A Holy Smackdown

I have been in the thick haze of newborn parenting these last weeks.  Leah Denise Pullano joined our ranks on June 29, 2016, weighing a healthy 9lbs 3oz.  She is perfect and just awesome.  Once again, this new little life feels like the greatest gift our family could ever receive! I am, as ever, in awe.
‏
At the same time, our household has been busy with the teenager-end of the spectrum. Noise, laughter, food, music, and lots of plans with friends, describe these lazy days of summer for the high-schoolers−though to hear them tell it they are seriously overworked!  Poor kids. 😉  One of our girls will be a junior this year and many of her friends have gotten their license. That will be a reality for us in the next weeks as well. It has been gradually sinking in this summer that my 3rd-born little baby is no longer in my grasp and it’s terrifying.
‏
This fear is what’s prompting me to share this experience, both to be potentially helpful to others as well as to call myself out. The stark reality is that I am terrified of losing another child. It’s a fear that forms in my mind and then takes root down deep. When I’m not paying attention, it sprouts branches and without really noticing I am suddenly that annoying, in-your-face, tell-me-your-every-move mother.  As if I am in control or something. (And oh how teenagers love having their mom in their face…)  
‏
The moment I realized what a monster had taken root, I just happened to be at Mass; not really much of a coincidence since Jesus has a way of laying the smackdown when we need it. With His love, mercy and compassion, He helped me start digging it out from down deep.  Gosh did that hurt. Digging out fear requires surrender. The kind that says again and again, “Yes Jesus, I trust in You, even if it means I have to lose another child.”  Ouch! But, I will not live in fear.  I cannot.  It’s no kind of living. And so, as I received my Lord, body, blood, soul, and divinity, He filled up the now-empty space, every nook and cranny, where fear had resided.  He overwhelmed me with Truth and Love so amazing, the fear was but a shadow of a memory.  Oh Lord, never let me forsake receiving You in the Eucharist; nothing can compare.  Where the enemy would steal joy and peace with the lie that I can’t handle the worst, Jesus is waiting with the Truth that I can do all things through Him. 
‏
My 16 year-old is an awesome teenager.  She is smart, resourceful, humble, and capable.  We will be prudent and careful, but she is fully her own agent.  She will be driving a car, working at a job, applying to colleges, and growing up, as she should.  I can’t add a minute to her life with my worry.  Maybe she will make a mistake or a bad decision that will carry a hefty consequence.  Maybe she will be an innocent bystander in the wrong place, at the wrong time.  Maybe she will get sick for no reason at all.  I certainly know that these things can and do happen.  Whatever comes, we will walk the path in faith with our Savior by our side. Jesus, I trust in You.  You are working it all for good. 
‏14039978_10154205986522819_904705514791886026_n
We recently welcomed little Leah into the Church with her Baptism and Fr. Hyde made a wonderfully important distinction in his explanation of why we baptize our infants.  He said, “Evil affects us all, the innocent as well as the guilty.  If it only affected the guilty, we would call it justice.” (Thus, infants have original sin even though they are innocent and so need baptism.)  Evil is part of the human condition; no getting around it.  I may have to say goodbye to another child in my lifetime, or several, and even as I desperately beg the Lord to let that cup pass me by, I cannot and will not live in fear of it.  The lie needs to be called by name, acknowledged, and brought to the One who heals and restores.  He alone can overshadow it with Truth.  And I must not stop bringing it to Him through prayer and the sacraments, not even for a day.  I am reminded of the scripture about the unclean spirits in Matthew 12, When an unclean spirit comes out of a man, it passes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it. Then it says, ‘I will return to the house I left.’ On its arrival, it finds the house vacant, swept clean and put in order. Then it goes and brings with it seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they go in and dwell there; and the final plight of that man is worse than the first.”
‏
I cannot let my guard down.  Jesus needs to dwell always in the void created by the loss of two of my children. He is always waiting to pour Himself out when I invite Him in, and I need to invite Him with intention and my continuous attention, not the vagueness of prayer that plagues me when I am busy. 
‏
The other night we played a familiar game on a car ride with the kids.  My husband asked them, if they could pick one thing, anything at all in the whole world, what would they want? The answers were cute and funny, typical for their ages.  When it came around to me, I was wracking my brain for something worldly that I actually want and came up empty. But, I did share my greatest and deepest desire that all my children live with me in heaven for eternity.  I want nothing so much as that.  Evil can never steal it away, and THAT is Justice.

