But then I stopped and got down on my knees, and really looked at the mud puddle....
Today I almost stepped in this puddle:
Just mud. When I look down, that's what I see. Always mud.
But then I stopped and got down on my knees, and really looked at the mud puddle....
And there was a little bit of Heaven, right in front of me.
Yesterday, during a very foggy walk, I noticed a weed. I judged it to be nothing but a dried up old weed on the side of the road. It was not beautiful, it was not unique, it was not wanted by anyone. Just an old weed, that's all. Not even worth noticing.
But last night, God, in his mercy, decided that old weed was worthy. So when the misty fog of heaven came down, the old and the dead became transformed.
In fact, an entire field of weeds was transformed in the dark, crystallized in glorious perfection. Together, the weeds reflected the pure light of the sun. It was dazzling.
It doesn't matter what people might have said or thought or how they may have judged this weed yesterday. Because today, God's mercy extends to the lowliest.
And mercy triumphs over judgement.
Still on the lookout for one precious moment in each day. Some days it is more difficult than others. Some days I am just cranky!
Today I am very grateful for sleep, which I know that I am going to get, sooner or later.
Also this pillowcase.
I bought it once upon a time, a very long time ago, at a garage sale on the street where my grandma used to live. It reminds me of her. It's a very beloved item around here. Somehow, the kids all think that the 'bluebird pillowcase' is special. How many hours did my grandmother spend, trying to teach me to stitch and sew? Was she always patient? Ha. I was not a very neat and tidy seamstress, follow-the-pattern sorta gal. I wanted to change everything and do it fast. I can still hear my grandma scolding "If it's worth doing, it's worth doing right!" Then all the crooked seams would be ripped out of the pink polka dot nightgown. The threads would flutter to the floor like raindrops, and we would begin again.
But I am smiling now, remembering her small and tidy stitches. And her patience.
And her love.
So now today ends on a beautiful note, after all. Thanks, Grandma.
Which moment will you hang on to today?
“What are we doing for New Year’s Eve, Mom?”
It was the 30th of December. Plans had been made. The Vietnamese egg rolls had been ordered and picked up. Shopping almost done. Phô ingredients in the fridge. Well, almost. I forgot the bean sprouts. And the shrimp.
There was no meat in the house at all, except one leftover piece of salami. Maybe I should call it Ramen instead of Phô. Then they wouldn’t expect anything exotic like limes or vegetables or meat. Also, the noodles are mung bean, not rice stick. Technically, mung bean noodles in broth are neither phô nor ramen. Who was I trying to kid? But the broth was really good, I reasoned. I bought fresh basil! Maybe they wouldn't notice.
Did I mention the kids had been sick? Of course they were. After every major holiday for the last 21 years, someone in my family has gotten sick. So like clockwork, right after Christmas, the stomach aches had begun.
“What are we doing for New Year’s Eve, Mom?” The question repeated, jolting me out of my reverie.
“Well, dear. Three people still have stomach aches. And since someone puked on the dog in the middle of the night, I think we better keep it a little low key…Let’s enjoy our egg rolls and Phô and have some fun!”
“So, Mom. Let me get this straight." True teenage tact. "What you’re really saying is that for New Year’s Eve, we are staying home and eating soup?”
“Yeah, something like that. Want to eat egg rolls today instead? It’s almost New Year’s Eve, and there really isn’t any other food in the house.”
They were delicious.
We all said “Happy New Year” and smiled.
The next day, the Real New Year’s Eve, my kid said “Mom, did you know that some people watch T.V. on New Year’s Eve, and there is this giant silver ball thing that drops in New York City? Someday can we see that?”
“Sure, kid. Someday... Hey, there is just one egg roll left in the fridge. I hid it under the lettuce so no one else could find it. Do you want it?”
"Aww, Happy New Year, Mom."
Happy New Year indeed.
7:00 a.m. Happy Thanksgiving text from the family.
9:00 a.m. Early Mass.
By 11:00 a.m., I had peeled 22.5 pounds of potatoes. I am not kidding. I am the Undisputed Mashed Potato Queen. I have prepared mashed potatoes for family holidays for many years, because they are impossible to mess up. It’s all about butter, whipping cream and vast quantities of potatoes. But about the time I put the third stock pot of water on to boil the last of the spuds, I knew something was not right.
At 1:00 p.m. We were supposed to be at Thanksgiving Dinner, for 31 people.
But Small One had a headache, a raging sore throat, and a fever of 101.5.
Time for a plan B.
1:20, late as usual, the rest of the family packed into the trucks with the potatoes and drove away for dinner. Small One and I cuddled up on the couch together.
“Happy Thanksgiving, Kiddo.” I said. “Just you and me. What do you want to do?”
