If names for God represent the nature of God, then Joy Krenke doesn’t need hundreds of them.  She only needs one:  “Fine.”

Joy’s powerful God Wink came at Christmas time, tucked away in the vast expanse of the high desert as Nevada turns into California.  But it began earlier in Wisconsin, while her son James was still in this world. 

It was October 3rd, and Joy was watching the road signs intently.  All parents do as they sit in the front seat of a car being driven by a child practicing for their driver’s license test.  

Joy knew where they were going, because she asked James to drive her there so that he could get some final experience before his road test the next day.  What she didn’t know was that James was driving her to a place she hadn’t really been before.  Not a physical place, a spiritual one.  A place deep inside James’ faith, a road sign to his belief in eternal life.

Their earthly destination was not a pleasant one.  The husband of one of Joy’s good friends was dying, and Joy wanted to go to the hospital to visit him.

James stayed in the hospital lobby as Joy went to spend time with her dying friend.  When she came back down to the lobby, James asked, “How’s Dick doing?”

“Jamie, Dick is dying,” Joy said.  The family called him Jamie, though his given name is James.

“No mom, he isn’t dying,” James said. 

“Didn’t you hear me?” Joy asked emphatically, worried that James, always the jokester, wasn’t taking the situation seriously.  “Jamie, this isn’t funny.  Dick is dying.”

“No mom, he isn’t dying.  He’s just going to start a brand new life, and it’s gonna be awesome.” 

Joy always knew her son believed in God, but never did she imagine that his faith was so deep. 

James passed his driver’s license test the next day.  Two days later, on a Sunday night, he himself made the trip to the brand new life he talked about.  He was on his way home from his church youth group meeting.  He tried to pass a car on a winding road that paralleled a river.  Another car was coming.  He swerved to avoid it.  His car rolled over.

In some ways, Joy was prepared for James’ death.  She says she always knew she was going to lose a child, to the point where she wanted to have more than three children, because for some reason, she kept getting the feeling that one of them was going to die young.  And after a poignant moment with James a month before the accident, she knew it was going to be him, and she knew it was going to be soon.   James had crawled in bed with her to talk one morning before breakfast, and at that moment she knew.   A picture of her taken shortly after shows fear and sadness in her eyes. 

Nothing, though, can prepare a parent for the pain of losing a child, nor can anything stop even the most faithful from wavering after such a tragedy.  In her head, Joy knew James was in heaven.  But she didn’t feel it in her wounded heart.  She wanted some proof, some sign that James was okay, some affirmation that James’ faith was rewarded.

She drew a bit of comfort from a piece of paper James was using at his church youth group meeting the night of the accident.  The last thing he had done before leaving the meeting that night was draw an arrow on his worksheet.  The arrow pointed straight up.

But her broken heart needed more.  She needed to feel it, not just know it.  Usually it’s the other way around; it’s the head that needs proof.  But Joy’s heart was demanding it.  She needed to truly believe, and that kind of faith only comes from feeling it in your heart, your entire being.   

Her mind filled with the worries that mothers have.  Never mind if they seem silly or defy common sense, mothers worry, and Joy is, above everything else, a mother.  About a month after the accident, she found herself worrying about the oddest things.  She wondered whether James could be happy without his Nike high tops or the fishing hat he wore every day, despite the teasing from kids on his school bus.  James was his own person, comfortable in his own skin, a boy who lived for fishing and family and faith.  But could he be his own person without his Nikes or his fishing hat?

The worries were nagging, and most prevalent at night as she lay in bed.  She prayed out to God.

“Lord, just please give me a sign.  I just need to know that Jamie is okay,” she said. 

Later that night, the light went on in her bedroom.   Startled awake, Joy sat up.  James was there.  He had a great big smile on his face, showing his braces.

“Mom,” he said, “I’m just fine.” 

Then he was gone. 

