My Kind of Sexy

It was a nine-seater, eighties GMC Suburban, red and tan, peppered with multiple areas of rust.  It was big enough to dwarf the 6′-1″ driver and loud enough to pass as a large delivery truck.  This was my carriage; my ride to our first date.  It was my Cinderella moment; not so much for the vehicle, but for my fairy tale behind the wheel. Looking back, I can see how this old clunker would define the character of the man I still swoon over twenty-three years later.

As the mother of two teenage boys, I am acutely aware of our world’s definition of sexy. Clothing found acceptable today is shorter, tighter and more see through than ever before.  Too often, body and looks trump character and people are rated by how much skin they show.  Whether it is a Victoria’s Secret ad popping up during our nightly t.v. show or the girl walking down the hallway at school, my boys are saturated with this distorted understanding of what sexy is.

Of course I’d be lying if I said I was first attracted to my husband because he was intelligent, honest and hardworking.  The truth is, I was taken with his dark hair, just long enough to have to be swept to the side, his deep brown eyes, perfect smile and confident, yet humble, way in which he carried himself.  Before learning his name, my college girlfriends and I used to refer to him as “Dead Poets Society” guy (in case you’ve never seen the movie, he looked just like one of the main characters).

As we prepare to celebrate our eighteenth wedding anniversary, I’ve been giving some thought to why it is I remain not only in love with this man, but so attracted to him.  The hair is all but gone and the little that remains is more white than black.  After all these years, all his secrets have been exposed. He is no longer this tall, dark and handsome mystery man that has me excited and curious to learn all the wonderful fairy tale things about him.  He is now this tall, dark and handsome man with flaws and imperfections, the start of wrinkles and an aged expression that shows the fatigue of being the hardworking man he is.

To me, however, this guy’s more sexy than ever before. He’s real, he’s without pretense and he’s vulnerable. He never hides behind the unrealistic strength men are often told they need to exhibit at all times. He identifies with his human weakness and continually puts his life in the hands of God.  There is nothing more attractive to me than seeing him on his knees in prayers, absorbed by a reality bigger than him, strong enough to live on faith rather than cling to some misconstrued belief that he should be able to control everything on his own merit.

His role as father and leader of our little family wins me over every day.  I am beguiled by the way he continually puts us first and himself last, by the way he submits himself to the truth that he doesn’t have all the answers and that he has just as much to learn from our children as he has to teach them, and the way he humbly shows that real leadership comes with the full gamete of emotions-fear-joy-humility-and it’s all ok.  And last, but not least, I am enchanted with the way he continually sacrifices his own “reputation” for the sake of a good laugh.

This is the kind of man I pray our boys will grow to be.  This is the kind of sexy I pray they will seek in a spouse and my future daughter-in-laws will appreciate.  I won’t pretend I can shelter my children from a society that encourages, rewards and celebrates anything and everything that has to do with indecency, promiscuity and the “do-whatever-feels-good” attitude.  We have plenty of inappropriate jokes flying around this household at any given time.  I do however, pray that our children will take note of the kind of man their father is, the joy and strength that comes from his faith and the way he treats their mother with selflessness, kindness and real compassion.

Truth be told, I’ve never been one to care for sports cars.  While I guess I can understand the thrill they seem to bring some people, to me, I see a pretense of sorts among the flashy parts and need for speed.  I’d take the man driving the old suburban any day — and 23 years later, I’m so grateful I did.

Happy Anniversary Babe…

 

My Mini Messenger

You’d think I’d be used to it by now, but it’s still a bit hard to take.  I had gone to my daughter’s classroom to pick her up and drive her to a field trip the class was having at a park nearby.  The rest of the class was walking through the woods from the school to the park but it was a bit too risky to expect Mary to walk the whole way.  This child has mastered the art of “the flop” creating a situation that makes it nearly impossible to lift her small frame from the ground when she has decided that that’s where she wants it.  A walk to the park would be the perfect opportunity to engage this special power of hers and I knew her aide was not up for the challenge.

Disrupting Mary’s normal schedule in any way is always a big deal.  She immediately became confused when she saw me enter the classroom and you could almost see the thoughts she was having scan across her her furrowed brow like the subtitles scrolling the screen of a foreign film.  Fortunately, after seven years of loving this sweet girl, none of this is foreign to me and her reaction was completely expected.

Her personal aide immediately responded to her look of concern, pulled out her picture board schedule and walked Mary through what the morning would hold.  I reached for Mary’s hand to lead her out of the classroom and she immediately let go and ran back over to her aide seeking the stability and comfort I wished I could provide.  Mary’s loving and patient aide assured her that once Mary got to the park, she would see her there. After a hug of reassurance, Mary conceded to the plan and, with some lingering hesitancy, took my hand to head for the car.  

From the moment we first learned of our daughter, she’s taught me more about the word surrender than I ever thought it was possible to absorb.  The scene that played out in her classroom that morning was just another assignment in the lesson on handing over control.  I’d be lying if I didn’t admit I struggle with not being everything my daughter needs, but if I can’t be the one and only, I’m incredibly grateful for the bonds she forms with others.  

I’ll never forget my first meeting with Mary’s very first therapist.  She asked me what it is that I want for my daughter.  Without any hesitation I replied, “I want her to be happy.”  At the time I mistakenly and quite naively thought that I would be paramount in making that wish a reality.  I’m a piece of it for sure, but I’m constantly reminded where my place is.  I liken myself to the team manager.  I organize her schedule, chauffeur her where she needs to be, support and encourage her in all things and keep her world as peaceful and organized as possible.  But I’m one of many people in this little girl’s world that she counts on.

Mary’s loyalty to her relationships is fierce.  It takes a bit to win her over and prove yourself worthy of friendship, but once you do, her love never waivers.  She creates a space for you in her ginormous heart and catalogs you where you make sense in her world.  She doesn’t want to give me the time of day at school because I simply don’t belong there.  Much the same, if one of her aides from school came to our home for a visit, I’m guessing they wouldn’t get a very warm reception.

I’m beginning to understand that God programmed our little lady this way for a reason.  She’s a special soul, drawing attention to this paradoxical intersection of vulnerability and unmatched determination and strength, all wrapped in a painfully adorable package.  I’m noticing time and again what an important messenger she is for God, showering everyone blessed to know her with His amazing and selfless love.  She stretches people to limits they never knew they had and forces new perspective into the lives we thought we had figured out.

