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The Bitter Cup

By: Ardis E. Parshall - April 25, 2012

From the Relief Society Magazine, April 1953 –

The Bitter Cup

By Angelyn W. Wadley

Outside, the rain had settled into a dismal gray drizzle. Inside, was warmth and comfort. It was an afternoon when a woman could relax over a good book or a bit of handwork, if she didn’t have more pressing duties. But Valerie didn’t feel like reading or sewing. She sat by the window, nervously drumming her fingers on the chair arm.

She glanced across the room at her mother, quietly busy over the mending basket. Even her four-year-old daughter Pamela seemed to have accepted the fact of a rainy day, and was happily occupied at her little table. Valerie wondered why, in such a pleasant atmosphere, she felt so irritable and discontented.

She had planned on visiting Suzanne this afternoon and had decided that she would go on the bus – alone. That decision had required a good bit of determination. Perhaps this restlessness was caused by her conscience, lashing at her for her weakness in feeling glad the weather provided such a good excuse to postpone going to see Suzanne.

It was difficult to put a mental finger on the exact reason for her dread of this visit. Was it the effort of getting there, or the emotional strain of seeing someone else in trouble? Or was this shrinking from anything out of her usual routine merely a mental habit developed by staying at home so long? Her friends kept telling her she should get out more, and she resented it. They didn’t know what it was like to feel so conspicuously different.

Valerie didn’t know quite how, but she felt she could help Suzanne a little. Surely out of her own experience, she should have distilled some essence of philosophy worth sharing with Suzanne.

Suddenly Valerie picked up her crutches and started for her room. Walking was awkward and difficult, with the metal brace on her right leg adding both weight and ungainliness. But by now she could walk well enough to take her reasonable distances.

“I don’t see why this little rain should change my plans. I’m going to get ready and catch the next bus,” Valerie suddenly resolved aloud.

Her mother looked up, a little startled. “The sidewalk is wet and might be slippery. Wouldn’t it be best to wait? I’m sure they won’t expect you on such a gloomy day.”

“Perhaps, on such a gloomy day, it will do more good for me to go,” Valerie answered, but she didn’t explain that she was thinking of good for herself, not Suzanne, nor that the gloom she was trying to conquer was not that caused by the weather, but by this growing, gnawing, restlessness inside herself.

Her mother put down her mending and followed to offer any assistance she might need.

“I don’t think Suzanne will care particularly about seeing me. I hardly know her,” Valerie explained. “But I’m sure her mother will appreciate my coming, and I’ve loved Mrs. Montrose ever since I was a little girl and she was my Sunday School teacher.”

“My heart aches for both of them,” her mother replied. “Please give them my best wishes. Are you sure you don’t want me to go with you? We could take Pam.”

“Don’t worry about me, I’ll manage fine. It’s high time I began to develop some independence again.”

Her mother didn’t try further to dissuade her, but a little later, held the door open while she kissed Pam goodbye and started down the path.

At the sidewalk, Valerie turned and waved at the two in the doorway.

Dear Mom, she thought, she’s so sweet and understanding. She has so much to do for Dick and Pam and me. I shouldn’t burden her further with my blue moods. Why must the things that hurt us, hurt so many other people we love?

Valerie, with baby Pam, had come home to stay with her mother when Dick had been sent overseas for occupation duty. And then a year later, when he sent for her to bring Pam and join him, she had been in a train accident. She still shuddered as she thought of it. She had been lucky to get out of it with only a crushed leg. Many of the passengers were less fortunate, and she knew she should never complain because little Pamela hadn’t been hurt seriously.

Valerie had both longed for and dreaded Dick’s homecoming. When he had gone into the army they had both faced the possibility of his being injured, but it had never occurred to either of them that he might come home safe and well, only to find her injured. But he had been wonderful about it, and she frequently thought that anyone blessed with such love and care as she had, should at least keep cheerful.

Nevertheless, it had been a long, slow road from bed to wheel chair, through surgery; finally, a few steps at a time with leg brace and crutches, gradually walking a little more, and a little better.

It was less than a block to the bus stop, but that seemed a long way now. Yet Valerie felt exhilarated to feel the rain on her face, as she carefully placed her crutches for each step – slowly but surely conquering the distance – conquering more than distance, step by step, triumphantly overcoming the insecurity and helplessness that had held her captive for so long. In almost three years, this was her first venture away from home, alone.

