Mother’s Day

My youngest daughter woke me up this morning with a whisper – “Mommy! Is it morning time yet?”

I answered yes, groaning just a little as she climbed over my ribs, wincing as the dog took my opened eyes as an invitation to sit on my hair. “Ok,” she told me, “now you can go back to sleep,” and she slammed the door shut to give me some privacy.

Some twenty minutes later, she returned with my husband, her sister, and a plate of pancakes swimming in syrup. I ate a sticky breakfast in bed while my girls showed me their hand-made cards and the dog pierced my soul with his hungry gaze. It was—if not quite bliss – a moment in which I felt blessed.

* * *

Mother’s Day is not a day of simple emotions – not for me, and, I imagine, not for many others. There are so many struggles when it comes to the relationship between mothers and children. We are all children of a mother and cohorts of a society with a rigidly idealized definition of what motherhood should be. Rarely does the reality fulfill the expectation.

And then there are the women who wish they could become mothers, but can’t, and those who can become mothers, but can’t mother the children to whom they gave life. There are the mothers who have had to give a child back to the earth, and the children whose mothers have left the world too soon.

As the adopted daughter of a mother who died young, the celebration of Mother’s Day has always been bittersweet. When I was a child, it was a day when I felt the pull of my connection with the mother I had never met. It was a day when I honored the mother of my heart – and as I grew older while she grew sicker, it was a day when I wondered what would happen to me if she – when she – died.

After my mother’s death, the day was searingly painful. I had eyes only for what others possessed, but I had lost – twice.

As the years passed, my grief mellowed and so did the pain of Mother’s Day. I became a mother myself, which magnified everything good about the day. And I came to understand that the loss of a mother gives a gift of its own – the experience of being loved by the women who mother the motherless.

These women represent the best of what humanity has to offer. They are the grandmothers, the aunts, the neighbors, the sisters, the friends who love where love is needed. I’ve known these women in my own family, and I have met them in many other contexts, in every part of the world.

Mother’s Day is an easy holiday to celebrate. As children of mothers, it is easy to see their value in our lives. As mothers of children, it is easy to see the gifts motherhood has given us — the weight of a tiny person on your chest, the softness of a cheek, the comfort of a small body still warm with sleep, the fierce strength of a child’s embrace.

It’s easy to celebrate the beauty of idealized motherhood.

It’s harder to embrace the darker side, where mistakes, regrets, and loss reside. But I think it is in this side of motherhood where we find its deepest and most powerful meaning. Because it is here where we find the forgiveness, the persistence, the tenacity of a love that transcends everything, even the grave. It’s here where we find the women whose hearts are the deepest wells, who fill the world with their nurturing grace.

For my mothers, for all the women who stood in a mother’s place in my life, and for my children who have given me more than they know, I am filled with gratitude. And for those we have lost, I will mourn.

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Michele and Grandma

The Red Bottle of Perfume: A Christmas Story

On Christmas day 1990 my mother was released from the hospital. Not because she was healed, but because there was nothing left to do. Her long battle against cancer had been fought. She was dying.

That day was the last full one we had with her – on December 26, she said her final goodbyes and allowed herself to lapse into a coma. Her body kept itself going for 11 more days, but she was no longer with us. On January 6 – the Feast of the Epiphany – shortly after our family had returned from Mass, she quietly passed away.

There is a picture from that last Christmas we had with her. It’s one that I can hardly bear to look at because it always makes me cry.  Partly because of how sick she looks in it – and she was so sick – but also because in this picture, she is holding a bright red bottle of cheap drugstore perfume. It was my present to her that year.

I still remember buying it from the drugstore down the road from my house. I picked it because I liked how shiny the bottle was; it had smoothly curved lines and looked, to an 11-year-old, very sophisticated.

On some level, I must have known it was the last gift I would ever give my mother. It was clear that she was ill beyond the point recovery. But I don’t remember ever thinking that way. In my mind, I was buying her a Christmas gift that she would get the chance to use.

In a sense, this is one of the most heart-breaking memories of my life, thinking about how incapable I was of understanding the fact that she was dying. It is painful to relive the disbelief – shock, almost– that you feel in the moment of the death of a loved one. It seems like death, even when you have watched it slowly approach, is rarely easy to accept. Certainly, at 11 going on 12, I couldn’t accept it. I held on to hope all the way through to the very last moment.

***

On the other hand, what a miracle. What a miracle that spark of hope was.

This ability to hang on to hope, to grasp tightly to our chests the belief that all will be well, through even the most hopeless of situations is one of the best aspects of our humanity.

It’s also part of what makes the celebration of Christmas so enduring, and so endearing. The human spirit gravitates toward hope, and hope is what was born on what we remember as Christmas night.

