Hiding in Downton Abbey

Okay. This was pretty intriguing stuff.

When the long-running British series Downton Abbey initially began, I read about it and shrugged, uninterested. Midway into the first season, though, a coworker, Dani, who was enjoying the show, urged me to begin watching it. I remained unconvinced. “I’ve seen Upstairs, Downstairs,” I told her. “Life can hold no more.”

The show was well into its third season one winter, though, when a weekend snowstorm headed for Indianapolis. Not a blizzard, shades of ’78; just a plain old Indy snowstorm. High winds, falling temperatures, lots of drifting snow. The storm was supposed to begin late on Friday night. If the power stayed on (always questionable when high winds combined with snow), I’d need something to occupy my time over a snowbound weekend. I already had yarn and hooks for a crochet project, and plenty of favorite books to re-read. But I’d watched every DVD I owned multiple times to the point of utter boredom, while I had no cable package and basically hated every sitcom and drama then running on network TV. What to do?

So when I headed out for snowstorm supplies to stock my pantry, I chose to make a longer trip down to the highway. There was a used video store tucked in the corner of that strip mall. I could load up on groceries before shopping for a couple of shows.

The DVD store proved a bust, however. I either already owned or wasn’t interested in any of the videos they had. Except…the first season of Downton Abbey. Oh, well, I thought as I laid my money down. Dani would be happy. I’d finally caved.

The wind was already rising that night as I picked up my crocheting and fed the first disk into the player. Snowflakes danced in the darkened windows as the theme music played. The telegraph operator spoke the first line of the series:“Oh my God!” Okay, this was pretty intriguing stuff, I admitted a short while later, realizing that I’d become so interested in the drama that I’d botched two rows of the shell stitch that I could usually crochet in my sleep.

And then they carried the lifeless Turk down the gallery in the dead of night.

I finally stumbled to bed about two a.m., having watched the entire first season. When I at last arose the next day, I didn’t even spare a glance for the snow-blanketed landscape. I just made a cup of coffee and fed the first DVD back into the player to rewatch the whole thing.

The real blessing of my fascination with the series came in 2014, when my sister-in-law’s mother passed away. Paula, the younger sister, had cared for their mother for years, living there in the house with Ellen, and found it troubling to return to their empty home following Ellen’s death. So we three staged a weekend sleepover to reintroduce Paula to the premises, staying up the better part of the first evening watching Downton Abbey, using the familiar scenes and characters to grease the skids of Paula’s difficult transition into a home without their Mom.

The world turned and turned, and we tumbled into 2018; I received a diagnosis of uterine cancer. Numb with shock after the phone call from my gynecologist, I reached out to Paula, and she hurried to stay with me that night. Once again we pulled out the first season. Watching the well-known plot, hearing the memorable lines, I found myself encased in a comforting familiarity, like pulling a pillowy soft blanket over the gaping wound of my fear and shock. I continued to watch select episodes of the series throughout my tests and surgery and recovery that winter—especially the one in which Mrs. Hughes feared she had breast cancer. It was all ineffably comforting.

Over and over again, watching the special features at the end of the series and movie videos, I’ve listened as the cast, the directors and producers and crew members, remark that it has been a privilege and a pleasure, if not a wonder, to be part of something which has touched the lives of so many people everywhere in the world—a show so beloved, so appreciated, that it has woven itself into the threads of our culture. Each time I’ve thought to myself, “If they only knew….”

Then my friend of 32 years, living 900 miles away in another state, died…and no one told me. I learned of her death through a dream, à la Joseph and the Pharaoh, and the aegis of a search engine. Renée had already been buried when I discovered the truth; I did not even have the comfort of a memorial service to say my goodbyes to her.

And so, knowing that a cherished character of my much-beloved series was to die in the second movie, which I had not yet seen, I hurried out to purchase the video. For I needed a funeral. I needed to weep for someone lost. I needed to hear the trite truth that life goes on, and that time heals.

I needed these people who did not really exist in order to mourn the unbearable loss of one who had.

Yet one more time I pulled the enfolding blanket of the fictional world of Downton Abbey across my cringing soul.

And it worked.

May the new year bring better times for all of us, and countless blessings upon you and yours!

A Candle in the Darkness

On Monday, a much loved relative will be having the same surgery as I had, five years ago, when I wrote this blog post.  I am reprinting it for her.

A few days before I was to have surgery, a close friend asked me to confirm the time that my operation would be starting. She would, she explained, be lighting a candle for me at that moment, and sending me her prayers and love.

I’ve always found that the most terrible moment of any surgery is that short, frightening journey as one is wheeled down corridors into the operating room.   The unutterable sense of loneliness cannot be described to anyone who has not had this experience.  I liken it to the final journey of death.  Friends and family in the pre-op room have hugged and kissed one goodbye, and then one is completely alone, facing an unknown.  No matter how simple the surgery, everyone experiences that nagging dread that they might not awaken from the anesthetic.  Everyone wonders if hands, feet, arms, legs, fingers, toes, will all function afterwards, or be forever paralyzed.  Everyone is aware that sometimes, in surgery, things go wrong.

Only once, as I was being taken to surgery, did the orderly pushing the gurney seek to lighten my sense of trepidation. Had I ever had surgery before, she asked, and when I answered in the affirmative, she patted my shoulder and said, “But it’s always a little scary, isn’t it?”  There are no words to describe how comforting I found her empathetic remark.

Being wheeled to this most recent surgery, I received no such comforting question or concern. I was taken a short distance to the operating room and helped onto the table.  In a surgery just two months prior, a nurse had introduced me quickly to everyone in the operating room, giving me their first names and their function in the surgery, leaving me to wonder fearfully if there would be a quiz afterwards!  This time, however, there was only the quick press of the oxygen mask over my face and the staccato instructions of the anesthesiologist to, “Breathe!  Breathe deeply!”  (Of course, since I am horribly claustrophobic, just having the darned mask pressed onto my face made me do nothing but instinctively hold my breath in complete terror, followed by the rapid-fire, quick, short breaths of a full-blown panic attack.  Perhaps this is a reaction for which anesthesiologists should be schooled in their method of approach.)

But, despite my claustrophobia, my lonely distress and anxiety, the image of my friend’s candle, burning brightly for me, shone in my consciousness. I found myself focusing on it during that brief journey to the operating room.  The image calmed me, reassuring me that I was not truly alone; that the prayers and concern of others were surrounding me.  A memory swam up into my consciousness, a poem I had written years earlier, Just a Light Left Burning, and I found myself reciting the lines like a mantra as I was carried into the coma-like sleep of anesthesia:

Just a light left burning for me
in my window of darkest pain;
just safe harbor, refuge, retreat
sheltered sanctuary from rain.

Just a kind hand, steadying me
when I stumble a rocky path;
just a heart’s strong, balancing beat
when I settle my face at last

to the shoulder, stable and sure
of a long-cherished friend who shares
light embrace, encircling me
in the knowledge that one soul cares.

Weeks afterwards, my friend told me that the candle she lit had burned throughout my three-hour operation (which had, of course, begun later than actually scheduled). Despite guttering a few times, the candle had continued burning until a call from the phone tree assured her that I was out of surgery and doing well.

But, in my mind, that candle is still burning, guiding me through the darkness, lighting my path with the beacon of caring and friendship.

If you enjoyed this essay, you might also appreciate “Twenty Hours After Surgery”, which you can find by scrolling down this page to the Archives.  It was published May 15, 2018.  And, as always, if you liked this post, feel free to share it!