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on being born AGAIN AND AGAIN
How Grief, Gratitude and Faith Led to New Life
By Margery McManus Leach
Trafford PublishingCopyright © 2012 Margery McManus Leach
All rights reserved.
-from where will my help come? Psalms 121:1
"I love you."
Was this the last time I would hear those words? Was the quiet intensity of my husband's voice because he wondered if this could be his last chance to say them? The hospital corridor we restlessly strolled was overly warm, but my heart felt a chill that matched the winter day. It was Monday, March 8, 1976, and after weeks of hospitalization, Donald had been transferred to a second hospital for exploratory surgery the following day. He had survived a major cancer operation five years previously, but we still didn't know if his present illness was related.
Beneath my surface calm were years of nagging worry about how long I would have him. When we began dating seriously in our mid twenties, I told Donald about my first husband Curly, his long illness and premature death. More, this had been preceded by my mother's and only sister's deaths within six weeks of each other and then the loss of our premature twin sons.
In response, Donald confided his own tentative hold on life due to serious medical problems from his youth. Doctors estimated that he would be lucky to live past his early forties. My normally reticent companion added, "Any woman who marries me will need to be strong because she will likely be an early widow. One of the reasons I was attracted to you was that I could see that you were different, and now I know why. You are a survivor." These were serious words, but hardly a romantic declaration. Neither of us was ready for one, and despite our mutual attraction, I was not eager to repeat the earlier trauma. We had a long courtship in which Donald's reserve in disclosing innermost thoughts was a factor, hence the importance of that last "I love you."
When we had both finally realized we didn't want to live without each other regardless of any difficulties that might occur, we were happily married in May, 1950. Between the periodic illnesses that would separate us, each night before we went to sleep, I snuggled up behind Donald spoon fashion and placed my hand ever so gently on his upper arm, conscious that some day he would not be there. I wanted this gesture to become an indelible imprint on my mind so that it would sustain me forever. Various difficulties did follow, but our love not only endured, but grew.
Now, we were both almost fifty-two. We had celebrated our silver anniversary the previous year at Letchworth State Park forty miles from our home in Rochester, New York. Staying in the old inn at the top of the Genesee River gorge, we wandered the trails in their spring glory. It was a sentimental reminder of our honeymoon and many trips afterward with our three children David, Joyce, and Dutch.
Surgery began at nine on Tuesday, March 9. By late afternoon when there was still no word, I went to the small, wood-paneled chapel and found comfort in the words of the Twenty-third Psalm carved behind the altar. "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil." How often I turned to that passage during times of stress. I went back to the waiting room, but it was after seven when I was told that the operation was over and I could see my husband later in the recovery room. But before that happened, Donald was suddenly rushed back into surgery. The bleeding could not be stopped. Shortly after midnight he breathed his last in the recovery room without regaining consciousness. The body that had carried my dear husband through numerous operations had finally failed. I claimed his belongings and drove the long miles home in the wee hours of the morning.
After the memorial service, when I was once again alone, I took a late night walk trying to shake off the initial shock and grief. I thought of Curly's protracted illness at home after six months in the hospital following a bus accident, his two broken hips and failed kidney function. In a way, I felt almost euphoric that Donald's days and our marriage had ended without a dreaded repeat of the earlier experience. I tried to comfort myself with the knowledge that Donald had lived a fruitful life despite his many medical trials. He was a senior engineering consultant at Eastman Kodak, taught color photography as a hobby, had won minor diving and tennis championships and was an avid skier. He had lived to see our three children become adults. And we both knew that the liver cancer, which he most likely had eventually developed, offered little chance of recovery or enjoyment of any remaining days. Surely, this was a blessing.
Still, I was unprepared. Much of my brief life with Curly, who died when I was twenty-three, was overshadowed by the rewarding years with Donald and raising our children. I couldn't imagine what kind of future was ahead, but I wanted to keep these later years fresh. I pounded out letters on the typewriter expressing all he had meant to me, trying to capture precious memories and assuage the wrenching grief.
I found some solace in the spasmodic writing–which sometimes turned into letters to God and eventually journal entries. But the daily sense of loss went on despite keeping busy with my job, mundane household tasks, and a varied social life in which I sought new outlets. I was grateful for the long years of college education Donald had made possible for me when frustrations of child rearing and domesticity became too confining for me. I had not been sure where my studies would lead, but a student teaching semester showed that a classroom full of teenagers in our fast changing society was beyond my ability. After twelve years of interrupted study for a bachelor's degree at the University of Rochester, I spent three more years obtaining a master's degree in Library Science from nearby SUNY Geneseo (State University of New York at Geneseo.)
