Talking About Hard Things (With Kids)

(Everyday Bravery, Day 4)

As I related on my other blog last month, my six-year-old son recently asked me about the Zika virus:

While I was driving, my boy spotted a bug in the car and I told him that I’d seen a mosquito. “Is that mosquito virus here yet?” he asked.

“Mosquito virus? Do you mean Zika?”

He did.

“Well, it’s here in the United States,” I told him. “But it’s not here in our area. It’s in Florida.”

“Oh, that’s too bad for the babies there. There will be a lot of babies dying in their mommies’ tummies.”

Most people would probably be appalled to know that my six-year-old was thinking of such things. I’ll admit to feeling a little guilty about it. But mostly, I just felt proud. My boy is paying attention. He’s understanding. He’s asking questions. He’s caring. And he wrapped up our conversation by suggesting that we pray for the babies.

“God, please take care of the babies in their mommies’ tummies. Please keep them from getting the mosquito virus. That’s all.”

In reality, the conversation was a little longer than I made it out in my post. When he mentioned the babies that would be dying in their mommies’ tummies, I explained to him how Zika works. I told him that it impacts the brains of babies born to women with the virus, causing them to be too small. That the babies wouldn’t necessarily die from the illness, but that it would cause a lot of problems for them. I was as honest as I could be.

Because in our family, we talk about hard things with our kids.

We talk about death. We talk about life after death and about war and illness and guns and racism and bullying. We answer their questions as honestly as we can. We try to simplify these sometimes-complicated concepts so that our kids can begin to understand them.

Our boys know that all people – including them and us and other people they love – will die. We tell them that we hope it won’t happen for a long, long, long, long, long, long, LONG time, when we/they have become very, very old and have lived good, long lives – but that we just can’t know.

When they ask what happens to people when they die, I tell them that we hope they go to heaven. I say that we should try to be very, very good during our lives and to love Jesus very, very much – so much that when we die we go straight to heaven to be with Him. And I encourage them to pray for the dead: “Dear Lord, please help Grandpa Ed go to heaven to be with you.”

Our boys know that sometimes very sad things happen and that younger people – including children – die too. When we admonish them for dangerous behaviors, they routinely ask if they (or their siblings) could die from them. If they could, we tell them so. (The other day we caught one of them shaking the baby, so I brought up shaken baby syndrome.)

Sometimes I hate these conversations. I absolutely hated planting the horrible sadness of shaken baby syndrome in my kids’ minds. Sometimes I worry that we’ll make our children too fearful by talking about such things. (And I’m sure others will think we’re wrong to be so blunt.)

But so far, we haven’t made them too fearful. And so far, I think we’ve struck the right balance between honest information and loving tenderness.

We talk about hard things with our kids because we want our children to have their bearings. We want them to have a sense of the importance of it all, of consequences and underlying reasons. We want them to know that life here on earth is temporary, because you never know when that lesson will fly at them with ferocious sadness.

I listen to NPR almost all day long, in the car and in the kitchen, so my boys routinely hear snippets of war and shootings and unrest and disaster. (That’s how my son knew about the Zika virus.) Sometimes I turn it off if I think it’s gotten to be too much for them. But mostly, I welcome their questions about what they’re hearing and I try to help them process the information:

“Sometimes people become very angry with one another and they begin to fight. Sometimes people make mistakes. Sometimes people aren’t careful enough. Sometimes people don’t like other people because of how they look or what they believe about God. Sometimes the ground shakes. Sometimes big storms come.”

And then, “What do you do when you’re angry?” or “Do you sometimes make mistakes?” or “It’s all very, very sad. How about we pray for those people?”

We pray when something sad comes up on the news. We pray when we hear sirens. We pray when we learn that someone is hurt or ill or has died.

We talk about hard things. We try to help our children to understand them. We try to give them context. I do my best to plant the idea in my children’s minds that they have a role in it all – that they will encounter difficult things in life and that they will sometimes have opportunities to make them better. And that no matter how hopeless something seems, they can always pray.

I hope all of this – the talking about hard things, the honesty, the questions, the praying – I hope it encourages them to be brave.

