Through each passage and season
may you trust the goodness of life
Hope is a deceptively simple word. We learn it at an early age as we begin to make wishes on stars and hope they will come true.
As adults many of us continue to use the word liberally, as we did in childhood. Some of our wishes relate to large life circumstances, such as finding an ideal mate. Others relate to less significant things, like finding a convenient parking space.
On the surface, hope represents a feeling of confident expectation. It also signifies slim but possible chances against overwhelming odds. Regardless of circumstances, if we feel optimistic about receiving what we want, we are said to have hope.
At deeper levels, we discover that this gift of hope that lives within us is so much more powerful than the ability to make wishes, imagine a good outcome, and experience a sense of promise.
In Healing Words for the Body, Mind, and Spirit, Caren Goldman says hope is “seated in our hearts to help us live with the tension between our wishes and desires on one hand and our disappointments, tragedies, and despair on the other.”
Linked closely to faith, hope at this level contains contradiction and mystery. Uncertainties and losses often lead us to this deeper experience of hope, where we are invited to trust in the goodness of life no matter what happens.
A quote from Vaclav Havel, the last president of Czechoslovakia and the first president of the Czech Republic, says it perfectly, I think: “Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.”
I have many touchstone stories for hope. And I’d like to share three with you here. Two are from my relationship with my mom. Both are about times she was close to death. The third story, the first I share here, is about a little bird.
I was in my thirties. My husband, daughters, and I noticed an unusual silence in the house when we returned home from a family party. Usually our pet finch greeted us with song whenever the front door of our old farmhouse opened or closed. The little bird –Cubby was his name –imitated the squeak of the hinges. That night we found him lying on the bottom of his cage, lying completely still.
Cubby had lived well beyond the estimated life span of zebra finches and long after his mate had died. We planned to bury him the next day.
In the morning, although he was still motionless on the bottom of the cage, Cubby was upright and alive. His body was pulled in toward its center, forming a downy, feathered ball, with just the tips of two tiny feet showing from under it.
For days he stayed in that downy-ball position on the bottom of the cage. Then, slowly, he began to move about. With awe we watched him heal. For a long time Cubby lived quietly, in a limited way, on the bottom of his cage. Finally, he hopped again to a higher perch and seemed whole again in all ways but one: he no longer sang.
One day, months later, a familiar chirp echoed the door’s squeak when we opened it; and for two more years, the little finch filled our home with song.
A year after Cubby died, my mother had a severe stroke. My husband, our daughters, and I flew to be with her. We were told she had very little time.
When we arrived at the hospital, I hardly recognized my mom. When I asked about her prognosis, her doctor shook his head and lowered his eyes, averting mine.
“What are you telling me, doctor?” I asked.
“It was massive,” he said. “You should prepare yourself.”
Sometime during that restless night, as I cried and prayed for her peaceful passing, a voice within jolted me. Remember Cubby it said. Where there is life, there is hope.
I remembered how the life force within that little bird had directed his healing. I began to pray for life to remain with my mother and for its force to heal her. I also prayed for peace when life would leave her body, whenever that time would come.
Despite appearance and the dismal predictions of her doctor and the intensive care staff, like Cubby, my mother survived and as time passed, healing progressed. In less than two years, my mother fully recovered. In many ways she was more healthy and active than she had been before the stroke. Every day she walked three miles through a park near her home, enjoying the beauty of nature. She lived to see the graduations of her granddaughters from high school and college, the birth of grandson, and so much more while she continued to enrich our lives.
Ten years later, my mom was diagnosed with leukemia and for three years she worked toward healing. Despite a grim prognosis, she believed it was possible to release the malignant leukemia cells from her body. She hoped for a cure.
One morning, she recognized that she was not going to “get better.” She shared her sense of going downhill simply and silently that morning. With tear-filled eyes she shook her head back and forth and gestured thumbs down. Silence filled the room like a third presence. We both just let that silence be while I held my mom and she held me.
“What do I do now?” she finally said. “There is nothing more for me to do.”
I didn’t know how to answer. It was true; there was little she could do. She had already ceased activities that had shaped her daily life, activities in which she found pleasure, such as cooking and cleaning — my mom had loved housework – and now, there was also no more “fighting” the leukemia.
My mom didn’t seem to expect an answer, but from a place within herself she heard one: Anna, you don’t have to do anything. Just be.
“Oh,” she said to that and thought for awhile.
Later a new question emerged in her, one that was not rhetorical. It was a real question, posed to God. She asked it every morning for the rest of her life: What would you have me learn today?
During those last weeks, my mom often said, “Oh,” and “Oh, I see.”
What did she see? I don’t know. Although she didn’t share what she saw, she conveyed a lot with a few simple words, facial expressions, and gestures.
When she said, “Oh,” and, “I see” her eyes brightened like a child grasping the meaning of fractions, or learning to read, or balancing on a bike for the first time. Several times, with a knowing smile, while her hands moved as if she were putting together an invisible puzzle, she said, “Everything is falling into place, Charlene.”
What did my mom see? I don’t know. Perhaps she saw scenes from her life within a new context that showed the meaning behind all confusions and hurts.
I don’t know what she saw, but I saw her response to it. Despite the frailty of her ravaged body, beauty and joy shone through my mom as she saw “answers.” And the memory of that always deepens my sense of hope.
In those final days, when my mom asked, “What would you have me learn today?” I think she understood that the course of her life was perfect —course as in path as well as course as in a series of studies.
It is said that we are all here to learn. We are souls having a human experience. In addition to some common lessons, we all have our own unique curriculum.
Those last three weeks my mom seemed to really “get” some of the lessons of her life. She seemed to understand, not just conceptually, but in her body, in her bones, in her bone marrow, right next to the leukemia cells, maybe in those very cells — along with the healthy ones — that LOVE was present in all her cells, in all days, and in all aspects of her life.
When my mom received “Last Rites,” she seemed to also gain “Last Rights.” Anything and everything that may have previously seemed “wrong” in her life was somehow righted with faith, hope, and love.
This memory of my mom reminds me of what Vaclav Havel said about hope and it stirs within me the certainty that on some level everything makes sense. This memory encourages me, no matter what is happening, to trust in what is unfolding and to trust in the goodness of life. That is hope.
For reflection, journaling and discussion: 1. Recall a time when your hopes for a certain outcome were met. 2. Recall a time when circumstances did not turned out as you wished, but with hindsight you recognized the outcome as “good.” 3. Consider asking: What would you have me learn today?