The bus stopped. She handed her crutches up to the driver and pulled herself up the steps. A man on the front seat gently touched her elbow and guided her to his place, and then moved to the back.

Self-consciousness gripped her again. She avoided looking around at the other passengers, lest she see in their faces that mixture of curiosity and sympathy that hurt her so. She sat down and tried to think what she could say to Suzanne.

Valerie hadn’t see Suzanne recently, but she had talked to Mrs. Montrose. It was rheumatic fever, and the doctors were encouraging about it. There was a good chance of complete recovery, if she would co-operate, but they advised spending a whole year in bed.

To Valerie, now, that didn’t seem so bad, but Mrs. Montrose had said that to Suzanne it meant the skies had fallen, and Valerie knew that when she was eighteen, having a wonderful time in her senior year at high school, it would have seemed the same to her.

Half an hour later, when Mrs. Montrose opened the door in answer to Valerie’s ring, she looked surprised.

“Valerie, dear, let me take off your wet things. I didn’t dream you’d come on such a day, so I didn’t even tell Suzanne. Poor dear! She’s so blue.”

She led Valerie to the dinette, which had been converted to a bedroom so Suzanne could be with the family and near a front window.

By now, the rain was slanting against the windowpane by the bed as if the very skies were weeping with compassion for Suzanne’s tears, which rolled down her white cheeks and soaked into her white pillow.

“Here is Valerie Corwin to see you, dear,” Mrs. Montrose said gently.

Suzanne grabbed a tissue and began dabbing at her eyes in embarrassment.

“Don’t be ashamed of your tears,” Valerie said as she sat down. “Remember, I’ve spilled my share.”

Words of sympathy loosed a fresh torrent, and Suzanne buried her face in her pillow. After a while she sobbed, “I’ve already cried bucketfuls, but I’m so discouraged.”

“Yes, I know, and discouragement is like a nine-headed dragon. We think we’ve laid it low and then, when we least expect it, there it rears up to attack us again. But you’ll conquer it in time.”

“Oh, Valerie, what can I do? A year in bed looks like forever. My class will graduate without me, and all my friends are out having good times while I’m here in bed, just like – like an old lady.”

Valerie hardly knew how to answer that. Would it be convincing to say, “I know how you feel?” Could eighteen possibly believe that at twenty-six it was still hard to give up dancing and skiing and joining in the fun of your crowd?

Finally she said, “Well, for one thing, you can still pray. But, of course, I needn’t suggest that to you.” She hadn’t intended to say that, and she wasn’t prepared for the reply.

“Pray!” Suzanne said angrily. “What’s the use? If you get what you want, people say your prayers are answered. If you don’t, they say it wasn’t supposed to be. There’s always an explanation. But I’ve decided that whatever happens would have happened anyway. What’s the use of thinking our prayers can change anything?”

“I did pray awfully hard at first,” she continued bitterly. “I was going to have the lead in the school play and they postponed rehearsals when I took sick. I prayed that I’d get better soon, so they wouldn’t have to give my part to someone else. Then, when they said I’d have to go to the hospital for some tests, I prayed that they wouldn’t find anything serious the matter – and I meant it, I believed in prayer then, but you can see it didn’t do any good. I suppose this shocks you.”

“No, I’m not shocked at all,” Valerie answered quietly. “There were times when I, too, wondered if my prayers were effective. But I’ve had more time to think about it now, and I’m developing some new attitudes about prayer. Are you sure yours aren’t being answered?”

“Well, I didn’t get what I prayed for. And, Valerie, surely you prayed that you would be able to walk again – I mean without crutches. I’m sorry, I guess I shouldn’t have said that.”

“That’s all right, Suzanne; perhaps some people think I didn’t have enough faith, or I wouldn’t have had to use these crutches, and maybe that’s true. But I might have lost my leg – the doctors were afraid at first. Another thing, a strong, healthy body is important, of course, but so is a healthy spirit, and, surely, we should be grateful for spiritual as for physical blessings.” Valerie was a little surprised at her own words; she hadn’t thought of it like that before.

“What do you mean?” Suzanne asked.

