published in Chicken Soup for the Soul: A Book of Miracles

    I was staring out the window into a cold, black sky watching the red warning lights on three distant radio towers alternately blink to each other.  Lake radioactive fireflies signaling distress, they mirrored the alarm in my soul.

    I was 18 years-old and my father had just died with brain cancer.  It was the middle of the night and I stood alone in the center of a dark kitchen.  A small light over the stove was the only illumination.  My mother and sisters slept. I couldn’t.

    As I stared out the window into the utter blackness, the woe that consumed me finally crystallized into one overpowering thought:  I will never feel safe again.

    Why had it happened?  The seizure two days before Christmas.  The ambulance, the emergency room, the brain scan. “Epilepsy,” the doctors said, and they gave him medication.  But he didn’t get better. Instead, he got worse.  He became cross and critical and hard to please.  More tests were run and the painful truth emerged: a tumor, probably malignant. Surgery was needed—immediately.

    I remember my mom sitting in the hospital room during Dad’s recovery my senior year, patiently stitching tiny white sequins on the bodice of the dress she’d made for me to wear to a spring dance.  With each stitch I knew she was praying a prayer, and Daddy did get better.  He was even able to come to my graduation in a wheelchair, head swathed in white bandages.  For all of us this represented a huge milestone, and the hope we held for better days.

    That summer as I worked at my first job and prepared to go away to college, Dad regained enough strength to return to work.  He still couldn’t drive, so Mom chauffeured him all over town as he made his business calls.  He’d always been the one in charge.  Now he had to wait to be waited on.  We all knew that was hard.

    The summer passed quickly and at last the day arrived when it was time to pack the car and head up the road to the campus where I would go to school.  Just to get to go to college was a dream come true.  But it was hard to leave under these circumstances.  Mom never told me, but Dad’s decline seemed to accelerate that fall.  The tumor came back.  By October he was no longer able to work, by Christmas he was bed bound, and by February he was gone.

    Not only did I lose my father, but a big part of my mother left then too. She had been a great full-time mom and he had handled everything else.  She had so totally depended on him that, in many ways, once he was gone, she was like a child.  Simple decisions were so hard and paying the bills overwhelmed her.  Nevertheless, she rose to the occasion and insisted I return to school.

    As the oldest, I assumed a new sense of responsibility that summer.  At times, it seemed almost more than I could bear. How would we manage? One day at a time. That strategy seemed to work well.  We pulled together and gradually carved out a survival plan to compensate for the void that overshadowed everything.

    In September I was even able to return to school. It was good to be back among my peers and away from sad reminders.  Here I could immerse myself in study, forget the pain, and believe I could control some things in my life—even if it was just academic goals.  Surely this was the pathway to financial security.  I didn’t ever want to feel so helpless again.

    So I studied—long and hard.  One particular night in mid-October I had been up late cramming for a French mid-term.  At 2 a.m. I woke and realized I had drifted off to sleep in bed, sitting straight up, holding my book above my lap.  It was time to call it a night.

    As I switched off my overhead lamp, through my dorm window a full moon brilliantly bathed my bed in luminous silvery light.  Even the desk was casting bold shadows on the gleaming white tile floor.  But groggy as I was, not even daylight could have kept me from the promise of sweet sleep.  The surrender was complete…until a short time later when I realized I was not alone.

    My eyes were tightly shut, but my mind was fully awake and my heart was pounding.  I felt the approach of a dark shadow which entered the room and came to rest directly over my bed.  The sensation that someone was bending over me was undeniable.  Garbled words were spoken.  Soothing words, comforting words that made no sense, but conveyed an unmistakable message: “It’s o.k. Marcia.  Everything’s going to be alright.”

    It was as gentle and benign as a parental tuck-in and absolutely terrifying at the same time.  The voice was my Dad’s and it was so like him to see a need and go to whatever lengths were needed to meet it.  Maybe that’s why I couldn’t open my eyes. Perhaps I was afraid of what I might see. Maybe I was prevented from seeing.  All I know is that after the assurance was delivered, the shadow withdrew.  

For hours, it seemed, I lay on my bed, board straight, pulse racing, unable to move.  This was no dream.  Finally, the paralyzing fear subsided and I managed to open my eyes. The room was still bathed in light.  Gradually, I climbed out from under the covers, crawled to the end of my bed, and peeped around my desk to make sure I was really alone.  Once I was sure, I fell into a deep sleep, exhausted.

    The next morning the previous night’s episode still haunted my consciousness.  I needed to tell someone, but how? What would my roommate think?  I decided to try.  Some things, I learned, suffer in translation.  They can’t be explained. To try may make them sound like gibberish, but if we listen with our hearts, the message can become crystal clear: “It’s o.k. Everything’s going to be o.k.”

 Published in Chicken Soup for the Soul: A Book of Miracles, Copyright 2010 

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