Friday, July 11, 2014

a reminder

I'm an all or nothing kind of girl.

Despite my mother's efforts to convince me that "all things in moderation" is a suitable life motto, I'm extreme. I've been known to go whole decades without eating carbohydrates. I abstain or drink a whole bottle of wine. I sit on my ass or work out for nine hours a week. I gave birth to SEVEN children. It's who I am.

I used to post daily updates on Facebook. I tried to stick with uplifting quotes, my own or culled from the internet, that would inspire others to live their best life now and all that jazz. Mostly I was trying to keep myself steady, to prevent the inevitable drifting to darkness common to girls like me (i.e. extreme writers who drink, eat and starve too much.) Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. Apparently, based on feedback I've received while waiting in line in the grocery store, others out there find me inspiring. "I love your posts! Your family is so great!" Yay! I suppose that's something.

Meanwhile I'm left here to be extreme all by myself. When I don't feel up to writing something that would look great on a cat poster (nod to The Lego Movie here) I say nothing. But today I'm feeling edgy and I'm just going to spill it. Doesn't life just suck sometimes? I mean, really, really suck?

I am absolutely fully aware that I am blessed, people. I have a great husband and unbelievably amazing children and grandchildren. I have a cute little dog and an orange cat. I have a job that sounds really good on paper, and several friends who would pretty much do anything for me. But life is still so hard sometimes, and God is silent.

I wonder if God is like me: extreme. Is He an "all or nothing" Guy? Does he show up with plagues and floods and resurrections, but stay quiet on any given Tuesday, when we're wondering how the hell we will make it to the next payday with a quarter tank of gas and a negative bank account balance?

Seriously, God. I mean, I know you love me, and I am really grateful for the gifts you've given me. But if you want these kids to go to Catholic school, and eat every single day, I need cash. I need my husband to sell some freaking windows. I need a break, for crying out loud.

Sometimes my older kids talk about "when we were rich," which Aaron and I laugh about and refer to as "when we had lots of credit." It's true that to them, we seemed rich. We went out to dinner and took a couple vacations. We paid for (portions of) three weddings. We had nice cars and they never knew about what it all cost. Then the job losses came, then the under-employment, the car repos, the bankruptcy, the mom working and starting a business and saying EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BE ALL RIGHT. I'm saying it over and over now, like a mantra, EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BE ALL RIGHT and it is and it isn't. We have enough to eat and a roof over our heads and the children are healthy. EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BE ALL RIGHT.

Then I sit down and do something extreme, and write a crazy blog post like this one that I just might share on the internet, and I feel ridiculous. It is difficult to be extreme, even though it is genuine and what I arrive at naturally. It is hard to be very quiet and very loud; to be oh so positive or so painfully negative. I do wish I could find that moderation that some embrace.

Meanwhile back in crazy Cathyland, I'm extremely hopeful, desperate, grateful and needy. As a person of faith I know that my feelings are not where it's at. I can feel scared and alone and more than a bit concerned about lots of things, and that doesn't mean I give up. It means, once again, that I drag myself up from this dark place and look directly into the sun. It means that I go outside and clean the garage, and do a load of laundry, and enjoy this beautiful day, thankful that I am on vacation this week from a job that gives me a paid vacation. It means I stop wondering how it's all going to turn out, and just breathe.

Yesterday I went to the zoo. We went to the butterfly house, and of course I thought of Celeste right away. Gigi and I were looking up at all the butterflies, and she put out her chubby little finger and said "here, butterfly!" A small group gathered around us, excitedly pointing out that one was on my shoulder. It looked ordinary on the outside - brown, camouflaged with spots that looked like eyes. The exterior was dull, but then it opened its wings. The interior was extreme: a glorious celestial blue.

I don't know why that seems important, but it is. EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BE ALL RIGHT.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

in memoriam

In scripture we read that when the Lord returns, He will come like a thief in the night.

I suppose that is the way death comes too. Even though we know its arrival is inevitable, for each and every one of us, we are surprised when it shows up.

In my dad's case, death didn't arrive in the night. It arrived on the first Sunday of spring, in the early afternoon. Most likely they had just completed the opening hymn at our parish church, where Dad had worshiped for over 50 years.

When Dad died I was not at his side, as I imagined I would be. Rather, I was shopping at my favorite department store, trying on items that would be suitable for his funeral. I cried bitter tears after receiving my brother's call. I was overcome with guilt. What kind of person was shopping for a blazer, black with small white polka dots, while her father died?

