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She was one of our brightest stars. Graduating among the top students in our class, a philosophic thinker sparked with the poetry of life, she was a tiny person bedecked with the fourragere that decorated her shoulder and noted her scholarly status.
It was the ’50s and life was yet sweet with the rewards that came with work well done. We were all on top of a world that was still unaware of the power of our presence. It did not know we were coming to serve, to offer the gifts we had been given, to shower it with the blessing of our children, but we knew. For four years, we had lived in a collegial world that bore the subliminal message of mission and commission, call and positive response.
So, we marched proudly, grinning broadly, to the pulsing beat of “Pomp and Circumstance,” knowing we were not to be pompous or to avoid the circumstances that would come our way. We would humbly meet and greet them, do our best, and continue on the path of beneficence. That was the diploma we received, the commencement we accepted as “20-somethings” eager to begin the adventure called life.
Abundantly optimistic, it never entered our minds anything other than joy and lightheartedness would be ours. After all, we had endured and passed through the rigors of academia. We had our future planned, jobs already acquired, marriages in the making, graduate school applications honored. What darkness could possibly dampen this light? Youth has its own perception, thank God.
For a short time, this perception was also reality, but there was more lurking in the shadows. Difficulties would piece the light with sharply darkened anguish. As I pondered the vagaries of life, I happened to notice a memo my husband had tacked at the top of his easel. It reads, “The lightest area in the shadow is darker than the darkest area in the light.”
Hmmm. The dawn of understanding broke my reverie. I realized all of us, young women with boundless horizons, had experienced the truth of that artistic note, not with palette and brush on a canvas but with the unexpected twists and turns of human existence. Too soon, there were untimely deaths that affected all of us—some caused by pain kept hidden from sight, others the result of accidents of all sorts.
As we climbed in age, our mortality became ever more evident and our spirits were sobered into newfound depth. Life’s shadows were darkening. In those shadows, the lightest area deepened into inkiness.
First one, and now another of my friends slipped into an uneasy dimness. Two bright women slowly lost their ability to remember. At first, their short-term memory was affected—and dismissed as the plague of aging. Then, the long-term memory was attacked and denial was no longer an option. It was here. The lightest area in their shadowed life was now ebony black.
But their story—and ours—is not yet finished. Although death has already claimed one of these women, their legacy lives on.
The first, a religious sister, was a clinical psychologist whose listening skills were irreproachable. Her name was Letitia, meaning gladness. Known in undergrad school for her ability to sing—especially the lively tune “I’m Just a Gal Who Cain’t Say No”—she offered the music of her life in just that manner. She never said no to a challenge, to a person in need, to a deed that needed attending. Most especially, she never said no to God. Gladly, she lived in the belief that her yeses defined and brightened the darkest areas of the light in which she lived.
The second woman, Carol—the song—mentioned at the outset of this story, has just begun her descent into the darkness that has already taken the sparkle out of her eyes and given a certain passivity to her facial expressions. I knew a debater, a thinker, a woman with passionate opinions based in well-researched data. She had slipped into shadowy darkness. In her place was a mother of 10, grandmother of 10, whose happiness was not counted by her achievements but by the power of her presence and that of her family. Simple pleasures, like walks in a nearby park with waterfront views and lovely sunsets, bring a spark to her demeanor. She is entertained by her cat, her audio books and DVDs watched with her ever-patient husband at her side.
At first, my heart plunged into tearfulness when I looked at her...and did not see, could not find, an older version of the spunky, feisty “20-something” with whom I had had many a dorm-room conversation. I wasn’t able to retrieve the debater who far outshone my limited abilities—the one whose giftedness I both admired and envied.
Where had she gone? Could I find glimpses of her in this person who sat so quietly watching with eyes that wavered with retention of the sights they beheld? How could I make a meaningful connection with her? How could I hold an honest conversation without baring my own sorrow, my own loss?
The answers were painfully obvious. I could not regain what had been lost. Nor could she. I could only be as kind and compassionate, as I would want another to be with me. I could only be as true a friend as I ever was. I could only look at her shadow life and believe the lightest area in her shadow life was darker than the darkest area found in the light of her presence; her present being.
For all that was lost to memory, so much more was available right now. There was so much more simplicity and straightforwardness. Without the ability to make small talk, we moved to the core of life. A smile spoke when words failed. A touch proved the communication. A nod of affirmation to each short, declarative sentence gave meaning to what appeared to be meaningless, but most of all, I was both forced to see and faced with the brightness emanating from the darkest area of her light.
The lightest area in the shadow is darker than the darkest area in the light. Life’s chiaroscuro is confusing. At that moment, I began again to know the power of God.
Fran Salone-Pelletier has a master’s degree in theology and is the author of “Awakening to God: The Sunday Readings in Our Lives” [a trilogy of Scriptural meditations], lead chaplain at Brunswick Community Hospital, religious educator, retreat leader and lecturer.