“This may sound like a sermon, but I’m saying it for myself as well as for you. Do you recall the account in the Bible of the night Jesus spent in the garden of Gethsemane, and of how he prayed aloud saying, ‘O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt’? Jesus had known that he would have to die and he understood why. And he had the courage to face suffering without flinching. Why then did he pray, ‘if it be possible, let this cup pass’?

“I wonder if he didn’t, in that incident, give us one of our most important lessons about prayer. He knew how frequently people like us would cry out to our Father in heaven, ‘Please don’t let this happen to me! Let the trials pass me by.’

“Surely Jesus knew far better than we, how to pray and what is right to pray for, and we would expect his prayers would be answered. Yet even for him the bitter cup could not pass. But he was blessed with the strength to endure his trial, and remember, he was able to say, ‘Thy will be done.’ We have to look beyond what happened to him to what his sacrifice did for the world.”

Suzanne’s tears had stopped now. “Of course, what happened to Jesus had a purpose and was necessary, but I can’t see that my being sick can do any good in the world.”

“No, that’s always hard for us to see, but if we think of our earth life as a schooling and an opportunity for spiritual development, then we can see that the many problems and troubles we face do serve a purpose. They help to mellow our personalities; they make us more understanding and kind, and they motivate great minds to study and do research to try to eliminate some of the causes of sorrow.”

“So you think we should pray for endurance. Well, I don’t want to be a cheerful invalid. I want to get up and live like other people,” Suzanne answered rebelliously.

“No, I don’t mean at all that we should pray only for patience. You and I want – what everyone else wants – happiness. I think we have a right to pray for that whatever our circumstances.”

Just then Mrs. Montrose came in carrying a tray. “I’ve been fixing us some refreshments, but I’ve listened to your conversation,” she said, “and thanks, Valerie, for what you’ve been saying. It will help me as well as Suzanne.”

“I think,” Valerie answered, “that I’ve been trying to give back to Suzanne some of the faith you gave me when you were my teacher.” Then she laughed, “I remember, though, how you used to remind us about the works that must go with our faith. I’m sure there are lots of things both Suzanne and I can do to help earn our own happiness, but maybe we’ll both have to think more about that.”

Later, on the way home and for the next few days, Valerie did do a great deal more thinking about earning happiness.

She called two of Suzanne’s girl friends, and together they planned some things they could ask Suzanne to do at home that would keep her feeling that she was in on the doings of her crowd.

All she needs, Valerie told herself, is to get so busy doing interesting things for others, that she doesn’t have time to think about what she’s missing. Suddenly she realized that was exactly the prescription for her own troubles, too. She began to wrack her brain for things to suggest that Suzanne could do from her bed that wouldn’t be physically taxing, but would really help and be appreciated by someone else. She found every idea she had for Suzanne was something she could very well do herself.

She went to see Suzanne several times in the next few weeks. Then, one day she decided to go to Relief Society with her mother, and was given such a warm, cordial welcome she wondered why she hadn’t gone before.

She began going to Church regularly with Dick, and, finally, she even accepted the Sunday School superintendent’s request that she help to teach a class.

About five months after her first visit, a much happier, more self-confident Valerie went again to visit Suzanne. Now, it didn’t bother her at all to go on the bus by herself. People still looked at her, but she saw the kindness and friendly interest in their faces and she could flash friendly smiles back at them. She felt like saying, “Don’t feel sorry for me because of these. My brace and crutches aren’t tragic, they’re wonderful. They let me get out of a wheelchair and move around independently.”

As she rode along, she was thinking about how much better she felt than on that other occasion. With a sudden flash of insight, she knew why.

At first, she had tried to regard her accident merely as an interruption in her normal way of living. She had clung tenaciously to the hope that faith and determination were all she needed for complete recovery. then, when gradually, but finally, she had realized that this was not an interlude but a permanent state, there had been a period of rebellion when she had tried to build a wall around herself to protect her feelings from more bruises.

Now she could see that since her first visit to Suzanne, she had taken another important step toward happiness. She had learned not to shut people out of her life, and she had found something in herself to give in return. It was as if she had been wandering alone through a desolate land, but had at last again found the clearly marked road to happiness.

