The Gift of a Box Full of Darkness

Courtesy of | By Steven Petrow | Photo by iStock | Originally Published 05.24.2018 | Posted 06.29.2018

A year ago Christmas I received a beautiful double amaryllis, a check for $125 and a Kiehl’s anti-aging kit. The amaryllis, scarlet red, came from my mother, who died less than two weeks later. The check had my father’s shaky signature on it; he passed away before the daffodils returned last spring. And all those moisturizers and night creams? They came from my husband, who left our dog, our home and me, right between the deaths of my parents.

Apparently there had been one more gift under that nine-foot Fraser fir that I hadn’t been aware of at the time: A box full of darkness.

The line comes from a poem by Mary Oliver called “The Uses of Sorrow”:

“Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness.

It took me years to understand that this too, was a gift.”

It would take me time, too, to understand that gift. But during those difficult months I learned more about loss, bitterness and grief than I had imagined possible. And that box of darkness turned out to contain surprises of a wondrous kind.

“How many lessons do I need?” I asked myself rhetorically soon after my father died in April. I tried to keep self-pity to a minimum; I already knew that life was unfair. I also understood that death is integral to life — just as loss and grief are the flip side of love.

But I struggled with the fuller meaning of what was happening.

Sensing I might not have a plan for my 60th birthday last summer, two couples in my small town planned a blowout fete, including a rewrite of the lyrics to “Hello Dolly” (now “Hello Petrow”), which a dozen friends sang to a happily weeping birthday boy. In a short speech I confessed to my friends that my marital separation had left me fearful of two things: What to do on this birthday (check) and finding a friend to drive me to my decennial colonoscopy (a not-so-intimate friend raised his hand).

One afternoon later in the summer, a day when I was feeling particularly draggy from the humidity and depression, a Prius stealthed up on me from behind. In a spontaneous act of kindness, Jill, the driver and a friend who writes novels and raises goats, clasped my hands through the open window and then pulled me in for a hug. Just as quickly she released me, and, quietly, the Prius disappeared. Jill’s hug remained on my skin.

In November, a woman I’ve never met but with whom I’ve worked remotely sent me a handwritten sympathy note. “This is a long delayed, but no less heartfelt, note with the messages that have multiplied during the year,” Julia began. “What an overwhelming year this must have been for you,” she continued. “I’m glad to see that you seem to be moving forward with grace and a sense of peace.”

But it was my sister’s birthday present that iced the cake. She had inherited our mother’s jewelry, including a stunning pair of earrings made from malachite, the stone of transformation, surrounded by a gold braided wreath. With a jeweler’s magic the earrings became cuff links — and they became mine.

I had a flashback to my late mother wearing those earrings to the Emmy Awards in the 1970s, the same year, I believe, my father took home a statuette for a Bill Moyers documentary he had produced. Mom was (almost) lithe and (definitely) happy, decked out in a little black dress and those earrings, which drew the light to her face.

Throughout those months, I blindly stumbled into a routine of expressing gratitude. Almost daily I’d started to take photographs — of the morning sky or a lightning strike, an abandoned car or the old church near my house. My goal was simple: to see the beauty around me. Sometimes, it meant taking a step to the right or left, looking up or down. Spontaneously, I started to use “#gratitude” when posting. Friends and followers were quick to “like” them, and some even followed suit by tagging their own pictures #gratitude.

Falling asleep conscious of the good that enveloped me each day made a difference. I felt more patient, I slept better and seemed happier, all benefits that studies suggest gratitude can engender.

On New Year’s Eve I donned the cuff links from my sister for the first time. Before putting on my tuxedo, I pulled from my shelf the Mary Oliver book and reread her lines:

“Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness.

It took me years to understand that this, too, was a gift.”

Now I could more fully understand that gift born of darkness. One dreadful year produced a deepened love of — and for — my siblings, their spouses and my dear friends.

I posted some of these thoughts on Facebook on New Year’s Day, and to my surprise many friends revealed the dark contents of their own boxes — a child who had died, a financial catastrophe, a recent cancer diagnosis — and the unexpected gifts that had come their way. Not easy. Never fair. But I was certainly not alone.

At the bottom of my box — after two deaths and a divorce — I had found the gift of gratitude. Day in and day out I’ve witnessed its magic, its ability to transform a dark heart into a brighter one. It’s free. It’s real. And as long as you let it inhabit you, it will stay with you and become yours to share.

Steven Petrow (@stevenpetrow) is a regular contributor to Well and lives in Hillsborough, N.C.


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