• My oldest son came to visit for almost a week, from all the way across the country. It’s been almost a decade since he has lived at home, if you count the college years. He has a successful career, a life very exciting and dynamic and full of surprises in a big city. He lives in sunny southern California, which boasts ideal weather, and lots to do … so much more than what there is here.

    A mother looks forward to the day she works herself out of a job, and the task of officially raising a child is complete. But then, when the day comes, the independence of her offspring is bittersweet. Yay! She thinks … well, kind of.

    No one tells her when she is rocking her little lad, spooning Gerber’s best into his cute, little scrunched up mouth, or helping him learn to tie his shoes or ride a bike, or advising him on politeness before his first formal dance, that there really and truly will be a day when there’s not much left for her to do for him. Part of her wonders, when he is a full grown adult, what role she could possibly play in his life then. Deep in her heart, longingly, she asks herself, “How can I draw him back, now and again? What, with all he now has, can I possibly offer that he’ll need or want?”

    While my son was here, I couldn’t soak up enough time with him. I did mostly what I normally do — I cooked a lot — steaks, traditional Lebanese food, and eggs and sausage every morning. We went bowling as a family, to the movies, and even had a night playing euchre. My son took his sisters to the coffee shop and pondered life with them. Still, I had this lingering feeling that it wasn’t enough, that it didn’t compare to the sparkly and exciting life he created for himself in a city far away.

    One late afternoon, I spontaneously asked my son, “Hey, do you want to go cross-country skiing? You could use dad’s skis, and we could just go here on the property?”

    My schedule is usually pretty tight. If I’m not busy with housework and schooling, then I am so with driving, and organizing and otherwise managing this busy household. But I know time with my son is precious and rare, and the snow on our acreage was beginning to melt, so I pushed the other demands aside, and waited hopefully for my son’s answer.

    “Yes!” he said.

    My son, at the ripe old age of 28, had never been cross-country skiing, but you know, there’s not much to it. You don the boots, step into the skis, use the poles for guides and just start gliding. He was game.

    Living on the West Coast, he did not own a proper winter coat, so he rummaged through his old closet to find his wool letter jacket from high school and an old knitted hat from the ‘90s. I found him some gloves and grabbed the ski equipment from the pole barn. Melt my heart — he was my boy again!

    “How do you do this?” he asked, after snapping his boots to his skis.

    “Just start out walking, in long, gliding steps, and alternate using the poles to balance, pull or brace yourself.”

    Off we went in the fresh air, glistening snow and setting sun.

    I’ve been told that women relate best and bond deepest over intense conversation, and that men do so over a shared activity. That’s why women can sit in a coffee shop for hours with a friend, bonding intimately, and guys prefer hunting, golfing, fishing — that sort of thing — with their buddies to cement their friendship. Well, I’ll tell you that cross-country skiing is the best of both gendered worlds. The activity is vigorous, but not so much that you can’t hold a great conversation, and nothing beats being able to stop to take a picture or enjoy a beautiful view of sunlight filtering through trees. The snow makes sounds muffled and soft. This natural insulation effect is calming. It’s a perfect set up.

    My son and I chatted about principles, talked about religion and pondered life while gliding down little hills, and skiing in sync over a flat trail, and putting in more effort up a small incline. There was a chance for a bit of chivalry on his part too; he offered his hand when I misjudged my skill and went too fast, plopping down on my rear end on the shiny, white snow.

    We stopped to look at animal tracks. “What do you think those are?” he curiously asked.

    “Hmmm … big dog … or coyote. Wait, those are definitely coyote.”

    “Well, there’s a bunch of them.”

    “We’ll get in before dark.”

    By the end of an hour and a half, the temperature dropped and we were cold, wet and laughing. I had toppled again, no doubt my bad knee contributing to my demise. It was time to go in.

    Before we left, we lingered to look at the reddish orange and pink cloud streaks decorating the sky like a painting, as the sun began to drop low on the horizon. For a moment we stood together in silence, admiring God’s handiwork.

