When Something Became Nothing

That morning in Iowa was beautiful — a bright and warm sun, the temperature just right, I and my car on a lonesome yet interesting highway. On the radio, the music ended and local news began.

Immediately disturbing was the lead story about an overnight fire which destroyed a convent in the eastern part of the state. The relatively small complex dating back to the 1890s consisted of a chapel to which was attached two small wings, one serving as a dormitory, the other housing the offices, a library, and some workrooms.

During the night, something had caused a spark or flicker of flame that rapidly became an inferno. By the time the nuns had awakened and the fire trucks arrived from the nearest town, the roaring fire had become all consuming. Everyone, including the firemen, felt utterly helpless, unable to do much of anything except tearfully watch in wide-eyed disbelief.

Loss of the notable and historic structure was bad enough, but the even larger story was that the fire had shattered the life of one of the convent’s Sisters. No, nothing had happened to her. Rather, it was what had happened to the love of her life, to much of her reason for living.

In the smallest workroom was a desk surrounded by stacks of boxes filled with a project that had not only dominated more that forty years of her life, but had also demanded and received the best of everything from body and soul.

The result was to be an unprecedented encyclopedic series of books filled with meticulously sought and carefully written information related to the history of the characters depicted in the Holy Bible. She had invested thousands of hours poring over countless references from all parts of the world, most of which had been so hidden or obscure that they had escaped the attention of many researchers before her. For that effort alone, she had already been recognized.

Recently, however, she felt a sense of urgency. Already in her sixties, she was excited to be so agonizingly close to finishing what had been an extremely long and exhaustive work.

For her, the morning of this day would have been much like all the others — getting up, meditating, praying, and doing her part in caring for the facility. After that, she would’ve retreated to her special room to continue the arduous task of writing and assembling the elements of her concluding summary, the most important section of the project.

Fate, however, had dictated otherwise. Just as the convent was destroyed, so was her life’s work. The most bitter part of that reality was that because the project involved constant revising and painstaking editing, she had made no copies of any of the thousands of pages of typewritten material. At the time, electronic copying was in its infancy and in her judgement, too cumbersome and costly. For that, what had been the pinnacle of her life was nothing more than a memory plus a pile of sodden worthless ashes.

The news went on to say that after the fire, the poor soul had been taken to the local hospital and heavily sedated. Screaming and crying, she had to be wrestled to the ground to keep her from rushing into the flames in a futile attempt to rescue at least one of the many manuscript filled boxes.

As the news ended, I knew I couldn’t be the only one of many listeners wiping away tears. Their imaginations were continuing to dwell on what they would’ve felt had they been in her place, realizing there would be no going back. In a flash, enthusiasm had vanished and time had closed in. The dream would remain just that — a dream.

When you and I were kids, we had at least one object we held close, something special even if others thought it plain, foolish, or useless. As we age, that one becomes two, or six, or many, all objects that in their own way, testify to what kind of life we’ve been living, the choices we’ve been making.

It stands to reason, then, that by the time we reach our sixties or seventies, what we will  have collected will offer proof, even if only to ourselves, of what we enjoyed, accomplished, and became. Best we keep them until the end, even if no one else sees merit in that judgment.

On that morning so long ago, I felt sorry for that woman whose world turned to ashes. I still do — and now you know why.