Issa Grace

One glance at the line of cars traveling toward the cemetery and an unknowing passerby may have thought it was the laying to rest of a well-known, perhaps royal, figure.  Heir to the throne of selfless love, this young princess wore a unique crown during her time on earth.  In her tiny six-pound frame, she held court for countless visitors during her fragile life of nine-months and captured the hearts of hundreds that were privileged enough to know her story.

It began with the gift of her conception and the splitting of chromosomes in such a way that would lead to a prenatal diagnosis of Trisomy 18.  Although her parents were counseled by doctors that this life would not amount to anything but trials and tribulations for them and their family, they chose to place their trust in the Lord and prayed for His will to be done and for the courage to accept whatever that would mean for their daughter. Family and friends were informed of the baby’s diagnosis and the prayers began with fervent requests for healing storming Heaven.

Early on in the pregnancy this little girl’s big brother decided it was time to give her a name.  Not wanting to keep referring to her as “the baby” he gave it some thought and decided to name her after his favorite Star Wars character.  In all of his five-year old wisdom, he bestowed upon his baby sister the name of Issa.  While they had no intention of keeping this name after her birth, his mother and father graciously appeased his desires and the little sister became known as baby Issa.

As the months progressed and Issa continued to grow, her parents searched for peace in and among the seemingly endless medical challenges they learned their daughter would face.  Simple curiosity led them to research the meaning of the name Issa, and it was within this revelation that they were gifted with affirmation that they were not walking this journey alone.  Issa means Jesus, or, “God Saves”.

The little prophet was born on June 7th and was greeted by hearts near bursting with love and cautious hope that she would live even a few hours.  Issa Grace was baptized soon after birth and was immediately enfolded in a love so pure, so selfless that it was as if she decided herself she was going to fight against all medical realities and show the world just what she was made of.

Against all odds, Issa went home with her family just a few days after her birth and began her vocation of changing hearts.  Although caring for Issa came with many challenges, the community around her came together in service to this most beautiful creation.  Many of those who had the honor to be a part of caring for her would, nine months later, speak at her wake in testament to the powerful way this little girl had affected them and changed their hearts forever.

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“We get to ride in a limo and it is going to be real fancy”.  Those the words of Issa’s big brother who gifted her with a namesake for which she wholeheartedly fulfilled.  With Issa’s funeral just a few hours away, his gentle and childlike heart was sifting through the sadness and, as most children would, he chose to focus on a small piece of excitement the day would offer.  By day’s end, when his sister had been laid to rest, he would ask his mom to look through pictures of his tiny buddy before he went to bed because he simply “missed her.”

Quietly, peacefully may she rest in you.  Quietly, peacefully bring her home to you.

Issa’s proud papa took hold of the tiny white casket and, surrounded by her mother, two sisters and brother, Issa was carried into the church where her final services would honor her most magnificent life and celebrate her homecoming.  The casket was placed upon a small table next to the font of holy water, and her family stepped back to allow hundreds of family and friends to dip their hands in the font and trace the sign of the cross on Issa’s casket in their final blessing and solemn goodbye.  Men, women and children approached the casket with hearts clearly broken and tears flowing.  There are simply no appropriate words to describe how profound a gift it was to witness the magnitude of this small child’s reach.

Were it not for the open hearts of Issa’s family, this tiny prophet would not have had nearly the impact that she did.  The door to their home, and their lives, was wide open and it was through the gift of their vulnerability, the exposition of their journey and profound love for their daughter, that we were all able to participate in this child’s life. Their sacrifice was our lesson in true compassion, their long days and sleepless nights our lesson in patience and perseverance, their trust our lesson in fortitude and their humility our lesson in unwavering faith.

As the most holy mass came to a close, Issa’s father stepped forward and sang Ave Maria to his daughter.  His song seeped gloriously from his heart and most assuredly reached the ears of his pride and joy in Heaven above.  He bent and kissed the casket and went to rejoin his family; a family that will always and forever have an angel watching over them.

