“Memory is a way of holding on to the things you love.”
~Kevin Arnold

“Only a full-time caregiver would understand; when you go from caring for someone every day for many years, giving so much of yourself, it leaves you with an empty feeling, but also a feeling of satisfaction for having given your all.”

Towering 30 feet in the air and consuming a good portion of her backyard, the holly tree is framed by her dining room window. Its evergreen leaves are brightly lush against the stark gray background when all other vegetation has long lost its rouge and gone dormant for the winter.

It’s been said that the holly tree governs the darker third of the year. Long winters in the northeast U.S. are often the stark and challenging norm, so a holly needs to be resilient, fixed, and consistent if she is to endure.

And endure her tree does.

So does she, the planter of the tree.

Much of her life hasn’t turned out the way she thought it would. In her words, “no one’s life ever does.” Her holly tree serves as a constant reminder of things both negative and positive. It’s red berries serve as a symbolic reminder of the heartbreak she has felt, especially the loss of her son – whom she touchingly displays every day in a photo on a button pinned over her heart. Its thorny green leaves are a symbolic reminder of her prickly and painful past, marked with loss, separation and isolation. Her holly tree also serves as a reminder to let life’s beauty shine even in times of latency. It’s a reminder to remain stable when life is unpredictable and a reminder to give generously – as the tree provides beauty to onlookers, stability despite harsh conditions and generous sustenance and a safe cover for birds and rabbits and squirrels. It also reminds her of her faith, a gift that stands tall and evergreen amidst the storms and desolate seasons of life.

“The shape of the holly tree gives it a special meaning for me. It’s not natural for a holly to come to a symmetrical point like that. It means someone trimmed the top rather drastically when it was young. To me that is a message about endurance and beauty and the meaning in suffering.

The day it snowed I looked out my back window about 7:00 a.m. to see a big rabbit sitting near the base of the holly. I rarely see them in the cold weather. This one frolicked happily around the base of the holly before diving into the foliage where its hole is. So the rabbits are getting through the winter okay. Like what you said about life and growth going on unseen.”

The first time we met her she shared a poignant statement we will never forget:

“I used to be noticed everywhere I went. No one notices me now.”

Her son, who lived with severe physical and intellectual disabilities, in her words, “always made a scene everywhere we went.”

He was the constant love of her life.

At his funeral service she shared a memory of her son as a way of holding on to him—the one she loved:

(In Mark 9:14-27) A father brings his son for healing. Jesus’ disciples have no success. The father approaches Jesus directly. He makes it plain that he is bringing his child to Jesus specifically. Then he gives a medical history, like any parent taking a child who cannot speak for treatment. As the parent of a nonverbal son who had seizures, I can relate to every detail of this description. I can also relate to the father’s frustration with the disciples.
Jesus’ response seems impatient. But the only part the father really hears is when Jesus says, “Bring him to me.” I remember many doctors and therapists who said discouraging things before they agreed to see my son. That’s how I heard them. Seeing his son in the throes of yet another seizure, the father exclaims, “If you can do anything, have pity on us and help us.” Jesus’ answer that all things are possible to one who believes evokes one of the great expressions of faith – “I believe; help my unbelief!” How many times I prayed that as I cared for my son or faced other challenges in my life!
Then things happen quickly. The crowd presses in; Jesus rebukes the spirit causing the boy’s seizure; the boy falls limp. Cynics are already writing him off as dead. Jesus takes the boy’s hand and the two of them stand together. The evangelist doesn’t tell us what the father is doing. But I know. He is crying and praising God with all his being.
“I read that story often during the 26 years I cared for my son. It helped me understand how Jesus shares our struggles. In 2012, Jesus took (my son’s) hand and raised him up to be with him.”
Many months after her sons’ passing, she wrote a letter about her enduring grief:

I see I haven’t written since October, not counting the Christmas letter. Not much to see happening and yet a lot is going on out of view of the world. I am still grieving (her son). Sometimes in ways that are appropriate and healthy, sometimes in ways that are not. A few months ago it came to the point where the family therapist I’ve seen for years, and my current spiritual director, both agreed that I should see a doctor about getting a prescription for an anti-depressant. My family doctor would have prescribed something, but with all the other meds I take these days I felt it would be safer to see a psychiatrist …

… I saw the psychiatrist three days ago. I started taking an anti-depressant two days ago …

… Since I have been alone here, no caregivers coming and going, it is amazing how invisible I feel at times. If I don’t shower for two weeks, no one notices as long as I use deodorant. If I don’t wash my hair no one at work says anything. If I miss meetings and events no one much notices. I joined the choir at church in the fall. One hope I had was that this would motivate me not to miss church. But that hasn’t worked very well. If I miss both rehearsal and services for two weeks, no one calls me. Since it’s just me, I don’t have to wash the dishes more than once a week or so. Laundry needs doing even less often – I have a lot of clothes. Besides, no one notices if I wear stuff again and again unless it’s something with obvious stains.

The point is, if I want to be lazy and self-pitying there is not much to stop me. This job is not the kind where I need to dress up … As long as I show up and do my part of the tasks; no one cares what happens elsewhere. So there are days when I stay in my pajamas until it’s time to go to work at three or four in the afternoon. I’m alone here and have no one to impress.

The job is a bright spot. Most of my co-workers and my immediate supervisor give me positive feedback about what I contribute. I don’t feel as if I am doing an especially outstanding job, and there are definitely tasks I avoid … I like cooking, so doing meal preparation is a favorite task. This makes me popular with the fulltime day staff who need to do a lot of paperwork during normal business hours when they can phone other facilities and agencies. Cooking is very visible to the residents, so I get a good deal of positive reinforcement from them, too.

The less quantifiable part of the job is the one-on-one interactions with the residents. I try to be as low key as possible about that … Mostly I focus on trying to make a connection with people, letting them know they aren’t alone, letting them know they have great potential for recovery and health, recognizing their progress. Sometimes the connection comes through talking about my experiences with (her son). Sometimes it comes from sharing normal life experiences …

… Most weekends I am in bed listening to the radio until noon, unless I am working. Lots of nights I fall asleep in the recliner in the living room and wake of at two or three in the morning. Then I get undressed and go to bed. I don’t know how the anti-depressant will affect that pattern. People tell me I should follow a set wake/sleep routine, but it is hard when I work a variable schedule. It is so easy for me to just fall asleep in the recliner whenever I get home.

I know this letter has been pretty self-absorbed. Venting, I suppose. I don’t have to keep up a front so you will think I am disciplined and faithful and resilient. I don’t feel that I am any of those things right now. But the job keeps me going with the hope that someone needs me. Sometimes that is enough.

It is enough, to feel needed. It is enough, sometimes, to hold onto her memories of the son she continues so deeply to love. To hold on, is enough to help her through another day.

Good memories can sustain us. Warm memories can comfort us. Beautiful memories can remind us of the love we have shared and the joys we have known.

Memories make up so much of who we are. They are an inestimable part of our essence and our character. They define us in ways we may never fully know.

Our special memories give us hope and they help us to keep going in challenging and uncertain seasons. Their great and positive power lies in their capacity to fill us with gratitude for the goodness and the grace we have received and known. They can transport us to places that are comforting and beautiful, places that bring special meaning to our lives.