“If in the dusk of the twilight, dim be the region afar,
Will not the deepening darkness brighten the glimmering star?
Then when the night is upon us, why should the heart sink away?
When the dark midnight is over, watch for the breaking of day.”
— Alice Hawthorne, aka Septimus Winner, 1868
These words are from a hymn that I’ve known and sung throughout my early life, but never particularly liked. Its title is “Whispering Hope” which might have been part of the problem. I want hope to shout at me and shut down all the fears and doubts. I want it to drown out all the chaos and noise. But as the prophet Elijah found out, God doesn’t always work that way. Sometimes we have to listen for “a gentle whisper.”
In any case, for reasons unknown to me (as I haven’t heard the song in a long time) the words of it came back to me recently, playing in my head, and I could appreciate them much more than I used to. I’ve found it’s that way with a lot of things that I didn’t fully understand when I was younger. I suppose growing older tends to open us up. Sometimes it happens naturally, of our own accord, but sometimes we have to be broken open. Either way, it can ultimately be a blessing if we hold fast to what is most important.
If you are in the midst of a dark midnight, and the future seems only dimly visible, I wish for you a glimmering star of hope to light your fears with promise of better times to come. The universe, apparently, is mostly darkness. But what an incredible difference the lights make!
“It is necessary to write, if the days are not to slip emptily by. How else, indeed, to clap the net over the butterfly of the moment? For the moment passes, it is forgotten; the mood is gone; life itself is gone…” — Vita Sackville-West
I agree with Sackville-West that writing enables us to capture what might otherwise slip away. For many of us, as for me, it is not an exaggeration to say it is necessary to write. Yet there are other means of savoring and saving precious moments. Photography is one way. Just seeing– really taking the time to look, and remember– is another.
The photo above was taken one lovely day last September, when Jeff called me out to the deck to see how many bees were swarming in the newly-blooming Sedum. Naturally I dashed for my camera, and took quite a few photos of the bees, one or two of which are sure to show up here eventually. There was a butterfly among them, and I took quite a few photos of it too.
Now when I see this photo I don’t remember just the flowers or the colorful insect feasting on them. I remember, more than anything else, a day that I knew was beautiful, even without knowing it was one of the last of its kind. I remember one of the delicious moments that retirees will understand, when life has slowed down enough for such precious times to be possible. How grateful I am for that memory, and for the photos that bring it back!
The days are slipping by for all of us. Whether you preserve the fragile “butterfly of the moment” with writing, photography, art, or simply sharing it with another person through a conversation or letter, remember the ephemeral nature of beauty, and savor it.
“You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.” — Jack London
I just love this quote. I think it applies to all sorts of inspiration, not just artistic or literary. If I have learned anything from life, one of the most indelible lessons of experience is that inactive brooding and rumination never solves anything. There’s a place, of course, for contemplation, discussion and reflection. But I suspect that the contemporary world gives far too little attention to disciplined effort and meaningful action. At least, I know I do.
As the venues for talk multiply– TV, radio, online, print, formal and informal meetings– the talk multiplies until it becomes our primary activity, and sometimes deceives us into thinking that merely by talking, we’ve done something to address what is bothering us. No wonder we end up feeling overwhelmed by undone tasks and unfulfilled aspirations.
Going after inspiration with a club does not mean going at it carelessly, or being fueled primarily by anger or frustration. In fact, I believe the sort of violence and mayhem fomented by gratuitously destructive outrage is the result of failure to undertake more meaningful steps. Acting on impulse is not the opposite of forethought; it’s the result of a pronounced lack of it.
Still, though planning is essential, it too often goes nowhere. Sometimes when I’m sorting though old papers I’ll come across goals and plans I wrote years ago and promptly forgot. Usually, they’re quite well thought out, and articulated clearly, with sound purposes that focus on worthy outcomes. But they were set aside, no doubt as a result of urgent demands that may have been more obvious and intrusive, but less important.