What the curious onlooker at the line of cars journeying to the cemetery may never have guessed, is that inside that “real fancy” limo a mother held her child in a casket so small it fit upon her lap.  More regal than any royal family member, more wise than any scholar, more wealthy than any successful businessman, she came to us a fragile and most vulnerable child and taught us more in her span of nine-months than many of us could ever hope to achieve in a lifetime.

Sweet and precious Issa Grace, pray for us.  We love you.

Issa 5

I am posting early this week, as today marks the one year anniversary of our niece’s birth into eternal life.  Thank you for taking the time to read a little about Issa and the pure miracle that her life was from the moment of her conception until her last breath on this earth.  I invite you to forward this reflection along to your family and friends in honor of Issa and her family; in recognition of the miracle of life and in gratitude for all that Issa and her family taught us about selfless love. Please offer a prayer today for Issa’s family as they continue on their journey of healing, and for all those families affected by Trisomy 18.    

“Overcoming my-Self”

Its been about nine years now, but I can still remember the nurse actually laughing when she undid the ream of tags for my blood work and it was so long, the tags hit the floor. She couldn’t believe the amount of tests my doctor had ordered, nor could she possibly understand my deepest hope that something would show up on the tests that would explain why I was having so much trouble carrying a baby to term.

I was at a point in my life where I should have been content.  I had been blessed with more than I ever dreamed in the gift of our two sons.  I was happy, absolutely.  However, try as I might, I just couldn’t shake a deep desire to have another child.  I felt guilty wanting anything more than I had already been given, but I knew our family was not yet complete. I wanted so much to feel secure that all was as it should be.  But my heart told me differently, so I continued to ache for another child.

Never did I think we would remain without any logical answer when the tests were reviewed and nothing out of the ordinary surfaced. I guess I should have been happy with the results showing all was normal, but I so desperately wanted to have a problem I could fix.

After several more months of waiting for our prayer to be answered, I was certain I was expecting. Going through the motion of taking the pregnancy test was, so I thought, a mere formality. I had convinced myself I was pregnant and was already calculating the month the baby would be born.

Seeing the negative sign appear in that little window was an unbelievable blow. I was done with trusting in God. I no longer wanted to be patient. I no longer wanted to be understanding. I no longer wanted to be on His timing, under His will. I was angry and, as I sat on the bathroom floor in tears, I told him exactly how I felt. Never had I yelled at my Father. I’d been frustrated, sure. But this was different. I had been stripped of all control, and I didn’t like it. There was nothing concrete left for me to do; no action items on the agenda, no plan to set in motion. There was no ME left. He wanted all control and it scared me to the core.

I didn’t realize it that day, but I now understand that it was that very moment, in the midst of my anger, that God began “operation adoption”. He, in a sense, purified me by bringing me to a point where I simply could not depend on my self. There was nothing more my human self could do to bring another life into our family.

“Above all the grace and the gifts that Christ gives to His beloved is that of overcoming self.”   –St. Francis of Assisi

I’ve always had a special devotion to our Blessed Mother and have been praying the rosary since I was young.  When praying the Sorrowful Mysteries, I never understood the fruit of the second sorrowful mystery; that of purity. I could never figure out what “purity” had to do with Jesus being scourged.

This mystery seemed to open up for me when reading a book with incredible insight from St. Francis of Assisi about the simple fact that we are nothing on our own; we are everything in God. I began to think about this in terms of purity and slowly began to realize that it was at what I felt was my lowest, weakest point in my life when I was purified in His sight. I was likened to a clean slate. I had exhausted all my human avenues and had come up empty. It was time to surrender and hand it all over to God; time to sink or let Him hold me as He walked on water.

The lesson of surrender is one that doesn’t easily stick for me.  I love order. I love plans.  I love plans that are executed in an orderly fashion.  I love to think I have it all under control. No matter how many times life gets messy and I’m reminded that I do not have it all under control, I never hesitate to try to fix things on my own before I finally surrender it to the one I should have handed it over to right from the start.  It’s a continuous tug of war with me and God and I am eternally grateful to know that He will never tire of pulling me back over that line. 

