The Gift of a Box Full of Darkness

A year ago Christmas I received a beautiful double amaryllis, a check for $125 and a Kiehl’s anti-aging kit. The amaryllis, scarlet red, came from my mother, who died less than two weeks later. The check had my father’s shaky signature on it; he passed away before the daffodils returned last spring. And all those moisturizers and night creams? They came from my husband, who left our dog, our home and me, right between the deaths of my parents.

It would take me time, too, to understand that gift. But during those difficult months I learned more about loss, bitterness and grief than I had imagined possible. And that box of darkness turned out to contain surprises of a wondrous kind.

“How many lessons do I need?” I asked myself rhetorically soon after my father died in April. I tried to keep self-pity to a minimum; I already knew that life was unfair. I also understood that death is integral to life   just as loss and grief are the flip side of love.

Sensing I might not have a plan for my 60th birthday last summer, two couples in my small town planned a blowout fete, including a rewrite of the lyrics to “Hello Dolly” (now “Hello Petrow”), which a dozen friends sang to a happily weeping birthday boy. In a short speech I confessed to my friends that my marital separation had left me fearful of two things: What to do on this birthday (check) and finding a friend to drive me to my decennial colonoscopy (a not-so-intimate friend raised his hand).

One afternoon later in the summer, a day when I was feeling particularly draggy from the humidity and depression, a Prius stealthed up on me from behind. In a spontaneous act of kindness, Jill, the driver and a friend who writes novels and raises goats, clasped my hands through the open window and then pulled me in for a hug. Just as quickly she released me, and, quietly, the Prius disappeared. Jill’s hug remained on my skin.

In November, a woman I’ve never met but with whom I’ve worked remotely sent me a handwritten sympathy note. “This is a long delayed, but no less heartfelt, note with the messages that have multiplied during the year,” Julia began. “What an overwhelming year this must have been for you,” she continued. “I’m glad to see that you seem to be moving forward with grace and a sense of peace.”

But it was my sister’s birthday present that iced the cake. She had inherited our mother’s jewelry, including a stunning pair of earrings made from malachite, the stone of transformation, surrounded by a gold braided wreath. With a jeweler’s magic the earrings became cuff links — and they became mine.

I had a flashback to my late mother wearing those earrings to the Emmy Awards in the 1970s, the same year, I believe, my father took home a statuette for a Bill Moyers documentary he had produced. Mom was (almost) lithe and (definitely) happy, decked out in a little black dress and those earrings, which drew the light to her face.


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