• Yesterday, I was sitting on my bed, wrapped in my “cancer quilt” (a quilt made for me by friends when I fought the disease 10 years ago), complaining to my husband after a challenging day. I was frustrated and feeling old. It started with a couple of small things — having to purchase 2.25 magnification reading glasses (up from 1.25 in just a few months), and while listening to songs on the radio on my drive home, it hit me that the pop singers were my children’s ages. My premature, bone-on-bone, knee arthritis (yikes — that’s what grandmothers talk about) was acting up. There was the usual hectic-ness and busyness of raising kids, getting them here and there, answering the phone, arranging to have a repairman to come to the house. At the moment, I had just come inside after pulling my winter coat, yes, winter coat in April, around me outside tightly as the wind blew. And, it was raining.

    Pathetic fallacy is a literary device that attributes human qualities and emotions to inanimate objects in nature. It’s like when Shakespeare’s King Lear wanders, bemoaning, in a storm-blasted terrain, with the tumultuous weather mirroring the pain in his own heart.

    At that moment, I felt I was in a Shakespearean play with pathetic fallacy raging all around. The stormy weather reflected what was going on in my heart. I was feeling rained on, washed out, drained, old. Cold. Frustrated, and, sitting on the bed in that moment, awash in my tears, under my cancer quilt, I was sharing it all with my husband.

    Yes, I am always this melodramatic. Poor David.

    Anyway, the icing on the realizing-time-is-passing-quickly-had-a-bad-day-on-top-of-it cake was that I had just been exchanging texts with one of our young adult children, our fourth child, who graduates from college in just a couple weeks. Both at the moment and anticipatorily I missed him. After graduation he is headed out for a great career opportunity … 2,000 miles away. That makes four chickies out of the nest. Four children grown. And one on deck to boot. My mind flew (like the wind, of course) toward nostalgia.

    I used to spend hours trying to inspire and motivate my children. I used to draw pictures, first on the second-hand chalkboard in our schoolroom, then on the whiteboard in our kitchen, of ripples from thrown pebbles in a roughly sketched pond to illustrate a point.

    “See? This can be you!” I’d tell my children. “These could be the effects of ‘your’ good deeds, ‘your’ influence on the world! You can’t change everything, but you can change something. We each have something special to do. God has a unique mission for you! Find it! Do it!”

    Being the metaphorical geek I am, I’d try to bring home the point in other ways. … Blowing the seeds off of a white, ripe dandelion when the children and I were on a walk, I’d say, “Our family is like this dandelion, but some day you have to go, like these little seeds, and spread out goodness in the world.”

    The kids grew older. I told them that as long as they keep their faith and live with integrity and character, their dad and I will support them wherever they go, in any honorable and upright career aspiration and job situation utilizing their talents and interests — electrician, plumber, street worker, dentist, astronaut, politician, lawyer, writer, missionary, artist, financial planner, actor, president. …

    My husband and I told our children it is between them and God to figure out their vocation — married, in the religious life, or single, and that we would help them live it well, whatever they choose.

    “What is important,” we said, “is that whatever you do, you do with honor and integrity. Be the best you can be and try to set the example.” We told them faith without action is hollow, and that actions speak better than words, that people are always watching so keep good the family name, that our prayers will follow them until our dying breaths, and that not only is it okay that they leave home, they “must.” They must forge out their own adult lives, find their own missions in life, make a difference, and live honorably, for themselves and for God.

    Shoot. They took us up on it, and left.

    I say this only tongue in cheek. We sincerely meant what we said, and there comes a time when stage setting is over and the curtain must come up. But where there is deep love there will be suffering, and the inverse of the beautiful quilt of life and family is the messy stitching and rumpled heavy batting on the other side, the joy and pain of children growing up and moving out.

    It’s not easy raising a family — and even when things turn out right, there are challenges and sacrifices and little sad moments, even amidst deep satisfaction. God entwines and juxtaposes them all together in this fabric of life: Happy/sad. Hard/easy. These are stitched together, complementary colors, side by side, each highlighting the other. They make a beautiful pattern, if we step back to really look, and which I believe we shall see clearly and fully in all its glory one day, when life on this earth is finished.