“I like corn.” She whimpered, huddling under her blanket. “Can we eat corn out of a can together?”
Yes, we can.
And so we did.
After all the cooking of the morning, the only clean pot in the kitchen was an egg poacher. I was far too tired to wash dishes. So I dumped the egg poaching cups out of the pan, and dumped a can of corn into the poacher. In a few short minutes, we were cuddled up together in the big arm chair. The poacher piled on top of every other pot and pan and potato bowl in the house, and I left it balancing there.
And Small One and I ate canned corn with mashed potatoes. She wore a damp washcloth on her head.
Our Thanksgiving feast was unusually quiet.
There was no hand holding, no long traditional prayer. No cousins jumped about, shrieking and laughing, snitching treats. No games of tag were dashed under the table or up the stairs. No aunts discussed politics or sales, no uncles hammered out the details and how-to’s of organic gardening or ant farms. No sisters talked about low-glycemic desserts, and no sisters dished up huge portions of homemade gluten free pie, crowned with whipped cream. No college kids regaled us with horror stories of final exams or roommates. No one asked me to cut up their food.
Just Small One and I, together, ate canned corn with mashed potatoes. We did smile at each other.
And we were thankful.
She was thankful that she had her mom. She had her blanket. And she had her favorite food, canned corn.
I was thankful for peace. For hugs from my child. For the antibiotics that would surely cure yet another case of strep throat. I was thankful for the dirty dishes piled high, which meant that there was plenty of food for the family celebration. I was thankful for the family. Even if I wasn’t with them. I was thankful for my mom, who hosted the party in her always-clean house, for a sister who made three turkeys, for a sister in law who baked all the pies. I was thankful for the sister in law who made a special plate up for me, when all was said and done, with the best slices of turkey on it. And mashed potatoes. Lots of mashed potatoes.
I fell asleep, holding Small One while she watched Charlie Brown’s Thanksgiving special.
I slept in the peace and quiet of alone-ness, hugging my feverish child, and dreaming of My Big Fat Family Parties. It was almost like I was there, in the fray.
Sometimes being absent makes me appreciate life even more.
And I’m thankful for that.
Small things matter.
Especially when the Big Things sometimes get out of control and overwhelmingly negative,
small things matter.
The daily news sometimes hits me like a ton of bricks, and I feel crushed by the pains of this world. I can't write. I can't paint. Empathy hurts.
“Are you crying about that, Mom?”
Of course I am.
“You don’t even know those people!”
I don’t need to know them. I see the homeless, the downtrodden, the oppressed, and I feel their sorrow. Some great people feel called to action. They become powerful and invigorated when they see others’ needs. They are motivated to do great things and change the world for the better. Dorothy Day, Mary Jo Copeland, Mother Teresa… They are Real, they are Extraordinary, they are Magnificent.
I’m not one of them.
I see suffering, and I just get knocked down to my knees. But I am beginning to think that’s not only a bad thing. Because on my knees, I am praying. And only when I am on my knees can I see the small things that make all the difference.
Small things are easy to overlook. Like these dewdrops on the grass…
If I wasn’t on my knees, I never would have noticed them. The veins in this beautiful Maple leaf show me that there is order and design here in the universe. I didn’t make it. I can’t understand it. Certainly can’t control it. But I don’t have to. Even if I feel chaos or pain around me, those feelings do not sum up the entirety of the world. News headlines cannot take away the perfection surrounding us.
God is here, and He has it under control. I just need to pay attention to the little things.
They are everywhere. They are perfect. Just as they always have been.
And that matters.
Last night, just as the sun began to set, I began a long drive home. I don't often get to just sit and watch the sky, but last night was an exception. I was a captive audience to the most amazing moon transformation! I wasn't washing dishes, I wasn't putting kids to bed, I wasn't sorting paperwork or homework or planning for tomorrow. For two and a half hours, I just watched the moon. Well, and the roads, of course. The roads were pretty deserted, because everyone else was busy sitting on their patios, watching the moon with their kids. I called a friend to let her know how beautiful it was, and believe it or not, they had known in advance that the supermoon eclipse was coming. They had their camera all set up already. They probably even had popcorn.
I, apparently, was the only one on earth that didn't know it this was planned in advance. Like everything else in life, it took me by surprise. And I didn't have my camera with me.
But I had coffee. I had silence. And I had the moon. The night felt so ethereal and majestic; I wanted to be part of it, be in it. Being hermetically sealed in a metal car, looking through a window wasn't enough. I wanted to fly, to feel the wind on my face, and breathe in the night...
So I rolled down all my car windows, just in time to be flooded with a fog of fresh woodland skunk.
Way to ruin my dreams of night flying.
Back in my sardine can. The moon was glorious anyway, even when viewed through a window.
I made it home just before the moon disappeared completely under the red shadow...
