Freedom

By Karen Pullano

Remember that you are dust. To dust you shall return

Remember that you are dust. To dust you shall return

As Christians are choosing to enter this Lenten season with sacrifice and suffering today, I’m preparing to mark the anniversary of Anna’s death once again. Four years later, her loss is still very present even as the details of her accident and death are trying to fade away.  I say trying because they would fade but for the unexpected reminders that pop up and bring them rushing back into my presence. Those moments can bring keening pain, but I’ve written before of how fruitful they are as well. I would even go so far as to say that those moments are a gift.  They are my tether to a more intimate time with Jesus when he carried me tenderly through the darkest valley.  I am thankful for those moments even as I rejoice in where I am now. I have walked a million miles but somehow feel strong enough to walk a million more.

The Lord has not abandoned me, but comes to me differently now. His lessons still feel extraordinary, but are born more simply out of the ordinary.  I would love to share these moments more often and hope that I can make the space to do that.  He is always teaching, leading us to truth, and guiding us to Himself.

Something that comes to light for me all these years after losing Michael, and then Anna, is that I truly walk in freedom.  It was an ordinary conversation with my sister that brought this beautiful truth to light recently. 

She has been struggling for more than a year with food intolerance and allergy issues.  I would say it has gotten worse over time, as figuring out the culprit remains a mystery, despite careful and methodical tracking and eliminating of foods.  It is a process that has required much thought and careful planning and preparation, and she has devoted herself to that process wholeheartedly. Despite her efforts, it seemed that so many different foods were to blame for her symptoms and finally one day I heard her lament the fact that she’s just allergic to it all.  (Kind of an overwhelming and depressing conclusion considering we need to eat several times a day for forever!)  She has sought the help of doctors along the way, of course, and was directed to a simple blood test to check for food intolerances.  She did it and waited the 8 long weeks for results.  When they arrived, it felt much as she suspected. The list of foods she should avoid is long and daunting.  In fact, she’s made a list of what she can eat instead of what she can’t! It’s a little hard to believe, and before she had even digested the news (no pun intended!), she said the following beautiful line.  “This is freedom.” 

On its face, those results should have felt like a death sentence.  I mean she’s allergic to lettuce, for crying out loud. That’s basically water. Personally, I might have cried in frustration and anger at the unjustness of it.  Since when is food poison?  But to her, “this is freedom.” To know the truth, even if it means embracing the cross, is freedom.  So ordinary. So extraordinary.

To walk in the light of truth is freedom.  The moment my baby boy left this world was the moment that eternity got real for me.  It was a definitive knowing that we are journeying to somewhere, and Someone, and this is only our home for a time. Perhaps it was a grace that gave me to know this Truth with such certainty that it changed me at my core.  Perhaps Truth is the reason God allows suffering at all. I was made for God. I belong to God. It took suffering in this world to make me look that full in the eye.  I am forever free. 

Saying goodbye to Anna several years later only served to confirm all the Truths that are written in my heart.  The physical separation was just as horrific as the first time, but the Truth was solid ground in my world when it felt like it was spinning out of control. My identity and my purpose remain unchanged.  The destination is ever before me.  This may be my cross, but it is amazing what we can endure for the price of Truth.

We know freedom is never free.  Just as we have our brave military to thank for the privilege of living in this great land of the free, every created person on Earth has Jesus to thank for carrying His cross to His death. 

Suffering always was, and always will be, but He redeemed it by His love and set it apart as the narrow way. The price has been paid, for all men everywhere. The challenge to love radically has been thrown down and though we may walk through the valley of the shadow of death for a time, we can know with certainty that Love and suffering are the path to true Freedom.   

If you have never known suffering, then welcome to Lent.  Like Truth, sacrifice is ever before us, and the Church, in her wisdom, sets aside this time before resurrection so that we might enter more deeply into suffering. Freedom is actually not the ability to simply choose whatever we want. Truly that is slavery: to feelings, wants, and desires. True freedom lies in our ability to choose the narrow way: to walk in the light of truth even when it’s painful and difficult. It is not freedom FROM suffering that we should seek, but rather the freedom to stand up to, and emerge from it, in paradise.