One of Mary’s favorite people to play with is a close friend of mine who has fallen under her spell of cuteness.  The difference in age spans over fifty years, but their connection is real.  This friendship of theirs often leaves me wondering who has more to teach the other.  More often than not, when they spend time just the two of them, Mary will bombard her way onto my friend’s lap and sit for a good long snuggle.  To know Mary is to know that sitting for any length of time, by choice no less, is uncommon.  God had a message to send to this friend, one that could only be delivered by the unconditional love of a child.  He needed her to know that the gift of motherhood has not escaped her and there is great need for the compassion and selflessness within her heart.  I love it.

The list of those this child of ours has touched is long.  Her impact on the people she draws close is a beautiful thing to witness.  Perhaps even more beautiful is that I am not left feeling jealous (ok, maybe a little) but rather extremely privileged that I can get this unique view into other’s perspectives.  She has this way of exposing the most vulnerable parts of your heart and squelching any of the negativity hidden in there.  

I often think of her birth mother and marvel at the message Mary emblazoned on her life, one of inner strength and courage that directly contradicts what she saw in herself prior to bringing Mary into this world.  I think of her big brothers and the message she has brought to them of the depth of joy loving someone selflessly can bring you.  Some messages are intimately tied to a specific person, others she almost wears as a banner for all to see, silently yet impactfully preaching the beauty of acceptance.  

I worry about my daughter.  The world will judge her harshly, assuming that her extra chromosome gives them the right to dismiss all she has to offer.  I guess I can’t be too critical.  If I’m going to be brutally transparent, before our daughter entered our lives, I was probably guilty of doing the same.  I wonder how many people walked by Jesus during His time on this earth and dismissed Him as a strange and fanatical prophet of sorts, someone not worth their time and attention.  How often do we continue to do that today?  God uses everything He’s got to pull us close.  He has pulled out every last trick with this young lady of ours, humanizing His message to all of us in a design that’s simply impossible to look past; I’m here.  I matter.  And if you would give me a second, I’ll bring you more joy than you ever thought your heart could handle.

Buddies

“Be Careful What You Pray For”

Ever heard the saying, “be careful what you pray for”?  A recent experience gave definition and perspective to these six simple words.  It was a lesson well learned, but a tough one at that.  

A few weeks ago when we were encroaching on the beginning of Holy Week, I was having a conversation with my son about the mass schedule for the Triduum.  He immediately responded that Holy Thursday and Good Friday are not holy days of obligation.  I actually wasn’t aware of that, but what surprised me most, and truthfully stopped me in my tracks, was the fact that he had taken the time to pit the wonders of the internet against me and Googled what he needed to bolster his argument that he shouldn’t have to attend these celebrations.  

In my more unfortunate and all-too-common humanity, I let fear control my response.  I looked right into his beautiful blue eyes and, instead of respecting the vulnerability that lay behind them, I asserted my best attempt at parental control and assured him that he would in fact be going to mass with his family as the these celebrations encompass the most holy days of the liturgical year.  That said, the conversation (the little I had allowed of one, that is) ended and I walked away angry and certain I was right in making this decision for him.

It never takes long for my fears as a mother to take hold and bring me to the point of visualizing the worst possible outcome from what is often an unfounded fear.  That simple encounter left me reeling with feelings of anger that my son wasn’t respecting the faith we work so hard to value as a family.  My frustration blocked any understanding of the many times my son has respected our wishes and dutifully attended Sunday mass, confession and the days the church does mark as obligatory.  I felt as though I had failed, I felt frightened and I selfishly and dramatically came to the conclusion that he was rejecting his faith entirely.  

Several months ago now, at the start of the new year, my small but mighty book club of six “flawed but faithful” women (as we often refer to ourselves) cracked open the title “My One Word” (by Mike Ashcraft and Rachel Olsen) and embarked on the challenge of choosing one single word to focus on throughout the year.  This one word can be anything, but the intention is to arrive at your word through prayerful self-inspection, asking God what it is He would like you to work on to grow into a more faithful son or daughter.  The word I have chosen for the year is prayer.   

So far, it’s working.  However, that’s not to say the journey has been entirely pleasant. This one word is changing the way I view tough situations, enriching the way I parent and opening my eyes to the countless gifts that surround me.  It’s also showing me the ways in which I am flawed.  And they are many.  And it stinks.  But I get it.  If I’m going to make any positive changes, I need my flaws to be laid before me.

When walking away from the “discussion” with my son, the one positive thing I did was turn to prayer.  I specifically asked God to help me defuse the situation, give me the wisdom and empower me with the right words to talk with my son about my concerns. God answered me, pretty quickly I might add, but most certainly not in the way I expected.

What God gently brought before me was exactly how UN-like Him I was being.  I was trying to force something on my son that God never forced on me.  I was placing judgment on my son that God has never placed on me.  I was placing expectations on my son to meet me where I was at with my faith, rather than selflessly meeting him where he is at.  I was making his faith about me and in doing so, was stripping my son from the gift of free will that God has entrusted to all of us.  The clarity with which I saw my “epic fail” was sobering.  God gave me words all right, but they were not at all what I was hoping for.  The answers I was receiving were in no way affirming of my actions and words, but rather humbling and challenging.

The following day, I found a quiet moment with my son and I apologized.  I told him I was sorry for my anger and explained that it is all rooted in fear; fear that perhaps his faith won’t mean as much to him as it does to me; fear that if he doesn’t open his heart to God, he will miss out on all the gifts, mercies and graces God has specifically chosen for him.  I explained how unfair it is of me to expect him to understand his faith at the young age of 13 in the same way I do at the more seasoned age of 41.  It’s a journey and it needs to be all his own.  As a parent, I can’t make him pack his bags any sooner than when he himself is ready to embark on this very personal adventure.

That’s not to say, of course, that as parents we are meant to just sit back and hope for the best.  We are called to live by example, to teach what we know to be true and to continually place our children in His loving and capable arms.  And prayer is perhaps the most critical piece of the puzzle, the one thing that will never fail to guide us the right way. The trick, I’ve found through experience, is praying with an open heart rather than a strict agenda with preconceived notions that we are already on the right path.  We have to be willing to have our weaknesses exposed, take hold of our humility and be ready to be surprised by what we might hear in response.

