Thursday, January 27, 2005

Facing the Darkness

I finished My Secret Diary, the book I mentioned the other day that Kristiana and I were reading together. By the end of the book, Madeline and her mother were reunited with their war-wounded father. Several German spies who had made it onto American shores were apprehended, and the two young sweethearts, Theo and Clara, eventually married and have children. Sweet ending to a sweet story.

But there’s a lot more to the tale than just sweetness and light. One thread of the novel dealt with Clara, one of the other residents of the boarding house where Maddy and her mother lived. Clara and her mother immigrated to the United States after her father was brutally murdered by the Nazis in their presence. With every story of the atrocities perpetrated by the Germans, they were both reminded of their personal heartbreak. With every account of U-boat sightings off the coast of their new homeland and bombings and exterminations in their beloved Europe, their sorrow multiplied. Towards the end of the book, the young and wise Theo spoke tenderly of Clara after they had all learned the horrors her family had suffered simply because they were Jewish. Theo said that Clara had “faced the darkness and won the war.”

While I would never, ever compare my life to that of a Holocaust survivor, I too can name occasions when I have “faced the darkness and won the war.” I remember the dark and lonely nights of the first semester of my sophomore year in college when the breakup with my boyfriend caused me to seriously consider suicide. On many a night, I sat on my bed with my pillow in one hand and a bottle of aspirin in the other. I screamed out my sorrow and pain into the pillow. I examined that bottle closely, opening and closing it repeatedly, and all the while wrote many a suicide letter in my head. I would lay the blame at his feet. He would have to face the rest of the campus with shame and guilt because his calloused indifference and menacing words had done what he intended: I was gone for good. Those were dark nights indeed. But then the sun rose each morning, and I was still alive. I lost weight that fall. On more than one morning, I woke up and realized I had lost my voice. But little by little, battle by battle, I won the war. I realized that my life was far more valuable to me than it was to him. Two years later, when I returned from six months in Europe to finish my senior year there at Williams, he was not even subtle in his attempts to win me back. But by then, I had already met and fallen in love with the man who would later become my husband. I had won the war.

I think of my father who faced the darkness of lung cancer and endured two pointless rounds of chemo. He lost his hair. He lost his strength. He lost the ability to breathe on his own. And according to many standards, on March 22nd, 2001, he lost the battle. But unless my eyes deceived me early that morning, the last thing he saw on this side was the first thing he saw on the other side. I will never forget how widely he opened his eyes, drew in his last breath, gasped audibly, and left me, my mother, and my cousin to recline the empty shell of his body onto that hospital bed there in Brooklyn. I believe that in the final seconds of his life, my father caught his first glimpse of the Prince of Peace, the Commander in Chief calling him in from the battlefront, telling him that it was time to lay down his sword and shield. The battle was over. He had faced the darkness, and it was time to bask in victory.

I think of the young couple from my high school alma mater who on January 8th, brought a son into the world as a result of and proof of their great love for each other. To their horror, he went into cardiac arrest within hours of his birth. Not long after that, they received the news that he had a large tumor on his heart that could only be partially removed with surgery, and unless he received a new heart within three weeks, their baby would die. Day after day they prayed and hoped and shed countless tears. Yesterday, as his other organs were already beginning to fail, baby Jordan received a new heart. Even though there are many hurdles still to be cleared on this long road to recovery, today there is unimaginable joy, relief, and gratitude for the miracle of life that they can now celebrate. They faced the darkness, and they have won the war.

Tragically, though, there is another family to consider: the family that made the decision to donate the organs of their dying child so that other babies could live. They are now entering a tunnel of darkness all their own. My prayers are with them that they too will soon find comfort and come to understand how victory will someday be theirs to celebrate.

Within the past six or eight months, I have read the news, watched the news, and heard the sad news of hurricanes, mudslides, war, drought, famine, murder, rape, and of course, the tsunami. Train wrecks, chemical spills, misguided missiles, trampled pilgrims making their way to holy places, and poisonings have become part of our daily dose of tragedy. But there is a far deeper darkness, a more personal one, what Dorothy Day refers to as “the long loneliness” that grips us all at one time or another in our lifetimes. We have each suffered sorrows that will never make the headlines. We have cried bitter and silent tears that no one else will ever know about. We have longed for new hearts to replace the malfunctioning, shattered hearts that to us seem inoperably damaged. We have faced droughts of love, of companionship, and compassion, and we have longed for friends, lovers, and even total strangers to reach out to us with a smile, a batch of brownies, and a few hours to listen while we tell our sad stories. We have watched Hurricane Layoff, Tropical Storms Divorce and Bankruptcy blow through our lives, washing away so many of the things that we thought were vitally important, so that in the end, we realized that life itself is the only true treasure we have.

Young Madeline, the protagonist and keeper of the aforementioned secret journal, made an observation about the courageous and compassionate Clara that deserves mention here: “Her [Clara’s] father will never come home to her, yet she cried with joy because my father was coming home to me.” As we weep with those who weep, sending our money, our good wishes, and our heartfelt prayers out to them, may we each, may we all find the will, as Clara did, to face the darkness, to escape its invisible and vice-like clutches, and to eventually rejoice with those who rejoice - even if, even when, even though we may not have won our own private wars just yet.

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