My kids and I watched the rest of the magnificent eclipse together, breathing in the damp dark air, laughing together in the glow of the moon. No homework. No skunks.
And that's just the way I would have planned it.
Before my daughter was born with Down Syndrome, some people painted a grim and terrible picture of what my life would be like if such a thing happened.
“Your life will never be the same!”
“Your life will revolve around hospitals.”
“You won’t have time for your other kids.”
“You will always be sad and regretful of the things your child cannot do.”
Even after she was born, a geneticist at a specialty clinic upbraided me, using primitive scare tactics.
“I know you like babies, but you will never want to have another baby after this one,” she said in an authoritative voice, towering over me in my daughter’s cardiology office. “You will worry and agonize every moment of another pregnancy. You’re old and your risks are high that this will happen to you again.”
She said this to me as my small, almond-eyed daughter cooed softly in my arm, tightly gripping my finger and my heartstrings.
Despite that doctor’s admonishments and scolding, a couple of years later, my daughter grew into a glorious, curious toddler. And I did get pregnant again. On purpose.
I was 39 years old.
At that ultrasound appointment, the doctor examined my prenatal son’s body closely. He measured limbs, organs, examined bone structure, checking all the typical markers for Down Syndrome.
“You need to have a Triple Screen done,” he said. “I don’t see results in your file. You are considered a geriatric in the ob/gyn world, so you need to have that done. The fetal matter is high risk for abnormalities.”
Wait. He had just told me I was having a son. Why was he now calling my little man fetal matter and wanting tests for abnormalities?
“Look. I’m not afraid,” I said. “I already have a child with Down Syndrome, and she’s not the least bit scary. She’s wonderful and absolutely beloved.”
The doctor looked me in the eye for a moment. He closed his file, stood up, and left the room without another word.
After he was gone, the young ultrasound technician leaned in toward me, with a confiding smile.
“I’m not allowed to say this in the office", she said in a hushed voice. "But I’m so happy for you! My friend has a toddler with Down Syndrome, and he is full of love. He has made their family’s life so rich and happy! I know how much love your daughter brings.”
We chatted about babies and Down Syndrome for a few more minutes, quietly sharing the joy that we both knew well. Babies with Down Syndrome are, like every baby, full of Love.
As an expectant parent, you may feel afraid. You will be tested, and categorized, and railroaded. You will be counseled, scolded, and warned. You may feel inept or not up to the task, or just plain stressed out, because all circumstances are not ideal. But talk is talk. Threats of doom are just threats. You don’t have to go down that path of worry and fear. Especially if your child shows some characteristic that seems unique, or challenging, or just plain scary…
Don’t lose sight of the simple truth.
Your life will change forever, because you will be filled with Love.
When my daughter was about a month old, I was holding her in my arms, speaking to a friend. A man in a suit, a stranger, approached me. He was visiting from out of town, he said. "My own son has Down Syndrome, too. I miss him so much when I travel. May I hold her, please?” he asked. He cradled my baby close to his heart, then kissed her soft, peachy face. Tears dripped down his cheek and into his beard. “You have no idea of the Love that is in store for you,” he said, and walked away.
He was right.
You have no idea of the Love that is in store for you.
That is the truth.
Here is a small thing that I found in my garden today.
It doesn’t belong there. It’s just a weed, winding its way into my garden from the ever-moving, encroaching woods. There are a million of these things out there. I rip them out without thinking of anything but the tomatoes I planted, that are ripening somewhere in the forest of weeds.
“Stop!” one of my kids yelled in dismay. He had come to keep me company. “Don’t pull the Elephants!”
“What? What elephants?”
“Mom! That thing in your hand! You’re ripping out the beautiful Elephants!”
I stopped and took a closer look.
“See Mom? Two big ears, and a trunk? These are baby elephants! Don’t pull them out, they’re my favorite.”
He ran off to play, and I was left, standing in the weeds, thinking.
Admiring the elephants.
Why hadn’t I seen these before? How could I miss these magnificent elephants, living right in my front garden?
Each flower is only about a centimeter across. They grow on thin vines, tangling all through my garden. I just dismissed them as weeds, never taking time to look more closely. But now, I was seeing things through my child’s eyes. He sees the world differently, more clearly. His sight is not clouded by experience and utilitarianism.
He sees only wonder and magnificence.
It’s right here, all around us. Wonder and Magnificence. The God who created you and me is an artist who cares, right down to the intricate details. This tiny, unnoticed elephant flower living in obscurity in my garden is living proof of the Creator’s love and care for us. Wow. Kids see things so clearly. Life is so rich and beautiful when I have someone to help me see it.
I’m going to check for elephants in my living room now…
“I see you have a child with Down Syndrome. (Snort) So how’s that goin’ for ya?”
