Saturday, April 24, 2010

This Too Shall Pass

My son Peter performed in his 8th grade play last night. The play, a musical parody of Fairy Tales, highlighted the many talents of the 54 students in his class. Plot lines are sacrificed for laughs in these productions. It’s a long standing tradition at our catholic school and it signifies the end of an era; after nine years together in parochial school they will be moving on to different high schools. Peter is my youngest son; this was my last 8th grade play. After four children and 18 years, I feel ready to make the change. Still it is bitter sweet in many ways.

After weeks of hearing that “the play is terrible” and “there’s no point in coming”, I was once again surprised to see a child of mine shining on the stage. As Prince Charming, singing a solo and dancing his heart out, Peter really did shine. Its a parody, so after wooing all ten princesses, poor Prince Charming was revealed as the villain and vanquished from the land from the unlikely and extremely funny heroine, The Old Woman who lived in the Shoe, who was played by Peter’s friend, Pete. Seeing kids I'd known for years walk out on that stage and really perform, well, it was one of those parenting moments I treasure. And like all shining moments, there is a tinge of regret afterward, the realization that part of the journey is behind me.

Not all the moments in our life fill us with regret when they pass. Only the highlights, the mountain tops, like watching Peter on stage. There have been other moments that couldn’t pass quickly enough in my perception. Peter’s first three months of life come quickly to mind. Finding out I was expecting another baby was a miracle for me. I was told I probably wouldn’t conceive again after medical problems I’d experienced during my third pregnancy. I was thrilled to be pregnant and I knew in my heart it was a boy. Coming off a year and a half of illness and recovery from surgery after Andrew’s birth and finding that Andrew, at 15 months, was a reincarnation of the Energizer Bunny, I was not as energetic as I was enthusiastic about bringing another baby into the family.

By the time I was rushed into the hospital two weeks early for an emergency induction, Peter’s young life had already diminished the last vestiges of my former “Type A” personality. I’d completely lost control. After five days in the hospital Peter and I were home only to find ourselves back in four days later. He is the baby who had every serious symptom and nothing actually life threatening, praise the Lord. It does explain the premature graying of my hair.

Peter’s daily schedule for the first three months of life was: cry for three hours and sleep three hours (if I held him). This cycle ran in a 24 hour continuous loop. At three months of age he had surgery to repair double hernias and practically never cried again. Those first months fall smack dab in the middle of what I refer to as “the black hole” years. I accomplished almost nothing each day other than the bare minimum child care duties. I hated feeling out of control. I was exhausted. Unable to fulfill my expectations of what a “mother” should do, I was a bit lost. Thankfully I had a great deal of support from really good friends who had walked the path before me.

I will never forget what my friend Kathy said to me one afternoon, when I was lamenting on the telephone that I couldn’t get anything done, because if I put the baby down, he cried. “Anne, this too shall pass.” Kathy’s voice was so reassuring. “Pick up a good book, sit down with Peter, and enjoy the time you have to rock your baby. Everything else can wait.” And that’s exactly what I did. Kathy was right. Fourteen years later the precious time to rock my babies has passed, but the mess in my house remains.

“This too shall pass” has become my mantra in good times and bad. It helps me to put things in perspective; to see life for the up and down journey that it is. I distinctly remember watching my oldest daughter Emily crowned as Homecoming Queen her senior year in high school. It was a rather surreal moment. Everyone was cheering, people were coming up to me in the stands congratulating me, Emily was crying, hugging her Dad as they put the crown on her head, and what I heard in the back of mind was “this too shall pass”.

The last thing I was expecting in that moment was a message. It is one of my most vivid memories. I think God wanted to remind me to appreciate my blessings, my mountain top moments, but not to hold on to them too tightly. He knows we need the mountain tops, to encourage us to persevere through the valleys. I felt strongly God was reminding me I had not yet arrived; this was not the apex, but just one brief leg of the journey. Just like Peter’s starring moments in the play, or continual discomfort as a newborn, these were just stops along the way. The path would level out again, for a time.

In retrospect I wonder if Jesus had similar thoughts as he entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, amidst the cheers and adulation.

