“Treasure” the neatly penned label read. I scanned the pile of boxes stacked against my desk. Something made me label this one box, besides the occasional urge to organize my life. When I sit at my desk, I can reach all the things I love; pictures of husband, kids, grandkids, changing with the calendar – and faces of those that are gone now, framed memories. My dad smiles, tan and shirtless from a beach, my brother Timmy and I arm in arm in front of a green canvas tent at a campground, and Spence to my right, his little Cambodian sister Jade smiling from atop is shoulders, his face focused, not smiling but not sad, the gaze deep and searching. A corkboard above is covered in sheathes of photos, scriptures I must never forget, a note scrawled by my granddaughter, “Hello I hope you are not feling lonely – hope you r filt wif joy”, and some of Spencer’s prayers he wrote to God alone.
I smiled and pulled the Treasure box out from under the pile. Whatever it was, was important, I mused. As I lifted the lid, I saw letters and cards, and as I thumbed through each one, I remembered those who dared to love me, reaching deep into my pain 14 years ago this month. I had culled the best of the best and named them appropriately; Treasure.
The cast of players was peculiar. There were letters from my sons, including Spencer, from my husband, encouraging me to live again, from the assistant DA, and a copy of a letter from Samuel Rutherford, a brazen Scottish preacher from the 1600’s who reached into my heart with his council to a young mother who had lost her daughter. Lining the bottom were Kina’s letters to my mother, written 50 years ago after my brother Timmy’s death. There was also a letter from Elisabeth Elliot, who went home this past year. She very promptly returned my correspondence twice when I wrote her after Spence died. I told her she was my spiritual mom and she thanked me for that. Then a letter from another spiritual mom, Marian, a woman who touched my life when I was in my 20’s and left a lasting imprint.
Marian was married to my grandfather’s first cousin and neighbor, J.G.. My grandfather left home for good as a young man and became a doctor. J.G. was also educated, but decided he loved raising cattle, children and pecan trees along the airy marshland of Edisto Island. Marian was a teacher from the mountains, inquisitive, a traveler and the hardest worker I ever met. She loved J.G. with an amused sideways glance, and they were both the first real Christians I ever met.
They took me into their lives and loved me, a free-range poet from New York City who landed on their porch in a jet stream of cocaine and Jack Daniels. There, side by side with this couple in the ebb and flow of farm life and the raw wild of this coastal island, I learned that God was among us, in the field, in the storm, in the broken down trucks. Marian showed me patience with humor, grace with humility. She held up a mirror and showed me Christ’s reflection before I could even put a word to it.
I pulled the yellow folded papers from the box, the familiar scrawl, hands that must’ve been 80 and arthritic; hands that worked and loved the energy of life and dirt and things that could grow. She had loved Spencer too. “A note from Marian Murray “ was at the top of the stationary with a birdhouse on it.
Courage is the basic virtue on which all others depend for vitality and life.
As I reread the words, I retraced the surprise I felt nearly 14 years ago. Amid a flood of flowery Hallmark sympathy notes, the word Courage had leapt out at me, and I wasn’t sure I liked it. Courage? But it was Marian so I had held the message tighter.
Of what use is wisdom if one hasn’t the courage to act wisely?
Of what value is love is one hasn’t the courage to love?
Of what value is truth if one hasn’t the courage to speak it?
Of what consequence is faith if one hasn’t the courage to embrace it?
There was no signature, no wrap up, no “praying for you” or “May the Lord etc. etc.”.
Then on a page stapled to this were three scriptures.
We are pressed on every side by troubles, but we are not crushed or broken. We are perplexed, but we do not give up and quit. 2nd Corinthians 4:8
Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go. Joshua 1:9
There was that word again – be courageous. I was intrigued. Then lastly,
I waited patiently for God to help me; and He listened and heard my cry, He lifted me out of the pit of despair. Psalm 40:1-2
Rereading this unusual sympathy note now, I realized how deeply these words had directed my path. She was taking me by the shoulders, and in an amazing act of love and rescue, shaking me and pointing upward. She was correcting my posture.
In a journal I kept after my son died, I wrote this over a year later, starting with Kina’s words to my mother:
“Courage is more than just grim determination – hanging on.” Real courage is stepping out into His “fullness of joy” when all of your sensibilities tell you to stop and hover at the edge of darkness, in the shadows of sorrow. I could live there always and I’m quite sure it is a place I will visit often. I don’t miss Spence any less or feel less sad that he’s not here. But my eternal life seems to start where I want it to. I can wait until I die, or I can meet God here on this side, and ask for the fullness of His joy – His joy strengthening me. I still stand at the edge and weigh this out. October 18, 2003
Marian came to visit me in June 2002, 5 months after Spence died. Her knees were bad but she would only let me help her down the stairs. She had never been to Cape Cod; maybe even Massachusetts. We drove along the Old Kings Highway, comfortable with silence, distracted by the rambling roses and lilacs. I was still stunned and exhausted with the daily work of grief. She was in her eighties, her presence there was all that had to be said. I drove her to Logan airport at sunrise. I don’t remember if we ever said “I love you” but watching her disappear into the airport, small and frail, I knew she had to love me a lot. Less than a year later she died peacefully, pneumonia finally overtaking the “lousy lungs” she endured since childhood.
“ I don’t know if I’m more of a grandmother, or mother or just friend to you,” she remarked once while we picked tomatoes in the full Carolina sun, sweat dripping off my face onto my dusty hands.
“Maybe all of them,” I suggested, and we laughed, an easy laugh that Marian taught me. A laugh that is not afraid.
I gently laid the note on top of the rest of the letters and cards and shut the lid.
January is a month of shadows, of hovering at the edge of sorrow in my life. Orion appears in the sky, sword drawn, signaling a time of year that is tough for me; an anniversary, a birthday. But I know God wants more than just a posture of grim determination. He wants to see me reach up past Orion, and touch His throne. He wants to hear me sing.
I could add to Marian’s message:
And of what use is life without the courage to really live it?
Be of good courage – for the Lord, your God is with you, bringing treasure.
You will show me the path of life. In your presence is fullness of joy. Psalm 16:11