Every once in a while, someone will enter your life and leave a lasting impression. They are remembered even long after they die. The lessons learned from them become a permanent part of your heart. This is the case with Charmaine. When we received the call on April 6, 2012, that she had died, I felt sad. She was a truly unique woman who gave so much in the sixty years she graced this earth. I wished that she had more years to give her wonderful gifts.
Charmaine had overcome so much. I have never met a person that has had a harder childhood and early adulthood. Charmaine experienced repeated sexual abuse, betrayal, violence, neglect, emotional abuse and years of addiction. If the average person had experienced even a quarter of the things that she did, they might not even be able to function. But Charmaine took all of that pain and made it into something good in her life. And she did this through a willingness to take risks to heal and through the power of forgiveness.
Serving the World: Using Past Traumas to Bring Growth & Healing
We met Charmaine 28 years ago, when we first started doing our workshops away from our home. She attended that first workshop in Buffalo, New York, and instantly I was drawn to her. She used to laugh as she would describe how I actually hid behind Barry because of shyness, and how much I have grown. Since that time, she had come to a retreat of ours every year since, sometimes on the east coast, sometimes in our home, or in Oregon or Hawaii.
Charmaine was an asset in our workshops. Whatever pain someone was experiencing, Charmaine had gone through it, and much more. With so much compassion she would talk about the power of forgiveness and the risk to bring healing to any emotional pain. There were times we had the thought that we probably should start paying her to attend. She was a living example of how a person can use their past traumas to bring beauty and strength into their lives. She lived with the certainty of on-going growth and healing for herself. Charmaine helped and influenced hundreds of people by her example. Her past pain and trauma became her service to the world.
Taking Risks Can Help Heal Painful Wounds
Barry and I helped Charmaine in unusual ways, and that is why she kept returning to our workshops. She would grow every time she was with us, and would receive an unexpected lesson. Some of these lessons were rather serious, like when she was close to dying fifteen years earlier. And other lessons came when Barry and I were totally unaware of our impact on her. The story below is about one of those unexpected lessons, showing how taking risks can help a person heal painful wounds.
Every year for the past 26 years, we have held a retreat for adults, children and teens at Breitenbush Hot Springs in Oregon. Charmaine often attended this retreat. The first year she came, perhaps 20 years ago, she knew there were beautiful tubs and pools with natural hot mineral water. She wanted very much to have a soak, but there was one problem. Most, but not all, of the people went into the pools without swimsuits or any other clothing.
Charmaine had never allowed anyone to see her body without clothes. When she was married, she would insist on making love in the total darkness. When she was first married as a young woman, her husband made fun of her body and pointed out imperfections. (She later found out that her husband was gay and also gave her HIV from affairs he had been having in secret with men.) But this knowledge did not take away the wound she felt from the things he had said about her body. Not only was she determined to never show a man her naked body, she was even embarrassed to go down to the tubs in her bathing suit.
Spirit Works in Mysterious Ways
One afternoon, even though she wanted to soak in the tubs, she decided instead to take a shower in the women’s shower house. Meanwhile, Barry and I were in a hurry to take a shower. When we got close, we discovered that the men’s side of the shower house was closed for a few hours due to repairs. We both needed a shower and our next session was scheduled in half an hour. Barry said, “I’ll just take a shower in the women’s side.”
I was surprised. “Barry, you can’t just use the women’s shower house. It would be upsetting to women.”
Barry was reluctant to give up his shower, so he said, “I’ll ask the first woman who shows up if she would mind if I am in there as well. If she has any hesitation, I’ll drop it and not take a shower.”
I reluctantly agreed to this plan. One minute later, Charmaine walked up to take her shower. Barry very politely asked her, “Would you mind if I joined you and took a quick shower? The men’s side is closed.”
Charmaine took a deep breath and was silent for a moment. Then with a big sigh she said, “Yes.” (We had no idea about her internal struggle with nudity.)
All three of us went into the shower house and Barry and I shared a shower while Charmaine took her own. We were just a few feet apart from one another and completely visible. Barry and I dried off and left quickly.
Following the Flow of Spirit Leads to Healing
Later, in the afternoon session, Charmaine said she wanted to share an important gift she had received. She then proceeded to share the shower incident with the group. That it was the first time since her ex-husband had made such cruel remarks about her body, that she had trusted enough to allow a man, Barry, to see her without clothes. She told that, as she was showering, Barry talked with her no differently than if she were clothed. She realized in that moment that there was nothing wrong with her body. That night she went in the hot tubs without clothes for the first time. And from then on she enjoyed them every time she came to Breitenbush.
Though Charmaine is now gone from this world, what lives on is her spirit of forgiveness and eagerness to take risks and grow. I shall never forget her and the grace with which she overcame so many difficult obstacles, and lived a truly fulfilling life. Neither will the many people whose lives were changed by her example.
This article was written by Joyce Vissell the co-author of:
A Mother’s Final Gift: How One Woman’s Courageous Dying Transformed Her Family -- by Joyce and Barry Vissell.
In writing this book, Joyce and Barry Vissell, and their children, mentor us through an experience that many of us were afraid to even think about. Joyce's mother, Louise, looked at death as her greatest adventure. The title of this book is indeed A Mother s Final Gift but, in truth, this story is an exceptional gift to every person who will read it.
About the Authors
Joyce & Barry Vissell, a nurse/therapist and psychiatrist couple since 1964, are counselors near Santa Cruz, CA. They are widely regarded as among the world's top experts on conscious relationship and personal growth. They are the authors of The Shared Heart, Models of Love, Risk To Be Healed, The Heart’s Wisdom, Meant To Be, and A Mother’s Final Gift.
Here are a few opportunities to bring more love and growth into your life, at the following longer events led by Barry and Joyce Vissell: Jul 21-26, 2013—Breitenbush Hot Springs (in Oregon) Summer Retreat for individuals, couples and families; Oct 22-28, 2013—Living from the Heart in Assisi, Italy; and Feb 2-9, 2014—Hawaii “Couples in Paradise” Retreat.
Call Toll-Free 1-800-766-0629 (locally 831-684-2299) or write to the Shared Heart Foundation, P.O. Box 2140, Aptos, CA 95001, for free newsletter from Barry and Joyce, further information on counseling sessions by phone or in person, their books, recordings or their schedule of talks and workshops. Visit their web site at SharedHeart.org for their free monthly e-heartletter, their updated schedule, and inspiring past articles on many topics about relationship and living from the heart.