For 2017, I invite you to join me in going after inspiration with a club. That club– a metaphor for determination– might take various forms on different days: devising a specific set of goals for de-cluttering or fitness, writing a letter or making a visit we’ve been putting off, scheduling an activity (such as exercise), or anything else that will break the cycle of sitting around waiting to be rescued from our sadness or lethargy.
We can’t wait for inspiration. But that doesn’t mean it’s not out there, waiting for us to find it.
“A friend is the one who comes in when the whole world has gone out.” — Grace Pulpit
I’ve written before about how isolating trouble can be. To put it bluntly, most people would rather not think about illness, disability or death unless they can’t avoid it. Those who are dealing with such issues, often for many years and even decades, will find themselves forgotten by a large share of people whom they once considered loyal friends or family. It’s a hard truth, and one nobody wants to believe, but eventually nearly every person who lives very long will experience the harsh reality of feeling abandoned when support is most needed.
The silver lining is that there are others– far fewer in number, but all the more precious for being so– who come in just when everyone else goes out. Sometimes it’s a longtime friend who becomes even closer, bonded by standing beside us through life’s most devastating moments. Surprisingly often, though, they are brand new friends who show up in the midst of our circumstances when we least expect them.
So it was that a lively lady from faraway Edmonton, Canada appeared on my blog in its very early days, offering friendly encouragement. From the very first time I followed Kelly’s Gravatar back to the lovely land of Boomdeeville, I knew there were some diamonds to be found among the rubble of disastrous circumstances Jeff and I were facing. Kelly filled my comments section with warmth and humor, my postal mail with exquisitely crafted creations, and my heart with hope. Having her visit in person for a whole week was like a dream come true.
It was a long way for her to travel, made longer by the sort of missed-flight ordeals that are only funny in retrospect. We filled the week with one merry mishap after another, dashing around DC in the rain and wandering around Dulles Airport for over an hour searching for Pauline, who had made an even longer journey from New Zealand. Despite everything (or maybe because of it) we were laughing all the way.
If you’re reading this, chances are you are in that rare group of people who came into my life just as it felt as if the whole world had left the building. Those of you who made an entry instead of an exit, or who drew closer instead of stepping back, you know who you are, and you have made it possible for me to survive thus far. If you ever find yourself in a similar situation, I hope you will have many steadfast friends who make sure you don’t face your trials alone. And if I’m able, I hope to be one of them.
“I think these difficult times have helped me to understand better than before how infinitely rich and beautiful life is in every way, and that so many things that one goes around worrying about are of no importance whatsoever.” — Isak Dinesen
Perhaps the understanding Dinesen describes is one of the greatest gifts to come out of suffering. Such a gift is a mixed blessing, and not simply because it grows out of pain. Our deepened awareness can make us impatient with others who are complacent, caught up in things we see as inconsequential– and it can make us doubly hard on ourselves when we find that we are likewise wasting precious moments, too caught up in our own self-pity to see the loveliness.
Just as I have to shake myself awake some mornings when I am reluctant to open my eyes to a new day, I often have to rouse my heart and spirit out of its temporary blindness and ingratitude. Life is short. The clock is ticking. What beauty lies just outside your door, awaiting discovery?
“When we fully understand the brevity of life, its fleeting joys and unavoidable pains…it should make us more kindly and considerate of each other.” — Clarence Darrow
The photo above was made at Drew and Megan’s Atlanta home, just ten days before Jeff checked into Walter Reed Bethesda with breathing problems, never to return home again. None of us dreamed it at the time, even though he had been fighting cancer for more than four years. He was so amazingly strong that even when he was near death, we had no way of knowing it.
No one can take life for granted, of course. Beyond a reasonable caution for safety and concern for healthy living, let us not translate that uncertainty to anxiety that hampers our appreciation of life. One of my greatest consolations is knowing how fully Jeff lived his life to the very end, in spite of the malicious disease that ate away at his physical strength and stamina. His refusal to let illness take his spiritual fortitude and mental tenacity will always be an example for me through the difficult days ahead.
Instead of allowing life’s inevitable brevity to make us fearful and morose, let’s reflect on what Darrow said about translating that awareness to a compassionate and sympathetic spirit. Every person we will encounter today carries the same sentence of mortality; it’s just a question of time. When I think about it, I realize I want to add to the fleeting joys, not increase the unavoidable pains. I’ll try to remember that next time I’m annoyed or short-tempered.