When she reached the Montrose home, she found Suzanne busy painting place cards for a banquet. She was jubilant over her doctor’s last report. She was improving faster than she had expected, and he said her co-operation and fine acceptance of her restrictions were factors in restoring her health.

“I was so blue that first day you came,” Suzanne remembered, “I thought I’d never be happy again. But you’ve helped me so much.”

“No, it’s the other way about, you have helped me,” Valerie answered. “Physically I was recovered enough to begin crawling out of my cocoon – that comfortable protective shell I had woven of isolation and self-concern. But I hadn’t been able to push myself into doing it, until that day I made myself think you needed me.”

“I did need you, but I didn’t know then, what I needed,” Suzanne replied.

“I guess there are lots of ways for people to help each other, but you have helped me to learn a very important truth,” Valerie said quietly. “If we can accept the adversities that come to us in this life with a good grace and undaunted faith – if we can pick up the cup and say, ‘Thy will be done,’ I believe we’ll find it’s only bitter on the top. Underneath, there is a sweetness we would never otherwise have known.”



7 Comments »

  1. A decade and a half ahead of Kubler-Ross, a story that lays out the Stages of Grief almost direct from the book.

    Fascinating.

    I wish there were a compilation of these stories.

    Comment by Coffinberry — April 25, 2012 @ 2:13 pm

  2. That would be great, Coffinberry. Secretly, I’m hoping that Keepa is creating an audience for these stories, making such a compilation worthwhile for a commercial enterprise like, presumably, Deseret Book.

    Even when they’re less skillfully written, or even a little didactic like this one is, I find these stories valuable, if only for showing the breadth of subjects that our mothers and grandmothers were willing to tackle. Physical disabilities, speech impediments, depression — they all come up. Mixed with a heavy dose of romances and fluffy things, of course, but there.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — April 25, 2012 @ 2:31 pm

  3. Varied and disjointed thoughts…
    I’m very impressed with the issues addressed in this story. Even though it ends in the same place, it’s not quite as didactic as what I usually hear now, i.e. strive to be grateful for your challenges, they’re for your own good

    I thought about this being written at a time when polio was a very real threat, also my best friend was afflicted with rheumatic fever about a decade after this story was published. I’m grateful for the medical advances, as well as the acknowledgment and accommodations for disablilities, since that time.

    Also, it seems that the Relief Society Magazine was a wonderful resource and outlet for homespun talents. IIRC, there were household tips, recipes and poetry that didn’t necessarily have a *gospel message.* I recall that my mother was a loyal subscriber. And, the magazine’s successor, Exponent II, was a lifeline for me for several years.

    Now that you’ve brought these bits of fiction to my attention, I’m impressed with the various ways that women were demonstrated as actively taking charge of their lives and situations, although there has also been a substantial number of *wait for the men to take control and make the decisions* types of situations. There has been a nice mix of characters who are not members of the church, at least at the beginning of the stories. Do you think that the magazine was constrained to publish only *faith promoting items* the way that church publications are today?

    Comment by charlene — April 25, 2012 @ 3:57 pm

  4. Quite instructive for a little trifle of fiction, and much more palatable than a sermon.

    Thanks again, Ardis.

    Comment by Mommie Dearest — April 25, 2012 @ 6:38 pm

  5. Thanks, Ardis, for pointing my mind in a new direction. It’s going to sound trite, but I really needed to read this today.

    Comment by Téa — April 26, 2012 @ 11:29 am

  6. I agree. As a chronic pain sufferer, who has often been in and out of wheelchairs, I had to figure out this exact thing by myself, because the “just be brave, just have faith” stories had the same effect on me that they did on the two protagonists in the story! It would be wonderful to be able to present these stories to others as well, kind of a compendium of “lost knowledge,” that is palatable to adults but also easily understood by small ones. My preteen would understand this just as well, and I don’t mean that as an insult :-)

    Comment by Heather B in SC — April 28, 2012 @ 4:09 pm

  7. Those of you who have had such a positive reaction to this story might want to note that its author, Angelyn W. Wadley, is the same woman who wrote Be the Girl of Your Dreams. That wasn’t just another “smile and you’ll be popular” girls’ manual — it was written by someone with the same sensitivities you see in this story.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — April 28, 2012 @ 4:34 pm

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