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~~~

This post is the fourth in a series called Everyday Bravery: A Write 31 Days Challenge. Every day this month I’m publishing a blog post on Everyday bravery – not the heroic kind, not the kind that involves running into a burning building or overcoming some incredible hardship. Rather, the kinds of bravery that you and I can undertake in our real, regular lives. To see the full list of posts in the series, please check out its introduction.

These Walls - Everyday Bravery

~~~

Interested in coming along with me as I share stories about my family and chew on the topics of motherhood, politics, and society? Like These Walls on Facebook or follow the blog via email. (Click the link on the sidebar to the right.) You can also follow me on Twitter and Instagram and you can find me at my politics blog at the Catholic Review, called The Space Between.

 

Weighing the Politics of Death and Destruction

I can’t quite decide how I feel about one of the major themes of this year’s presidential election: Death and Destruction. That is, “Our country has been/is being/will be destroyed and we’re all going to DIE.”

Yes, that’s hyperbolic, but is it far off base?

Donald Trump’s rise was fueled to a large degree by people who think that President Obama or liberal politicians or establishment politicians in general have been running our country into the ground. In their telling, the great country we once knew is either dead and gone or on its way to becoming so.

On the other side of it, many Americans worry (and I confess to indulging in such worries myself) that Trump’s election could trigger the very destruction that his supporters see as already in motion.

Oh, and some of us are Very, Very worried that we’ll die at the hands of violent Islamic terrorists. Or violent criminals – especially the immigrant sort. Others of us are Very, Very worried that we’ll die at the hands of NRA-card-carrying, gun-toting fanatics.

Read the rest at the Catholic Review.

The Space Between - Weighing the Politics of Death and Destruction

The Lesson They Left

I went to two funerals last week.

The first was so lovely, really – it was for Mary Lenaburg’s beautiful, special Courtney, who had died the Saturday before, on the Feast of St. John the Beloved. The music at the funeral was heavenly, the homily and eulogy were warm, and though there was a real sense of mourning, the church was also full of love and hope. Courtney no longer suffers. She’s free, and in the words of her mother, “She is finally healed and whole. No more seizures. No more pain. Just all encompassing joy and love for an eternity.”

The second funeral came on much more unexpectedly. Mark Pacione, a long-time leader in youth ministry in the Archdiocese of Baltimore, died suddenly on the morning of December 29. His funeral felt more raw to me: it was beautiful, but also strong and real, not unlike Mark himself. The church was packed, filled up with person after person on whom Mark had had an impact. One needed only glance around the space to see it in others’ eyes – his was such a tremendous, personal loss.

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Given their proximity on the calendar, I can’t help but think of these two funerals together. And really, it’s fitting that I should file them together in my mind. These two amazing individuals, Courtney and Mark, represent the concept of love like none I have ever known.

I’ve already written on Courtney’s love. Hers is one that shows you how to love more deeply, unconditionally, purely:

In this year of knowing Mary (and through her, Courtney), I’ve learned something about love. (An undefined, powerful kind of something that I feel in my chest, but can hardly describe except to say, “I’ve got to love more.”) I’ve learned something about loving your child, your husband, your friends, about loving God. I’ve learned something about loving through hardship, about tenacity and stretching to meet the challenges put before you.

Mark’s example shows you the beauty of loving everyone. As was said during his funeral (and probably hundreds of times in the days surrounding it), when Mark was talking to you, he made you feel like you were the only person in the room. No matter who you were, no matter how well he knew you, Mark made you feel like you counted.

Both examples put into practice what we pro-life Catholics talk about, but which some of us, perhaps, don’t always live – that is, the conviction that all human life is sacred. Each and every one of us matters. That goes for the unborn, the ill, the disabled, those at the ends of their lives, and even that awkward teenager standing against the wall in a basement church hall. It goes for those we know only in passing and for those we pass but do not know.

I once had a pastor who, while shaking hands with parishioners after Mass, never seemed to make eye contact with any of them. He’d hold out his hand and touch it briefly to yours, but he wouldn’t look at you. His eyes would simply scan the crowd, as if he viewed it – us – as nothing more than a vague glob of humanity.

How often do I do the same? How often – in my haste or my distraction – do I brush past people, or if I stop to talk for a moment, give them only the pretense of my attention?

