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"Joyous Within Darkness" by Amelia Campbell

For Julie: 1944-1999

Across the street, in her mother's home, a middle-aged woman lies dying. I do not know this from my own inspection. I know from others, braver than I, kinder. People who somehow have the strength to pass through her bedroom door and gaze at her disease-ridden body, her every bone displayed in clear relief.

I, however, cannot bear to see her. To look in her faraway eyes, to touch her wasted hand. Of what would we speak? The goodness of life? The grace of her waiting God? Ten years ago, on quite a regular basis, I did visit, naively cheering her on, evoking her interest in reading, in writing. Encouraging her to hope, despite her disease.

But twenty years have passed that she's been braving it. Twenty long years of the sheaths around her nerves, bit by bit, crumbling and falling away. Twenty years of ambulance trips, of wrenching final goodbyes, only to be sent home days later, with "there's nothing the doctors can do."

I, from my not-so-safe distance across the street, stare often at her closed white blinds and wonder: If there were a pill she could swallow, a magic word she could utter, a certain tear she could cry to permit her to pass from her pain, would she choose it?

"God doesn't want her yet," my pious mother pronounces.

"Why not?" I respond, indignantly. "Is God too busy to bother?"

I am no stranger to pain. This I share with my neighbor, though our pain runs a different course. But unlike my mother, I am no person of platitudes spooned like sweet berry sauce on a heap of bitter bread. Platitudes ruled the home I tried to grow in, platitudes served in overindulgence in place of the real soul-nourishment: maternal soothing.

Platitudes do not change the fact that this life we are all living is not easy. Injustice rules, unending pain abounds, for countless people in this, our land of health and wealth.

A woman choosing to end her pain, or the pain of a loved one, horrifies many, though they feel entitled to choose it for a much-loved pet.

And the prospect of putting God on the spot, of asking God to change the way God works, these same people consider blasphemous.

I am not that woman across the street who is dying, who has been for twenty years. I could never be--I know I could not bear it. Yet, somehow, she does. Somehow screams of anguish do not emanate from her night window. Somehow she manages to twist up the edge of a smile in exchange for a family kindness. Perhaps there is something in her, some inexplicable will to hold onto whatever in her life she holds precious. Perhaps her family's platitudes, spoken at every interchange, bore deep holes into her brain, dismembering her own thoughts, as each night she lies awake while they lie sleeping. "God never sends you anything that you can't manage."  "It's God's will, you've got to trust Him."  "Pray, dear, pray, God will give you strength." Certainly she has been blessed with a devoted, loving mother and sister, with sunny nieces and nephews, who all these years have clustered around her wheelchair and now around her bedside, making her life the focus of their existence.

But family or no family, days are awful for my long-suffering neighbor. Days of unspeakable pain and discomfort, of weary waiting for God to come and fetch her.

For now, my mother bakes breads and brings them by. She tells my neighbor she's in her prayers and jokes with her, encourages her to be strong.

I, at my window or passing in my car, wonder, what is death? Life? Where is the fairness, where is the reason? Must one person frightfully suffer, to relativize the rest of us to happy?

She is a brave woman, my bedridden neighbor. She has been patient. And at long last, her life is slowing, approaching its stop. As I watch and ponder, I wonder what she's been saying to God, these hours and hours, days and days, months and months---yes, years and years, while she's lain, stricken, in that bed.

"She's not complaining," my mother retorts.

"Perhaps not," I say.

Perhaps not to us.

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Martha Gibson is a creative writer, editor and, with her composer husband Keith Gibson, songwriter. Currently at work on a historical novel set in Northfield, Vermont, she recently ascended to the position of Fiction Editor at Moondance.

E-mail Martha Gibson at
fiction.editor@moondance.org


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