“They brought the colt to Jesus and put their coats on it; and He sat on it. And many spread their coats in the road, and others spread leafy branches which they had cut from the fields. Those who went in front and those who followed were shouting: "Hosanna!BLESSED IS HE WHO COMES IN THE NAME OF THE LORD; Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David, Hosanna in the highest!" Mark 11:1-10

Jesus knew what was in store for Him. He knew this mountain top experience was just a moment, and in a few days all He would hear from the crowd would be “Crucify Him. In one week’s time, the time it took His Father to create the world and all that lives in it, it would all be over. A new covenant would be established and His saving work of the cross complete. This too would pass. It would pass into something better, something complete, eternal glory. And so will we.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Considering My Joy

I was greeted yesterday morning by a clogged kitchen sink. It was one of those clogs that taunted me by draining when the disposal was running and then shooting all the nasty, murky debris filled water up the drain of the other sink. Initially, I refused to acknowledge the clog, making my morning tea and trudging with purposeful determination out of the kitchen. I think denial is a good stance when confronted with household disasters before 7:00 am. One hour later my son was up and ready for school, and happy to alert me of the “situation”.

A clogged drain wasn’t the end of the world, but yesterday I had my son’s friends coming over after school and I was preparing dinner for another family so, I really needed my sink. And I really didn’t need to be home waiting for a plumber.

Proceeding with my morning routine, I went to set out the vitamin regimen I “encourage” my children to digest each morning. I love vitamin supplements. I love that you can take a pill that has two entire servings of fruits and vegetables. I feel like such a good mother as I’m laying those babies in their designated spots for each child. My oldest daughter finally admitted she chose an out of state university to ensure that I would not be able to show up in her dorm room and lay out vitamins everyday. It was just a phase on her part; Emily, it’s your mother, take your vitamins!

In my distraction over the disgusting mess in my sink, I failed to set the mega jar of Vitamin E securely back on the shelf and when it fell, the lid popped off and it knocked another open bottle off the counter. Ugggggh! There were pills everywhere. It was so depressing. My day was heading downhill fast, and it was not yet 7:30 am. I don’t know exactly what half of “mega” is, but we lost a lot of good pills yesterday.

“Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” James 1:2-4

Surveying the mess in my kitchen I must admit joy was the furthest thing from my mind. Scripture verses weren’t popping into my head. The Vitamin E pills were rolling around the floor and bobbing in my disgusting sink and the concept of human perfection didn’t even occur to me. Well plumbed would have sufficed.

Without being asked, my son stopped eating breakfast and helped me clean up the mess. He’s a good kid. His gesture helped me refocus my energy and outlook. I took a deep breath as I tossed a huge handful of supplements into the trash can. If I had to cook without a sink I could make it work. And 8th grade boys literally blossom in the face of gross, so the nasty sink would most likely enhance my social standing in their eyes. .

The greeting St. James chose was an unconventional way to begin a letter. It’s believed he wrote the letter to Jewish Christians living outside Palestine who were poor and oppressed. No beating around the bush, James gets right to it. God allows trials. He uses them to help us to grow, to produce endurance, which we’ll need on the journey. I would prefer a different method of teaching: maybe a nice hard bound book, or possibly an endurance enhancing supplement.

But for this morning my lesson came in the form of a trial - really just an irritation. It just felt like a trial for a few moments. And I am considering my joy. I’m appreciating that my son is growing into a thoughtful and helpful young man and my little trial gave him the opportunity to practice those virtues. I’m noticing that I’m more patient than I used to be; that little set back might have put me into a really bad mood in my younger days. I guess I am learning endurance. As for perfection, I’m a few trials shy, but if vitamin supplements can help in any way, I’m all over it!

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Chemo Days: An Essay

Chemo days ebbed and flowed. The tide pulled way back the night before exposing all of our hopes and fears. Chemo-therapy was both the elusive pearl of complete healing and the deadly shark prowling the shoreline. I would call Debbie the night before to check, to make sure she had taken her Ativan: chemo day would be easier if she’d slept.

The drive to her house got longer with each week of treatment. By the last treatment in the twelve round protocol, it seemed to take forever to wade through the early morning commute. I was swimming upstream, going against the current. I sat through the stop lights wondering if anyone one else was heading out to sea; rushing to get someone to the cancer center too.