I got over it rather quickly. Not his death, but the fact that I wasn't there. I got my vanity from Dad, who would approve the blazer and the fact that I wanted to look pretty for his wake. We were like that, the pair of us. We strove to look good - to be attractive - when it didn't really matter to anyone but us. It doesn't really make sense, and I imagine is not the "godly" way to look at life. But it comforted him to dress in a suit and tie every Sunday, and to be slim and tan. I like those things too, and for today I am embracing that fact. I won't be ashamed of the inheritance he left me.

I used to hate him. When I was a teenager, I could not understand what made him so stubborn and angry. He drank too much. We fought. I argued, which was not seen as a positive trait, although I actually entertained the idea of studying to become a trial lawyer, as my skills seemed to be perfected in those days. He said I would argue with the Good Lord. I said that of course I would. But only if He was wrong.

Many saw Dad in only his later years. They imagined that he was faithful, devout, and loving. That he had a great sense of humor, loved people, and would always flirt with the prettiest girl in the room.

They were right.

My brother and I, and my mom, we know there is more to Dad than that. He was human. He had faults and failings. But as each day passed in recent years, that became a blessing to me, not a curse. I was reminded that each of us, parent or child, is imperfect. We expect much of one another and are disappointed. I forgave my father for his imperfections, and the way he may have hurt me. Because truly, even in our worst moments, I never doubted his love.

He did not say "I love you" to me until I was 40 years old. He spoke those words to me over the phone, the morning after my 7th child was born. When she died four months later, I knew this was one of the gifts she had given me. Dad continued to say those words, inspired I think by an episode of Oprah or The View. It made me smile every time.

For the past year or so he was very different. The dementia took something from him and did not give it back. We didn't know it at the time, but a tumor was also growing above his heart. I imagine that the tumor was actually a special gift the Lord had given him. As it took his breath and stopped his heart, without our even realizing it, it was likely part of his path to redemption. I'm convinced the Lord allowed him to suffer it in secret. But I'm sure his sufferings were united with Christ's, and that fills me with joy.

On the day of Dad's funeral, we took a long drive to the cemetary. My brother reflected that he would have enjoyed it. He traveled there in a Cadillac - the brand he had spent 30 years assembling. We took a meandering path through Dearborn, where he had first lived when he came to Michigan. Some of the roads were rustic and natural, and even hilly, like his birthplace in Pennsylvania.

At the cemetary, beautiful and spacious and well-kept, as we neared the mausoleum, where soldiers awaited him with Taps and flag, two deer crossed the road. They were does, perhaps carrying fawns who would soon arrive to herald the season of renewal. Dad used to hunt deer, but he told us he never shot a fawn or a doe. The first sprinted across the road, and I imagined my father in heaven, running, breathing sweet air deep into his clear, strong lungs. The second deer crossed too. As the hearse crossed the road, the graceful animal turned to look back. She froze and gazed at the vehicle, not moving until Dad had passed. It was a like a benediction; a sacred, sweet moment.

Now we are left to remember, grieve, and celebrate. It's the odd mix that we Christians face. I'm inexplicably exhausted, and strange things attract me, inspire me, and drain me. I'm surprised at how odd I feel. Surprised at how my father's death made me think about life, and how each of us approaches it.
Flannery O'Connor said “I write because I don't know what I think until I read what I say.” I understand that. We writers "operate at a peculiar crossroads where time and place and eternity somehow meet. (Our) problem is to find that location."

That is why I'm here today, in my Field of Blue Children, where I feel safe. I need to begin to process what I am experiencing, and to know what I think.

I think I have a few regrets. I should have made more time to be with him. I should have forgiven him sooner. I should learn to forgive myself.

I think that I am strong and good and faithful, and I will not apologize for that. I trust fully in God. That is a great grace, not a character flaw, even if some view it that way. Trust in God does not make one naive. It makes one wise.

I rejoice, fully, that I was given an imperfect father who modeled generosity and loyalty. I rejoice that he struggled with many faults and was able to remain faithful in the ways that matter most.

A month or so ago, my brother (whose heart is great and faith is even stronger) told me that he was at peace, because one day, in a lucid moment, Dad had told him he was afraid he wouldn't go to heaven.

That tells me two things.

My Father was humble, and he believed in heaven.

If I learned nothing else from him, I will treasure those lessons forever.

I love you, Daddy. I will always be your buddy.

Friday, March 7, 2014

choose hope

It has been a long, cold winter.

For me, the chill came early, in the autumn, when my husband lost his job. The loss, which was the second of this type in as many years, chilled me. The cold descended then, and endured, even when he quickly found employment elsewhere. Things were different; I was tired, and scared. And cold.