Here’s hoping we will find creative ways to fill each day with joy, however fleeting, and to help others do the same.
“On gray days, when it’s snowing or raining, I think you should be able to call up a judge and take an oath that you’ll just read a good book all day, and he’d allow you to stay home.” ― Bill Watterson
In the winter it’s so easy to become gloomy and depressed. Not surprisingly, I’ve had an especially tough time with that this winter. Take tonight, when I was feeling very morose and sad, cold and lonely. I started feeding my brain images of cozy winter scenes, with fireplaces and books and warm mugs of tea or hot chocolate. Bingo! Just like that, I felt better. I suppose it was a real-life demonstration of the song “My Favorite Things” from The Sound of Music.
So if you live in the northern hemisphere where it’s likely to be cold right now, I invite you to take a quick mental vacation. I hereby appoint myself the judge Watterson imagined. As far as I’m concerned, you may stay home and read a good book all day. Objections? Overruled.
Okay, so maybe you do have to work, or run errands, or do any of a number of other things you can’t gracefully avoid. Just do what I did tonight, and pretend: imagine a cozy scene with a favorite book. Throw in other fun ideas such as a fireplace, freshly-baked cookies or a savory quiche, or a long chat with a good friend who’s reading the same book you are. If you are like me, these thoughts will cheer you up, even if you’re only daydreaming for a minute or two.
Then promise yourself to set aside at least an hour tonight to bring the daydream to life.
Be ahead of all parting, as though it already were
behind you, like the winter that has just gone by.
For among these winters there is one so endlessly winter
that only by wintering through it all will your heart survive.
Be forever dead in Eurydice-more gladly arise
into the seamless life proclaimed in your song.
Here, in the realm of decline, among momentary days,
be the crystal cup that shattered even as it rang.
Be-and yet know the great void where all things begin,
the infinite source of your own most intense vibration,
so that, this once, you may give it your perfect assent.
To all that is used-up, and to all the muffled and dumb
creatures in the world’s full reserve, the unsayable sums,
joyfully add yourself, and cancel the count.
—Rainer Maria Rilke
Translated by Stephen Mitchell
As always, the poet says it best. I am writing this with a blanket of snow outside our York home, and I’m burrowed in with my hot tea and books and silence. It’s a healing solitude, and through the enchanting communion of words I am visiting with many souls, living or passed from this earth, whose company cuts through the loneliness. Thank you for being among them.
I wish for you this winter the ability to celebrate the momentary days in joyful, perfect assent. Spring will be here before we know it.
“It is not the mountain we conquer but ourselves.” — Edmund Hillary
Hillary makes an excellent point. The mountain can’t be conquered by any person. But its magnificent, inevitable presence can be a venue for the building of skill, courage and resilience. It’s not surprising that mountains have become a favorite metaphor for the challenges of daily living.
Perhaps you face a year of daunting challenge in 2017, as I do. Or maybe your year promises to be typical, but holds an as-yet unrevealed crisis or obstacle that will take you by surprise. Either way, I hope we will remember the mountain and work with the reality of whatever lies in our paths. We can survive, and maybe even thrive. I really believe that.
“Though much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.” — Alfred, Lord Tennyson
I knew this Christmas would have to be different, so I didn’t even try to capture any of the old magic. Instead, I tried to find reasons to rejoice in what remains of the abundant blessings that have colored my life. Earlier in the year, Jeff and I had talked about possibly going to visit my “other Mama and Daddy” this Christmas season, if he was able. This is the family with whom my parents, siblings and I spent pretty much every Christmas (and a lot of Thanksgivings and New Years and other times too) during our childhood. I didn’t want to give up on the idea of the visit, so a few weeks ago I called my sister Carla and asked her to meet me near their home atop Lookout Mountain. We went to see them on the day before Christmas Eve.
