“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. When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.”
― Khalil Gibran
Edna Schafer didn’t so much battle cancer. She proved that love and joy outshine it.
My Aunt Edna, who died last week, had known much pain and grief in her 76 years of life. The mother of seven children, she and husband, Bob, a rough-talking farmer, earned reverence in the eyes of their family and neighbors for their hard work, integrity and kindness. As years passed respect has only grown for a family and its country matriarch who have endured unimaginable grief with grace and acceptance.
“Life is suffering” — The First Noble Truth, The Buddha
I doubt that Aunt Edna ever read the teachings of the Buddha, but she instinctively understood this truth. The Buddha wanted his followers to understand that the moment is all we have. To worry about future suffering or past regrets was of no use. Edna knew suffering, but she seemed to know that it was out of her control. As Catholic writer Henry Nouwen wrote: “Joy doesn’t simply happen to us. We have to choose joy and keep choosing it every day.”
When cancer was discovered in Edna ‘s bladder four years ago, few doubted that this indestructible woman would beat it. A year later doctors removed her kidney. Posts on a Facebook page called “Edna’s Posse” remained as optimistic as ever. In the middle of chemotherapy treatments Edna suffered a heart attack. She joked about her bad luck and was always the first one to laugh.
She never wavered from hospitality. Edna nurtured her children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews. She seemed ageless as doctors injected needles of chemotherapy and constantly checked her blood. When she underwent triple bypass surgery she found it more ironic than crushing. Even in the hardest of times guests to her house were offered cookies, ice cream or a big spread of home cooking.
A favorite memory of nieces and nephews was wrapping up in blankets and sleeping bags for overnights on the living room floor of the big old farmhouse straight out of rural mythology. If we weren’t all old now we’d still be camping out at Edna’s.
One of the first times I ever got drunk, my cousins brought me back to pass out on the Schafer fold-out couch. I feared disapproval the next day at lunch, but only got the infectious laugh from my aunt. She ribbed me later at family reunions for refusing her fresh strawberries that day as I struggled through a strawberry schnapps hangover.
The Schafer family’s suffering was like a chapter from the Book of Job. When doctors discovered a tumor on the trachea of Bob and Edna’s youngest daughter Anita, a kindergartener at the time, she was given 6 to 9 months to live. She lived eight years symptom free. In 1981, Anita would be unexpectedly diagnosed with brain tumors. She would spend much of the next year and a half in hospitals as doctors tried to save her. The countryside wept with the Schafers when Anita died two days before her 14th birthday.
A few years later, the family suddenly lost Bob in the fall to a blood clot following back surgery. He was a strapping 58. A community again grieved with a devastated family as they gathered to help the Schafer’s bring in the crops. Only a year later doctors discovered that Edna’s oldest son, Mike, had a brain tumor. Despite aggressive treatment, he died a year and a half later at age 33, leaving behind a wife and young daughter
Author Anthon St. Maarten wrote: “If we never experience the chill of a dark winter, it is very unlikely that we will ever cherish the warmth of a bright summer’s day.”
There were whispers that this family seemed cursed when in fact they were blessed. Rather than break apart in the shadow of grief, they gathered around their mother and thrived. Laughter was a constant in a family of good humor. Affection was sown in a family that knew great loss. My brother and I often noted that the Schafers always had the best turnout at family reunions.
Rather than feeling forsaken, Edna never missed Sunday Mass. She not only refused to judge, but loved those who chose another path, including those in her family. She seemed puzzled by anger or people who held grudges. She knew that sudden loss and sudden joy could come upon us at any moment. When my aunt died I remembered the words of Khalil Gibran: “Some of you say ‘Joy is greater than sorrow,’ and others say, ‘Nay, sorrow is the greater.’ But I say unto you, they are inseparable.”
Of course there were lines of sorrow in Aunt Edna’s face. But they were inseparable from the lines of laughter.
Eventually the cancer spread to Edna’s liver, lymph nodes and abdominal wall. Weakened in the last year of life, she still traveled with her daughter Lori to Maine. Then in August she made the long journey to Idaho to see her granddaughter married.
“I think that’s what she was living for,” her daughter Sharon said. “At the wedding dance we kept asking if she was tired, if she wanted to go home, but she stayed until the last dog was dead.”
Two weeks later, doctors said they had exhausted all treatment options. Edna shrugged her shoulders and said, “Well, we gotta do what we gotta do.”
Edna returned home. Hospice came to keep her comfortable in her final days. But I believe a life well lived was her greatest comfort.
“I think Mom knew she was going to die from the beginning, but she was protecting us,” Sharon said.
People were always drawn to Edna. Not for great words or great deeds, but rather for simple acts of kindness and her ability to find joy through trials that many feared would break them. She knitted scarfs, and eagerly gave them to her grandchildren or any children who came to visit. Every time I talked with her, the first thing she said was, “Come see me.” On one of my visits back to Missouri Edna opened her house to my children and me to spend a weekend together. She immediately became Aunt Edna to them as well.
In her final hours people filed through her house to say their goodbyes and more goodbyes were said in a crowded church at her funeral.
On the day of Edna’s funeral I saw a passage from The Art of Mending, by Elizabeth Berg, that caught in my chest:
“There are random moments – tossing a salad, coming up the driveway to the house, ironing the seams flat on a quilt square, standing at the kitchen window and looking out at the delphiniums, hearing a burst of laughter from one of my children’s rooms – when I feel a wavelike rush of joy. This is my true religion: arbitrary moments of nearly painful happiness for a life I feel privileged to lead.”
Edna grieved deeply. Then scattered joy like seeds on rich soil.
She taught those who knew her that life is suffering. But we are meant for joy.
It is our choice.