I had rarely seen an early November day as mild as that one. It was as though God had decided to grace those of us living in Michigan’s snow belt with a special gift of balmy temperatures and gentle breezes before winter’s descent. My friend Rick and I were walking the country road near my home, taking in the harvested corn and the autumn leaves still clinging to the trees.
Suddenly, Rick stopped in his tracks.
“Hey! We could drive to Lake Michigan if you want,” he said excitedly.
My face immediately lit up. My friend knows what magic the “big lake” has for me, as it has the same effect on him. There’s something so wonderful about being by water. It didn’t take us long to pack a picnic lunch of tuna-fish sandwiches and chips, grab our fall jackets, and set off for the half-hour drive west to the lakeshore.
After parking the car, we wrapped our jackets around us to ward off the chill of the lake breeze. Silently, we walked across the white sand to the water’s edge. The South Haven lighthouse stood sentry on the end of the pier as it had for over a century, providing a beacon for sailors to find their way home from stormy waters and starless nights. There was no need for a beacon now, though. The sun was shining brilliantly. The sparkling waves rolled in and gracefully slid back into deeper waters.
I knew that I needed this break, but Rick needed it even more. After a year of visits to the doctors and a plethora of medical tests, he still didn’t have a helpful answer to the health problems he faced. He was given a couple of official diagnoses: Fibromyalgia caused his chronic pain, and peripheral neuropathy was the reason he was losing all of the feeling in his lower legs and hands. Although we now had labels, the doctors could find no cause and could offer no treatment to stop the diseases’ progression. As Rick grew more unsteady on his legs, he needed to use his arms to get up on his feet and occasionally while walking he’d stumble or fall.
Looking at him, no one would guess he had any physical challenges. They would only see a man in his early fifties who looked strong. A strapping six-footer with a trademark baseball cap on his head, no one would guess how difficult it was for Rick to disguise the pain he was in. Likewise, they wouldn’t know that my friend had spent years raising his eight-year-old grandson and now took full-time care of his ailing mother. An afternoon at Lake Michigan was not just a weekend outing for him; it was a brief and precious escape from his daily responsibilities and challenges.
And so we walked the beach, my friend and I, and silently let the symphony of waves and the beauty of Lake Michigan fill us with its healing power. We stopped for important things like finding round, flat stones that Rick skipped across the water. We examined seashells and driftwood and dodged the rogue waves that ran up the shoreline and threatened to drench our feet.
A few steps ahead of me, Rick suddenly turned around and blurted out, “There’s something I want to do that I can only do here on the beach. Do you want to do it with me?”
I hesitated. At my age I don’t commit myself without knowing details. “What do you want to do?” I asked.
“I want to run. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to run again, and I want to run along the beach,” he replied. “It won’t matter here if I fall because the sand won’t hurt me, and there aren’t many people around to see me if I do.”
Although I’m not a runner, there was no way I could refuse his request. Slowly, we picked up speed until we were moving at a brisk pace, jogging along the shore. I could see the smile on Rick’s face; if there was any pain or doubt, he wasn’t showing it.
Not to my surprise, I stopped before he did, breathless from the run, breathless from the sight that met my eyes. Up ahead of me he kept going, sprinting along the beach, legs pumping, strong and sure under a cloudless November sky. For an instant, the world slowed and stopped, and the image before me engraved itself in my mind.
I can still see Rick running down the shore, the waves sparkling like diamonds in the sunlight, and the copper and gold of the remaining autumn leaves swaying in the trees atop the dunes. In slow motion I saw my dear friend finally stop and turn, legs planted firmly, arms raised high with clenched fists, face turned toward the sky, exuberant.
“Yes!” he shouted. “I did it! And I didn’t fall!”
“Yes!” I yelled back. “You did it!” I laughed, but I could just as easily have cried.
I had always imagined that one day when we were both in heaven, I would see my friend running the bases on a ball-field, unencumbered by any pain or dysfunction, strong and whole and flying like the wind. On a glorious autumn afternoon, for a brief moment in time, I think I saw this world softly touch the one beyond. God graced me with a glimpse of heaven on Earth.