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 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 Holiday Coping Post

So many of you sent messages and wondered how we were handling the Holidays. We made it through our first Thanksgiving without Anna just fine. I’m so thankful for all of you who prayed for us and sent well wishes. The day went along as most every Thanksgiving has but for some reason facing the holidays after a loss is just hard.  I can’t put my finger on why exactly, there just seems to be a general feeling of dread and lack of motivation at best, to a desperate desire to run away, at worst.  And despite knowing and believing and understanding that this life is not our final destination, sometimes the sadness comes. And somehow the sadness and the grief have a work to do in us.  My very wise friend reminded me that Jesus and Mary knew grief intimately. In scripture Jesus weeps over the death of his friend Lazarus and of course Mary had many sorrows in her lifetime including the brutal beating and mocking and murdering of her child.  Grief has a purpose in our salvation and I know this is true even if I can’t say exactly what that purpose is.  It’s like the voice calling in my wilderness, “prepare the way for the Lord”. Grief has changed me.

But I also think grief has its place and sometimes needs to be kept in check. Advent, for example, should be a time of preparation and excitement for the birth of our savior. His birth is the beginning of the very reason we can overcome grief in the first place!  In grieving, as in most things in life, moderation is the order of the day.  Not only is it exhausting and draining but I’ve got living to do!

This isn’t my usual type of post but perhaps some of my experience can be useful to others this Christmas. Even if you are not working through your own loss maybe you know someone who is.  I know the process of grieving is different for everyone so I’m not suggesting one right or wrong way to do it – only seeking to share the strategies I try and use all the time. I often hear in grief advice that ‘you should be gentle with yourself’ at holiday time. Well I’m not even really sure what that means but I don’t find it to be helpful advice. If anything I think the opposite is more true. Being ‘gentle’ with myself would likely lead to a whole lot of wallowing in my own pain and pity. I find I have to be a little more stern with myself. I have to work, sometimes pretty hard, to choose living Joyfully. I’ve gotten the response from fellow grievers, “well I do try but it’s hard”.  Yes it’s hard but so is being run by your sadness. And there is a lot at stake if I can’t overcome it. The one thing I hope to teach my children is how to choose to live Joyfully despite difficult and sad circumstances.  I pray I can show them that example.  Joy is a choice we can make, through any kind of circumstance, because we know the Truth.  We should “always be prepared to give a reason for our Hope” and Jesus gives us His Joy so that our Joy may be complete. (Jn 15:11)  By His resurrection He has overcome the world and we are called to do the same. Heaven and eternity await so we can’t really afford to waste an undue amount of time on sadness. Not a single one of us is called to a life of grieving. Some of us have that cross to carry but we have to carry it forward through living to Joy and not stuck buried under the weight of it.

May your Christmas be filled with joy - (a sti...

 (Photo credit: mimitalks, married, under grace)

So here’s what I do

1) Focus on the present moment. This may be a little easier for me than others because with many small children in the house I am pretty busy. Even if I wanted to, I don’t have the luxury of letting my frame of mind interrupt my duties. My family needs to be fed and washed and dressed. The house needs to get cleaned etc. etc. Not only is it unfruitful to allow myself to dwell in the past but it is entirely unfair to my children that are here before me. I have a job and a vocation to carry out and God promised all I need to do it. I believe that. I rely on that.  And once the basics are taken care of there is always a long list of extras and holiday preparations that I can focus on. I Ask myself what I can do to live instead of grieve right this minute.