Getting Debbie to the car was the worst part. I knew she wouldn’t be ready. If she hadn’t slept well the night before, which she rarely did, the process of packing her bag would slow almost to a stand still. We were trudging through wet sand; pouring orange juice mixed with warm tap water into a thermos, and leaving a message for the kids. Without fail we had to look for her sweater, the black one, and her warm socks. They needed to be gathered into her bag with the framed pictures of holy images, her family and one of a beautiful sunset that gave her strength and comfort.

“Wait, I just need one more thing” would trail down the stairs behind her as she plodded back up. The wave of anxiety would begin to swell. I would try to be as gentle as possible, but I still had to say it loud enough to be heard over the ocean’s roar.

“Debbie, we really have to go now.” At that moment I realized I was dread’s chauffeur.

The car ride was usually better. We would talk easily about husbands and bosses, about sixth grade teachers and our children. Always the crest of the conversation was her family. We would laugh and remember why we were fighting so hard, and the apprehension would subside.

We felt especially blest when Jenny appeared from behind the cubicle curtain. It was hit and miss with nurses. When Jenny was Debbie’s nurse, we faced the waves with renewed courage. Jenny knew about the drip, that it had to be really, really slow. She knew about the cold spray, how Debbie tasted it as it numbed the port. I would close my eyes and take a deep breath too, but try as I might to do some of this for her, I couldn’t taste a thing.

Each night I would bend down in prayer and try to carry some of the anxiety; to guard Debbie from the wave threatening to crash around her. But when I looked past the IV monitor into her eyes, I saw its reflection looming - dead ahead.

Warmed blankets were our sunshine. I would gather up the shovels and pails: Debbie’s favorite rosary and her pictures. We would head out in search of those who were blest enough to wander onto our little stretch of beach. Debbie, with her gracious and generous spirit, always offered to share prayers with those we encountered along the way. She had a gentle kindness that engendered trust.

We prayed for nurses and lab techs. Humbled and amazed by their responses, we listened to long stories, family histories full of sorrow and ordinary stresses and anxieties. Sometimes we listened for quite awhile before the nurse or lab tech would remember why they had come in and start Debbie’s IV or administer her meds. We listened and we prayed and over time our cubicle became a community. We were all patrolling the shore, in search of the perfect sand dollar.

Despite the waves we knew we had yet to encounter; we persevered in our quest. And we did find treasures: moments to dig our bare feet into the warm sand of friendship. We found moments to pray. We found moments to share stories and laugh and make new friends. We found moments we wouldn’t have stopped to pick up if cancer hadn’t forced us into the ocean. Together, dodging the waves was not such a daunting task. Together our pails were full.

Our prayer walks filled us both with hope. Suffering in and of itself, felt pointless: but when it gave us the opportunity to reach out and help others, it became purposeful and bearable. The small cubicle would fill with saints as we invoked their help in our crusade. We were constructing sand castles, elaborate fortresses of faith. We would forget about the waves. Familiar words, blessings, the rosary beads between our fingers, those were the foundation of our structure.

Eventually, the drugs would take effect and Debbie would drift off to sleep. The wave would slap Debbie with its injected poison and go on its way, but the castle would stand. The tide would flow past her onto the shore, and for long quiet moments I would be left alone, with God.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

The God I Want

Holy Week, and the weeks preceding it, used to be some of the busiest weeks of my year. For over a decade we hosted a family Egg Hunt, which began when my daughters were two and four. Initially we invited over a few families on Holy Saturday to dye and hunt eggs and then we cooked out. As the families expanded so did the invitation list. By the time I had the last hunt a few years ago, my oldest was in college and the boys were teens. There were over 100 people showing up, over half of which were children. The activities expanded as well. Besides the dying and hunting of over 10 dozen eggs, we shoved sugar cookies down one anothers throats in a “bunny hop” relay and competed in a themed “Egg Drop” contest which involved throwing creatively packaged raw eggs out the three story drop from my bedroom window. There wasn’t a great deal of wisdom gleaned from the exercise, but we did establish that red jello is insufficient and extremely messy packaging for a raw egg, just in case you were wondering. 

