Extraordinary Women, Extraordinary Stories

Ronald Rolheiser
Reproduced with Permission

In her new book, Waking Up to This Day, Paula D’Arcy shares this story. A woman she knows lost a son in an accident. Some years later someone was commenting on how hard this must be for her, not to get to watch her son grow up and marry and not to ever get to hold her grandchildren. Her response: “I don’t think in those terms. The answer is that I don’t know. I don’t know what his life should have been. I realize today that his soul had its own journey and its own terms with life. This had nothing to do with me. But I got to participate for a while in the journey of that soul. For that I am unspeakably grateful.”

This story reminded me of another story a woman shared recently on a retreat. Her mother had been a woman of extraordinary faith and unwavering balance. The mantra that she first lived herself and then repeated over and over to her children was that we are happy only when we are grateful for what we have because then, and only then, will what we have be enough for us. Her perennial counsel was: It’s enough!

And she lived this out, to her dying words: Hospitalized with a disease that would not respond to medication, she developed a blood infection from which there was little hope of recovery. Her family kept vigil around her bedside for several weeks while her condition deteriorated. Finally, she herself took the initiative: She called her family round her, told them that they had been with her in the hospital and away from their homes for too long, informed them that she had called the palliative care unit in the hospital and asked to be transferred there, and that she would die that same day.

She was moved to the palliative care unit and the nurse there told the family that she was about to give their mother a shot of pain medication that would put her into a deep sleep from which she would probably never regain consciousness. As this was about to happen, her daughter, the one who shared this story, sat by her mother’s bed, held her hand, clung to her like a drowning child, and said: “Oh Mom, a little more time! Just a little more time! Not quite yet! Stay with us for just a little more time!” But her mom, with what strength she still had, replied: “Enough, it’s enough.” Those were her final words to her daughter and her family.

These are strong stories from strong women, each with enough wisdom and faith to undercut the false sentimentality which can so easily paralyze us in the face of loss. Both knew that there is a time to let go and a way to let go that doesn’t lessen love but increases it. Both knew the deep truth of the resurrection, that faith asks us not to mummify what’s dead but to entrust it back to the earth and to the God who gives life and new life. Both knew that the deep secret of life is not to be paralyzed by death, but to let go, to move on, to go deeper. And both had a proper respect for life’s deep rhythms.

I realize that his soul had its own journey and its own terms with life. This is not about me ... I am unspeakably grateful for having been part of its mystery. We would respect each other infinitely more if we, like this woman, could actually accept that. False sentiment habitually tempts us in the other direction. We cry a lot of tears because we make other peoples’ lives about me. I may be someone’s parent, spouse, friend, brother, sister, teacher, mentor, or guardian, but ultimately that other person’s soul has its own individuality, freedom, daemons, and destiny. Others are not about me. Most tears we cry are for ourselves, not others.

It’s enough! These are important words to own. For Thomas Merton, that realization (“It’s enough!”) constitutes the elusive secret to happiness. Here is how he describes what it meant to find peace in his own life. Writing in his journal one day, he shares that on this day he has found peace. Why? Because today, he writes, it is enough to be, in an ordinary human mode, with one’s hunger and sleep, one’s cold and warmth, rising and going to bed. Putting on blankets and taking them off, making coffee and then drinking it. Defrosting the refrigerator, reading, meditating, working, praying. I live as my ancestors have lived on this earth, until eventually I die. Amen. There is no need to make an assertion of my life, especially about it as mine, though doubtless it is not somebody else’s. I must learn gradually to forget program and artifice. On that day in his life he was able to say: “It’s enough!” And it was.

And it’s that acceptance alone that can undercut the cancer of our dissatisfactions.