Take My Yoke

This past weekend we heard one of my favorite Gospel passages:

Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Mt 11:29-30)

There was a time, about eight years ago now, that I came to know this scripture intimately. It comforted me then, bringing me through a long dark hour, and reminds me still that my trust belongs to God.

So how exactly do we take Jesus’ yoke?   

When Mikey’s health was spiraling out of our control from a brain tumor, I turned to Jesus as I knew Him then. The situation was too big for me by far; my baby boy was dying. At the start, I cried out to Him, begging Him at any cost to heal my little one. I saw nothing beyond the deepest desire in my being to keep my sweet 3-year-old in my arms.  Jesus was always there, steady, solid, nurturing my hope, and yet, not making any promises about Michael’s health. He was answering so many of my prayers and giving me things I didn’t even know I needed, even if He couldn’t say yes to my one big request. Trust is not built in a relationship simply by receiving all that is asked for. Trust is built when one does all that one says he will do. God revealed himself in a million ways: through His word, in deed, and through His body, and what I came to know of Him was a depth of fidelity, honesty, capability, and love, that I had never known before. I turned to Him in every moment of need and He stayed close. He walked with me, day in and day out. When doctors were at a complete loss, Jesus wasn’t. As medicine continued to fail, my soul was nourished, refreshed, and full of Hope. One day He brought me to my Father; I will never forget those moments. We were flying away on a Make-a-Wish trip with our huge family, strollers, wheelchair, gear, and medicine, leaving behind all of our care and support team. Disease had become the familiar and we were embarking on a trip to the unfamiliar. I had some moments of terror as we were boarding that flight, understanding that we were leaving behind what little control we thought we had. Then we were up, up, and away, and as I looked out over the disappearing world below, to the vastness of the skies, I suddenly knew the awesomeness and Love of my Father. He created the skies, the earth, and all that is in it. All belongs to Him. We weren’t actually leaving anything behind that was out of our loving Father’s hands. That flight brought our little Michael to Mickey Mouse, but it brought me straight to the giant arms of Love, care, and protection. Jesus knew exactly what I needed. It’s not so scary to be little and helpless when you are cradled in Daddy’s lap. I knew I could trust Him even though He wasn’t promising that my own baby would be healed.

Only five short weeks after that trip, our beloved boy lay dying. I begged Jesus for the grace Mary had as she walked to Calvary.  He knew my desperate need and sent our Lady herself to be with me and comfort me. I really saw and understood Mary for the first time as we gathered around Michael in his final hours and there is no doubt that her grace abounded.  Peace descended upon the room as Mikey gave up his breath and we sought Heaven as never before.

Jesus knew our deepest need better than we did. 

How do we take Jesus’ yoke?  It’s really so simple.  We love Him. We seek to know Him until we can abandon ourselves in Trust, holding no piece of ourselves back.  We take His yoke when we can say that, for better or for worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, “I belong to Him whom my heart loves.”

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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)

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.

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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.