"The Face of God"

The beginning….. 1974

Steve and Chris Phillips 1972

I had just started to settle in to my new life as a student again in Atlanta when Jim and I had an unexpected visit from Chris Phillips, wife of my best bud, Steve. They were still living in Knoxville, Tennessee but had had a terrible time of it while I was back in Oklahoma the past two years. After Chris lost her baby to Sudden Death Crib Syndrome, she later contracted breast cancer and eventually had to have a mastectomy, thus removing one of her breasts. She and Steve were naturally having a difficult time dealing with the long-term treatment and stress involved in such a life threatening health situation. 

Chris called Jim and I up out of the blue late one Friday afternoon, saying she was in Atlanta and asked if she could come and stay with us for a while. “Of course, we said. You can come stay as long as you want.”  Both Jim and I wondered what was going on with her and Steve. She came over soon after, took a shower, and had some dinner.  Then she told us what was going on. 

She and Steve were really stressed out, and Steve was not handling it well… at all. Chris felt completely neglected and unsupported. To wit, since she had had one of her breasts removed, they had not made love or been physically intimate in any way. She felt unloved and rejected. By now she was crying, and while looking at us with her big, beautiful blue eyes, asked if one of us would sleep with her and help restore some sense of her feminine self-confidence. 

You could hear a pin drop; the silence was deafening. I looked at Jim, and Jim looked at me. Of course, we felt sorry for her. It was breaking our hearts, too, to watch our good friend suffer so. We would normally be ready, willing and able to help her in her moment of need, but there was just one little problem- she was the wife of my best friend. I just could not do that to Steve. We sat and looked at each other for a good 5 minutes while turning the implications over in our minds. Eventually, I told her why I could not comply with her request as much as I might want to. Jim basically said the same thing. By refusing Chris’s unusual request, however, we made her feel even more rejected and unattractive. She was devastated. Chris stayed for a few more days, then returned to Knoxville and Steve in a state of deep depression. To this day, I still do not know if it was the “right” thing to do. As it all turned out, maybe I had made the wrong choice.

Later that year in 1974, I got a phone call from Steve asking me to come up to Kingsport where they were now living. Her wealthy parents had bought them an amazing house so they could be closer to her during her sickness. As Chris was now in the terminal stages of cancer, Steve thought it would be the right time for me to visit. I freed my schedule and travelled by Greyhound bus there in late November. It was a long, depressing 8-hour trip through the mountains with horrible weather- cold and rainy.  I dearly dreaded what lay ahead. 

In the end, I spent three days there with them, saying good bye to Chris. I had a good close up look at the dying process and what they had been living with for the past year or so.  She had lots of morphine and other pain killers to help her manage the pain, but it didn’t seem to help her much. She would eat a handful of those painkillers that could put down a massive elephant, but they had no effect on her at all. That is how much pain she was in. The whole weekend we were together I never heard her complain. She was totally at peace with herself. I could not imagine handling the same situation with as much grace and courage as she did.

At the end of the long weekend, I had to leave her knowing I would never see her alive again. To just hug her and kiss her and get on the bus going back to Atlanta was one of the hardest things I have ever had to do in my life. They put me on the bus and through our tears, we waved goodbye- one final, last goodbye. It was ineffably sad, and I cried all the way home. What else could I do?

Three weeks later Chris passed away, and I travelled once again to Kingsport, Tennessee for her funeral. People were understandably shaken. To have one such beautiful young lady taken away so early in life is hard to fathom or come to grips with. It was even more difficult to understand how so much bad luck and tragedy could befall such a wonderful person. 

She had experienced a miscarriage, a stillborn child and one healthy baby that died of sudden death crib syndrome- all by the time she was 22.  The final insult was that she  had to deal with breast cancer that ravaged her body over a period of a year, then killed her.  All she ever did in her life to deserve this was to help people and give love wherever she went. Everyone who ever knew her loved her and called her an angel. Everyone kept shaking their heads and muttering, “How could she be taken away from us so early?”

It was early December and snow clouds were moving in as we travelled from the church service to the cemetery. Kingsport is way up in the Smokey Mountains in North-east Tennessee, and the cemetery was located in a very narrow valley with sharp mountain peaks towering over us. The thick, dark clouds were low and foreboding as we stepped out of the limo. It was bitter cold as an icy wind blew down the valley. The graveside service was administered briskly due to the brutal weather. Many people were sobbing hysterically, and it was a raw emotional moment. 

Just as the service ended, however, and as people were saying their last goodbyes, the most miraculous event happened. With dynamic suddenness, the skies opened up and a slender shaft of light bathed Chris’s gravesite in a perfect halo. The light was intensely bright in contrast to the brooding darkness outside of that circle of love. For a circle of love it was. The mourners were stunned. Their mouths gaped in amazement. We stared at each other in total disbelief. Was this really happening? No one could speak. No one could move. We could only look at, and experience first hand, the face of God. 

I have never seen anything like it before or since. It was and is still inexplicable. It was not a coincidence. It could not have “just” happened. The clouds were much too thick that day to open.  And even if by chance, the clouds were to open naturally, how could that perfect shaft of light highlight only that one special grave at that exact moment? In the end, I can only believe it was a miracle.  God had welcomed home one special angel and healed the mourners all at the same time. It was simply too incredible to question.

I went back to Atlanta once again by bus with lots to contemplate on that interminably long trip home. As people had walked away from Chris’s gravesite, they were too much in shock to discuss it. It was simply too much to digest and understand. We all tried to make sense of what we had seen and felt in our own special way. As for me, if you need proof of a God or higher power then that would probably be a pretty good example to work with. Faith is a tricky matter. I believe it is an affair of the heart as well as the soul. You cannot always see God but God is there. It is much like the quote,  “Love is like the wind; you cannot see it but you can feel it.”

You may not always be able to see God as we did on that winter afternoon, but you can surely feel it if you try.

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