It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not be encumbered once more by a yoke of slavery (Gal 5:1)

Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (Jn 8:32)

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Three years and Treasures in Heaven

As the third anniversary of my daughter Anna’s death approaches, I wanted to write something to mark this season. I guess it’s hard for me to keep writing of suffering and grieving when really, we are doing so much living. The hard truth is that death is always a piece of our living, but it is a piece that adds meaning, and substance, and depth. In light of death, we understand the blessing and the gift of life more profoundly. In the light of this cross, I have come to find fulfillment in serving the Lord through simple everyday living. This earthen vessel holds many treasures.

We are living in joyful expectation of our 10th child these days. Our newest little princess, our eighth daughter, should arrive at the end of June, and so far she is healthy and growing beautifully. Despite my “advanced maternal age,” I feel great, too. Pregnancy sure was easier on my body 21 years ago, but it is easier now in so many ways with the wisdom of age! It seems my growing belly is like an invitation to chat about all things “children” and it presents me with a challenging but beautiful way to witness on an almost daily basis. At some point, I think every mother has been asked how many children she has. For me, this has been a loaded and difficult question since my son Michael died eight years ago. I’m always tempted to give the simple half-truth version of the answer, that this is our 10th child, and leave it at that. As you might expect this usually piques curiosity (or disbelief!) and is always followed by more questions. I usually have a split second to decide how to answer. Sometimes it’s a sacrifice for me to tell the whole truth, but more often I can’t help but think of the person on the receiving end. Imagine asking a casual and friendly question and getting socked with my whole truth that two of my children have died! But the truth is the truth and it serves, if I am willing to tell it. Most often these moments that inspire a curl of dread at the outset, turn into moments of shared faith. They are opportunities to speak Truth, open hearts, console and be consoled, to serve and be served. Sometimes, I discover someone who is suffering greatly, sometimes it’s someone who has never known the sting of loss, and other times I am pleasantly surprised to meet a fellow Christian that I would not have known otherwise. Thanks to my baby bump, these grace-filled moments happen every day. I consider that a gift and I’m thankful for the struggle of it, for these are the treasures I am storing in Heaven. Anna’s death, though still a painful reality, is serving the Kingdom. And it’s beautiful to me that it happens in these cases because of life! Isn’t this precisely the message of the Gospel after all? Because Jesus died, we can have life!

Photo courtesy of Charles Wainwright for Pillars magazine

Photo courtesy of Charles Wainwright for Pillars magazine

I love this family picture. It is happy and full of life, but it only tells half the truth. There’s so much more to the story. I often wonder how the Lord expects me to tell it without Anna and Michael here to be in the picture with us. There are a few thousand words this picture cannot tell and I feel so keenly what is missing even as I rejoice in all that we are. What I have come to understand more deeply in these past three years is that the story must serve the Kingdom in order to bear fruit. It isn’t merely for my own transformation, though that is miraculous in itself, but it must be for God’s good and holy purposes. Why do I love my neighbor and forgive my enemy? Why do I proclaim life and not death even though I know fully that life only truly comes after death? In service to the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. He submitted to death so he could proclaim life. His death is always part of the story or there isn’t much of a story. This picture captures so much of my heart. I am blessed. I am grateful.

IMG_5692But always this picture tells the rest of the story. My treasures are in Heaven. This part that is missing gives so much more meaning to all that is here. I have learned to overcome what is missing by seeking all the life that is before me. Being pregnant at 41 is a sacrifice but it is nothing compared to the sacrifice of living without this new life.  She is loved beyond measure already.

The way to overcome death is to seek life. Jesus is life. The Gospel is life. Death is overcome.
The Mass each week calls to mind my own journey these past three years. For a time after each of my children died, Heaven came to Earth to meet me in my need and brokenness and my heart has found healing in the presence of the Giver and Creator of life. The consolations have been many and I have grown in my faith in many ways, but like the final words of blessing, there’s more to it than my own faith. There is a call to arms; “The Mass is ended, go in peace to Love and serve the Lord.”

The sacrifice has been re-presented and the resurrection has been celebrated. We will have all of Eternity to enjoy the consolations that have only been glimpsed here briefly, but today we are called to serve in God’s great army. Our sufferings and crosses become our armor and serve a great purpose in the Lord’s battle for souls. We have work to do, however small it may seem. We have treasures to store up for Heaven.

