The Valley of the Shadow

On the morning of July 5, 2015, I offered the following reflection, in place of a traditional sermon, at the Congregational Church in Exeter, New Hampshire. It’s about going home to mourn the loss, and celebrate the life, of my beloved mother, Deborah M. Simpson, who died suddenly last month.

“The Valley of the Shadow”

Olean sunset

Olean sunset

Scriptures: Psalm 131 and Luke 10:25-37. Hymns: “Precious Lord, Take My Hand,” “Blest Be the Tie That Binds,” and “Be Now My Vision.”

Good morning. I’m Tom Simpson, and I’m filling in this week for the incomparable Emily Heath. You should know that I am not a pastor, but I do play one on TV.

No, seriously, I’m not a pastor. I’m a teacher. I teach religion, ethics, and philosophy to high school students at Phillips Exeter Academy, right up the street. I love what I do, and I love talking about what I do — so much so that I volunteered to speak to my son’s entire third-grade class last month during “career week.” As you can imagine, it wasn’t easy to explain my job to third graders. I boiled it down to this: “basically,” I said, “my students and I read books about the meaning of life and how to live a good life, as individuals and in relationship with all kinds of people. Then we sit around an oval table and have amazing conversations.” When I finished my presentation, I opened the floor to questions, which were marvelous. One kid asked me what it was like to live in a dormitory with teenagers. Another asked what I would want to be if I weren’t a teacher. Then one of my son’s friends, Julian, innocently raised his hand. I called on him, and he asked, “So what is the meaning of life?”

Talk about being blindsided. I laughed, stammered, and fumbled my way through for a minute, talking loftily about how these are precisely the great questions, the questions that have far more power than our inevitably limited attempts to answer them. I may have even quoted Elie Wiesel on that; I’m not sure. All I know is that I was struggling. I tried to gather my wits. I thought about what had lit me up over the past year, about what had infused my work with such urgency and energy. I thought about my courses on existentialism, the Holocaust, and human rights; my work with the Academy’s Martin Luther King Day Committee; my travels in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Eventually I mustered this, for Julian, about the meaning of life: I said, “I’m not sure, but I think it has something to do with taking care of each other instead of tearing each other apart.”

That was June 1st, and I had no idea then that I was about to get blindsided in the worst kind of way. That day, my mom was in Buffalo, just shy of her 71st birthday, for what our family thought would be a fairly routine knee replacement surgery. After the morning operation, there was no sign of real trouble at all until the next day, when medical staff got her up on her feet. Suddenly she lost consciousness and went into cardiac arrest. When my father arrived at the hospital for his morning visit, he was shocked to find a team working frantically to stabilize and revive her. Within a few hours, she was gone.

My dad, my brother, and I were left dumbfounded. What had happened? The medical examiner concluded that it was probably a pulmonary embolism. That I guess I can understand, that I guess I can live with. The more haunting question for me for the last month has been: why wasn’t I there when she died?

In some ways the answer is entirely simple and straightforward. I haven’t lived in my small hometown of Olean, New York, since I graduated from high school. At that point I headed down south for college and graduate school, figuring I’d try to be a professor somewhere, just like my parents, wherever the most exciting and fulfilling available job might be. So here I am. I’ve been here for seven wonderful years. I have a family here. I have a life here.

But when I think harder about why I wasn’t there for my mom, and for my dad, maybe the best answer is “it’s complicated.” Really, really complicated. That’s why I would need the nine-hour drive home — across New Hampshire, across southern Vermont, and along the Southern Tier of New York — to gather myself as I started to mourn the loss, and celebrate the life, of my mom.

I should orient you a little further: Olean is nestled in the Allegheny River valley, about seventy miles south of Buffalo, not far from the northern border of Pennsylvania. With a population of 14,000 people, it is the largest city in rural Cattaraugus County. If you catch it at the right time, and in its best light, Olean can be spectacular. In its surrounding foothills, a young Thomas Merton found some of the solace, companionship, and inspiration he would need to become one of the great writers and spiritual guides of the twentieth century. And when you see Olean’s strong June sunlight filtered through bright green maple leaves, you can start thinking about staying forever.

And yet the landscape is every bit as stark and forbidding as it is beautiful. Winters are long, leaving the trees and hills utterly barren. And despite some economic bright spots, like St. Bonaventure University and the headquarters of Cutco knives, the regional economy is stagnant and depressed. Cattaraugus County, in fact, is the third poorest county in all of New York State, in terms of median household income. The fourth and ninth poorest counties are right next door, combining with Cattaraugus to form part of the northern border of Appalachia. Accordingly, the signs and stories of local poverty can be staggering. Population has been declining steadily for years, and kids with bright prospects tend to leave for good. Once abundant local oil deposits dried up generations ago, and a long history of environmental extraction and exploitation has left the region with a wealth of toxic insecurity. All my life, distant elites have eyed and enjoyed the region as a dumping ground for nuclear and urban waste, and now they spy it as one of fracking’s next frontiers.

