Beautiful Short Stories will move readers to seek their own higher self. Many of these stories are about people who have found joy and peace in spite of loss and grief or personal suffering. They will inspire and encourage readers on their own spiritual journey.
One of many beautiful short stories I’ve collected over my lifetime, The Journey shares the tale of an ordinary person accomplishing extraordinary things. The subject of this story, through her teaching, community, and church work influenced the lives of all those with whom she came in contact. Ma Barefoot shared valuable lessons through the way she lived her life and in the way she approached her death.
Mary Jane “Ma” Barefoot was a beloved fixture in the North Carolina community where she had lived for almost 50 years. Always a teacher, she taught and showed me how to live life with unconditional love and generosity of spirit, and how to approach death with dignity, openness, honesty, and joy.
“My beans need picking,” Ma said as she instructed me to “jar up” some leftover food to take home. “But I can’t work out in the garden alone now. I’m afraid I’ll fall and those fire ants could destroy me before anyone could find me.”
“I’ll come on Saturday morning and help you,” I said.
“What time do you get up?”
“Tell me when you want me here” I said. “Seven? Seven-thirty?”
“Be here at 6:00” Ma said. “By 8:00 o’clock you have to quit because it’s too hot.”
I rolled out of bed at 5:15, made coffee, and headed to Ma’s. We were in the field by 6:30, held up half an hour by an unexpected thunder shower. I wore jeans, a tee shirt, and old sneakers. Ma headed out the backdoor barefoot and stopped to put on tennis shoes with holes in the top. We each took a three gallon bucket and put a wheelbarrow near the end of our row to empty the buckets into. The garden had rows of corn, cucumbers, squash, and string beans.
“I worked out here yesterday while my friend mowed grass. All we need to do is pick the beans.”
“Piece of cake,” I thought. “How long can this take?” We stood on either side of a long row that seemed to be half bean plants and half corn stalks.
I tackled my side of the row with confidence as Ma picked opposite me on the other side. We moved from plant to plant, each more heavily laden than the one before. Sweat beaded up on my forehead and ran down my nose, taking flying leaps into the bucket of beans. Ma, too, was sweating in no time. Within fifteen minutes we had our buckets filled. Ma instructed me to carry them back to the wheelbarrow and dump them in.
“Move over to the next row,” she shouted after me as I carried the heavy buckets, “so them fire ants won’t get you.”
I quickly jumped over the cucumber plants to a safer trail to the wheelbarrow. I was relieved to see that we were approaching the first corn stalk which I was thinking of as the finish line.
As we approached the corn stalks, it became apparent that our work was just beginning. More beans were planted between each stalk, and the row went on forever!
“The garden has always been my joy. Before Pop (Ma’s deceased husband of nearly 50 years) died we worked in it together. I have pushed a plow all over this garden. Don’t you think Pop is proud of my crop?” It was more of a statement than a question. “I believe he sees all this; I feel him with me all the time.” I headed back to the wheelbarrow, laden with two buckets of beautiful beans. The end of the row was in sight.
“When we finish this row we only have a half row left,” Ma said as I returned with the empty buckets. “That’s when you’re thankful you only planted half a row instead of another full one,” she said with a smile.
We asked each other every few minutes how the other was doing, and the answer was always the same: “fine.” But the sun was beating down, and Ma watched as I made the third trip to the wheelbarrow. Sweat was dripping off our faces, my tee shirt was stuck to my body, and my jeans felt heavy with water and dirt.
“I thought, ‘O, Lordy, you’re going to die’, when you stood up that last time”, Ma said. “I heard your heavy breathing.”
I didn’t say so, but I considered it a minor miracle that I was breathing at all. We were almost finished with the beans. I have never seen myself as particularly competitive, and my higher Self would like to think that I wasn’t hanging in there to keep an 83 year old from showing me up. But we all have our shallow places.
After I had emptied the last of the buckets of beans, we started back to the house. I wondered how she could ever use all those beans. My answer came right away. She kicked off her muddy shoes and invited me into the house.
“Dial this number for me,” she said and I dialed the phone and handed it to her. “Do you want some fresh beans?” she said to someone on the other end of the line. “Luleen and me have picked beans and we’re going to bring you some.
“That’s my 97 year old friend, Miss Billie,” Ma said. “She’s blind and she loves fresh beans. And we’ll take a bag to my friend Lila. She’s had surgery and she fell yesterday but we’re rejoicing that she was able to get up. Get four of those store bags and we’ll fill them up. You take two for yourself. We’ll take one to Lila and one to Miss Billie.”
We filled up the bags and I put them in the car. Ma climbed into the car barefoot and directed me to Miss Billie’s home. I waited in the car as my tiny little friend with her small bare feet climbed the back steps and handed the bag to an elderly woman who opened the door.
“I didn’t call Lila ‘cause she might still be asleep. We’ll just leave her beans at her back door.” We did. “This is such a joy to me,” Ma said. Her eyes sparkled and danced as she climbed back in the car and we left unnoticed.
“Two friends are coming this afternoon to put plants in my barrels in the front yard,” Ma said. “They’ll plant flowers and I’ll feed them. I’ll give Olive some beans, and I’ll see if Chuck and Charlene want some when they come to see me this afternoon. I parked the car in Ma’s driveway and we returned to the wheelbarrow and poured two buckets of water over the remaining beans. Then we scooped them into a bucket with holes in the bottom and set them on the back steps to dry. Ma was radiant. At that moment I realized that by her daily actions she defined the concept of community. She was loved and appreciated and treasured, and she gave love and joy in return.
It was time for me to go. “I wish I could tell you the joy it gave me to have you on the other side of that row, picking those beans with me,” she said. “Don’t die, now; they’ll need picking again in a couple of weeks.”
I nodded and gave her a ‘thumb’s up’ as I drove away, tired but exhilarated. As was often the case when I was in Ma’s presence, something magical had happened. I came to understand that this experience wasn’t about picking beans in the early morning light; not about tilling the soil. It was about sharing and nurturing. It was about tilling the soul.