At the end of our conversation, when all apologies had be issued, my son looked at me and quietly said, “thanks”.  And there was my answer to prayer.

 

 

 

A Call For Help

It was, by all accounts, a normal Saturday morning.  With a one year old daughter, our day started early and by the time of the “incident”, we had already logged a few hours of playtime. We lived in a relatively quiet neighborhood on a road that didn’t see much traffic outside of the surrounding residents going about their normal daily business. That said, one might understand, in the midst of this more peaceful setting, how surprised I was when I glanced out the window and saw a police car cruising down the road at a speed that clearly spoke of an emergency somewhere nearby. My surprise turned to shock as I saw the car stop right in front of our house and then make a hard left into our little driveway.  My shock turned to dumbfoundment when no more than three seconds later, this exact scene was repeated with a second police car.  I stood at the window in my bathrobe with my pj-clad husband and children happily playing behind me and flatly gave a play-by-play of what I was witnessing; the pitch of my voice steadily increasing with each moment.

When my mind caught up to my eyes and I realized these guys were getting out of their cruisers and quickly heading for our front door, for some ridiculous reason, all I could think about was that I was in my pj’s.  I ran for the bedroom to throw on sweats while shouting to my husband to answer the door.  As my now totally flustered husband opened the front door, two very different worlds crashed into one.  Joe recalls how the officer, completely unknowing of what would greet him on the other side of the door, reached for his weapon and then quickly retracted his hand and visibly breathed a sigh of relief when he was greeted by my husband’s calm and gentle smile.  By the time I donned what I felt was more appropriate attire for the unexpected raid and made it back down the hallway, we had two very imposing officers standing in our entryway.  At first glance, nothing made sense. These men didn’t belong in our calm little world.  What the heck was going on?

Reading the confusion on our faces, one of the officers quickly explained that a 911 call had been placed from our home.  And in an instant, there was clarity in the chaos.  Joe and I looked at one another and both registered at the same time that our unknowing little one year old had been playing with the phone earlier that morning.  How on earth she managed to dial 911 by total chance remains a mystery.  The officer asked why no one had answered the phone when the dispatcher called back and we sheepishly explained that we assumed a call that early on a Saturday morning was a sales call and had ignored it.  Worried the officers might not be convinced of our plea of innocence, Joe offered them the opportunity to walk through the house and to come and meet our pint-sized culprit. They declined the offer, feeling comfortable with our explanation, and left as quickly as they came.

When the officers first reached our home that morning, they were working with very limited knowledge and had every right to assume they might be met with some sort of criminal scene within the walls of our small grey ranch.  Their understanding of the family behind the door was encased in this mistaken call for help and was, for all intents and purposes, drastically at odds with reality.  Fortunately, it didn’t take long for the misunderstanding to be sorted out or for their keen judge of character to rule out any need to investigate things further.

Reliving the events of that morning has brought me a new understanding of the current chaos that has recently enveloped this country and has everyone wondering if there is hope for stability and peace within our present political environment.  No worries; I realize I said the word political, but I can assure you my words are not an attempt at arguing sides or enforcing any personal agenda.  Quite the opposite, I myself am drowning in the division and negativity and am making a plea, simple in nature and complex in action, to refocus our judgement of character, hone our investigative skills and take our hands off our weapons.

To put it entirely too simply, none of us deserves to be judged, condemned or upheld solely on the basis of what box we filled in on voting day.  Rights and beliefs are a tricky thing.  Alone they mean nothing; they are like a puppet without a puppeteer.  Only when rights and beliefs are attached to a person, do they come alive with meaning.  And it’s at that moment that things get interesting, and entirely complex, for each and every person is made of diverse experiences, hopes, tragedies, successes and privileges.  Thinking in those terms, it starts to become clear that it is impossible and grossly unfair to judge someone without all the information that surrounds their individual understanding of this world.

Perhaps even more confusing is the division the election results has caused between friends and families.  These are people working with all the information and still their reactions are as if they no longer know the person behind the vote-the stance-the grip on whatever right they are holding strong to.  The only winner in the midst of this division is the devil himself.  While there is much yet to be revealed, I remain confident that God has this under control.  Yet, we, His sons and daughters remain His hands and feet, eyes and ears.  If we remain staunch in our resentment, paralyzed in our fear or resolute in our self-righteousness, He can’t work, plain and simple.

It’s a lesson I’m trying to absorb myself and my success in doing so has recently been tested. Several weeks ago I was driving to the store and was astounded to see a large billboard with a pro-life message.  Never have I seen anything like this in New England.  There was a large picture of two hands cradling a beautiful baby and the message read, “Cherish Life”.  I was thrilled to see this positive, gentle message and immediately wondered how long it would last before it was met with some sort of vandalism.  It didn’t take long.  The following week when I drove by I could tell someone had taken dirt and snow and thrown it at the billboard, doing a good job of tarnishing it.  It was only about a week or so later that I drove by and it was covered completely with large, black plastic sheeting. And that is how it now remains.

I’m not mad or resentful of this act of vandalism as much as I am just plain saddened by it. The person, or persons, who destroyed the billboard have no idea who I even am and most likely don’t care about my beliefs or my right to uphold the message written across the board.  They might be interested to know that I have the very same message tattooed across the back of my neck in honor and remembrance of my own three souls lost in miscarriage.  I bet if they were willing to listen to my story, they just might understand why I wish that billboard was still visible.  On the flip side, if I had the opportunity to listen to their story and get a glimpse into their life, their struggles, their fears, I just might understand what drove them to do what they did.

“Love your enemies.  Do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.  Do to others as you would have them do to you.” Luke 6:27-28, 31

It’s a tall order, for sure, but it’s time we all revisited the truth in these commands and remember the power of the prayer that can take us there.  God created each one of us uniquely for a reason. We aren’t meant to travel this world as robots, all co-existing among one another like nothing really matters.  Rather, we’ve all been given gifts through our own personal experiences that are meant to be shared, meant to be used to calm the fearful heart of a friend, gently whittle away the distrust and resentment that is unjustly attributed to the stranger among us and hopefully, bring us all closer to those sons and daughters God is proud to call His own.