    “I like it out here,” my son said.

    “You can breathe,” he paused. “You can think.”

    I nodded, imagining his apartment and the big city lights that awaited him. His world there was bustling, exciting … intense, hard. His work was competitive and building a career was tiring. His old home here, by contrast, is forever welcoming, full of love … and God’s natural beauty. It is an oasis I can offer. It is something I can forever give. I began — right then — to understand what I can still offer this young man. Family. Peace. Love. An encounter with God. I can offer him the comfort, no matter how old he is or how many kids he eventually has, of a past, a present and a forever HOME.

    Posted on February 2, 2016, to:

  • A child was found wandering the big, bustling and grey city. She had been separated somehow from her mother. A kind passerby stopped to help the crying child who could only say they were going to buy bread. Thinking immediately of the specialty Italian bakery up the street, the kind gentleman decided to head in that direction and find the child’s mother. How hard could it be? “Well, what does your mother look like?” the man asked.

    “She is beautiful,” is all that the child said.

    “Can you tell me more? I need to know more to help.”

    The child thought for a moment and then slowly answered.

    “She has curly hair that flows. Her eyes are sparkly blue; she is like a queen. She is the most beautiful woman in the world.” The child whimpered softly, her own eyes looking off in the distance to the image in her mind.

    The man walked with the child up the street towards the bakery he had thought of. The woman shouldn’t be too hard to find, based on that description. Most of the people in the crowd were nondescript. Halfway up the block, he spotted a striking young woman with golden hair, which flowed over a neat navy pea coat with shiny buttons. She was very pretty and young. This must be her!

    “Well?” he asked the child hopefully, pointing to the woman and moving toward her.

    “No, no! That’s not her,” the child answered sadly. “That’s not her. She is way more beautiful than that.”

    The man slightly surprised at hearing this and still holding the hand of the lost child, continued to work his way through the crowded street. He glanced at the faces he passed — an older gentleman, a middle aged woman with glasses, and then yes, there was a younger lovely woman on the corner calling, “Dear, dear! Come here at once!”

    That must be her! The man’s heart soared, thinking this woman was calling to the little girl whose hand he held. But before he could ask the lost child, a lad of about seven leapt into the woman’s arms and the two hurried along. The little girl, sensing his eminent question shook her head.

    “She is way more beautiful than that,” she said.

    Up and down the street the man and the child went, searching, searching … but to no avail. A half hour passed by and the man finally decided he needed to take the child to the police station. He was having no success and the more time that passed by the less likely he was to find the child’s mother. The child was crying hard by now and the man felt badly for having to take her to the police station, where she surely would feel afraid. But what choice did he have?

    The man with the sobbing child rounded the corner to the station with a large sign in front which read “Metro Police, Station Number 12.” and entered the cold, glass-doored building. There were desks and seats and lines and people. The child shrieked, pulled away from his hand and ran.

    “Mommy! Mommy! Mama!” she cried and he followed her through the crowded room as she ran to a portly, plain woman whose hair was pulled back in a bun, in a tattered coat, holding a simple loaf of common bread. The woman dropped this loaf, let out a little shriek and clasped the child tightly to her chest. “Oh, my goodness! Oh my child!” she cried happily.

    As the man approached the two hugging one another the woman looked up at him. Her face was devoid of makeup and her plain features would strike no one. The skin around her eyes was slightly wrinkled, appearing to be from happy squinting. And her eyes … he saw that her eyes were the most beautiful, sparkly blue, but mostly kind, very kind and animated. As tears welled up in them, he detected love and tenderness. Under the woman’s old hat he saw brown, curly hair, pulled up with bobby pins. Her child’s coat, neat and clean and new was in direct contrast with her own, tattered and torn. Clearly she had sacrificed for her little girl.

    The little girl cried out to the man, “It’s her! It’s her! It’s mama! Isn’t she the most beautiful woman in the world?”

    And the man smiled. “Yes,” he said to the child softly, “yes, she is.”