That was the last summer of Ma’s garden. Complications from diabetes took its toll and Ma became unable to work in her garden or to do many of the things she had enjoyed. She knew she was terminally ill. But she continued the things she could do that she had done all her life, caring for others. Most of her efforts were focused on young people.
As a second grade teacher at Wrightsboro Elementary School for 25 years, Ma had a special love for children, often saying, “Young-uns are my business.” She paid for at least eight young people to attend college. She loved teaching and wanted to encourage young people to become teachers. She told me that, whether we know it or not, we are all teachers. “And we’d best be paying attention to what we’re teaching,” she would say with a twinkle in her eye. Ma kept in touch with her ‘young-uns’ around the world by sending them cards of love and encouragement. She sealed every envelope with a hand-drawn smiley face and the word ‘joy.’
“Sending these cards is my ministry and it brings me such joy.”
“How do you think I’ll die?” Ma asked her doctor as her condition worsened.
“I think when the time comes, you will just go to sleep and not wake up,” she told Ma. “And you won’t have any pain.”
“Well, that’s good,” Ma said. Afterwards, she assured her family and friends,
“When it’s time, I’m just going to go to sleep. It’s all right. I’m ready to go. I’m not afraid of dying because I know where I’m going.”
Ma never once asked how long she had to live. “You and me have some work to do,” she told me in one of her frequent early morning phone calls. “Come over and we’ll plan my funeral. I’ll tell you what I want and you can write it all down.”
I went over the next morning, pen and pad in hand. Ma was radiant as she joyfully dictated the entire funeral service, including songs to be sung, and scriptures to be read. “Maybe we better list a couple extra pallbearers,” she suggested, “because I don’t know exactly what day I’ll die, so someone we’ve listed might be busy that day. And, don’t forget to remind my son to pay the preacher and the pianist. We almost forgot after Pop’s funeral.”
Ma then dictated a list of her cherished insights; what she believed in; what she lived by — which, along with the funeral directive, she asked be given to the minister to help in preparing his remarks. “You know you write your eulogy by the way you live,” she said. “But remember, now, nobody wants to listen to a forty-eight hour sermon!”
She laughed and told jokes and held court from her recliner for the many friends and neighbors who had known and loved her for decades. “I wouldn’t take nothing for my journey now,” she told them.
When word got out that Ma was dying, people came to visit, asking for her prayers and blessings. A parade of men and women who had been her students came, reminisced, and hugged and thanked her. She recognized each one and called him/her by name. By this time she was unable to rise from her chair unassisted, but she reached out to touch every person who made the pilgrimage to her door.
Unable to walk now, Ma welcomed the hospital bed, supplemental oxygen, and hospice care. She began to sleep much of the time, an unaccustomed luxury, since a good night’s rest was something that had eluded her most of her life. “This bed is wonderful! I’ve slept more the past few days than I’ve slept in years.”
“How are you feeling, Ma?” I would inquire.
“Oh, I’m feeling cute!” she responded with good humor. “And being waited on is like being at the Hilton!”
During the last two weeks Ma was unable to get out of bed. Much of the time her frail body was curled up in a fetal position. “I’m trying to die gracefully,” she said. “But this is taking a while. I guess I just need to practice. But it’s all right – whenever I’m supposed to go, I’ll go.”
None of Ma’s family and friends ever offered her the sort of bland hope that her life would miraculously be extended; she never would have wanted that. Instead, she looked forward to the transition with a sense of expectancy. “I thought for sure I’d die last night,” Ma said as I walked to her bed and took her hand. “I saw Pop and he was all shimmery, like he was in heaven.”
She asked to see her great-grandson, who was carried in his mother’s arms to her bedside.
“Helwo,” three-year-old Alexander said. Ma could barely open her eyes but she tried to reach up to him. “Look at how you’ve growed! Bye-bye,” she told the boy, both a farewell and a benediction.
“Bye-Bye,” Alexander said as he was taken from the room. His mother leaned against the metal bed rail to give her grandmother a hug, her very large pregnant belly pressing against the rail.
Ma caught her second wind. “Now don’t smush lil’ Peanut’s face!” she said, her hand reaching out and resting on her granddaughter’s abdomen. Ma smiled when she felt the baby’s kick.
“That’s okay, Ma – we’ll just get him plastic surgery on his nose if he needs it.”
“I’m going to rest now,” Ma said. “But don’t worry about Peanut. I’ve done laid a blessing on him.” It was late afternoon. Ma slept through the night.
“Well, Ma, how are you today?” Glenn, her son Abram’s wife, asked upon her arrival early the following morning.
“I’m great but this here situation is miserable. I’m ready to go to heaven but it’s just taking a while. But I’m glad you’re here; tell me all about what’s going on.” Ma maintained an interest in everyone, asking questions about her friends and neighbors. Later as her strength faded, she continued to have people asking her to pray for them. Finally she said, “It’s too late for that now. I’m just wore out. I don’t even have the strength to pray for myself.”
“You’ve laid up prayers for years for all those you’ve known and loved,” I assured her. “They will be fine.”
“We all have to walk that lonesome valley,” Ma whispered as I stroked her face. “That’s where I am now, in the valley. But you’ve been with me all the way. Just rub my feet one more time.”
Ma turned to Glenn. “I saw Pop again last night,” she said weakly. “And he was walking! Isn’t that something! You know he couldn’t walk before he died. He was standing right there in the door and he said he’d come for me.” Glenn sat at the bedside and began to read Ma’s favorite Psalms to her. Ma did not stir for a while. Finally she said, “I hear frogs. I hear a frog a-croaking. Do you hear them croaking? Maybe that’s how I’m gonna die – croaking with the frogs!” There was no energy for laughter, but her tiny body moved slightly and she smiled.