The woman waited for a response, looking at me with a snarky smile. I took a deep, slow breath.
How does one answer a question like this?
Was she hoping I would give her an inside scoop, gossip with a stranger about the difficulties of caring for a child with special needs? Could she be serious?
I know it’s easy to get defensive. Maybe she wasn’t trying to be rude. Maybe she really wanted to know.
A lot of people want to know.
Children with Down Syndrome are just not seen much these days. They are like an elusive, gentle, endangered Panda.
“My daughter is doing really well, actually.” I begin. “She’s a gentle kid who loves to read. She is one of the kindest people I’ve ever known.”
I smiled at the woman. After a few more minutes of chatting, when she walked away, she smiled back.
Only now, her smile was genuine.
Today reminded me that life is not about confrontation. It’s not about winning by lawmaking, or by brute force, or even by being just rude.
We win this life one heart at a time, with gentleness. With love.
Because when people care, it makes all the difference....
for both an endangered animal and for a child.
No headlines, no news today.
No schedule, no stress.
Just happy summer peace.
These moments exist. Not often, but some rare days are just sunshine and butterflies. Resting in the Proverbial Pastures...lying down in the restful green.
I want to hang on to this day for a very long time. Perhaps in the dead of January, I will need to be reminded that today actually happened. Even by tonight, I will get caught up in busyness, crankiness and laundry, I will sink into the abyss of endless work… yikes.
I will forget that there was peace.
So here you go: Remind me, please, that I sat around in the sunshine today, just waiting for this butterfly to land.
I hope you, too, get a chance to sit in the pastures and just be.
Before, I didn’t know.
Before my child was born with Down Syndrome, I never thought about what it meant to have a child that was Special. Because all my kids were special. Each one is unique, with his or her own talents, abilities and struggles. They are all special. But Stella is Special, with a capital S. It’s a little something extra.
That extra chromosome has done something remarkable and different to her, that I never could have understood before I knew her. One tiny extra chromosome has changed everything.
Let me explain with a story.
One evening, when Stella was about two years old, our family visited a church that was not our own. As presentations were made by speakers, Stella got a bit antsy, so I left the pew and stood in the back of the church to bounce her in my arms. Maybe she would fall asleep, so I could hear the presentations and learn something. I had a few stressors at the time, and could use a bit of a spiritual boost. I was looking forward to this.
But Stella had another idea. She wiggled and wriggled, trying energetically to get down, away from me. In her deep, low voice, she started to repeat “Dow. Dowww!” She emphatically wanted down, and she wasn’t about to be shushed. I set her down on the floor, and she began ambling straight toward a man against the back wall. I followed, trying to quietly corral her back in a corner where we could have a little personal space, and wouldn’t disturb anyone. No way. Stella persisted, and beelined as fast as she could, right up to the man.
He was stern looking, bearded, and wearing old jeans. Stella walked right up to him, and hugged his leg.
“Sorry,” I mumbled, and sheepishly retrieved my child.
For the next five or ten minutes, we repeated this scene.
People were starting to stare.
Stella would yell at me to let her down, and right away, she’d run to the man, and hug his leg.
Soon she began to call “Uppa! Uppa!”
The man looked bewildered.
“I’m sorry,” I stammered. “She wants you to pick her up.”
“Really?” He looked surprised. Then he leaned down, and held out his arms. My little Stella embraced him, tightly wrapping her arms around his neck.
I stood right next to him, watching.
Stella buried her face in his bearded neck, gently touching the back of his head with her small fingers. She petted him, and rested. A group of people watched Stella, no longer paying any attention to the speaker. Everyone in the back of the crowded church was watching the toddler hugging the grizzled man.
She rested for about ten minutes like that, nestled in his arms. Loving him.
When the speaker finished whatever it was she was saying, the man gently handed my daughter back to me.
“Thank you,” he said, and walked away, into the starry night. A tear glistened on his cheek.
After he left, a man and woman approached me. “Do you know that man?” They asked.
“I am astonished that your daughter went up to him like that!”
“He’s the crankiest, grumpiest man! He doesn’t talk to anyone, he always just stands in the back, scowling and waiting.”
Before I knew Stella, I would have been surprised. Perhaps embarrassed, even. But not now. Now I know Stella. That little extra chromosome has given her a superpower, an ability to love others, unfiltered. Unchained by manners, or propriety, or personal space issues. Without words, without a presentation, or a speech… With something as simple and uncomplicated as a hug, she helps people feel God’s love.
And I am not surprised at all.
Because now, I know.
Sometimes Special comes with a capital “S”.
This week, I found five unexpected surprises in my yard.
