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Empathy

I sit quietly in meeting for worship, envisioning the Light Within and knowing that I am being held very gently in God’s hands. I think of all the people in the world who need to feel held, and I particularly think of the ill members of my own family. Sitting silently and breathing slowly, I have no problem holding my sister Penny—who is receiving chemotherapy for breast cancer—in the Light‐filled bowl that fills my lap. I can easily imagine the light wrapping my daughter‐in‐law, Sandy, who has multiple sclerosis, like a gauzy, golden blanket. My hands and heart hold both of them—my prayers wing their way across the clouds.

Then I try, once again, to feel this same empathy for my mother while holding her gently and lovingly. I also wish her less confusion and—when the time comes—an easy death. The bowl of Light begins to tarnish. I cannot hold her in the Light without, once again, feeling the old shadows creep into my lap and sit in the now‐leaden bowl like gray lumps of inedible dough.

So I hold the bowl of heavy shadows and try to cover them—it seems I am spreading them with an old dish towel. It is worn and soiled, but it does hide the gray lumps. The towel has no resemblance to empathy; it’s a layer of exhausted resignation, lying on a bowl of gray, leaden rolls too hard to chew, but too powerful to ignore and too valuable to throw away.

So I sit, holding this burden, wanting to set it down, or to lift the towel and see that the bowl is empty—and fill it with different memories, cover it with the cloth of light, shimmering silk. But instead, what I have to do is knead this dough into shapes that won’t sit like stone in my soul.

So I try. Today, the bowl feels filled with stories about Terry, the youngest of us three girls, who was born with heart disease and who died at age 29. She celebrated that birthday on July 3, 1976, and on the next day, she also celebrated her personal “independence day.” She left my parents’ home in St. Louis and drove with my brother‐in‐law, Ira, to live near him and my sister Penny in Amherst, Massachusetts. She had her seventh pacemaker, and it seemed to be working well.

Terry was “ungrateful and adolescent. How could she leave such a mess and be so inconsiderate,” Mother fussed.

Soon after Terry left, Mother received the bill for cosmetics Terry had purchased at their usual pharmacy. “One hundred fifty dollars charged to our account and without permission!” she fumed over the telephone. “She will have to apologize and pay us back.”

Angry and hurt, my mother never sought to reach out to Terry before she died five months later. Mother never really understood the importance of Terry’s fantasy world, her conviction that the right rouge or hairspray or the perfect perfume would turn her into her ideal, beautiful self. My mother still does not seem to value the feelings of others.

Sitting in meeting for worship, I try to think about what my mother must have felt when she heard Terry had died. I have never lost a child; only a sister, and later, my father. Losing a child must be much, much harder. I try to feel the burden of my mother’s grief by placing it deliberately in my lap. It seems harder to breathe. I want to lay this burden down. But I don’t know where to put it. For some reason, when Terry died, it never occurred to my mother to reach out to her two living daughters. Her own loss must have been so heavy that she could not imagine how to share it, or think that Penny and I shared her sorrow. Later, when we tried to talk with her about Terry’s life, she refused, saying only, “It was a tragedy.”

Sitting quietly, I remember first hearing about Terry’s death. I was in the middle of teaching a tenth‐grade English class when I was summoned to the school office to receive an important phone call. After I walked in, Betty, the office secretary, pulled down the window shade on the office door. I remember feeling afraid. Ira was on the phone. “Lee,” he said, “I am calling to tell you that Terry died this morning. She was on a bus, going to look at a different room to rent. She died immediately, of a heart attack—she didn’t suffer.” I remember the strident bell that marked the end of the period, ringing loudly outside the office door.

I don’t remember speaking. I have no recollection of how I might have replied to Ira’s news. Was I relieved that one of my own children had not died? Was I not surprised to hear that Terry’s many hard years had suddenly come to an end? I may have been too numb to react. I remember the pencils lined up on the desk and Betty’s sympathetic busyness. But then Ira said, “Your mother doesn’t want to come, and your dad thinks he should stay with her.”

Immediately, I knew that I should go to Amherst to be with Penny, Ira, and their baby daughter, Amanda. There was no question about it. I don’t know if Ira asked me to come or whether I offered, but I made plans immediately to be with them and to support Penny.

Together, Penny and I sorted out Terry’s last hours and few possessions. We went to pick up the bloody, ruined clothes that the emergency team had cut from Terry’s body when they tried to restart her heart on the bus. We also went to arrange for her body to be cremated, and to clean out the room she had been renting. We could see why she wanted to move; her landlady was as cold as yesterday’s toast. But Terry’s room was just as messy as her room at home had been. Her unmade bed was a heap of bedding and rejected clothing. We sorted through the mascara and eyeliner, hand lotions, Snickers bars, costume jewelry, laundry, Seventeen magazines, and underclothes. We loaded all of it into plastic garbage bags and put them into the car.