“We now have this light shining in our hearts, but we ourselves are like fragile clay jars containing this great treasure. This makes it clear that our great power is from God, not from ourselves…Through suffering, our bodies continue to share in the death of Jesus so that the life of Jesus may also be seen in our bodies.” (2 Cor 4:7,10)

Two years: A Lesson in Love

In memory AnnaMarch 2 2015

Today I count my blessings, and they are many. While there is no way I will be able to keep myself from reliving the events of this week two years ago, today I choose to be thankful. I am grateful for the tremendous light in the darkness. My blessings bring so much light and the more I focus on that light, the more the darkness fades away. I could fill pages with all the things I am deeply thankful for, but I think it all really boils down to one simple thing. God loves me profoundly.

I often ponder the idea that He has been able to show me His Love through terrible and tragic circumstances. How is it that He allowed the one thing that I begged Him, specifically and directly, to not let happen, and I learned love from that? I have so much wonder, awe, and thankfulness in my heart for having learned this Truth.

As I meditate on this, I am brought to an understanding that we can’t truly know the fullness of Love without suffering. The reality of God’s love for me is simply a reflection of my deep and abiding love for Him. Indeed, I offer my sufferings for Him every single day, because I love Him. He completes that sacrifice by returning his perfect Love tenfold. Truth be told, I would suffer it all again for Him, because I love Him. So many things are good and beautiful and inspire Love within us, but they are only a shadow of what that same Love will be after it is put through the refining process of trial and testing. I think of having children. I have heard it said, and know the feeling well myself, that you don’t know love until you bring life into this world. What a pure and beautiful Love that is. What a treasure and a gift! To then give that gift back to the Lord is an agony, but I tell you truly when I say, I didn’t know that depth of love until I did.

In no way do I glorify suffering for suffering’s sake, but I have seen the necessity, the benefit, for the human soul. In order to be a Christian, in order to follow Christ, we are called to one thing. We are called to Love. Our sufferings have the ability to reveal to us the one true goal of our life and object of every desire. We are created to Love and be Loved.

I share with you a quote that took my breath away when I first read it, by Leon Bloy from his Pilgrim of the Absolutes:

Suffering! Here then is the key word! Here the solution for every human life on earth! the springboard for every superiority, the sieve for every merit, the infallible criterion for every moral beauty! People absolutely refuse to understand that suffering is needful. Those who say that suffering is useful understand nothing about the matter. Usefulness always supposes something adjectival and contingent, and Suffering is necessary. It is the backbone, the very essence of moral life.
Love is recognized by this sign, and when this sign is lacking, love is but a prostitution of strength or of beauty. I say that someone loves me when that someone consents to suffer through or for me.

“Suffering is” not merely useful, but “necessary.” It’s a notion so radically counter-cultural that it is uncomfortable to even suggest, but it feels like so much wisdom to me. I trust in God wholeheartedly to know what is necessary for my soul and what will actually break me.
I am still standing, bathed in love and blessing, and can say one thing for certain; I hate suffering, but I love having suffered.In Memory Anna back

Thank you for remembering our beautiful girl with us two years later. Thank you for helping us shoulder this burden along the way by your Love and prayers. Jesus established His church, His body, His bride, and though we are many parts, I feel deeply connected and united as a whole. And while I value the joy, laughter, and good times that unite us, I find that it is truly the Love, prayer, and suffering that transcend time and space, knitting us together as one.

And speaking of wisdom, be sure to catch my “Reflections from the CrossTreadmillTreadmill” series on the Conversations with Sophia blog (Sophia being the saint and symbol of Wisdom). If you have read the first few posts, you know that I have a Love/Hate relationship with the treadmill that echoes my Love/Hate relationship with suffering! I have much more to share on that topic. HERE is the first post in the series if you missed it. 🙂

 

Dressed for Battle

So, last week passed me by before I could get my bearings.  It was the week Anna would have turned 20 and I was embattled in a war.  At the time, a treasured friend suggested I share the struggle because so many are fighting this same war, but I couldn’t,  even if I wanted to. The attack was from all sides, and it felt like all I could do was survive.