If you’ve watched Mel Gibson’s “Passion”, you’ve witnessed the brutality Jesus suffered at the hands of those who scourged Him. There is not a more humble sight, a more purified soul than that which would hand His life over to His Father and continue to trust in His will as He endured such horrific suffering, mockery and devastation. Jesus was cleansed of self, purified in His selflessness, His all-encompassing desire to live His Father’s will. As a result, we are all washed clean in His blood.  We find our purity in and through His most beautiful sacrifice.

There isn’t a soul on this earth that can’t somehow relate to suffering.  We’ve all seen times that were difficult; times when we’ve questioned where God is in all of it.  Make no mistake.  When we suffer, God suffers.  He is our Father after all.  Not only does He want the best for us, He has actually designed it, from beginning to end.  I imagine when He saw me sitting in tears on the bathroom floor all those years ago, His heart was just aching to tell me His plans.  He had to wait for me to empty myself and trust in Him.  It must be just as hard for God to wait patiently for us to trust him as it is for us to award that trust.  I can just see Him trying to get through to us, saying, “It’s ok. I got this.”

The process of adopting our daughter was filled with unknowns, questions and lots of “what-ifs”.  One would think it would have been one of the most stressful times in my life.  Oddly enough, it was one of the most freeing.  I  had never before, nor ever since, felt so confident and secure in what I was doing.  God had pulled me well over the line and I was never so happy to follow His lead.

by Matthew Paulson

“Reflected Sunrise” by Matthew Paulson

Sacrificial Love

“May I ask you a question?”, she said.

It was in that moment that this young woman, whose first impression was one of strength, perseverance and vitality, became suddenly transparent, vulnerable and willing to risk it all to get an answer.

“Yes”, I said.  “Of course you can.”

“You adopted one of your children, correct?”

“Yes”, I replied.  “We adopted our daughter.”

“Do you love her the same as your biological children?”

We had come to her home with the simple mission of delivering some items this young woman’s family was in need of.  We didn’t know much of her story.  All we did know was what we saw in front of us.  She was the mother of two sweet children and we guessed she was expecting a third.  Just a few minutes in her company taught us she was a woman who was trying desperately to provide for her family and keep it all together in a world that had clearly dealt her a hand few would bet on.  After graciously being invited into her home, my eyes quickly scanned what was an almost empty room, void of any homey comforts.  We smiled and filled the emptiness with casual conversation as her little ones carefully stepped around us, exploring what we had brought.

It was when we were saying goodbye and readying ourselves to leave, that she asked the question.  In her curiosity, two complete strangers found a common bond.  Knowing it wouldn’t necessarily make the decision in front of her any easier, she had to know.  She needed confirmation that a couple’s love for a child adopted into a family could equal that of a child born to one.

I felt totally incapable of putting our love for our daughter into words strong enough to ease the fear that was paralyzing this beautiful woman’s heart.  It had become all too apparent however, that we were there to deliver much more than material goods.

“I think that is a fear that all adoptive parents have”, I began.  “But there are no words to explain how much we love her.  If you could just see her with her brothers; the love they have for her is such a gift.  She has changed our lives in ways we never thought possible.”

She took a deep breath, exhaled, and simply replied, “Ok, good.  Thank you.”  We hugged and left, not knowing if our paths would ever cross again.  “Dear God”, I prayed as I walked back to our car, “I pray I said enough.  Give her wisdom Lord, with whatever decision lays before her.”

Our brief encounter that morning led me to once again consider the fear and uncertainty that must have enveloped the heart of our daughter’s birth mother when she realized she wouldn’t be able to parent her child.  I was reminded of the first time she came to our home to visit her daughter, to meet her little girl’s new big brothers and to witness another woman caring for her child.  I imagine overwhelmed is an adjective that falls short of describing the feelings that were going on inside of her.  There we all sat; my husband and I, our two sons, our daughter, our daughter’s birthmother and the birthmother’s sister.  We talked, we laughed, we looked intently upon the beautiful little soul that had brought us all together.  Her smiles and giggles broke through the magnitude of heaviness that permeated the room.