    Yesterday I thought the weather couldn’t get worse and life couldn’t get more complicated. It is snowing today. My “to do” list is twice as long, my eyes are no sharper and my kid is still moving out. But something is different.

    I know it’s going to be okay.

    I’m completely healthy 10 years after I was diagnosed with cancer. I have a quilt that tells me by its existence that friends care. The quilt is old and torn and faded in places, but it’s a reminder of caring and it keeps me warm. I have a husband who loves me and helps me weather external (and internal) storms. He makes me coffee in the morning before I get out of bed and sometimes brings me chocolate. Even when he can’t fix the weather (inside or out — it’s an act of nature, you know), he sits there patiently when I feel like a demoralized character in a Shakespearean play, hugs me and says, “I get it.” And he does.

    In the soft quiet of the evening tonight I heard God say to my heart, “Yes, your children will leave, one by one, into the life I am giving them. They will know joy, like you do, and yes there will be pain, but I will be with them. I promise. I give you the sun and yes, I also give you the rain. It makes the seeds grow. And I give you this life, and this quilt and these friends and this man, who not only lays down his life for you but also just gave you chocolate and a hug…

    …You have everything, my daughter. What more do you want?”

     

     

    Posted on April 28, 2015, to:

  • As the mother of nine children, I rarely traveled and never took a plane when my children were young. I doubt most mothers of big families do. First there is the cost factor. Barring great wealth or a large loan, it is nearly financially impossible to take a brood of children far away. The tickets, gas, the double hotel room necessity, food that must be purchased on the road — all these things make traveling just too expensive. Second, there is the logistics consideration. Let’s face it — it’s a bit tricky to plan, pack, load and then implement a trek with, say, five or more little ones, especially since a steady, quick, cadenced pace must be kept over a duration of time. (Think: marathon). And then, to avert car or plane sickness, a steady supply of snacks are needed … and frequent bathroom breaks. … Third, I was afraid of flying. I hated the feeling of not being in control. I hated the dips in the air, every little bump of turbulence. I hated being above the clouds.

    While I did not travel when my children were all small, as they grew older this began to change, and I began to travel, even alone — mostly because when my young adult children graduated from college, they took jobs out of town, two of them 2,000 plus miles away. As every devoted mother knows, nothing comes between her and her offspring, not the least of which a stretch of highway (or air space), many miles and time zones away. Not even a fear of flying can stand in the way. “If you can’t keep them home, go to them,” mothers do and say. And so I did.

    And so I, who not only did not travel in my mother-youth, and has not one wanderlust gene in her body, became a person who semi-regularly now tackles four-hour flights and five days away with just her two carry-on pieces of luggage and an actual, legitimately relaxed spirit. I’ve come a long way, baby.

    Last week I flew to San Francisco. My second oldest son was a top fundraiser for a charity that is close to my heart and I wanted to surprise him by attending. Then, I headed down to Los Angeles, where my oldest son just made a big career change.

    As I stared out the window on the way home from both visits, it occurred to me that traveling has over time improved my spiritual and religious life. That might initially sound weird, but please hear me out. Here’s how traveling helped me be a better Catholic:

    I become grateful during my time away. Just observing other people and how they live, I appreciate my husband, my home, my house, and even little things like my cool soft comfy pillow. I also become grateful for the sweet niceties I have a chance to enjoy when I travel. Checking into the hotel last weekend, I was met with dimmed lights in a sweet smelling room and classical music playing softly from a device near the side of the bed. I am grateful for the quiet time away to think and reflect upon my life and the state of my soul, and I pray spontaneously, naturally with thankfulness to God for all I have been given. “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, as in all wisdom you teach and admonish one another, singing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God. …” — Col. 3:16.

    Traveling gives me time and distance for perspective. All those hours stretching before me in a plane (or car) offers me a chance to do an examination of conscience. How did I fail today? What attitudes will help me remedy that? How did I succeed? How do I make the most of the time in front of me the rest of the day? I think of the Ten Commandments and how I ought be applying them in my life. Am I being an instrument of truth, beauty and goodness in this world? In the quiet of the moments before me when I travel, it becomes sparkling clear how I can be a better wife, mother, friend and person.

