It’s been almost a full year since I’ve eaten in a restaurant, gone to a movie or had my hair done. A year since I’ve sat in a church pew (I’ve been faithful online). Sometimes, I feel like COVID-19 has caused the whole world to lose a year. “Time” has always been important to me. When I think about the past year, I’m flooded with the feeling that we’ve all “wasted” 365 days.
Thankfully, I’m old enough to have learned that nothing is ever truly for naught. I learned that lesson early in life and have seen it played out over and over.
When I was young, my calendar started in September with the first day of school and ended in May on the last day of school. June, July and August were bonus months. But, I learned early on that another way to mark time is by turning points. For me, that first one (I was 17) was April 12, 1971, the day my dad died. Ever since, it seems my life has been divided into “before Dad died” and “after Dad died.”
During the time my dad battled cancer (seven years) and in the time after his death, I learned some important life lessons. My dad was “the banker” in town, and some might say I grew up with a “silver spoon” in my mouth. (My dad didn’t believe in coddling his kids, so I prefer to say the spoon in my mouth was “good stainless steel.”) Even so, I learned money can’t buy you out of a terminal illness. I also learned what grief and sorrow were, which gave me empathy and compassion most 17-year-olds don’t have.
Turn the calendar forward about a dozen years. A new teacher moved to town with his wife, Lori. She and I became instant best friends. Her husband once said, “You two are like two people with one brain.” And, he was right.
Then 1987 rolled around. Lori turned 29 and was pregnant when the diagnosis came, “You have aggressive breast cancer.” Within seven months, she was gone. But, there were blessings along the way. I was able to help care for Lori – driving her to appointments, talking to doctors, sitting with her through chemo, and by her bedside after surgery. In some ways, it felt like I was allowed to minister to her in ways I was too young to do when my dad was sick. Near the end of her short life, Lori said to me, “You are the only person I feel normal around. Everyone else treats me like I’m sick. I think God made us friends so you could help me die.” Maybe he did. I learned terrible times create bonds even death can’t diminish.
Through those years – my dad’s death, my best friend’s death – I’d stuffed my sadness deep inside. Until I couldn’t anymore.
One of the hardest things I’ve ever done was call a counselor and say, “I need help.” After a few sessions, he realized I was beyond his scope of treatment and referred me to a psychiatrist. Talking didn’t help. Medication didn’t help. Neither did lying in bed most of the day crying. I had crippling anxiety, depression and a breakdown. One of my worst fears was realized when I was admitted to the psych ward of a hospital. I could no longer stuff away or hide anything. In a small town, everyone knew.
Life as I knew it was over. But, treatment, medication and self-care led me back to a new version of myself. Being broken somehow made me stronger.
I sat down and wrote my first novel, “After Anne.” It’s a fictionalized version of my friendship with Lori. After it was published, many told me, “I wish I had a friendship like that.” My reply is always, “You can be that friend to someone.”
My third novel, “Becoming Olivia,” is the highly personal (yet fictional) account of my journey through depression. It wasn’t hard to write, since I’d lived it. It wasn’t even hard to speak about it. I felt God using my brokenness as I spoke. Therapists have told me they recommend that book to their clients and their families to help understand the illness. More than one person has come to me after a talk, held “Becoming Olivia” right in front of my face and said, “This. Book. Saved. My. Life.”
Can you understand what I’ve learned? With God, nothing is wasted. Oh, even after all these years, I miss my dad. I miss Lori. I sometimes even miss my depression. After all, pity parties are still a party.
His timing isn’t our timing and waiting to find out his plan is hard. Even when we look for the lesson in our pain, it’s difficult to discern any purpose when in the middle of it.
Would I wish my dad and Lori back? In a heartbeat. Would I wish my depression back? No. But, without it I wouldn’t be who I am today. Looking back, I see so clearly how God used the bad and showed me something better.
This past year has been hard. COVID-19. Political division. Racial tension. What will we learn about ourselves? About each other? I have no doubt there are lessons waiting if only we look. Will our hard times make us bitter – or better? We get to decide.
Roxanne (Roxy) Henke writes about life and lessons from her home in rural North Dakota. You can find all of her eight novels on Amazon or contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.