In our modern Christian dialogue, we refer to Christmas as the birth of a Savior. But that isn’t what we see in the nativity as we know it. In our nativity story, a baby is born in the lowliest of circumstances to a homeless couple with no political, economic, or social standing. This baby has come to us through miraculous means, but he enters the world as powerless as a person can possibly be.

And yet, in this baby, a latent potential is already recognized. In him, the stories tell us, the hope of a nation rests. In him, the prospect of salvation lives.

***

Hope is the essence of our Christmas story. It is what allows us to believe that in a helpless

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Happy Independence Day

We started our Fourth of July celebrations early this morning here in the land north of our Nation’s capitol. We dressed up the kids and our wagon, and we marched in a community parade that has existed nearly as long as our city. (Which is to say, about 40 years. )
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The kids had fun until they turned on each other and me, but really, it isn’t a holiday until I start screaming at my kids about candy in front of a crowd of waving on-lookers.

I hope everyone here in the US of A enjoys a safe celebration of the day we signed for our freedom. And let’s not forget what it could otherwise have been here in our great nation:

Happy Independence Day, America!

Good Friday: A Broken Hallelujah

The first time I ever heard Jeff Buckley perform Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah, it became the song that runs through my head whenever I think of Good Friday. I know it’s not an intentionally Christian song, but music, like all art, is open to interpretation. And when I hear Jeff Buckley telling us so beautifully that “love is not a victory march, it’s a cold and it’s a broken hallelujah”  I envision the passion of Christ.

I grew up in the Catholic Church, so I have been witness to imagery of Jesus’s infamous last walk and his subsequent crucifixion from my earliest childhood. I went to a Catholic college, where I studied medieval and renaissance art as part of our core requirements. And I have traveled to many very old churches and cathedrals in places like Spain and Portugal and France. I have seen some pretty gory Jesus pictures, and when I think of the Jesus of Good Friday, it’s not Happy Anglo Jesus that I see.

Not this Jesus.

Not this Jesus.

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Definitely not this Jesus.

It’s a beaten and broken Jesus that comes to mind, with a rope around his neck, bowed down under the weight of the cross  that will torture and kill him.  It’s not a pretty, or a comfortable image.

But it is an image of love. Whether you see Jesus as God, man, myth, or some combination thereof, the story of Good Friday is the same: it is the story of a good man who chooses to be vilified, shamed, beaten, tortured, and killed because he believes that in doing so, he is saving his people. That is love, and for me, Leonard Cohen describes this kind of love — what I think is real love — the best.

Because love isn’t a victory march. We like to think it is. We like to think it’s a feeling, and a triumphant and beautiful one at that. We like to see it as a power that overtakes us, and pulls us powerlessly but beatifically along its course. We like to think that love is something that exists in and of itself. It isn’t.

Love is a choice. When it is at its most powerful, love is raw and deliberate and difficult. It doesn’t have to be as dramatic as Jesus dying on the cross for the sins of his people. It can be as simple as a mother watching her child walk into kindergarten, even though her every instinct is urging her to hold that baby in her arms and never let go. It can be as mundane as a middle aged married couple mucking through the routine of their daily lives together, not because of romantic magic but because they chose one another and know that they belong together. And it can be as heartbreaking as a family holding the hands of a dying loved one, telling him that it is okay for him to let go, that they will survive without him, even though they can’t imagine how.

That first day of kindergarten is really hard!

That first day of kindergarten is a tough one.

I’m not trying to say that there isn’t joy in love — there is. That is where the hallelujah comes in. Because when we love, when we willingly let go of part of ourselves on behalf of someone else, we are unleashing the most glorious power in the universe.

I know that sounds like hyperbole. I am prone to exaggeration. But this time, I mean it. Because really, what else has kept the human race going through all messiness we have created? We have emerged from absolute horror time and time again, because there have always been people who have chosen love, time and time again. And for me, there is no greater symbol of this than the Jesus we see on Good Friday.

Love isn’t a victory march. It is a cold and broken hallelujah. And whenever I think of what happened today in my Church’s tradition, I know why I continue to believe. Easter may be the foundation of our theology, but Good Friday is the essence of what it means to be a Christian — and a human.

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 * * *

And on a side note, you have to be a pretty talented composer to create a song that can remind a person (at least this person) of both Shrek and Jesus.

My Italian Leprechaun

The whirring and humming and thump-thump-thumping of a sewing machine will always remind me of one person: my dearly loved, and deeply missed, Italian-with-an-Irish-name grandmother.

This lady:

If you knew her, you loved her.

If you knew her, you loved her.