We spent a lot of time talking about Terry and what it was like for her to grow up in a family of people who took education and achievement for granted. How she must often have felt alone in her dream world. How she was smarter than our parents seemed to believe, that she had done well in a class she took with Penny. We spoke, too, about growing up in our family with an ill sister. I wonder if we began to share how hard it was to please our parents and how their perfection reminded us of our many inadequacies. Or maybe those conversations came later—after our father died and Mother moved even further into a world we could not find a way to enter.

I am now halfway through the hour of worship, and the burden of my mother’s losses still weighs heavily on my lap. In 1995 my father died, and with his death, my mother’s last tether to family seems to have snapped. We tried to persuade her to become involved in the lives of her grandchildren and great‐granddaughters. She responded by sending money to her two granddaughters but disdaining interest in her grandsons and great‐granddaughters. Once, when she was visiting us in Seattle, I tried to speak openly with her about our sadness at losing her presence in our lives and at the perceived unfairness of her giving some grandchildren gifts and not others. But she said, “Lee, you have hurt me unforgivably. I am never coming to visit you again.” And she didn’t.

Several years later, when my younger son Joseph and I happened to be visiting Mother in Baltimore at the same time, we decided to drive her to see her brother, Charles, and his wife in their new Chapel Hill retirement community. I don’t think she really wanted to go, but we convinced her that she would enjoy the fall color of the Appalachian Mountains and that seeing Charles and Carol’s new home would be interesting. She consented.

We set off on a sunny autumn day, with the fall leaves at their peak of gold and red. Mother sat in front next to her 30‐year‐old grandson, a fine driver who was enjoying his grandmother’s Saab. Our trip seemed to be off to a good start, until, without preamble, Mother said, “I wish I had never had Terry.”

Joseph swerved somewhat unexpectedly before gripping the steering wheel more firmly. He said, “You can’t mean that, Gram! Think of all that you learned from helping her—how you helped other ill children, how you served on the school board, how you made such a difference. And think of all your work to give her as full a life as you could. She had lots of joy and love and even some success. Surely you don’t wish that all of that had never happened.”

Mother was adamant, and she said with some bitterness, “No. I wish I had never had her.” Her mouth was set in a straight, hard line. There was no going back. By this time, both Joseph and I were clamoring together. “Why, Gram?” “Why, Mother? Think of all the good that came from Terry’s life.”

“She kept me from having a career,” Mother simply stated. There was no convincing her that she had had a career— on the National School Volunteer Board, as the League of Women Voters’ monitor of the state school board, and as an advocate of national children’s reading programs, who had won acclaim for her achievements. She was rigid. She wished she had never had Terry.

Joe and I were equally stunned by her conviction. We could not imagine wishing such a thing. There didn’t seem to be any way to talk to Mother about her feelings. They were a fact. That was all.

Later, when I told Penny about this terrible revelation, she had a totally different reaction. “Well,” she said, “at least she told you what she really felt!” I had to admit that, indeed, she might have told us the truth. But it was a leaden truth.

And it sits now with the lumps of other truths, in the bowl of shadow I am holding in my lap. Unbidden, part of the 23rd Psalm comes to mind: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me. Thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.” Over and over again, the psalm runs through my mind.

Unexpectedly, I realize that I do feel comforted and less burdened. I even feel growing empathy for my mother, who never found comfort, and who was so encased in her own personal tragedy that she could not reach out to her family or enjoy the last years of her life. How sad for her, how sad for all of us. How sad that we could not connect with her, could not love her into living more fully and happily. It is a hard truth to admit, but there is comfort in acceptance.

Then I remember what my mother said to me the last time I visited her. Once again, after I had spent quite a while reminding her who everyone is in all of the photographs peopling her room and ending with her favorite photograph of my father—whom she sometimes recognizes and sometimes forgets—she said, “You know, Lee, I did the best I could.” She paused, and then she spoke again, “We both did the best we could.” And she closed her eyes and slept.

Oddly, I feel glimmers of light creeping out from under the old, musty dish towel. It gradually swirls around the bowl, circles my chair, warms my limbs, and fills my heart. There is comfort in acceptance.

I don’t know if she was referring to herself and my father, or to herself and me, when she said, “We both did the best we could.” But I think she was right, either way.

Lee C. Neff, a member of South Seattle (Wash.) Meeting., is a gardener, writer, and former educator.

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