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My Mom and the Volcano

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When I was fourteen years old, my mom surprised me with the greatest road trip of my life. Since then, I have traveled to many beautiful and fascinating places all around this country, but none of them compares to the short journey my mom and I made in the summer of 1984.
My younger brother, Steve, and I moved to Lacey, Washington in 1982. Lacey is a small rural town located about two hours south of the much larger, very urban Seattle. My mom and step-dad had found a nice house they liked and despite the steep price tag of $80,000, they decided we would leave southern California and relocate in the Pacific Northwest. My brother and I liked Lacey a lot and although I’m sure it rained every now and then, I just remember all the great forests and trails I could ride on with my BMX bike. For a twelve year old boy, it was pretty exciting stuff.
My mom’s weekend tradition was to spend the day at a local park relaxing and having lunch together. When it’s not raining, western Washington State is one of the most enjoyable and beautiful places to spend time outside. The sky is a deep, rich blue and the sunlight cascades through majestic and plentiful evergreen pine trees. The smell around you is clean, pure, and perfect. I have great memories of these weekend trips to the park, but my favorite one came on the weekend we skipped the park altogether.
This particular weekend, in August of 1984, my brother decided he had no interest in another predictable picnic at another predictable park. Steve was only eighteen months younger than me, so I guess he would have been about twelve and a half. But at the time, since I was the older brother, I always thought he seemed so much younger than my very mature and wise fourteen years of age. So I told my mom, in what I thought must be very great maturity, “Mom, I’ll go to the park, even if Steve doesn’t want to.”
My mom thanked me for this and asked my brother again if he was sure he didn’t want to come along with us. He still insisted he didn’t want any part of a park visit so he stayed behind with our step-dad. I think Steve spent the afternoon playing the video game Pitfall on Atari, but I can’t remember all these years later. All I know is my mom and I left the house and headed out in the direction of the Puget Sound peninsula, but we never made it there. And that’s where this story really begins.
When my mom and I were about a mile or two down the street, she asked me the greatest question I could hear at the time. I was a sometimes shy, fourteen-year-old boy who had yet to truly discover the fascinating and frustrating world of girls, so my mom’s question seemed about the coolest thing in the world.
“Keith,” she asked, “how would you like to skip the park and instead spend the day at Mt. St. Helens?”
My response was very subdued: “What? No way! That’s awesome! Really?!!”
My mom smiled at me. “We have to ask Steve if he wants to go, too.”
I figured my brother would just act like a little brother if he went with us, but I didn’t say this to my mom. I was much too excited to be going to my favorite place in the world. Well, what I knew of the world, that is.
My mom did something then that you don’t see too much of nowadays. She actually pulled over at a telephone booth so she could call home. My brother said no to St. Helens, too. I guess it wasn’t much competition with Pitfall. That was a pretty cool game, actually. Maybe not as cool as an active volcano, but pretty cool. Besides, my brother didn’t share my passion (some might call it an obsession) with this mountain. Ever since I had moved to Washington State, I read as many books on St. Helens as I could find. I even had an orange tee shirt with the words: “1980, The Volcano Explodes!” written on it in big black letters. Not every kid had one, you know. I was just lucky, I guess.
That day at Mt. St. Helens is still one of my favorite memories. I remember my mom, smiling and laughing as we drove endless back roads in search of a way inside the dreaded Red Zone, a safety perimeter installed to keep the general public at a safe distance from the still somewhat-active volcano. We visited the wrecked homes along the ravaged Toutle River—empty and broken shells of houses, fatally damaged by the catastrophic mudflows of May 18, 1980. We stood in silence as the vast miles of flattened and scorched trees opened up all around us. It was eerie, powerful, and solemn. And yes, it was awesome, too.
Somewhere on the drive back home, I fell asleep. My mom woke me up in the darkness of late evening. We were home and there was a fire lit inside and hot chocolate waiting for me. Steve would have a whole bunch of questions about stuff that I’d have to answer as his big brother and then we’d play video games all through the night. Life was good.
As I recall that day, twenty plus years ago, I am struck by how young and innocent I was. The childlike joy of that trip to Mt. St. Helens seems so far removed from the events that took place shortly afterward. Being a teenager, I was pretty selfish and I didn’t really pay a whole lot of attention to my mom and what she was feeling. I’m not even sure I knew she had feelings. It was only later that I found out my mom suffered from severe depression all throughout her life. She smiled a lot on the outside, but inside she felt sad and alone.
On a cold winter morning, six months after the volcano visit, I woke up late and hurried upstairs to tell my mom that she would need to drive my brother and me to school since we missed the bus. I walked in my mom’s bedroom and I knew immediately something was wrong. She just didn’t look right to me. I can recall waking Steve up, and then I walked next door to get the neighbor. I remember her entering my mom’s room and screaming. She shut the door and the rest of that morning is a blur. Paramedics and policemen asked me a lot of questions, neighbors with sad faces shook their heads and said things that I have long since forgotten, and my little brother sat beside me at the dining room table and cried. I wanted to help but I had no answer for him. All I could do is sit there and think that nothing would ever be the same again. When my mom shot and killed herself, my whole world was destroyed.
Twenty years of my own depression followed that horrible day. I spent years drowning myself in drugs, alcohol, and empty relationships. I traveled all over the country because I thought maybe I could move far away enough to forget my memories, but wherever I went, there I was. Nothing brought me any true peace and a few times I nearly gave up and ended things like my mom. Somehow, I held on, and in the winter of 2002, I went with a friend to his church, even though I thought Christianity was for simple-minded hypocrites. Something that night in the pastor’s message on forgiveness must have touched me deeply, because when he gave a spontaneous altar call, I stepped forward and accepted Jesus into my heart.
Every day since then has been a miracle. There is joy now in the midst of my sorrows and struggles, and from the desolation of my ruined life, Jesus has begun to transform and renew me. Where there was once only emptiness, now there is His love, which overflows in its great abundance. I am so grateful for His mercy and grace and the chance to live a new life with Him. As 2 Corinthians 5:17 so wonderfully states: “If anyone belongs to Christ, there is a new creation. The old things have gone; everything is made new!”
I went back to Mt. St. Helens a few years ago and I was amazed at how greatly it had changed. Out of the ashes there were flowers blooming and grass growing at the foot of the volcano. Wildlife had returned and some fish were beginning to repopulate the rivers and lakes. What appeared to be forever destroyed had now become a miracle of regeneration. There was new life at St. Helens.
Looking back on all these years, I realize I am still on a long journey of learning to appreciate and cherish the people in my life. When we truly love one another, we are creating memories and moments that will endure all the hardships and heartaches. This is the message I take with me from that day with my mom. I am so grateful that God provided that time for us. It is still one of my happiest memories, and it helps to remind me that no matter how great the tragedy, God is always there to walk beside me. I find great comfort in knowing that there is beauty and hope in the aftermath of the volcano…

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