Joy woke up the next morning with a feeling of peace.  She now knew it in her heart; she could finally feel it.  But as the first Thanksgiving without James came and went, the feeling started to fade.  In her heart, it was a visit.  James was there.  James came back to give her comfort and peace.

But Joy’s mind started to choose battle over belief, taking on her heart in an all-out war for superiority.  When the mind tries to take control, it narrows the options to the only two it can accept:  it’s a dream, or you’re crazy.  The mind wants logic, demanding congruence between mind and soul.  It wants evidence, and without it, the mind has to settle the internal conflict with some kind of acceptable explanation.  How can someone who is dead possibly appear in her bedroom?  No sane person would believe that could actually happen. 

Joy’s brain won.  It came to its congruence by accusing her of being crazy. Which is worse?  To know in your mind but not your heart, or to know in your heart but not your mind?  That in itself will drive you crazy.

Perhaps both God and James recognized Joy’s internal struggle, because a God Wink came to the rescue. 

It happened as the Krenke family braced for the hardest holiday of all:  the first Christmas following the death of a child.  They couldn’t bear the thought of going through their normal Christmas routine without their beloved James, so they went on a road trip.  It turned out to be a journey that took them straight past a road sign from heaven. 

Joy’s oldest son, Ryan, was in the Air Force and stationed in Wyoming, and the family decided they would all meet in Las Vegas.  So Joy, her husband Gary, and their youngest son Shawn boarded a plane to try to escape the pain, or at least to try to tolerate the pain of what should be a joyful holiday. 

They did the things one does in the playground of Las Vegas, then drove to see the Grand Canyon.  From there, it was off to the Crystal Cathedral in southern California to experience the splendor of its renowned Christmas production. 

The drive from the Grand Canyon to southern California is a sensory adventure.  The topography of what is known as the Basin and Range Province of the Great Basin is spectacular, characterized by abrupt changes in elevation, alternating between mountain chains and flat, arid valleys.  American geologist Clarence Dutton once described the narrow parallel mountain ranges and tight valleys as an "army of caterpillars marching toward Mexico." 

The highways are as desolate as the views are majestic, so much so that the Nevada portion of U.S. Route 50, which crosses the center of state, and was named “The Loneliest Road in America” by Life magazine in 1986.

The Krenkes hadn’t seen another vehicle in an hour.  Ryan was driving, mesmerized by the mountain ranges towering over the valley floors, content in driving at a virtually unregulated cruising speed.   Gary and Shawn were in the back seat, captured in quiet reflection and dosing from time to time. 

Joy was in the front passenger seat and crying softly, again fighting the battle between mind and heart, again with the mind winning.  By now she had completely lost the peace found in James’ visit, and was once again looking for validation that James is okay.  Not that he was in a better place – her heart knew that – but that he was okay.  She needed the comfort that parents find in a quick cell phone call to a child, the peace of finding proof through the sound of their child’s voice that all’s well.

“Lord, I need to know he’s okay,” she prayed quietly.  “Please send me a sign.”

Suddenly, Ryan slammed on the brakes and made a sharp left turn into a dirt road.

“What are you doing?” Joy asked, awakened from her tears and prayer by the abruptness of the turn.

“I want to see what’s down in the valley,” Ryan, the Air Force guy, said.  “It looks like there might be a missile site down there.”

The short road took them to a scenic overlook.  They parked the car and walked to the observation area.  To protect visitors from falling down the cliff, a stone retaining wall circled the area.

And on the wall they saw this:

Battle over.  Joy’s mind and heart now know for sure that James is fine.  And so is God.


Road sign from Heaven

© 2012 Mark Zoromski

Pick a religion and you’ll find that it has many names for God.  Christians find more than a hundred in the Old and New Testament.  Muslims believe in the 99 Names of Allah; Judaism refers to 72 Divine Names.

Some suggest that the names of God represent the nature of God.  Perhaps that explains why most are attributes more than names, really, such as “Shepherd,” “The Creator,” “The Merciful,” and “Comforter.”