Bitter and sweet: accepting the past, embracing the future

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This essay first appeared on The Daily BS on June 8, 2024.

It’s the golden hour. On an early summer night beneath the old walnut tree, we’re enjoying the evening meal. There at the picnic table, birdsong trills through the air, notes of liquid joy. Behind us, brightly-colored marigolds march in rows before the chicken coop.

Across from me, The Cub, youngest in the litter and the only one left at home, is speaking. He’s just come from the first of many such parties. A theater friend is graduating. He will miss her. Having only brothers, she is like the sister he never had, and they display their affection for each other in the way that teenagers have. They tease, they poke, and they hurl packets of Ocean Spray cranberries back and forth. (Don’t ask me. I just work here.)

“She has so many friends,” he says. “I’m really going to miss her.” As he speaks, I can see her face with that perpetual smile as she sings and dances and acts. And, of course, hurls berries at my son.

His eyes, as we listen, turn moist. Liquid pain peeks at the corners, and he’s laying bare his heart. We know, his father and I, how he feels.

“It’s bittersweet,” I say to the junior-turning-senior, “and next year, there will be kids who feel like that about you.”

Bittersweet. Bitter and sweet, these chapter endings. Having graduated three older sons and saying goodbye as their respective bumpers drove out the lane, we are close friends, my husband and I, with bitter and sweet. The older we get, the more we savor the sweet, knowing by now how fleeting are the days.

Having gone through trials by fire, we are here, too, acquainted with bitter and sweet, for life is full of both. We know by now that the bitter richly enhances the sweet when we allow the bitter parts to do their work.

Funny, how things work. The boiling water that softens the potato hardens the egg. The most difficult things in life can soften us if we let them. They can be agents of change, invitations to grow and become healthier, stronger, more mature people, better able to love and bring life to the world.

However. They can harden us if we so choose. We can turn cynical, cold, pickled in disappointment. Bitter, which brings an awful harvest.

At different points in our lives, my husband and I suffered injustice, abandonment, and ostracization. Unfair business practices at the hands of others cost us thousands of dollars. We could have sued and likely won, but we decided it wasn’t worth it. We chose not to lose the time and additional dollars it would have cost, and took, instead, the path of forgiveness. God, we knew, could deal with the offenders and would, meanwhile, take care of us. He did both, and we had peace.

But back, now, to my son and chapter endings. When a happy, happy era comes to an end, we feel it. We grieve, holding it in our hands, knowing it will never return, reluctant to let it go.

“There is a time,” said the writer of Ecclesiastes, “for everything, and a season for every purpose under heaven. A time to be born, a time to die. A time to tear down, a time to build up. A time to weep, a time to laugh. A time to mourn and a time to dance.”

There is a time to remember the past. To review its treasures and to give thanks. To savor again the gifts that it gave us. If we can look back with gratitude, this is healthy reflection.

Yes, there is a time to remember the past, to think on the hardships we’ve endured. It’s important to live in reality; to face the truth of what was, no matter how ugly or rough it was. Only when we accept and embrace the truth can we move forward, getting free of the past and all that’s kept us bound. We are not doomed to stay in our hard, rigid ways. We can heal and grow if we want to.

It is when we stay stuck in the past, ruminating over old offenses, that trouble comes. We humans can only look in one direction at a time. That is how we were made. Looking too long in the rearview mirror keeps us from seeing the beauty and wonder of the moments that we’re in. So much grace and joys surround us if we’re watching.

Looking too long at the past keeps us from looking toward the future. Believing and hoping for the good that’s yet to come can strengthen and encourage the heart, but we must cast our gaze there to see it.

When partings make us cry and the bitter and sweet interlace, that’s how we know we have loved. That’s how we know we have lived.

My friend, how we live will determine what others will feel when they hear that we are gone. Will it be relief, or will it be the bittersweetness that put liquid love in the eyes of a teenage boy? Our choices will make all the difference.

Tune in every Saturday morning on 77 WABC to hear America’s small, caffeinated mom on the James Golden Show. There, they discuss the weekly essay with humor, wisdom, and warmth.

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