The war was partly with my own thoughts, urging me to seek comforts, stay busy, and not think too much. The war was partly with my own body and the mysterious internal clock that seems to know this is a momentous season, only there is nothing momentous happening. The war was partly with my own soul, left unguarded by lazy prayers and way too many distractions.  It’s all fun and games until it isn’t, I guess.  The war surprised me like a thief in the night, too.  I wasn’t on the lookout, with all my defenses fortified.  I was just suddenly paralyzed – mentally, physically, and spiritually, like a deer caught in the headlights, and it was not without consequence to my family, friends, and household.

The worst part is that in survival mode, I was lost, and it was nearly impossible to tell which way was up and out. The kids all wanted cake and to celebrate the day, but it just wasn’t happening.  I wanted to post a beautiful picture of Anna’s smiling face, for the world to see and remember her with me, but it just wasn’t

Remember Anna always

Remembering Anna always

happening.  I wanted to be the peacemaker, the caregiver, and the joyful light in our family, but I couldn’t find the source from which to draw the strength; I couldn’t find the way.

Mercifully, our Blessed mother grabbed me by the hand and helped me put one foot in front of the other.  I simply started praying the Rosary again each day… but I use the word pray loosely.  Merely listening to the Rosary on podcast while trying to keep my mind focused, was more like it, at first.  As I prayed, I meditated that Mary is no stranger to the fear and confusion of pain and suffering. Remember when Jesus was lost in the temple? Mary and Joseph retraced their steps back to God’s house until they found him.  Step by step. One foot in front of the other.  Back to God. What a journey that must have been, fraught with worry, second guessing, and fear.  Perhaps there were tears, or quick tempers, or frustrations born out of the uncertainty of what lay ahead, especially since Mary has been pondering since the presentation of the Lord, the message that a sword will pierce her heart.  No matter what else that journey was like, I know one thing for certain.  Mary retraced those steps in Trust and in Faith, not knowing what the near future would hold.

Almost two years ago, when my grief was new and raw, I prayed constantly, incessantly, as a means of survival.  There was such a deep union with God in my deepest pain, that I could no more stop praying than stop breathing. The Lord certainly is near to the broken-hearted.  Yet, what about when our hearts aren’t quite so broken?  That blessed union is something I’ve longed for since, but find elusive in the fading of intense suffering. How did I let go of that closeness and become scattered by life?  When did my prayer life become more about obedience and Love than utter and desperate need? Unfortunately, in my humanness, my obedience and my Love is fickle.  I would love to go back to that deep union, without going back to that extreme suffering.  All of which leaves me in this new season of loss and grieving, where the grieving isn’t all-consuming and yet can still creep in, attack and wage war.

It’s probably too soon to understand the fullness of what the Lord is trying to teach me in this latest siege, but certainly being armed and ready with my armor on is a message I have received loud and clear.  Prayer is my armor.  And lest I am tempted to take a break from the weight of it, my Holy Mother is always at the ready to dress me for battle again. 

Only in the absence of division is there true unity.  In prayer, like my knight in shining armor, Jesus rides into my heart once again, all-conquering, and unifies. He triumphs over my confusion and disunity when I call Him to me.  He unifies me in mind, body and soul, and all that is scattered for lack of Him.   

The peace and union that I long for cannot happen within a house divided.  Jesus alone must be the object of my every desire – heart, mind, and soul.

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your mind, with all your soul and with all your strength.”  (Mark 12:30)

Related reading: The Desert

The Final Hour

For the past several weeks I’ve been wishing someone could just hit a fast forward button.  Even if it is a little irrational I don’t want March 2nd to come.  In some strange way it feels like Anna’s final hour is about to happen again only this time we know it and it is frightening.  I’m not sure why I feel this way when obviously the worst has already come and gone.   I think the anticipation is far worse than the day will actually be and part of me wishes we could just skip through.  I’ve been keeping busy, keeping distracted, keeping exhausted.

I’m not at all sure what is so frightening.  Perhaps it is fear that the suffering might change or get worse but then I have to ask, “So what if it does”?   I don’t think it’s possible that it could be as hard or as awful as March 2, 2013.  And if I’m honest, I wonder, “Is it really the worst thing”?  Here I am. Alive and well.  With fruit to show for my troubles. My Surrender comes more readily, my Trust is more certain, my Faith is stronger and my Hope is a force to be reckoned with.