How often do I view people in terms of their utility to me? How often do I judge them by their beauty or their popularity? How often do I dismiss those who don’t meet certain (unworthy) standards?

Far, far too often.

Though my mind and the most honest part of my heart understand that all people are precious, that each and every one of us are made in the image and likeness of God, the rest of me needs reminding. My harried, distracted brain, my snobbery, my jealousy – I need to keep them in check. I need to be present enough, aware and thoughtful and loving enough to treat the people around me like they count.

Because they do.

Thank you, Courtney and Mark, for your beautiful examples to us. Thank you for letting God’s love work through you. Thank you for showing us how to do the same.

I Couldn’t Help But Cry

… this morning, when I heard this report:

Six heavily armed gunmen stormed a military school in Peshawar, Pakistan killing more than 130 people, mostly teenagers, and many the children of military officers. Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility for the deadly attack, possibly in retaliation for Pakistan’s military operations against it. The death toll makes this attack one of the worst in the region in decades and is a grim reminder of the ongoing political turmoil.

All those children, all those families. It’s overwhelming to think on what they must be going through right now.

Loving, of course, makes us vulnerable. And loving our children makes that vulnerability seem infinite. It’s hard to imagine a greater pain – a pain that will go on and on, perhaps overtaking us – than losing a child. To lose someone who is (in the case of a biological child) literally, physically part of you, to lose someone (in the case of any child, no matter how he or she came to be yours) into whom you have poured so much work and love, and in whom you have seen such beauty and promise… the magnitude of such a loss is difficult to comprehend.

Which is why the Taliban chose such a target. It’s why bitter, angry, attention-seeking, sometimes ill people choose, over and over again, to attack schools: They house the treasures we hold most dear – the treasures our minds and hearts go wild at the prospect of losing.

My own heart had a small scare last week as I sat in my eight-month-old’s room, listening to him wheeze, watching his torso heave as he struggled to breathe. But my fear was short-lived. Soon we were in the hospital where he was monitored and cared for; the assistance he needed was within easy reach and I was pacified. I felt badly for the discomfort he felt, but my fear was gone.

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Fear rears up, though, from time to time. I love. I’m vulnerable. I fear when my children gag on their food. (They gag all the time.) I fear when I see them ride away in someone else’s car. I fear when I call for them in the back yard and they take too long to respond. Soon enough, I’ll fear when I send them off to school – real school, all-day school. I’ll fear when they’re the ones driving the cars, when they begin to claim their independence from us, when they leave home altogether.

It’s horrible, all that fear. It’s also enticing in a perverse sort of way. If I let myself, I could roll around in it, enfold myself in it. It would be in my nature: I remember convincing myself as a child, time and again, that something horrible would happen to my parents and they’d be taken from me. The fear was quick to take over. It was hard to see through.

Now, with a little more perspective, I’ve come to realize how difficult it can be to enjoy something you’re too afraid of losing. (And I’ve come to see how hard it can be to enjoy life while focusing on all that can be taken from it.)

So I try, these days, not to let the fears rule me. (I’m fortunate that I’m in a good position to do so, of course – my children are healthy and we live in a safe, stable part of the world.) I try to remember that fearing someone’s loss is a symptom of truly loving them. So there’s some beauty in the fear. It’s horrible and beautiful, all at once.

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My friend Mary is currently losing her daughter Courtney. My friend Amanda continues, rightly, to mourn the stillbirth of her precious daughter Brianna, even as she has welcomed Brianna’s younger sister and brother into this world. My family remembers our little Leah, whom my aunt and uncle lost far too soon. I can’t begin to count the number of women I know who have suffered the loss of their babies through miscarriage.

Given the events in Peshawar, I can’t help but turn my mind today towards those who have lost their children. Those friends and family of mine, those parents of Peshawar, those of Sandy Hook and Beslan and Columbine, those of Syria, Iraq, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, those whose children have been taken by violence and disease.

All that grief, all that fear – the wild, the heavy, the sharp, the lingering kinds. They swirl in my mind today, they squeeze my heart.

Lord, be with these families. Bless them. Bring them your comfort.

Courtney’s Love