While this country of ours will forever be wrapped in the beauty of the stars and stripes, we would all do good to remember that we are also wrapped in the arms of God.  We are nothing less than privileged to journey this life “under God” and through Him have the strength and wisdom to remain “indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

That Which Is Unexpected

When Noah let out a scream, he surprised us all.  He was standing in our backyard at the top of a small hill; no one was around him, he hadn’t fallen, all seemed normal in his immediate environment.  “I’ve been shot!”, he shouted.  And the rest of us unknowing loiterers wondered what on earth he was talking about.  I mean, sure, he was standing about fifteen paces away from his grandfather, and his grandfather did happen to be shooting the boys bb gun at the time, but the possibility of those two facts adding up was nil to void…right? I mean, the target at which my father was shooting was a good 30 feet in front of him and Noah was standing behind my father, uphill from him no less.  What are the chances that the bb could have reached Noah?    

I ran over to my little guy (8 at the time) to try to calm him and realized when he lifted his shirt to reveal a perfectly bb-sized red mark on his stomach that he had in fact been shot.  Against all odds, the bb ricocheted off the intended target and made its way uphill and into the stomach of Mr innocent bystander standing off to what he thought was safety.  Myself, his older brother, my mother and my father-turned-assailant, albeit unintentional, were simply shocked.  While trying to process the inevitability of the situation, each one of us was slowly overcome with laughter and spent the next several minutes floundering between comforting this sweet child of mine and allowing the audacity of the scene to take hold.   

Noah Johnson Original

One might call this happenstance unbelievable, crazy or, at the very least, unexpected.  I certainly didn’t wake up that morning considering the possibility that my little guy would be hit with a bb.  For anyone with small children in school, you might have a renewed understanding of the word, “unexpected.”  Among the other trendy, re-purposed vocabulary used these days by teachers and therapists, I find the word unexpected attached to the more unfavorable behavior exhibited by students.  It has replaced more commonly accepted words like, bad, naughty, annoying or just plain not ok.  It limits the word to that which creates a poor or bad outcome.  For example, one day at speech therapy, Mary walked over and turned off the lights.  Her therapist calmly said, “Mary, that was unexpected!”  I didn’t feel like she had the same effect that I did when I ran over to her, grabbed her hand away from the light and shouted, “No!”, but I digress; to each his own.

Amid these meandering ponderings, I do believe I have stumbled upon a point.  When at the start of a new year, I always find myself struggling with the unknown.  My anxiety bubbles up a bit and I become overwhelmed with the immense possibilities that lay before me in the next 365 day period.  What will the year be like?  How can I best prepare for what lies ahead?  Will any of my children be accidentally shot with a bb gun by their loving grandfather?

What I wouldn’t do for a blue print, a detailed memo, a 2017 calendar that clearly outlined each day-anything to help me plan, prepare, be ready for whatever it is I need to be ready for.  If I am to be brutally honest with myself, the truth is, I am frightened of the unexpected.  Further thought leads me to realize that the unexpected is something that lives in the future, so it must be the future that I am fearful of.  And what does God say about the future?  In essence,  He tells me it doesn’t belong to me.  In fact, He tells us that He can’t be with us in the past or the future, only in the here and now, for the present is all that is promised us.  So why is it so hard for me to truly be in the  present?  Again, it brings me back to my fear of the unexpected that could be coming around the corner at any moment.  It’s a bit of a vicious cycle, but the moment I see God in the midst of all of it, life makes sense again.  And that is my quest for 2017; to be present, to pray for comfort in the unexpected, to accept it for what it is and to always find God in the moment.  

Of course the “unexpected” has a big range.  It can be the coffee cup that spills all over the counter or the child that calls from school needing stitches after an accident in science lab.  It can be the child throwing up in the car three minutes into a five-hour ride or news of a serious sickness of a family member.  The unexpected can have personal implications or global implications.  

On the flip side, despite the negativity now associated with the word, the unexpected can also be happy and joyous; a phone call from a friend you haven’t connected with in a while or a beautiful ring your husband hid in what you thought was a simple new coffee mug.  It could be test results showing all is well or the simple compliment that takes you by surprise.  

Good or bad, big or small, the “unexpected” is exactly that.  It is nothing we can plan for, nothing we can control. I often think about my efforts to control life in comparison to the way I pack for a trip.  You’ll find me the week before any trip in the travel-size aisle tossing items into my cart that are sure to solve any and all problems, or “unexpecteds”, that may arise.  Dry skin?  Got the cream.  Upset stomach?  Got the Pepto.  Not near a sink?  Got the Purell.  Hangnail?  A travel pair of nail clippers makes perfect sense.  Of course I don’t normally use any of it, but the peace of mind I feel in being prepared is worth every penny.

While you may not be able to buy it in the travel-size aisle, there is a tried and true remedy for every unexpected that life may bring.  By finding God in all the questions, we can be free to hand all the fear that surrounds the unknown over to the One that has it all under control.  And the beautiful thing is we also open ourselves up to receiving all the good and wonderful “unexpected” that God has planned for us.  Without that trust, without that friendship, we never know what we are missing out on.  With that trust and with that friendship we can be sure the “unexpected” will be defined in His terms and not by our own humanly imperfect reactions.

It’s a lesson I have to learn over and over again.  I give up control and hand over my fear, then slowly find myself trying to regain control and end up wondering why on earth I’m feeling so frightened and anxious.  If I happen to master this goal of mine for even a few days this year, I’ll be happy.  I’m a constant work-in-progress and I’m forever grateful that God remains patient and understanding.

Funny enough, an “unexpected” has been taking place over the past week as I’ve been struggling to finish this post.  My imperfect plan was to be done last Friday.  I thought, for the most part, my writing was complete.  I fully expected to spend a bit more time wrapping things up and be ready to post for Friday morning.  Try as I might however, I just couldn’t seem to bring all my thoughts together into what I felt was an appropriate conclusion.  Something was missing but I couldn’t figure out what so, quite unexpectedly, my own plan fell apart and I resigned myself to the fact that God had more to say and I needed to be patient and listen (never an easy thing for me).

