It’s the Sunday before Christmas and Myra is having a struggle getting ready to drive over to St. Anthony’s Assisted Living to visit Aunt Grace, her only remaining relative on her mother’s side. Aunt Grace is in her nineties, is mentally very alert, but she can’t walk due to arthritis and is virtually blind. It’s not a chore to visit her; it’s just that everything around the holidays is like dragging a heavy weight around. It would be easier to go to bed and forget about everything.
Myra can’t do that. She’s always the obedient one who does what is expected of her. So it’s off to see Aunt Grace.
It’s not that she’s down just today. Myra can’t remember the last time she wasn’t. She is constantly reminded of painful things and there just isn’t any room for happiness to happen.
At the edge of her neighborhood is the supermarket where Brian worked in high school. Every time she passes it, she thinks of Brian. Her only child was a good student and was likely to be valedictorian of his graduating class. He had been accepted to university with a full academic scholarship. He was deeply in love with Sandra whom he had known in church since grade school.
At the edge of her imagination, Myra was letting herself think about the grandchildren that Brian and Sandra might give her one day. That made her happy. That was long ago.
It was seven years ago, to be exact. Brian had worked until six pm on New Year’s Eve and was driving home to get ready for the party at a friend’s father’s club. He and Sandra were excited about dressing up and enjoying the evening together.
Then the drunk ran a red light and T-boned Brian on the driver side. Brian never knew what hit him. The light of Myra’s life turned off instantly.
Robert, her husband of over 30 years, was the only one who protected Myra’s sanity during this time. He loved her and was patient with her in her grief process; but even Robert couldn’t bring Brian back and the pain whenever she thought of her son was still acute.
Myra drove by the strip mall where Robert’s real estate office was located. Robert’s was a small office with just him and a secretary to answer the phone. There were good years and there were lean years, but Robert worked hard to provide for their family.
With all he did, Myra never stopped worrying about what had happened to her family even before she was born. Her father had lost everything he had in a bad business investment. Her family really struggled and Myra was so afraid that they would lose their home and be forced to live in a shack like her grandparents talked about doing during the depression.
Five years ago, Robert found the mole on his shoulder. And eleven months later he was dead. The melanoma was beyond control when the doctor diagnosed it. Robert told her later that he had been watching the mole in the shower for a couple of years but was afraid to go to the doctor because he didn’t want to hear bad news.
That made Myra angry every time she thought about it. If he loved her like he said he did, he would have taken care of himself. That always morphed into if God loved me like he says he does, then he wouldn’t have taken Brian and Robert from me like he did.
It was hard to drive anywhere in town because she saw something everywhere she went to remind her of her pain.
The bank made her worry about being broke even though Robert has left investments that made her financially secure.
The department store and the big box stores she passed reminded her of the depressing crowds that closed in on her when she ventured out filling shopping carts with useless things for Christmas. She was always reminded that she didn’t have anyone to buy for except Aunt Grace and she was content with some books on tape, music, or holiday food treats which Myra always bought because she couldn’t face the effort of gathering the ingredients and baking.
She almost cried when she drove past the Boy Scout Christmas tree lot where Brian and his dad had worked to raise money for the scouts. The last tree she had bought was the year that Brian was taken from her. Robert didn’t complain his remaining three Christmases even though she knew he would like to have a tree and lots of decorations. It was too painful to think about decorating – there was no fun in it for her at all.
Robert had insisted that they continue being part of the supper club at St. Marks even though Myra did not enjoy being around them any more. In fact, she never had really enjoyed the group. She went and pretended because it was important to Robert. At least that was what she told herself.
When Brian was taken from her, the group was supportive to degree, but she always contended they were supporting Robert, not his tag-along wife.
When Robert let himself get the melanoma, the group was supportive during the wake and service, and bringing food to the home; but she never went back. Nobody had ever wanted to talk with her before; why would they talk to her now?
Even the priest seemed more comfortable with the other parishioners after Mass that he was with her. So she slacked off her attendance and before long stopped going altogether.
If the church had shown the love to her that they showed to everybody else, she was sure she would be happy; but that wasn’t to be.
St.Anthony’s sat way back from the highway down a drive through towering pine trees. It was a beautiful setting. It was a shame that Myra always faced the pines with dread because she knew that she would be losing Aunt Grace soon, and then she would be all alone.
Aunt Grace was pleased to see Myra; but who wouldn’t be pleased if she didn’t ever get many other outside visitors.
She started describing her week from the carolers who came down the halls every day to the church choir that sang for them last evening in the Commons.
She had a stack of Christmas cards that she wanted Myra to read for her. How ironic, Myra thought, I haven’t sent a card in years and here I am reading cards to Aunt Grace. Several of the cards were projects from children’s groups in parishes’ around the city. None were from family or friends because Aunt Grace had outlived everyone else.