A few months ago, I wrote a post about the Little Sisters of the Poor and their loving, life-giving ministry to those who are nearing the end of their lives. I’ve thought about that post, and the work of the Little Sisters, a lot since writing it.

I thought of it when learning of a friend’s death this summer from brain cancer. I thought (and continue to think) of it when hearing about Ebola victims in Liberia, where many die without the comfort of human touch or even simple, loving attention, due to the (well-founded) fears of transmitting the disease. I thought of it the other day while listening to yet another episode of the Diane Rehm Show, this one about “Being Mortal: What Matters In The End.”

And I have especially thought of it while reading Facebook and blog updates from Mary Lenaburg, of Passionate Perseverance. For those of you unfamiliar with her blog, Mary has a 22-year-old daughter, Courtney, with some very special needs. Courtney is unable to talk or walk, to feed herself, even to see. She also experiences frequent, frightening, and often severe seizures. Sadly, it now appears that Courtney’s life is nearing its end.

Mary and her family have spent years (and a not-insignificant amount of money) caring for Courtney and providing for her every need and comfort. Doctors’ visits, therapies, surgeries, medicines, tube feedings, illnesses, hygiene care, round after round of wrangling with insurance companies – the Lenaburgs have done it all.

That’s remarkable enough – the sheer work and angst of caring for a completely dependent, very ill child for 22 years. But what’s more remarkable, and more to the point, is that the Lenaburgs have loved.

Courtney Lenaburg has been loved unlike anyone I’ve ever encountered in my life.

Mary and Jerry Lenaburg and their son Jonathan have loved Courtney through their work to care for her. But they’ve also talked to her, prayed with her, read to her, laughed with her, held her, clasped her hands, given her massages, sewed her clothes, dressed her with great attention, made her surroundings beautiful and cheerful… and so much more.

Honestly, nothing I write here can come close to describing all the ways in which the Lenaburgs have loved Courtney.

Mary and Jerry have also, through their extended family, their church, and Mary’s blog (and many other avenues, I’m sure), built up an incredible community of friends around Courtney, and around themselves. They’ve loved those friends too. They’ve prayed for them, they’ve helped them, and they’ve afforded them the great privilege of doing the same.

(When I was in labor with my youngest, Mary sent me a message to tell me that she and Courtney were praying for me. I’m sure that I’m one of many, many people to have received such a message from the Lenaburgs through the years.)

I don’t know Mary well. We met last summer at Like Mother, Like Daughter’s DC meet-up. We enjoyed a great Cuban dinner together with another Mary friend a couple of months later. And my boys and I had the opportunity to visit with Mary and Courtney at their home this past spring. Yet I feel like I know Mary well. Part of that, I think, is the mark of a good blogger. But the bigger part of it is that Mary puts her love out there for the world to see, and that love has a way of catching you, of drawing you close and folding you up as if it were your own.

In this year of knowing Mary (and through her, Courtney), I’ve learned something about love. (An undefined, powerful kind of something that I feel in my chest, but can hardly describe except to say, “I’ve got to love more.”) I’ve learned something about loving your child, your husband, your friends, about loving God. I’ve learned something about loving through hardship, about tenacity and stretching to meet the challenges put before you.

And I’m just one person.

I have a hard time conceiving of just how many people have been touched and taught by the Lenaburgs. Courtney’s love has gone out into the world and done amazing things, I’m sure of it. It’s softened hearts, it’s shored-up relationships, it’s brought people closer to God. It’s spurred generosity and engendered gratitude. It’s helped people to see the value in those around them. What a beautiful legacy.

As Courtney’s time here comes to a close, I am comforted (not that I have any right to require comfort) by the knowledge that when she passes, Courtney will be surrounded by as much love as one could possibly be. And that she’ll be passing straight from the loving arms of her earthly family to the loving arms of her heavenly Father.

Love, love, love.

The beautiful thing, of course, about the Little Sisters of the Poor is also love – their love for Christ, their love for those whom they serve. Just as the Lenaburgs care for, love, and pray for Courtney, so do the Little Sisters care for, love, and pray for the elderly poor.

What a gift.

It is this love – between Mary and Courtney, between the members of the Lenaburg family, their friends, and their online community, between the Little Sisters of the Poor and the elderly poor – it is this love, a gift from God, which touches us and teaches us and gives us a glimpse of the divine.

Thank you, Mary, for sharing your love with us – for sharing Courtney with us.