Just before Thanksgiving, as the November days grew short, and we were robbed of daylight, days got darker and colder still. Dad fell and ended up in a nursing home. Mom was scared too, and none of us knew quite what to do about it all. Some of us coped by hibernating and avoiding; others showed signs of stress in our bodies, our skin and bones crying out for healing.

January brought ice beyond my imagining. It was the coldest, snowiest winter of my life. Of course I was not alone in this, but sometimes the company gained in misery isn't enough to inoculate us from the sadness that we want to indulge in solo.

Daily work was simply too much. Isn't it all too much? Even the things that I should have been able to cope with and understand were just too much to bear. I was trying so hard, too hard, to warm myself. In the process I grew even colder. Why do we hide ourselves and try to stoke the fire single-handedly, while others stand by ready to toss a match our way? We have to take off our gloves long enough to accept the gift. Even if it makes us colder for a moment while we take the risk.

This morning, it was still cold. But birds, inexplicably, sang. They know, because they don't think; they feel and intuit and trust. Spring will come. Warmth will return.

Today, I choose hope. I take off the gloves and ask for help. Each day, I say three Hail Marys, and give three things, at least, over to My Mama and her Son. I trust them, even when - no, especially when - I am afraid. All of my needs will be provided for, and I am loved. I will say this as many times as necessary each day to remind myself what is true.

And in the tiniest way, I will grow warm. The spark seems insignificant, but that is hardly the case. A roaring fire comes from a tiny ember.

Warm days will return, and soon I will shake off the things I cling to that do not warm me, but only keep me bound.

Because today, I choose hope.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

happy birthday, Dad

Every year on his birthday, my dad would say, "Did I ever tell you about the day I was born? The snow was so deep, my father had to dig out a path for the midwife."

It always made me smile, because he told the story as if he remembered it happening, not as if he was the baby they were waiting for.
Tomorrow Dad will be 93, and I don't think he'll tell the story this year (although I could be wrong. Dementia is funny like that; it gives and takes as it pleases.)

Dad has been at the Heartland Health Care center since late November. Maybe it's not politically correct, but I call it a nursing home. When he fell just before Thanksgiving, he ended up with a hospital visit, and when he was discharged it was not to his home but to this place.

Now he is in the hospital. Last week he had a feeding tube placed, as he was having trouble swallowing and had dropped nearly 30 pounds in a brief amount of time. He tolerated the procedure well, but he had some fluid in his lungs. He is recovering from that, really bouncing back now that he is receiving good nutrition, and if all goes well, he will be back to the nursing home - and then maybe "real" home - within the next few weeks.

The nurses post a care plan in his room that includes his personal goal for the day. Dad's says he wants to stay warm and be with his family. I think we are all on the same page here in Southeast Michigan these days.

Watching a parent age is a bit like watching a child grow up, but in reverse. They both change and become farther away from you; children needing you less, parents more. I've been asked if it's hard to see my dad, once strong and able, become feeble, needy, and childlike. There are moments of sadness and even grief, but in fact, it feels more like progression than decay. I see him being more and more himself, which is often challenging and sometimes a joy. I see him becoming smaller, a physical shadow of himself as a young man, but showing strength and the spoils of a spiritual life. He may not know if it is day or night, or recall who came to visit yesterday. But when he is suffering he prays, out loud, the same prayers I watched him kneel and pray at his bedside each night. He is old and frail, but he is no less my father, and his life has no less value.

There is no way, or course, to know if Dad will celebrate any more birthdays. When I reminded him last week that his birthday was coming soon, I asked him if he knew how old he was going to be. "One hundred!" he quickly replied. When I told him he was old, but not quite that old, he looked me in the eye. "I'll be 93." I was surprised. He doesn't always know. But then again, I have trouble remembering my own age sometimes.

Dad used to say that he wanted to have brunch at the Dearborn Inn on his 100th birthday. Even if he lives that long, he won't be eating brunch, and I admit that makes me sad. I will take this lesson to heart: don't wait for 100 years to do the things you love. And say your prayers every day, when you are young - they may someday comfort you and those you love like nothing else.

We celebrated well last year. Here is a photo from that day. My brother and I clearly got some or our good looks from Dad! ;)

Happy Birthday, Dad. I love you!

