So That Happened.

My Mom passed away in January.  It’s nearly five months later and while I’m still trying to process things, there are so many things I’m grateful for.

I’m grateful I was there as close to the end as I was.  I wasn’t there when she died, but I was able to spend time with her in her last days.  I never wanted that – I wanted to be far away and “get the call” and have that be that, but it was such a grace that I was able to see her again, even if she couldn’t see me.

There is so much that we fear in death – and not only death, but the things that go along with it: getting sick, growing older, losing the things we once had (or even the physical possessions we have now).  And being there for my mom wasn’t fun, or anything – it was incredibly difficult, at times – but it was a real privilege to see and understand how things work – how the body works to shut itself down, how things progress physically – and also to see what comes out in relief against all that darkness.

It was very similar to me to the process of having a baby.  Labor and death can really mimic each other, I’ve found — it’s a singular process that must be gone through alone – although support is needed, at the end of the day, it’s the person’s process alone – and it’s an experience that requires the double helix of work and of release, of moving towards a goal while letting go of everything else.  It was pretty humbling to witness, as I imagine many births are, too.  I’m happy that my labors with my kids all went beautifully.  I hope my own death is as great an experience, too.

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I was honored to give the eulogy at my mother’s funeral.  Here it is.

Eulogy:

My mother could make friends with a bag of rocks.  

She had the ability to befriend absolutely anyone, no matter how standoffish or introverted, and within a matter of moments, make them feel comfortable. She made others feel important, and it’s a sure thing to say that if she knew you, she loved you.  Her joy came from those in her life, and where she came from.  

Growing up in Florida, my brothers and I heard stories about Inwood, and it seemed almost like Neverland to us: a place where that was more family than community, and every day brought a new adventure.  To my mom (and I know she was not the only one), Inwood was not only a place on a map; it was a source of life, a spring where she drew love that sustained her.  No wonder she had to be close to it, even if it was across the Hudson River from her home.  She could feel that love emanating from it even then, the love that made her tough enough to endure years of surgeries and procedures and chemotherapies that scarred her body, took her energy, and dimmed her light.

But through it all, she never complained.  Through the overwhelmingness of it all, each time I’d ask her how she was doing, she’d say “good.”  I knew it was a bad day on the days she’d say “I’m doing okay.”  Like Saint Paul wrote in the Epistles, she was constantly beaten down, but not broken; constantly wrapped in flame of pain, but never consumed.

What was she really consumed by? The love she felt for her husband; a love that had been tested and tried and found to be stronger than the greatest steel.  She was propelled by the love and pride she had for her children and her grandchildren, her nieces and nephews and their children.  She was energized by the love she had for her sisters. She was uplifted by the joy she found in the presence of her friends.

She loved her life, as hard as it was; and as joyful as we are that her suffering is gone, the most pain lies in the hard reality that the world doesn’t get another Janie Guerra.

Saint Paul writes in the second letter to Timothy, “I have fought the good fight; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith.” My mother’s race was filled with hardship on a road paved with the sharpness of suffering, of uncertainty, doubt, and fear.  She was, like all of us, just a human being.  But her ability to run it – and to run it so well – said so much not only about her, but about the God she so fervently believed in and loved so much: a God who knew suffering, who knew the value it holds.  There truly is no crown without the cross.  Her suffering had redemptive meaning; it was the manner through which she obtained her glory.  Her last days were flooded with palpable grace.  Death looks so ugly from the outside, but there is such beauty to be found in it.  There is so much about our world today that is ugly, but you and I – and my mother certainly knew – the awe and wonder that is in it as well.  How lucky we are to have known her, to have loved her.

So where does that leave us? She is in a place where we can know she is with God; where her beauty has been restored to her.  In a place where her smile is no longer crooked, where her face is full again, where her voice is once again strong and clear, and sitting on a stoop that looks suspiciously like the one on Park Terrace West.

Her life here is over, but ours continues.  Our responsibilities have not gone away; we still have jobs to go to and bills to pay and hard things to endure.  But we can draw strength from the knowledge that the love of God that sustained her belongs to us, too.  We can spend our days remembering it and living in it; and living our lives to their fullest is what will honor her best.

In the words of Mother Teresa, “Yesterday is gone, tomorrow is not yet here.  Let us begin.”

 

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Poem: Breastfeeding, 3 a.m.

Because you had set the precedent
I was promised hours of sleep,
Instead receiving minutes strung together
like cheap Christmas lights,
plastic orbs of color that burst into light
and immediately fade.

I love you, sweet thing, and everyone wants
to be needed, but this is so scraping, so garment-rending
in its urgency.  Young lovers are desperate too, in their desire,
but your need is much more carnal: I am food,
I am comfort and warmth.  I am tired,

but that word, too, is different, wrong.
There is no real word for it,
And for you, tiny girl, lips flayed against the thin skin
of my left areola, your impossibly small hands
kneading the flesh that spreads above it.

Your babyhood will also flash and be gone –
and that burns, too, like the sacrificial holiness of my sleep,
my comfort, my sanity.

It burns the flesh away to reveal the bone,
something stronger, underneath.

Shawshanking It

I didn’t want to go.

I had other plans; I meant to run a few errands before the upcoming festivities of my daughter’s Baptism this weekend, and the logistics of rushing to meet anyone anywhere seemed impossible.  But I wanted to see my friend and when she suggested spending some time walking around K-Mart and letting the kids loose (this K-Mart doesn’t pull in a lot of foot traffic), I agreed.

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It’s not easy, rounding two kids up to go places.

I’d known that before I had the second one, but it’s really not easy when one of the kids is being potty trained and we have to sit him on the potty before we go anywhere.  Because it’s not really ever an easy sit.  There’s the bribery, the whining, the carrying, the tears, the biting, scratching and pinching, and even if he successfully goes on the potty, there’s the inevitable fight over the pulling up of the undies.  All of this while the baby is crying to be held in the other room.  Trying to get anywhere on time is a nightmare; and we were a few minutes late when we pulled into the parking lot.

I was frazzled.  I have been, lately.  My mom’s not well.  We found out in April, and the little time I had to really think about it before the baby arrived was stuffed with hysterical crying and the thought that it would just be too hard.  It is hard, but I can do hard things.  With the baby here in all of her newness, it’s easy to push the thoughts of my mom’s inevitable passing aside, but up they bubble, here and there.

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My friend asked how my mom was doing as we cruised the store, walking past the too-early aisles of Halloween candy set up facing the on-clearance rows of poolside plastic lawnchairs.  I told her how she’d had her PET scan to determine if she’d continue treatment, about how short her breath was getting, about how she slept all the time and barely could eat.  By the time we’d gotten to the toy aisles, the stomachache I’ve acquired when thinking about my mom for extended periods of time had set in, but we kept talking about her.  I wanted to talk about her.

“She wants to be cremated, I know that,” I said.  “Wants the ashes buried in the park near where she grew up.  In Manhattan.”

“You going to do it?”

I shook my head.  “My brother will, probably.  I don’t think it’s legal.  It’s human remains.”

“Why doesn’t he Shawshank it?” my friend asked.  I was confused.  Like, did she mean dig a tunnel, or…

And she mimicked Tim Robbins’ character walking through the prison yard, hands in his opened pockets, letting out the pieces of concrete wall he’d hammer-rocked through onto the ground.  “You know,” she said, “Putting the ashes in your pockets.  Shawshanking it.”

It was what I needed to hear.  I hadn’t laughed that hard in a long time, and my eyes brimmed with the kind of tears I was pretty sure from the laughing and not just the intensity of what was going to come sooner rather than later.

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Knowing someone with terminal cancer – especially a family member – propels you into a vortex of grief early.  You get familiar with the idea of “first times” after the person passes (the first Christmas after, the first Thanksgiving after), but you also get pushed into an awareness of the “last times” you will have.

I don’t know how long she has left.  My birthday was two days ago; was it the last birthday I’ll have with my mother still alive?

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It helps that my faith dictates that there’s a Heaven and a time we’ll see each other again, but statements of faith like that have to be made for real.  Do I really believe this? Do I really believe in God and Heaven and Jesus dying for us on the Cross?

It’s strange that I have to ask myself that – it surprises me that I do, but it’s so near now.  These were just ideas before, and the reality is that I have to decide whether or not I think it’s true.

And yet I do believe it.  I do believe in all those things; I believe that it’s true.  And in those moments I have in between shoving my son towards the bathroom or strapping my screaming daughter in the car seat, I find myself believing and being comforted, even if it’s just for now.

What We’re Reading (Toddler Edition)

My two and a half year old son loves to read, which makes me insanely happy for many reasons, mostly because I also love to read and I think it’s a wonderful connection to have.  I’m chomping at the bit for him to start gaining the attention span (and memory) to have chapter books read to him, but since I’m a couple of years out from that, I’m just enjoying what he’s reading now.

Like any other kid, he has his library of staples that he reads all the time, a mishmash of books that he’s been collecting since he was born.  We do have a certain set of religious-themed books he’s allowed to bring to Mass, and there’s a few new favorites he’s been cycling through, on loan from the library (but which we’re thinking of adding to his owned books).

Here are some of our favorites!

The Pigeon Books by Mo Willems

pigeon

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We love this series.  They’re funny, sharp, and so much fun, plus they teach the idea that tantrums get you nowhere.  Dom cracks up when we read “The Pigeon Needs a Bath,” and he begs for the hot dog party that the pigeon dreams of in “Don’t Let the Pigeon Stay Up Late!” We haven’t started his Knuffle Bunny series yet, but we’re hoping to start those soon.

Hooray For Bread by Allan Ahlberg

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Although the book is a long-ish read for us at night, this story of a day in the life of a loaf of bread is charming.  The illustrations are lovely, and it’s a calming book to read before bedtime.

The Gossie & Friends Series by Olivier Dunrea

booboo

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dominic gets a big kick out of this beautifully illustrated, fun series of books for toddlers.  His favorite of the series is BooBoo, a curious blue gosling who loves to eat.

Take a Look, Bear! by Liesbet Slegers

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This book is really very fun – as a boy details his day with his teddy bear, the pages slide out to reveal hidden surprises! Dom has had fun getting the hang of sliding the pages open and closed all by himself.  Watch out for little fingers that might get caught, though, especially if the sliding is rigorous!

Sheep in a Jeep by Nancy E. Shaw

sheep

 

 

 

 

 

 

This one is a fun tongue-twister of a book detailing a herd of sheep’s adventure in a Jeep that goes beep!

Which books are your toddlers’ favorites? We’re always on the lookout for new ones to get into!

Elevation // Destruction

(This is a 100% true story.)

“You can go if you want,” my husband said.  “But I’m not going.”

He was scared, I think.  Scared of Bono.

We had just been invited to a U2 concert this summer by friends of ours coming into town, and although he had no trouble with our friends staying with us, he had a hard time believing he’d make it to the concert.  It wasn’t the songs; he likes a few of them.  It wasn’t the venue; the Pittsburgh Steelers make Heinz Stadium a permanent Mecca for folks living in our city.

It was the curse.  “I believe in it,” he said.  “I’m not going.”

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The Bono curse originated, as most things do, in New York City, where my parents grew up.  In my late teens we were constantly over the GW Bridge from our Bergen County, NJ home  to mostly attend funerals, as my parents were reaching the age where the youngest of their groups of friends began to pass from illnesses or tragic accidents.  On one such weekend one of my brothers and I were hanging out outside the Piper’s Kilt bar in the Inwood section of Manhattan, waiting to go inside.

Scott, a roommate of our cousin’s who lived a few streets over, happened to walk by, wearing the expression of a man who has truly become the poorest of bastards.  We figured it was girl trouble, and we were right, but we were pretty shocked when we found out the exact source.

“Wait – Bono, Bono? Like U2 Bono?” my brother asked when Scott told us the news.

“Yeah.  Fucking Bono.”

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The story went like this: Scott, knowing his longtime girlfriend Beth had been a fan of U2 since she was about three weeks old, bought her tickets to the Elevation Tour for her birthday.  The good seats, too, he emphasized, ones closest to the points of the heart-shaped stage that joined together.

“A lot of people don’t know this about Bono,” Scott continued, but like…” He searched the air above us for the right words, circling his index fingers up and down.   “Whenever he enters a room, or, in this case, a stadium, he just…like…sucks the testosterone out of every male in attendance.  It just…like…” he widened the air circles with his hands to illustrate the gathering of it – “attaches itself to him, and he automatically becomes the largest thing in that room.”

He paused, taking a sip of the Coke he carried with him.  “That’s exactly what it’s like.”

Beth, like everyone else in Madison Square Garden, flipped out – screaming, jumping up and down.  Scott laughed, loving it, feeling kind of proud for making her so happy…even if he suddenly did feel a little less full in the testicles.

“So the show’s going on all right, right?” Scott asked.  “But then.  Then.”

As I’ve heard is pretty common on the Elevation Tour, Bono calls up a girl to sing to during “With Or Without You;” and, sure enough, he chooses Beth.

“At first, I didn’t have a problem,” said Scott, his voice sagging.  “I thought it was great.  But he’s dancing with her, right, and she’s standing there, grinning like a moron, her hands on her cheeks – and he puts his arm around her.  She fucking goes nuts.  But that’s not enough for Bono, no.  Not enough for him.  He fucking lays her down on the stage, and just before he lets her go, kisses her on the fucking mouth!”

Scott threw his Coke can against the brick wall of the bar, then stared down at the sidewalk, the tops of his ears shining bright red.

“I’m only just one man.  You know? Just one man, with two balls, and he’s got a stadium full of them.”

After the concert, Beth couldn’t let go.  It was Bono this and Bono that, every two minutes, Scott said, day and night.  The final straw came when she stood over Scott’s shoulder when he was doing their dishes and told him that wasn’t how Bono would wash them.

He kicked her out an hour later.

“You think it’s funny,” he said, his face long and sullen, his voice mournful.  “But it’s not.  You watch.  Bono breaks people up.”  And in a voice that would make the ancient Tiresias proud, warned us to never go to a U2 concert with our significant other – not if we wanted to stay with them.

“Unless you want to break up,” he said, after he stooped to pick up the Coke can from the ground, side-stepping us to keep going on his way.  “Then you can do what the fuck you want.  You don’t even have to spring for the front-row seats.  The upper deck will do you just fine.”

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Scott wasn’t wrong.  Some time later my brother and I were watching some awards show or another, and Justin and Britney – THE Justin and Britney, a hot item at the time – were being interviewed.  We watched, half-horrified, half-horribly amused, as Bono walked in between them, looked up and down at Britney, and then walked away.  A week later, every tabloid in NYC was blowing up with the news of Justin and Britney’s split.

And it even happened locally: at least three couples who were friends of ours attended U2 concerts and promptly broke up afterward.  Although they all claimed different reasons: too much arguing, one said; not enough time together, said another; we knew the real reason why.

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Amazingly, there has only been one couple to break the curse, and those are the visiting friends who are excited to catch them in our neck of the woods.  I want to study them, to sit them down and ask them questions, as though they were a highly evolved species of the U2 fan.  Have they been inoculated? Do they favor one band member more than Bono? Could that be it?

Or maybe it’s already happened, and my friend is hiding her burning, passionate, lusty burn for Bono underneath her kind face and loving smile.  “Of course I love my husband,” she might tell me as we’re standing in line, ready to have our tickets scanned at the gate.  “But there are days…”

Her eyes would glisten with a dreamy sheen, and I would know instantly what she meant.

“Just don’t tell anybody,” I would tell her.  “Don’t tell anybody at all.”

St. Therese is My Homegirl

Catholics celebrated the feast day of St. Therese of Lisieux, known as The Little Flower, a few days ago, but I only today got a chance to finish reading up on her life.

Trusting God With St. Therese is a wonderful book by Connie Rossini, and it focuses on the model St. Therese provided for having a complete and utter trust in God.  The way Therese saw it, if God was her Heavenly Father who loved her, He would provide the means for her to have a joyful life and to reach Heaven.  (Her life was indeed joyful, but it was also full of suffering.)

If you are anything like me and have trouble trusting that God will provide for us, try to figure out where the problem comes from.  Think about it.  If you believe that God indeed is our Father, and wants to provide good things to His children, why wouldn’t He do so for you?  Is it our history? Maybe you’ve had trouble with your own earthly father providing for you, and it’s hard to not see God in the same way.

Or maybe you don’t feel worthy of God’s love, so you don’t trust that He can give any to you.  God’s love is for perfect people, you might think.  He only wants the folks who follow all the rules and do everything He wants.  If you think this way, remember those whom Jesus visited in the Bible: all the sinners.  He was frustrated with those who followed the rules, because that’s all they did – they didn’t see God’s love and mercy happening right in front of them.

Or maybe you’re scared of what will happen when we do trust in God.  A few months ago on that TV show “The Voice” (well, the Italian version of it), a nun auditioned to be on the show.  She sang a respectable version of Alicia Keys’ “No One,” and shocked all of the judges when they turned around to see her.  One of the judges asked if Pope Francis knew what she was up to, and she just kind of laughed and said that people think that if you follow God, He’ll take everything good away from you – and she wanted to show the world that it wasn’t true.  Do you think that if you trust in God, He’ll leave you holding the bag, completely miserable, and just drained of all happiness until you die? Because that most definitely will not happen.

It’s not easy to place our trust in God.  It’s probably one of the hardest things we’ll have to do in our lifetimes. How have you tried to trust God? What has He done in your life to prove His worthiness to you?