~~~

To learn more about Mary and Courtney, please visit Passionate Perseverance. The Lenaburgs are having a particularly rough (and now in some ways, a particularly blessed) time of it right now. Not only are they caring for Courtney and preparing to say goodbye to her, but they’re also planning Courtney’s funeral. On top of that, Jerry is slated to be laid-off from his job at the end of the month. And (can you believe there’s an “and”?) they’ve just learned they’ll need to make some major (read: expensive) repairs to their sewage line.

In the past 24 hours (the 24 hours it took me to finish this post!) there’s been a tremendous upsurge of support for the Lenaburgs, so it looks like the repair costs will be taken care of. But they could still use help in covering the cost of Courtney’s funeral and in paying down their medical debt. I hope you’ll consider helping them out if you’re able. GoFundMe and PayPal buttons are located on Mary’s blog. Thanks in advance for any assistance you provide – and for your prayers!

Life, Even At The End

Yesterday morning as I cleaned up the breakfast dishes and prepared dinner to go into the crock pot, I listened to NPR, just as I do most mornings. The Diane Rehm Show, with which I frequently disagree but which I nonetheless enjoy, was devoting its 11:00 hour to a discussion on assisted suicide.

Now, I earnestly believe that life is precious and worthy of protection from conception to natural death. And I believe that it is so regardless of an individual’s age or health or wealth or mental capacity. So I knew I would find the conversation disturbing. But I figured it would be good to take in anyway: I think there is an inherent good in hearing an argument fleshed out, whether or not I agree with it.

But about half-way through the program, the conversation got to be too much for me. It was indeed disturbing to hear a cancer patient ponder when her life would no longer be worth living, to hear the story of a 90-year-old-man who so wanted to die that he first tried overdosing on pain medication, then slitting his wrists, and then he shot himself.

Horrible, horrible.

Yes, yes, it’s good to hear an argument fleshed out. But it’s not good to go through the day with a lurking feeling of gloom, when I have little boys to feed and care for and love. So I turned off the radio. I chose peace over enlightenment.

A moment later, during a quick perusal of my Facebook feed, I came across the following video*. (I can’t embed it, so do be sure to click on the link and watch the first three-and-a-half minutes or so. I promise it’s worth it.) The video provides a brief glimpse into the work of the Little Sisters of the Poor. Or maybe I should say the joy of the Little Sisters of the Poor, because that’s really more like it. The video follows the Sisters, whose mission it is to care for the elderly poor, as they throw a small birthday celebration for an older priest. It includes a joy-filled Sister offering wine and happily telling how they were gifted with extra cases of beer. It shows another talking about why they do what they do:

“We celebrate the gift of life, the joy of living. When we care for the elderly poor, we try to make them happy in whatever way we can and sometimes that’s through parties, it’s through good care, good food. It’s love, attention.”

I was struck with the stark difference between the two pieces of media I had just consumed. In one, there was an over-arching sense of death and hopelessness. In the other, there was life and joy.

Yes, of course, the Little Sisters of the Poor video captured a birthday celebration; it didn’t show the Sisters caring for a desperately ill, horribly uncomfortable person. It didn’t show them holding vigil at a deathbed. But the Sisters do those things too. They do them day in and day out; they see more of age, of illness, of poverty, of death than most of us ever will. Yet they are filled with joy.

I have a friend who is a Sister in another order, who worked for a time in a nursing home. She often posted on Facebook about waiting with residents who were nearing death. Sister would sit at their bedside, talking to them and praying for them. She made sure they didn’t have to die alone.

That type of ministry touches me deeply. I think about my life, about all the people I have interacted with and known and loved and I wonder, who will be with me at my last moment? Will anyone be there at all? Lots of people state the vague, “I want to go in my sleep,” but I don’t know that that matters much. I just hope I have someone with me to hold my hand and pray for my soul.

