Webster defines ‘resilient’ as the psychological capacity to adapt to stressful circumstances and to bounce back from adverse events; a process to build resources toward searching for a better future after potentially traumatic events.
Growing up, I watched my mother, the eldest girl of 13 children, exhibit qualities of strength, adaptability and leadership. She was an educator in the school system, a socialite, philanthropist, caregiver for her ailing mother, and an excellent wife and mother. Over the span of many years, she braved three devastating diseases that would intrude upon her life and steal part of her skull, rummage through her speech center, kidnap her womb, and finally, run off with her pancreas leaving her earthly body behind. Nevertheless, SHE was resilient.
I’m deeply moved by the courage of other women like her: Harriet Tubman, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Sally Ride. They blazed trails, shattered glass ceilings and endured heroic struggles. THEY were resilient.
Resilient women and others like them seem to move with a clear calling and purpose. Their convictions are on display as they go. They are creative and flexible as they meet hardships and failures head-on, each valley an opportunity to gain experience and grow. No matter how strong the forces working against them, their sense of agency somehow remains intact gradually shaping better life circumstances for themselves and generations to come. They are hopeful, deeply patient and grateful people. They walk on the water of constant flux to reach their goals. They climb the Mt. Everest of dreams until it becomes a reality.
I, being the youngest of two, was always referred to as “the baby.” I was the social butterfly, the connector, the sanguine. I always could hide behind the strength of my mother and older sister, living in the shadows of courage. Sure, I had my share of challenges throughout life – love lost, opportunities missed, failures to overcome. But ‘resilient’? That was not a word people ever used to describe me.
On April 24, 2021, a thief intruded upon my home stealing away what mattered most to me. Matthew, my beloved husband of nine years and life-long friend, suffered a fatal heart attack in his sleep. No warning, no notice. After weeks of declining health, what I feared came to pass. Early that morning, I noticed he hadn’t come to bed and went in our den to check on him. In the panic and trauma of that moment, trying to wake him, I could not even dial ‘911’. It took three failed attempts to dial the most familiar numbers known to all of us. It took 10 minutes for the paramedics to arrive. It felt like 10 hours.
Something happened in me as I watched them working on Matthew. Alongside the panic and fear that was screaming, another voice begin to speak calmly to me: Anna, try to remain calm. Let the paramedics do their job. Minutes passed like hours as they worked to find “hot spots” of life activity. He was whisked away in the ambulance. I hoped this would be a lesson to him to take better care of himself, a clarion call to be better and do better with his health. We arrive at the hospital and after an hour of attempted resuscitation, the doctor came into the waiting room and spoke words that no one wants to hear, “We’ve done all we can do”… “We pronounced your husband’s death at 11:11 am.” Like in the movies, the room seemed to spin, and it was as if she was speaking in slow motion. “Weeevv’eee dddonnnee allll wweee caannnn doooo.”
In an instant, all I had hoped for, dreamed of, lived for, lie lifeless on an operating table. A chasm inside me opened up with his death, and it was backfilled with levels of pain and fear I’ve never known: a fear of abandonment. That fear led me to cry out to my sister, “What did I do wrong?” I felt his death was a punishment of some sorts. That for some bizarre reason a loving God snatched him away because I was no longer deserving of love and a lasting marriage like my three sisters and parents.
Almost 11 months have passed since that day. There are still days where I feel like that thief has returned to attack me with all its fear and anxiety. This thief seems hell-bent on stealing all my courage, hope, dreams, and expectations. It indiscriminately ransacks my schedule riddling me with the paralyzing fear of the unknown again and again. But I’ve also noticed something else. On the day I lost Matthew, and in the many that have followed, I’ve noticed this other voice inside me. It’s quieter, barely a whisper. This voice is kind, nurturing, steady, and so very patient. In my moments of grief and feelings of losing direction, I hear this gentle and firm voice whisper to me:
Stay the course. Keep going.
This still small voice has stayed with me all along, assuring me that though Matthew’s life was finished, mine was not. This voice is teaching me to be in a day, even when it’s a struggle. One day at a time, trusting that there is a plan for my life. This voice is showing me how live on and become more adaptable, unflappable, and courageous.
At some point, I began to see the light at the end of this dark and winding road. I knew that if I tried to hide in the darkness afraid I would never see the light. Gradually, that light that has illumined my pathway and revealing a different me.
One day a few months back someone stopped me and said, “You have been so strong in this unimaginable loss.” And for the first time, I heard the words, “Anna, YOU are resilient.” I felt myself join in agreement with their words. I am resilient. And I’m grateful for the ways this journey of grief – this slow walk through the abyss of widowhood and loss – is shaping me into a more resilient woman. Along the way, I’ve been joined by the love, comfort and care of my sisters and close friends, the compassion of my support groups, the countless acts of kindness by old and new acquaintances, and most of all, the abiding love of God my Father who cherishes me.
I feel myself stepping out from the shadows of my mother’s courage and so many others that I have revered. I am blessing the woman I see in the mirror and join the gentle wisdom of the still small voice that whispers, “Keep going. There is hope and a future out ahead.”