Another day passed. “I feel like I need to burp,” Ma said after asking for ice chips. I leaned her forward and patted and rubbed her back. After some small attempts Ma said she couldn’t get the big burp up that she needed to. “Maybe this is how I’m going to die,” she said.
“Ma, I’ve never heard of anyone dying from lack of burping, but if you do it will be a medical miracle and I’ll have to write an article about it.”
“An article? Lord God, write a whole book!” Her attempt at humor exhausted her, and she lay back and closed her eyes. “I love you,” she said. “I’m going to rest now.”
“Her respiration rate has slowed to only three breaths per hour,” the nurse on duty observed when I arrived the following day.
“Her hands are cold,” I said as I took them in mine.
“Yes, her spirit’s leaving,” the nurse said as she left the room
“It’s okay if you are ready to let go, Ma,” I whispered in her ear. “We love you; we’ll be fine.” She didn’t move. I put my face against hers and sang softly in her ear the three songs she had asked to be sung at her funeral: “Jesus Loves Me,” “Jesus Loves the
Little Children,” and “His Eye is on the Sparrow (and I know He watches me).” When I finished singing and kissed her forehead, there was a slight movement of her hand in mine.
Her family gathered around her. A few hours later, in the deep, dark quiet of the midnight hour, with her son and grandson holding her hands, Ma completed her journey.
*A portion of this story appeared in The Knack of a Happy Life
From Ashes to Snowballs
The death of a parent has devastating effects on young children. Beautiful short stories such as this allow the reader to see how one family learned to cope with a mother’s untimely death and to move forward, embracing life.
Rachel and William lost their mother suddenly when they were fourteen. As a clinician, teacher, mother, friend, and godmother I share our story, with their permission. We hope it will help others. My godchildren were 9 when their parents decided to move from Boston to North Carolina. Their mother, Emily, urged me to sell my home and come with them. I had been divorced for several years and my son was in college in Georgia, where I grew up.
“Live with us in an in-law apartment and we’ll take care of you in your old age,” she said. “Wilmington is a university town so you can teach and you know they’ll need psychologists there. And anyway, Rachel and William won’t leave if you don’t come.”
We made the move. Five years later, Emily was dead. Rachel and William were three weeks shy of their 15th birthday when they came home from school and found their 38-year-old mother in bed, having died in her sleep.
“Rachel and William were their mother’s crowning achievement,” the Episcopal priest said during the eulogy. She was right. The twins each faced indescribable pain, grief, and loss throughout the difficult, vulnerable season of adolescence. But in the end, they paid the price of suffering, and triumphed.
“I don’t believe this is happening to me; Mom wouldn’t do this,” William sobbed in my arms. He had spent the night after his mother’s death with a good friend next door. “When I woke up, I looked over and saw James in the same room we always sleep in and I thought ‘Mom didn’t die; it was just a bad dream.’”
The priest came to our home the day before the funeral to plan the service. Rachel and William, their father, and I made suggestions and requests regarding the service.
“Leen, I don’t want to do this,” Rachel whispered to me as we walked down the aisle of the church.
“Me, either,” I said. “We’ll get through this together.” We sat on the front row and listened to their mother’s close friend give a moving eulogy. Hundreds of people had filled the church, many of whom were Rachel and William’s teachers. William sat between me and his father, his hand in mine. As one of the readers moved to the lectern wearing heels, her ankle turned and she slipped momentarily.
William leaned over to me and whispered, “That’s why I don’t wear high heels.” I squeezed his hand. “Your mom always loved your sense of humor,” I whispered. Appropriate expressions of humor bode well at such times.
That night began a ritual that was to continue for several months. William would arrive at my in-law apartment in their home with his sleeping bag and ask if he could sleep beside my bed. The answer was always yes. Soon, Rachel would arrive, and they would talk until they could fall asleep. After several nights of this we shared a little laughter as I referred to the sleeping arrangements as a dorm, and suggested we have rules.
“What are the rules?” they asked.
“The only one I can think of right now is that your sleeping bags not block my path to the bathroom! If that happens, there will be severe consequences.” They laughed at my mock seriousness.
“I feel like we’ve slept in your room before,” William said, “but I can’t remember when.”
“You did, when we lived in Boston. Remember when you were five and your house burned? You two and Mom and Papa lived with me for a while.” They remembered. “You two slept on either side of my bed in your sleeping bags.”
We talked about that loss, about Rachel’s room being totally destroyed and the rest of the house being severely damaged by fire, smoke, and water. They recalled my taking them to Sears to buy pajamas and underwear, since their clothes were ruined. Most of all, they remembered the clothes and food that friends and church members delivered day after day. They remembered living in a condo for more than a year while the house was re-built. I reminded them of the lesson their mom had taught them about accepting help and support, and about not using personal tragedy as an excuse for poor attitude or behaviors. We talked about the gift their mother had given them in the way she supported them at that time when they were very afraid and anxious. Talking about that earlier loss and their mastery of that situation made it easier to get beyond the current pain.
Aiming for a light note on which to say good-night, I told them about my favorite memory from that earlier time when they slept in my room.
“The first night you were there,” I told them, “William woke up in the middle of the night, sat straight up, looked around the room and said, ‘Leen, I really like this god-house!’”
“Well, you were my godmother, and that was your house!” We all laughed.
Nights were particularly tough times for the twins. Their father had to leave early in the morning for work, so he needed to say goodnight before the twins’ bedtime. Rachel and William stayed in their area of the house until their father retired and then they and their sleeping bags would arrive at my door. Often, they curled up beside me in bed for a few minutes before the lights were turned out. Later, when I would hear one of them crying, I would get up and lie down beside them, stroking their back and temples until they fell asleep. It was during one of these times that William voiced his wish to move away.
“Do you think Mom can hear everything we’re saying?” Rachel asked me as she lay in my bed, her head on my shoulder. It was past midnight and she had been crying inconsolably for a long time.
“I think your mom would want you to say whatever you need to say that will make you feel better.”