2) Take captive every thought.  Yes it is easy and natural to focus on what we did in Christmases past. I can’t help but remember the last time Mikey helped Daddy get the tree and that no one in our house was ever more excited for Christmas than Anna. These are normal thoughts and good memories. At another time of year they might bring a smile or peace but right now they bring a serious blanket of sadness down upon me. I will take those thoughts as they come and put them away for a later time. It is not easy to do! I rely on prayers and grace because it requires a conscious act of my will to take the memories captive and decide to not think about them and replace them with thoughts that are more productive and easier to bear right now. The focus and the goal are to prepare and make a nice Christmas for my family that is here with me.  So define your goal and deal with thoughts accordingly.

3) Power through and suck it up. There will be many things I do that I simply don’t want to. I will do them anyway. Most moms know when we are taking shortcuts and not doing the best job we can do with our kids or husbands or household and there are repercussions to that. I try and be as honest with myself as I can be and ask, “Will I feel better about doing this or not doing this?” Some things however are nonessential. For me this Christmas it looks like this: I will not feel the least bit bad if I skip making cookies. The kids are busy and won’t miss it enough that it will impact our tradition. Getting and decorating a tree however is non-negotiable. I will force myself to go through the motions of that even though I don’t want to at all. Not doing it would be sad for my kids but worse for me for having let them down.

4) Accept the change to my family. One of the most difficult things for me to do this year was take a family photo. The last thing I want to do is send a Christmas card without Anna in it. I had just gotten used to sending one without Michael and now everything in me rebels about sending one without Anna too! I want to send a card with all my children in the photo. I really really really do. It is a challenge to truly accept that my family is now different. Taking that photo was a good idea and a good exercise in accepting that my family is missing someone. It will always feel like that I think but I can accept it. Accepting it will make it easier going forward. They will never be out of our mind or our heart but the reality is they will never again be in our family photo. I don’t like it but I accept it.

5) Make a decision right now to not be sad. Be determined about it. You may be surprised about how well you are able to pull yourself out of your same old rut. I choose on this day, in this moment, to be happy. I don’t necessarily ‘feel’ like it but I will ‘fake it ’til I make it’ and have an amazingly better day than if I didn’t force a smile on my face. There is always something to laugh or smile about and it’s amazing how the outward expression can transform the inner feelings.

6) Count my blessings. I have so many things everyday that I am thankful for. By focusing on them and actually counting them – out loud – it leaves little room to lament my losses.

7) Praise God. I wrote a post about praising here and I want to tell you it is foolproof! Try it.  Play some Christian music that praises God and sing along and focus on the words and the God who holds the universe in the palm of his hand. He is holding you too. Praising Him is a gift that he gives us because it can change us from the inside out.

8) Do something new and different this year. My sister was feeling bad that she never decorated Anna’s door last Christmas as she had planned. She decided to do it this year for the other kids and they loved it. It felt great to do something different that was not connected to Christmas past or to Anna. We’ve made a brand new memory and hopefully a new tradition.

9) Do not be a victim or feel sorry for myself.  I am not defined by what I’ve lost but rather by what I’ve been given and who I am as a child of God. I will banish any thoughts of ‘whoa is me’ and ‘it’s not fair’. That gets me exactly nowhere. If those thoughts surface I immediately take them captive and count my blessings instead.

10) Practice being mentally strong.  I read this great article that went viral this past week. I realized there are many similarities with the strategies I use for grieving.

All of this being said, there is always a place to remember our loss and our loved one and to let grief do a work in us.  There will be times when there is so much sadness you can’t even look at this list. When that happens I pray for grace and ask Jesus to help me right where I am. “Lord help me to want to overcome this sadness right now.” If that doesn’t work I try asking, “Jesus, please help me to want to want to overcome this sadness”.

Finally I am usually heartened to remember that no matter what – if I allow God to work – I will only get better.

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.

DSCF0244

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.