I have always felt lucky to have this wonderful second set of parents in our lives. They were close friends of my parents before I was born– in fact, “Tuffy” and my Daddy grew up together, and remained lifelong friends. How exciting to be seeing them again, enjoying a delicious meal and home-baked cookies Betty Jo made for us, just as she had done countless times when we were kids. We were able to visit with two of their children whom we hadn’t seen in many years, along with two of their grandchildren and one of their great-grandchildren.
We marveled at the view from their deck on a sunny day in late December, feeling happy we had come and already planning to come back again sometime. We all are older now, having each endured much loss and sorrow, but the heartfelt bonds that drew us together for years remain strong and vibrant.
If you’re reading this blog, it’s likely that you have lived enough years to identify with the mixed emotions one experiences when much has been taken, yet much still abides. I wish for you, at the close of this year and into the dawn of the new one, many opportunities to rejoice in what remains; to connect with all that has made you the person you are, with deep appreciation to mingle with whatever grief you may be enduring. This blending of time and joy and sorrow creates a powerful alloy. May it fill you with renewed strength to face whatever lies ahead.
Merry Christmas, everyone! I wish you pleasant dreams tonight, and joy in the morning.
Watch me now, here I go, all I need’s a little snow
Starts me off, sets the theme, helps me dream my Christmas dream
Every year I dream it, hoping things will change
An end to the crying, the shouting, the dying
And I hope you will dream it too
It’s Christmas, remember? We’ve got to remember
The whole world needs a Christmas dream
We need it to warm us, to calm us, to love us
To help us to dream our Christmas dream.
I fell in love with this song instantly, on first hearing a bit of it in the movie The Odessa File in 1974. I searched for a copy of it for years until I finally found it online. I have listened to it countless times, every Christmas season since. For me, it captures so many of the emotions I feel at this time every year. It’s filled with the optimistic merriment of Christmas, but acknowledges wistfully that so many things are not as they should be. I hope this song will help you dream a few dreams of your own.
This seems a most fitting post for me to re-blog, as I try to see through tear-dimmed eyes whatever gifts are there for me in this season of my life. Ann, the photo of Pasha is for you! And Happy Birthday to my dear friend Nancy, whose home was always open to Jeff and me from the earliest days of our courtship, through every trip to Nashville we ever made over the years. Thanks to all of you for being here with me.
“At Christmas I no more desire a rose
Than wish a snow in May’s new-fangled mirth;
But like of each thing that in season grows.”
When we moved to Virginia from California, I missed having roses in December. Yet I was happy to be living once again in a climate similar to that of my home town, where each season brings its familiar but ever-fresh charms. Wherever you are living, whatever your weather, I hope you will be gladdened today by the natural adornments of the season.
“While we tend to focus on the benefits of cards and letters to those who receive them, possibly the greatest benefit is to the sender…As I address and sign cards, I take a few moments to remember people who have played some role in my life, major or minor. I call to mind memories of places and events that I might not otherwise ponder. As I do so, I smile, laugh, or maybe cry….Ultimately, even if my recipient never reciprocates, or tosses my card and letter in the trash with nary a glance, the act of writing and sending it helped make me more human.” — Cheryl Magness
There are probably as many good reasons NOT to send holiday cards as there are to send them. I get that. Still, some of us were born to correspond in writing, and most of that admittedly small (and getting smaller) group tends to prefer paper and ink. If you are among those who do, I’ll be happy to send you a card in the postal mail! Just send your address to me at email@example.com (and I promise not to use it for anything else, or sell it or distribute it or do anything tacky like that).
But if you are the type who wants to go digital with everything, here is an online card for you.
And if you are the type who doesn’t like ANY sort of cards, bless your heart (as we say in the South). I send you good wishes anyway, which you may delete, return unopened, or throw away. As Magness says, the greatest benefit is to the sender, so it’s a joy no matter what. Happy holidays, or if you don’t celebrate this season, have a great (generic) day!
Hello everyone. Since I won’t be doing a Christmas tree this year, I thought I’d feature a photo of one from past years. If you have decorated a tree this year, feel free to send a photo to firstname.lastname@example.org, and I’ll post it here. I hope you are finding some moments to enjoy this festive season. May you experience childlike excitement at the possibility of a literal or figurative gift not yet opened. ** Scroll down to see some other unique and lovely Christmas trees shared by readers!