    Traveling forces me to rely on myself, and in turn, God. While traveling I have to look at the map and make decisions. I have to pay attention. I have to overcome my fears and realize ultimately I am dependent on God. I find myself quietly saying things like, “OK, Lord, help me figure this out.” Or “Now what?” Getting out of the familiar I am challenged to use my intelligence and to trust both my prayerfully guided judgment and God.

    Traveling helps me learn compassion. Many of the people I meet in my travels live lives very different from mine. They have varied backgrounds. Their viewpoints are often vastly different. It is interesting to discover why they think the way they do, and that some of their choices are based on a worldview presented to them when they were young. God made them. God loves them. I feel called to emulate Mother Teresa who said, “If you judge people, you have no time to love them.” I choose to love them and trust that God, who truly knows their hearts, will judge them best.

    Posted on March 31, 2015, to:

  • “She tried hard and loved much.” 

    Not to be morbid, but I hope that can be truthfully put on my tombstone. I’m not planning on dying any time soon, but I’ve been thinking about this a lot. Over the years I have come to realize that a great way to live is to really consider my own death. What is important in life? How could someone sum up what I’ve done in my short time (hopefully 99, give or take, “short” years of course) on this earth? In a busy world of seemingly endless demands and constant choices which must be made almost instantly, what should I strive for most? What, in short, really matters?

    I self identify strongly to labels such as homemaker, wife, educator of my children, writer. These are my life’s work. But in the end, I realize none of these simple facts will mean I have done them well, even if they are memorialized in a permanent, pretty font on a piece of formal grey granite protruding from the earth where my body will some day lie.

    She kept a clean house. 

    I suppose that could be said. But so what? Did my children laugh in my home? Were they loved there? Cared for there? Were they encouraged and challenged and valued? Did I spend time with them? Did I put other less important work before them? Did my husband enjoy coming through the door at the end of a hard day? Was he welcomed warmly and loved passionately and much? Was I a true helpmate to my husband in the journey back to heaven and through life’s struggles or was I distracted with an agenda of my own and overly attentive to personal interests and pleasures and accomplishing something “in the world”?

    She was an author. She wrote a column. 

    Both could be written about me. But truthfully, who cares? Anyone can put down his own opinions on paper. In fact, today with blogging, almost everyone does. And studying English grammar and literature can help many people develop a way with words. The important question will be: Did I seek to share truth in my words? Did I have something substantial to say? Did I think before I said it? Did I help? Did I use my personal gifts and talents wisely? (Mt. 25:14-30) Did my words uplift and encourage? Were they sincere? Kind? Did I seek benefit or to benefit? Did I try?

    She educated
    her children. 

    Yep, I did. I spent a lot of time doing this. But, you know, so do a lot of people. The important question is this: In what did I, with my spouse, educate our offspring? Did I educate them in truth, in morals and virtues and values, in the things that last for eternity? Or was I caught up solely in an academic or fine arts education devoid of meaningful context? Do my children know God better and love more because of the knowledge and experience or worse and less? Are they better people because of what they have learned and the opportunities they have had? That is what counts. That is the stick by which I will be, and should be, measured.

    My children’s catechism book asks: Why did God make us? And the answer is: God made us to show forth His goodness and to share with us His everlasting happiness in heaven. The next question asks: What must we do to gain the happiness of heaven? And the answer is simple: We must know, love and serve God in this world.

    That sounds an awful lot like putting family first and prioritizing in love.

    Mother Teresa once said, “What can you do to promote world peace? Go home and love your family.” Wow. She really made an insightful point.

    If we take Mother Teresa’s words to heart does this mean ambassadors should not work to find solutions to world problems or to bring agreements to foreign governments or that social efforts and projects of inclusion and understanding should cease? Of course not. But peace (and love, and understanding, and agreement, and inclusion and offering truth in love) does begin in the home, and those who receive it there can more easily give it in the world.