“You do? Are you sure?”
“Yes, I’m very sure.”
“OK, then, I’m going to say that I am really mad at her for dying.”
“I think your Mom is very proud of you for letting her know how you’re feeling. I think she’s giving you a ‘thumbs up’ right now.” We talked about our anger, sadness, and loneliness. I held her close.
After a long while, Rachel’s tears stopped and she became very pensive. “Mom and I used to drive out to the beach and watch the dolphins. But I can’t remember which bridge we stood on. Can you help me find it?”
We dressed quietly, slipped out of the house into the dark night, and took the 15 minute ride to the beach. We drove until she was sure she had located the bridge, and I pulled over for a few minutes as she told me of her visits there with her mother. I had not known about these.
“If you want me to bring you here again, I will, but if you want this to be a wonderful memory of something very special between you and your mom that you don’t want to share, that’s understandable.” Rachel thanked me, and we drove home. She never asked to return, but drove there alone when she was old enough.
Several months after his mother’s death, William said to me, “I’m feeling really strange because I can’t remember any more what Mom’s voice sounded like.”
“Your mom spoke with many voices,” I said. “You may not remember how her voice sounded, but you can remember what her voice taught you and how it made you feel, especially when she said things that made you feel loved.” Together we recalled such incidents; I would supply the words I remembered his mother saying, and William would supply the feelings her words had created in him.
Neither Rachel nor William could go into the church sanctuary for Sunday service for a long while. Rachel ran the nursery each week, where she excelled in her commitment to children and received appreciation and affection from mothers who left their children in her care. After a few months, she would come into the sanctuary at the end of the service to receive communion. Occasionally, she would then go to the sacristy where her mother’s ashes were kept for several months in a small box encased in a green velvet pouch.
William found his way through his grief in activities with the Boy Scouts. Eighteen months after his mother’s death, he achieved the rank of Eagle Scout. His project involved building a memorial garden at his church. Later he won many service awards and was elected to national office in the Boy Scouts.
It had been 14 months and Emily’s ashes were still in the church’s sacristy. The family was still divided over what to do with them. Emily’s mother wanted the ashes buried next to Emily’s father who had died when she was 12. Their father was sure Emily wanted her ashes scattered, not buried. We all knew that Emily wanted some of her ashes buried with her husband when he died.
The call came early one morning from William, “Papa’s taking the day off and we’re driving up to the mountains to scatter Mom’s ashes,” he said. “Is that all right with you?”
“If you three are ready, I think it’s a great idea. What’s the plan?”
“We’ve set some ashes aside to give to Grandma, and Rachel and I have kept a few out to bury with Papa when he dies. The rest we’re going to scatter at the top of a mountain. Don’t you think that’s what Mom would have wanted?”
“I really do. That would please your mom very much.”
William called as soon as they returned.
“Leen, it was awesome!” he said.
“Tell me all about it.”
“We got to the top of a mountain in the car and found a good place to pull off the road. It started to snow just as we stopped. We took the ashes and Rachel read a little prayer. I said a few words, thanking Mom for all she did for us and telling her we loved her, and then Papa scooped up some ashes and scattered them in the snow. He really got his hands dirty! It was so beautiful!
“Then, Rachel and I started making snowballs and Rachel mentioned how Mom had taught us how to make snow angels. She plopped down in the snow and began moving her arms and legs to make an angel. We started laughing and then we put some of Mom’s ashes in snowballs and threw them down the mountain. It felt so good, and we knew she was laughing, too!”
And the Walls Came Tumbling Down
The following short story can be considered an epilogue, if you will, to Fill Me Up to Empty. It is the true story of Josh, an autistic-like child and his struggle to understand his chaotic life and to make a place for himself in a world which for him was both frightening and undecipherable. I highly recommend that you first acquaint yourself with Josh by reading Fill Me Up to Empty. Doing so will enable this short story to have more depth and meaning for you. –Luleen
It had been 35 years since I had last seen or heard from Josh, but the memories had not faded. From time to time I had thought of writing his story, as we had discussed when his therapy with me ended when he was twelve.
I had gone through many changes in my life, and now the time seemed right to begin work on the manuscript. I set out to find Josh and his parents, to ask if they were still interested in my writing about our time together and if so, to obtain their written permission. It took some effort, but I finally located him. I wrote Josh a letter asking if it was all right to be in touch. The telephone call came on the evening of the day he received my letter.
“Is it all right that I found you after all these years?” I asked, anxiously.
“I never stopped fantasizing that you would,” Josh said.
“I’m wondering if you’d still like me to write the story of our time together,” I said.
“Well, yes, but how would that go?”
“I’d like to share with others all the things you taught me and all the things you learned to do. Remember the list we made?”
“Yes! Do you still have that list?”
“I do. Do you remember what was the number one item on your list of things you had learned?”
Josh’s voice was exuberant. “Not stupid!” he said.
I also made contact with Josh’s mother, got the necessary permissions, and in a few months I finished the book, which I titled, Fill Me Up to Empty.
The release date for the book was three months away when I received pre-publication copies. I called Josh and his mother again and arranged to come for a visit and to give them autographed copies. I was excited about seeing Josh and his mom, but somewhat anxious as to how things would go.
My son (not yet born when initial therapy with Josh ended) knew the book was being published. Though I gave him a copy, he had expressed no interest in reading it. Growing up with parents who wrote and published had not impressed him. He had never ready my first book, Sunday Came Early This Week. When I told him that I had arranged to visit Josh he offered to make the long trip with me in order to do most of the driving, and I accepted. I looked forward to the company on the long trip. We would spend the night in a nearby hotel and my son would ‘play tourist’, while I spent several hours with Josh and his mother.
A few days before we were to leave, I received a surprising email from my son. It read: “Mom, I’ve finished Fill Me Up to Empty, and I really like it. It’s a wonderful story and Josh is a very special person. I’d like to meet him if it’s okay.”
I knew it would be.
During the long drive, my son (now an adult on a career path he enjoyed) asked probing, insightful questions about the book and about Josh. His attention had been caught in a way I had not seen before. I was pleased that something about Josh had captured a special place in my son’s heart. It renewed my faith that this book could be helpful to other readers.
When we arrived at the hotel, we checked in and then went to the lobby to wait for the arrival of Josh and his mother. I carried autographed copies of the book for them, and walked around the lobby restlessly. My son stood nearby, and made it clear that he wanted to be a part of all this. Within a few minutes the 48-year-old man I had not seen since he was twelve and his 84-year-old mother walked through the door. For a moment, time stood still. I was transported 35 years back in time, far away from my current surroundings.
My plan that my son would be introduced and then meet us later for dinner quickly evaporated as Josh’s mother invited him to go with us to see Josh’s apartment. We piled into her car, my son in the front seat, Josh and I in the back. He still had a disarmingly innocent smile and his twinkling eyes locked on my face with a familiar intensity. As we drove through town, Josh pointed out the retail store where he has been employed for 11 years. Then he spoke to my son: “Let’s see, Eric, your birthday is on October 13, 19…” It was more a statement than a question.
“Yes,” Eric said, startled. “How did you know that?”
Josh smiled. “Well,” he said, “your mother told me when we stopped seeing each other that she was pregnant and I asked her to tell me when the baby came and she called and told me just after you were born.”
“You’ve remembered this for over thirty years,” my son said, shaking his head.
We spent more than two hours at Josh’s apartment, an assisted living complex where Josh has his own bedroom but shares the apartment with three other autistic adults. They all live independently during the day, and a counselor comes in the afternoons, assists with meal preparation and evening chores/activities, then spends the night. Josh showed me his room, his reading materials, pictures of him in various activities. There was a newspaper clipping quoting comments Josh had made to a group, and Playbill of Our Town listing Josh as taking the role of Wally. He had copies of everything ready to give me.
In the living room, Josh and I sat on the couch as he brought me up to date on his life during the past 35 years. My son and Josh’s mother sat across the room, listening as the two of us quickly connected in the same intense way we had years before. We soon forgot we had an audience as we talked and laughed and shook our heads in disbelief that this conversation was taking place.
Josh told of the very tough times in his life, of the jobs gotten and lost, of misunderstandings and slights, of ridicule and rejection, of success and, finally, of his feeling that his life was more on track. He told it all in painstaking detail, with a memory for time and place and dates that amazed me. His stories were sprinkled with humor and wit, and were devoid of anger or hatred or malice. He smiled when he told about losing his job at IHOP because he did something ‘wrong’ and then later having his job offered again. Laughter accompanied another story of having been fired this time by a cleaning firm because when assigned to clean a doctor’s office he’d spent too much time reading the psychiatric books in the office, rather than cleaning. Once he’d burned a hole in an expensive office carpet because he left the vacuum cleaner turned on while he read books off a nearby bookcase.
“I think Josh would like to talk with you alone,” his mother said. Josh nodded. We agreed that we would return to the hotel, that Eric and Josh’s mother would leave Josh and me to talk in a secluded area off the lobby. We would meet at the hotel dining room for dinner.
Josh went upstairs to change his clothes and came down wearing slacks, a button-down shirt, and a beautiful blazer. He looks like Harrison Ford, I thought, as I watched him walk confidently down the stairs. I saw no trace of the 11-year-old boy who had been unable to bathe or dress himself without assistance. I wondered when the lump in my throat would go away.
We sat down in a quiet corner of the hotel lobby. Josh’s mother headed for the gift shop; my son returned to his room. Josh was sitting within inches of my face, as he did as a child, and suddenly I was back in my old office. The conversation was easy, direct, and poignant. Josh wanted to discuss with me his needs and issues as an adult, and especially his interest in seeing a new therapist. This time he wanted to see “a man who knows adults like me.” I agreed to help him find someone in his city who would be a good match for him.
“What has been the most difficult thing for you over all these years, Josh?” I asked. He didn’t hesitate. “Always being at the mercy of others,” he said. I reached out to touch his arm. “And I am concerned that I have taken up too much of my mother’s time,” he added. “She’s spent a lot of time taking care of me, and now she’s getting old…” His voice grew soft, and the twinkle left his eyes.
I talked with him about his mother as I knew her, about her commitment to him and his care, and her delight in all his progress. I told him what I truly believed: that his mother loved him beyond measure, and that she had not seen his care as a burden. I told him stories of her tenacity in getting help for him over the years. There was silence, and Josh seemed lost in thought.
Eric was the first to arrive at the restaurant. He was carrying his copy of Fill Me Up to Empty, which I had not known that he’d brought with him.
“I was hoping that you might sign this for me,” Eric (who had never sought an autograph from anyone) said. Josh’s eyes lit up. “You want me to sign your book?” he asked.
“If you would,” my son replied. I stood motionless, my heart raced, tears played around the corners of my eyes.
Josh’s mother arrived and we were seated in the main dining room of the Hilton. I remembered how I had worked with Josh, teaching him how to use utensils, and the times we had gone to cafeterias so he could practice ordering food and choosing correct silverware. Josh took a pen I offered and opened my son’s book. Carefully, he wrote the following: “Eric, Thank you for coming such a long way, just to meet me. Josh”. He handed the book back to Eric and we opened our menus.
The waitress took my order, and then turned to Josh. Josh put his linen napkin in his lap. In a clear, steady voice he ordered a full-course meal, specified how he wanted his steak cooked, chose the type of potato he wanted and selected a vegetable. He then turned to talk with me while Eric and his mother gave their orders. It was a thrilling moment. Josh was participating in casual dinner conversation, holding his own, something he could not do as a child. My son looked at me and smiled.
“I think you saved Josh’s life,” Josh’s mother said softly.