“The most splendid Christmas gift, the most marveled and magic, is the gift that has not yet been opened. Opaque behind wrapping or winking foil, it is a box full of possibilities…Often what precedes is better than what follows, even when, like Christmas Day, what follows is good.” — Gregg Easterbrook
As with other happy events, the anticipation that builds during the holiday season is often just as exciting (or more so) than the day itself. As the old saying goes, “getting there is half the fun.” If the stress of shopping, baking, wrapping and decorating has you undone, try slowing down long enough to actually savor the tasks themselves. Perhaps it will help if we think of the future as a gift not yet opened. Rather than focusing on what irritates or worries us, let’s enjoy the wonder of the present, and the hope for beautiful things that may lie ahead.
He who has gone, so we but cherish his memory, abides with us, more potent, nay, more present than the living man. — Antoine de Saint-Exupery
At times the pain of missing Jeff stabs me with a grief so severe and sudden that I wonder how I will survive without him. More often, though, I feel through the sorrow the reassuring stability that was his first and greatest gift to me. It’s true that he is still present with me, every day, there in my mind and in my heart, as if he never left.
It’s not so different, in a way, from the bond I feel with many of you. We may have seen each other seldom, or only once, or not at all, except in imagination stretching across a bridge of words. Yet I feel secure in knowing we think of each other with support and affection, and are not alone. Thanks for being here, where it’s not always easy, but hopefully, it’s always safe, and kind, and real.
Hello friends, I miss you, and I miss my time here. I hope your week has been better than mine. Even though I tried to prepare myself for this grief for nearly four years, it’s the sort of thing for which one cannot prepare. Matt and I are both in the midst of a difficult phase; the adrenaline is gone, and the reality of daily life without Jeff is cold and hard to bear. Somehow I didn’t realize it would get worse before it gets better. But I’m determined to cheer myself up (and hopefully some of you, as well) so I’m re-blogging one of my favorite photos ever, of a view that holds a very special place in my heart. That sight never failed to inspire me with hope and joy.
If you are feeling discouraged, or lonely, or sad for any reason, perhaps Keller’s words and the courage of her life will lift your spirits. I’m praying we all have a wonderful weekend– or at least a quiet, comforting one. Thanks for being here, and for helping me to keep looking up. I hope you all realize what a blessing you are to me.
“No pessimist ever discovered the secret of the stars, or sailed an uncharted land, or opened a new doorway for the human spirit.” — Helen Keller
Few sights are more breathtaking to me than the Golden Gate Bridge and the surrounding lands and sea. Such a vivid reminder of the creativity of people, and especially of the God in whose image they are made, never failed to lift my spirits no matter how many times I stood on the shore and looked out on this scene. I am deeply grateful for the daring, hard work and optimism that made such wonders a reality for us to enjoy. What wonders, large or small, are you thankful for today?
Dear readers, this post from Thanksgiving last year still says it better than I could say it today. It’s a sort of visit from the Posts of Thanksgiving Past, to borrow a phrase from Dickens. At the time I wrote this, I honestly never expected that it would be our last Thanksgiving with Jeff. Despite the deep sorrow of missing him, I cannot look at this photo of three people I love dearly without feeling a heart full of gratitude and joy. For those of you who celebrate Thanksgiving Day today, may your holiday be blessed with awareness of riches no money could buy. I am very, very grateful for all of you, and for your presence here!
P.S. — Ann, Pasha stars in that third link!
For hearts that are kindly, with virtue and peace,
and not seeking blindly a hoard to increase;
for those who are grieving o’er life’s sordid plan;
for souls still believing in heaven and man;
for homes that are lowly with love at the board;
for things that are holy, I thank thee, O Lord!
For many of us, this Thanksgiving will be a bittersweet time as we observe the holiday without loved ones. This year, our family feels the absence of our Daddy who worked so hard for 87 years to ensure that we would celebrate this and all days with bounty, gratitude and reverence. We honor him today with the thankfulness he instilled in each one of us, bolstered by faith and renewed by deep joy in all that is beautiful and right in our world.
