Lessons in Resilience

I sit with her and listen to her stories. At age 84, she’s been through a great deal. While she shares happy memories, many of the stories are tinged with hardship.

Her first memory? That was walking the railroad tracks with her older sisters. She’s the youngest of eight siblings. It was during the Great Depression. She must have been very young. She recalls asking her sisters to carry her. They can’t because they are already carrying things home for their mother. Mostly, she remembers being hungry.

Those early years were difficult ones. Her clothes were all hand-me-downs. She speaks of girls in the neighborhood who would mix and match their clothes with each other so that it would appear that they had new out-fits for the day. She recalls playing with friends by the creek that ran on the edge of town. The boys caught crabs and boiled them in old tin cans over a little fire. There are stories of her girl friends. She wonders out loud. “I guess we were luckier than most. We had a garden and my mother was a good baker. We didn’t have much, but we had more than others.”

A local boy took interest in her – a local celebrity. He was a high school athletic champ. A few years older than her, he was known for his affections with the other girls. But she caught his eye. They married when she was quite young – probably too young to realize the implications of the choice she made.

They quickly had two children. He remained the care-free type. It was difficult for him to hold a job. When he worked, mostly in one coal mine or another, he wasn’t a very hard worker and would often be let go. Even after marriage, he was still a “ladies’ man.” A few times, she took the kids and went back to her parents. He always convinced her to return to him. Then one day, she heard the accident siren from the coal mine. It was in that accident that he died.

With two children, she returned again to her parent’s home. What would become of her? What would become of her children? The years after the Second World War brought prosperity to many parts of the country, but not the coal towns of Western Pennsylvania.

She became re-acquainted with a man she had known from her childhood neighborhood. A veteran, they saw each other at a dance at American Legion Post. They married and he adopted her children so that they would legally have his last name.

Hoping for a new chance at happiness, they attempted to have a child. After two pregnancies that resulted in miscarriage, they had a son. But as she carried her third child, at age 29, she began to develop cataracts. She was told that in time she would most likely lose her eye sight.

Over the next decade, she grew used to her diminishing eye sight. She talks of looking at trees, flowers, and birds and hoping that she would remember them once she was blind. The loss of sight was slow but steady.

In the 1970’s, under the care of a new physician, she was prepared for eye surgery that would either leave her totally blind or restore some sight. The surgery was conducted one eye at a time. Both were as successful as they could be – leaving her with some sight while wearing glasses as thick as the bottoms of soda bottles.

A few years after her surgery, her husband prepared for retirement. No sooner had he taken retirement than a diagnosis was given: Parkinson’s disease. Over the next twenty years, she would care for him at home through times of medication-related hallucinations followed by years when he was totally bed-ridden. Of all the challenges, losing her second husband and sweet-heart was the most difficult. Being with him as he wasted away over many years drained her of her own life.

Following his death, her health led to an unexpected outcome. The result was the loss of her eye sight. Crippled with arthritis and barely able to walk, she was faced with living in darkness. What she had feared in her youth came back to taunt her in old age.

What’s amazing to me is that four years later after the loss of her eye sight, this woman maintains a positive outlook on life. Yes, she wishes that she could see. Yes, she wishes that the continual pain of arthritis could be better treated without resulting in other health complications. While her physical world has shrunk to the bedroom where she feels safe and comfortable, her mind is alert and focused. She enjoys listening throughout the day to National Public Radio and the BBC. She loves to tell stories from her life and people she knew. She’s interested in the lives of others and enjoys hearing stories from her family about their friends. Yes, even though frail, she remains very much alive and resilient.

As I think of the events of her life and the ways in which she has embraced difficult times, I consider myself to be fortunate. You see: I learned about patience, long-suffering, and resilience from a well-qualified mentor. It is this woman, my mother, who over the years has taught me to push through some very difficult times.

Among the things I’ve learned from my mother is to focus on – to hold on to – the positive moments. Sometimes, life comes at us pretty hard. Yet, in the midst of it, my mother’s ability to savor moments of goodness has been a testament to grace. For her, it may simply be the opportunity to enjoy a ripe piece of fruit or to enjoy a funny story. Her pleasures aren’t extravagant. However, she is able to be mindful of experiences of goodness and hold them in a way that sustains her through difficult days.

In moving through the weeks of this Lenten-Spring, each morning I sit with my mother who has lived in our home for the past four years. I listen to her stories and am reminded that even in the darkness – yes, the darkness of her blindness – there continues to be moments of light.

© 2011, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.

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One Response to Lessons in Resilience

  1. Laura Brown says:

    Indeed, your mom sees with the eyes of wisdom, faith and survival. She is an inspiration to me!

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