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

sign me up

Recently I decided to be more open to what God might have in store for me. I wasn't foolish enough to ask for "signs," but I definitely put it out there that I needed more than vague insinuations. Sometimes I feel like God is little too much like the scarecrow in the Wizard of Oz. "I'd go that way if I were you!" He says, then points in another direction when we're not looking.
Anyway, I'm feeling, more intensely than usual, a desire to make more of this life. But what is this "more" made of? What does it look like? What do I look like when I'm doing it?

This morning I received my monthly edition of The Catholic Journalist. I receive it because currently that is what I am, and it comes free with my membership in the Catholic Press Association. I flipped through casually, forgetting my recent plea to the Lord that He use everything I see to push me in the general direction of His will for my life.

The center spread was eye-catching. It featured a prominent box with the words "Column Logos"; beneath it I spotted a profound, telling, significant icon. A TYPO! A typo in my professional journal! It made me giddy; a sign of imperfection, proof that other actual human beings produced it and lived to tell.

I got up to share it with a coworker, laughing about the fact that though we worked hard to be professional (a.k.a. perfect) there were always errors. I strive to avoid errors, but I'm also of the stripe that recognizes them to be forgivable signs of a common humanity.

As I pointed out the mistake, my eye was drawn to the center of the page. There, in full color, was a picture of me.

This is not a symbolic statement, guys. I mean, it was my real, actual face!

The spread featured ways Catholic media outlets identify their opinion columns, and the header from my page in the magazine I edit was included. OMG is this a sign from GOD?????
Um, well, I dunno. I thought it was pretty cool, because I'm vain, and I like to think they included it because they liked it. Is it, however, a sign that I'm the best editor ever or that I'm destined for glory?

Probably not.

I took a minute to look at it as if I had never seen it before, and what impressed me most was the scripture. Of the 21 designs presented, including columns from priests, bishops, scholars, moms, pundits, and other editors, mine was the only one that included a verse.

Be transformed by the renewal of your mind. Romans 12:2.

There it was, in black and white. With nary a typo.

I had chosen the scripture when we did a redesign some time ago. It's a favorite verse, one that has driven me time and again to the truth of the power of my thinking to change my reality, or at least my perception of it.

Today, it was a simple reminder, if not a sign. "Cathy," it said unambiguously, "Be transformed." How? "By the renewal of your mind."

So I must change, and if I don't know quite into what just yet, at least there's this: I know how to begin.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014


A guest post by my son Luke, age 11.

It's silent; it's cold; it's dark. I gaze off over the garage, through the snowy branches of the damp trees, to see the man in the moon looking down and telling me, "You are unimaginable."

I walk outside and with every step my feet get colder, wetter, and numb. I imagine everything as tundra, and my house is a shack. There is a small frozen lake with a hole in the center to fish. I see the last birds travel south for the winter; just a few; cold, tired, just waiting to land in Florida, where they sit on a pole looking out at the ocean. So warm there, but below zero here. I wish I could be there; I wish I could sip a cold glass of lemonade on a lawn chair; I wish I could just jump up and fly away, and be secluded, isolated from everyone else, and fly, just fly, until I cross the ocean, then cross Africa, even Asia, and fly over the world.

It's silent. It's beautiful.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Jacob's Lighthouse

She wasn't entirely certain, at first, if this was Jacob's lighthouse, but she was willing to wager it might be.

It seemed to her, that from a distance, all lighthouses looked pretty much alike. They were like golden retrievers. From a few yards, they all looked silken and gilded and similar. Up close, they had unique noses, and some even smiled. Lighthouses didn't ever smile, of course, but they all stood straight and tall and were white, and only sometimes red.

Jacob's lighthouse was on the end of a fairly short pier that struck out at a regular angle into Lake Michigan, or more specifically, into the bay at St. Joseph's. Benton Harbor was the town on the other side.

She had visited once or twice before, on summer days. She remembered spending half a day or so there, when all of the children still lived at home. There were only six then. It might have been the summer she was expecting number seven. Maybe that was why the walk out on the pier seemed exceedingly dangerous. It was windy, and the cement was slick, having been washed clean by waves that morning. Authorities had opened the pier and assured visitors it was safe to venture out. But she had held Luke, the littlest, extra tight, and scolded the bigger boys when they went too close to the edge. Aaron had gone ahead, as he always did, reaching the lighthouse long before she felt safe. It was a role he had always taken in their marriage, and she tensed in the remembering, then relaxed, recalling that they had remained, through grace, safe.

She remembered that later, they had taken photographs on the nearby beach. It was a cloudy day, and the children's tan faces were golden against the gray. She wanted to capture the moment, in its imperfection and beauty, and keep it forever. It felt fragile and temporary. So unlike the lighthouse that Jacob, her great, great-grandfather, had maintained decades before.

