Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

My tragedy in retrospect

Mary Osborne
Chicago, Illinois, United States


Adam and Eve

The downfall of Adam and Eve and their
expulsion from the Garden of Eden
, 1508–1512
Michelangelo, The Sistine Chapel, Rome, Italy

From a scaffold, neck craned, Michelangelo Buonarroti painted scenes from the book of Genesis, prophets, and sibyls upon the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Considering himself a sculptor, he wanted no part of the assignment, but one did not decline a commission from the Pope. Wishing all the while to return to the business of carving marble, he toiled for four years, from 1508 to 1512, paint dripping onto his face and damaging his spine for the rest of his life.

Nearly 500 years later, I stood beside my husband amid a crowd of camera-carrying tourists, admiring the hand of God giving life to Adam, the Garden of Eden, the Great Flood—all brightly colored frescoes, easily visible from the floor. No one comes to Rome without stopping at Vatican City and viewing the masterpiece in the chapel, where the Conclave for the election of the Supreme Pontiff, the successor of Saint Peter, is held.

My husband and I departed from the sacred space in awe, completed our European tour, and returned home to the comfortable routine of our lives and professions. I was a home care nurse, my husband was an attorney. On weekends, he tended the garden while I worked in the kitchen, studied cookbooks, and planned dinner parties. On Sundays we drank our coffee while reading the New York Times. Stretched out on the sofa in the afternoon, I would pen short stories inspired by my patients.

A few months later, while sitting in the kitchen, I announced glad news to my husband: I was expecting. “I’m going to be a father?” he blurted, overwhelmed by our good fortune. We had been praying for a child for nearly a year. Awaiting the arrival of the baby, I felt life was just as I had arranged it to be, yet sometimes I heard troublesome whispers. Too good to last forever. When the baby—perfect, blue-eyed boy—arrived, the idyllic phase was almost over. Like Michelangelo, I was not looking forward to my next assignment.

What seemed at first to be a bad case of the flu turned out to be a far more insidious disease. My strong, fit husband had succumbed to a virus, and before I knew it he was diagnosed with acute liver failure and placed on life support. Stunned family and friends gathered in the intensive care unit, hardly knowing what to say as they looked from me to my infant son.

I would not give up on him. “Do everything you can to save him,” I told his somber-faced doctors, even when they had informed me it was too late. Finally, I understood. A college friend, also a nurse, stood with me in the dark quiet of the night as he was removed from the ventilator. We murmured prayers as he flew away from us.

In the days ahead, everyone asked why. There were no words to explain my great tragedy. I only knew that nothing would ever be the same again. I soldiered on, cared for my precious baby. Out of pride, I was determined not to appear weak or as a victim. Within a month of my husband’s death, I began an ambitious home renovation project. I tried to fill the days with activity and people, to do anything but grieve. But at six o’clock in the evening, when he would have been returning home from work, there was no avoiding the emptiness. Only Michelangelo, in his depiction of Adam and Eve’s banishment from the garden, understood the anguish I felt.

Like Earth’s first man and woman, I too left an ideal world and wandered naked, wondering what had become of paradise. These particular moments of my life are painted upon the ceiling of my memory, agony and ecstasy side by side in a continuing story. As a young bride, I had been living in innocence, blissfully unaware of how circumstances, fortune, can abruptly change. The experience of being widowed, like Eve’s banishment from the garden, was an initiation into a more complicated and difficult life. But perhaps the point was not for Eve, or for me, to remain forever in Eden.

Our profound losses and challenges shape us into who we become. While I would never have deliberately chosen to be a widow and a single mother, it was precisely this experience that taught me my most valuable life lessons. Because of my tragedy, I became a writer, a survivor, a woman who went on to make the most flagrant mistakes and to learn from them. Adrift without my husband, I invested savings unwisely, lost large sums of money, failed to recognize the wolves in sheep’s clothing, and entered into relationships with wildly inappropriate men because I could not bear to be alone. While I regret my foolish behavior, it eventually led to some hard-earned wisdom.

In his frescoes, Michelangelo reminds us that after the garden gate closed on Eden, God sent the prophets and the sibyls to announce that humankind would find redemption in a savior, Jesus Christ. I am not sure of exactly when the turning point came in my own life, but I know salvation did indeed arrive for me. It did not come in the form of one person or a sudden epiphany, but rather it emerged gradually after years of struggle and inner work. Over time, I began to live more consciously, to foresee the consequences of my actions, to choose relationships carefully, to cherish each day as an opportunity to start anew, and to perfect my skills as a writer and mother. The silence that was once unbearable became a place of prayer, the place from which I wrote my books.

The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel illustrates a hopeful view of humanity in which humankind is redeemed from its misery. Paintbrush flying, Michelangelo expressed the glory of the divine and all creation. Though the unbearable might happen, though our fragile lives might sometimes stretch to the breaking point, we can overcome anything. The human spirit is remarkably resilient, lives and shattered dreams can be reinvented.

Michelangelo survived his four strenuous years of painting the chapel. He went on to live a long and productive life, even to redesign St. Peter’s in Rome—claiming all the while he was not an architect. After I was widowed, I continued to work as a nurse, became a published novelist, and managed to find love again. Fifteen years later, my excruciating loss seems less like a tragedy and more like an assignment dutifully completed, a ceiling covered in frescoes. I learned that misfortune cannot always be avoided. But over time, it can be transformed into a masterpiece of light and dark, a stunning image to behold.



MARY OSBORNE, BSN, RN, is a writer, artist, and registered nurse living in Chicago. She is an RN Care Manager with the eldercare company SeniorBridge, and presents programs for teens in conjunction with the Chicago Public Library. Her Renaissance historical, Nonna’s book of mysteries, has won numerous festival awards, a ForeWord Reviews Book of the Year award, and a nomination from the American Library Association. To learn more about her forthcoming novel, Alchemy’s daughter, and other books, visit www.mysticfiction.com.


Highlighted in Frontispiece Spring 2012 – Volume 4, Issue 2

Spring 2012  |  Sections  |  End of Life

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