One year ago (2014), our family had experienced another sudden loss shortly before Thanksgiving. Even so, we were able to come together as a family and reflect upon those blessings that remained, and encourage one another with hope for the future.
The year before that (2013), we had a most unconventional Thanksgiving day, exhausted yet filled with thankfulness and hope.
The year before that (2012), we were reeling in the shock of Jeff’s stage IV cancer diagnosis, having received bad news followed by worse news followed by even worse news. Yet even that year, there were reasons to be thankful. Among them were the readers of the newly-begun Defeat Despair.
I didn’t know then that a blog I started as a personal effort to stay focused on blessings amid the trials was to introduce me to wonderful people all over the world. Though I could not know it in those early days, I would find myself three years hence with dear friends whose existence was then unknown to me, and my dear husband, my rock and surest support, would still be with us, still working full time, still defying the odds.
Thus we face another Thanksgiving Day with full hearts and a deep sense of gratitude for mercies that truly are new every morning. May each and every one who reads these words experience love, joy, peace and many reasons to be glad. Happy Thanksgiving!
I’m still here. Hope you’re still there! Another reblog; this one was originally posted on November 27, 2012:
“In our rush for newer, quicker, better, we seem to be missing out on what we fundamentally crave, a calmer, gentler, sweeter and more gracious life. Is it easy to achieve such a life? Definitely not. Is it possible? Absolutely, positively, certainly, yes. (Don’t look for impossible from me; I’ve never found a solution in cynicism.)” — Alexandra Stoddard
I’ve always loved Alexandra Stoddard’s writing. Her words are calm, measured, and unfailingly optimistic, and she understands that life is a gift to be treasured in all circumstances. As we struggle with the toughest challenges, we find renewal in seeking for good wherever it can be found. May your day be blessed with eyes, heart and mind sharply focused on the abundance all around us.
Hello friends, I’m still treading water, but thinking of you. Please keep those thoughts, prayers and comments coming. They truly brighten my day, and I look forward to responding to each of you when I get a bit of a break – hopefully soon, as fall semester ends a couple of weeks before Christmas. Meanwhile, for now, another re-blog from what now seems a lifetime ago.
That’s Mama in the photo below. As most of you know, she became a widow just a little over a year before I did. The past year without Daddy has been especially tough for her. Knowing how hard it is to be without Jeff after “only” 38 years together, I cannot imagine what it must be like to lose a husband after 66 years of marriage.
Mama, who has survived much medical trauma during her 86 years, now has stage IV cancer (lung, metastasized to the spine) and has moved to long term care. I hope to be seeing her again soon. Meanwhile, I wanted to re-blog this post that features her photo. It’s another of my favorites, mostly because I so love the last two lines in the poem excerpt quoted below. I can’t say I feel the meaning as deeply as I did when I first published this post nearly four years ago, but I still love it, and it’s something to strive for. Thanks for being here, and for caring.
Originally posted on 11-26-2012:
That more and more a Providence
Of love is understood,
Making the springs of time and sense
Sweet with eternal good;
That death seems but a covered way
Which opens into light,
Wherein no blinded child can stray
Beyond the Father’s sight…
That all the jarring notes of life
Seem blending in a psalm,
And all the angles of its strife
Slow rounding into calm.
And so the shadows fall apart,
And so the west-winds play;
And all the windows of my heart
I open to the day.
— John Greenleaf Whittier, from “My Psalm“
Dear friends, thanks for visiting us today. We are still struggling with our loss, but surviving. Right now I am completely consumed with various tasks — catching up on school work, with three major papers, much reading, and several smaller assignments yet to complete; dealing with the seemingly endless paperwork that goes with my new life circumstances; taking care of Matt without the nurturing help and loving presence of Jeff; managing (as well as I can) two homes; and just generally trying to get through the grief. I ask your patience as I re-blog a post that has been on my mind a lot lately, that features one of my all-time favorite quotes. Since it’s almost four years old, perhaps there will be many of you who never saw it, and many others who have forgotten it. Meanwhile, please know that I appreciate your comments, thoughts, prayers and warm wishes, and will answer each and every comment as soon as I can! As Marlene says, Giant Hugs!
