This I Believe

Olivia - Jacksonville, Florida
Entered on November 28, 2006

My friend Marilyn, who is the youngest 50-year old that I know, recently told me that she sees life as a series of little deaths and little resurrections. I think she’s right. And lately, I’ve begun to look at her perspective as offering a really concrete word of hope.

Depression took me by surprise. But maybe that’s how everyone becomes acquainted with depression. During the long valley this past summer, sometime after deciding I couldn’t sit for the Illinois bar exam and before my move down to Florida to start a new job, I decided to spend a week-long retreat at the Abbey of Gethsemani, a Trappist monastery in Kentucky. Silence and solitude characterize the Trappist life, and the monks order their days around what’s known as the liturgy of the hours, a worship schedule that begins well before dawn and closes by dusk.

Because retreatants at the abbey typically keep the same silence as the monks, a conversation was the last thing I expected, particularly when surrounded by people I’d most likely never see again. So when Charlie pulled me aside, I was caught off guard.

As he led me to one of the wooden benches on the balcony, I wondered what he could possibly have to say to me, a stranger. But he gave me no time to wonder, because he immediately started telling me about his wife, who passed away in February at the age of 79. “She was marvelous,” he said, “She always wanted to take care of you, but you ended up just wanting to do things for her—because you loved her so much.”

I sat listening, quietly. But then he said something that still resonates with me. He described how in the last five years of her life, the woman who would rather have served others was bedridden and utterly dependent on him. Then Charlie looked at me, eyes red, and said: “But you know what? Those were the best years of our life together.”

I placed my hand on his shoulder, but I had to turn my head away to cry.

We’re so used to talking about the “best years of our lives” as marked by youth, or high school sports glory, or financial independence, or job security. It’s so counterintuitive for me to believe that the best years could instead be marked by dependency or illness or even death—that a situation that most people would consider almost grotesque suffering could be the ground for something beautiful.

Struggling with depression this summer, it felt more than a little bit like a death, that the God who I believe to be my Creator, was also bringing me to the end of myself. And yet, I’m beginning to believe that maybe any Easter resurrection requires a time in the tomb, and Charlie reminded me that suffering borne gracefully is a beautiful thing.