2. Bleeding Hearts. Every year, Dog makes a bed out of this plant, wrecking it entirely. He starts out by losing his tennis ball nearby, and tears up the earth looking for it. This plant has always gotten in his way, and become nothing but a sleeping mat for Dog. And I always get angry. But not this year. This year we outsmarted him by enclosing the plant with rocks. We win!
3. Poison Ivy. Yep. This is what Dog chose to roll about and play in, since he couldn’t reach the Bleeding Hearts. Dog has had two very soapy baths this week. He was alternately pleased, unhappy, and confused. We lose.
4. I will never go out in the woods again. This girl wasn’t afraid of my camera in the least. I am the one who found her, and I am terrified.
5. Someone planted a garden here, long ago. It’s only when I am too busy to breathe that I get surprises like this. When I have no time to weed the garden, when I just let the green little sprouts alone, the strangest and most beautiful surprises pop up. Sometimes it’s good to be too tired to meddle. Lovely Things happen all by themselves.
What is the point of all this rambling, you ask?
I’m getting there.
Usually I just write about the Love, Joy, and Peace that I find.
And I do find it! Even in the strangest places.
That doesn’t mean that other things don’t exist for me. The proverbial Poison Ivy, black eyes, creepy spiders…everyone has them.
But we all get to choose what we want to keep in our pockets and memories. I want to remember the Love. I want to cherish the smile and contentment of a girl who played hard and won. I want to treasure Joy in the plant that actually survived the Dog! I want to remember this blueish flower. It’s unique and exciting, and I did nothing to create or nurture it. It needed me to step aside and let it be, in Peace. I can appreciate that.
So now you know. Love, Joy, and Peace are here, right in the middle of everything creepy.
And you get to choose what you want to hold on to.
I met him two years ago, in Washington DC.
Within the shadow of our nation’s capitol, the citizens of the First World bustled past, unnoticing. I was among them. We moved across the sidewalks and crosswalks as fish swimming in a school, fluid and fast. He sat against the side of a brick building, alone, clutching a worn backpack.
Our eyes met.
“Please,” he reached up his hand with a whisper, “I’m so hungry.”
I stopped because he whispered, gently.
“Have you had lunch today?” I asked, reaching into my pocket.
“No, Ma’am. God bless you, Ma’am.”
My own lunch money weighed on me heavily. I had restaurant plans. The five dollar bill I handed to him seemed, suddenly, grossly deficient. I switched pockets, knowing that 5 bucks wouldn’t buy him much lunch at Burger King across the street.
“Where are you from?” I asked. I was not accustomed to being called Ma’am. “What’s your name?”
“James. I’m from Mississippi,” he began. Then came Vietnam. Then just drifting… I did some coal mining.” he began to unbutton his shirt, revealing two large, mirrored scars on his dark chest. “I just got too many problems at once, so I come up here… I got kids, too. I don’t see them anymore. I figure life’s gotta be better in the city.”
We talked for a few more minutes. He told me my daughters were beautiful, just like their Momma.
I gave him my lunch money.
And that was that.
It was time to move on. But before I left, he asked me for something more.
“You pray for me, Ma’am. And I’ll pray for you.”
“I will, James. I will.”
Then I walked away.
I walked away, but something about my conversation with James had changed me.
He was a vagrant. A miner. A veteran. A father. Somewhere, someone loved him.
He told me that Someone was Jesus. “He’s with me, right out here on the street,” James had said. “He’s the one that sent you to give me lunch today. He brings me joy, every day. And he loves you, too.”
You; the Forgotten, the Hungry, the Abandoned, the Alone…
You have Joy?
You have Love?
You told me that you also have Peace.
You, James, Unknown Soldier, have the three elusive riches that the Wealthy World strives to find, and cannot. You have nothing, and yet you have everything.
Well, James. Today I am back in Washington DC, and I went looking for you. I wanted you to know that you changed how I see people, James. You helped me to find Love, Joy, and Peace in my own little world. I wanted to remember you in a real way, and say thank you, James.
So I went to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
I didn’t find you. But you know what I did find, James?
I found hundreds and thousands of you…
Your fellow veterans were there for you, James. They came in massive caravans of motorcycles, swarming the National Mall, slowly making their pilgrimage to Arlington National Cemetery across the bridge. They rode, they walked, they held each other up as they climbed the hill. They brought their families. They brought flowers. They came with children. And burdens. And tears.
They wore leather, and white ponytails, and grizzled beards. They wore crisp military uniforms and brass buttons and crew cuts. They wore baby packs and held on to strollers, walkers, and canes.
Though they came to the cemetery, they also came to give respect and honor to the Other Unknown Soldiers…to the veterans whose lives are still a living sacrifice. They honor the veterans who are still fighting the battles of disability, woundedness, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Like you, James.
This day is for you.
This week, I realized for the first time that I am married to a Firefighter.
