“I’m so glad to hear how well you are doing…really. You sound strong and peaceful.” These beautiful words were shared by a dear friend of many years whom I have not seen in quite some time. We recently had an opportunity to catch up on one another’s life. After I updated my friend on all that is new with the kids and Pete, I filled him in on my life – including the struggles with my back. I was surprised to hear his comments about sounding “strong and peaceful.” When I questioned him he shared “I think pain makes us stronger. I hear something in your voice that was not there before.”
Sitting on mom’s favorite old couch, the one that lived in her Cape Cod master bedroom and cradled her precious grand babies, something occurred to me. Perhaps I am stronger today than I was 10 years ago. But, I wondered, how could this be true since the past decade has involved pain and loss? As I gazed around the living room of my parent’s cozy Cape Cod condo, recalling happy memories from past days, I thought about my mom’s life. Her strength as a woman didn’t just happen, it developed over many years through unexpected trials in which she turned to God, thus her faith deepened. When her most difficult life challenge arose – a surprising diagnosis of stage 4 cancer – she was able to stand firm in her resolve to battle courageously, with utter surrender to the God she knew intimately and loved devotedly.
Thinking about her makes me smile! Mom was truly an extraordinary soul – an anchor for the lost, a light for the dejected and a guide for the lonely souls of this world. But she was a real person too. I can still recall her lying on the floor of our home in Pennsylvania after her dad died. She was crying and quite sad. I must have been about eight years old when I asked her why she was upset. I recall her words “I am sad because I lost my dad and I loved him. He always made me happy and was a generous and kind man.” After that day, she was never visibly upset in front of me or my siblings again, but now, as a child mourning the loss of a beloved parent, I realize that her heart ached desperately for the lost life of her dad. Perhaps the decision to remain resolute in front of her young children was her way of letting us know that everything would be okay. It must have worked because my memories of this period are happy ones of mom cooking her dad’s famous red tomato sauce with meatballs on Sunday after Mass. At a time of deep personal sorrow, mom’s willingness to put others happiness before her own catapulted her into a new sphere of being – one where only those who posses deep love, strength and faith reside.
Thinking of my own struggles over these past few years, I wonder how I’ve done in comparison to my mom. The pain in my back is constant, but some days are worse than others. Just this past week I received some tough news. The X-Rays showed that nerve passageways in my spine (neck) have less space than they used to, possibly leading to the compression of the nerves. The left arm pain I’ve experienced for weeks has confirmed that the nerves are surely being affected. I was quite frustrated by this latest development and sort of shut down for a few days. It wasn’t until I went to Physical Therapy that things turned around. The love and extra care that I received from my physical therapist and other professionals in the clinic allowed me to put this news into perspective and find hope. Surely there are many others with much bigger trials than me, I thought.
In his famous 19th century novel The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevsky shared “What is hell? I maintain that it is the suffering of being unable to love.” Mom’s ability to love greatly was the key ingredient in her journey to becoming a woman of strength. Love allowed her to endure suffering with dignity and grow from it. When we love more, especially during the painful moments of our lives, we learn what is really important. We learn that things we thought were imperative for happiness, aren’t really all that necessary. We learn that people and relationships matter, kindness matters and hope is a must. We discover that God is always with us – especially during the really sorrowful days and painful nights. And when we feel truly despondent, it is God’s love that pulls us out of the depth of the well. Down the road when we look back at this period, perhaps we will give thanks for those who stood with us. We may even give thanks for the suffering itself because it was during this time that we discovered our strength.
“Should you shield the canyons from the windstorms you would never see the true beauty of their carvings.”
― Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross
Perhaps my old friend was accurate in his assessment of the human condition – I am a stronger person today than I was a decade ago. While the path that led to my current state has been a bit rocky, the result has been a heart filled with love, gratitude and peace which could only have been realized through adversity. At Mass today, our priest shared “We are changed by the grace of God. We learn to trust God, even in the darkness of faith. Jesus tells us often, Do not be afraid.” His words touched my heart and I felt they were an appropriate way to end today’s blog. We must always be open to God’s grace working in and among us – especially during the most difficult times of our life. When we do, we are open to growing in faith and becoming the person we were born to be. God’s love and our love for one another impels us forward to find our strength.