Though Stripped Bare by Life, She Clothes Herself with Strength and Dignity

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Mom with her firstborn son Todd, circa 1960

Sometime during my years of teenage angst, when daydreams of my future husband seemed to fill endless hours of my existence, I recall asking my dad to tell me about the first time he saw my mom. Immediately, an affectionate grin crossed his face, a sparkle entered his eye and without hesitation, he reminisced. As if he were watching a replay on the big screen, with keen clarity he willingly described the moment.

“She was walking down the sidewalk in downtown Libertyville, her head held high, with confidence and poise, holding the hand of her young son in hers.” The grin expanded into a smile as he continued, “…and she had those beautiful, long legs too.”

Never have I forgotten this encounter with my dad. While he did not hesitate to mention her physical beauty, it was not the first thing he noticed about her. Instead, it was her strength and dignity. For a teenage girl who was all consumed at the time with body image, this was a monumental revelation. As I have aged, my understanding of the significance of his words has expanded in accordance with my understanding of their cultural context.

It was the early 1960s. She was divorced, a single mom and a Roman Catholic; three words when added together, exposed a woman of her generation to a climate of rumors, gossip, shame. It was too early in anyone’s young life to be so misunderstood and defined by actions that were out of her control. Yet at just 22 years old, she seemed to be in a situation that appeared rather bleak, even by today’s standards.

The youngest of five children in an Irish/German Catholic family, she already carried with her the scars of living with an alcoholic father and the painful memories of her own mother as the target of his drunken rage. Following her graduation from high school, she entered the order of the Sisters of Mercy in Chicago, seeking to do something wonderful with her life in service to others. Within a year, she knew she had a different calling and went home.

Quickly delving into post-convent life, she found a boy to whom she gave her heart and he became her husband. Returning from their honeymoon, she discovered she was pregnant. When she shared the joyful news with her beloved, he left. Gone, never to be seen again. She, the daughter of an addicted father and an abused mother; abandoned, alone, pregnant and just 21.

Stripped bare by the circumstances of life, she did not give into despair, she did not succumb to the role of a victim, she did not become bitter and paralyzed. Instead she made a choice to clothe herself with strength and dignity. She moved back home and worked full-time. When her son was born, she loved him and nurtured him and embraced life as a single mom, with the help of her own mother. Most importantly, despite the stigma attached to her situation, she walked with her head held high.

With confidence and poise she faced incredible adversity. This is the essence of the woman whom my father fell in love with and she is the one I am forever blessed to call “Mom”. Today she celebrates her 80th birthday. In the weeks leading up to this occasion, she communicated clearly that she desired no fanfare, no parties, no special toasts. I am at a loss as to how to appropriately celebrate such a milestone when given these restrictions. Hence I turn to the written word to help me to shine light on her beautiful life I’ve been privy to witness my whole life. Strangely, at the same time I feel a sense of sadness for the time I’ve wasted. I feel myself grieve the years I didn’t open my eyes to the priceless gift lavishly given to me. Unfortunately, these add up to claim the majority of my life, that was until I became a mother myself.

Her amazing adventure with my dad began over 50 years ago on the day he saw her walking down the street with my brother. It is a story I increasingly cherish the older I get (click here for the juicy details). Against all odds, they took a chance on one another; she as a woman broken by abandonment; he as a man embracing a life with a stigmatized divorcee who already had a child whom he would have to learn to love as his own. Both were the product of conservative Catholic families staunchly against their union, because of the fact it could not be recognized by their Church due to her divorce. None of these factors stopped them from following their hearts.

Sue and Chuck circa 1962

Though now she journeyed in partnership with the love of her life, adversities did not cease. After elopement, their family’s silent treatment was deafening. Stripped bare of this support during their first year together, they strengthened their bond to one another. When their firstborn son was was delivered full-term without life or breath, their oneness became even more unwavering in their shared grief. And when my dad suffered a massive stroke at the age of 25, one that rendered him helpless for many months, she again clothed herself with strength and dignity. She forged a new path and did whatever she could to nurse him back to health, all the while juggling motherhood and full-time employment outside of the home.

As her only daughter, I have grown up in the warmth of her unconditional love. In her quiet way she has spent herself completely to care for dad, my two brothers and myself, without complaint. Not once did she tell me the of the suffering she had endured before I entered her world. Nor did she ever speak of the suffering she endured because I had entered her world. (I’ll be the first to admit I wasn’t always the easiest kid to parent.) Even now, when I phone her to apologize for my youthful and feisty stubbornness that I am privileged to encounter in my own offspring, it is with utter grace and mercy that she claims she doesn’t remember me ever being difficult.

Looking back, I honestly cannot recall a time when tribulation took a hiatus from her life. There were more losses of babies she wanted, people she cherished, some of whom were taken from us too soon. In the most recent of years, when retirement offers so many of her friends the opportunity to winter in sunny places, she has found herself stuck in the cold, harshness of Midwestern winter, driving back and forth to the hospital or the rehabilitation facility to faithfully be at my dad’s side when unwelcome health crises have crashed in. Yet somehow with each new crushing sadness, with every single harsh blow she allows herself to be made stronger and her dignity to be preserved.

One of my favorite Franciscan wisdom speakers, Fr. Richard Rohr writes, “If we do not transform our pain, we will most assuredly transmit it. If we cannot find a way to make our wounds into sacred wounds, we invariably give up on life and humanityWe can see our own suffering as a voluntary participation in the one Great Sadness of God (Colossians 1:24). Within this meaningful worldview, we can build something new, good, and forever original, while neither playing the victim nor making victims of others. We can be free conduits of grace into the world.” And this, I think, sums her up.

If you happen to watch her on any given day, you will glimpse a woman who is free; a woman who is a conduit of grace in this world. You will glimpse it when she is surrounded by her 10 grandchildren overflowing into the spaces of her cozy town home. She loves and accepts them each wherever they are at in their journey and they know it beyond a doubt. You will glimpse it in the ways she cares for my dad. Time after time, she shows up from sunrise to sunset at his bedside in the Emergency Room, the hospital, the rehab center to support and advocate and love and suffer alongside him. You will glimpse it when she listens to her adult children with their adult problems. Without a first thought for her own needs, she sacrifices to make theirs more manageable. You will glimpse it when you see her feeding treats to all of the dogs who pass her home on their daily walks. They even recognize her when she is driving in her car and drag their owners towards her. You will glimpse it in the way you feel in her presence; special, loved, worthy, accepted just as you are, graced.

Mom, each time life strips you bare, you rise and clothe yourself with strength and dignity. This is the rich legacy you give the world and us, your children and grandchildren. You are a living example that no matter what waves crash in and threaten to drown earthly happiness, we can continue to walk this journey with confidence and poise and become the most amazing conduits of grace, just like you. Although words will never do justice in expressing my eternal gratitude to you, nor the depth of my love for you, be assured that I am forever blessed because of your life and the way you have chosen to live it, head held high, with confidence and poise, and yes, still with those beautiful, long legs.

Mom, Dad and I posing for our weekly Sunday Breakfast Club selfie

Who can find a woman of worth? Far beyond jewels is her value.

Her husband trusts her judgment; he does not lack income.

She brings him profit, not loss, all the days of her life.

She reaches out her hands to the poor, and extends her arms to the needy.

She is clothed with strength and dignity, and laughs at the days to come

She watches over the affairs of her household, and does not eat the bread of idleness.

Her children rise up and call her blessed; her husband, too, praises her:

‘Many are the women of proven worth, but you have excelled them all.’

Acclaim her for the work of her hands, and let her deeds praise her at the city gates.”

from PROVERBS 31-

Death (& Rebirth) by Motherhood

545619_10151094877724372_687825903_nThe day I got married, October 20, 1995, began very much like today. It was an unseasonably warm, 75 degree, bright autumn day. As the sunshine poured through the trees, illuminating the gorgeous shades of gold, bronze and red that enliven the Midwestern landscape at this time of year, I was filled with feelings of joy, hope and excitement for the 5:00 p.m. date I had with my husband-to-be at the church. Flash forward to 3:30 p.m. on that same day. I am in the back of my parents’ car being driven to said date. It is now 45 degrees and the temperature continues to drop by the hour. A deluge of bone-chilling rain is making it difficult to see, even with the wipers on full speed. “It’s good luck to have rain on your wedding day”, I heard from the front seat of the car and then over and over again from my bridesmaids, once inside the Bride’s Room, safely tucked away from my groom. But to tell you the truth, the rain didn’t dampen my spirits. Inside my naive 26 year old mind, I was convinced that no matter what the world dished out, together we were going to change it for the better and I was ready to get started.

Fresh out of college by just five months, he and I met at a wedding in Fall of 1993. My graduation gift from my parents had been a trip to Ireland in May of that same year. At every church my mom and I visited in the homeland of our ancestors, I prayed that I would meet him. My specific request to God was for an Irishman with a deep faith life and of the Roman Catholic tradition. Many years dating someone with a deep faith life, but without the same background as I convinced me that married life would be easier with someone who shared my tradition. Remarkably, he also was looking for a person with a deep faith life of the Roman Catholic tradition. I met his criteria, but wait, there was even more I thought I brought to the table. As a recent graduate of a traditional Catholic university, with Theology degree in hand and a conviction that if we followed what I thought was God’s plan for our marriage and family, we would sanctify the world together, how could he refuse? Despite my overconfidence (a.k.a., my huge ego), he didn’t refuse the opportunity, but willingly entered into a covenant of marriage with me two years later. God bless him.

The month of October, in my faith tradition, is kicked off by the feast days of some really great saints. We start by celebrating St. Therese of Lisieux, followed by the Guardian Angels and then we get to St. Francis. He is the one often spotted as a statuary in many a beautiful garden, portrayed with a host of animals surrounding him. The Prayer of St. Francis is renowned all over the world and often times at church, we sing a song based on its words entitled, Make Me a Channel of Your Peace.  Outward images might lead some to imagine Francis was a soft kind of guy, singing Kumbaya while walking through nature, communing with God’s creatures. But on further examination, he is quite the opposite. Not only is his life story entirely compelling, but merely the words of his prayer are deeply challenging and not for the soft or the weak.

Lord, make me an instrument of Thy peace;
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is error, the truth;
Where there is doubt, the faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
And where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master,
Grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled, as to console;
To be understood, as to understand;
To be loved as to love.

For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen.”

Back in those days of young, married love, I truly didn’t understand these words. And that last line about dying? In my mind it only pertained to the End Game, nothing more, nothing less. It was with a sense of certainty that when I heard the phrase, “And it is in dying that we’re born to eternal life”, I thought to myself, I’m good to go! Eternal life after death? Check! Hey, it was smooth sailing on the road to sanctity and along with me I was bringing my husband, my hopefully soon-to-be big brood of children, and heck, even some other random strangers, simply by sharing with them my plans for how I thought God wanted them to live. Yikes. As Woody Allen said, “If you want to make God laugh, tell Him about your plans”.  

Parenthood began for us just nine days before our fifth year wedding anniversary. Our “celebration” didn’t feel so celebratory. We went out to an Italian restaurant to mark the day, but I couldn’t even stay awake at the dinner table. Our daughter was in the full-time care of family because I was unfit to be a mother to her. Adjusting to new medication in the hopes of becoming well enough to get her back, deep down inside, I felt incapable of ever being her mom. This scenario was furthest from the plans I thought were meant for my life. How could I be on the road to sanctity when I had already failed as a parent with the first child of what I thought was going to be five or so more? It was only then that I began to understand that there was another kind of death apart from the end game. And so began the process I affectionately refer to now as “Death by Motherhood”. There was a death to my hopes and dreams of how life should look and death from how chaotic and unmanageable it really was. There was a death to the image I had of myself and death from the reality of who I actually was. Co-mingling with the grief was a new and big and profound love I had never quite known before that drove my fight to get healthy for her.

As our beautiful daughter grew, we discovered that she was magnificent and sweet, loving and kind. She was captivated by books and coloring and singing and puppies and her Grandmas and Papas, cousins and friends. We also learned that her will was as strong as steel. Getting her dressed in the morning was a gargantuan task, as she would rip her clothes off as soon as I could get them on her. Many mornings I left for work in tears. I was exhausted from the fight with her and the day had barely even started. I thought she was being defiant and would lose patience with her. Sometimes I would even punish her for being disobedient. It wasn’t until the ripe age of five when we realized we were approaching this behavior in entirely the wrong way. She was diagnosed with Sensory Processing Disorder with Tactile Defensiveness. The clothes I was trying to put on her felt torturous to her hypersensitive skin. How could I have missed this? How could I have caused her additional suffering by insisting she was behaving so badly when in actuality, she was trying to communicate to me that she needed help, but she didn’t have the right vocabulary to do so? Those early days, post-diagnosis, I was once again in touch with the ending of life as I knew it. There was a death to the image I had of how my child was supposed to be and death from the discovery that she was suffering and I had only made it worse. There was a death to wanting to keep up appearances of being a perfect little family and death from the unpredictability and chaos that life with Sensory Processing Disorder brought to us each day. Our tenth anniversary found us taking a weekend away, to breathe deeply and regroup so that we could return to deal with the learning curve of life with SPD. It also had us realizing that perhaps, there would be no second or third or fourth or fifth child. God knew we were struggling to be enough for our one, whom we loved more than life itself.

In fifth grade, mortification came with the ten words that formed a simple question posed by her young, but acutely observant teacher. “Have you ever thought of having her tested for ADHD?” Just when we finally had gotten a handle on how to navigate her sensory issues and help her to understand them, it seemed almost too much to consider that there was something else to confront. Yet it was apparent that she was struggling to keep her head above the water with the academic challenges brought on by each successive year, as well as with the anxiety attacks that began to plague her when it all became too much. After weeks of evaluation with a psychiatrist, it came time to hear the results. With a sense of humor and of hopeful optimism, the doctor looked at my husband and announced, “Well it seems as if she inherited ADHD from you…” His friendly gaze turned to me as he continued, “…and as if she inherited an Anxiety Disorder from you.” I felt like I was dying right there and then. Yet another death; this one to the hope of passing on only our best of qualities to our child and death from realizing I had no control over it. There was a death to the desire to save my daughter from such hardship and death from watching her experience all sorts of wicked side effects as she went through the “guinea pig” phase of finding the right medication. On our fifteenth anniversary we exchanged cards and gave one another the kind that refers to experiencing the highs and lows of life together and gratitude for the other’s support in and through it all.

Even as I write this reflection, I continue to perish. I encounter the intermingling of death and rebirth almost every day. She is now a high school student and to observe her thrive in this large environment where her uniqueness is encouraged and celebrated is breath-taking. On good days or in the good moments of average days, there is a sense of freedom and peace and joy glimpsed in her presence. She is finding her own sense of style after being confined by a school uniform for the past nine years. There are blue streaks in her hair and she is wearing jeans almost every day, which was at one time made impossible by SPD. There are new friends and amazing academic accomplishments. Life is good. And yet the reality of adolescence is increasingly present with its angst and testing of boundaries and pushing back at parents, even when we are only making simple requests. It is being told we are embarrassing and we could never understand and we do things the wrong way and we say things that are stupid and don’t make sense. And so it goes, day after day. In the worst of moments, I feel driven to the Flight or Fight Response within my being. I have to talk myself off the ledge and realize that ultimately, in my role as mom, neither extreme reaction will lead to good. But the pain is so much deeper because my heart is open wide to her and her soul is forever intertwined with mine. There is a death to the realization that her love is not going to look exactly like it did in the past and death from the feelings of distant love, since right now hugging and snuggling with her mom aren’t on her top-ten-list of things-to-do. There is a death to the feeling of being needed and appreciated by her and a death from being treated as unneeded and unappreciated, even if it be unintentional on her part. The burden is momentarily lightened when I read, The Letter Your Teenager Can’t Write You and hold on to hope that what is says really is true –OR– when I catch a glimpse of the sweet girl who loves me deeply, such as tonight. When I left my writing for a few minutes, I came back to this note on my screen:

Dear Mom,

This is beautiful. I know you’re not finished because you haven’t gotten to your 20th yet but I truly love it. I have decided that in my free time, I will start reading your blog.

Love, Sadie”

On this occasion of our twentieth anniversary we reminisce about the past and where the present finds us and how it is we got here. Now a 46 year old woman, my life resembles very little of what I was convinced God wanted it to be as I stood on the altar that cold, rainy night in October 1995 and said “I do”. What has become clearer to me now is that this vocation was never meant to be about me changing the world and sanctifying the people around me according to the plans I thought we should live. Rather, I was the one who needed saving and it was my world that needed change, according to the perfect plan that God had all along. That plan kicked into high gear with her birth and her amazing life. As Richard Rohr so beautifully expresses it,

We come to God not by doing it right (which teaches you very little), but invariably by doing it wrong and responding to our failures and suffering with openness and awareness. Forevermore the very worst things have the power to become the very best things. Henceforth, nothing can be a permanent dead end; everything is capable of new shape and meaning.”

These little “deaths”, brought to me courtesy of motherhood, they have led me to rebirth. Without them, I couldn’t have learned to find truth in the midst of error, faith in the midst of doubt. I wouldn’t have had the need to find the light in the midst of the darkness or joy in the midst of sadness. If I had never experienced despair, I wouldn’t have known the relief of finding hope in the midst of it. As I face the depth of sacrifice that will be demanded of me as a mom in these days and weeks and years ahead, I know that there will be many more opportunities for death to come. And come, it must, because my needs aren’t meant to be fulfilled by her, but she was born with the innate need to encounter God’s unconditional love through me.

Master, grant that I may seek to sow love, even when I feel hated; seek to pardon even when I feel injured; seek to console even I want to be consoled; seek to understand even when I feel misunderstood and seek to love even when I feel unloved. For it is in giving that I will receive; it is in pardoning that I will be pardoned; and it is in dying that I will be reborn to eternal life. Amen.”

Say “Yes” to the Mess

muddy-field-7About a six weeks ago, I was running along the river pondering how life had been relatively smooth, as of late, mirroring the state of the water that was my companion on that run. In fact, the river was so smooth, I could see in it a perfect reflection of the trees that hang so gracefully over its banks. It was a breathtaking sight which allowed me to glimpse the beauty of creation twice. Since summer had ended, our family transitioned back to school almost effortlessly. In fact, it was probably the first time I could remember since my daughter’s diagnosis of ADHD with anxiety, added to the previously diagnosed Sensory Processing Disorder, that we had experienced such a peaceful and calm fall. Usually these changes to life triggered the worst of anxieties, leading to behaviors which became disruptive to any sense of normalcy we touched during less challenging times. But this year was different; so different that it was strange. I kept waiting for something to set off the chain of chaos that had become our new normal, but that something never came. I don’t know if it was the fact that this was her ninth year in her current school or that we finally figured out the perfect combination of meds. I don’t know if it was her incredibly knowledgeable and sensitive home room teacher who “gets” my girl and works well with her or the regular dosage of exercise and sweat that came as part of the package when she signed up to play volleyball. WHATEVER it was that could be attributed to these sweet, smooth, serene months of calm and peace; it was a most beautiful gift.

As the old idiom goes, all good things must come to an end. Volleyball season ended. High school placement tests were administered. Talk of next year’s plans were initiated. Then came the final straw: Shadow Day at her dream high school arrived. At first, when I picked her up after school, she seemed very excited about the day. She said that she participated in class and knew lots of the answers to the teachers’ questions. She mentioned that the high school kids affectionately referred to her as “Shadow” all throughout the day. She happily chatted about friends from last year’s 8th grade class with whom she was able to reconnect in the hallways and cafeteria. But mere hours later, the telltale signs reappeared. At first it was the hypersensitivity to touch. My right arm brushed up against her left arm in the car when I opened up the compartment between the seats. An explosive emotional response followed immediately, along with the physical retraction from the touch. Next came the need to balance out the unexpected sensory input by brushing the arm that wasn’t assaulted against my arm which remained between us. Quickly thereafter, she was throttled by a flooding of all things sensory. She slammed the radio off to stop the sound. She pulled the hood of her sweatshirt over her eyes to shut out the onslaught of visual images that threatened to cut the thin thread of sanity to which she was clinging. To watch her in these moments is to witness a response of both fight and flight. It breaks my heart to see her suffering.

The smooth, serene waters are no longer. They are choppy and treacherous and threaten to drown her once again.The future is uncertain, unknown, uncontrollable. The secure position of stability, found after so many years of therapy and learning how to cope, has collapsed all too soon. The aftertaste that remains of the peace now lost makes this new chaos all the more bitter. Day after day, unmet expectations or unwanted sensations or unplanned events trigger the strife once again. I grasp to recall how we successfully navigated these days in the past. It feels as if I am a combat soldier, though once strong in battle, now utterly unprepared for the daily warfare.

In the midst of all this comes Advent, a time when I am supposed to prepare for the birth of a Savior on Christmas. As one who works in ministry, I am ever aware of the dichotomy that exists between what I am called to embrace and my life as it is in these days. How in the world can I prepare to invite the newborn babe into this utter turmoil, this MESS? When we prepared to invite her into the world, everything was ready and waiting. We took classes to learn how to care for her. We read books and devoured articles about how to be good parents. We painted her room and decorated it tastefully. We assembled the crib and equipped it with the softest bedding we could find. Everything was perfect and I felt ready.

In a feeble attempt to prepare for Christmas, I dug out an old Advent reflection book written by Franciscan priest, Richard Rohr, O.F.M., Preparing for Christmas: Daily Reflections for Advent.  Sometime during the end of the first week of Advent, I finally got around to opening it up. I figured I would try my hardest to prepare my heart for His birth like I did my house, for her birth. I would make everything neat and clean and perfect and ready. The very first page I read reminded me that my ways are NOT God’s ways, my thoughts are NOT God’s thoughts. It read,

Advent is not about a sentimental waiting for the Baby Jesus. Advent is a time to focus our expectation and anticipation on ‘the adult Christ, the Cosmic Christ’ who challenges us to empty ourselves, to lose ourselves and to surrender.”

Ugh. this is exactly why I both love and hate reading Richard Rohr’s writings. His insights usually serve to cut to the core and reveal a smattering of my most prevalent character defects and flaws. Perfectionism. Need for control. Frustration with others’ disruptions of my plans. And the list goes on. The question that followed that particular day’s reflection led to a realization that still challenges me today. The realization is that deep within, I struggle to believe that God is to be found in the unrest, the disorder, the chaos, the emotional outbursts, the discord, the anxiety, the disrupted plans, the late arrivals, the overwhelming uncontrollable and messy moments that pepper my life. I am very uncomfortable with emptying myself, losing myself and surrendering. There, I admit it.

I left the time of prayer that day reminded that Jesus wasn’t born into serenity and sweet peace. Yeah, somehow I had conveniently forgotten about some of those little parts of the Gospel. Like when Mary was visited by an Angel and she was greatly troubled and she was told she was going to give birth to the Son of God. Oh and that small part about the fact that she wasn’t yet married, but was pregnant, which 2014 years ago was kind of a big deal, like a you-deserve-to-be-stoned-to-death big deal. And, guess what? I forgot that Joseph and Mary didn’t get their house all ready for Jesus with a fresh paint job, new furniture from Ikea and soft bedding. Nope. They were rushing around last minute, like my crazy family does regularly, looking for a place to birth him and all they could find was a stable. He was born into unrest, disorder, chaos, discord, disrupted plans, late arrivals, overwhelming, uncontrollable, messy life. I vowed right then to try to surrender to my life as it is and I asked God that somehow in the midst of our messiness, that He would provide an opportunity for us to serve someone in need this Christmas. From that day forward, my Advent mantras became, “Help me to find You in the mess” and as particularly stressful moments arise daily, “Into this mess I say, O Come, O Come Emmanuel.”

We have a tradition of cutting down our tree each year at a local Christmas Tree Farm run by the Benedictine monks. This year when we arrived at the farm, it was already about 3 p.m. With the winter solstice drawing near, our window of daylight was quickly waning. As we trudged through the wet and mucky fields, my daughter was the first to come upon a young family whose minivan had become lodged in thick, deep mud. Without a moment’s hesitation, she offered our family’s help and summoned us to assist her in gathering dry grasses and the occasional evergreen branch abandoned in the field. These were placed under the wheels of the vehicle and accomplished the goal of dislodging it from ensnarement. Her inventive solution had worked! We were proud of her and grateful to get back to the task at hand. When we had whittled our search for the 2014 Christmas Tree down to the last 2 finalists, our plans were again disrupted. The young family had been unable to find higher ground in the direction they had taken. When they turned around, they had become entrenched a second time. The evening was growing darker and our patience was wearing thinner. Our solutions weren’t as effective in this subsequent round of attempts. But my girl, she didn’t give up. Undeterred by the frustration, she kept gathering dry materials and bringing them to the minivan. Time after time, the wheels spun, even though we had secured the bundles of grasses to give the tires a surface to grab. As we tried to push the minivan from behind, both my husband and I slid backwards and subsequently, I fell down into the mess, catching myself just short of receiving a full mud bath. At that moment, it became clear to me. This was the answer to my prayer. God had provided us an opportunity as a family to serve  someone in need. I wanted to laugh and I wanted to cry. I couldn’t even have imagined a more disruptive, unplanned, uncontrollable and utterly messy opportunity to serve than this.

With one final push, the van was freed for a second time and the family fled for dry land. The sun had set, we could no longer see well enough to reclaim our last 2 finalists, we were all covered in mud and exhausted. My girl’s big and generous heart was quickly overcome with the big crashing wave of realization that plans were now changed, nothing was like it usually is and we weren’t going home with a tree this night. Unrest, disorder, chaos, discord and uncontrollable, messy life continued as we made our way out of the field, stopping to attempt to comfort her as she collapsed on to the muddy ground, wailing in grief over unmet expectations and unfulfilled dreams. As I stood in the glow of the orange sunset on the horizon, waiting for her to gather her strength to carry on, I whispered into the cold night air, “I surrender Lord. I say “yes” to this mess.” Then deep in the quiet of my heart I heard a still, small voice whisper, “I AM in this mess, it is to be with you in this mess that I come.”

Though everything is imperfect, I am ready. O Come, O Come Emmanuel.

To learn more about Sensory Processing Disorder, visit STAR Institute: About SPD

Blessed Brokenness

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For some reason, even though Mother’s Day was a week ago, just this weekend in my Facebook feed was a video about mothers, produced by Pampers. It features very sweet mother-child moments, along with thank yous from moms to their kids for the ways in which they have taught them and made them better women. Towards the end the screen reads, “When you were born, I was born. And a love that transformed me forever was born.” It struck me as oddly paradoxical. You see I have spent the entire week wrestling with the experience of death to my ego, triggered by a heart-breaking experience with my girl.

After eighteen years of marriage, I’ve learned that if I want holidays to look anything like the way I dream them up in my head, I must communicate my wants. It took me a long time and lots of frustration to figure out that no one in my house was born with the magical power to read minds. Wow, so simple a lesson, but such a hard one for me to learn! So a couple of weeks ago, with Mother’s Day approaching, I proudly took an assertive stance and let my husband and daughter know that all I wanted for Mother’s Day was some help with the weeds overtaking our yard, yet again. It was decided that we would tackle this on the Saturday before Mother’s Day, since it would give us the longest stretch of time to kick some broadleaf-weed-butt without any of life’s other interruptions. Friday night found me at the local home improvement store stocking up on a myriad of weapons whose labels all promise to take the life of even the nastiest of lawn invaders. After reminding my spouse via a text and my daughter with a verbal reminder of the plan for the next day, I settled in for a good night’s sleep, dreaming of how together, our little family would become powerful conquerors of the evil found spreading, by the minute, merely steps away from our front door.

Saturday morning arrived with perfect weather and the promise of a major task being accomplished by late afternoon. As we prepared to go to battle, our darling daughter remained asleep and by the time we had just about finished the job, she woke up to begin her homework. My self-pity started creeping in, but I tried to flex. I told myself, “Self, she is a teenager after all and needs her sleep-cut her some slack”. So I adjusted my expectations, as I have worked hard to do in my adult life and offered her Plan B. “Since you didn’t make it outside today, all I want for Mother’s Day is to not have to nag you about finishing homework.” She responded, “I am not making any promises.” Instead she said, “I have to make you breakfast in bed. It is what I do for you every year!” Since my favored hour of waking is sometime around 4:30 a.m. and hers is averaging somewhere around 11:00 a.m., I mentioned that this old tradition doesn’t work so much anymore because by the time she wakes up, I’m just about ready for lunch. She seemed saddened by this, but accepting.

Flash forward to Sunday morning. I woke up feeling proud of myself for expressing my needs so assertively. I thought about how much I’ve grown since my first Mother’s Day when I had unfair expectations of how the day should play out, without ever having communicated any of it to my husband. I went about my normal morning routine, happy to be so evolved as a mom, patting myself on the back for being so awesome! When afternoon approached, my one and only child finally woke up and started to play on her favorite electronic device. About a half hour later I ventured into her room, frustrated that she hadn’t started on her homework yet. Without looking up from her game, she wished me a Happy Mother’s Day and kept on playing. That was it. There was no hug, no handmade card and not even the one thing I had asked for, the gift of doing her homework without me being involved. And then it hit me like a wicked, hard punch in the gut: self-pity. It took my breath away. It flooded every recess of my heart, soul and mind. I couldn’t shake it. I felt such a searing sense of pain, a sense of under appreciation, as if I was completely irrelevant. I prayed for the grace not to lash out in my pain.

Some logical part of me realized just how stupid I was being. Why was it that I was putting so much pressure on one single day to be a perfect representation of my daughter’s love for me? Why did I believe, on some sick level of my subconscious that if she didn’t get the expression perfectly right on this one day, it was an indication of how meaningless my efforts to be a good mom are? Was she only trying to respect my request for no breakfast in bed? Just days prior to Mother’s Day, we were driving home from school when she asked for my jacket that I was wearing. Since I wasn’t cold, I took it off and handed it over. She proceeded to take it into her hands, hold it up to her face, inhale deeply and exclaimed with such sweetness, “Mmm, Mama smell!” I must admit that at the time, this utterly melted me. In the mother-teen daughter dance, it was an extraordinarily tender moment, a glimpse of the many we had when she was younger. Oh, but the pity and the hurt wouldn’t let this loving moment be enough. Nor would it allow any of the 13 years of accrued moments-times when I knew beyond a doubt that she loved me, be enough. Sadly, this wrestling continued for days and wreaked havoc on me. I felt so completely broken; depleted of life and energy. This pain had way too much power, I hated it being so unresolved and so raw. But then I remembered something I had read from the Franciscan, Fr. Richard Rohr:

Don’t get rid of the pain until you’ve learned its lessons. When you hold the pain consciously and trust fully, you are in a very special liminal space. This is a great teaching moment where you have the possibility of breaking through to a deeper level of faith and consciousness. Hold the pain of being human until God transforms you through it. And then you will be an instrument of transformation for others.”

-Adapted from The Authority of Those Who Have Suffered (MP3 download)

This weekend, as my family gathered for Mass, I found myself captivated with the Breaking of the Bread unlike ever before. It was almost as if I was watching it in slow motion. In my faith tradition, at the celebration of Eucharist the priest holds up a large host of unleavened bread, which we believe has become the very Body of Christ. As he prays, he breaks this larger piece into many pieces and distributes them into the containers that hold the smaller hosts we are all to receive. As I watched the big host being broken, I saw how first, as one piece, it could only serve as food for one. But then it was broken and it became food for two. These pieces were again broken and now four could be fed. Over and over, it was broken; what was food for one had now become food and nourishment for sixteen.

At that moment, my eyes were opened wide and I recognized God anew, in this Breaking of the Bread. Through the searing pain I had been uncomfortably sitting with, a new light shined forth. It dawned on me that it is in this very state of brokenness where real transformation can happen and we can be used to nourish others. What if the more we experience brokenness and invite God to transform it, the more we too can become bread for those on the journey? What if this pain was truly a gift given to me to help me to grow into a better woman? This was the very moment I had longed for all week. A deep peace returned to me, replacing the self-pity and sadness that had flooded my being.

Riding home my girl just happened to mention to me that she wrote me a poem for Mother’s Day. WHAT!!?? You can imagine just how surprised I was. “It is about your Mama smell. I had to write it for an assignment for Reading. Do you want it when I get it back?” I told her yes, of course, I would love to read it! And I smiled, thinking about how that Pampers video, it is oddly paradoxical and true, after all.

When you were born I was born. And a love that transforms me forever was born. Thank you Sadie.