The Sacred Heart.

“Stick to the sides,” my husband told me.  We were going to a child’s birthday party, one of the little ones my son has grown up with.

“It’s a barbecue, right? So hamburgers and hot dogs.  We’ll have to stick to the sides.”

Oh, right.  It’s Friday.

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“So why don’t you eat meat on Fridays?” A friend asked, as we began to prepare dinner on our camping trip – meatless — not impossible at all, just…inconvenient.

“Because Jesus died on a Friday,” I explained.  “So we sacrifice something on Fridays in a memorial of that.  Traditionally it’s been meat, so…we do meat.”

It makes sense to me, but it sounds so silly, and I can understand why people would think it’s strange.

“So when was the last time you had meat on a Friday?”

I squint.  “Um…just before Lent, maybe?”

I shrug, and the conversation ends there – we both are fine with where we are.

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It was my husband who came up with the idea of doing the Sacred Heart Devotion – attending Mass every first Friday of the month for nine consecutive months.  (A much better explanation of the devotion can be found here and here.)  But I had found the Sacred Heart much earlier than that.

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My mother died in the middle of the night.  My husband and children and I were staying at my in-laws’ house in New Jersey, close enough to the hospice center where my mother was.  We had been waiting – making calls to nurse friends – Is this the end, is this the end? – and trying to make plans.  My husband and I had decided to return to Pittsburgh with our kids and return after she had passed, because we didn’t know how long it would take, and there was precious little to do outside of sitting – sometimes in different places, like a hallway or a cafeteria or a hospice room – and waiting.

But she passed away in the middle of the night, so there was no returning to Pittsburgh when we’d thought.

I was asleep in my sister-in-law’s childhood bedroom, my seven month old daughter shifting in the pack-n-play on the floor next to the bed.  A small light gently illuminated the room.

My phone rang.  It was my father.

“Mom passed away,” he told me.  He sounded so tired.

“Okay,” I said.  “Thank you for letting me know.”

Later he’d say he was confused by my reaction, he wasn’t sure it was even me he was talking to.  But I was half-asleep, and in reality had no idea what to say or to think.  I had been so tired, we all were, of waiting.  And the moment had come, and I was still so tired.

It was still dark.  I left the room and quietly made my way down the hall to the other room where my husband and son were.  I wanted to wake my husband up to tell him, but decided he should sleep.  No point to waking him up.  (And there’s never, in my opinion, a good reason to wake up a sleeping child.  I am very against that.)  They both lay there, completely asleep, and I turned and walked back to where I’d been.

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The first thing I did when I returned to bed was thank God over and over that it was over, and felt this enormous sense of relief completely wash over me.  She had been so sick, and for so long.  And she wasn’t any longer; and for that I was so, so grateful.

I turned back to my phone and messaged a bunch of my friends who had been praying for us and my mom, and told them she had passed.  I put my phone back on the little table and rolled over again.

I started to drift off, and in those moments, caught between wakefulness and dreaming, I saw it: a heart.  A large, anatomical-looking heart, completely suspended in black space.  It was a completely still heart, not moving, but I understood it was alive.  I knew, in my limited dream-understanding, that it was the Sacred Heart, and it understood suffering and was at peace with it.  It knew my personal suffering, and did not turn away.

It didn’t do anything, just hung in suspension, but a great peace radiated from it.  I knew, somehow, that my suffering and my mother’s suffering and the suffering of all those who knew her was absorbed by that suffering heart; and all I knew was that it understood.  It got it.  And that was enough.

I fell asleep soon after that and woke up when my daughter did.

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We have two months to go until our First Friday devotions are complete.  We’ve had to attend Mass with both kids this summer as school is out, and it’s not exactly what I would call a fun time, bringing two small children to a very early morning Mass – they make a lot of noise.

I hadn’t had any particular interest or understanding of the Sacred Heart prior to my experience with my mother’s death, but I can’t accurately tell you – nor put into words – the comfort and consolation I experienced from my encounter with it.

And it’s a comfort to me that even after the First Friday Masses are over, we’ll still be sacrificing something on Fridays as a reminder to us that we remember Jesus’ sacrifice, too.  That we can share both suffering and consolation with Him.  Because He understands both.

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Mama T.

So Mother Teresa will be canonized this week.  I don’t know an incredible amount about her, but one of my favorite stories came from a seminarian I once met who went to volunteer with her order when she was still alive.  He described the horrible conditions of where he went to work, and what it was like to live and work for Mother Teresa.  He had brought along a mirror with him, I guess to check his reflection or whatever, and the story went that she caught him checking his look one day before volunteering.  She walked over to him, took the mirror and broke it, and gave him one shard to use instead — anything bigger would be the height of vanity.

I have no idea if that story is true or not, but I love it.  I love the single-mindedness of helping God’s people.  What a role model to have at this time in our history.

I was thinking recently about being a Catholic and what it means to be a Catholic voter in America these days, and I thought about what actually needs to be done to affect change in our country.  Think about the one issue (or two, or however many) you feel in your life is the most important thing, and if it needs changing, how would you change it? How would you change racism, or poverty? Indifference? Ignorance? Whatever the issue is, pray about how God wants you particularly to do something about it, and let’s do what Mother Teresa did — pray for courage and strength, break our mirrors, take the focus off ourselves, and go to work.

In the news today was a story about an FSU wide receiver, Travis Rudolph, who did an astounding act: while visiting a middle school, he sat with a kid during lunch.  The young boy has autism, and would normally not have anyone to sit with during mealtime — the other kids leave him out.  The player didn’t know about the disability – he just saw a boy sitting alone – and decided to keep him company.  The act blew the boy’s mother away, and on social media, she announced the good deed he did that made such a difference to her family.  The story blew up and became such big news because it highlighted that to which we are so attracted: stepping outside of ourselves to help others.

Mother Teresa did that.  Did she solve the problem of poverty? No.  But she showed us how we can start.  Travis Rudolph did that.  Did he solve the problem of ostracizing others because of fearing a disability? No.  But he showed us how we can start.  You and I can do it, too.  We’re all called to it, no matter how large problems might seem.  It will make a difference, I promise you.

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.”

 

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.

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?

Momnipotent

My parish is running a monthly gathering for Moms beginning in October, and I just signed up.  It’s called “Momnipotent,” and is a discussion group focused specifically around motherhood and finding God through the challenges and joys it brings.

Here’s the trailer for the study:

I’m excited to check it out! I’ll let you know how it goes when it starts next month.

🙂