“I think you deserve much of the credit,” I replied. “You were so strong and loving and committed to Josh’s getting quality care. I have always admired what you have been able and willing to do.” Josh listened without saying anything. Then he turned to my son.
“Your full name is Eric Alan, so I’ve wondered if you are a junior.” Eric explained that he had his father’s middle name only. “But how did you know my full name?” Josh smiled. “Your mother told me when she was going to have a baby that if it was a boy she was going to name him Eric Alan, and then I saw her a couple of times about a year later and she told me she did have a boy.”
We talked a bit about Fill Me Up to Empty and Josh’s mother asked about my first book, Sunday Came Early This Week. I described it briefly, told her I would see that she got a copy of it, and mentioned that it had been compared to I Never Promised You a Rose Garden, and to Dibs; In Search of Self. “Did you read Dibs? Josh asked me. “It was written by Virginia Axline.”
“That was a favorite of mine years ago,” I said. “Have you read it?”
“Well, yes I did,” Josh said. “It was very interesting. But I thought I Never Promised You a Rose Garden was the name of a song.
“I think there is a song by that name, too,” I said.
“Yes,” Josh said. “I think it was sung by somebody named Lynn Anderson, so I wondered if she was related to you.”
“Not that I know of,” I said. I was shocked that Josh could read and absorb books at this level, and that he could carry on a conversation so comfortably. We finished our meals and the waitress cleared the table and offered coffee. Our visit was coming to a close.
I turned to Josh. “I’ve been asking you so many questions, Josh, and I’m wondering if you have any questions for me before we say goodbye.”
“Well, I do have one but it’s about your son and I don’t know if it’s too personal.”
“I don’t think it will be,” I reassured him.
“Well, I’ve read a lot about children of psychologists and psychiatrists having lots of troubles and problems and I’ve just wondered what it’s been like for him having a psychologist for a mother?”
“That’s a good question,” I said with a smile. “But I guess Eric will have to answer that.”
Josh re-started his question, looking directly at Eric.
“I never thought of my mom as a psychologist while I was growing up,” Eric said. “She’s always just been my mother. I don’t think her being a psychologist was ever a problem for me.”
“I like that answer,” I said. “I’m off the hook.”
Josh smiled, “So it’s okay that I asked you that?”
“Yes, of course,” Eric said.
We said goodbye in the hotel lobby. I reminded Josh that I would do some research and find him a local therapist that would be a good match for him. I asked if I might come back for another visit. Josh and his mother seemed pleased and extended an invitation.
“Mom, Josh is incredible,” Eric said as we walked away. Overcome with emotion, I could only nod my head in agreement.
“Do you think that you will come back again?” he asked as we packed the car to begin the long journey home.
“I think that I probably will,” I responded. “Why?”
“If it’s all right, I want to come with you,” he said.
“I’d like that,” I answered.
From Suffering to Transformation: A Spiritual Journey
Two women faced life-threatening illnesses and share how what could have been tragedy turned out to be a gift. This beautiful short story is a must-read for anyone facing illness and suffering and wanting to learn how to overcome it.
Her world was vibrant and she was an active participant in it until a life-threatening auto-immune disease changed her life’s trajectory.
Glenn came into my world at the time we were each grieving the loss of a mutual friend. We supported each other in our grief and helped each other get beyond the loss. Through the years we have shared with each other the experiences that have been part of our spiritual journeys. We have shared love and laughter, pain and suffering, joy and peace. Our friendship has allowed each of us to explore who we are, to grow, to seek our authentic selves, and to deepen our spirituality.
As an adult in her 50s, my friend became deathly ill from unknown causes. After months of tests performed by physicians in various medical disciplines, she was diagnosed with Primary Biliary Cirrhosis, a life-threatening autoimmune disease which affects the bile ducts, preventing them from removing toxins from the liver. Glenn became aware that her life would never be the same. For years she has endured painful procedures and been treated by several specialists in various medical facilities. She did research on the condition and she and I attended regional and national conferences on the topic. Glenn began to accept the serious limitations to her normal functioning.
Perhaps Glenn’s need to rest contributed to opportunities for our long, leisurely conversations. I had shared information about my childhood, including a near-death experience with diphtheria that changed not only my childhood but my entire life. I was out of school for two years and when I returned I was older and more mature than my classmates and became the teaches’ pet. Later, teachers mentored me, encouraging me to go to college and made it possible for me to attend.
My parents had only an elementary education, so they did not encourage college for any of us. If not for these teachers who saw my potential, I would never have gone to college, to graduate school, and on to receive my Ph.D. From graduate school I went on to enjoy a successful career as a clinical psychologist, as a mother, and as a writer.
Glenn grew up in an educated family in Roanoke, VA, a metropolis compared to my rural upbringing. Yet her challenges seemed equally great.
“What was it like growing up in your family?” I asked.
“We were poor enough to need family hand-outs” she told me. Yet, my Grandmother had strong ideas about what was ‘proper’. In my family, appearance was everything, trumping reality every time.” Glenn went on to say, “My so-called aristocratic family did set a record of sorts. In just five generations they produced 17 bona fide alcoholics, all successful of course because to be unsuccessful would be just too ‘common’.”
Glenn’s spiritual development had its roots in her early childhood. Born in the 1940s, she was the daughter of alcoholic parents. In one of our conversations she said that her parents “lived their lives in denial, pretending to be members of the aristocracy when in fact, I often heard my father called “Poor Charlie.” After he came back from fighting in WW II, he could not hold down a job or control his rage.”
Due to her home-life situation during her early years, she isolated herself, spending much of her time alone in her room creating her own world through her vivid imagination. Glenn developed a rich fantasy life from her ‘School for Stuffed Animals’ which she founded and served as Head Teacher, to pinning creatures gathered from her yard into a notebook called ‘A Book of Bugs and Worms’ which she kept in her basement. Under each specimen she included a short description: ‘Moves fast’, ‘Has long wings’. After a few weeks, a horrible smell emanated from the basement. “My scientific experiment led to the discovery that dead bugs and worms start to smell, and that they should be left in their natural environment.”