    Your adornment should not be an external one: braiding the hair, wearing gold jewelry, or dressing in fine clothes but rather the hidden character of the heart, expressed in the imperishable beauty of a gentle and calm disposition, which is precious in the sight of God. — 1 Peter 3:3-4

     

    Posted on December 29, 2015, to:

  • Advent preparation didn’t start out the way I had hoped.

    I thought I had done all the right things. I had cleaned our house, readying it for the correct liturgical decorations. I looked up some Scripture readings. I planned to take out some book favorites of the season for the kids. I pulled out our Advent wreath several days before the first Sunday and had purchased four brand new Advent candles a full week ahead of time. I put those candles in a safe place so I’d be ready to light them with the family on that first Sunday. But it turned out that it was too safe a place because when the first Sunday rolled around, those candles were nowhere to be found.

    What’s more, I had been so confident that I didn’t even look for the candles until dinner was almost ready to be served. Could they be in the cabinet with the decorative, scented candles? No. On top of the fridge? Not there either. How about my room? The laundry area? The junk drawer? No, no, no, and not a good dozen other places either. My girls and I frantically searched the house, top to bottom, but to no avail. My one daughter works at a Christian bookstore but by that last minute that store was plum out of Advent candles too, with a rush on them — of course — just the day before.

    Continuing the trend, I also couldn’t locate a few of the choice seasonal books I had carefully set aside (and had not looked for until just before dinner) either. It seems I had misplaced them, you see, probably while I was cleaning the basement in preparation for the season. I suspected that the books were in the newly cleaned toy room, probably in the wrong Tupperware container. By this point I was out of time and couldn’t search container by container. Dinner was ready, no late.

    Sigh.

    And so, that first Sunday of Advent, having read no books about Advent with my children, my family gathered for dinner. The plain pine Advent wreath graced our table untraditionally, with nothing but a large, green, balsam-scented candle smack in the middle of the wreath, advertising my ineptitude. At least it smelled good.

    By now you too may have experienced a bit of frustration and more than a frazzled moment or two this Advent season. If you haven’t you’re lucky. It’s hard trying to focus on the spiritual dimension of Advent with your family, while trying to accomplish the practical aspect of planning a memorable and jolly Christmas celebration and still manage the day-to-day duties and possibly deal with bad weather to boot. (Pressure anyone?)

    Perhaps you’ve not made it to Confession yet. Or maybe you’d planned on Scripture reading or a special rosary recitation each night with the family, only to have the effort thwarted by a late running sports practice for one of the kids, or an unexpected travel for work, or a dreaded case of pre-Christmas flu going around (probably because you are run down trying to get everything done perfectly). You’re stressed. You’re worried. You feel like you’re failing.

    Stop!

    Breathe. Focus. It’s going to be okay.

    There’s still time to get to Confession. Is the Nativity set up? Build your thoughts around that. Focus on praying the rosary or doing the Scripture reading just for tonight. Now is what matters. Today. This moment. Forget what you have not done and direct your efforts to what you can now. And if someone in your family has gotten sick this Advent season, simply patiently tend to him, as though it were the most important thing in the world. Because it is.

    For the remainder of Advent, remember the words of Thoreau: “Simplify, simplify, simplify.”

    The world will not stop if you don’t attend every gathering to which you are invited. Nothing bad will happen if you change your Christmas Eve menu to something easier to cook to free up your time with loved ones. Gift certificates are just fine to give as presents, especially if it means your time is now freed up to read to a little one who is looking up at you, holding a book. Your neighbors will live if you don’t bring personalized holiday baskets to them, and your family will benefit from taking that time to pray the rosary for them and others instead.

    Peace. Calm. Joy. Still your heart and prepare.

