“You know,” my aunt says, “I once had a terribly difficult period that lasted 24 years.” “Wait. Twenty-four years?” “And it was so important to realize I didn’t know what was on the other side of the darkness. Every so often there was a sliver of light that shot the whole world through with mystery and wonder, and reminded me; I didn’t have all the information.”Dani Shapiro, “Hourglass”
[One of the most important tasks of our elder years is doing a life review: going back over the memories of our years as deeply and thoroughly as we are able. It is a long and daunting journey, but running from it accomplishes nothing. Staying with it can bring unspeakable wonder and even joy. It can lead to forgiveness and understanding, and it becomes grace, especially when we share any of it and find common ground. So we tell of our own slivers of light and mystery and wonder.]
I perched on the edge of the hospital bed, my knees pulled up as if to protect myself, blindly gazing through the large window that was letting in the first glorious deep pink rays of dawn on that December morning in 1973. I was 32 years old, the mother of two astonishing little boys, my family complete.
(This would be the first great loss that would matter to me.)
My mind was a blank. My mind was full of the unknown. My mind would not let me go there. There – to the little dot of life in my belly that had bled its warning. To the unexpected one. To the unwanted one who I now wanted desperately. To the one I would grieve for so long.
(This would be the first terribly difficult loss that would undo me.)
The gurney came. My body was wisely ready. It knew. The operating room lights glared at me. The little dot of life was removed from within me. Barely begun, it was done. He said, “It wasn’t growing right.” Gender as yet unknown. “Spontaneous abortion,” it is called: “dilatation and curettage,” the name of the procedure that completed what the body could not.
(This would be the first great loss that I should “get over.”)
On the fence for years about abortion, I now could feel my child, full grown in my imagination. Gender unknown, but longing to know. Knowing I would never know. Miscarriage was hard enough. “It wasn’t growing right.” I hadn’t chosen it. It had chosen me.
(This would be the great loss that would lead me into my own long and lonely darkness.)
This would be the beginning of my “terribly difficult period.” It would lead to clinical depression, divorce, a conversion experience, a calling, and those slivers of light that “shot the whole world with mystery and wonder.”
(Ten years later, this would become the great loss that would finally heal me.)
In 1983, I had been practicing unguided meditation for a while. It had proven to be a miraculous source of healing, restoration and wisdom. On this morning, I would sit quietly, still, eyes closed and my body relaxed and waiting for this day’s image to appear. When it did, I was in a familiar setting, sitting on a large rock outcropping overlooking a wide, rapidly flowing stream. Behind me was a thick forest that I had come to know in other meditations. Across the stream was a craggy, high limestone bluff with forest growing along its edges.
I loved this place of healing and energy and peace where darkness had already been pierced with slivers of light.
I was surprised to find myself holding an infant, wrapped loosely in a light yellow blanket, as if the sun shone on my hands and arms. It was my daughter. Gender known.
I was filled with such pure, quiet, breathless wonder in those moments with her, as she stretched and gazed at me. I grasped her image like a lifeline, a gift from afar and long ago and now. Our hearts were beating with recognition and belonging.
Behind me, standing at the edge of the trees, I sensed a presence who had also grown familiar in my meditations. The male figure was waiting patiently: bald, wearing the long, brown sackcloth robe of a monk, the hood resting on his head, his face soft and gentle. He had been the presence of Death in these months of meditating, but I had learned that he was not a figure to be feared. Instead, he had been a patient teacher and guide, and I had come to trust him.
As I reluctantly turned and saw him, I was not alarmed, but I was wary. Death had come to claim her in these moments, I knew, and I had one request.
“How long can I have her before you take her?” I whispered.
“Oh, I don’t take.” He was so serene as he spoke. “I only receive.”
I cradled and rocked my wee daughter-gift for a while, until the time would come to surrender her. The moments were so very sweet as I memorized her face and her little body. Fully formed at last.
(This would be the first great loss that would teach me how to let go. And how to be soft, and to cradle grace when it is given.)
Surrender became the “peace that passes all understanding.”
And I would at last find myself on the other side of the long darkness.