Even though it’s been over 20 years since I sat in my grandparents’ family room watching Dukes of Hazard while my grandmother sewed, the sound of a sewing machine still brings her presence back to me. I spent so many hours in that room with her, especially during the long years of my mother’s illness, that I think I will always associate the sound of sewing with my grandmother, no matter how many decades separate me from my memories of her.

I have been thinking about this, and her, frequently over the past week, as I struggled to make a matching set of St. Patrick’s Day dresses for my daughters. After one failed (and un-saveable) attempt and many, many mistakes, I finally succeeded in creating two decently cute dresses that actually fit the child each dress was intended for. A minor miracle, in my opinion.

A St. Paddy's Day Miracle!

A St. Paddy’s Day Miracle!

I’d like to think that she would be proud of my effort, but I know better. I’m pretty sure my technique (or rather my lack thereof) would have driven her crazy, had she been there to witness it. I’m not very good at sewing.

Still, she loved St. Patrick’s Day, so I know she would have entered into the spirit of things, and she would have emphatically approved of the final product once she saw how adorable they looked on her great-granddaughters.

The other one ran away from the camera. -- but this one is pretty darn cute!

The other one ran away from the camera. — but this one is pretty darn cute!

For an Italian lady, she really did get a kick out of St. Patrick’s Day, even though her attitude toward the Irish was ambivalent at best during the rest of the year. She was born a Mastromonica, and she was proud of her Italian heritage. But she married an Irishman deliberately, because she refused to marry an Italian one: Her father used to make her mother, his subordinate, walk behind him in public. My grandmother was determined to walk right next to whatever man she married.

Still, it didn’t stop her from telling us, after her diabetes got so bad she couldn’t use her legs, that she was Irish from the waist down and Italian from the waist up. Her mind was spry, her legs not so much. She may have spent 60-odd years as a Fitzpatrick, but her heart pumped Italian blood.

But on St. Patrick’s Day, she was all Irish. She had her sweatshirt emblazoned with the Fitzpatrick name, and her green pants, which she paired with a jaunty felt shamrock hat and green beads. She wore that outfit every St. Patrick’s Day for years. And every year, with her short, round stature, her sprightly smile, and her twinkling, mischievous eyes, she looked just like a leprechaun. A laughing, Italian leprechaun.

Happy St. Paddy’s Day to you and yours, and as the old blessing goes:

May the road rise up to meet you.
May the wind be always at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face;
the rains fall soft upon your fields and until we meet again,
may God hold you in the palm of His hand.

My little leprechaun, on her first St. Paddy's Day.

My little leprechaun, on her first St. Paddy’s Day.

We Are All They Need

Today is Janurary 6, my mother’s day. It became “my” mother’s day 23 years ago when my own mother, after a nearly eight-year battle, lost her life to breast cancer and when I became aware of how vitally important a mother’s presence is in the lives of her children.

For many years, whenever January 6th arrived, I thought about my own losses. A first, I missed her with every nerve; I felt flayed and exposed to a host of things that were beyond my understanding. Gradually, my piercing grief was replaced by a longing that was no less intense, because it contained the realization that with each passing year I was separated even further from her.

But now that I have children of my own, when January 6th rolls around I find myself thinking less about my own losses and more about what my mother lost when she died.

She was so beautiful.

She was so beautiful.

Parenthood is a future-thinking endeavor. When we first breathe in the newness of our just-born child, we look forward, far forward, to decades of moments with that brand-new baby. Yes, we marvel at their smallness, their freshness, their perfection. We revel in the tiny yet immense gift we have been given. But we also envision what that baby will be like as a child, and as a teenager, and as an adult. We see them on birthdays, on holidays, at graduations and weddings. We see their children.

We plan to be with them until they are grown, and to experience life with them after they have reached their potential as adults. We don’t plan for our relationship with them to end when they are children.

When my mom died, she didn’t just lose her own life. She lost her life with her children. For her, my life and my brother’s life, intertwined as they were with her own, ended when we were eleven and six.

I can’t even imagine how painful it must have been for her, when she finally accepted that the end was near, to know that she was about to lose her future with us. That she would miss all of the moments of our lives, big and small, for the rest of our lives. That she would never know us as adults, or meet the people who would become important to us as we matured. That she would never, ever, hold a grandchild in her arms.

As her daughter, and as the mother of my own children, it breaks my heart to know that this face…

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…and this face

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…are wholly unknown to her.

When she knew that she was dying, she also had to know that she was letting go of a million moments with her children. That the past was all she would ever have with us. She must have experienced the kind of pain that pray I never have to face.

***

This is not going to turn into one of those “enjoy every moment with your child because you never know how many you have” posts. I could go there, but I’m not a hypocrite. I would wager large sums of money that, when my children are grown and gone, I absolutely will not be longing to re-experience the prickly-hot feeling of panic spiked with shame that comes over you when your five-year-old is publicly behaving like a spoiled toddler, while your toddler is running in circles like an untrained dog smelling distinctly of eau de poo. There are many moments that I won’t miss.