Just yesterday I was listening to one of my new favorite Christian singers by the name of Francesca Battistelli.  I’ve enjoyed her album many times before, but yesterday one song, or more specifically, one phrase stuck out to me.  The song is titled, “Find Rest”.  The particular line that really caught my attention is, “nothing catches Him by surprise”.  “That’s it”, I thought.  That’s what I’ve been missing.  I love it.  Such a simple truth and one that I hope to absorb as the year goes on.  There is nothing “unexpected” in God’s eyes.  He knows it all, plans for it all and has got it all under control.  And in that truth we can all find rest.  I get it God, thank you.  2017, let’s do this…

Angels Among Us

How I would have loved a seat at our neighbor’s house, a window seat that is; the perfect viewing opportunity for the unorthodox scene that played out in our side yard at approximately 5:00 am that morning.  The cast of characters was but a few; a mom and her daughter.  The scene was set upon the early morning sunrise, just light enough for any prying eyes to wonder what on earth was unfolding in their normally conservative neighborhood.  The temperature was a frigid 26 degrees, accompanied by an unforgiving wind.  The ground was perfectly covered by a thin layer of snow, hiding a thick layer of slippery leaves beneath.  

Enter stage left a smiling, jubilant, feisty six-year old little lady.  She is running full speed across the yard, with no particular destination in mind, just the simple goal of remaining out of reach of her mother.  Ah, the mother.  That would be me, the lady clad in pj bottoms, a pink bathrobe and her son’s red soccer flats, thrown on in haste as I realized my pleas to my daughter to come inside were futile.  Once again I found myself in this all-too familiar place, lodged between the horror of what was unfolding in front of me and the hilarity of what was unfolding in front of me.  In one breath I was yelling for her to stop, in the next I was breaking into laughter, unable to deny the humor in the situation.

My day had begun at 3:00 am that morning.  Mary had decided she was done sleeping and promptly launched into her torture routine of singing loudly, jumping on the bed, swating at my face and whatever else she could think of to secure a first-class ticket downstairs to her favorite movie-viewing spot.  Upon making our way to the couch, I glanced out the front door and saw we had our first real snowfall of the season.  I was thankful my sidekick didn’t notice.  As excited as I was for her most ardent wish to have come true, I was in no mood to celebrate at three in the morning.

Fast forward a few hours and I granted my daughter permission to go upstairs to “snuggle with daddy”, as she requested.  I listened to her little feet pitter-patter away and then stop short of the stairs.  “Oh no”, I thought.  “She saw.”  No sooner had the thought run through my mind when her screams of joy rang through the house.  “Mama!  Snow!  Mama, look! Snow!”  And then she was off, running upstairs to spread the news to her dad and brothers.

I managed a few more minutes of rest before my husband made his way downstairs, all the while trying to explain to Mary that it was too early and too cold to go out and enjoy the snow.  Her excitement (and unbelievably stubborn will) prevented any acceptance of reason, and before we knew it, she was headed down to the mud room to get herself ready for some winter fun.  We both knew it would take her some time to dress on her own and decided to benefit from the opportunity to have a few moments to sit and rest our eyes.  Over the next several minutes we heard significant grunting as she talked her way through the donning of her hat and boots, snow pants and mittens.  We heard the door to the garage squeak open and ran downstairs to find this….

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While this picture may not do the following statement justice, this girl is so smart.  She knew she couldn’t get her footy-pj’ed feet into her boots, so the pj’s had to come off.  It took some effort, but we finally convinced her to let us get her fully dressed before she headed outside.  I offered what I thought was a fair compromise by telling her she could go out and enjoy the snow but had to stay on the back deck where I could watch her from the kitchen.  It was, after all, dark out, 26 degrees and windy and shortly after 5am in the morning.  One would think this offer would have been sufficient.  It worked for a while and then, sure enough, she migrated slowly over to the top stair and was just about to head down when I opened the door and reminded her she was to stay on the deck.  After a few more minutes of obedience, the same scene repeated again and, much to my surprise, she listened for a second time and chose to honor my request.  It was the third time when things simply became too much for her.  The draw to the rest of the snow just down the stairs of the deck was something she could no longer refuse.  Off she went and off I reluctantly followed.  

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Fortunately for me, once I finally caught up to my speedster, she gave in fairly easily and allowed me to escort her inside.  I got her wet clothes off, snuggled her up on the couch and went to pour a second cup of coffee in a desperate attempt to regroup and pull my scattered self together.  The intensity of this child is a continual lesson in both patience and wonderment.  The pure joy she finds in the simplest of pleasures is a perfect reminder that this is how life was always meant to be lived.  She is like a little flashing beacon, demanding we stop, look, and absorb the magnificence of what is around us.  In her own unique way, this little girl is setting our world right as she cherishes the gift of our first snowfall.

Warm coffee cup in hand,  I walked back over to the door looking out onto the deck and thanked God for His gentle reminders of all we have to be grateful for, not the least of which are the angels among us.

img_1135Happy Thanksgiving.

A Cherished Life

I can assure you this was not a rash decision; nor was it a result of intoxication (although in retrospect my nerves would have appreciated a quick stop at the bar).  It was actually a well-thought-out, daily pondered, prayerful, all-angles-considered kind of decision that has now been almost three months in the making.

The idea was triggered by a simple article I read this past summer about a woman who had lost a child to miscarriage.  I found the way she memorialized her baby to be beautiful. The article stuck with me for several days and I soon found myself taken-transfixed-obsessed with the thought of doing the same.

My first hurdle to clear was gaining my husband’s blessing.  I wanted more than his approval; I wanted to feel confident that he thought this was a good idea.  In all honesty, I figured he would laugh and tell me I was crazy.  He didn’t.  Much to my surprise, he actually liked the idea.  I was both excited and suddenly nervous, realizing that this idea I fully expected to be dismissed might actually come to fruition.

After realizing my husband would back me on this decision, I ran the idea by my kids to be sure my going ahead with this wouldn’t change their opinion of me.  Again, the idea was met with surprising approval.  Outside of my husband and children, I didn’t tell other family and friends what I was considering.  That, in itself, is very unusual for me, as I’m typically the one seeking the approval of others.  This decision however, felt more personal than most and if the idea was to be shot down by anyone, I wanted it to be between me and God.  