Now she saw the lighthouse again. Not just in a new light, but in a new season. It was winter. It wasn't just, however, any winter. It was the coldest, bitterest winter that had touched the Midwest in years. This day a record was set. Forecasters predicted that the temperature in some areas might only rise to zero. The lighthouse wasn't merely snow-covered. It was encapsulated in ice. Crystals reached out, building one upon the next, forming icy tendrils that connected to the pier below. It was terrifying. And breathtakingly beautiful.

She had never seen it quite this way, and it moved her deeply.

Now, in this season, on the bitterest of days, a part of her past reached out to her and touched her unexpectedly. She had never met Jacob, and could only wonder at what his life had been like. She had gone to the lighthouse on that summer day because that is what people do: they seek landmarks and legacies, and they try to leave them.

She was creating her own that summer day. Even though the child she carried beneath her heart wouldn’t live for more than a few months, she too would leave a unique mark; a sign; a signal; a light as bold as any ever emitted from any beacon in any port, in any season.

She smiled and touched the computer screen. The image of Jacob's lighthouse had been captured by a photographer she'd likely never meet. It was posted online by a friend that chance had brought to her, a friend she had never embraced in person but a friend, a light, nonetheless.

Jacob's lighthouse stood frozen, elegant and beautiful, cold and far away, yet close. She would return there someday, and walk out on the pier, unafraid.

Today, she took the first step.

See the photos of Jacob's lighthouse here.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

note to self

Dear One,

So, the holidays are over, and you are left with some extra gifts in the form of pounds.

It's OK.

You ate a few too many of those really good cookies that Joey baked. You went back - twice - to get that yummy special-purchase salami with Chianti wine - and you ate the whole thing in one sitting.

Everyone knows you like wine, so it was so thoughtful of them to buy you several bottles for your birthday and Christmas. You didn't drink it all alone. You shared it with friends and family, and you toasted love. It was good. So are you - really.

So you put on a few pounds. That doesn't make you a criminal. Isn't it nice to feel this way, maybe for the first time ever? That is was OK to indulge and eat some special treats, because most of the time you feed yourself healthful foods in a responsible manner? I mean, really. Stop and think about it. You can TRUST yourself to take care of yourself. You've been taking care of everyone else for decades. You know how to do this. You ARE doing it, and you are going to be just fine.

So drink a few glasses of water. Have some fruit and a few extra veggies. If you want to, have a protein shake and some of that vitamin enriched green stuff. But don't get out the emotional weapons of self-destruction and start whipping yourself. Be kind to yourself. Take a walk. Have a cup of tea. Read that book you've been wanting to read. Listen to some beautiful music. Wear pants with an elastic waist for a few days. It's no big deal.

No one loves you less because you're wearing stretchy pants today. In fact, they might like you better, because if you are too perfect, you make life seem too hard. I know that if you trust yourself, and those who love you, you will find goodness this year. You will become the healthier, happier person you know you can be, regardless of what size jeans you are rocking.

You are loved, and you love. That is what others see when they look at you - not what pants you are wearing or how you've filled them out.

It's a new, wonderful year. Look outside. The snow is falling softly, covering everything in a clean, pure blanket. It's a cool, blank slate. Start fresh. Breathe the chilled air and thank God you have another year to live well.

"Fear is useless; what is needed is TRUST." Luke 8:50, Mark 5:36

Thursday, October 24, 2013


About six or eight weeks ago, my daughter took away my bathroom scale.

Rather unceremoniously, she took it out of my bathroom, put it in the trunk of her car, and drove off. I think it’s still there, beneath jumper cables and grocery bags. I wonder if it misses me stepping on it three or four times a day. I missed it at first, but now that my habit has been broken, I’m not sure I want to be reunited.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve struggled with my weight/body image/scale addiction. They are not all the same thing, and I’m still discovering how they are all connected. According to the charts, I’m overweight, maybe even obese. (I don’t know for sure without that trusty scale.) I’ve been normal on occasion, but according to said charts, doctors, Weight Watchers, people on the internet, and the whole wide world, I’ve been fat for most of my life, and I’m fat now. OK. That’s just the way it is.

Body image is another story. There’s no chart that you can look at that tells you how to feel about yourself. I can be fat and happy or skinny and sad. I can think I look OK and then see a photo of myself or catch a glimpse in a mirror and decide that I don’t deserve to be fed. I know people who are much larger than I am who have wonderful confident attitudes; they love their bodies. I know of very slim, fit women who struggle every day with self-hatred. It’s a complex issue, rooted in ultimately in our sense of truth, beauty, and love.