“Creativity is intelligence having fun,” Einstein said. I admire Glenn’s creativity which began in early childhood. She described it as connecting her to the Divine. “Sometimes I have at least 10 creative ideas before breakfast,” she said. Her mother, who loved theatre and had been a local sensation on the amateur stage, insisted Glenn take a role on a Saturday morning children’s TV show.
As an adult she became a gifted teacher, the creator of several educational programs at the state and national level, a successful grant writer and later a mentor to disadvantaged children, teaching them creative outlets for expressing themselves. “I like including art, music, and drama in teaching, and in all my activities.” I reminded her that she is also a gifted editor, making the writer’s material come to life.
“I just punch it up,” she said. “And it’s great fun for me.”
We both laughed. “Maybe this is where some of your creativity began,” I wondered.
“Maybe so, she said with a smile. “Some of this creativity comes from a period of relative isolation following a serious accident I had when I was about seven.”
“What happened?” I wanted to know.
“I was playing in the backyard and climbed on the roof of a low shed. I fell off and ripped off part of my face, requiring several painful operations. I was frightened, and my heavily-bandaged face made it difficult to talk. But I managed to ask my mother, ‘What is going to happen to me?’ My mother took my hand. ‘Don’t worry,’ she said. ‘I have been praying all the time you were in surgery. I have put you in God’s hands and He has told me that you will be beautiful on the inside and out. God has assured me that you will be fine.’ I believed her. “
“Now the scars are all gone,” I said.
“Yes, physically and I think emotionally, too. I learned a lot from this time in my life and I still think about it from time to time.”
For Glenn, a medication called Urso not only stopped the progression of her liver disease, but also reversed some of its effects. But it took enormous amounts of time, patience, and commitment to follow the necessary steps to curb the disease. In addition to the medication, she had to follow a strict diet: low-sodium, no fatty or fried foods, no red meat, no alcohol, no dairy products. “I spend so much time identifying what I can eat, shopping for it and then preparing a meal,” she said.
“Sometimes I wonder if I still have a meaningful life if all I do is follow this rigid diet and the demands of taking care of my body. My yoga training and my exercise class help deal with various pains, soreness and stiffness. Sometimes I feel like an old, broken-down piece of furniture. Then I remember the Leonard Cohen line, ‘There is a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in.’”
Following this rigorous diet, and later becoming gluten-free, Glenn’s health improved dramatically and she was no longer considered to be in crisis. Instead, she was seen as chronically ill, but stable. This news inspired those of us who had, for many months, watched with sadness as her health progressively worsened. Now we all had hope.
Glenn accepted that her medical condition would require life-long constraints, but she was determined to take the best care of herself without letting this disease define who she was. I accompanied her on almost all of her doctors’ visits and to all of the national and regional PBC conferences she attended. It was during these stressful times that we began to talk about our spiritual journeys, in what ways our stories were similar, and how she understood her own journey. These discussions would bring both tears and laughter, and a growing sense of the deep bond that had developed between us.
“Can I ask how you saw your parents when you were young?” Glenn curled up on my couch. “Well,” she began, “From my perspective as a small child, the War Between the States came shortly after Jesus in order of importance. For me, history consisted of Jesus, then something called The Dark Ages, and then the Civil War which, my parents insisted, destroyed the glorious South. They never spoke of Daddy’s wounds or his medals from his service which I discovered in a box after he died. To them, nothing important had happened since the South lost that other war.
“Because members of my family had served as Confederate soldiers, the Civil War conveyed upon my family their social position among the landed gentry. The problem was, it wasn’t real. My parents held on to this belief and insisted that we share in this charade. My father was a broken man, increasingly turning to alcohol. My mother saw herself a gifted, frustrated actress who gave up a budding career for her family. She also began to drink heavily. I can remember that when I was a child all parenting ceased as ‘happy hour’ began and continued through the evening. I lay awake in my bed, sometimes crying, too afraid to get out of bed to go to the bathroom for fear of being seen.” Tears filled my eyes as I thanked her for telling me this story. It was getting late and we said goodnight.
As a child, Glenn was taken to church by neighbors and she sang in the choir. Later, as an adult, she joined a local Episcopal church, sang in the choir, and involved herself with church members who were community activists. “Giving up on ever having the ability to help my family,” Glenn told me, “I looked for ways to help others. I still do.”
Her love of languages and her interest in other cultures have played a major role in Glenn’s journey. When she was 14 she was hired by her Sunday school teacher to spend the summer traveling with the family as a nanny to the teacher’s four-year-old child. When they visited El Paso, she met her first Spanish-speaking friends and she fell in love with the language and the culture.
Later, she spent a summer in school in Spain, living with a local family and learning the language. And she fell in love with this family’s son Damaso. “At the end of the summer I contacted my parents to tell them I would not be returning home. ‘I’ve sold my return ticket and I’m going to stay here, work in the wheat fields, and become fluent in Spanish. Why should I come back there to study Spanish when I can learn it here? And besides, I may be getting married!’
“My parents thought I was crazy. The next week, the Guardia Civil arrived and dispatched me to the nearest American Consulate where a return ticket awaited. Angry at my parents and sad over leaving my boyfriend, I returned home, re-entered college and continued studying languages: Russian, Portuguese, and Italian since I had pretty well conquered my major. I soon discovered that I was gifted in languages, and wanted to pursue a career teaching. But alas, after graduation I did what kids of alcoholics usually do: I married a verbally-abusive, neglectful alcoholic, whom my family embraced because he had aristocratic credentials. It was after 13 years of marriage and the birth of two children, that, with good therapy, I finally found the courage to divorce him.
“I was a lost soul, devastated,” she said. “I continued therapy, joined a local church, stayed busy rearing the children, all the while seeking to make some sense of my life. I fell into a deep hole of depression that would take me years to climb out of. I’m so blessed that both my children survived these years with my weak mothering skills to become successful adults who, along with two grandchildren, enrich my life so.
