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Lights in dark times

December 21st, 2005 · 5 Comments


I didn’t tell the girls where we were going. Two of them were asleep anyway, napping in their carseats on the afternoon drive through commuter traffic from Seattle to Bellevue. As I pulled into the parking lot, I told Abigail we were waiting. We each read books by the street light. The sky darkened. Soon it was time to walk out into the night and see what we would find.

The first time I went to the Bellevue Botanical Garden and its Garden d’Lights was the first Christmas after my brother had died. Ted, Abigail and I had flown up from California to be with my family, as we had planned for months, before the discovery of my brother’s brain tumor. Jim had died days earlier. I don’t think we had his ashes yet. I had flown to Seattle to say goodbye to my brother, then back to San Jose, and returning to Seattle, within a week. For me it was a strange transition, going back and forth between the family where I was born and the one Ted and I had created together, surreal, like a dream world, or rather a nightmare one.

What do you do when you are mourning someone at Christmas? It was an awkward time. We didn’t know what to do together. No sense in pretending happy holidays when our hearts were freshly raw and ripped. Sometimes we would laugh to avoid the tears, hanging onto the hilarity for sanity’s sake. Abigail, then a toddler, provided welcome distraction, her existence an excuse for silliness amidst sorrow. The season was strange dance of trying to give each other freedom to feel and grieve while being careful not to hurt each other out of our own insensitivity and intense emotion.

Someone suggested the Bellevue Botanical Garden, and we went, the six of us walking slowly through on the paths in the dark, wandering among the public outside while carrying private sorrows inside.

At that time, Abigail was not yet two years old, and she had not seen the lights in the six years since Jim died. So it was a complete surprise when I took the girls out of the car. Although they were impatient to wait, once they had woken from their naps, they were also reluctant to go out into the dark and cold.

I too had forgotten the treasures that awaited us. All I remembered was the awkwardness and ache, the walking and wondering what Jim would think, the longing and loneliness we felt that night, the lethargy, numbness, missing him. But last week I discovered again the beauty and creativity hidden in the Garden.

Butterflies and sunflowers greeted us. As we walked down a path, we could see a frog reflected in a pond, as well as lily pads and all kinds of flowers, from allium balls to foxglove heights, and also a turtle. The flowers were often fashioned in sprays, as if with extravagance and celebration. Going back up the hill, we enjoyed blooming bushes, gasping to see the fantastical line of flowers, birdhouse and butterfly set on a lawn, in pinks, purples, yellows and colors of brilliance and warmth. We stood and stared, amazed, none of us caring about the cold or dark. Despite my attempts, my camera failed to capture the wonder of the lights.

My brother’s death marked one of the darker times of my adult life. If I had to categorize the years, I would distinguish at least four sets of difficulties. The first one would be the early years of our marriage, when we discovered who we were and whom we each had married, the ugliest glimpse of myself in the mirror I’d ever seen. The second hard time for me was wrestling with infertility. Jim’s death ushered in the third phase of difficulty, which would include our transition from Silicon Valley to Bainbridge Island during an intense two years of multiple changes. Yet I’d also say that the past two years, from 2003 to 2005 were also painful times of crisis and growth, dancing with doubt and disillusionment. I feel we are finally emerging from this wintry season.

I don’t like the dark times. But as I’m living, I’m learning they will be there. I will have troubles and transitions. There will be sorrows and struggles. I can’t prevent pain.

But what I can do, is to be brave. I can walk into the darkness. If I’m willing to walk into the dark and cold, if I’m willing to explore the night, I will find beauty.

There are treasures hidden in the darkness. You have to hunt to find them. But they are worth the work, brilliant and breath-taking, surprising and inspiring life with light, beyond what you can imagine.


(my three daughters against the lights)

dedicated to my brother Jim… and to all who find themselves in a dark time

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5 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Jean // Dec 21, 2005 at 3:06 am

    Julie, you and your gentle words are bright lights! My warmest greetings to you and your family at this holiday season and for the new year.

  • 2 Anita Rowland // Dec 21, 2005 at 8:28 am

    Jack didn’t have much luck with pictures when we went last week. It was great fun, though! I think I’d like to take one of their classes on making flower-lights like that, next spring or fall if life permits.

  • 3 Katy // Dec 22, 2005 at 7:41 am

    That’s beautiful, Julie. I can definitely identify with some of that too. Thank you for sharing.

    We can be brave because we are only walking through “the shadow” of death, because Thou art with us, Thy rod and Thy staff is our comfort.

  • 4 Tamar // Dec 22, 2005 at 11:46 am

    “I don’t like the dark times. But as I’m living, I’m learning they will be there. I will have troubles and transitions. There will be sorrows and struggles. I can’t prevent pain.”

    Amen. May there be many bright lights to shine you through to the other side, though.

    I wish you a warm and love-filled Holiday season.

  • 5 Joy Des Jardins // Dec 23, 2005 at 6:50 am

    Beautiful and poignant piece Julie….thank you. The pics of the lights are wonderful. Happy Holidays to you and your beautiful family.

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