The scale was simply the tool I used to link the data and the image. It was my barometer of self-worth.

If my weight was down, I was happy. When it went up, I was devastated. It meant that I was not good enough. I was such an out-of-control beast that I couldn’t even do this one thing right. I was a failure.

I was powerless.

I have often told my husband that this struggle is less about what others think of me and more about power and control, and he always asks me “Why do you have to have control?” This enrages me. How dare I try to have control of anything! Who do I think I am? What kind of woman thinks she has any right to be empowered about anything?

Yes, I said woman. I do believe this is a feminist issue, and I am an authentic feminist. Some men, many gay, suffer from these issues as well, and I don’t downplay their suffering, but I’m writing as a woman here. As a woman I am sick to death of this. I am tired of wanting with every fiber of my being to be something I cannot be. I am exhausted with my obsessions. I am so over weighing every particle of food and counting every calorie, because even though they tell you at Weight Watchers that this is normal behavior, IT IS NOT. It is not normal to write down every crumb you eat, and use a measuring cup to count the ounces of wine you drink. It’s nonsense. It’s not normal to weigh yourself every day – or even once a week at their meeting – and base your happiness on that number. It’s not healthy to deny yourself birthday cake on your child’s birthday, or bring raw veggies to parties so you can eat them while everyone else has pizza.

I’m writing this today because a part of me wants the scale back. I have probably put on a couple pounds since it left me, and I’m scared. I’m scared that I will become even fatter, fatter every day; that I will become so fat that I become invisible. I fear that this will happen even though I actually eat very well and exercise, because without the scale to tell me to hate myself, how will I remember?

Some part of me knows the truth, the big truth that I am not my body, and that this shell that contains Me will never be adequate to reflect the wonder of who I really am.

But I am still seeking power. What if I could grasp the power that I already have, as a child of God? What if I recognized that fat or thin, young and beautiful or aging and wrinkled, I am worthy of love? What if I focused on my inner beauty (i.e., the fitness of my soul) instead of the circumference of my waist?

I’m not there yet. I am vain and I’ve been deeply influenced by years of cultural influence. I’ve allowed the image of feminine physical beauty to be my benchmark. But I am willing to experiment with a new idea. Might I be enough as I am?

For now I will avoid the scale. Maybe eventually I will forget about it. Maybe I will find new ways to measure success, power, and worth.

You cannot gather those things in your arms and hold them close, so that they will register when you stand naked, waiting to be judged. You can only release them and wonder at how light you feel when you finally stop trying to grasp them, and let them go.

(I stole the title for this post from my friend Kate's book. I'm in the dedication so I didn't think she'd mind. Go to her site to learn more.)

Friday, October 4, 2013

I carry her heart

The other night someone I barely know told me her abortion story.

I was at an appointment and this person was the tech taking care of me. I see her about once a year, and when she asked me what was new, I told her I now had seven grandchildren with another on the way. This led to a discussion of how many children I had. At first I said I have six, not mentioning Celeste. But as the conversation progressed, and she mentioned a family member who was expecting at age 40, I said that I too had a baby at that age. I briefly shared the fact that my daughter had only lived for four months, and that despite her challenges she was a huge blessing in my life.

I've had many responses to Celeste’s story, but I won’t forget this one.

When I said that Celeste had a heart defect, I could tell her interest was piqued, and she wanted to ask more. When I said that I didn't know about the defect until my baby’s birth – that it had not been detected by ultrasound – she said, “If you had known, would you have terminated?” I responded quickly with the truth, “absolutely not! Heavens no.”

Then she asked if I had suspected anything was wrong during my pregnancy. When I said that I hadn't she started to talk quickly, eagerly sharing her story.
“I had a pregnancy once,” she began. “I knew something was wrong, and even though my doctor told me everything was fine, I just felt like something was off, so she ordered another ultrasound.” She laughed. “Well, you know, Mom knows best and all that.”

I started wondering where this story was going. I had just told her that my daughter had died after we removed her life support, after discovering she had brain damage, after watching her suffer through numerous illnesses, after navigating the emotional roller coaster of a possible transplant.

“Well wouldn't you know,” she went on. “The baby wasn't forming right. I looked at it on the ultrasound, and it looked like it had a hole in its heart.”

I started to feel a little dizzy. I thought about Celeste and the holes in her heart. I also thought of the many babies I've heard of who were born with holes in their heart, who are now grown up healthy adults.

