March 17, 2005 - "The Reassurance" by Nancy L. Cole
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"If the world seems cold to you, kindle fires to warm it." ~Lucy Larcom (1826-1893)
When I shared my son's story of struggle as a teenager lost, I received so many emails, so many other stories of our 2TheHeart family members' own stories of similar trials with their children. Amee's story was one that I received and that brought a new light and beauty that I wanted to share with all those who had also gone through the anguish of watching our children suffer. Her story is unforgettable and shines a light where there was such darkness.
by Nancy L. Cole
Amee was my daughter, and she died in a Connecticut hospital at the age of 22. It was her 13th hospitalization in six years, mostly for emotional reasons and substance abuse. Amee had been driven to try every modem-day trap for today's young people: drugs, alcohol, destructive relationships. Ironically, she died not by her own hand?for she'd tried that too?but from the toxic effects of a hospital drug, improperly monitored. For two weeks she lingered in a coma, then she was gone.
Gone. This lovely daughter of mine who had been so bright and talented, a gifted singer and dancer, and, like me, an artist. Amee's father and I were divorced about the time she entered her teens. And until that time, I thought her upbringing had been a happy one. We were, after all, a fairly normal American family?Sundays at the Congregational church, Fourth-of-July kind of values. Then Amee began to change.
Amee started wearing heavy makeup. She began smoking pot. Then the partying began, and she was out until all hours or not coming home at all. She didn't respond to discipline. Our relationship broke down. Eventually, the deep depressions, and the hospitals.
After Amee died, yes, of course, I blamed myself, but my grief was deeper than that. I was worried. I knew she'd been so self-destructive. When a spiritual counselor suggested that because of her life-style Amee might not have gone to heaven, I became inconsolable. I couldn't imagine her being in any more hell than she already had been.
People tried to help me. My mother listened with a mother's love. My two best friends let me cry and cry. But the months lengthened into one. . .two. . . three years. I sought and found others like myself at Compassionate Friends, a national fellowship of adults who have lost children by death.
But more than anything else, I wanted to know where Amee was. I could not rest until I knew she was safe with God.
And during this long period of grieving I kept thinking about the books: seven thick art books that Amee had filled and carried around with her wherever she went. I knew that during her hospital stays they were her closest companions and her own form of therapy. At first after Amee's death I had hesitated even opening their covers, but then I did, and soon I was drawn into Amee's sensitive, dark-and-bright, searching-and-struggling innermost life. I'd encouraged her with her art for years. But now the pages of sayings, quotations and diarylike thoughts, all set down in delicate calligraphy and interspersed with drawings of flowers, butterflies and beautiful young girls, seemed entirely new. They showed me Amee in an illuminated way after death that I could not see when she was alive.
I was stunned by Amee's despair and yet was moved by her hunger for the comfort of God's love.
"I'll be 21 this month," she wrote on one page, "another birthday celebrated in a mental institution. Each one sorrow-filled, me wanting to cry out in grief. It's never-ending, this painful fear. When does it go away?"
And on another page: "I am starving, starving. I feel alone, so desperately alone. I wish I could hand my feelings over to someone else?just for a day because they couldn't tolerate them any longer. But then that person would be on my side; it would no longer be me against the world."
Again and again I'd pull out Amee's books from beneath my bed, grieved by the despair I read in their pages, yet hoping, searching for some clue that would relieve my agony, that would give me that final assurance that, yes, Amee was okay, safe in heaven. And the more I read, the more it seemed that Amee was talking to me from those books. I was feeling her suffering. I was crying with her, crying for the girls she drew who were never without tears.
One afternoon, however, I was sitting with one of Amee's books in hand, just thinking about her, when I glanced at a drawing inside the back cover. Somehow I hadn't noticed it before. Amee had drawn another of her young women, but this one was different. There were no tears. And alongside was her penciled Scripture reference: "Revelation 21:4: '. . .and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.'" Now I began to go back and seek out other samples of a more optimistic Amee, especially in the book she began while living at a Christ-centered residential facility for troubled youth.
"The soul can rise from the earth into the sky," Amee wrote one day, "like a bird aware of its freedom." And from one of her worst times I found this: "God will come. . .I will never give up. No, I've fought too long and hard." Or the full page of lettering: "Deep within there cometh peace. A child of His I am."
I wanted to believe it was true. Was it? Even though she had stumbled and fallen again and again after that?
I felt something new stirring within me. It was hope. But hope is expectation. I wanted something more. Was this a breakthrough? Was something more coming?
There was. And it came from Amee's father, who lived nearby. Bob had been a loving father, just as I had been a loving mother, sorrow had spared neither of us. And it happened that one day Bob experienced something that changed us both.
He was out shopping, only faintly aware of the music being piped throughout the mall, until he heard a Crosby, Stills and Nash song, "Suite Judy Blue Eyes." Bob stopped. That had been one of Amee's favorites. He listened to the lyrics about voices and moonlight, then ". . .She's so free. How can you catch the sparrow?" To him, the lyrics were confusing. He wondered what meaning they might have had for Amee.
Bob drove to his home, a summer cottage with high cathedral ceilings. No sooner had he entered than he heard an odd sound, a "thap-thapping." He looked up to see a little bird trapped inside the house, frantically flying against a window in its efforts to get out. Bob went for a stepladder, climbed up, and soon was holding the trembling creature in his hands. Carefully he climbed down and headed outside, where he paused, then slowly opened his hands. The bird fluttered out and up and into the sky.
"She's so free," Bob said aloud, repeating the words of the song Amee had loved. Then the other words came to mind, "How can you catch the sparrow?" At that instant Bob realized that the bird he had just let go free was a sparrow.
For a moment Bob stood motionless, looking up into the now-empty sky. "Good-bye, Amee. Good-bye, little bird," he said softly. Then he looked down into his still-cupped hands. There lay two tiny tail feathers. And at once, without knowing how he knew, he was sure that one was for him, one for me.
And so it was. But there was even more to the story of the sparrow, for when I received my feather, I went to press it in one of Amee's art books for safekeeping. I picked up the first book I could put my hand on and opened it. There before me was a design in blue curlicues over which Amee had superimposed the words "I wish I was a tiny sparrow sheltered in God's hands."
There it was, finally: the reassurance I had been seeking. The hope Amee's books had kindled in me was now fulfilled. Fulfilled by a fragile series of events that I knew, by faith, had been strung together by a loving Creator.
I could be at peace now. Amee was with God, like a frightened, troubled little sparrow sheltered at last in His loving hands.
Copyright Nancy L. Cole
Nancy lives in Massachussetts and you can email her in care of 2theheart.
The Letter Box:
Dear Amy Toohill,
I wanted to tell you how deeply your story affected me. I am going through a divorce too and the loneliness and feeling of betrayal is numbing. I was crying by the end of your story and felt that at least I wasn't alone in this world and hope that soon I can let my light shine the way you have. Thank you.
I read Amy Toohill's letter of all that we go through to try and heal our broken hearts and I want to thank you for sharing this, and for also the thought that God the father is always there, always loving us. We do need to love ourselves and let our own light shine and sometimes this takes time to do, but God is always there helping us along. Frances
Making a difference, one story at a time!
Sending hope to the heart!