As a Catholic, I recognize that suffering is part of life. I don’t mean that it’s not significant or difficult. I certainly don’t mean that God wills it. And I don’t mean that it’s wrong for a person to want their suffering to end. I only mean that we do ourselves a disservice when we think suffering makes life “not worth living.”

Our society pounds into us, again and again, this idea that life is for the healthy and the happy. And I’m not just talking about bright, shiny magazine spreads. I’m talking about the things we do in our homes and say to each other: We put our animals “to sleep” when they decline in health or ability; we recite a litany of “I don’t care if it’s a boy or a girl, so long as it’s healthy;” we jokingly ask others to put us out of our “misery;” we tut-tut others’ pain when they mourn a miscarriage or the loss of someone very old or very ill. (Seriously, would you ever say “Well, I suppose it was just his time” to the parent mourning the unexpected death of an 8-year-old boy or the widow reeling from the loss of her 32-year-old husband?)

Given all of this – this idea that a life’s value is measured by its vigor – it can be easy to act like very old or very ill people’s lives have ended before they’re actually dead. It can be easy, even, to want them to be actually dead. I won’t claim to be immune from such thoughts.

But I don’t think the Little Sisters of the Poor fall into that trap. Where others see nothing but pain and suffering, the Sisters see lives with as much dignity as those of the healthy and vigorous. They remember that our value does not depend on what we can do or how we feel.

Our lives are always worth living. When I near the end of my own, I hope I’m surrounded by people who remember that.

LITTLE SISTERS OF THE POOR MISSION, VISION and VALUES 2012

The Little Sisters of the Poor are an international congregation of Roman Catholic women religious founded in 1839 by Saint Jeanne Jugan. Together with a diverse network of collaborators, we serve the elderly poor in over 30 countries around the world.

Continuing the work of Saint Jeanne Jugan, our MISSION is to offer the neediest elderly of every race and religion a home where they will be welcomed as Christ, cared for as family and accompanied with dignity until God calls them to himself.

Our VISION is to contribute to the Culture of Life by nurturing communities where each person is valued, the solidarity of the human family and the wisdom of age are celebrated, and the compassionate love of Christ is shared with all.

Our VALUES

REVERENCE for the sacredness of human life and for the uniqueness of 
each person, especially those who are poorest and/or weakest. This is 
reflected in care that is holistic and person-centered.

FAMILY SPIRIT: a spirit of joyful hospitality embracing all with open arms, 
hearts and minds; fostering participation in the life of the home and rejecting 
all forms of discrimination.

HUMBLE SERVICE: the desire to raise others up and to put their needs before 
our own; an appreciation of simple, everyday tasks and experiences and humble 
means in accomplishing our work.

COMPASSION: empathy for sharing the weaknesses and sufferings of others; 
eagerness to relieve pain in all its forms and to make the elderly happy.

STEWARDSHIP: the recognition that life and all other goods are gifts from God
 and should therefore be used responsibly for the good of all; trust in God’s Providence 
and the generosity of others to provide for our needs; just compensation for our
 collaborators; a spirit of gratitude and sharing.

 

* I came across the video because the Little Sisters of the Poor were recently named to NOW’s “Dirty 100” (oh, the irony) list of organizations that have filed suit against HHS regarding the contraception mandate. See my last post for a few of my thoughts on that subject.

Some Monday Musings On… Death (Yes, Death)

—1—

I’m (kind of) picking up my “Monday Morning Miscellany” idea again here because I’ve got another case of I-had-plenty-to-put-in-a-7-Quick-Takes-Friday-but-couldn’t-stay-awake-to-write-it. I don’t know whether it’s my schedule lately or the fact that I’m moving deeper into the third trimester, but I can’t remember the last post I wrote that I didn’t fall asleep on at some point. Including this one.

Hmm… and I wondered where these boys got it…

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But this Monday’s collection of miscellany didn’t turn out to be so miscellaneous after all. As I started writing, I was surprised to realize just how much of what’s on my mind right now pertains to death. (Yes, DEATH.)