Why are we so afraid to suffer?  It’s hard but we embrace so many things that are hard and we do it for mere worldly gains.  Truly when the pain is the worst I throw myself before God, into Him.  I live more intimately with Him and that is not a bad place to be at all.  In that way my suffering brings my greatest Joy.

March 2, 2014 will simply be day 365 without Anna, no better or worse than the day before or the day after. I know there is much to gain and be learned in these weeks of fear and anxiety and sadness and overwhelming loss.  I know this time of trial is fleeting.  And because I am called to live in the world my time of living purely and deeply in the heart of my God is fleeting as well.

For the past year I have been confronted time and time again with thoughts of how fragile and temporary this life is.  Sometimes I carry on business as usual without giving it a thought and other times I cannot escape the simple profundity of that truth.

Anna left the house on a Friday evening and called goodbye.  I didn’t drop what I was doing to give her a long hug and a kiss goodbye.  To her that would have just been awkward.  (And it wouldn’t have been enough of a goodbye anyway)   How could we not have known it would be her final hour?  There was no sense of it.  No warning and ultimately no final Earthly goodbye.  She walked out the door full of life and hasn’t walked back in.

“But about that day or hour no one knows…” (MT 24:36)

I know for a fact she had every intention of walking back in.  And waking up in the morning.  And taking pictures of her first clients for her budding photography business.  And seeing friends.  She had a journal next to her bed.  Was she about to write in it or had she already?  I don’t dwell on all the things she left undone.  That list is too long to wrap my head around.  But it does always lead me back to the same thoughts.

What if this were my last hour?  Am I ready?  Am I  afraid?  Am I excited?  What if today I meet God face-to-face?  How am I living for Him?

Anna's friends and sister all wear a piece of the puzzle engraved with "Live a Little"

Anna’s friends and sister all wear a piece of the puzzle engraved with “Live a Little”

Anna’s famous last words have become “Live a little”.  She used it as her senior quote in the yearbook and it’s become a mantra among her friends.  And I can’t think of anything more appropriate to describe Anna’s philosophy of life.  She wanted to Live and by all accounts she certainly did.  She found the fun in every situation or made her own.  She was kind, generous, loving, intelligent, compassionate, talented and the pain of losing her brother gave her a unique perspective of the fragility of life. She simply wanted to ‘Live a Little’.

I can’t help but wonder in her final hour if that philosophy served her well?  Was she living for HIM a little?

Certainly no one wants us to ‘Live a little’ more than God does.  After all He is the creator of “living”!  He sent His son for exactly that purpose.  In Jesus’ own words

“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” (Jn 10:10)

Jesus wants abundance for us, not mere existence.  He came and served and suffered and died so that we might live life to the full.  He knew human suffering well.  He experienced it himself even before the cross, and rightly wants us to know that our suffering is not because of Him or the Father.  Our trials are because of the enemy, but God’s plan for us is living!1961644_10152266045058678_732702104_n

As we go through these days I just can’t help but be reminded of these days last year.  It truly seems like yesterday we were in the same spot with a high school senior.  Waiting anxiously everyday for those college acceptance letters and planning college visits for March and April.  The drama department at Westhill is getting ready to put on their musical production. Last year it was Footloose and Anna had fun designing the poster for it.  Just like last year, the boys and girls basketball teams are making a sectional run and the seniors are excited to cheer on their team. There are so many plans being made for the near future and it’s such a fun and busy time for Seniors.  Lacrosse starts soon.  Spring break.  College.  Senior skip day.  Yearbook.  Ball.  Graduation.  Anna was riding on the high of earning Four Gold Keys at the scholastic art awards and her work was on display at OCC for the month of February.  She was busy getting her portfolio together and was able to take it in person for a review at SU where she received high praise and constructive criticism.  She had been accepted with scholarship to Savannah College of Art and Design and was on top of the world about making that dream come true.  Then and now, there is so much living going on and it’s good.  It was an exciting time for Anna last year and this year feels much the same for Nichole.  Business as usual.

Only there is a new awareness about all of it. We will all have to face a final hour.

In this hour before the anniversary of Anna’s final hour I turn to my Mother Mary as I so often do for her example.  During her own son’s final hour she walked beside him, every painful step.  She endured until the end.  She loved, prayed, wept.  This son she thought would be a great King was murdered with criminals.  Her hopes for a savior for her people apparently shattered.  And Mary trusted.