“They told me that I probably wouldn't abort spontaneously, but of course I knew what I had to do,” she sighed. “I felt so bad, but you know, I couldn't imagine looking at it and seeing that….They told me that some people would say this was an abortion, for religious reasons, but , well…. I did go to some counseling about it. I used to feel really bad. My husband wasn't as upset as I was. But you know, the mom is a mom right away. The dads don’t really connect until they hold that baby.”

Essentially, she said this: "You just told me the story of your much-loved child, and how her life was difficult yet such a blessing. If I had a child like that,I would have killed her. In fact, I did."

That sounds and feels like madness.

I didn't know what to say or do, so I did and said nothing. I just sat there, numb, while she continued her work, telling me the story of the baby she aborted because “it” wasn't perfect, because “it” might suffer, because “it” might die soon after birth. We went on to talk about how much ultrasounds could detect nowadays, and how cool it is to see a 3-D one.

I am not surprised that she had an abortion. Nor am I surprised that she convinced herself that she didn't. I am sure this caused her a good deal of suffering, and no matter what you might think, I don’t think she is a horrible human being. I do not judge her; while I don’t know her well, my gut tells me she is a genuine woman who truly meant to make the right choice. She had been lied to by medical professionals and the culture and pretty much the whole world. She had believed the great lie that suffering is the enemy.

I am simply horrified that my telling of Celeste’s story may have somehow confirmed her belief that she “did the right thing.” I am sick thinking that somehow the fact that my daughter suffered and died at a young age meant that I should have ended it before her birth, limiting our collective pain.

I wanted to tell her that despite Celeste’s sufferings, I do not regret for one moment that she lived. Every human being who is allowed to be born will suffer – even those of us whose hearts arrive intact. I wish I had had the presence of mind to tell her that.

Instead I mumbled an apology for bringing up something that might have made her uncomfortable. I said a silent prayer, a plea for mercy for myself and this woman and for all of us here on this planet who don’t seem to know how to love. I offered up my agony for a couple I know of whose two month old baby died last week.

Then I thanked God that my daughter died in my arms and that I was able to bury her precious body in our family plot. I thanked God that I had been given what is apparently an extraordinary grace – the grace to suffer with my daughter at the foot of her cross.

When I first met this woman I liked her right away. She is kind and has cared for me very patiently more than once. I still like her, and I’m reminded I need to love her. And pray for her.

I write this not so that we can all sit back and judge her and say that I’m so much better because I chose to let my child die a natural death. I write this because there are holes in my heart, too, and writing sometimes helps me patch them. Despite my brokenness, I’m still breathing, even though it seems like I shouldn't be sometimes. I pray that she and I can forgive and be forgiven and heal. And really think about what it means to suffer, to live – and most of all, to love.

[i carry your heart with me(i carry it in]

e.e. cummings

i carry your heart with me(i carry it in
my heart)i am never without it(anywhere
i go you go,my dear;and whatever is done
by only me is your doing,my darling)
i fear
no fate(for you are my fate,my sweet)i want
no world(for beautiful you are my world,my true)
and it’s you are whatever a moon has always meant
and whatever a sun will always sing is you

here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life;which grows
higher than soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that's keeping the stars apart

i carry your heart(i carry it in my heart)

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

marriage, rotting corpses, and true love

It’s wedding season, and despite the fact that more than half of the couples who marry this summer will someday divorce, countless couples will dive right in. There is buzz that tomorrow, the Supreme Court will make a decision about whether or not same-sex couples have the right to marry. All this, and the fact that I am married, in and out of season, has me thinking about marriage today.

One of my favorite bloggers compared marriage to a rotting corpse in her post today. Ooh, that’s gross. Bizarre. And also true. Read what she wrote and come back, so we can talk about what she said here:

Marriage changes you. Marriage requires that you give things up, forsake all others, step through that door to the other side. Marriage requires that you die, and that you look death in the face and let it happen. When you marry, you cannot preserve your radical independence. You cannot preserve the idea that your needs and wants come first. You cannot pretend that you are a solitary person anymore.

Hey, I thought marriage was all about “love.” Isn’t that what everyone’s saying? That couples who “love” each other should have the right to marry, regardless of gender?
Let’s talk about love.

Leaving the same-sex debate for another day, I’d like to propose a radical concept.

Most of us haven’t the faintest idea what love is.

When I married my husband almost 27 years ago, I thought I loved him. I mean, he was sweet, kind, and attractive. We had fun together. Spending the rest of our lives together seemed like a fine idea at the time. We were “in love.”

But we didn’t know a thing about love.

Thinking about getting married? Want to know what love is about?