So here I go with some sober musings for this Monday: tragic deaths at the Mall in Columbia, the sadness of a death in the family, an NPR piece on a “death class,” remembering an experience at a cemetery in Ireland, the delicate task of explaining death to very little ones, and the (BIG) question of life after death.

What a cheerful way to begin the week!

—2—

I’ve got to start with this weekend’s big, awful news from our corner of the world: three people (including the shooter, it seems) were shot and killed inside the Mall in Columbia. It’s yet another senseless, heartbreaking episode of violence to splash across the national headlines. But this one is ours.

This is the mall we typically go to. I’m not familiar with the exact store where those poor people were killed, but I know that it’s very near the store where I buy my boys’ shoes… and the Starbucks I stop in for a pick-me-up… and the carousal my boys love to ride at the beginning of our shopping trips. So this one hit home.

Even so, (and I hate to say it) I reacted to the news with resignation. I was nervous to know whether any of my loved ones were at the mall and in harm’s way; I was concerned for all who were there at the time, whether I knew them or not. I prayed. I worried. But I wasn’t as surprised as I might have been. And my reaction was not as dramatic as it might have been.

The fact is, we’ve had enough of these tragedies in the U.S. in the past few years (not to mention the multitude of horrors that have happened abroad) that they’re no longer surprising to me. Even, apparently, when they’re in my own back yard.

The fact is, these tragedies lurk in my mind just about every time I head out in public – and certainly every time I head to the mall. That mall. For years now, I’ve walked into that mall aware that something like this could happen. So I only go when I have a particular errand I need to accomplish. I don’t stay long. I look around for exits. I think up strategies to keep my children as safe as I can.

Isn’t that awful?

It is. It’s sad. It’s a shame. But it’s simply an acknowledgement of the world we live in. And it’s only an echo of how so many people in other parts of the world live every day: in insecurity, in fear, perhaps in resignation. It is what it is.

—3—

It’s been a sad couple of weeks at our home, all-around. Two weeks ago yesterday, my husband’s stepfather died.

Brennan’s parents divorced when he was 10 or 11 years old and his mother remarried a couple of years later. Then when Brennan was barely 14, his father died. Similar situations have probably made for more than a few challenging stepfather/stepson relationships. But fortunately for our family, that’s not what happened with Ed and Brennan.

Brennan recalls his father’s memory with fondness and I know he wishes that he could have gotten to know him better. But he’s also very grateful for Ed’s presence in his life. I am too. Ed is the man who taught my husband about responsibility, about devotion to his wife, about a million little practical things that people need to learn in order to be independent adults. Brennan attributes part of who he is today to the lessons he learned from Ed.

As I mentioned over the summer and again on Veterans Day, Ed was a veteran of World War II who fought in the Battle of the Bulge and was wounded just before the war ended. I wrote then:

With my own parents still in their ‘50’s, it was more than a little difficult for me to get used to having a (step)father-in-law who is a member of the “greatest generation.” And I have to admit that, having seen him only once or twice a year for the past six years, I don’t know Ed very well. But I know that my husband loves and respects him. And I know that he has lived a long and interesting life, with his fair share of pain.

Some of it, of course, can be traced to his service in that awful war. Shortly before it ended, Ed found himself in Passau, Germany. In trying to rescue his sergeant, who had been shot, Ed was himself shot in the lung and the arm. He earned the bronze star for his actions. And he has lived with the repercussions of his injuries ever since…

Whenever I see an elderly person, particularly one who looks weak or ill, I wonder what kind of a life they’ve lived. I wonder at the events and the change they must have seen in their lifetime. Whenever I see an old man wearing one of those hats that veterans wear – the kind that denotes the ship they served on – I envision the young, strong man he must have been. I don’t know what to say or do, except to show a little kindness and maybe a little love. I want to ask, but I don’t want to intrude. I want to thank, but I don’t want to sound trite. So mostly I just wonder. And I say a little prayer.

With Ed, I know something of his story. But I still don’t know what to say. So I show some kindness and some love. I give him a hug and a kiss. I encourage the boys to do the same for their “Baba Ed.” Every once in a while, I have the boys color him a picture and we stick it in the mail. And I pray.