Oh Yes I will take a page from Anna’s book, my beautiful daughter.  I will Live a Little.  For Him.  With Trust.

The Desert

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.

Anna18

Anna’s 18th Birthday

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.

My Year of Faith

Eight months.

It seems impossible but it has truly been 8 months since that Fateful Friday night.  I waited up for Anna that night as I did every time she was out.  Usually around 11:30 I started texting her, just to make sure she was on target for curfew.  She was always patient and pleasant with her answers but I knew she wanted more trust and independence.  And since turning 18 in January we had tried to give her exactly that.  The thought that very soon she would be out of our house and out of our grasp entirely gave us courage to start letting go. So 8 months ago I waited up until midnight and then made the decision not to contact her.  I knew she would be on her way very shortly.  I said goodnight in my heart and left her where I constantly leave my children when their welfare is out of my hands, in God’s very capable and loving ones.  No sooner was I sound asleep than the phone was ringing us awake and the horror of the moments that followed has not faded since.  Not at all.  And yet in those moments before comprehension completely dawned Heaven intervened. I may never be able to properly describe it, but God was at work in those moments, powerfully, keeping the horror at bay until it could be borne.

All the events of this past year have been on my mind and heart very strongly of late: The good, the bad, the tragic, the miraculous, swirling in my mind, present and real. I’m not a big fan of dwelling on the past, preferring instead to look ahead with Hope.  Still the thoughts surface, coaxing me.  To what?  I’m not sure.  It’s as if this past year isn’t finished with me yet.  There is still much to learn perhaps so I’ve been pondering.

And then I heard a speaker the other day remind us that remembering can be useful and good.  Looking at where we are versus where we have been can really highlight how God is always at work.  He quoted the scripture  “Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart.” (Luke 2:19)

One year ago we were working diligently to bring Sergei home from an institution in Russia.  Those chubby cheeks and blue eyes beckoned across land and sea and barriers I never thought we could dare to cross but our hearts were full and sure.  We had gotten through the homestudy process and all the initial paperwork and 50 hours of parent training and of course paid the necessary fees along the way.  I was starting online Russian language lessons in the hopes that I could navigate more easily on our trips there.  It was all a great distraction from the torturous thoughts about where and how our sweet Sergei, and thousands of orphans, are living.

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At the Vatican waiting for the Pope to arrive

One year ago we were getting ready to take our older girls on a trip of a lifetime to Italy, courtesy of Grandma.  The promise and excitement of new adventures was high!  We all took a few Italian lessons and were looking forward to experiencing places we had only seen on television or in books, not the least of which was the Vatican.  I remember getting the confirmation invitation to the audience with the Pope and feeling overwhelmed with excitement.  Pope Benedict XVI had just opened the year of Faith and spending a week in Rome felt like a great way to spiritually get involved.  Our Holy Father’s intent was for the year to be a time for the faithful to learn more about their faith through reading papal documents and the Catechism of the Catholic Church. It struck me that we can also learn so much about our faith by hearing witness of others who are living it and so I had planned on this blog to gather faith stories to share throughout the year.

In general, at this time last year, we were filled with the holiest desire to follow God’s will for the building of the kingdom and fulfilling our heart’s desires.

We had an amazing trip to Italy and enjoyed a very special time with our girls.  Experiencing the Joy and awe and wonder through their eyes was such a gift.  I can see Anna so clearly walking the streets of Capri, and in open-mouthed wonder with her camera in the Basilica’s and churches, at Trevi fountain lit up at night,

What did you wish for Anna?

What did you wish for Anna?

and then dressed and radiant for the Papal audience simply because she knew how special it was for me.  She was in her Glory, or at least as close to it as I ever witnessed.  The memories are painful and bittersweet.  She was so alive and so vibrant.  I am so thankful that we had that time on that trip for many reasons but mostly because I had a glimpse of what she must feel like now in Heaven, her true Glory. I can picture her Joy and awe and wonder and that is a gift of untold worth.

God is always at work.

Only a few weeks later we found out we were expecting our little Olivia. We were a little amazed and certainly overjoyed and I love to gross our kids out and tell them we brought home a lifelong souvenir from Italy! HAHA.   And then came a bombshell for the adoption world. No sooner had we re-committed ourselves to bringing Sergei home and updated our homestudy and obtained the necessary approvals, that news of a Russian adoption ban broke.  The days turned into weeks and then weeks into months before the reality of that sank in for us.  We are still coming to terms with the fact that we will only ever be able to love and pray for him from afar.  And on March 1st, instead of being halfway around the world, we were home when our phone rang that Friday night.  I am thankful for that great mercy.

God is always at work.

I’m remembering New Year’s Day 2013.  The Holiday celebrations were over and our household was busy getting ready to head back to school and work.  We all went to mass after dinner and I had the overwhelming sense that there was no place more important for our family to be, at that moment and in the year to come. It was an incredibly peaceful interlude, like the calm before the storm. I obviously had no idea what was to come but knew in my soul that our family would be facing challenges and that we would need Jesus to do it.

God was at work preparing me I guess.  I left that mass to face the new year with courage and faith and hope.

Jesus we trust in you… Lord, wherever you lead we will follow.

The months following Anna’s death were a time of extreme closeness with the Lord.  It was a time that ‘oneness with God’ held new and profound meaning, a time when all of this life seemed to fade away and Eternal Life was brought to the fore.   I remember this exact phenomena from the months after Michael died, of being here but not really being here.  Of going through the motions here but truly residing in the heart of Christ.  It wasn’t a challenge or something I was striving for, it was simply survival. I wrote a bit of my experience during those first months here and here though no words were ever adequate enough.  Slowly the world around me crept back in and continues to do so.  We are called to be here for a divine purpose but it feels cold and cruel after such intimacy, as if I’m being ripped out of Jesus’ embrace and thrust back into the world.  Of course the spiritual unity remains but simply put, duty calls.  The unity is shifting though the relationship is stronger for having been tested. The race of Life marches on and seasons change but I can say with certainty that God has walked every minute of it by my side.

The Life He started in my womb almost a year ago has come to fruition and is a living, breathing crying!) reminder of how real God’s work is in our lives.  Our little Olivia is like a healing balm to this family. She brings Joy, day in and day out.  As we mark 8 months of this earthly process of grieving and healing, it is easy to see how far we have come and yet the road ahead stretches endlessly on.  How will we navigate 8 more months without her and then another 8 after that?

If I’ve learned anything from pondering the events of this past year it’s this: Through trials and joy, through life and death, God is present and at work.

In a few weeks, the year of faith will come to a close.  As I reflect back and ask myself what I did with my year of faith, I realize the answer is simple.

I did the same thing I will continue to do in all my years of faith to come.

I simply walked the road with God.

I am Thankful

Last weekend we attended our oldest daughter’s high school graduation.  It was a lovely celebration honoring the class of 2013.  Except for us, there was no graduate.  I didn’t have a camera at the ready or flowers to give or anyone to meet for photo ops afterward.  The classmate who was tragically killed in a car accident several months ago; that would have been, should have been, our girl walking across the stage.  She was remembered and honored and greatly missed by her entire class and it was all very moving as I tried desperately to keep the tears in check.

It was suggested to me, not for the first time in the last 5 years, that I could and should be angry.  I’m told that it would be okay to yell and scream and rail at the Universe and at God.  He’s a big God after all and can take it and will still love me despite it.  5 years ago we sat helplessly by our 4-year old son as a brain tumor and chemotherapy ravaged his little body.  For 9 months we watched him suffer and then die.

I had no anger then and I have no anger now.  I’m not saying the thought hasn’t entered my mind.  Saying good-bye to two of my children simply doesn’t seem fair.  I didn’t want to do it and I still don’t but here I am living this cross.  Anger might seem the logical solution and a very human one, but I can assure you that it only serves to compound the grief.  Anger only begets anger and self-righteous indignation that I’ve been wronged somehow and deserve retribution.  Anger is never from God and can bear no fruit from God. Our crosses surely can.  We were not promised fairness but we were promised the ultimate retribution – Eternity – where our tears will be turned into dancing.

The graduation ceremony was especially difficult because it was a celebration of earthly achievement and necessarily included a large degree of looking forward to the next big venture in the lives of these young adults.  We have no earthly thing left to look forward to for Anna.  All our hopes and dreams for our daughter have been fulfilled and for that I am so thankful, but in bearing the day-to-day grief and loss that is ours, it is so necessary to ‘take captive every thought’ and banish the what-ifs and ‘what should-have-beens’.  They are no longer reality and can serve no purpose, but still the thoughts come and it takes work to focus on what is before us and what is above us.  Being at the graduation forced us to focus on what was behind us already.  It was hard work to banish the bitter and angry thoughts and sense of total loss and unfairness and replace it with the sure and true knowledge that Anna did graduate.  She has already moved on in the ultimate way.   She has collected the scholarship, a full ride!  It took work to remind myself of all the reasons I am thankful.  It took work to recall the tremendous grace God gives me every single day.  I reminded myself that never do we hear of Mary being angry or speaking out in any way as she followed her son to his crucifixion.  She accepted and abided.  She trusted and surrendered.

And what about Jesus and all the human emotions that must have threatened to overwhelm Him in light of what He was facing?  We know in the garden that there was sorrow to the point of death but we have no idea if he battled anger or bitterness.  If He did He never gives it a voice.  He prayed and pleaded for mercy and grace. He acknowledged that His Father’s Will should reign supreme but He still had some hard work to do to overcome the cross that was before Him, ‘for the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak’.  He prays and pleads some more and sweats blood before he comes to the point of utter surrender, the point of being able to face what lies ahead and know the only way out will the be ugly, brutal and bloody way culminating in the ultimate surrender of His 33 years, “Father into your hands I commend my Spirit.”  Sometimes we have to endure the garden and ‘watch and pray’ with Jesus.  That is how I spent the days leading up to the graduation, praying for the grace to not only endure but to effect good in my soul; the grace of total surrender.

I was given a glimpse of that grace on the night of Anna’s accident.  In the foggy distance of my sleep I heard the words no parent ever wants to hear, “Karen, Anna’s been in an accident with a bus and she is dying.”  As the angels were escorting our first-born child to the glory of her new home I went to my knees in my own Gethsemane.  “PLEASE Lord let this cup pass me by.” And “Mary I beg you to be with my child as you were with your own”, all the while knowing she has always belonged to God.   And in the most critical moments of her 18 years of life I could offer her nothing but my surrender.  Somehow that offering seemed liked the deepest and truest love I could give her, “Father into your hands I commend her spirit.”

I have no time to waste being angry with God and I refuse to indulge in it for even a moment.  I take it captive and beg and plead for mercy and grace when I need to and instead focus on all the reasons I am thankful. To do anything else is to deprive myself of all that God has in mind for my growth.  The only way to the end result is sometimes a slow and gentle pruning but sometimes it is a brutal and bloody road.

And don’t get me wrong, as a mother to many, and living in a world that sometimes feels like it’s gone mad, I’ve done my share of ‘table turning’.  This anger, however, is born from authentic love for the body of Christ and a desire to promote Truth, not the selfish emotion that only serves to promote my own pain.

I am thankful for the strong and faithful Man God has put beside me.  He answered that late night call, that is probably every parent’s worst nightmare, and has been solid and steady every second since that moment.

I am thankful that even as I begged and pleaded with God for my girl to be ok that He gave me the grace and the strength to surrender to His will and His plan for her.

I am thankful that my Mother Mary walked this road before me and now walks it beside me.

I am thankful that I was able to walk into the hospital and hold Anna’s lifeless hand and feel true and deep Joy for her.

I am thankful that we now know she died on impact and she did not suffer.

I am thankful that when disease ravaged our beautiful little boy, God restored him to perfect health and wholeness in Heaven.

I am thankful that in my weakest moments I have found strength by the power of Christ living in me.

I am thankful that nothing is wasted; not the pain, the sorrow or the difficult process of healing for my family.  God is using it all to mold us and shape us for His purposes and for our good.

I am thankful for the mass and the sacraments and our Lady and the rosary and the body of Christ and the tremendous wealth of resources of our Catholic faith.

I am thankful for the will and the grace to choose Truth over the lie, to choose Love over Anger

 DSC_2048I am thankful that the agony of the garden and the pain of the cross can never win and Life awaits us all.