Before long, it was time for this selfless woman to say goodbye once again to the small miracle she clearly cherished.  I wanted so much to ease the pain I knew she must have been feeling, but all I could do was give her a hug and pray she knew how much we loved her child.  There were simply no adequate words to express our deepest gratitude for her trust in us.  She gave us her child.  We did nothing to deserve her and she had never done wrong by her.  In fact, she had done everything right for her.  She had given her life and she chose to give that life to another in hopes that this little girl would be blessed with all the support and opportunity she herself was unable to provide.

For quite some time after our daughter moved in with us, I was afraid I wouldn’t live up to all I wanted to be as an adoptive mother.  It felt different, like when I was little and borrowed one of my sister’s sweaters.  I was nervous the whole time wearing it, fearful that I might damage something that belonged to someone else. I questioned my every move and wondered if I would ever feel “worthy” of being given this special gift.  There was a whole new layer to my feelings of inadequacy as a parent.  Not only did I want to make all the right decisions for our daughter, I wanted desperately to do right by her birth mother, to honor the trust she placed in us and somehow assure her that she had in fact made the right decision when she placed her child in our family.

It took some time, but I have come to both understand and accept that the words “deserving” or “worthy” are not meant to be paired with parenting.  It is simply impossible to reach a point where I could be worthy of the three children that bless each day of my life.  God didn’t give them to me because I was worthy or deserving.  He gave them to me because He loves me and He trusts me to return His love by loving His children.

It seems all too appropriate that these lessons are coming together for me during the season of Lent.  In looking into the vulnerable eyes of the woman who asked me if I love my adopted daughter as much as my biological children, I see God wondering if I can love His Son.  In praying for her strength as she cares for this child in her womb that she will say goodbye to at birth, I think of Jesus’ mother and her incredible sacrifice in bringing into being her son that was to be handed over to a world of sinners.  Heart wrenching sacrifice, all in the name of selfless love.

Looking at my daughter’s birth mother, I am left to wonder; how does one say “thank you” for the gift of life? I will love our little girl with everything I am.  I will put her needs before my own.  When a door closes for her, I will find an open window.  When she hurts, I will hurt with her and when she laughs, I will find joy in knowing her heart is happy.  I will place her in Jesus’ embrace each morning and ask for His protection over her each day.

God didn’t hand over His son because we were deserving or worthy of such a sacrificial gift.  He gave us His son because He loves us that much.  Looking at Jesus on the cross, I am left to wonder; how does one say “thank you” for the gift of life?

“Let the Children Come to Me”

“So I have to give up one of my desserts today, go to mass twice this week and miss my screen time because we won’t be home from mass until late tonight?”

“Yes”, I replied, “its called sacrifice.”

His frustration was more than apparent, and so was mine.  Happy Ash Wednesday and welcome to Lent. Although I could clearly empathize, my response to our 11-year-old’s very real (and understandable) woes was less than sympathetic.  I had been struggling myself all day with the pan of rich, fudgy brownies sitting on the counter, enticing me to indulge on a day that was meant for self-sacrifice and denial.

I see them in church every weekend.  The pre-teens and teenagers; these beautiful beings stuck within their own (albeit age-appropriate) selfish desires, drowning in their questions about what it all means and what good this church thing is going to do for them. Their reluctance in being truly present at mass is evident in their posture, the expressions on their faces speaking volumes about their inner struggles.

I’ve been afraid of reaching this point and it was in the voicing of my son’s frustrations that I realized, I am there.  My children are there; one a tween and one turned teen a few months ago.  I had to turn away from my son and take a deep breath.  I had to remind myself that this vulnerable child of mind was simply being human and had no “real” reason at this point in his life to choose the road less traveled.  For now, he defines “Destiny” as his favorite video game, not the plans God has laid for him.  At almost 40 years of age, I myself was still struggling with the true value of walking past the pan of brownies all day. How could I expect my 11-year-old son to happily accept the request that he give up one of his desserts and get all his homework done early so he could get to 7:00 mass and have a cross of ashes drawn on his forehead?

I often find that my desires for our kids, paired with my constant struggle for control, leads to unfair expectations and leaves me parenting out of desperation rather than understanding, gentleness and acceptance; all the things God offers me.  It is so hard for me to accept the simple truth that I can’t “talk” or “teach” their faith into them any more than I can coax them to open their mouths for their vegetables, or get them to happily roll up their sleeves and stick their arms out when it’s time for their vaccinations.  Just because I know it’s good for them, doesn’t mean they have to accept it; definitely one of the downsides of this parenting thing.