“This has been a spiritual journey for me,” she said, “taking me to the depths of despair before lifting me up and setting me on a higher path. I have used therapy several times in my life, especially during times of crises. I worked hard during these sessions to explore and understand myself and to operate from my Highest Self. I’m still trying,” Glenn added. “And after marrying again I have been blessed with 35 years of love and support and happiness, as well as having had someone who loved and supported my children.”
I thought of the words of Lao-Tzu, “He who knows others is wise; he who knows himself is enlightened.”
Glenn’s traveling, which has included long stays in India and Mexico, continues to enrich her life. “From early on, I became even more aware of my language skills, and that I could communicate across cultures and belief systems.” In each country she stays long enough to immerse herself in the lives of the natives, to study and learn from them. She would often say that her spiritual journey had been enriched and strengthened not only by her several trips to India, but also by her stays in Mexico where she and her husband have built a home on a tiny island off the coast of Cancun, called Isla Mujeres. She feels so alive there as she continues to teach and to support children who want to learn to speak English. Many of these students, who knew almost no English when she began working with them now lead successful lives, working in careers of their choice.
In the 20 years we have been close friends, Glenn has invited me on many of her adventures. We have traveled together from Biloxi, Mississippi (Where we attended our first conference after her diagnosis of PCB) to an Ashram in India, where my transformative stay included a trip to visit The Valley of the Saints, where more than 100 Muslim saints are buried. A spiritual energy was present there that I had not experienced elsewhere. Later, our travels included a breath-taking cruise to the Panama Canal, to California and New York, and to Isla Mujeres, which feels like a second home for me.
During our times together there we snorkeled, ate too much guacamole, shopped in the little village, enjoyed authentic Mexican food, and put the finishing touches to my book, The Knack of a Happy Life. We visited with families in the neighborhood who, because of Glenn’s fluency in Spanish and her genuine interest in them, embrace her as one of their own. They welcome me as well. It is a blessing to me and my spirit soared with each visit.
A few years ago, I was diagnosed with a brain tumor which could not be safely removed because of its entanglement with several parts of my brain. After 29 radiation treatments, months of physical therapy, and finally finding a group of medications that help keep everything in balance, I am now doing well. But this experience was terribly difficult, involving several hospitalizations, followed by weeks in rehab facilities. Through this time my adult son Eric has been my rock, staying with me through surgery and taking me to all radiation treatments. More than three years later, he continues his compassionate care of me.
When Glenn sensed the long road to recovery that was ahead of me, and knowing that I would no longer be able to work part-time, she began sending me a monthly check to help with medical expenses. When I started gaining a lot of weight due to the health issues and the medications I had to take, Glenn bought and mailed new, larger-sized outfits, sending clothes for each season that fit my permanent new size.
She continues to mentor a young woman she met as an at-risk third-grader. Glenn’s support, both financial and with compassionate care, enabled this young woman to graduate high school, attend college, obtain a job in the medical field, and begin to raise a family.
It has been more than 15 years since her diagnosis, and Glenn continues to hold her own. Medications, a strict diet, exercise and yoga help keep her condition stabilized. Through all these years, despite many crises and near-death experiences, Glenn has never lost her faith, optimism, or her sense of gratitude.
As we shared our medical issues over the years we began to count our blessings and to see the transformative power in suffering. We have talked about what suffering has taught us and what we are still learning. I began one such conversation by sharing my awareness that my own suffering has transformed me.
“In what ways? “ Glenn asked.
“Well, I am more patient and loving, I think, and I have been able to switch from living a fiercely independent life to depending on others. I have lost my ability to drive but have been surrounded with several church members who drive me to all appointments and have become close friends. My son and I have always been very close but now we have a stronger relationship and love that is so life-giving. I have a deeper relationship with the Divine, and I can appreciate the contemplative life. And I’ve found a peace and serenity that I haven’t always known.”
“How about you?” I asked.
Glenn sat thoughtfully for several minutes. “It’s hard to put into words,” she said. “Transformation is both immediate and the work of a lifetime. Here’s an example of immediate transformation. I recognize I’m saying things to myself that make me miserable, and suddenly it is laughable and not true. I ask: ‘How long do I want to be miserable? Only I can decide to cut this out!’ That issue never bothers me again. In a moment there’s transformation. But transformation comes at a cost. For me it included years of therapy, study, travel, meditation, prayer and slow preparation.
“Motivated by panic, depression and constant misery, I began seeking help as soon as I left home at 18. By the time I was in my late 30’s, I had learned to take responsibility for my feelings, do something about my own reactions and speak up for myself. I did more spiritual work in my 40’s and shifted the focus of my consciousness from my head to my heart.
“I am full of laughter, and fresh air blows in my soul each day. I’m content to do things badly and with great humor and enthusiasm. With some short-term memory loss, I have become more creative! Everything old is new again. Most of all, I love with abandon and without too much concern for being loved back. I know I’m loved. I love my own life, my own growing self. The rich, full life I once knew has been replaced in part by an even richer one. From suffering I have learned to be less controlling, less critical, less judgmental. I, too, feel more connected to the Divine, and I see God’s love in everyone. I’m more about unity than focusing on what divides us. And I know that in the end, only love prevails and I find that thought comforting.”
We often talk about not what we have had taken away from us but about what we have gained.
”I don’t want to waste time focusing on the past or worrying about the future,” she told me, adding, “I want to continue to ring the bells that still can ring.”
Recently, after one of our many talks, I asked Glenn, “How about if I write a short story about your life and your spiritual journey? I think it could be an inspiration to others.” She was quiet for a moment and then said with a smile, “Actually I’d be honored. And I can’t wait to see the spun gold you weave from the straw of my beautiful life.”
For more inspirational stories and beautiful short stories, visit my Inspiring Stories page.
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More beautiful short stories will be added to this page…