I’m not even saying that we moms (and dads!) should be doing anything differently. If anything, I am saying we should all do less, or at least that we should worry less about what we should be doing. Because if I have learned one thing after 23 years of being without my mother, I can tell you that what I missed, what I craved, was her. Her presence. The knowledge that the world contained her.

I didn’t need any extras. I didn’t need perfection. I would have preferred to have had her healthy, but to have had her at all was a blessing and, as I have learned, a luxury. To have had her, just as she was, was enough.

And if just having her was enough, then it follows that just having us, their parents, is enough for our own children. The fact that we are in their lives, that we are actively loving them, is enough. Our flaws and imperfections and mistakes do nothing to lessen the impact of our mere presence. Isn’t that a freeing thought?

What I am saying is that the sum of moments that we have with our children is probably the best thing that we, or they, will ever have. And that if we are able to look forward to a future of these moments, when we and they are all present together in this world, then we are damned lucky.

A Christmas Post

This is going to be an unusual post for me: deeply personal, painful, and unedited.

Around this time of year, talking heads on television have a lot to say about what Christmas is, what Christmas should be, and what Christmas is not. Many of them are angry — no, outraged — over how others celebrate their holiday.

Christmas should be about CHRIST, these angry faces argue. Which means that in our words, and in our decorations, and in everything we do outwardly, we should be focusing fully on CHRISTmas. They make definitive assertions about Santa and Jesus and behind everything is an attitude of scathing contempt for people who celebrate Christ’s birth differently from them.

In the midst of this anger are people like me: people for whom Christmas is a season of anxiety, excitement, and bittersweet memories.

I have a hard time at Christmas. It has always been my favorite holiday. I have so many treasured memories of the season. And now that I have children of my own, there is even more joy to savor and celebrate. I look forward to it every year.

I also dread it every year. Because Christmas is also the season when my mother, and later my uncle, died of cancer. So along with the memories of happy Christmases past, I have the memory of myself, 11 years old, praying fervently, desperately, that my mom would be out of the hospital to celebrate Christmas with us.

I have the memory of myself a few days later, on Christmas day, in bed with my mother, who had just been released from the hospital, not because she was healthy, but because there was nothing left to do. She was in hospice care.

I have the memory of myself giving her a $5 vial of drugstore perfume, because an 11-year-old has no idea of what impending death really, truly means.

I have the memory of the last time I spoke to my her, the day after that Christmas, but I have no memory of what she said. I remember her coma, her suffering, and her death, which happened on a Sunday, January 6, just after my family returned from the Mass celebrating the Epiphany. My prayers had been answered; she was with us for Christmas, through to its very end. But my grief was nevertheless unfathomable.

It has been 23 years since that last Christmas with my mother and the grief is still there. It has changed and matured and is no longer as incapacitating as it once was. But it lingers, and at times it hits me like a punch in the stomach. I still hide in bathrooms to cry.

So you can imagine how, with all these mixed emotions coursing through my mind, I’m a little on edge at Christmas. Just a little… jumpy, if not actually constantly on the brink of a nervous breakdown.

You can also imagine my feelings when, upon tuning into the Daily Show for some much-needed laughter, I see people who, in the spirit of keeping Christ in Christmas are genuinely, thoroughly infuriated at the idea of a holiday tree in a public square or a tongue-in-cheek Festivus pole near a nativity scene.

Really? You are asking me, as an expression of my true faith in Christ, to be angry about decorations? You want me to be annoyed when people wish me Happy Holidays, and to limit my own greetings to an emphatic Merry Christmas? You want me to call legislators about how they refer to the decorated trees in their cities and you want me to complain when retailers don’t feature life-sized nativity scenes in their Christmas displays? And you want me to do these things because THAT is how we keep Christ in Christmas?

No, thank you. Christmas is hard enough for me. It’s hard enough for many, many other people for whom the holidays are a time that reminds them of their own losses, their failures, their regrets. I’m not going to get angry about how other people celebrate (or don’t celebrate) the birth of a Savior. And I’m not going to get angry at the anger.

Here’s what I am going to do, to keep Christ in Christmas: I am going to ask everyone who reads this to walk away from the anger and the criticism and the so-called culture war over what our Christian faith truly means.  I am going to ask you to remember all of us who are broken or hurting or empty this Christmas. But above all, I am going to breathe through my feelings of joy, anticipation, regret, and pain and I am going to remember that a Child was born and that he was the Prince of Peace.

She was pretty damn special.

She was pretty damn special.