During Aunt Grace’s monologue, Myra would respond dryly with “How nice” or “Uh-huh.”
Aunt Grace finally realized that she was the only one talking and started asking Myra questions. The situation went from bad to worse in Myra’s opinion.
After a time, Myra realized that Aunt Grace was asking loving questions to draw her out and not busy-body intrusions; and she started to let go.
Myra felt a tear fall down her cheek and before she knew it, she was pouring her heart out to her aunt. When Myra slowed, Aunt Grace would perceptively ask another question that got Myra started again.
At some point, someone stuck their head in the doorway and Aunt Grace quickly told them to come back later when “my guest is gone.”
Finally, Myra apologized for taking so much of her aunt’s time. “Nonsense,” Grace retorted, “I have nothing but time here, especially for my favorite niece.”
Aunt Grace was quiet for a moment with her eyes closed and Myra sensed she might be praying or maybe just collecting her thoughts.
“Myra,” she began, “I’ve known you from the day you were born. You don’t know this, but when your mother died, she asked me, her only sister, to keep an eye on you, Robert, and Brian; just in case you needed some mothering she could no longer give. I told her I would.
“You were always stubbornly dismissive of yourself; and you loved to diminish your own achievements and qualities in favor of anybody else who happened to come to mind.
“As your sole remaining relative who is definitely older and maybe wiser, I’m going to say some things to you that I should probably have said years ago. I want you to let me finish and then you can rebut if you choose; and I’ll listen then.
“For all the time you’ve been talking, I’ve been hearing the same script that you’ve been using in some form since you were a child. You’ve got quite a list of wrongs suffered. I’m going to tell you what I heard, which may not necessarily be what you think you said.
“Here’s what I heard today:
- Brian should have been more careful when he drove through that intersection. His lack of attention took him away from you.
- Robert offended you greatly when he didn’t go to the doctor at the first appearance of the mole. Had he done so, he might be alive today.
- Your father should not have been so thoughtless as to lose all his money in the 1930’s. Even though that happened years before you were born, you became convinced that it would happen again to you.
- The people in your group at church were thoughtless when they left you all alone after Robert died. After all, you could see them being attentive and supportive of other widows. Why not you?
- The priest doesn’t like you or he would have been more available to you at those times when you walked by with a cursory, “Good sermon, Father.”
- And God – GOD – could have loved you more and prevented all these things from happening. If you were kinder, sweeter, more loving, more deserving, more thankful, you name it, God would have helped you be happy; and not made your miserable.
“Myra, I apologize for being so direct, but we’re at the point where being direct is important. I don’t know how much longer I have to be your crying shoulder; and I’m the only one left who’s not afraid to speak my heart to you. And, quite frankly, I’m tired of having a wet shoulder.
Myra started to gather her coat and gloves saying, “Aunt Grace, I really need to go; I have a lot of things to do.
Aunt Grace firmly said, “No, Myra; sit down. I have the authority your mother gave me years ago to speak directly to you and I’m about to use it.
“Myra, I recited a list of things that you think about daily, if not more often. These are painful things. Things that have hurt you in the past; and they are things that continue to hurt you today.
“Dwelling on these painful thoughts is paralyzing you emotionally. You have no friends. You have no hobbies. If fact you do little else but come out here to visit me and sit home and mope.
“Don’t get me wrong; I appreciate your visits very much. But I just don’t want to spend any more of my remaining time reliving your pain with you.
“What I want to do is share a basic truth that, if you apply it, will let us both enjoy the time we have left together and will let you enjoy the rest of your life after I’m gone.
“Will you let me share that with you, Myra?”
Aunt Grace took Myra’s sigh and setting her things back on the floor as an affirmative answer.
“Get my Bible, Myra, on the nightstand there and look up I Corinthians 13:5. Read it to me.”
After a moment, Myra read, “Love does not take into account a wrong suffered.”
“Thank you, Myra. You were a bookkeeper. What does it mean to keep an account of something?’
“Well, It means to factually record all the activity that a company undertakes that affects the financial livelihood of the company. The owners and the auditors will study the accounts to see if the company is making any money, or not; among other things.”
“That’s right, Myra. You have kept account of every single thing that has ever happened that offended you or that you perceived as an offense. Do you agree with me?”
“I don’t think that’s fair, Aunt Grace.”
“I didn’t ask you if it was fair; I asked you if you were keeping that list and I know the answer.
“St Paul said that if you love someone, you don’t keep a list. Is that what you read to me a moment ago?”
“I suppose it is.”
“Well, Myra, stop me when I go wrong here. You loved Robert dearly. Yet you are keeping an account of how he harmed you by not taking care of himself.”