After weeks of careful research and several more waiting for my appointment, it’s time to reveal one of the very last things anyone who knows me would expect me to do.

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I know.  Nutty, huh?  But, if I’ve learned anything in life, it’s that sometimes the most beautiful things are found in that which is unexpected.  Allow me to explain the meaning wrapped in this image.  The three birds represent the three little souls we have lost to miscarriage.  Birds are often viewed as a symbol of freedom, their ability to fly an escape from any earthly boundaries.  Some look at these fragile creatures as a link of sorts between Heaven and earth.  When spoken of in the bible, birds are used as clear examples of God’s protection and providence.  Although the pain was very real during the loss of each one of these precious souls, God was present and His healing abundant.  

To me, the tree is a constant sign of life; that which always holds the promise of rebirth.  It is the representation of God, the very foundation that holds us up when we feel like crumbling under the weight of our sadness.  It is a place of rest for the bird, a place to make their home-much like the heart of God is for us.  The branches symbolize the many twists and turns our lives can take, everything leading back to the main foundation; both influencing the other-the foundation of who we are influencing our reaction to the different paths and the twists and turns influencing and strengthening the foundation of who we are. I wouldn’t be the same person I am today were it not for living through our three miscarriages.

My choice of placement is a reminder that these babies of mine are always behind me; looking over my shoulder as I make my way through life.  The words are a reminder that life is extremely fragile and should-needs-demands to be cherished.

The tattoo isn’t meant to be sad and it’s certainly not intended to invoke any sort of pity. I’m still trying to work out exactly what feelings are behind it.  I guess the best way to describe it is that I’ve been searching for a way to identify with these little beings that I carried and love to this day, but never got to hold-never got to watch grow.  I’m at a point in my life where I’m watching my three earthly children grow at a rate my mind and heart can barely absorb and I’m finding myself stepping back and realizing that, at forty-one years of age, more children are most likely not in God’s plan for us.  We are the family we are meant to be and I love it; I’m more grateful that I have words for.  There is this piece of me however, that simply wants to live the truth that this mama’s heart is made up of six children.

There’s a fascinating study that has found that “the cells from a developing fetus cross the placenta allowing the baby’s DNA to become part of the mother’s body.  These fetal cells persist in a woman’s body into her old age.  This is true even if the baby she carried didn’t live to be born.  The cells of that child stay with her, resonating in ways that mothers have known intuitively throughout time.”  The study goes on to say that “fetal cells a child contributes to the mother may be found in her blood, bone marrow, skin, kidney and liver. These fetal cells appear to “treat” her when she is ill or injured.” (http://lauragraceweldon.com/2012/06/12/mother-child-are-linked-at-the-cellular-level/) How cool is that?  The intricacy and intimacy of God’s design is nothing less than astounding.

I’ve probably given too much thought to this tattoo over the past three months.  I’ve given substantial consideration to how others will interpret the message now imprinted across my neck.  I’ve pictured myself standing in the checkout line at the grocery store with various opinions forming behind me.  

To the young  woman who is pregnant, unprepared and scared, I would tell her there’s a deep message behind the words “cherish life”.  Within those words, there’s memories of sitting beside the birth mother of our daughter as she cried tears of pain in seeing her daughter in the arms of another woman.  I’d also tell her of the healing this hero of ours has found in her choice of adoption and the many times she has looked me in the eyes and told me how happy she is to have this precious little girl in a stable, loving family; realities she just wasn’t equipped to offer at her young age.

To the couple standing behind me who recently learned of their baby’s diagnosis of Down Syndrome-or Muscular Dystrophy-or Trisomy 18, wondering how to cherish a life so fragile with so many unknowns, I’d assure them from my own personal and very privileged experience that the life they carry will bring them more joy than their hearts could imagine and teach them the very definition of life at its greatest.

To the woman or man who made the decision to have an abortion, I’d look them right in the eye and tell them that they. are. cherished.  I’d tell them of one of my dearest friends whose healing from an abortion, and resulting growth in her faith, is a true example of God’s love and mercy.  I’d take their heartbreak home with me and pray for them and for the beautiful soul lost to this earth.  And to those that have lost a child of their own to miscarriage and deeply connect to the message, I would tell them there is hope in God’s perfect plan.

It was quite a sight, me and my husband waiting patiently in the “shop”.  We sat and scanned the many option available for tattoos.  There were pictures of scantily clad women on one wall, demons on another and pictures of Jesus on yet another. We sat side-by-side, perched on the end of the green couch, wondering if people actually used the Ouija board set out on the table in front of us.  If the two of us had to hide to save our lives, this would have been the perfect place.  The question of “what are we doing here?” ran through my head more times than I can count.  I’ll look back on this memory shared with my best friend and laugh.  We’ve been through so much together and I love this man I created this family and life with more and more each day.  It’s a good life; one to cherish for sure.

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Lessons From An Empty Stomach

The door had barely closed behind the doctor before my husband had his head between his knees.  We were at the orthopedist’s office to hear the results of our son’s MRI on his injured knee.  The doctor’s suspicions had been confirmed and he gently delivered the news to our fourteen year old son, just days away from starting his freshman year of high school, that he had a complete tear of his ACL, would need reconstructive surgery, and was looking at six to nine months before he would be fully recovered.  His soccer season was over before it started and the summer had just come to a screeching halt.

The doctor was nothing less than thorough; he presented a detailed explanation of the surgery, including the need to use part of our son’s hamstring to rebuild his ACL.  He used a plastic model of a knee to demonstrate how the tear of the ACL left our son’s knee “loose” and unstable.  My son seemed totally unaffected, I was somewhat fascinated with what I was hearing, my six-year-old daughter was just thrilled that she was perched up on the table right next to her big brother and my husband was, unbeknownst to the rest of us in the room, horrified.  With each word doc uttered, his stomach turned and, by the time the doctor left the room, I turned to see a white-faced man holding desperately to the hope that lowering his head below his heart would settle the nausea and light-headedness that threatened a dignified exit from the office.