So while other Mom’s were finishing their Lenten Devotions and arranging the palm branches, I was frantically baking carrot shaped cookies and spray painting egg cartons with plastic eggs glued on top for trophies. I loved it. I loved having little children everywhere. I loved the chaos. I was more enthusiastic about my Lenten devotions and practices, probably because my children were younger and I was trying to be a good example. I stopped having the hunt because as the kids got older they got wilder, and there were more of them. A teen age boy with a good arm can pitch a hard boiled egg at 60 miles per hour. The chaos progressed from really fun to dangerous; someone took a hard boiled egg in the eye and it was time to quit. Even though the writing was on the wall, I’ve had a difficult time accepting the change. My zeal for the holiday is lack luster now, which makes me sad.

In my heart, I want things to be the way they used to be. The apostles must have felt the same way at the Last Supper. I’m sure they didn’t want to hear what Jesus was telling them. They wanted him to stay, to rise up; they wanted him to be the Messiah they thought he should be. He’d been telling them all along what was going to happen, but they didn’t want to believe it. The disciple’s varied reactions to the suffering and crucifixion of Christ offer perspective into the way we respond to our own trials.  

Like all good plot lines, the Last Supper narrative has a great villain in Judas. His story is compelling and his role in the gospel narrative has always been perplexing to me. Did God really choose him because he was ultimately a “bad guy” who was predestined to betray the Lord? That just doesn’t sound like God to me. I’ve come to believe that Judas, Peter and all the disciples started their mission on equal footing. Like Peter, Judas was enthusiastic. They both learned by example from Jesus and witnessed miracles; both men were willing to sacrifice to usher in the Messiah. Both had preconceived notions of what and who their Savior should be. They were both afraid at a certain point that salvation was not going to happen according to plan: Judas at the Last Supper and Peter while waiting after Jesus was arrested.

Judas, like Peter wanted a kingdom on earth. Peter was eager to erect tents at the Transfiguration. Judas was more determined to push things along. In an effort to back Jesus into a corner, he betrayed him in hopes of forcing his hand. Surely the Messiah would rise up and make his authority known. Judas may have been good with finances, but I don’t think he did it for the money. Thirty shekels of silver wasn’t much, even in those days. I don’t believe his betrayal of the Lord was his ultimate down fall; it was his lack of repentance, his refusal to accept God’s mercy. Unlike Peter, Judas never really understood who God was, so he ended his life in despair.

Now Peter, there is an apostle I can identify with; enthusiastic, well meaning, occasionally caught with is foot in his mouth – I have always felt a kinship. So much so, I named my son after him. On the other hand, Judas is an easy disciple to ignore - we tell ourselves we would never be like him. Peter told Jesus the same thing. You don’t hear, “Hey Judas, you can do it.” often at the little league games for a reason. But I’m beginning to see some of myself in Judas. He wanted God to be who he wanted him to be. He wanted a physical, earthly, tangible savior for his people. He wanted things set right, and he didn’t want to wait anymore.

And so do I.  I want a God who heals cancer, now. I don’t want my friends to suffer through surgeries and stem cell transplants and chemo therapy. I want a God who mends broken marriages and finds jobs for the unemployed and babies for infertile couples. I’ve always been a “Red Sea” girl when it comes to prayer: I go for the big guns and then work my way down to “If it’s your will”.  I want to accept God’s will and I pray to accept God’s will, but the truth is, quite often I really don’t want God’s will if it means people I love have to suffer and die. Yes I can see the growth that suffering through my own trials has brought about and I’m grateful for it. But when it comes to watching someone I love suffer, I just don’t want it. That’s why Judas is such an important thread in the gospel narrative; we must never believe we are so close to God that we can’t falter. We must be careful to make sure our wants, no matter how selfless the may be, are in keeping with God’s will.

Today is Holy Thursday, the beginning of the Easter liturgy. Tonight we wait in the garden of Gethsemane with our Lord. The transition from being a person who just wants an end to suffering to one who truly wants God’s will is long and difficult. Even Jesus in his humanity struggled with it.

And Jesus went a little beyond them, and fell on His face and prayed, saying, "My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; yet not as I will, but as You will." Matt 26:39 

By God’s grace Peter learned to desire God for who He was: to want what God wanted. Judas did not. I’m not there yet. I don’t think I’ll really be able to fully embrace the part of me that is Peter until I confront and repent for the part of me that is Judas, the part of me that wants God to be the God I want, and not the God He is. Maybe the most remarkable thing about Easter is the Christ looks down at me from the cross, with all my selfish demands and wants, and loves me anyway. That is truly the God that I want.