10: Beacon

10: Beacon

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Grieving and Recovery


We are each gifted in a unique and important way. It is our privilege and our adventure to discover our own special light.

~Mary Dunbar

There is something graceful about a well-made hurricane lamp. Especially the antique ones. The kind that were made with all the love and pride a true artisan has for his work. Heavy, hand blown bowls to cradle the oil. Tightly woven braid wicks bridging the distance between fuel and flame. Tall tunnels of thin glass entrusted to guard the dancing light inside them. Such fragile glass to be so strong, to stand up against the elements, against the inevitable night. Mom had a great affection for the lamps. They were designed to keep their light lit through the harshest of moments, no matter how dark the night or windy the storm. She needed something like that in her life.

I can remember searching through countless flea markets, antique stores, and garage sales for them. She had a huge collection of hurricane lamps in every shape, size, and color. Heavy, cut crystal bowls with short hurricanes, squat and sturdy. Delicate cylindrical bowls with paper thin hurricanes, too fragile to be used but beautiful. Plain, round functional ones filled with red tinted oil. Mom tried very hard to buy the lamps in pairs but her favorite of all the lamps had no mate.

This one unmatched lamp was rather large, standing about two feet tall with the hurricane glass. Its bowl was octagonal and clear. A simple, elegant lamp, one that could stand on its own. It didn’t need a partner to be spectacular. She found it just after we moved 3,000 miles away from everything we knew, after she left my stepfather. It was the first beautiful thing she bought for our new home without the fear that it would be smashed to pieces. On rough nights, when she was down or lonely or frightened, she would light her lamp and sit for hours until she could sleep.

Through the long, fearful nights at the height of a miserable divorce, she’d sit there until the sun came up, fear beating out her exhaustion. When she first found the two marble-sized lumps on her back, Mom found her comfort in the lights that danced untouchable behind glass, lights that would shine forever if she fed them. The night she got the official diagnosis of cancer, she let me help light them.

The spring after Mom’s first battle with malignant melanoma, we went to a local craft fair to pass the time, to keep busy. We were still waiting to hear from the doctors on the results of her follow-up tests. She was feeling less than herself, and she wanted desperately to do something, anything, that would make her feel normal again. If not normal, then at least better.

Everything about the fair is a blur to me; I was so intent on seeing her smile, on not letting my brother see us panic, that I don’t think I noticed anything. All I wanted was to make her smile. I hadn’t seen her smile, heard her laugh, in months and I missed both.

Intent on my search, I bounded ahead of my mom and baby brother as they meandered along the tables and displays. I didn’t make it far before something caught my eye. The recognition was immediate, a sizzle-snap-synapse moment, the kind that make the hair on your arms rise up to face the synchronicity. Standing proud on the display table sat a lamp. Not just a lamp—this was a tall hurricane lamp with an octagonal bowl.

I was excited, frantic, as I raced back through the crowd to my mom. She was inspecting a pair of small lamps at another vendor’s table. Normally, I was not one to interrupt, but this was important. Even at 12, I understood how much it would mean to her. “Mom! You have to see something!” I said.

“Hang on. I think I’m going to get these lamps. What do you think?” She held them up so I could see them but I didn’t even look at them.

“You’ve got to see what I found first.” I tugged on her jacket, unrelenting. She sighed, said something to the person behind the table and set the lamps down.

I dragged her through the fair, not letting her stop to look at anything else, not letting her waste time. She had to see that lamp. When she did, I knew I’d done well. She squeezed my hand and her eyes teared up. As she picked up the lamp, she ran her fingers over the bowl, over the hurricane glass, inspecting it closely. “See this?” She pointed at a very small mark in the glass on the bottom of the bowl. I nodded. “The one at home has the same mark.” She smiled. It was the first time I had seen her truly smile since the doctors first found the melanoma.

When the lamp took its place on the mantle, next to its mate, she cried. After my brother and I were both in bed, she went back downstairs. I knew she went to light the lamps and sit in their glow until she could sleep. She’d done it before. I fell asleep knowing that I’d made her feel better—even if only for one night.

Years later, I understood her need for those lamps, those inextinguishable beacons through the darkest moments of her life. They didn’t help her survive her last bout of cancer, nothing could have done that, but maybe they made those days less frightening. I love those lamps but I don’t need them the way that she did. My memory of her is all I need. She was my hurricane lamp. She was inextinguishable—through the darkest moments, she lit my way without fail. She still does. In those hours when my life is storm-tossed and wind-battered, the light around me shines bright with hope shielded by her hurricane spirit.

~Sarah Wagner

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