I thought he was a sensitive artist type, but I was mistaken.
He’s a Firefighter.
The way I see it, Firefighters are always on alert, constantly ready to stop catastrophes. They see a billowing plume of smoke, and dash out with a big truck, hose and axe to stop the fire and fix the problem.
But my problem is that I am the problem.
And I’m not on fire.
Being an emotional person, sometimes (okay, let’s admit it. Not sometimes, but daily…) I have emotional outbursts. My billowing clouds of emotion tumble about, rising and falling, blown about by the winds of change. And they do change. The emotional clouds change color (from pale, baby blue all the way to darkest, threatening green) they change shape and size (from ooo, a pretty one - all the way to OMG get out of the way, it’s a funnel cloud!) But the point is, they are clouds. Emotions aren’t tangible objects. They float about, scare people sometimes, and then disappear as quickly as they arise. They seldom emit downpours, unless, of course, it is Typhoon Season. Then you’d just better get the heck out of the way.
Now, all this cloud activity would be fine if I had married an artist, or even a weatherman.
But apparently, I didn’t.
I married a Firefighter.
At the first sign of rising smoke (or clouds or steam or even slight vapors) he grabs his trusty axe. Engines roaring with efficiency and power, he puts on a self contained breathing apparatus. He grabs a light and radio, and personal protective gear. He watches the Emotional Clouds for changes in volume, color, intensity, and movement. He listens for popping sounds and stressing noises. He scans the walls for cracks. He is on the offense, ready to chop down doors and bulldoze firebreaks and blast my Emotional Cloud with 126 psi of water pressure.
He has one thought only. Kill the fire. Quick.
But, as we all know, there is no real fire. Only my Emotional Clouds.
The more my Firefighter tries to dissipate the clouds, the more I huff and puff and my emotions blow into tornadoes, hurricanes, thunderstorms, and even an occasional blizzard. Water doesn’t help that. His offensive tactics with water only ice everything up.
And he doesn’t want that.
This whole scenario sounds hopeless… Stressful! Whatever can we do to fix it? How can we get rid of the blasted smoke?
The answer is so easy, it’s magical. You just need the right person for the job.
Call off the firefighter.
Call up the sister.
“Hello?” she’ll say, answering her cell phone at any hour.
That’s all she needs. Just by the tone of my “Hi,” she can assess the emotional content, and she knows what to say, what to do, and how to proceed. Her response may be a compassionate sigh, an I’m-fed-up retort, or even an all-out laugh. She has even been known to scold my Emotional Clouds away with an oh-for-heaven’s-sake-you’re-ridiculous response. Whatever she says, it is usually perfect. Five minutes with my sister, and the threatening Emotional Cloud disappears, melting into a comfortable summer breeze. Sunshine, even. Great weather forecast for the rest of the day!
And my poor, besieged Firefighter is left standing in his tangled pile of high tech, fireproof gear, without a smoke cloud in sight, wondering what happened. He has all this power and muscle, intensity, technology, and testosterone, yet all his best efforts often make that cloud worse. And while he is baffled by and battling the stormclouds from hell, a tiny 110 pound, middle-aged woman vanquishes his enemy over a cell phone.
Works every time. He’ll never really know how or why. He wouldn’t understand it, anyway.
But I do. Firefighters battle fires.
And I don’t deal out real fires, just Billowing, Blustering Emotional Clouds of smoke.
And that kind of smoke is best blown away by the soft gentle breeze of a Sister.
Thank God for sisters!
And thank God for Firefighters, too. They are overworked and underpaid. Perhaps they are under-appreciated, a tiny bit, though you'll never hear that from me.
I love my Firefighter.
Everything is brand new today.
The world is awakening...
The birds are singing their hallelujah chorus...
Today is a gift of possibilities for you. What will you do with it?
So, it happened again yesterday.
I’m quite used to it now.
Ever since my child was born with Down Syndrome, I became Conspicuous.
We are no longer passed by on the street, unnoticed. We stand out. We are smiled at, hugged, patted on the arm, greeted warmly as if we are long lost friends, and welcomed. We have also been frowned at, turned away from, and even cried to.
People notice us.
Once, when Stella was only about three months old, she slept in her carseat next to me while we ate at a restaurant. One of the employees began to wipe down tables near us, looking inquisitively in our direction. She cleaned closer and closer, until at last, she walked right over to me, staring at my baby.
“What a beautiful baby you have there,” she began.
“Thank you. She’s pretty new.”
“She is adorable.” The lady cooed at Stella, then her misty eyes began to drip.
“Is she very hard?” she asked.
“Is she very difficult? To take care of, I mean?”
“She’s quite easy going, actually. She likes to be cuddled. She has been to doctors quite a lot, but she is pretty calm there, too. She’s a content baby.”