    Pope Francis recently said that it is within the family that we first learn how to open ourselves to others and become good brothers and sisters. What we learn from them goes on to benefit society as a whole.

    So it really does go back to trying hard and loving much.

    And so, I revisit what I stated at the beginning of this column. My goal is that the phrase “She tried hard and loved much” can someday be put on my grave, and that it will be the truth.

     

    Posted on February 24, 2015, to:

  • My husband got stuck in an elevator last week. He had flown home, cross-country, after a long business trip and was ascending in the elevator to reach the sixth floor of the parking garage at Midway Airport. He had just picked up a sandwich. His bag was thrust over his shoulder, and his thoughts were turning toward home. He was looking forward to finally sitting down and resting after a few intense, litigious days. Suddenly the elevator, which was between the third and fourth floors, lurched forward. Then it stopped. “Come on!” David said to himself, “Are you serious?”

    David pressed a couple of buttons. Nothing.

    He pressed all of the numbers on many buttons. Nothing, again.

    David shifted his bags and studied the control panel. He found the emergency button and pressed that firmly several times. After a few moments, he heard a voice.

    “Yes, may I help you?” the man on the other side of the intercom nonchalantly asked, as though he were simply at the library circulation desk pointing someone in the direction of non-fiction, self-help books.

    “Yes, I’m in the elevator. I’m stuck!” David said.

    There was a pause.

    “What floor are you on?”

    David looked at the light inside. “I think between three and four…” he said.

    “Ok, sir. I’ll send maintenance over.”

    Figuring this might take awhile, David, a typical guy, hunkered down to enjoy his sandwich. Time passed. Finally he could hear someone outside the elevator. Banging. Knocking. A voice.

    “Are you all right in there?”

    “Yes, I’m fine!” David shouted back.

    “How many of you are there?”

    “One!” David answered.

    “What?”

    “One!” David shouted louder.

    “How many are in there, sir?”

    “One! There is one of me!”

    “How many are in there?”

    “Just me!” yelled David, now starting to laugh.

    More banging. More voices. The maintenance folks got busy.

    At this point, David made a phone call to me.

    “Hi honey. I’m stuck in an elevator,” he told me, “I don’t know when I’ll be out, but my phone is dying. I’ll call you when I’m on my way home.”

    It was the weirdest phone call I ever got.

    “Wait! What? Don’t hang up!” I said.

    “I have to go. My phone is dying.”

    Stupidly, I asked, “When will you be home?”

    Thankfully, he laughed.

    “I will let you know….”

    Back in the elevator, David heard banging and commotion, but there was no progress. The elevator did not budge. Every couple minutes, a voice would ask him, “Are you doing okay in there?” “Yes, I’m fine…” David replied each time. Thirty minutes later, the voice on the other side said, “Sir!”

    “Yes?” asked David.

    “Sir, I’m going to have to call the fire department. I can’t get you out.”

    Sigh.

    “OK!”

    At a point when I would have surely panicked, my husband took it all in stride. If his phone hadn’t died yet, I’m sure he’d have been checking his emails or heading over to iTunes to bide the time.

    Long story short, the firemen came. The police came. A crowbar was used to pry open the door just enough for David to climb up and out, tossing his luggage out first and scrambling through an opening that could have left him falling down a three story shaft.  But he was fine. It had been about an hour and a half since his adventure began.

    David made some joke. He thanked them. He shook their hands, grabbed his luggage and headed toward the parking. “I’ve got to get home!”

    And so he did.

    In hearing his story in detail, all sorts of metaphors and ideas shot through my brain: some times in life can be like being stuck in an elevator against your will … in between floors, out of control. Patience is important. We’re dependent on others. And so on…

    But the most important realization was way simpler than that, and came to me as I snuggled up next to my husband on the sofa that night. He was still laughing, recounting the details of the day. And I was laughing, almost uncontrollably with each new detail. We were having so much fun. And then it hit me like a ton of bricks — some people think marriage today is outdated and confining. Some might even say it’s like being stuck in an elevator.