Truth be told, the ability to be entirely sympathetic and compassionate escaped me and, as I dug in my purse for some crackers, I may have proclaimed, “good Lord babe, I brought you here to help me…”  While fully aware of his more sensitive stomach (is now the appropriate time to share the story of me changing the gauze in his mouth after his wisdom teeth surgery and him passing out and locking his jaw on my finger?) I have to admit I was surprised at the dire-ness of his situation.  It made a lot more sense when he explained that he hadn’t had a chance to eat lunch prior to the appointment and was trying to process everything on an empty stomach.  I’m happy to report that a quick sleeve of Ritz crackers was all he needed to make it out of the office-stomach lining and reputation still in check.

Believe it or not, there’s an analogy to be drawn here and it has to do with the hardship of living life on an empty stomach, or perhaps more appropriately,  an empty heart.  A few days after our son’s injury, I was thinking about where I was the moment he mis-landed his flip on the trampoline.  I had been out shopping with my sister that day and was probably helping her decide on the best choice for wood flooring when he fell.  If someone had run into the store at that exact moment and listed the changes that would immediately take place in our lives as a result of a freak accident, I’d probably have been the one with my head between my knees struggling to pretend it was all going to be ok. All at once, my middle son had lost his most dependable buddy and the little sister of the family couldn’t figure out why her big brother wasn’t able to play with her.  My biggest helper now required more care than he had in many years.  For a family that loves to do things together, it was suddenly impossible to find an activity that would work for everyone.  Everything felt as though it was turned upside-down.

On the drive home from the store that day, I took the quiet time in the car to fuel up, if you will, and prayed for God to speak through the doctors and be clear on what was causing the swelling and pain.  In a sense, it was me reaching for the sleeve of Ritz crackers, doing what I knew would restore my strength and help me sort through the information before me.  The difference was however, that I wasn’t starting out on an entirely empty stomach.  Turning to God in all things is second nature to me.  To me, it’s as logical as reaching for crackers when I’m hungry.  I’ve been blessed from a young age, fed with the knowledge I needed to understand that I’m never alone in this crazy thing called life.  It’s hard not to take something so familiar for granted, but every now and again I am reminded how fortunate I am to have been blessed with my faith and the knowledge that God can and will work through all things; big or small, important or seemingly trivial.  And once again I was reminded that this is a gift that so many live without, yes, sometimes by choice, but too often through no fault of their own.  Far too many people in this world are struggling to get by on an empty stomach; those that don’t think their problems are worthy of prayer and don’t understand that when you hand it all over to God, it all becomes important if for no other reason than the simple fact that He’s crazy about all. of. us.

I liken the whole idea of faith to a beautiful lake surrounded by a peaceful and scenic landscape.  Some are happy and most comfortable to sit back from the water and enjoy the view.  They appreciate the beauty of the landscape for what its worth, but sadly, they’ve never been told they are allowed to jump into the water or informed about the refreshment it could bring them.  There are those that have heard about this thing called faith and are curious enough to stand at the edge of the lake and dip their toes in but are fearful that complete immersion would require too much of a commitment and might send ripples through their lives that they simply aren’t yet prepared for.  There are those that swim with life vests and floaties, craving something more but not entirely certain that they want to be “all in”.  Then there are those that had the benefit of someone sharing the cherished secret with them, those that run unabashedly toward the water and confidently jump in trusting that the refreshment will far outweigh any sacrifice that may be required.

I truly appreciate the many ways that God has intervened in our son’s injury and I hate to think of all I would miss and the pile of undelivered “thank yous” that would result from me not realizing who is really in charge.  I see Him working in our son’s amazingly positive attitude, in the humility of our orthopedist who referred us to a doctor more familiar and skilled with this type of surgery on a child who is still growing, in the moments when my son looks at me and thanks me for taking care of him, in the ability to work with a physical therapist who is truly skilled in her work.  Life is just so much more beautiful when you are able to see it for each little gift that makes up the journey.

This has been declared the “year of Mercy” in the Catholic church.  As a result, I’ve heard many opinions on exactly what mercy is.  I’m privileged to be working with a team of women, my surrogate sisters, to plan a women’s retreat that focuses on mercy, what it means to us and how to live it in our daily lives.  What I’ve come to understand is that the definition of mercy is wide, expansive, flexible and potentially life-changing.  It is both complex and so very simple.

To me, mercy is the example set for us by Pope Francis when he washed the feet of twelve imprisoned men and women; a true and honest declaration that everyone is worthy of being met where they are at.  It is the realization that faith is never meant to be prideful or forced into the face and lives of those not yet ready to jump into the lake.  Rather, it’s waving to those on shore, gently encouraging them to take a dip and knowing when it’s time to come out and quietly sit together on the beach.

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One Rockin’ Life

One.  That is the number of times I’ve seen my cousin cry.  And ironically enough, they were not tears of sadness, but tears of joy.  I’ll explain in a bit, but first I need to back up and introduce you to a young woman who has taught me much in her twenty-two years.

I was nineteen when she was born.  She’s the youngest of thirteen cousins, all of whom I spent a great deal of time with growing up.  I remember her baby years well, as missed developmental milestones evolved into concerns and then unknowns and fearful questions surrounding what her future would hold.  For a time, there was a lot of hushed talk among the adults and I remember a concerted effort to keep the doctor’s reports from reaching the ears and heart of my grandmother; fragile from living under the weight of her worried nature for so many years.  The amount of information compiled about the condition of her health seemed to parallel the growing number of prescription bottles that lined the counter during her family’s cherished visits with us.  

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Once my cousin’s diagnosis of Muscular Dystrophy was clear, the growing weakness in her muscles was defiantly counteracted by an undeniable and remarkable strength in the will of her family to create the most fulfilling life she could lead.  Both her mom and dad always were, and continue to be, open and direct about her condition and the resulting physical limitations.  However, they have also always been resolute in their determination to provide any opportunity for this amazing cousin of mine to move mountains.  From ballet classes as a toddler to dancing at family weddings in her wheelchair to making Dean’s list in college, this young woman, teamed with the relentless support of her family, is truly one-of-a-kind. From day one of learning of her diagnosis, my aunt and uncle dug deep, they did their research, perfected the skills needed to care for their daughter and set forth on a journey that would show everyone around them exactly what being a parent means.

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I know I speak for each member of my family in saying we have deep admiration and respect for the selfless and tireless way my aunt and uncle love and provide for their children.  Her older brother, just as much an amazing force behind her success and smiles, is now studying to be a doctor.  He will bless the field of medicine immensely, not only as a result of his knowledge and dedication, but perhaps even more from his intimate understanding of the challenges set before someone with such significant health concerns.  His compassion has been beautifully refined after years of loving and caring for his sister.

As my cousin grew, her physical strength continued to decline.  She endured major surgeries that had the potential to crush the spirit of the strongest soul out there.  But my cousin persevered and we all sat back and watched this unique force of a girl fight her way back to that smile we have all come to cherish.  Years ago, when it became necessary for my cousin to receive a tracheostomy, there was concern that she may not be able to learn how to “talk around” the tube that would help her breathe.  I remember vividly the moment we received the news that the surgery was a success and shortly after learned that she was talking again. There is nothing, and I mean nothing, that will keep this girl from sharing a good story:)  

Seventeen.  That is the number of Hunter Hayes concerts my cousin has seen.  She loves him, totally and unabashedly loves the guy; his music, his country charm, his cute face, his concerts.  A few years ago, the Make-A-Wish foundation granted my cousin her dream of attending the Grammy Awards.  It was during this fairy tale of an evening that she came face-to-face with her beloved young country star.  And this was the big moment the floodgates opened and this girl started to cry. Tears. Of. Joy.  Just last week, myself and several of our cousins got to share a piece of this joy with her when we all attended a Hunter Hayes concert together.  Front row, close enough to see Hunter sweat and marvel at the dread locks sported by his band mate.  I didn’t know a single word of his songs, it was a steamy 100 degrees in the venue and I was smooshed up against one-too-many sweaty strangers; and I got to watch my cousin smile from ear to ear from start to finish.  It was awesome.  

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Countless.  That is the number of hearts my cousin has touched in the past twenty-two years.  There are people in this world that stand and shout and teach nothing.  Then there’s my cousin who sits and talks at a whisper and everyone stops and listens because her message is one of remarkable strength and hope and because our hearts are yearning to see God in this way.  There are those who run mile after mile, train for hours in the weight room and take pride in their bulky muscles; all in vain if one’s spirit is weak.  Then there’s my cousin who shows us all that a positive and grateful spirit will bring you further in life than the strongest legs could carry you.  We live in a world in which the definition of a valued life is becoming smaller and more misconstrued every day. Judgments swirl around us with the force and destruction of the fiercest tornado.  Then there’s this young woman with a small frame and the largest of hearts that helps us all see through the storm and realize a cherished life is defined in the way it is lived.

Thank you, my sweet cousin and cherished friend, for your example of resilience and for showing all of us just how to “rock” this gift of life.

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To Build It Well

I think the exact wording was, “This step is irreversible!”  It was in bold, appropriately decorated with an exclamation point to signal the importance of the user seeing the statement before moving ahead of themselves and creating a problem that couldn’t be fixed.  Me and my dad were the users.  And we didn’t see it; at least not before it was too late.  We were putting together a new basketball hoop for my boys and were a little too excited to bring our project to completion.  We snapped two of the pieces together and then grabbed the directions, only to realize we had done exactly what they warned us not to do.  Whoops.  

Fortunately, at least in my experience of the last forty years, nothing is entirely irreversible with my dad.  He really is one of those guys that can fix anything, a bit of a superhero with his tools.  He’s messy, unpredictable, and a tad overconfident, but his determination and know-how leave little to be desired.  His style is best described as “MacGyveristic”; aptly named after my dad’s favorite show from the 80’s.  The main character, MacGyver, would get into seemingly impossible situations yet always managed to narrowly escape with the gift of his ingenuity.  My dad would be the first to fix a pair of broken glasses with a paperclip and we salvaged the use of our old tv for years by warming up the tubes in the back with a blow dryer for ten minutes or so before we wanted to watch a show (much thanks to our guardian angels for seeing us through that idea).

Three years ago, my family was blessed to move into a new home.  After spending ten years doing several refurbishing projects in a home built in the late 60’s, it’s been a true gift to concentrate on more creative ideas in a house that is already soundly built.  Me and dad have tackled many a project together; we’ve built a headboard, decorated one of our walls with shiplap, built a set of shelves from plumbing pipes and wood, replaced a window broken by an errant soccer ball and constructed four large flower boxes for our front deck. The results are beautiful and have helped to create a home out of our house.  My favorite part of these projects however, is the part that no one sees; the part that involves time with my dad all to myself, conversations that might not otherwise happen and a finished product that holds special memories.

Several years ago, during a bible study with a group of cherished friends, I was introduced to a woman who is a gifted author and speaker (by introduced I mean on YouTube). Funny enough, this woman’s name is also Nicole Johnson.  She gave a talk titled, “The Invisible Woman”, and in it taught me one of those life lessons that should have come wrapped with a bow.  Each time I am reminded of it, I find myself re-energized in my role as a parent. The lesson applies to both fathers and mothers and is one that deserves revisiting as we prepare to celebrate the men in our lives that serve the role of father.

Nicole constructed this particular lesson through the comparison of parenting to those that spent long, tedious years building the great cathedrals throughout the world. She highlighted the story of one builder in particular that was carving a beautiful and intricate bird in a corner of the ceiling.  The carving rested beneath a beam and would most likely never be seen.  When asked why he was spending so much time on something no one would see, he replied, “because God sees.”

I’m grateful that my children have a father that would have spent just as much time and put just as much effort into that bird.  And I’m blessed to say I grew up under that same kind of selfless, unassuming care.  I love that my boys have the kind of father that plays soccer in his work clothes with an empty stomach because he doesn’t want to miss the opportunity to spend time with his kids. And I’m grateful that I have a father that sees each new project I place before him as a fun opportunity, rather than just another thing to check off his list.  I love that my husband teaches me again and again how to serve, even when no one is watching and no accolades are up for grabs.  I’m thankful that when I look at my father, I see only genuine, non-judgmental love.  

The influence, the inspiration, the impact of our fathers is priceless.  The love and attention our children deserve is as intricate and unique as the bird resting beneath the beam. Nicole Johnson beautifully summarized the love of a parent in the following message from God;

“You are building a great cathedral.  It will not be finished in your lifetime and sadly,  you will never get to live there, but if you build it well, I will.”

Happy Father’s Day to my husband, father and father-in-law; three of the most skilled builders I know.

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