the same river. The arid limestone peaks of the Romanzov Mountains rose on either side of the wide valley and at first I thought the wild vastness of it all might crush me, and then I felt it embrace me instead.

I came to see the place where my father and stepmother had died. I came to experience it for myself, to come to terms with this thing that had ripped through my life and left it in shreds. I came to try to stitch the pieces back together, understand what new picture they might make, see what might be beautiful about it. I had my father and stepmother's journal, and the river took me to each of their campsites. I took a plastic bag with a round wafer and a small plastic bottle with a sip of syrupy wine to the site where they had been killed. I finished the trip. These things did not make everything better. They were not the final things I needed to do. Finishing my father and stepmother's trip was something that made me understand that the best I could do was to wait and to witness.

When I'd sat at the keyboard putting together the funeral bulletin, I'd been insistent that it acknowledge resurrection. I thought it was the right thing to do, and wanted to do things right. That's what the Christian faith was all about, even if I didn't feel it. I gave one of the eulogies, trying to force cheer into my voice, and felt it fall flat. I hoped it made me seem strong enough to be worthy of my father's love, or of loving my father.

In the months after my father and stepmother died, I moved through shock and horror with a shuffling resolve. I reengaged with the Episcopal church of my youth, connecting with the patterns and power of the liturgy in new ways. The Eucharist assumed a pressing immediacy. The communion of saints became real. That winter, I sang the Mozart Requiem with the Seattle Symphony directed by Itzhak Perlman. Still, the Arctic beckoned. Perhaps it beckoned because of the violence of the attack. Because of the remoteness. Because of the seeming agency of an animal. The nature of the attack pulled me to the furthest reaches of creation in that faraway shore, to plumbing depths of darkness under a midnight sun.

It was in the writing of "North of Hope" that the realization came. I wrote knowing I was missing something. I'd worked so hard to do the right thing. I was almost to copy edits when the realization hit me. I had been trying too hard to focus on the joy of resurrection, but I hadn't acknowledged Good Friday. Christ had to die to be able to rise again. I'd envied the Jewish set of expectations for the mourner to say Kaddish, a prayer of praise, and yet the Eucharist, which had become so important to me in its communion of saints, came from the Greek "eucharistos" meaning thanksgiving. I had a weekly call to the table. And an allowance for lament. The invitation saturates the Old Testament, but even in the New Testament, lament is part of the walk of faith. Christ not only weeps for his dead friend but, dying on the cross, cries out: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? The psalmist, the prophets and Christ trusted God with their despair. I despaired and learned to trust.

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North of Hope
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