An Older Women's Story

by Judy Bennett

Sweet are the uses of adversity,
Which, like the toad, ugly and venomous,
Wears yet a precious jewel in his head;
And this our life, exempt from public haunt,
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stories, and good in everything.

At seventy-three years of age, along with much sweetness and joy in my life, I have experienced the visitor Adversity many times.  A stranger at first, he has almost become a friend by this time, because I know the dark cloak he wears always covers the possibility of the gift of transformation.

I was born on the side of a mountain in North Carolina in the Appalachian Mountains.   The little house I was born in looked much like the pictures in the many books covering poverty in Appalachia.  I was born into the culture that J.D. Vance covers so movingly in HILLBILLY ELEGY.  There was abuse, but there were also strawberries to pick and fields to run in that saved me.  There was a grandmother that loved all of us unconditionally and found time to bake twelve-layer apple cakes even as she worked in the fields and picked tobacco.

Throughout my school years, I moved from city to city and to two countries as my father served in the Armed Forces.  I went from being a child who failed the first grade, among other reasons because I continued to come to school barefooted, to a young woman who received a college scholarship and many honors throughout high school and college.

The visitor Adversity visited many times throughout childhood and young adulthood.  However, losing my beloved  Mother in my early twenties became the "before and after" marker as I look back on my life.  Six months after her death, my father married his childhood sweetheart, who forbade him to have any contact with my sister and me from then on.  Becoming motherless and fatherless in young adulthood was a time of nightmarish visits by the then all-too-familiar visitor Adversity.

Because my FOO family was so fractured and broken, my deepest desire became to have a loving and intact family of my own.  I am sure it also had much to do with my becoming a Marriage and Family therapist and the deep joy I receive from walking with families as they decide to heal.   My marriage did last for twenty-six years with many sweet memories.  However, the visitor wrapped in the black cloak visited again unbidden when I was in my fifties and a traumatic divorce resulted.

Of all the times that Adversity came unbidden--early childhood trauma (including sexual abuse), loss of parents at an early age, and a tragic divorce, the time that He almost won was at the death of my beloved daughter Amanda.  She was an amazing child--vibrant, artistic, sensitive and so intelligent!  She was a joy to be around.  As she grew, so did the disease of Manic-Depression grow within her brain.  (And I still think of it as that rather than the now appropriate term of Bi Polar).  She was a textbook case of a brilliant, artistic and beautiful young woman who led one life on the outside and another on the inside and refused to take the medication that could help mediate the two lives.

When she was thirty-three years old, I received the call that she had taken her own life--that the lows had become too much to handle, and she could see no way out except to leave the body that she felt continued to betray her.  At the time of the call, my world as I knew it collapsed forever.  I remember falling to the floor and barely breathing.  I don't know how long I stayed there unable to move.  I do know that in that time on the floor my heart said,  "I have to decide right now in this moment with my beloved child dead if I believe the Universe is benevolent, is it on my side?   Or is it just random?   If it is, there is no reason to get up, and I might as well join my daughter. Is there a God who continues to love and hold me?   I HAVE TO KNOW THIS RIGHT NOW.  Can even this be transformed in some way?"  I have no idea how long I lay there.  I rose from the floor knowing nothing except that I was held in the arms of a Higher Power.  That life is not random.  That I could go on--not knowing how--but that I could go on.

 
I rose from the floor knowing nothing except that I was held in the arms of a Higher Power.  That life is not random.  That I could go on--not knowing how--but that I could go on.

 I took two months off from my practice, from the staff of a community counseling center and from other contract work.  I wept. I wore my nightgown all day.   I made sounds that sounded like a wounded animal.  All was gray; the color had left my life.  Concerned friends tiptoed in and out at that time bringing groceries, cleaning my house and leaving messages.  In indigenous cultures, mothers often throw themselves on the graves of their beloved children.  They make wild, keening sounds.  They allow their grief to seep out from their bodies because it is too immense to be contained there.  And that is what I did.  I believe it saved my life.  As I sat on my porch in the rain and smelled the pine trees and saw butterflies and birds come to visit, colors began to come back into my life.  It was no longer all gray.  My heart began to respond to music again.  And, yes, joy eventually returned.  The joy I never felt I would feel again.

And so, at seventy-three, I have met with Mr. Adversity in his black coat too many times to mention or even remember.  I continue to have a therapy practice that seems to call to those who are on intimate terms with Mr. Adversity.  I think of the women in my family--my mother who died at forty-three and my daughter who died at thirty-three and here I am alive at seventy-three--still standing.  But I am not just standing, I am a joyful woman with my arms flung to the sky in deep, deep gratitude to still be here.  I am a woman of resilience.

 
But I am not just standing, I am a joyful woman with my arms flung to the sky in deep, deep gratitude to still be here.  I am a woman of resilience.

 
Judy Bennett

Judy Bennett

 

Judy Bennett was born 73 years ago in the Appalachian Mountains into the culture J.D. Vance so movingly describes in "Hillbilly Elegy." Along with much joy and laughter, she experienced times of deep grief and steep uphill climbs. With a grateful heart, she counts it all as a gift. Judy considers her work as a licensed professional counselor a privilege as she walks with individuals and families who courageously seek the authentic lives they were meant to live.