“…for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”
—George Eliot, from the closing lines of Middlemarch
Look around you today. You are surrounded by saints, cleverly disguised as fallible human beings. Indeed, you may be one yourself.
“Today we enjoy a luxury kings and queens throughout history had to suffer without: water is available to us just by turning on a tap.” — Alexandra Stoddard
I don’t stop to think about it often, but running water is among the blessings for which I’m most grateful. Imagine what it must be like to have to walk miles to a well for clean water to haul home, then have to use it sparingly for washing, cooking and cleaning before the next trip.
Whenever I dread scrubbing sinks or toilets or floors, it helps to remind myself that all the clean water I need to accomplish the task thoroughly is right at hand. People without running water in their home might laugh at my notion that these chores are hard work.
When family members are home recovering from illness or surgery, the gift of having clean running water is even more obvious, as it tends to be needed more often during each day. Can you imagine how difficult it is to care for medical needs without this convenience?
A couple of months ago, my brother Al and I were chatting during a visit with Mama at her new home in long term care. It’s located on a pleasant, well-run campus of various levels of assisted living for seniors. We were counting our blessings and feeling grateful that Mama had such a place available to her in the heat of the summer, or the cold winter, when many elderly or disabled people might find themselves without power or water due to a storm, a maintenance issue or a forgotten, unpaid bill. As with so many things we take for granted, we don’t tend to appreciate daily blessings enough until we find ourselves without them.
Today, I’m sure most if not all of us will turn on a faucet many times, scarcely thinking about what we are doing. Let’s pause at least once to feel happy about this incredible luxury; to enjoy the refreshment of cool water running over our hands, or chilled, pure water to drink, or a nice warm tub of water to relax us after a long day. It’s a privilege fit for royalty.
O Joy that seekest me through pain,
I cannot close my heart to thee;
I trace the rainbow through the rain,
And feel the promise is not vain,
That morn shall tearless be. —George Matheson
Sometimes a poem, song, quote or Bible verse stored in my memory will become more relevant, and therefore more appreciated, many years after I first encounter it. The quote above is from a hymn I learned in childhood and have sung many times since, but I don’t remember it having been a favorite. Lately, though, I have come to love it. The words have played in my head often since Jeff died, and the lyrics bring true consolation.
The photo above was taken on what should have been a wonderful evening for me, but I was beset by worries. Jeff and I had an unprecedented three-week vacation planned, to celebrate his retirement and continued survival. We had never, ever had that long a break before. All was ready and our dream trip was less than two weeks away. But Jeff had been having problems with his balance, and I wondered whether it was wise to leave on a transatlantic cruise if there were any risks we might not anticipate.
That evening, as I was finishing up my walk following an earlier rainstorm, I was startled to see a bright rainbow at the very end of our street. We rarely have rainbows here, and certainly not one arching over the entrance to our neighborhood. I ran inside to get my camera, and called Jeff to walk out and look at it with me. He agreed it was unusual and beautiful. “Maybe that’s meant to be a sign for us,” I said.
But that night, he could not walk upstairs easily. I convinced him to go to the Walter Reed ER the next day, and when I pulled up to let him out at the entrance, he got out of the car and immediately collapsed to the ground. I screamed for help, and staffers inside who had seen Jeff fall were already running out with a wheelchair. “I’m afraid he’s had a stroke,” I told them.
Of course, as most who read this blog already know, it was a metastatic brain tumor. The surgery to remove it went quite well, and Jeff recuperated with his usual astounding strength. In fact, the surgeons and I had to laugh when Jeff first said he did not intend to cancel our trip, but wanted to go on despite having just had neurosurgery. For once, I was on the doctors’ side when they told Jeff this would really, really not be possible. But they expressed great optimism that we would get to go later.