How thankful I was for my present librarian position at nearby Paddy Hill Branch Library of the Greece Public Library! During the day it offered culturally enriching work in the company of congenial people. But after-hours my loneliness hung heavy. I battered the pavement in long walks as I had following Curly's death. I took up gardening, one of Donald's joys. Our married friends continued to include me in their activities beginning with a surprise birthday party shortly after Donald's passing. But I soon realized I needed to widen my circle.
Tourist trips to Athens and Egypt expanded the ancient world I had learned about in school and explored briefly with Donald. I walked the streets of ancient Corinth, stood on the Acropolis where Saint Paul preached, scrambled through traffic crossing Cairo's unruly squares, visited the pyramids and Suez Canal. I spent days floating down the Nile from the Aswan Dam inspecting crumbling temples and buying goods along the river banki. But I was hungry for more.
While adjusting to life as a single, I joined the Genesee Valley Hiking Club. This helped fill Sunday afternoons, sometimes whole weekends, with the future possibility of climbing the Alps in Europe or Rocky Mountains of our West. The gardening and journal I had begun helped keep his presence alive. I joined the church choir and rejoined the Rochester Oratorio Society. Sacred music was food for my soul.
Church continued to be a source of comfort for me as it had been throughout my life. My agnostic father, Clarence Edwin McManus, had made unsuccessful efforts to dissuade me from belief in God and from religious activities. Perhaps even because of his opposition, churches of various denominations offered a constancy in my life from the age of six. After our 1950 marriage Donald and I joined Brick Presbyterian Church, a large downtown congregation that became involved in inner city desegregation efforts. I was particularly involved in the church's integrated Girl Scout troop because its members were drawn from the inner city area where I had been a Girl Scout during the Great Depression days of the 1930s. After the 1964 Rochester racial riots, I took part in an ecumenical eight month seminar studying urban issues and was personally involved in separate efforts to desegregate schools, housing and employment.
Although I regularly engaged in various church activities, my faith in and perception of God fluctuated and were subject to recurrent examination. After Donald's death I once again pondered the larger purposes in life and those mystical moments when I had most felt God's presence. I thought deeply about instances of blessed assurance that all would be well, which I had felt during the dark days of my childhood and again much later. My first awareness of God's immediate presence came one autumn afternoon on Adams Street when I was eleven. I was returning home from school in 1935, a year after we moved to Rochester. Worry and resentment over my father's alcoholism and his inability to keep a job were giving me frequent stomach twinges.
As I plodded along the smooth slate sidewalk beneath the cover of horse chestnut trees, I was dreading the switch from the comfort of school to the misery of our two-room, cockroach-infested apartment in a street of converted Victorian homes. I halted before crossing the road and suddenly felt an unseen presence at my side. Surely it was Jesus. "Let me help carry your burden," he seemed to say and then went on to assure me that my present trials would prepare me for some future destiny. My spirits lifted and I was spurred to truly follow Jesus' teachings that I was being taught at nearby Cornhill Methodist Church. But my newfound faith did not extend to forgiving my father.
One cold March morning more than twenty years later, 1957, I was feeling even more desperate. Donald was in quarantine in the hospital with an as yet undiagnosed illness. Five-year-old David was in kindergarten and three-year-old Joyce at nursery school. Dutch slept in a crib in our room. My father lay dying of cancer in the baby's vacated bedroom. Dad's larynx had been removed eight years earlier because of cancer, but recently he had come to live with us because he did not want to die alone. When he didn't get up that morning as he had previously, I knocked and entered his room. With an anxious apologetic look, Dad handed me a scribbled note. "Need help to bathroom." With his frail arm across my shoulder we hobbled to and from the bathroom. Before climbing back in bed, as though reluctant to give in to being bedridden, he looked out the window at the snow-covered yard, then picked up his note pad and wrote. "Will I ever see spring again?"
The question was more than I could bear. I hurried from the room to prevent breaking down in front of him. Alone in the narrow hallway, I closed my eyes, gripped my arms, and cried out silently, "God! Help me! I can't go on this way." Immediately, I sensed my upper arms being held gently from behind and an inaudible voice saying, "It's all right. It will be all right." Quickly the spell was broken, and an incredible sensation of peace flooded over me. I knew I could go on. In a few minutes I made the decision I had resisted. Dad would have to be admitted to a hospital. The doctor had advised against his coming to live with us and had continued to urge hospital care. Now, I knew I had done all I could. The time had come for Dad to go, even if it meant that he had to be admitted to a different hospital than the one where everyone knew him. I couldn't manage to visit Donald at St. Mary's and Dad at Rochester General and still care for our three children.
