I was struggling to find the reason for my sufferings, my slow dying. In a last violent protest against the hopelessness of imminent death. I sensed my spirit piercing through the enveloping gloom. I felt it transcend that hopeless, meaningless world, and from somewhere I heard a victorious ‘Yes’ in answer to my question of the existence of an ultimate purpose.Viktor E. Frankl (1905-1997), writing about his experiences during the Holocaust of World War II, from his masterful book, “Man’s Search for Meaning”
Viktor Frankl was an internationally successful author, physician, psychiatrist, philosopher, professor, and lecturer from Austria. But after the Nazis annexed his country in 1938, he became only one word: Jewish. Or, as it would be stated in the masculine form in German: Juden. Between 1942 and 1945, he labored in four different concentration camps. In his research before and after the war as well as his experiences in the camps of the Holocaust, Frankl declares that we cannot avoid suffering, but we can choose how we think about it and how we cope with it.
In the camps he would look up at the sky, and know that despite what the Germans were doing to his body, his mind and spirit were free. He could go back, in his mind, to loving moments of his life, and the Germans were powerless to take those memories away.
On Christmas Day this year, our extended family met for our annual Christmas celebration at our home here in the East Tennessee valley near the Great Smoky Mountains. It is not supposed to be nearly 70 degrees on December 25, nor should my daffodil bulbs be peeking their green shoots above the ground as they are now–but we put tablecloths on two tables outside and made some memories of our own.
My beloved sister Lisa, who has been fighting cancer for the last two years did not feel well enough to join us on Christmas Day. However, she sent my grandson Lincoln, aged 4, a giant stuffed-animal dinosaur, and my granddaughter Penny (almost 3) a huge stuffed octopus. It was a great loss that Lisa could not be with us, but the sweeties were delighted beyond measure at their oversized friends.
It is hard to hide presents that are larger than their recipients, so it was not long before Lincoln and Penny had found their new toys peering expectantly from among the other Christmas presents in the guest room. The three-feet-tall, stuffed animals were too big for the indoors, so outdoors we went, where the swish of a dinosaur’s tail and the long legs of an octopus would not wreak havoc.
“Let’s play hide and seek,” said Lincoln.”You hide, and I will find you,” he said, and he began counting. His sister Penny, his dinosaur, and I ran away to hide.
It is not easy to hide with a huge dinosaur, but Dino, Penny, and I did our best. Luckily we had three cars in the backyard and the back fence which gave us a few good places to hide. Eventually Penny’s giggling gave Lincoln a clue, and his squeals of delight were glorious when he finally discovered us.
“When was the last time you played hide and seek?” my husband asked me.
Immediately I recalled playing hide and seek in my Aunt Rheta and Uncle Bob’s yard many, many years ago. There were four of us: my sister Lisa, 15 months younger than me; our cousin Robbie, a few years younger than Lisa; Bobby, a few years younger than Robbie; and me–the oldest. We played happily for awhile, then Robbie would complain that Bobby had done something he shouldn’t, and I would get into trouble because I was the oldest.
There was another time I played hide and seek, but I was a bit older.
To escape my childhood home, I married a man I had only known for three months. It was two weeks before my 19th birthday, and my husband-to-be was 23 and had already been married once. He was a bill collector at the finance company where I found a job after I dropped out of college before my sophomore year. His father Max had warned me, “You know, Gary has a temper.” I did not, but I discovered that fact for myself on our honeymoon when a whole new Gary emerged from the facade he had showed me during our courtship.
Every year of our five-year marriage was excruciating. It was a perpetual give and take: I gave and he took. Control, emotional torture–he was an experienced practitioner, and I was learning the rules as he sought to separate me from my family and friends–but most especially he tried to keep me from spending time with my sister Lisa.
I had a low-paying job as a secretary and occasionally I would sit at work doing the math to see when I would have enough money each month to leave him and still afford to take care of our son, Justin. When the columns of income and outgo matched well enough, I sought spiritual counsel about this momentous decision from the pastors of the two churches I had attended. Both men of the cloth told me to go home to my husband, that love would return. I knew that love was never in our home, and would most definitely never return.
One of my co-workers added her unsolicited advice saying I should wait until my husband had an affair, then I could leave him without risking eternal damnation and so forth. For me, living with Gary was eternal damnation and so forth. I was not waiting until he had an affair to leave him, nor did I want my son to grow up in a home with his manipulative, narcissistic father.
My sister Lisa was the only person who supported my decision to leave my abusive husband.
After we divorced, he stalked me for eight years. I hid as best I could, but he followed me on dates, broke into my apartment, took whatever he wanted from what little I had, and, since he was bill collector, always had ways to find out my phone number so he could harass me–even after I remarried.
But I had escaped the marriage, and Lisa and I would walk through Cades Cove in the Smoky Mountains, talking constantly for the entire 11 miles–or for seven miles if we decided to take the shortcut route. We would meet at our favorite consignment store Reruns, and one glorious spring, we walked one of Lisa’s favorite Dogwood Arts trails here in town. Lisa loves dogwoods and the Dogwood Arts local nonprofit organization.
We each had two children; and eventually Lisa fulfilled her dream to work at her husband’s family business, Stanley’s Greenhouse, where our mother, Arzelia, had worked since we were in high school. Lisa became more and more famous for her enthusiasm, devotion, and love for her customers. She was featured on a local gardening radio show along with other expert gardeners, and she was interviewed regularly by local television and print reporters.
My sister flourished until her first bout of cancer in 2010. She had surgery to remove the cancer, and, for the most part, she went on as if nothing had ever happened. And for nearly a decade, she again was the queen of all she surveyed as she worked tirelessly to help her customers and the many local charities who asked for her support.
Then in 2019 the cancer returned in a more aggressive form, a late-stage bone cancer–not the kind of news you want to hear, but Lisa was undaunted. She could no longer work full-time at the greenhouse, but for the last two years she has taken the treatments one after the other while doing a little work when she is able. For two years she has persevered and beaten the odds. Her spirit and strong beliefs have allowed her to spend time with the people she loves, to carve out her own way forward, and to soar above as the cancer fights to hold her down.
I had many flying dreams in the years after I left Gary. In these dreams, I floated above houses and trees. With the wind rushing past my outstretched arms, I looked at the ground and the forest below me and thought, “So this is how it is to be a bird.” Then I alighted gently in the top branches of a tree. Safe, whole, free.
Tomorrow is officially a new year, January 1, 2022, with a clean slate as we turn the page from a difficult year to the unknown of a new one. For my dear sister, I hope that she soars safely above the fray, alights gently in the top of trees, and is pain-free as much of every day as is humanly possible. I hope she continues finding the victorious ‘yes’ of meaning and purpose. May she know that she is dearly loved and treasured.
And may she be free.
~ Anna – 12/31/2021