Sunrise

The other morning I was Awakened from a sound sleep presumably to see a magnificent sunrise over the ocean. It’s happened to me before, that against all odds of naturally waking up, something has awakened me for a purpose. It happened almost one year ago while taking a mini honeymoon with my husband of 18 years in St. Thomas Virgin Islands.  Morning after morning I could not sleep past the early morning darkness and so got up to watch and pray. Those hours were glorious!  God speaks to us in so many ways and He was surely speaking to me there and then.  I felt compelled to soak in His power and majesty and most importantly, His Love. He was sending it to me in abundance in a physical way and in those few days I wondered what more I could ever want out of life – it was just too good and too beautiful.  In fact what more could any person ever need than to know deeply and truly the depth of God’s love for each of us?  He let me know somehow that it might not always seem so but He would always be with me.  Specifically I heard Him speak to my heart that He was giving me a giant hug now because I would surely need it later.
And as life does, it has thrown some curveballs our way over the last year. You may remember the adoption journey we embarked on – I blogged about it in a virtual scavenger hunt starting here. We welcomed little Sergei into our hearts and knew it would be a difficult road to bring him home but I knew God was holding us close. He had told me as much and I trusted he would give us all we needed for that journey – no matter what road lay ahead. Then we found out we were expecting another little Pullano that I told you about here and it seemed to be even more clear that I would be needing Him. Then Russia banned all U.S. adoptions which has meant coming to terms with the loss of Sergei as well as the questions and doubts about God’s will for us in these situations.  And most recently we were tragically and unexpectedly  blindsided by the accident that took the life of our oldest daughter Anna.  In light of all this, I would like to say with certainty that I now know exactly what God was preparing me for but the truth is that I have no idea. I’m so thankful for His love and presence but I can’t pretend to know exactly what’s in store. I just know that He knows and trust that He’s by my side through every grievous moment of suffering.
In any case, this day was another awakening, and believe me I wanted to sleep!  The message was not at all what I expected though. I had my camera ready to capture the glory of the sun rising on the horizon of the ocean. I waited in eager anticipation, with peace in my soul, knowing confirmation of Gods power and majesty was only moments away. What I thought I needed was another giant God-hug. I waited and started to see glimpses of pink as the sky continued to get lighter and lighter. I wondered when that magnificent orb would finally make its appearance, never questioning that it would. Finally it seemed like it was already daylight. Did I miss it? I was tempted to google the time of the sunrise to double-check but I kept hearing God say, “Wait. Be ready. Don’t get distracted. Just when you look away you’ ll miss it.”  The parable of the ten virgins was running through my mind. Five of the virgins needed more oil in their lamps and just as they left the bridegroom came.  Where is the sun Lord? I can’t see it at all!  I had visions of a beautiful Easter photo captioned “The Son has risen Alleluia!”  The sky was light and it seemed past time. But I waited. I was cold and needed more tea and wanted to find a signal so I could check and see if I did indeed miss it.  But I waited. I kept watch and I prayed and enjoyed the peace of the moment and the peace infiltrating my soul. It was a peace that came from knowing, from TRUSTING that the sun was rising above the horizon even if I couldn’t see it through the clouds. It wasn’t what I expected. Really, you woke me for this God? This sunrise is a total dud. But it wasn’t of course. He was speaking a different message to me than the first time and letting me know that I didn’t need to actually see the sun rising to know that it had. “Thomas you believe because you have seen but blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe”. (Jn. 20:29) Patience. Stay awake. Stay alert. Don’t let life distract you from the truth of Life.

God reinforced several truths with this unexpected moment. The light, the TRUTH always dispels the darkness, even if it seeps in under cover of clouds.  It is there, working, being true and requires nothing of us except to accept it.  Even without the magnificence of the sun reflecting off the ocean waters and making its great ascent visibly, we find ourselves immersed in the light.  God was telling me precisely, “Truth is coming”.

It wasn’t what I expected and hoped for, that blaze of Glory, but the truth was profound and wonderful just the same.

He was saying, “I am Coming. I am here.”  Just as certainly as the sun has risen every morning it will rise again.  It can be trusted and relied on.  Steady. Unchanging. Like the Kingdom that awaits.

What a balm to this aching soul.  The promise is true and always kept.  God is with us no matter the trial just as surely as the sun will turn night into day.  And just as surely as He is here now, He will come again.

Why would we ever look away?  Be ready. Be vigilant. Watch and Pray.

The Heavy Doors

I was walking out of the pool area with my 2 little girls all wrapped up in their towels and shivering as they walked from the steamy warmth of the pool to the chill of the locker rooms.  Someone ahead of us opened the heavy door dividing the spaces, letting out a whoosh of cold air.  For some reason my almost-5-year-old, Laura, decided she had to catch that door before it completely closed.  She stretched her whole little body up to reach the handle, itself as big as she is, with one hand while the other little hand wrapped around the door itself.  She pulled with all her might but at best succeeded in keeping it

from closing any further.  No way was she getting that door open and as her strength wavered the door started inching closed.  My inner Mom sirens went off screeching “danger little hand”, but part of me wanted to let her figure it out on her own.  She was pretty determined to wrestle with that door and even though she was slowly losing ground, she didn’t give up.  I was waiting for it to dawn on her that in case she lost the battle she might want to unwrap the hand from around the door that was about to slam shut on it.  She’s a smart little one though and knew if she gave up the assistance of that hand then the battle would really be lost.

Finally …. (ok only 5 seconds later)… she glanced at me.  I recognized the moment of surrender and easily reached up and grabbed the door, easing all of her burden, and we were on our way.

This little incident called to mind something very familiar.  How often in our daily lives do we embrace the struggle and think we have to open the heavy doors all by ourselves?  Perhaps we do it without thinking or perhaps we just don’t see a different way.  Perhaps you are a victim of a difficult situation that you just don’t understand.

Only God knows the ‘why’s’ and ‘how’s’ of our struggles.  Only He knows why He allows the Heavy doors to burden us but the bigger point is not about the struggle but about our Surrender.

It is easy to look at our lives and the world at large and find examples of sad, difficult, and even horrific situations and wonder, “Why does God allow that?”  Where is His helping hand, his Saving hand?  We know He is always with us and all-powerful and in the midst of so much struggle it can be very tempting to question Him, asking “where are you Lord?”  “What are you thinking here?”  “Don’t you think you should do it this way instead?”

Perhaps He is simply waiting for our glance?  Perhaps He is waiting for us to really come to Him in Trust and Surrender.  Perhaps He is waiting for us to shed pride and say, “I’ve tried this my way and it’s not working.  Now what?”  This is true on an individual level in our own lives but also on a bigger societal level.  When the pride of the majority seems to have the effect of overruling His helping hand, then the surrender of the minority must be to trust in His sovereignty and the ultimate outcome we have been promised.

Only in the absence of our pride can we enter into the intimacy of that ultimate trust.  God invites us to this intimacy again and again throughout scripture with metaphors of the bride and bridegroom.  Jesus himself proposes in the Gospel of Matthew “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” (11:29)

God desires our surrender and our trust as a sign of our Love, asking us to recognize that “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are my ways your ways.” (Is. 55:8)

And unlike the prophet Simeon in the presentation narrative of Luke’s gospel, we are not promised fulfillment of God’s plans in our lifetime but for some reason we often have an expectation that we are.  We demand resolution here and now when all we are asked to do really is Surrender to the Almighty God and Trust in Him.

What might have been an epic struggle for little Laura had I not been right there, was really a non-event once she recognized her need for my help and hopefully it was a learning experience for her as well.  None of us has to bear the burden of the heavy doors alone.  Sometimes our greatest strength lies in our Surrender.  From that surrender comes the peace of trusting in the One who can open or close any door and the ability to truly accept the proposal of Jesus  “For my yoke is easy and my burden light” (Mt 11:30)

 

Testimony: Miracles

Written by Tara, age 39, Special education teacher

The testimony of a Community miracle that I never thought would happen to me. As a Catholic, I lived like every other Catholic. I went to church when the spirit moved me or it was a holiday. My heart, mind, and soul were never really in balance to receive the word of the Lord. I never went to penance to ask for forgiveness. So without cleansing my heart, mind, and soul I never felt complete as a child of God.

Seven years ago, I met this family and at first I just thought I was going to help them clean and organize their house because they had so many children. A short time later I realized that this family needed me to do much more. They discovered that their 5th child, Michael, had a cancerous brain tumor. This saddened me because he seemed to be a vibrant little 4 year-old and I wrestled with his grim prognosis. How could he be in a place where he could die?

I continued to work for this family, trying to bring a healthy and enthusiastic attitude that would help them through one of the most difficult times of their life.  As the word got out that Michael was sick the whole community started to help out as well. This gave me hope, joy, and courage that this community could help beat this sickness by their sheer support. It also gave me a sense of belonging in the community that I never felt before. Each person gave of themselves;  their time, talents, and love. People brought food and dessert constantly, and gifts for the kids and little Mikey. Every prayer group in Syracuse lifted the family in prayer and some went back to church to pray for them, who hadn’t been in a very long time.  I truly believed that Michael was going to recover and healing would take place for everyone in this family. This was the first miracle that this community and I received; hope, faith and understanding of belonging to this mystical body of Christ with the Sovereign God as our head.

A short time later the worst happened and this family lost their son to brain cancer. This was a tragedy but a second miracle was right around the corner for this community and for myself. The second miracle was the rejoicing and the power of God’s love for this family and for the whole community.  Love surrounded this family and everyone involved, helping them find healing of mind, body, and soul. It was a miracle of healing that only comes from God and we witnessed it first hand and were a part of it.

While this family was healing a third miracle was brewing for me. A new pastor came into my life to bring healing to my mind, body and soul that I didn’t know I needed. He brought new knowledge about the bible and healing and the strong bond you could have with Jesus that I never had before. He told me to simply believe. He preached that everyone is a sinner, but if you ask God for forgiveness He will forgive you and bring you closer to His heart. I wanted to be closer to Jesus and God so I went to my first healing mass to ask God and Jesus for forgiveness. Asking for forgiveness was hard because I offered Jesus so much pain and imperfection. After my blessing my heart was filled with the Holy Spirit and filled with joy. While I was there at this healing mass I saw that family that had lost their son and I saw the true power of the Lord’s healing in both of these adults.

After the first healing blessing that I received I started to feel the power of the lord’s grace. From the grace of the Lord came love and I started to feel whole again and I wanted more. I attended a second healing mass, this time to be forgiven for the sins of my ancestors. Going to this healing mass was important to me because I felt as an adult I was making the same bad choices as some of my previous ancestors.  I knew that the power of the Lord’s grace healed my soul once from my own sins. Now, I wanted to be healed from the sins of the past. This mass brought me a calmness and peace that I never felt in my life time. I stopped feeling the pain and the guilt, which I constantly carried around with me. My soul seemed to be clear and focused. I want to keep my soul filled with the Lord’s power, the power of joy, calmness, and peace for the rest of my life. After this mass, I promised myself that I was going to live a clean and honest life. It has been two years now and through the power of God’s love and presence I have done this for my daughter and myself.

The power of the Lord’s grace and forgiveness can come into your life at any time. Miracles happen all the time if we are open to them and many times they come in unexpected ways. The will of God is strong and the will of His people is stronger because we come from his love and grace. I’ve been through a lot of tragedy in my life-time but I truly can say now that God has carried me through each one with the power of community love. I will never forget these lessons and I try hard to pass them around to everyone I meet.

Cross of Joy

I sat down with Andrew to work on homework last night and as he started to put his name on the top of the paper he said, “Mom can you just write the letter ‘d’ for me?  I’m terrible at making ‘d’s’.” I said, “No way.  The fact that you aren’t good at making them is the very reason you need to do it yourself.  Only practice will make you good at them.”  So he practiced it a few dozen times, with me showing him how to make it better, until he felt more confident in his ability.

Many times the Lord deals with us in this same way.  We ask for our crosses and burdens to be alleviated because we know God loves us and could easily take the burden from our shoulders.  We are told to pray unceasingly (1 Thes. 5:17), and in faith ask “Father, if you are willing take this cup from me.” Lk. 22:42.  Yet so often we are met with seeming silence.  Is it because God knows that our crosses are important for our growth and learning?    By our crosses we learn to rely on God more fully.  Ideally, when we walk with the Lord through a trial we gain confidence and trust and realize a new strength.  By our sufferings we are shaped and formed and refined on our way to perfection, like gold that’s tested in fire.

“Their sufferings were minor compared with the blessings they will receive. God has tested them, like gold in a furnace, and found them worthy to be with him.” Wis 3:5

vbhd0117

And yes perfection is the goal!  We are created for it so we can rest easy in the assurance that God has a very good reason when He allows His children to bear their burdens. They will ultimately be for our good.  We are being groomed and refined.  We are being made worthy to share in the inheritance.

Jesus himself had to endure the cross before He was resurrected.   As true Christ followers we cannot expect an easier road.  Nor should we want one!  True love of Christ requires our desire to share in His suffering.  It is this desire that allows us as lovers of Jesus to offer our own sufferings and crosses to Him.

Growing up, I often heard the phrase “Offer it up” when I uttered complaint.  Of course it meant nothing to me outside the bounds of my own relationship with Jesus and only as I grew closer to the Lord could I begin to understand the merit of that statement.

Loving Christ turns suffering from a Cross to a Joy.

Just as I would desire to suffer in place of my child if I could, so I desire to offer to Jesus my sufferings for the salvation of souls.  I endure them gladly rather than lament and bemoan them if they can be used for His purposes and to the end of accomplishing His holy and divine will. Furthermore Jesus calls us to Love not only our friends but our enemies in this way.  To Love perfectly is to lay down your life for another.

“This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers.”  1 John 3:16

This is what Christ did for us.  From His perfect love he died for all, not just for those of us who love Him back.  He died for His enemies.  He suffered for people who hate Him.  WIth those who love Him, He established a covenant of Perfect Love, so that we could go forth and share that same Love, even with our enemies, because to love an enemy is to love Jesus.  It is never by the power of our own flesh that this is accomplished but by God’s Perfect Love given and received.

This is our call as true Christ followers.  Can we follow Him all the way to Calvary?  After all, only when we drink the cup Jesus drank will we be able to sit by His side in glory. (Mt. 10:37-38)

Suffering is a part of life that we simply must accept. What choice is there when suffering is everywhere?  But when we accept the perfect Love God has given us our Joy can come from bearing up under the weight of our sufferings.  We can and should take Joy in living this basic Christian witness.  Just as I wouldn’t have let Andrew struggle in frustration on his own, God would never ask us to endure something if He didn’t give us the equipment necessary to do it.  We are never alone or without His almighty hand of protection upon us. He helps us carry our burdens, making sure they are not too much for us to bear.  Ultimately we will be victorious and every struggle will be overcome.  What Joy we have in His promises!

What if Andrew hadn’t liked my response and chose a different reaction?  He could have had a little tantrum, thrown down his pencil, and said I just can’t write the letter ‘d’ and I don’t want to practice it.   He could have resisted and cried and turned it into a miserable homework experience.  Had he done that, his stubborn tantrum would have been the more difficult path to the same end – practicing until perfect.

An angel comforting Jesus before his arrest in...

An angel comforting Jesus before his arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Luckily for us God makes perfect.  Our efforts will always be humble and imperfect, but our effort is like the mustard seed. God can grow it into the tallest tree. Our willingness to suffer for the glory of God, whatever life throws at us, is precious in His sight.  He doesn’t expect us to do it perfectly, only to lean on Him and trust in His providence and remain Joyful as a christian.  He is patiently by our side encouraging as we enter the fire and He understands what we will some day understand for ourselves; that the only way out is through.  Jesus knew this in the garden as well and it was the cause of His agony.  He knew He must go through His passion and desperately didn’t want to but it was the only way to secure the joy and perfection of the Kingdom for all mankind.  He prayed the ultimate prayer, “Not my will but yours be done.”   That is the prayer we should pray unceasingly.

When God does not take our crosses from our life we can know with certainty and with Joy that “His will be done”.

There can be no greater honor.