    So your Advent isn’t perfect. Join the club. In fact, the Holy Family’s time of preparation wasn’t perfect either. The first Christmas was not, by man’s terms, perfectly and grandly orchestrated by any means. Not only did Mary and Joseph experience discomfort and likely stress at having to travel a long way to a strange land to fulfill a duty, but they also had to ‘go with the flow’ in terms of their sleeping accommodations. We may not be getting enough sleep this time of year, but at least we don’t have to lay our heads down on hay in a stable in a foreign land. Or have a baby in it. Or flee in the middle of the night because a hysterical, jealous king is after our child and is seeking to kill him.

    So gently quiet the cacophony in your heart. Let go of the imperfections that trouble you. Take your children to Confession. And once in the church, linger in the dark and quiet, your eyes raised humbly to the altar and say simply, “Come. Come, Lord Jesus” He will listen and answer. He is all we need. And this realization is the best preparation — really the only preparation we need.

     

    Posted on December 9, 2015, to:

  • I was at Notre Dame stadium last weekend, enjoying a family tailgate before the USC-Notre Dame football game. At one point, it was time to take one of my daughters over to a gate to meet her friend, so my husband and I agreed to meet inside, and my daughter and I left. After leaving my daughter with her friend, I entered my designated gate and joined the crowd past the entrance, past the concessions, with those waiting to emerge from underground to the stadium itself.

    As I stood in the crowded line, I found myself next to two men, looking to be in their early 30s. They were decked out in Notre Dame gear — clearly fans. We were moving forward at the same rate toward the entrance, so we were entering at the same time. I hadn’t paid much attention to them until one addressed me directly.

    “Is this your first Notre Dame game?”

    I was taken a little bit aback. There were a lot of people going in. Why did he single me out? I looked around. Yes, he was talking to me.

    “Oh,” I said, then laughed. “No, not at all. I’ve been attending games since I was a girl.”

    “And you?” I added to be polite.

    One of the men answered, “Well, it’s my first night game so I’m pumped.”

    “That’s great!” I answered, “Night games are a lot of fun.”

    We processed a little further into the crowd.

    “So you’re sure it’s not your first game?” the other asked.

    This was weird. Why did they keep inquiring?

    “Yes, I’m sure,” I answered. I paused for a moment then said, “Now I am really curious. Why are you asking me this?”

    The two men looked at each other. Then one said, “Well, we were watching you going in. It’s just that you are looking up, out of the tunnel at the sky, like you are really excited and happy to be here. You have this look on your face like a kid. We just thought this was your first game.”

    “Oh…” Then not knowing what else to say, I continued, “Well, I am happy and excited to be here.”

    “We can tell,” one answered.

    “It’s just nice to see,” said the other.

    Our line forward into the stadium began moving quickly, and the two men veered off to the right, while I was going left.

    “Enjoy the game!” one yelled, and they both disappeared into the crowd.

    As I headed up the steps to our family’s designated seat, almost immediately the words of my dad in my youth came to mind: You never know who is watching. Be an example. While I’m sure my father did not have smiling and exuberant attitude upon entrance at a Notre Dame game in mind when he said this (I rather thought he was counseling me to be on my best behavior no matter where I went), still it made sense. Walking into the stadium I wasn’t doing anything on purpose, but just a little genuine happiness had drawn the attention of two strangers. They somehow felt compelled to comment on the joy I must have had on my face. Yes, joy! That was it. That’s what they noticed. And I wasn’t even trying.

    What I didn’t tell these two strangers is that for many years I tended my little children, which made it difficult to attend games. I wouldn’t trade the baby raising for the world, but I sure appreciate the relaxation and simultaneous excitement of a game now. Also, after having lived through cancer, annoying little things (like waiting in line) don’t bother me, and treasurable little things (like attending a college football game with my husband and children) make me truly happy. As I age my life experiences, both good and bad, have also simply made me more grateful.

    Then I had another thought: Joy is one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. What a benevolent God to give this gift to me at this time, even if it was manifested in a small way. He allowed me (unknowingly) to be a little channel of His grace.

    Isn’t our God amazing?