I can still vividly remember my less-than-gentle response to my son when he came home from school several years ago and excitedly recalled the lesson of the Big Bang Theory.  I got so worked up disputing the fact that this beautiful world he lives in can’t be entirely reduced to an explosion, my husband actually had to step in and ask that I take a few moments to myself.  I took those few minutes alright; took them to dig up my bible and find the real story of creation in Genesis while I pondered what I could do for work so I could pull my children out of  public school and get them registered immediately into parochial school (where clearly they should have been from the start).

Irrational? Yup.  Over-the-top? Yup.  Not-quite-the-way-to-go-about-it?  I guess…

I wanted to turn toward my son and ask him, “Would you rather I kept God’s love for you a secret?  Would you rather I held back the only real truth in life worth living for?”  I may be a slow learner, but past experience told me to keep my mouth shut and I chose instead to silently pray for patience in the moment and wisdom moving forward.  I found myself longing for that little boy who accepted everything at face value.  I missed that young guy who sweetly asked his father one Ash Wednesday many years ago if he was going to wash off his “Jesus mark” on his forehead before he went to bed.  In my moment of longing for confirmation that his annoyance at my request for sacrifice didn’t mean he was completely dismissing his faith, God gifted me with a memory of my special guy a few years back.

At the time, our daughter was two years old and she had come down with the stomach flu. This little girl is the apple of our son’s eyes.  She is spoiled rotten with their love and attention and has captured their hearts beyond what we realized was possible.  Both of her older brothers were concerned that she was sick and searched for comfort in asking if I thought she would be feeling better soon.  When she was all snuggled up for bed and saying goodnight, her brother happened to be looking at a cross pin he had received at Ash Wednesday mass the previous evening.  He turned it over in his hands a few times and then, looking at his sister in my arms said, “maybe if we pin this onto her clothes, it will help her to get better.”  For him, it was a simple statement.  For me, as his mother, it was a window into his heart that I don’t often get to peer through.  He gets it, I thought.  He knows that there is someone bigger; someone better than any doctor or any medicine this earthly world has to offer.

While I didn’t think putting our two-year old daughter to bed with a pin on her clothes was the safest of ideas, I truly loved and appreciated his statement of faith and quickly offered an alternative.  I suggested that, in place of putting the pin on his sister, he could bless her with holy water.  “Ok”, he said and followed me into their room.  He dipped his pointer finger in the small font that hung on their wall and proceeded to make the sign of the cross on her forehead.  It was one of those moments of confirmation that keeps me breathing, that keeps all the defenses he offers in perspective.  Whether or not he recognized the depth of the moment, he was clearly comforted by this seemingly simple act.  And while he may not have been able to explain it, God had broken through and given him that gift of comfort…and he accepted it.

And that is what my prayer for our children continues to be, one of acceptance.  As much as I want their faith to be something I can control, I realize, much like my own faith, it will mean nothing to them unless they find their way on their own.  Once again, I am challenged to place all my trust in God; to let Him be in charge.  I’ll continue to share our faith with our children and will continue to pray that their hearts will remain open, and the rest is between them and the one who loves them more than I am humanly capable of.

Earlier that same day, in an attempt to avoid a major overtired-infused meltdown at the evening service, I had brought our four-year old daughter to the noon mass.  Parking was tight, so I had to drive past the church and turn around to get a spot.  As usual, my little girl was acutely in tune to my every move.  She panicked thinking we were leaving and she immediately broke into tears and shouted, “No! Jesus! Jesus!”  Steeped in my own frustrations (most likely due to lack of chocolate) I shouted back, “Yes, I know!  We are going to see Jesus!”  As comical as it was, I couldn’t help but think we should all crave time with Jesus like that.

And there you have it; sandwiched between two opposite extremes, I am once again reminded of my own human limitations and asked to place all my children in His arms and let Him be the one to draw them near.  “Let the children come to me”, He says, knowing that first we have to be the ones to let them go.