Who but God could have managed such an improbable encounter?
Posted in , Jan 31, 2013
It happened on a trip to Italy a few years ago, an experience so extraordinary I’ve hesitated to write about it—but so full of encouragement that I have to try. Consulting the map that came in the smart gray Peugeot we’d rented, my husband, John, noticed a large lake halfway between Venice and Milan.
“Lago di Garda,” he read. “Wouldn’t it be great if we could find a place to spend the night there!”
Lake Garda, when we reached it in mid-afternoon, was even more beautiful than we’d pictured it, clearly a popular vacation place, the shore lined with hotels, shuttered and lifeless now, in late February. We drove through lakeside town after town—nothing open.
Just as we were about to give up, we spotted a B and B logo with Aperto, “open,” on a board swinging beneath it. Sure enough, there was a sunny lakefront room available and a friendly hostess who hurried to lay out fresh towels.
As soon as we’d carried in our bags, John got back in the little gray Peugeot to drive to the town of Bardolino, north of there, where the B and B lady said there was an internet cafe.
With perhaps an hour and a half of daylight left, I decided to take a little walk on the path along the lake. There was a year-round lakeside cafe some 500 meters south, our hostess told me. Yes, she was sure they served hot chocolate.
When I reached it, though, it was closing for the day, a man stacking chairs on the terrace. It was too soon to turn back; there was bound to be another place ahead, and the lake was so lovely!
Swans cruised close to shore and tall stands of reeds swayed in the wake of passing fishing boats. I passed another cafe, closed for the whole winter. Surely around the next curve I’d find that hot chocolate!
It was an all too common experience, one that had made me no wiser at 79 than at age 8, when I’d gotten lost following a trail in the woods. Something about a path! Something that drew me, lured me on to know what was beyond the next bend. Forgetting that I’d have to retrace every step, I walked farther and farther.
By now the sun was low in the sky and there was a chill in the air. Hot chocolate and a place to sit down had become not just a pleasant idea but a need! I hadn’t realized how tired I was. Maybe just out of sight around that curve ahead... But beyond that bend, and the next one, only lake, swans, reeds.
For a long way there’d been nothing on the other side of the path but high stone walls. I came to a lichen-covered rock and lowered myself gratefully onto it.
As I rested, reality set in. At 6:30 p.m. it was nearly dark, and the path behind me was rocky and uneven. Even if I weren’t so tired, it would be a difficult walk back to the B and B.
I looked the other way. Ahead in the twilight, was a glow that might be a town. If I could reach it, and find a phone, and remember the name of the B and B, John could come and... no. John wouldn’t be there! He’d told me as he drove off that he planned to stay till the internet place closed. Eight o’clock? Nine?
In any case I couldn’t just sit here. I got up and headed toward the lights which were brighter now as darkness set in. It was slow going on the rough path—and it went on so long! Bend after bend I stumbled forward with those lights never seeming any nearer.
At last the path ended at a deserted-looking road bordering the lake. Ahead I could clearly see the town— and also see that it was miles away. I was exhausted, I was cold, my legs had lead weights on them. I could never walk that far!
I looked away from the lake where the road climbed a dark hillside. A faint flicker of light near the top might be a house, maybe a mile away. With a half-formed notion of knocking on the door, asking for help, I stepped into the road and began walking.
“Tib! Tib, is that you?”
In my exhaustion I fantasized John’s voice calling me. Then imagined I heard a car pull up behind me. I turned and saw the gray Peugeot. It wasn’t real. John couldn’t really be there. But the cold metal of the door handle felt real enough, and the rough weave of the seat, and John’s arm around my shoulder.
Over large bowls of minestrone in the first restaurant we came to, John traced his own movements after leaving the B and B. He’d driven north to Bardolino—where nobody knew of an internet cafe. Someone thought there might be one down in Lazise.
So John got back in the car and drove south, past the B and B and several miles further to Lazise. It proved to be an ancient town still partly behind its medieval walls, but boasting public internet access in a small room behind a newsstand.
He’d worked there till 8:00 p.m., when they closed, then gotten lost trying to get back to the main highway in a tangle of one-way streets. For 20 minutes he’d driven in circles. Finally he emerged on the far side of the town onto a narrow road bordering the lake. For a while it ran north, then turned away from the lake.
And there he thought he saw a familiar figure walking very slowly...
Two minutes earlier I’d emerged from the path onto that road.
Who but God, we agreed, could have managed this! Bringing John to the very town toward which, unbeknownst to him, I’d been stumbling. The delays in an ancient maze of streets that slowed his leaving it. My reaching the road just in time.
What was God telling us? Surely not that every time I did something foolish I wouldn’t have to suffer the consequences.
I think his message is bigger: God saying to John, to me, to each of us, You may feel lost. You may feel hopeless. But in me no one is lost, no one is without hope. I am moving in your life in ways you cannot guess. It’s a message I need to hear every day.
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