The stranger then started to cry. She explained to me how 50 years ago, when she was a very young mother, she had given birth to a child with Down Syndrome, also. The people in her life and the doctor convinced her that the child would be too much work for her. “Too many needs,” they said. “They told me she was a big problem and that she would never function in the world and she would be a burden on me the rest of my life. But you know what?” The woman continued, “Not a day has gone by that my heart doesn’t break over her. I wonder what she is doing, and what she would look like. I wonder if she was ever happy. She will be fifty years old this month. They never even let me hold her before they took her away…”
I held this woman’s work-worn, wrinkled hand while she cried in the restaurant. Then I placed Stella’s tiny hand in hers. She held on, and my daughter’s hand became the link that somehow connected her to her own long-lost, beloved daughter.
When her tears had run dry, we hugged and parted ways.
“I wanted her.” She said. “I always wanted her. And I love her to this day.”
My own heart ached with this woman’s fifty years of hidden pain and regret. I wish I could have said something to her, to support her way back when she was a young mother, afraid. I wish I could have put her baby’s hand in hers, and helped her give and receive the Love that her child brought. The Love that they both needed to be happy. My heart aches with compassion for her and all Mothers like her, those who hold on to pain and heartbreak instead of small hands.
I am a very Conspicuous Mother, noticed and confided in where ever I go, holding my child’s hand. And I promise you that Mothers love their children forever, no matter what.
I am so grateful to have this small hand to hold.
Happy Easter from the real Easter Bunny! Her name is Philomena.
She worked very hard last night, delivering all those baskets. As your kids search around for candy and eggs, Phil would like you to know that it is always possible to find joy, no matter what your circumstances. You just have to know where to search:
Look Up! Philomena says to Cheer Up, Keep your Hopes Up, Look Up, Rise Up, the Sun is Coming Up... The answer to what you are looking for is Up.
“Good night, I love you. God Bless You.”
A kiss on the forehead, a caress on the cheek. Tuck the covers up over her shoulder and around down, under her chin.
She has her flashlight, the closet door is closed.
One last look around the room… “I love you.” Then I shut the door.
But not all the way, of course.
How many times did I go through this routine?
I was always too tired to appreciate it. Exhausted and weary…
I didn’t really comprehend that one night was going to be the last night.
But it was.
One night, I tucked her in, she smiled up at me with dreamy eyes, half mast.
Then I watched the glowing sun, sinking so slowly on the horizon, the colors were spectacular and vivid and I thought it just couldn’t get any more beautiful and precious.
It seemed only a few moments.
The stars appeared in the darkness, and I felt an ache in my heart and a lump in my throat as a premonition, warning me of change.
“They grow up fast,” the old ladies warned, when they had arrived with baby presents. “Cherish every moment,” they had chided when she was noisy at church. “It can’t last forever,” they had smiled through gritted teeth, waiting to pick up their own kid from driver’s ed.
They were right.
When the sun rose the next morning, the birds sand a joyful song and the world awoke to a brand new day.
And she was all grown up.
I should have been doing the laundry.
I should have been making breakfast.
God knows I should have been cleaning the floors, or scrubbing the bathroom, or wiping the 3,000 fingerprints off the windows.
But something magical happened in the forest this week.
Usually, the forest is dark, dormant and barren in winter. Cruelly abandoned, really. The leaves are gone, the butterflies and flowers are gone. The songbirds bailed a long time ago. They’re somewhere South, sipping margaritas on a sandy beach, posting colorful selfies on instagram to those of us who are jealous and cold and left behind.
Left behind, we feverishly clean our cabins and long for spring. Because it gets claustrophobic and messy, living in a box in the snow for six months out of the year. I miss the sunshine. It’s dark in the box.
But, for one glorious morning hour this week, all that darkness was transformed.
Who knows what all was involved…humidity, temperature, the angle of the lights, the alignment of the planets… Whatever it was, it was perfect. Every stick, every twig and every branch in the woods was covered in ice. Illuminated with icy, heavenly light, the forest sparkled. It glowed. It refracted rainbow spectrums and ignited the woods with joy.
I left the housecleaning in a heartbeat, and coaxed Small One out the door.
This was one of those moments. One of those experiences that stay with you forever, able to warm your heart on the coldest of future days.
Small One and I walked through the diamond forest together.
An hour later, the sun had weakly risen in the sky, the ice had melted, and not one glittering crystal remained on any branch. It was back to darkness again. Normal. As if nothing remarkable had ever happened.
We returned home, back to the laundry pile of doom and the drudgery of cleaning…
Later that afternoon, as I burned dinner yet another time, Small One smiled at me.
“Remember the diamonds, Mom?”
“Yes, Small One.”
“We walked right in the middle, didn’t we?”
