On the third Sunday of Advent we lit the JOY candle at our church.
This year a woman who I greatly admire lit the candle, and she spoke about what JOY means to her. Shirley talked about the many JOYous times her family—now grown—spent together in their back yard and down by the Ottawa River. The husband she’s been married to for 67 years brings her much JOY. She told us how much JOY she derives from volunteering and from the work she does with the church.
Then it came time to talk about her sister.
Shirley’s sister had passed away in mid-December and the celebration of her life had been held a few days before. Tears came to my friend’s eyes and she took a moment to collect herself.
I thought, “She’s crying during a talk about JOY!”
As she went on to talk about their close relationship and the smiles and laughs the sisters shared over many years, tears did not seem incongruous at all. Deep down at the heart of the grief over the loss of her sister was JOY. Happy memories.
I thought, “She’s en-JOYing her grief.” Actively choosing to see the JOY below the surface during a difficult time. Injecting JOY into the moment.
En-JOY 2018. May you choose to let the JOY that is at the heart of any sorrow bubble up.
“Your joy is your sorrow unmasked.
And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears.
And how else can it be?
The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.
. . . When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and you shall find it is only that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy.”
—Kahlil Gibran On Joy and Sorrow
My friend is celebrating a birthday today. She is 103.
What is her secret? I can’t say for sure, but I suspect it might have something to do with joy and gratitude.
Three years ago, at the time of her 100th birthday, she wrote down some of her memories to give as a gift to her children. (It was her birthday, and she was the one giving gifts.) She asked me to prepare the printed manuscript of the stories, so I received the lucky task of transcribing her memories from handwriting to computer.
At the age of 100 her handwriting had not deteriorated; I could read every word clearly. They taught penmanship in school in her youth.
Often, in the telling of a tale, she wrote, “That puts me in mind of a poem.” The poems followed, word-for-word perfect, as remembered from her school years 80 or 90 years earlier. When I searched the poems on Google, I discovered that, not only was every word perfect, she laid out the poems on the page exactly as the authors had decades ago, and every punctuation mark was in place. They did memory work in school in her youth.
But what I noticed most about her writing was this: joy and gratitude on every page. Story after story ended with, “How fortunate I am!” Or, “Why is everyone so good to me?” They taught humility and gratitude in school in her youth.
The formative years of her life involved World War I, the Great Depression, and World War II, and yet her memories overflow with joy and gratitude.
Are joy and gratitude the secrets to long life?
I can’t say for sure, but they make the time that we’re here—however long it might be—a lot more enjoyable.
One of my first memories of her was from a time just a month or two after I met her son. I didn’t know him well yet, and I didn’t know much about her either. We were at her home, and we had cross-country skis with us. I was 25 years old and swam competitively, so I was in pretty good shape. As we put on our skis, I pondered how I would have to slow down my pace to accommodate her—she was in her late sixties, after all. But then, she strapped on her skis and set off like a ski marathoner across the field. I huffed and puffed behind her trying, but failing to keep up. That was my first lesson in the athleticism of the woman who would eventually be my mother-in-law. When she was eighty years old, she could beat me quite handily on a tennis court.
Later, this athletic singer, baker, Scout leader, Sunday school teacher, community volunteer, mother of four boys who smiled her way through life began to develop senile dementia. A series of mini-strokes robbed her of her ability to speak and walk. Her words became fewer and fewer, with more time between each.
A few years ago, her great-grandson was born. Her son and granddaughter took the baby to meet his great-grandmother. They took him over to her wheelchair and held him up for her to see. My mother-in-law’s eyes lit up, she smiled, reached out her hands and said, “Joy, joy.”
Those were the last words that I remember her speaking clearly and with intention.
When the last word is joy, you know it was a life well lived.