This is the world where I was born and raised, where I learned the ropes and found my way. It was a world where at the local elementary school, a favorite recess game among boys was called “smear the queer.” One of us would toss a football up for grabs, and then everyone would rabidly pursue and gang tackle whoever was brave or stupid enough to catch the ball and run. It was a world where I figured out early on that my exploits on the baseball field would earn me just enough social capital to be left alone as I cultivated friendships and interests that offered alternatives to the cutthroat culture of the schoolyard: interests like instrumental and choral music, theater, church, and academic scholarship. (Of course, this was all within certain fixed and obvious parameters of masculinity. Every time I hear the hymn “Blest Be The Tie That Binds,” for instance, I remember sitting in the Olean High School auditorium as a teenager, steeling myself during a moving performance of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town to make sure, above all else, that I wouldn’t visibly cry.)

This was the world where my mom and dad had started carving a life for themselves back in 1970. They had just finished graduate school at Kent State University, and my father was joining the English Department at St. Bonaventure, following literally in Thomas Merton’s footsteps. For her part, Mom imported toughness, compassion, and a piercing intellect from her native western Pennsylvania, where she grew up just outside of Pittsburgh, along a wider, fuller stretch of the same Allegheny River that courses more feebly through Olean.

Eventually she settled into a brilliant career as an educator at the local community college, where she directed the learning assistance center for more than twenty-five years. She trained fiercely devoted tutors and offered soothing space and expansive time to local students who were often struggling desperately to put it all together.

Her work in the trenches was a labor of love, and it could be grueling. Like me, like so many of us, she often dreamed of elsewhere. Most evenings she’d retire early and get lost in other worlds of literature and the visual arts, and her rare trips to Scandinavia and Greece offered her a glimpse of a fuller integration of nature, body, mind, and spirit. In one of her letters to a dear friend in Sweden, which I read recently for the first time, she wrote:

Home is where the heart is was one of my first discoveries in Sweden. Do you remember the day you, Signe, Rick, and I went to the beach? You and your mother had packed a picnic. I stood on the shore and felt perfectly, exquisitely at home. Was there something in my brain, perhaps even in the physical configuration of cells, that matched so perfectly the contours of this shoreline, the blues and greens of sky and sea, the uncompromising acceptance of fellow human beings?

She harbored dreams of retiring in Portland, Oregon, a city that entranced her the few times she visited. And yet through all the pitch and roll of her struggles and longings, she had made a home for herself, and a home for me, in Olean. I didn’t realize how true this was until I went home in June, expecting to feel estranged and alone in my own hometown.

What awaited and greeted me instead was an incredible outpouring of love and support. The walls that so often prevent us from visiting one another, and bearing one another’s burdens, had suddenly come down, and a parade of teary-eyed old friends streamed through our front door, for days. They brought us food, they gave us hugs, they shared their stories. Most important, they offered my dad, my brother, and me affection and consolation in the valley of the shadow of death. Like the Samaritan, they found us battered and bruised along life’s Jericho Road and offered us unspeakably abundant provision, tenderness, and compassion. They held us up as we braced ourselves for the unimaginable: writing Mom’s obituary and planning Mom’s funeral. Then they came in droves to the services we held for her. I have never loved Olean as much as I do now, even as I grieve for it and grieve for my mom.

I miss my mom like crazy. And there’s an uncertain road ahead. But I’m reminded of what Anne Lamott often says, borrowing from E. L. Doctorow, about the life of a writer and the life of faith – she says it’s “like driving at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” Because of the abundant, sustaining love of family and friends, in Olean, in Exeter, and in so many other places, I can carry on with an abiding sense of my mom’s presence in my life, an abiding sense of her beauty as a parent, friend, teacher, and writer. And I can carry on knowing that my mom is at rest, at peace, and at home after her body could no longer bear the burdens of walking through Olean the way she did almost every day for forty-five years. Her struggle is over. Ours remains, in all the shadow and light of our lives. As we make the pilgrim journey together, let us bear one another’s burdens, and let us love one another. Amen?

Please join me in singing hymn number 393, “Blest Be the Tie That Binds.”

About Tom Simpson

Tom Simpson teaches religion, ethics, philosophy, and human rights at Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, NH. He is the author of *American Universities and the Birth of Modern Mormonism, 1867-1940* (University of North Carolina Press, 2016) and nonfiction essays about Bosnia for the Canadian literary magazine *Numero Cinq*. Born in 1975 in Olean, NY, he earned the Ph.D. in religious studies from the University of Virginia, where he specialized in American religious history. He writes, teaches, and lectures about religion in America, popular culture, Mormonism, and Bosnia. He lives in Exeter with his partner, Alexis Simpson, and their two children.
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