Yes, Small One.
I smiled back at her, and felt the joy return.
Yes, they are old. You may think that they are over, and they are done.
But these hydrangeas just keep giving. In the dark and cold and thirty degrees below zero wind chills, they give life.
The shrub feeds a pair of cardinals and other birds. It gives them a bit of shelter to hide from the wind... a bit of comfort in a sometimes frigid world. The birds are joyful about it, too. They fluff about and huddle deep in the branches, their clear songs ring out, breaking the silence of snow.
Hydrangeas remind me of my grandmother. She is gone now, but the seeds she planted and the memories she left still remain. They warm my heart on the cold days, reminding me that I was loved. The teeny tiny, gentle woman wore pastel and liked flowers and wrapped her fluffy hair in toilet paper at night to keep the style safe after she had it set at the beauty parlor up the road. She painted her fingernails pink, but she was fiercely strong.
She had wanted to be a nurse, but when the War came along, she worked in a factory instead. She married a soldier who she met when he was dancing, wrapped up in crepe paper in a pub on Halloween night. Then this woman, who had wanted to be a nurse and go dancing, lived the rest of her life taking care of others instead. She cared for her children, her mother in law, her mother, her grandchildren, and even touched the lives of her great grandchildren, showering them with love and food and a place to call home. She cared for the immigrants and the poor, she taught children and fed the birds. And come hell or high water, she went to Mass to pray every day.
Now she is gone and it is winter.
But the seeds of her love are here still. I remember her big pots of soup, homemade noodles drying on paper bags all over the kitchen. I remember her gentleness, her "Ach, Schatzie! You're such good kids!" She dropped everything and moved in with us whenever my mom was ill. She stepped in and adapted to our teenage lives, doing what she could to make it better. In cooking and cleaning and doing all the monotonous small things, she gave us structure and stability when life was tough. She surprised me once with a pink satin dress for homecoming, when my mom was in the hospital and my world was dark. She pushed aside my black combat boots, and said, "Put on a little pink lipstick, Dearie. The world is a beautiful place."
That's why I wanted to share my hydrangea with you today.
It may be old.
But it's a good place to find shelter from the storm.
“Good Morning!” my friend sang out when I answered my cell phone. “Want to have a long distance cup of coffee?”
“Sure,” I say.
“Ooooh! Good! I’m sitting here in a lawn chair on the sandy beach. The Gulf air is so warm,” she beamed. “People all around me are playing and swimming. I’m wearing a sweatshirt, though, because I’m a little chilly.”
“What a coincidence,” I say, without a hint of sarcasm. “We are also at the beach.”
We chit chat for a just a few minutes.
“I love you.”
“I love you, too.”
Then my friend returns to the sunshine and her cup of plain, weak black coffee, just how she likes it. I turn back to our frozen beach, longing for the thick, caffeine-jacked coffee awaiting me at home.
Here at our beach, it’s minus 2 degrees with a strong north wind, which cuts through my jacket like a knife and makes my ears pulse. My fingers hurt and my toes are numb, but someone has plowed a rink, and my five year old is learning how to ice skate… And she is smiling. Her too-big boots do a shuffle-shuffle-glide across the frozen lake. Powdery snow blusters away on the wind with every step. Some years the ice is bumpy and pock-marked, but this year it is smooth as glass, reflecting the morning sun like a three-mile diamond.
And I am rich.
Not because I possess this three mile diamond.
Not because someone is on a balmy vacation, and I am not.
But because we are here, skating across the public beach on a winter morning, freezing our extremities off. And we are together.
Because we can say “I love you” and mean it.
“Hey, Small One!” I yell over the icy blasting wind. “Want some hot chocolate?”
I hold her hand as we make our way to shore.
“I love you, Mom.”
“I love you, too.”
And I am rich, indeed.
I found this flower out in the shadows of the woods. He faithfully turns up every summer. He stays in the filtered and dark places, the forgotten and lonely places, raising his leaves like flags to the world.
Jack in the Pulpit, they call him. Three leaves clustered together for the Trinity. He holds those Trinity leaves up all summer, in rain or in wind, even until the frost comes and changes the flower to a heart of bright, blood red seeds.
After that, he fades away in the snow.
But I know he'll be back around the time that Easter returns.
Sometimes, you may not feel it. Sometimes, you might even doubt it.
But you are loved.
If you can't see the truth in this, then perhaps you are looking in the wrong spot.
Because everywhere I look, I see how much He loves you, and how much he wants you to know that he does. It is written in the leaves, in the flowers, in the stars.
And if today, no one else tells you this, I want to be the one to give you the message. To deliver your beautiful valentines. To show you how much he cares.
You are loved.
He's whispering his love into the wind. He's writing it into the woods. Can you hear it? Can you see?