To his doctors’ amazement, Jeff was even able to ride the metro alone to Bethesda for radiation during the weeks that followed, as his post-op visual disturbance gradually healed. Taking the metro involved a significant uphill climb to the hospital, but Jeff was accustomed to such challenges, literally and figuratively. His resilience and stamina were such a blessing that I almost forgot about the crushing disappointment we both felt at not being able to take our long-planned celebratory trip.
We didn’t yet know that during the weeks following his surgery and radiation, when he was unable to take chemotherapy, the cancer so long held at bay would come back with a vengeance. The next set of scans showed a worse spread than ever. Jeff started to lose weight and could not seem to keep it on. Still, he went about life as usual despite his waning strength, and was able to see and hold our newborn second grandson when Drew’s family came to visit us in July. Jeff even took them to see the Independence Day fireworks over DC. He worked with me on various home improvement projects, and a month before he died, made a trip to Atlanta to see his grandsons again, and to see Mama one last time. Given her recent stage IV cancer diagnosis, we had no idea she would survive him.
Since then, I have thought often about that rainbow. What had seemed a promising delight at the time had taken on a cruel irony the following day in the face of Jeff’s brain tumor diagnosis. I suppose I am glad that, once he survived the surgery, we never dreamed he would not live to see even another November.
Still, I do have a happy memory of two of us standing outside in the warm sunset of a springtime evening, enjoying a beautiful and unexpected gift, just as we had enjoyed countless natural wonders over our 38 years together. Perhaps the rainbow’s meaning (if there was one at all) was different than what I first thought it was, but in any case, it was a joy that I captured with my camera. I can now look at the photo with mixed emotions, and somewhere amid the resentment and anger and sadness and grief there are traces of gratitude and hope.
If you are in the midst of sorrow or stress, I hope you can believe with me in the beautiful rainbow that often comes after a storm. We may not see it, or even if we do see it, we may not recognize its timeless meaning. But it’s there, and as it was from the beginning, it’s the symbol of a promise.
“Faith is the strength by which a shattered world shall emerge into the light.”
I’m not exactly sure how we’ve gotten through the past three weeks, but somehow we have. Some days are much worse than others, but all of them bring small reasons to be grateful. I can acknowledge that in my mind without feeling it in my heart, and that’s often what I end up doing. There are days when it’s all I can do to get out of bed, but it must be faith that enables me to keep going.
It’s not just my own faith that gives me strength, of course. That would, no doubt, be inadequate. There’s also the faith of so many who believe in us, pray for us and remember us with countless small kindnesses. There’s the faith by which Jeff lived his entire life, an enduring legacy that gives me something to strive for, and to cherish in memory. There’s the faith that eventually, somehow, the sorrow will be eased and the happy memories will eclipse the pain and anger and exhaustion and grief.
One of the many things I’m grateful for is the amazing community that has come together on this blog over the past four years. I see all of you out there, shining like points of light in the tangled darkness that so often surrounds me. As Misifusa says, Shine On! And thank you, so much, for being here.
If we call for the proof and we question the answers
Only the doubt will grow
Are we blind to the truth or a sign to believe in?
Only the wise will know
And word by word they handed down the light that shines today
And those who came at first to scoff, remained behind to pray
Yes those who came at first to scoff, remained behind to pray
Jeff was the classic left-brain thinker, disciplined and methodical. He tended toward skepticism in most areas, from alternative medicine, to charismatic politicians, to the good intentions of people who often promised more than they delivered.
About his faith, though, he never wavered. He lived his last hours with the same stoic acceptance he demonstrated throughout our 38 years together, secure in his belief that death was a passage to another life and not merely the end of this one.
He had no profound parting words or emotional scenes during those last few days. He knew, as we did, that his life had spoken more eloquently and consistently than any words could express. His steadfast faith, hope and love are an enduring example, a light in our lives that will never be extinguished.
The arabesques a hope can do…
the dances dreams can make…
the patterned pain a mind may shape…
before a heart will break
Despite the risk of heartbreak, hope is a better way to live. I really believe that.
I am so thankful you are with us here. Your presence is a solace for which I’m deeply grateful.