During this stressful period I could hold the reassuring presence that came in the hallway by early morning prayerful walks to a nearby wood. On my first visit to the secluded area, I was struck by the beauty of a pair of cardinals, the male brilliant against the bright snow. It seemed a sign from heaven that spring would come and my troubles would pass. With each visit I watched in utter fascination the myriad assortment of migrating birds. They were a periodic reminder of God's promise. My solo bird watching retreats enriched my life tremendously and broadened into a family affair as I struggled to balance family needs with writing college papers.
But sadly, Dad didn't see that spring. While he died alone in April a few days after being admitted to the hospital, I could comfort myself that my love of the woods had begun during childhood trips with Dad. Memories of those two intense spiritual encounters and what followed, spread over many years, have carried me through a lifetime of agonizing situations.
Another blessing of God was my own literal survival. I was the only one among all my parents' five children still living. And then came the traumatic losses I experienced between the ages of eighteen and twenty-three. First were the sudden deaths of Mom and Maizie within six weeks of each other in 1941, both with weak hearts. Next, Damon and Daniel, twins born to Curly and me, died within an hour of their birth in October 1944. A miscarriage followed in May 1945. Now both my husbands were also gone. Why had I been spared? Did I have a special role to fill?
Regardless of whether I did or not, I was eager to find a way to show gratitude for my healthy body. Some, like my father, may contend that life and death are arbitrary. And I, too, still had periods of questioning. Many a morning when Donald and the children had left for the day, I would stand at the kitchen sink before turning to my studies and struggle with my faith, questioning where my life was going. These sessions always ended the same: If there were no God, would I live my life any differently?
I didn't think so. I knew I wasn't cut out to be the prodigal daughter, going my own way without regard to family obligations, striving for a life of riches and glamour. Likewise I had no interest in climbing a corporate ladder or being a hostess for a husband who did. Although as a child during the depression I had fantasized about being rich, by my thirties I understood the down side of fame and fortune. The prospect of loss of privacy, whether it be through celebrity or from having to employ servants, made me uncomfortable. These thoughts and more brought me to the conclusion that even if he weren't "divine," Jesus' example of living simply, with love for one's neighbor in the broadest sense was my best guide. Among others, the venerable hymn "When morning gilds the skies" with its chorus, "May Jesus Christ be praised," still echoes in a response to my spiritual quandary.
And deep down was another guide—my conscience. One April, on my birthday, Mama said to me, "A four year old is big enough to dress herself and learn how to be a 'good' girl. As I struggled with sleeves and shoe strings, she went on to explain, "You have a little voice inside that will tell you what is right or wrong." Because my father did not believe in corporal punishment, my mother needed some way to control a lively and curious child, I suppose. She was, for the most part, successful as I did learn to listen to my conscience, though it was always reinforced by the memory of that fourth birthday event.
Now, after Donald's death, the search for a worthy purpose and ways of expressing gratitude for the continuing gift of life took on more urgency. An early spur to my quest for purpose came with a renewed interest in Christian missions. Being a missionary had been a desire from early childhood that resurfaced off and on as my circumstances changed. Fostered by Methodist teachings and occasional references to Great Aunts Eliza and Emma, who spent years as missionaries in China during the early part of the century, it was also fueled by the spiritual encounter on Adams Street. Was being a missionary part of the fulfillment of my destiny hinted in that first awareness of God's presence?
Forty years later my interest in Christian missions was reawakened when my son-in-law, Larry Mosher, was stationed in South Korea immediately after Donald's death. Joyce intended to follow him there. When I lamented to Joyce that I would miss traveling without my dear companion, she suggested that in the fall of 1976 I fly to Tokyo where Larry and she would meet me. We would tour Japan for two weeks and then I could return with them to Korea to spend a week there. I was thrilled with the idea. Besides traveling for the first time in the mysterious orient, it was a unique opportunity to put our relationship on an adult level with Joyce doing all the planning. It might also provide an opportunity to check on mission work in Korea. I was aware Christianity was spreading rapidly there, unlike in other Asian countries. Perhaps this trip to Japan and Korea would be a light for me.
Excerpted from on being born AGAIN AND AGAIN by Margery McManus Leach. Copyright © 2012 by Margery McManus Leach. Excerpted by permission of Trafford Publishing.
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