Updated: Apr 27, 2022
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” 1
The tiny patchwork squares, stitched together by hand into row after row of alternating light and dark, began to form the quilt top by which it was named: “Sunshine and Shadow.”
It was a sunshine year for Trent and me: 1989, and we were celebrating our twentieth anniversary in a big way. We had entrusted our two youngest children to good friends near our home in southern Germany and had driven our three oldest to a summer camp in northern Germany. After seeing them settled in, we climbed into our car and looked at each other. We were going to be alone for two whole weeks. We had not been alone for so long as a couple since before we had children. We felt giddy.
What followed were glorious, seemingly interminable days of discovering what became favorite places in northern Germany, Denmark, and Sweden—two weeks of renewing our marriage and just having fun. In those days before internet and micro-planning travel routes, we simply struck out, finding charming places to sleep at night and investigate by day. Every element of those two weeks seemed magical. We thought of it as our second honeymoon, as indeed it was.
I had taken the quilt pieces with me. I could hand sew in the car as Trent was driving or in the evenings when he read to me. I felt I was stitching memories together with the quilt. It was a thing of beauty growing under my hands, and it symbolized something of the joy of our marriage.
I did not know how symbolic it was yet to become.
When daily life returned, I could work on the quilt only sporadically. But it continued to grow during that year, 1989, slowly, piece by piece and row by row, light and dark, sunshine and shadow.
1990 followed 1989, unsurprisingly.
In 1990, Trent’s cancer was discovered.
That year was memorable for other reasons: doctors, hospitals, surgeries, weekly chemo, weakness, fears for the unknown future, check-ups for tumor markers.
I rarely had time to sit down. There were five children and their schedules to be seen to, relentless housework, caring for my husband. Blessedly, there were friends who came in time of need, friends indeed.
When I did have ten or fifteen minutes, I picked up the quilt. Those rows of little colorful squares grew in significance as well as number. To be creating something beautiful, something that required concentration and effort, seemed to indicate hope—hope that there is a future, something to work toward, something satisfying, something that will be realized only in time, like planting a tree.
Though 1990 and chemo eventually came to an end, regular check-ups continued, along with their accompanying fears: will a new tumor be found? Check-ups, in fact, that lasted five years. Those years were marked by sunshine but also by repeated bouts of shadow. With cancer, you never quite breathe freely until the shadow passes again.
Sometimes, life can be so dire that even shadow is a weak comparison. Sometimes, the worst happens. Or, the worst multiplies, as it did for the man Job, as told in the Bible. 2
This historical person seemed to have everything going for him: wealth, houses, lands, cattle, a thriving family, an excellent reputation. Then he lost everything in a series of calamities, including his children. The friends who came to comfort him only made things worse by their assessment of his situation. His reputation foundered on their conclusions that his plight was somehow all his fault. Even his wife could not think of a helpful thing to say or do. Job’s sunny life was plunged into deep shadow, even darkness.
I love Job. I love him for this: “Shall we indeed accept good from God and not accept adversity?” In the throes of despair—which he felt keenly—he could recognize a higher principle of life. He attributed to his Maker the source of both the sunshine and the shadow.
What Job could not know (I've read the end of the story!) is that his adversity would be turned into great good and even beauty in time.
Is it too far-fetched to think that something beautiful can come out of my shadows? Or—even more to the point—out of me? Truthfully, Job wasn’t looking for beauty, just relief. Beauty is not the first thing I look for, either, when the shadows come. I want to undo them, want life to go on as it was before the thing that caused the shadows happened—futile wanting.
Twenty-five years after our shadow year, we celebrated Trent being cancer-free. There was joy, there were tears. There was deep thankfulness. Messages from two doctors, one of whom discovered the cancer, jolted us: they had thought Trent would not survive.
The end of Job’s story, too, clearly jolted him, beyond his wildest expectations. He saw with new clarity that his tenuous trust was well-founded. Accepting his lot as from God was itself a thing of beauty that he realized only in time.
The “Sunshine and Shadow” quilt now hangs on our bedroom wall. The quilt is finished, but I am reminded that, in all probability, the shadows are not. Will I dread them in sunshine years? Or will I remember their source and the possibility of great good coming in time?
1 Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
2 The Book of Job