I find that one of the hardest things about grieving can be navigating all the anniversaries. On top of the obvious, birthday and date of death, are other dates that have significance in the family or to the situation. With Michael we had the date of diagnosis in December and then the date of his first surgery in January when we were given such devastating news. Our make-a-wish trip in July stands out because it was obvious we were nearing his last days here. I discovered in the first few years after he died that I spent most of July and August battling an unexplainable malaise. Of course it is explainable but as I was busy and going about my life I didn’t notice when it started or where it came from, only that mercifully it ended. I’ve come to think of those times, whether it be one day or several months, as time in the desert. It is time that I know I will emerge from with renewed energy and hope. And when I do it is like resurrection. My Joy for living is restored. The old has passed away and the new has been born. Life is full of deaths and resurrections; in nature, in relationships, in church. Who doesn’t look forward to the promise of spring, or making up after a fight or the start of a new liturgical season. We are creatures of seasons I think, especially when they are cyclical and expected. The thing with grief is that it is often so unexpected. There is no way to plan for exactly how intense it will be or when it might end and if the going gets too tough it can be overwhelming.
This month is Anna’s birthday. She loved her birthday. I mean most of us like our birthday but Anna LOVED her birthday. She looked forward to it all year long. She reminded us every July 27th that we were halfway there. And not because it was anything grand, though she did always hold out hope for something akin to MTV’s sweet 16 bashes, but because it was a day full of potential promise. The Joy and excitement of the unknown possibilities fueled her and yet she never seemed to have any real expectation. (well except when she was 3 and we dared give her clothing. I guess she had an expectation of NOT getting clothing). Her day was a surprise and a gift for her every year. And it was hard not to be excited with her.
19 years ago this month my life was irrevocably altered (It was altered 9 months before that of course too!). I experienced a radical redefining of myself. Where I had been merely Karen or Mrs. Pullano, I was now Mom. Anna was the name behind my first Mother’s Day card. She defined me for the new season of my life. It feels strange to have this day without her. As it approaches and the grief of her loss inserts itself, I know from experience I am heading back in the desert. I also know from experience that it is necessary, even if a little messy, to accept that I am there and make the most of it. Usually in the desert life feels like a delicately balanced house of cards that could come crashing down at any moment. Luckily my time spent there over these last years has helped prepare a foundation made of steel since time in the desert is always first and foremost a time of prayer. From morning until night and sometimes through the night, every breath, every thought and every word is a prayer. Before I get out of bed I offer myself, and every imperfect moment of my day, to God. I beseech my Holy Mother to be with me and try to emulate her loving example. I make sure I carve out a few minutes to read scripture or a daily devotional like Magnificat. When I get in my car I listen to CD’s of praise and worship music or a podcast of the Rosary. I pray with my kids as much as possible about what is going on in their lives. I pray a rosary. I call on the saints in heaven and the holy souls in purgatory for intercessory prayers. We pray before bedtime and often I fall asleep listening to the rosary again.
It is prayer for survival but I know eventually there will be fruit. The fruit is the armor of a steel foundation. The cards may fall but can easily be picked up again. Life cannot really bring me harm.
For now I am content to give myself to the desert. It is where I have been taught to pray always, even after I emerge.
Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. (1 Thes 5:16-18)
I know from experience what I will NOT do during this time. I cannot afford to get lost in television or movies or social media or books. Those will provide temporary distraction and enjoyment but leave me in an abyss of worldly emptiness. As attractive as they may be in the moment I will reach instead for scripture or inspirational reading about scripture that lift me to the realm of Heavenly fulfillment.
I will NOT allow my thoughts to go to the ‘what ifs’. “If Anna were here she would be…” or “we would be…”. Those are just sad fantasies. At best her birthday can only be a remembrance of birthdays past.
I have learned from experience that I don’t mind being in the desert. It isn’t the worst place to be. That’s the beauty of this cross. I don’t have a lot of choice about being here but happily discover that it is good for me here. It is fruitful. Just as it was for Jesus. How often in scripture does Jesus go off to fast and pray? He did that on purpose and for good reason.
Time specifically saved for prayer is imperative to survival and spiritual growth. I cherish the times that I am able to shut off all the noise of the world around me. It is healing. It is restorative and grounding. It keeps life in perspective. It is like filling up the gas tank and it needs to be filled often.
Catholics who dive into Lent will understand a bit of what these times are like for me. During Lent we practice self-denial and deeper prayer, “He must increase and I must decrease” (Jn 3:30). The difference is that there is a definitive beginning, (Ash Wednesday), and definitive ending, (Easter Sunday), and if the going gets tough there’s always the option of ‘cheating’ to gain a little reprieve. What I experience is sometimes unexpected, always of an undefined duration and there is no quarter. The only way out is through. And the only way through is prayer. I live Lent many times throughout the year.
And it isn’t the worst thing. By far, the worst thing would be living outside of obedience to God. I much prefer the desert to that and in fact the desert, like Lent, is a time to listen more deeply to what God is asking of us. The desert leads me to Joy.
I am sad this January without Anna, plain and simple. As her birthday approaches the reality that for the first time in 19 years I don’t have a reason to celebrate is sinking in. Do we have a party anyway? It doesn’t seem right to let the day go by unrecognized but it doesn’t feel like much of a celebration. And God help me, I would never choose this even though a part of me recognizes that this cross is good for my soul. It is good for me. So I guess for her birthday I will borrow a page from her book. I will look forward to the desert with excitement for all the promise it holds. The end result will be different from anything I can conceive of. It is a surprise full of the excitement of unknown possibilities for my soul.