Finding Light in the Darkness
Photo above: My parents, James and Rosemary Magruder, the day my father proposed to her. The look on her face says it all.
Several years ago, I was reflecting on the passing of my mother when I was a boy and how her passing affected me. I scrawled my thoughts here, hoping they might encourage others who lost someone they love. There is light in the darkness.
It started like most any other summer day—balmy and full of the hope a sunny day brings. Yet, before the sun would set, it would become the worst day of my young life. Early that morning, my two brothers, Chris and Bob, found an injured baby rabbit, the victim of a lawn mower cutting too close to the nest hidden in a shrub.
We crafted an animal hospital out of a cardboard box, lined the bottom with a bed of grass, and used an eyedropper to feed it and nurse it back to health. We were unsuccessful. By early afternoon, our bunny died. Today, 58 years later, Bob still believes that minor event set the tone for what was yet to unfold that day.
Our father would soon make his daily pilgrimage to the hospital to visit Mom. He was grim on this Sunday afternoon in June 1965. I studied him as he washed the dishes after lunch. It was my turn to dry them. His movements were crisp and efficient, no wasted motion. He piled the plates in the soapy water, scrubbed them with the washcloth in tight clockwise circles, rinsed deliberately, and hastily placed them in the dish rack for me to dry. He never looked at me. Instead, he stared out the window above the sink or blankly into the dishwater. He was focused. No, preoccupied.
We never owned a dishwasher, so observing my father was routine. He was our dishwasher. The dish dryer was one of his six children on a five-week rotation, organized by birth order. Week one was Kathii (14), week two was Chris (12), week three was my week (I was eleven), followed by Mary (9), and Bob (6). At four, Joanie was too young to take part in the rotation of the Dishes Brigade.
I was pokey that day and Dad let me know it. “Stop dilly dallying!” he snapped. So, I picked up the pace.
When he finished, he dried his hands and reached behind his waist to untie his apron. He hung it neatly behind the kitchen door and left for the hospital without a word. When I finished, I met Chris and Bob in the garage. They were staring into the box.
“Why isn’t he moving?” Bob asked Chris.
“He was hurt bad and some animals just can’t live without their mothers. It’s not our fault,” Chris reassured Bob.
An hour or two later, Dad returned from the hospital. My Aunt Elizabeth and Uncle John accompanied him. He ushered us to his bedroom.
Standing just inside the doorframe, we gathered around him. His face was stern, his posture rigid. He spoke only five words. I’ve never forgotten them. “Your mother passed away today.”
Panic seized our hearts. The pain cut swift and deep. Sobbing, Kathii, Mary and I immediately ran to Aunt Elizabeth and Uncle John, where they encircled us and wrapped us in their arms. They desperately tried to bury their grief so they could help us cope with ours. Stunned, Chris wandered about aimlessly, refusing to believe the news. There must be some terrible mistake. In our young minds, we failed to connect cancer to death. It was the mid-60s and our childhood innocence insulated us from the realities of this devastating disease.
At six, Bob was numb. He ran upstairs. Unsure how to cope, he crawled under his bed and laid there in silence, alone till dark. Dad scooped up Joanie into his arms. How do you comfort a terrified four-year-old? We had the adults outnumbered two to one. I’ve never seen so much grief unleashed in one room. It was chaos.
Mom knew she was dying but never had a chance to say goodbye to her six children. How fair is that?
It was a long, lonely night of fitful sleep.
I awoke before 5:00 am Monday morning. I laid in my bed---terrified. The darkness had suddenly taken on new meaning; separation and uncertainty. I pulled my covers up to my chin and wondered how I was going to live without her? How will I go through my life without ever seeing her again? I will never hug her again. She will never hug me. I felt desperate to hear her laughter again, feel her tousle my hair, smell her perfume, and watch her tease Dad.
In the morning’s stillness, I wondered if I would ever be the same again or if my life was suddenly on a new trajectory. Will I live my life on an alternate route? Will I become all I was meant to be? How can I possibly be the same person without her influence, her guidance, her touch? Will I ever find light in this darkness?
Dad sent us to school. He refused to let us sink into our own grief. He kept us moving forward by simply keeping us moving.
"Not a day goes by that I don't think of your mother."
(My father's frequent refrain to his children for years after the loss of our mother.)
As I write these words, June marks the 58th anniversary of her death. Looking back, was I ever the same again? Most importantly, what can you learn from losing someone you love?
Four shafts of light helped me get through these tough times as a boy. First, I found a tower to lean on. My tower was my father. Through it all, he stood firm, fearless, and strong. As I watched him, his strength became my strength. Most people struggle to accept tragedy. My father could accept life as it came and move forward without bitterness. It was a gift.
“It’s just the way it is,” he would say when we questioned him about many of life’s injustices. I also drew strength from my five siblings, who weathered this storm with me. On bad days, we would talk, share memories, restore perspective and draw strength from each other.
Second, I believed God was in control. When someone you love dies, it’s easy to blame God or to think He has lost control. He’s still in control. We may never know why bad things happen, but I have found great comfort in drawing near to God in tragedy instead of pushing Him away.
Third, I celebrated my mom’s life and carried her memory with me. One thing that frightened me about dying was the thought of being forgotten. I want my life to count. I want to be remembered. I made my mom’s life count by never forgetting her, what she stood for, and what she loved about life. She was very sentimental. Relatives say I’m just like her. I like that. When I care deeply about something, I imagine her caring about the same things. This still makes me feel close to her—and a part of her.
Finally, my siblings and I committed ourselves to adopting and preserving her values. She valued others more than herself, and, like my father, she devoted herself to a life of integrity. My siblings and I have duplicated this in our daily lives. Today, we also see this integrity displayed in our now adult children—her grandchildren. Is there a better tribute to one’s legacy than to adopt the values they held most dear? It’s as if she never died.
If you lost someone you love, it’s okay to grieve and wonder why, but remember, like me, you too will eventually find the light in the darkness.