“And you loved Brian too. Yet you are keeping account of the hurt he caused you by acing irresponsibly driving into that intersection and costing you your son and your grandchildren.”
“And you loved your father dearly. Yet you have an account of the hurt he caused you by making a bad investment years before you were born.”
“Whether you admit it or not, you loved your group at church. I was there with you many times. I saw you interacting with them. Yet you have an account of how much they hurt you by not rallying around you after Robert and Brian died.”
Myra was silent.
“And you love God; or at least you did at one time and you told him you did with every affirmation and catechism you spoke and whenever you went forward to receive the Eucharist. Yet you are daily replaying an account of how God had deserted you by allowing all the bad things to happen to you.
“Can you agree with me, Myra, that you feel more pain every time you replay or audit one of those accounts in your mind?”
“Every day, many times”, Myra murmured.
“Myra, I want you to find another verse in the Bible: Isaiah 43:18-19. Read it to me.”
After a moment, Myra read, “Do not call to mind the former things, or ponder things of the past. Behold, I will do something new, now it will spring forth; will you not be aware of it?”
“Myra, God is telling you through the Prophet Isaiah that if you call to mind and ponder all the hurtful things of the past, you will not be aware of the new things that He has in store for you.”
“But everywhere I look, I’m reminded of all those things. It’s hopeless, Aunt Grace,” Myra argued.
“My dear, you’re right. You think that you will always see things that remind you of Brian and Robert; painful things and those painful thoughts will pop up. It’s the pondering or dwelling on those thoughts that causes the pain.
“Look up one more verse, II Corinthians 10:5 and read the middle part.”
Myra searched and then read, “we are taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ.”
“Myra, God told you not to do keep a list. He told you what would happen if you ruminated on the list; and He has now told you how to avoid pondering or dwelling on the list.
“He told you through St. Paul to consciously take every negative thought captive. You simply say to yourself, ‘I’m not going to think about that.’ If you will do that consistently, you will discover that you are having the negative thoughts less and less often and less and less intense. You will be training your subconscious to filter out those negative thoughts. You’ll be establishing the Myra rule that you don’t want those thoughts any more, ever again.
“Is this possible, you ask? Of course it is. God told you to do it, and he gives you everything you need to do it. I’ve never told you about Edward. I was deeply in love with Edward when he went away to Europe in 1943. Edward fell on D-Day. I was devastated. My grandmother shared these same verses with me after I mourned for over 10 years. I’m living proof that this works.”
“But, Aunt Grace, I don’t want to give up thinking about Robert and Brian.”
“Of course, you don’t, my dear. Keep thinking about the good things and the good times. God gives us sweet memories. I can still remember and I frequently recall Edward’s last kiss just before he stepped onto the train. Just take the negative thoughts captive.”
“Be consistent. And please keep visiting me each week. I want to know the progress you’re making. Will you do that?”
Myra left St. Anthony’s deep in thought. As she drove by the park where Brian had played as a child, she saw a mother with two children; and an angry thought popped into her mind. Remembering Aunt Grace’s challenge, she said out loud, “I will not think about that.” And for just a moment she thought of how much fun Brian used to have in that park.
“Wow,” she marveled aloud to herself.
Over the weeks, Myra’s attitude about living gradually changed. She was able to report to Aunt Grace fewer and fewer negative thoughts and more and more peace.
It was true: God had told her what not to do (keep lists); the consequences of ruminating on her lists (being unaware of the new things God wanted to do in her life); and had given her a tool to change her way of thinking (taking the negative thoughts captive).
The peace that filled the diminishing gaps between negative thinking gave Myra lots of opportunities. She went to her priest and confessed and took communion for the first time in years.
The priest directed her toward a group called Single Again that was specifically for middle-aged widows and widowers. She found a lot of support there.
Since the group met at the library, she asked if there was volunteer work that she could do at the library. She was soon spending 12 hours a week doing the bookkeeping for Singles Again and a few other groups that the library sponsored.
She began to take Aunt Grace out for wheelchair walks in the park and to the evening concerts that they had at the band shell.
She was saddened that she had lost so much time being depressed; but she didn’t dwell on it.
She carefully tended Brian and Robert’s grave sites; and spent time sharing her new-found lifestyle with them. She felt they were both pleased.
And while it’s way to early to make predictions, she met a widower at the group and found that they had a lot in common and enjoyed spending time together.
This all happened because Aunt Grace shared three key thoughts:
- Don’t keep lists of painful, negative things.
- Don’t ruminate on the past because it can keep you from seeing and enjoying the future.
- Take painful thoughts captive and refuse to let them be part of your consciousness.
Maybe you know someone who dwells painfully in the past. Feel free to share this short story with them. There are other short stories on our blog that may pique your interest.
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