Life Juggles: Multigenerational Family Edition

3gen.jpgWhat do you do when your husband calls in the middle of a work-related event, in Chicago, and says that your mother needs help getting on her jammies, in South Bend?

Why, you ask to speak to your daughter, of course. “But she’s already gone to bed,” he hedges nervously. I can’t see his face, but I can read the subtext clear as day: “PLEASE don’t make me go in there!” (*sigh*)

“Put her on the phone, honey.” Noises and loud protestations ensue in the background. True to form, said teenager comes to the phone snarling. “WHAT?!”

“Sweetie,” I say through clenched teeth. “Do you remember the talk we had before I left that you needed to help get Mammie ready for bed while I’m gone?”

“I’m sleeping.”

Time for the big guns. “So… You want DAD to go down there and help her get dressed? How do you think Mammie will feel about Dad seeing her bra?”

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Small Victories are Sweetest

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“It’s not where you stand, but what direction you are moving” was the apt backdrop of the 17th Annual Work Experience Banquet at Penn High School.

As I looked around the room, I saw my children’s  “village”: special needs teens who, just for tonight, were the achievers. Tomorrow they would go back to the struggle, just trying to eke by to get a high school diploma (if possible). But tonight, kids and parents faces were alight with pride.

Mr. Mott, who has been running the dessert “banquet” celebration for many years, did not sugar-coat his comments, but spoke from the heart for each student. “This one wasn’t sure he wanted to work here at first, but by the end of the year he was glad he tried it!” And “this student never gives up, always looks for something more to do.” Very specific and sincere. Sarah’s was, “When she shows up, she works hard and the cafeteria staff are always glad to see her!”

Sarah’s eyes grew as big as saucers. “Really? They LIKE having me there?” She trotted up to get her award, smiling shyly. Then, when the video featuring all the students began and she realized she was the first student featured, she covered her eyes and laughed. “They told me I was in this … Wow!”

When you are raising kids with “invisible” special needs, it can be rough going at times. You listen and try not to envy the moms whose kids score athletic and academic scholarships, who get into their first or even second choice of schools. You listen as they regale the group with stories of their kids going off to prom, or flash their senior pictures. And you wish with all your heart you had something to contribute to the conversation.

But tonight, just for a moment, we all stood tall and proud. And it was glorious.

Sincere thanks to Mr. John Mott, Mrs. Virginia Shafer, Mrs. Patti Walton, and to all the Penn High School staff

Are you lonely at church?

Do you ever feel invisible at church? Have you ever gone to a church event and felt lonely? Do you watch people chatting around the room as your kids attack the donut table, and crave some kind of personal connection? I’ve felt this way, especially after moving to a new home or church. Not knowing how my kids will […]

via Lonely at Church? — A Mother on the Road Less Traveled

A Severe Kind of Mercy

As I contemplated writing tonight’s post, I read that Moammar Gaddafi’s youngest son and three grandchildren were killed in a NATO missile strike. The general survived, the report continued. On the other hand … how does anyone survive a loss of that magnitude?  

Ordinarily the news might not have made such an impression on me. However, I recently took my children to see their birthparents, who had not seen any of their four kids in seven years.  It was supposed to be another seven years before Chris was supposed to see them, but Christopher’s birthdad had been having heart trouble. Craig and I talked about it off and on for months, until he finally — reluctantly — agreed to a single visit.  We didn’t want Christopher to miss seeing him altogether.

As we walked into the home, Christopher became very animated, shouting, “I remember! I remember!” He ran upstairs to his old room, which seemed not to have been touched since he left it. All his toys and toddler-sized clothes were still there, as though he would be home to stay any minute. As though the little boy he once was had been frozen in time.

It was the same with Sarah’s room. The crib, the rocking chair, the baby swing … Everything was still there. Quickly their birthmom began digging through toys, handing them to the kids until their arms were full as the birthdad left the room so the kids didn’t see his tears. On the way home, I contemplated what I had seen and wondered if I’d done the right thing. 

Then, as if in response to my unspoken thoughts, Christopher piped up, “I can’t wait until I turn 18, so I can move back with my real family.”

I swallowed hard, trying not to show how his words had hurt. “You already live with your real family, Christopher.  You will always be part of our family, no matter how old you are. That’s adoption.”

He thought about that for a minute. “Well… maybe I can live in the middle.”

This “living in the middle” feeling was understandable, and I didn’t take it personally. I have read of adoptive families that  successfully integrate birthfamily members into their extended family. Even so, my son’s comment made me wonder: How can a child who has contact with two sets of parents grow up feeling anything but “in the middle”?

A few weeks have passed, and I’m still not sure it was the right choice.  Time will tell.  What I do know is that once again Sarah is sleeping with us every night, and Christopher has been having nightmares in which I disappear and he can’t find me. I agreed to the visit out of love . . . and yet I can’t help but wonder if it wasn’t a severe kind of mercy.

God’s mercy can also seem severe sometimes. This is the side of grace we don’t often consider. When Craig and I were presented to John Paul II in 1999, while in Rome on our honeymoon, I distinctly remember looking into the man’s clear blue eyes and thinking that I’d seen heaven there.  He could barely walk, and was a shell of the vital man he once was. Six more years would pass before he was finally laid to rest. Six more years of walking through that valley of the shadow, one painful step at a time.

However, the man Karol Wojtyla had embraced the job God had given him to do: to take up a particular cross that would uniquely reflect the self-donating love of God to all his children. As Pope John Paul II, he reminded us how utterly we need that hard-won, amazing grace every day of our lives. Even, and perhaps especially, when that way grows difficult, when it would be easier just to give in to despair and bitterness.  It is an uncommon kind of mercy, which drives the nails into the cross we have been called to carry.

As we celebrate the beatification of John Paul the Great tomorrow, let us remember the Divine Mercy that guides each of us all the way to heaven.  Together, as a family, in good times and bad, let us recall the act of grace emblazoned on Faustina’s image:

Jesus, we trust in you!

The March: Now What?

Today at AnnArbor.com, I posted an article that was especially hard to write.  I actually drafted “The Face I Never Knew” (AnnArbor.com retitled it), anticipating the annual “March for Life” in Washington that commemorates the anniversary of Roe v. Wade.  This 1973 Supreme Court decision legalized the murder of over 52 million pre-born children. 

As part of my thesis on adoption, I’m reading a book right now called When Children Became People: The Birth of Childhood in Early Christianity by O.M. Bakke.  This book deals extensively with the first century (AD) Roman practice of “exposio,” by which parents were legally able to dispose of their children up to eight days after birth by simply leaving them out in the elements, where they would either perish or be picked up by strangers (many of whom had nefarious intentions, as a good number of the children were later sold into physical or sexual slavery).

Christians were unique in their response, choosing to take these children into their homes and raise them as part of the family. In fact, their generosity toward these abandoned children resulted in the conversion of a number of Roman adults as well, who saw their actions and recognized the goodness. (Bakke does not address this aspect of exposio — I found this elsewhere in my reading.)

As pro-life advocates begin to return home after the March for Life in Washington, it is thrilling to know that so many banded together to make their voices heard, perhaps especially this year. On the other hand, we need to consider carefully how we are going to support the dignity and intrinsic worth of human life the rest of the year. Words are important, but so are actions! 

Of course there is foster care and adoption. Those options are always available for families who feel called to this way of life.  However, there are also families all around us who need a helping hand.  Sometimes they need physical support — gently used clothes or toys, or a ride to the doctor. Other times they simply need a gentle reminder about the importance of the job they are doing!

Last Sunday I sat across the aisle from a young mother who was juggling an infant and toddler — both of them wide awake and highly active — all by herself. Her children were exactly the same age that my children were when they first came to us. “That’s what you looked like when you first came to our family,” I whispered to my kids. In retrospect, that was probably a mistake — they kept looking over and pointing and asking questions.

So after Communion, I made a left into her pew and held my hands out. “I’m sorry,” the poor mother whispered. “Oh, no. You’re doing great! What a gift these children are — your baby was singing with us, and your son is clearly interested in seeing everything! You remind me of what it was like when I first got my children, and how far they’ve come since then. Thank you for being willing to join us instead of hiding in the cry room!” 

She smiled.

Parenting is hard work. There’s really no getting around that. No matter how your children come, they require an extraordinary amount of energy and patience. And there are some days when quite frankly the challenge is more than we can manage. And because so many of us don’t have built-in support systems of extended family nearby, we have to build our own support networks of friends who understand the pressures and are willing to walk alongside us.

Is there a family in your parish or neighborhood that you’ve been meaning to invite on a play date, but never quite gotten around to it? Why not put together a lasagna or crock of soup and drop it off for dinner one night? Head outside when you see them playing in the yard with their dog? Call and ask if you can take their children with you the next time you head for the park or McDonalds? Offer to sit one night so they can have a “date night” (if they’re married) or some time alone (if they’re not)?

Take a moment, and make a plan: How are you going to celebrate the dignity and worth of a child near you this week?

Mother Antonia Brenner: A Story of Redemptive Love

In the next few days, I will be posting a review of a remarkable documentary entitled “La Mama” by Jody Hammond on the life of Mother Antonia.  Mother Antonia Brenner is the founder of “Servants of the Eleventh Hour,” an order for mature women (most ages 45-65) who serve the impoverished and imprisoned in Tijuana, Mexico and parts of the U.S.

One aspect that I did not address — and felt I should do so — is the fact that Mother Antonia was twice divorced prior to taking the habit. I have not yet read the biography of her life, and don’t know whether one or both of her marriages were annulled prior to taking the habit. Since her order was formally received by the bishops of Tijuana and San Diego, I would hope so.

However, I recently ran across this explanation from a Deacon John Cameron on the Catholic Answers website that offered a helpful perspective, which I thought I would share here:

While there are general requirements for novitiate and profession in institutes of conscrated life and societies of apostolic life, there are additional requirements that are imposed by the proper law of each. Should your mother pursue this, the director of novices or admissions would be in the best position to discuss the prospects of assuming vows following divorce and what would take place.

Rather than speculating about possible grounds of nullity or the prospects of a decree of nullity, these are things that would be directed to the tribunal via the parish priest if the marriage does in fact end in permanent separation. The determining error of canon 1099 about the sacramental dignity of marriage (or even as the closely related intention contra bonum sacramentalitas of canon 1101, § 2), mentioned above as a possibility, is difficult to establish, and the jurisprudence is complex. We do best to let tribunals investigate and assess the legal impact of the facts in marriage cases.

For purposes of general information though, Rome has permitted couples to remain married, dispensed them from the obligations of marriage without dissolving it, and then to enter religious life or ordained priesthood. Decrees of nullity were not involved.

One of the aspects of Mother Antonia’s story that I loved was how God has used even the painful aspects of her life — the failures and sufferings — to minister to those she met with true humility and compassion.  This is the mark of a true penitent, one who acknowledges one’s own failures without excusing them on one hand, or dodging the consequences on the other.  In a very real sense, the work Mother has done for the past thirty years are an expression of penance, of restitution — and of gratitude to God for his great mercy.

In Titus 3 we read . . .

At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another. 4 But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, 5 he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy.

You have only to look at the face of Mother Antonia — and at the faces of her “sons” to see this mercy at work in a powerful way.  Watch the movie, and you’ll see.  This is not the story of a woman who is “trying to make it up to God.” It is the story of a weary soul who has drunk deep from the well of mercy, and is intent on showering that water of life on other parched souls as well. Not the empty gestures of “works righteousness,” but the fruitful labors of one whose life has been transformed by love.

Not all of us are called to “make amends” by spending decades inside a Mexican prison.  But each of us are given opportunities every day to model mercy to those who need it.  Are you ready?

Paddling in Shallow Waters: The Invigorating Power of Forgiveness

A few weeks ago as I contemplated my New Year’s resolutions, I had an idea: I would make a list of twelve people with whom I have less-than-satisfying relationships. You know, something said or done along the way created hard feelings (on my part or theirs, or both).

How would it be, I wondered, if invited each of these people to spend ten minutes — TEN, mind you — saying anything that they wanted to say to me. I would not comment, retaliate, or defend myself in any way. At the end of that ten minutes, I would offer a simple, heart-felt apology and thank them for sharing. We would then “wipe the slate clean” and start over. Neither of us would speak of the encounter again (at least, I wouldn’t).

If this person chose not to participate, I would write up the estrangement as best I could, and burn it. I would then begin to treat the person as though they had participated in the exercise.

When I told my husband about the idea, he was a bit dubious. “Are you SURE you could listen to somebody talk about you without commenting? It might be kind of hard to hear.”

I decided to test it. I made the first offer to one of my sisters, whom I thought had been acting a bit “off” during our visit. We sat down, and I told her what I had observed, and asked her to unload. In ten minutes, the air was clear and I was none the worse for wear. All was well.

Now, I suppose it’s possible that at some point the exercise might prove to be more painful than cathartic. And there are a couple of people that I believe with all my heart I am better off just avoiding as much as possible. Still, even for these individuals I can burn the past transgressions and start over. My soul will thank me.

Then today, the most extraordinary thing happened that made me think that there might be more than one way to accomplish my goal, and get all twelve names off my “list.” When I approached one of my Top Twelve at church today about another, unrelated matter, his petty response prompted my mild-mannered husband to decisive action. Long story short: I checked one more person off my list without having to set an egg timer.

A short time later, a small bonus: On the way out of church, the daughter of another frienemy came up and asked me to buy Girl Scout cookies. I bought two, feeling pleased with myself. Check, check.

Today we celebrate the second event associated with Epiphany: the Baptism of Christ by John the Baptist. The Perfect Man so completely identified with sinful mankind that he submitted to John’s rite of repentance. And in so doing, he blessed the waters and instituted the rite by which all of us could be born into the kingdom of his Father.

Today’s events reminded me of the powerful things that can happen when baptized believers pour out forgiveness upon one another, building bridges of peace and reconciliation. When this happens we imitate the humility of Christ in a way that is truly restorative and grace-filled.