Maybe a rotting corpse is a grotesque example,but damn, it’s brutal, this love thing. Like Simcha said, it’s about death, people. It’s about dying to your very self, about putting the needs of your spouse in front of your own. It’s about forgiving, over and over and over again. It’s about recalling that you did not marry this person because it was going to be nice, fun, rewarding, or pleasant, although there will be times when it is all those things. If you are really loving your spouse, you are intentionally striving for that person’s salvation, whatever the cost.

You are also united into one flesh. One flesh doesn’t have two heads, two hearts, two wills. One flesh is one. If I am one, I hurt when my spouse hurts. I struggle when he struggles. When he sins, I repent with him, and I bear the results of his sin in my own soul. If he stops growing, so do I. If he is far from God, can I really say that I am close?

When I am loved by my spouse, I am cared for intimately. When seen through the eyes of love, I am beautiful – not necessarily as I am now, in my imperfection. My spouse loves me as he loves himself, and he sees in me possibility. He sees the wo(man) I can become.

I cannot, in my wildest imagination, dream of a scenario in which this would be possible without Grace.

This summer, brides will walk down aisles to grooms who will promise to cherish them, to be faithful to them, to lay down their lives for them. Many of them will fail. Many of us fail every day.

But miraculously, through Grace, we can “succeed” at marriage. (Success in marriage means, of course, we shall get each other to heaven, right?) We can only do this by death, the figurative and literal kind. We can only stay married, find a peace and even joy in it, if we look at the crucifix and say, “Yes. I am going to love. like. that.”

So first, we die. We die to self. We accept the horrible fallen state we are in, that we are sinners who will hurt each other again and again, and we will look at our other half, our image, the rest of our self, our spouse, and instead of asking, “Am I loved?” we will ask, “Do I love?”

That’s all that really matters, isn’t it?

Monday, January 14, 2013

the yellow bowl

I pride myself on the fact that I am not attached to many material things.

If asked, "Your house is on fire, and you can only grab a few things. What would you take?" I used to answer that all I needed were my photo albums, as everything else could be replaced. Now that most of my photos are somewhere in "the cloud," I say I need nothing.

It has come to my attention lately that I have been lying to myself.

Years ago, perhaps in my first year of marriage, I bought a yellow bowl at a garage sale. It was pretty much like the one pictured above. It was in great condition, and I paid 10 cents for it, took it home, and didn't think much about it.

Then I used that bowl, for the next two and a half decades. I used it mostly when mixing pancakes or a batch of cookies. And always for birthday cakes. I'm not good at math, but I had seven children, so that's quite a few cakes over the years.

The yellow bowl stood for something good and meaningful. It stood for Sunday morning. It represented the times when Mom threw caution to the wind and made chocolate chip cookies, even though she knew she would eat a lot of dough and that was NOT on the diet. It meant cakes sometimes made from scratch, but mostly from a mix, because it was easier and that's what the kids prefer, anyway. It meant little children begging for the spatula, children with chocolate smiles who needed to lick that bowl!

A month or so ago the rubber ring on the bottom of the bowl disintegrated. Beneath it was a mess of moldy yuckiness. Without the ring, the bowl slid around the counter, making it no longer practical. So in a sensible, practical move I non-ceremoniously threw the bowl in the trash and went on with my day.

I can't stop thinking about that bowl.

I imagine it in a landfill somewhere, wondering why it's not on my counter, playing a starring role on a special occasion.

I see the faces of my children around me, begging for a taste or frosting or asking if they can have the first pancake.

I'm overwhelmed with nostalgic longing. I'm overcome with the realization that something so simple could mean so much to me.

My google search for images made it clear that this "vintage find" might be available for purchase if I keep an eye out for it. Sadly, there is no replacing that bowl. A counterfeit could never take its place.

Instead I have begun to train myself, yet again, to "keep all these things, and reflect on them in my heart." Children grow up; they grow up and venture out into the world, and our motherly hearts break a little each day with the realization. Sometimes I have to catch my breath when I allow myself to think about it. I am teaching them, intentionally, to no longer need me. They are transforming before my eyes - and their growth is utterly and completely out of my control. The world will be unkind to them, and they will suffer. They will stand at my elbow, asking for a taste of something good, for such a short while.

Like the yellow bowl, I will do my job and then, eventually, be all used up.

I hope I do my job as well as that bowl did. I hope I will be a memory to my children of one who held and offered good things, who fed them, and who was a part of every celebration.

Goodbye, my yellow friend. Thank you for the lessons - and the pancakes.