    Pshaw to that and pshaw to them! If heaven is the goal then life itself is like being stuck in an elevator. Uncontrollable events are going to happen, yes. But how wonderful it is to have someone beside us who makes us laugh and offers a good perspective. What a blessing for us when we find and marry a life long best friend.

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

    Posted on February 4, 2015, to:

  • When I was a little girl, our dog dug up a rabbit’s nest. I can’t remember if she ate the mama bunny or the mamma bunny ran away and never came back. All I remember is that five little baby bunnies were orphaned, and my gentle mother felt sorry for them. Mom called the animal shelter to find out what she could do. My memory is vague but this I do recall. Eyedroppers were purchased, and some sort of solution of nutrition (milk, baby formula) was mixed together for them. Every hour a solution of that nutrition was dropped into the mouths of the hungry bunny babies, and their tummies were gently rubbed to help them digest.

    I soon found out that rabbits, like humans, have different propensities and personalities. Some of the babies accepted the milk dribbled into their mouths. Some licked the sweet nutrition. One tiny bunny, however, freaked out, for lack of a better term, squirming and flailing, instead of taking in the sustenance. I remember the frustration of trying to feed that bunny. I thought: He’s not helping himself. If only he’d relax, it’d be better.

    That image stuck with me for a long time, that of fighting reality instead of accepting it. It occurred to me that rabbit was a lot like me, at times. Sometimes I resist. I fight. I freak out. I don’t trust. I let fear take over. If only I would relax.

    For a long time, I was terrified to fly. I just couldn’t imagine how being up in the air in a manmade contraption, airborne, could be safe. It didn’t help that my brother-in-law was killed in a small aircraft plane crash on a foggy night one January. But fear can consume us if we let it. It can prevent us from going places, literally. And my fear of flying almost prevented me from some of the best experiences of my life, trips with my husband, excursions to see my adult children. In time, I learned to manage my fear of flying, small step by small step, flight by flight. I listened to soothing music. I wore sunglasses to block and keep things calmer and dark. I took deep breaths and consciously relaxed each muscle group. I prayed the rosary, not frantically, but deliberately, slowly, peacefully. Each time I reached a destination, I gained confidence.

    The year I was diagnosed with cancer was another fear-provoking time. I had nine children and a new baby when a collarbone lump was determined to be malignant. Again I fought. Again I thrashed against the situation. My mind tormented me with thoughts of “what if” and darkness. One afternoon, bald and exhausted from chemotherapy treatments, I drove to pick up my son from soccer practice. On a whim I decided to stop in the Adoration Chapel at St. Thomas the Apostle in Elkhart to pour my heart out to God. My son was hungry and tired. I told him it would just be for a minute. I was empty and knew I had nothing to say. I just felt the urge to give Jesus that nothingness because it was all I had.

    My son and I entered the chapel and I knelt down. I made the sign of the cross and felt myself sigh deeply. “I don’t know what to say,” I told Him, “Help me … help me … help me. …”

    Just when I felt I could say no more, I felt a warmth in my soul and a gentle calm washed over me. I suddenly knew that Jesus was with me and would be with me through the cancer ordeal. I knew that His being with me was not like a husband is sitting next to a wife during labor, supporting but not experiencing the event like she is. Rather, I felt, I knew, that Jesus was with me, in me, experiencing with me every physical pain, every emotional sorrow, and every mental anguish that cancer put upon me. He willingly, through love, took that on and went through it Himself. He carried this burden no less than I did, in fact, more. Suddenly, I understood the cross and what it meant. Jesus took and takes the pain with us not merely next to us, but He absorbs it for us and walks with us every single step, enduring every pain we do, for us. And I knew I needed not to fight but to accept because God was with me. My suffering could be redemptive when united to His on the cross.

    Fighting a strong wave leaves us exhausted. Experts tell us if we are ever caught in a rip tide, we should not fight, but swim along sideways until the shoreline can be reached. Patience achieves what brute strength cannot. And there is nothing to fear when God is literally with us.

    How to suffer? Don’t fight. Unite with Christ. Breath deeply. And trust.

    Posted on December 30, 2014, to: