In the midst of my husband’s illness, before he died, we were at our lowest as a family. I say that in reference to money, options, lifestyle, family support and friends. I had spent almost 2 years of my life, dropping everything including my job and writing to being there for my husband 24/7 in the time he had left. I had no idea what day it was other than how many days until the next refill of his prescriptions. Days and nights were irrelevant. He slept when he could and sometimes was awake all night. The time he slept was divided between getting things done that required me to go away from him and catching the little sleep I could. Often my time was spent going to and from the hospital to see him, fighting with doctors and the people around me who made a tough situation worse but who I would not let make it worse for him, and sitting in a hospital room alone not knowing if he would make it through the night.
I had kids in crisis.
I had no choice but to shut out those situations and people who were adding to the stress and I had never, ever, felt more alone and more incapable of fixing things.
One day, I was in the drug store waiting for my husband’s prescriptions and I saw this tiny beautiful little glass paperweight. I picked it up and looked at it and lost myself for just a few moments in its intricate soft swirled patterns of colour in the glass. The glass itself was smooth and cold in my hand and there was a weight to it. I could close my hand over it and make it disappear completely but my hand could still feel the weight of it. I held it hidden and then opened my hand and studied it carefully. I set it back on the shelf and moved on but found my eyes being pulled back to it time and time again.
Years earlier my grandmother had shared a poem she loved. I did not understand it fully at the time but it stayed with me:
“If of thy mortal goods thou art bereft,
And from thy slender store two loaves
alone to thee are left,
Sell one, and with the dole
buy hyacinths to feed thy soul.”
It was from an early Persian poet (1184-1291).
As I grew older I understood the meaning of the poem. It often speaks to my soul. I sometimes think of it as the saddest song of a woman’s heart. Women give up so much of themselves as they struggle to nurture their family and the world. I don’t know if there is any way for a man to ever understand the internal struggle that goes on inside a woman over these types of things but it is part of our souls and often the source of so much of our pain. Women sacrifice everything at times. It stains us sometimes with a profound sadness that I think is often worsened by the judgments and condemnations of others who have no idea what the cost of our lives has actually been.
As I remembered that poem that day, I bought the little glass paperweight. It was not expensive … Maybe $4, I think, as it was on the clearance shelf. I could not really afford it but I took it and put it on the mantel over the fireplace where I would see it every day. It was my “hyacinths’ in the middle of a winter that had taken over our lives. It was a momentary reminder of me in a sea of need where I often felt like I was drowning. I was constantly in that sea stroking to keep everyone’s head above water.
This is not a magical story. I was not a hero. I had no desire to be admired in the whole thing. I only wanted to survive. I did what had to be done. There was no choice because no matter how dark each night was, the sun would come up in the morning and there were children to feed and things to do. You simply got out of bed and did them. Life does not stop, no matter how tragic things become.
About a week after that event, a young woman that my son was involved with, came by the house. She had been at the house a great deal and knew how tough things were for us, sometimes not even having money for food … and I saw her pick up my “hyacinth” and angrily demand to know what kind of mother would waste money on something like that when the family was hurting for money?
I felt crushed on so many levels. I felt harshly judged by someone I had been good to and had included in my family, I felt guilty for having spent the money on it, I felt bad for being weak and needing anything.
That whole situation of my husband dying left me completely and totally on my own. I was left naked and beaten on the ground of my soul. 3 years had passed and I was no longer any of the things I used to be. I had been a mother, a caregiver, a wife … now I was completely drained and empty. There were no victories. Yes I took the lifeboat and put everyone into it and yes we made it to the shore but not everyone had made it. It was incredibly sobering to realize that this was it. Nothing was going to change what had happened.
I am grateful for that experience.
Sometimes in the breaking down of who we think we are, we find our real selves.
I still have my little paperweight. It still makes me smile and it will forever be a reminder to me that my soul will always deserve “hyacinths.” I may be the only one who knows that or who is willing to buy them for myself … but that is ok. Unless we nurture our own soul, we have nothing to give to others and the message of that whole experience is not that it was hard, but that we made it. My Soul was strong enough. It was good enough. It had enough compassion to do what had to be done even though it hurt, I cried, and my best friend died. I. Got. Through.
So yes, young woman, I did buy myself something that you may never understand. It may have seemed pointless and frivolous to you. It may have made me seem incredibly selfish but you don’t know me like I do. I know, that woman, deserved that beautiful pointless piece of glass more than you will ever know. It gave her the strength to bury her husband, to hold her head high amongst the judgments and the unkindnesses, to circle her arms tight around her children, and to move on.
I will always wish, for all women, hyacinths for the soul.