The "Secret of Life"

Nancy Valko
Christmas 2006 - Epiphany 2007
Reproduced with Permission

The first thing I noticed about my elderly patient was her radiant smile. Most of my patients are groggy or anxious after even a routine surgery but this tiny lady was fully awake and entirely comfortable even after her major surgery.

As the night went on, Esther* (*all names of former patients have been changed for privacy) continued to do well, even better than most of my younger patients with the same surgery.

I was impressed but it was the story she had to tell that made her truly unforgettable.

When she was a young woman, Esther was delighted to find out that she and her husband were finally expecting a child. The pregnancy progressed uneventfully until delivery. It was only then that it was discovered that her baby was growing outside her womb. Not many babies survive in those circumstances even today, but Esther's baby was born a healthy little boy. Even though Esther lost her reproductive organs in the process, she felt blessed by her one "miracle child", Ethan.

The little boy grew, both in size and character and he was a great comfort to her when she lost her husband.

Then the war came. Esther was terrified when Ethan volunteered for the army. She talked to his recruiter and emphasized that Ethan was all she had. The recruiter promised her that Ethan would be stationed far away from the active fighting.

Unfortunately, death still found Ethan. He died in an apartment fire while saving a baby. Esther's grief was mixed with pride in her son.

I asked Esther how she coped after suffering such a devastating loss and shared how I too had lost a precious child. She turned the question back on me. I blurted out that I both prayed a lot and laughed a lot, I said. "Exactly!" Esther exclaimed. "That's the secret of life!"

I've thought a lot about Esther since then and how these two "secrets of life" work in my own life but I've come to the conclusion that there is a third "secret" that is just as important as the other two.

Pray a Lot

The importance of prayer cannot be overestimated but I know from experience how hard prayer can be at times.

Personally, my transition from being a stay-at-home mom to a working mom as a result of divorce was frequently overwhelming. In the middle of this, my mother developed Alzheimer's and, soon after, terminal cancer. Going through a painful divorce, dealing with a lack of consistent childcare, working at multiple jobs, and dealing with chronic exhaustion often left me too drained to formally pray. I tried to offer up all these problems and I did ask friends to pray when I just couldn't. This did help a bit but it was my friend Marcia who had the best suggestion: pray the rosary daily. At first, I couldn't imagine adding dozens of prayers at a time when I had trouble even getting through one prayer but I decided to try Marcia's suggestion anyway.

Initially, I dozed off by the first Joyful Mystery but I rationalized that at least the rosary was proving to be a good sleeping pill.

Slowly but surely, I found ways to incorporate the rosary into my life while driving, walking or doing housework. Soon I began feeling calmer, more hopeful and, best of all, closer to my role model Mary. The repetition of the Hail Mary became a kind of soothing and calming mantra.

In the end, the storm of disasters ended but I still try to say the rosary daily. I now actually feel deprived if I miss saying the rosary, even for one day. And I now realize how truly blessed I've been, even during the toughest times.

Laugh a Lot

After my daughter Karen died, I started working with other bereaved parents who had lost a child with a disability.

Lana was one of those parents. She had lost a little boy with Down Syndrome by sudden death and she was devastated. We talked almost daily but, despite keeping her job and family together, she felt she wasn't handling her loss well enough.

Lana was surprised when I asked her if she had laughed since her son's death. Almost apologetically, she revealed that she had laughed at a TV show just the night before.

Laughter, I told her, was the first sign of healing. Eventually Lana came to understand that she didn't have to hold on to the pain to hold on to the memories of her beloved child. She finally reached the stage where her son's life instead of his death became her most important memory and she was finally able to allow herself to laugh and enjoy her life.

Over the years, I have come to appreciate the power of even the smallest moments of humor we can find in the middle of tough times. Such humor renews our spirit and perspective.

For example, the first Christmas after my ex-husband left had the potential to be very sad. However, one day during Advent, a group of people from our parish came with a Christmas tree and gifts for all of us. I was touched and a little embarrassed but I noticed that my 10-year-old son was watching with horror on his little face. He knew that our parish did this for the inner city families every year and he whispered, "Mom, are we poor?" I smiled, put my arms around him and said, "Steve, we are very rich in love."

"Oh, no!" he exclaimed. "That means we're really poor!"

That comment made all of us crack up with laughter and, more importantly, lifted the pall that had settled over our little family. We had a really good Christmas that year and my son's comment became a running family joke.

The Third Secret: Forgive

The last "secret of life" is by far the hardest but it is indispensable for a happy life.

"I'll never forgive him! He ruined my life." One of my children found it especially hard to live a different kind of life after her father left. She understood that her father had an especially severe mental illness but that fact wasn't very comforting to her. She was still hurting from her father's absence.

I encouraged her to pray for her father but she found that impossible unless, as the Bible says, it is like "heaping hot coals" on an enemy's head. I told her that, as I learned the slow way, forgiveness is a decision -- not a feeling. The feeling of forgiveness may come later but at least in the beginning, it is the decision to forgive that is critical.

Even if someone doesn't mean to hurt us, words and actions can still cause excruciating pain. It is the power of the forgiveness decision that is able to give us at least some relief from the pain and keep us from spreading bitterness.

Forgiveness becomes harder but even more important when the person we have to forgive is ourself.

I learned this firsthand when I was a new nurse caring for a teenage drunk driver. After more than a few beers, Sam swerved into a car containing a young couple and their two children. The wife was dead instantly but our ICU received all the other victims. We were heartbroken when we couldn't save the children and their father was hanging on by just a thread.

So it was hard not to be outraged when Sam, the 17-year-old drunk driver, was demanding and even abusive to the staff while we treated his more minor injuries. He was going to recover but the young father probably wouldn't.

Sam was assigned to me and, sure enough, he continued his appalling behavior. I set limits on his nastiness but I still tried to care for him with as much compassion as I could muster. Surprisingly, near the end of my shift, Sam broke down and sobbed, "Why don't you hate me? I hate myself!"

It turned out that Sam wanted to be punished and his actions were designed to push people away. We talked for a long time about how his self-destruction from guilt would only add more tragedy to an already tragic situation.

Sam had to learn to forgive himself to be able to turn his life around and allow some good to result.

Bad things do happen to good people. Sometimes the bad things happen as a result of sin or avoidable mistakes and sometimes the bad things happen despite all precautions and good intentions.

The important thing to remember is that God is always on our side and that it is not so much what happens to us but rather how we deal with our experiences that can make the difference between being a survivor who thrives or just being a victim.