A couple of nights ago, I was telling my best friend about a rather disturbing incident that happened to me a while back. About a year after my husband passed away, I attended the wedding of his youngest sister.
I was just getting back into the rhythm of life and had made an effort to look nice as far as hair, make-up and clothing. (Mind you, it took all the courage I had to attend the wedding alone and it would still take several years for me to be ready to date again.)
I was chatting with someone I had not seen since the funeral, when another relative came up behind me and asked why I was “so happy.” I assumed she was joking with me and responded that I was simply delighted to see that my sister-in-law, Donna, was so joyful on her wedding day.
Now this relative was unrelenting and kept insisting that it was “too early” for me to be so happy since I had just lost my husband the year before and my son two years prior to that.
I stood there in shock!
I was absolutely mortified that anyone could look at me and claim that I was “too happy.” Of all the absurd comments I had ever heard in my life, this one truly took the cake!
Functioning like a machine
Let me digress a bit so you get the full story.
One Sunday afternoon, approximately three years before I attended Donna’s wedding, I received an emergency phone call from a neurosurgeon in California informing me that my oldest son, Daniel, had suffered a massive brain aneurysm and was most likely dying. He had a slim chance of recovery if we would allow them to do brain surgery.
My husband, Steven, and I along with our sons Andy and Mike immediately flew out to California and arrived at the hospital following surgery.
The prognosis was dire. Daniel’s chances were slim to none.
We sat crying at the bedside of my comatose son, two of us holding his hands and two of us holding his feet, just so he could feel our touch, as he valiantly battled for life. His brothers read to him in hopes that he could hear them.
Four days later Daniel was declared brain dead and our small family made the life-changing decision to discontinue life support for this precious son of mine.
My firstborn son was dead.
I had sang lullabies to him, rocked him to sleep, walked him to kindergarten, and he in turn had grown up and told me that he thought he may have been in love. This boy of mine who had fought the good fight with asthma his entire life and who exuded pure joy at every challenge was gone.
I, in turn, denied my grief over the loss of Daniel for more than a year. I simply couldn’t cry. All I could do was function like a machine.
As long as there was structure to my days, I was like a wind-up toy. I’d do everything on my list and then go to bed and start again the next day. People wondered what kind of mother I was since I wasn’t visibly grieving.
And then the dam broke.
One morning I got up and realized that my son was never coming home. He was gone forever and would not ever get married, never give me grandchildren and never call me on the phone to discuss anything and everything.
I went into intense grief counseling for an extended period of time.
‘For better, for worse’
While I struggled with my grief, my husband had minor surgery and developed blood clots. His lungs were so badly scarred that he couldn’t work any longer.
Remembering my wedding vows, “for better, for worse,” I got a job that could support both of us. Then, just when it seemed as if grief had taken a holiday, I came home to find that Steven had passed away while I was working.
This time the grief was doubled and there was no one to share it with at night. My sons, Andy and Mike, called daily and friends checked on me. I did my grief homework. I found my grandmother’s rosary in my drawer and I prayed to our Blessed Mother, begging for her assistance. I responded to an ad in our church bulletin looking for new parish council members and I signed up to teach second grade catechism.
Discernment for new parish council members was held in the evening in a building that once housed the convent at my church. We were sitting in a meeting room from where I could see into the chapel. There was one stained glass window that I could see quite clearly. It was the Virgin Mary, and rays of light were brilliantly streaming in through the glass. I couldn’t help but feel that she was looking right at me and giving me strength.
I was the only one positioned to see that window.
I went home and thought about that window for days afterwards.
A few nights later, I realized that the stained glass window was on the east side of the building, but it had been evening when I attended that meeting and the sun sets in the west, which was behind where I was sitting. The likelihood of a bright beam of light streaming in through that window seemed improbable.
A joyful heart
Was it a sign?
I’ll never know, but to this day, I can feel the same sense of complete and utter joy that I felt viewing that window. That was the day my life changed and joy became a constant in my heart.
My best friend says that happiness is actually a state of well-being based on good luck or fortune. So happiness could very well be a result of wealth or something external.
Joy, on the other hand, is quite different from happiness in that it is internal and constant.
Father Roger Landry wrote an article called “True Catholic Joy,” which was published in 2009. In the article he states:
“The Archbishop of New York, Timothy Dolan, once explained that joy is the most infallible sign of the presence of God within. He stressed that joy is a gift of God, a fruit of the Holy Spirit that flows from the conviction that God loves us, dwells within us when we’re in the state of grace, sustains us with his providential care, and answers our prayers.”
People who haven’t seen me in a few years are surprised by my appearance. I haven’t underwent a major weight loss or makeover or anything that drastic.
I simply have joy in my life, which is always here; it was a gift I received through prayer and it seems to attract people like a magnet. (Just ask my CatholicMatch sweetheart and he’ll tell you that my joy is a gift from God himself.)
As for that silly relative of mine who didn’t understand that joy, I want her to know that I’m just like that little song we sang as kids: “This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine!”