    And then I had a final thought — if I can spread joy when I’m not even trying, how much more can I share when I am? As I sat down next to my husband and daughter in the stands ready to cheer on the Irish, I decided I will make a concerted effort in the days ahead to be a channel of God’s joy to everyone I meet … because people are watching, and it does make a difference.

    I picked up my daughter’s hand and gave it a squeeze. Then I smiled at my husband. I think I will begin with them.

    “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness.” — Galatians 5:22.

     

     

    Posted on October 27, 2015, to:

  • One of the best surprises in the world was last week when my son Michael walked through the door, shocking us all with a 2,500-mile long trip home, just two weeks after major jaw surgery. I saw a guy with a baseball cap and backpack heading toward our back sliding glass door and, since we are having work done in the yard, I thought, “Why does the landscaper have a backpack and why is he just walking in the door without permission?”

    Then it hit me — this was no landscaper. This was my son!

    As my mind processed what my eyes saw, I exclaimed, “What? What? What! Michael? Michael!”

    I jumped up and down and hugged him. The girls upstairs heard my happy screams and came running downstairs to see why the commotion. “Oh my gosh!” each screamed as she saw him and rushed to hug him as well. While he had permission to work from home for three weeks, he said other than his wired shut jaw he felt good and that if he was going to work from home, he might as well work from this home, with us. Hallelujah!

    That night, I made him a thick, hearty, cabbage, sweet potato and garlic soup for him to puree for dinner. When his father came home from work, just as unknowing of the surprise as we had been, Michael looked up from the table where he had been sitting, working on his computer, and my husband’s jaw dropped.

    “Mike? Michael? Michael!” he rushed to him and squeezed him tight. Happy tears welled up in his eyes. He was squeezing him so tightly I didn’t think he was ever going to let him go. “What are you doing? Oh my gosh, Mike! This made my day!” Happy tears.

    A few days later another son (this one expected as he was attending a wedding locally) arrived, and our daughter, learning that two brothers would be home at the same time, decided on a whim to drive up from Indianapolis. We were only missing one son, and yes that left a hole, but we appreciated the rarity of having eight of the nine kids home at the same time. We’d take what we could get.

    It’s amazing how the feeling around the house changes when the adult kids come home, how whole we feel again when we are together. The younger ones hang on the older ones literally and figuratively, on their every word. There are walks, talks and sitting on the back patio, and drives to get ice cream. Sometimes there is euchre or a planned event, but mostly there is the rhythm that once used to be when they were littler, familiarly coming back, like an echo.

    When people talk about raising large families they talk about expense. It’s true. Big families are incredibly expensive. While the cost of raising five children does not quintuple from raising one — because of hand-me-downs, and certain other facts such as heating a house remains constant whether there are seven people or three sitting in it — you can’t argue that raising a brood of children is cheap. It isn’t.

    And yes, there’s not only a money cost to raising a large family but a sleep cost too. And a time cost. And sacrifice. And lots of tears as they move out to carve out their own lives, even while knowing it’s best that they do.

    But there are also many benefits — the treasure of having many unique human beings grow up together under one roof is just one. Synergy occurs when a kid talented in art shares her gift with one who can’t draw worth a lick but can play and create music by ear. The gifts of one are shared by another and all are enriched.

    The children learn patience and waiting ones turn, different perspectives, which are born from different personalities. They learn to understand an idea they didn’t think of, and consider it. They become protectors and stand up for underdogs, even under their own roof. They fight, yes. But they learn to resolve. They learn the art of compromise. Basically, they learn to love. It is not every family’s call to be great in number, but for those that are, it is a call to be answered, generously, with a big heart, for the rewards are many, even as are the sacrifices.

    Last week briefly, the lives of most of my children and their parents once again converged. Bonds were strengthened. Laughter exchanged. Advice given. Encouragement offered. This occurred with more than enough to sustain until next time. We missed the one missing, but he will be back with us soon enough. I always tear up when we separate but only momentarily. For life is a gift. Family is a gift. I will gladly welcome the suffering of when we are apart because of how blessed I am when we are together.

    Posted on October 1, 2015, to: