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?

How Far Is Too Far?

…No, I’m not talking about that.

I’m talking about hope versus expectation.  How do you hope?

This might sound weird, but bear with me.  Let’s say you’re struggling with something — a lot.  You know Jesus has the ability to help you get through it (I mean, He’s God); but how do you pray for it? Do You try to believe that He will help in some general positive fashion that doesn’t allow for too much detail – you just believe it’ll be a good outcome (hope), or do you want a certain thing to happen – and when it doesn’t, you feel dejected (expectation)?

Can we expect anything from God? Is it bad to? Or should we just hope?

Because I gotta be honest with you guys – I want to do the right thing – but I find myself using language in my prayer that suggests that I expect way more than I hope.

For example:

How I pray:
“I prayed really hard for my friend, but her test results still came back positive for cancer.”

(I expect that because I prayed, God will act on that and heal my friend.  God, you can like hear the pride dripping off that prayer, lol.  Yikes!)

How I should probably pray:
“I pray for my friend, that God will heal her; and if He doesn’t, that He uses her illness for a good purpose and to draw her closer to Himself.”

(I hope that God will bring my friend to good health, but if He doesn’t, I can trust that He will work things out for good, because God is good.)

How I pray:
“I bought a lottery ticket, and I pray that I’ll win the lottery so I can finally get rid of all my soul-crushing debt.”

(I really crack myself up sometimes.)

How I should probably pray:
“I pray that God helps to provide the means I need to pay down my debt and to use my money wisely.”  (The lottery ticket doesn’t really matter so much here.)

(It sucks to admit this, by the way — I’m like super embarrassed — but I’m pretty sure I’m not alone.)

Why do I do this? I’m afraid.  Hoping is far too vague for me — I like my dreams concrete, my visions clear-cut.  I’m afraid that if I truly let go and hope that God will work all things out for good, that I won’t be able to know when it’s coming.  I won’t be able to plan for it.

Which leads to the idea of Grace, which I still have so much trouble with.  I have issues with God taking care of me when I can’t, but…that’s a post for another day, haha.

So I guess I’m asking for advice, and prayers.  What are ways that have worked for you? How have you moved from expectation to hope?