Ed had been seriously ill for some time and confined to a nursing home for a couple of years, so his death didn’t exactly come as a surprise. Still, it is an ending, and it is sad. It’s downright heart-breaking for Brennan’s mother, Hilde, who loves Ed with an attachment and a devotion that I’ve seldom witnessed.

So if you’re the praying type, we would greatly appreciate a few prayers at this sad time: for the repose of Ed’s soul, for comfort and strength for Hilde, and for peace for Ed’s children, step-children, and grand-children. Thank you.

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—4—

I heard a fascinating piece on NPR last week. It was about a college course on death. Students in the class visit a funeral home, a cemetery, and other places that deal with death on a regular basis. They learn and talk about death in its most physical, scientific senses and also in more abstract, emotional ones. They talk and think about their own personal experiences with death.

What an idea.

We’re fortunate to live in a time and place where we can go years – maybe most of our lifetimes – without having an intimate experience with death. Due to good sanitary conditions, abundant food, and advanced medical practices, we can go through our lives expecting that we’ll make it safely through our own births, our childhoods, our sometimes-wild youths, our pregnancies and deliveries, our illnesses, and even our advanced years.

This is an incredible blessing. Yet is also removes us from one of the most basic realities of life: all of us will die. You, me, those we love – all of us.

So when we do encounter death, I think it can be rather more shocking and damaging to us than it’s been to those who have lived throughout most of human history, those who were more used to death than we are. I think it can also contribute to a lack of appreciation for just how precious life is.

Maybe it’s something we should work on.

When my husband and I were in Ireland for our honeymoon, we had the incredible opportunity to visit with some of his father’s cousins, who still live there. (Brennan’s grandfather came from Ireland.) Most unfortunately, one of the cousins had died just days before, from breast cancer. I believe she was in her early ‘50’s. We were fortunate enough to be able to pay our respects at her grave, as well as those of Brennan’s great-grandparents. While in the cemetery where his cousin had just been buried, we saw a young woman drive up, hop out of her car, walk over to the cousin’s grave, leave a flower, and pause for a few minutes in prayer. She then proceeded briskly away.

I was struck by the experience. How often do we see (or do) that here? Sure, we’re somewhat familiar with cemeteries from the burials we’ve attended. And if we’ve lost someone we love dearly, we may make repeat trips to visit their graves. But do we make such a practice common? Do we make a quick stop at the grave of a friend or acquaintance on a random Thursday, just to pray and pay our respects? When I remarked on the young woman’s visit, another of Brennan’s cousins said that such behavior is common in those parts, even for young people. She said something to the effect of “For the Irish, death is a very real and present thing.”

—5—

Ed’s death, of course, has prompted us to talk about death with our boys for the first time. Our two-year-old seems oblivious to the discussions, but our three-year-old has had a lot of questions: “Will I die? Will you die? Is our cold yike Gwanpa Ed’s?”

It’s been interesting and a little scary to answer his questions. It’s a challenge to explain death in a way that a three-year-old will understand, without making such a sensitive little guy too nervous. I keep having to tell him that yes, we will all die someday. Everything that lives will die. But Grandpa Ed was very old and very sick, and we are neither of those things. Hopefully we’ll all live a long, long, long, long, long time yet. And no, Grandpa Ed did not have our cold.

I’m also having to make my attempts at explaining to him what happens to people after they die. I know that a lot of people will tell their children (and really, often themselves) that when the people we love die, they go straight to heaven and become angels that will watch over us. But I see that as an over-simplified, fairy-tale kind of explanation. I don’t want to feed it to my children now, only to disabuse them of it when they’re older and starting to wrestle with moral questions. Because I don’t think heaven is a given for anyone.

I’m Catholic, and though I am no theologian, I think I’m in-line with Church teaching when I say that heaven and hell are not assigned to us “at the pearly gates.” And they’re certainly not assigned as popular culture seems to: everyone we love gets into heaven, while everyone who’s really, really bad, like murderers and child abusers, goes to hell. I think that if we’re truly close to God, we get to be with him after we die, and we call that heaven. If, however, we’ve removed ourselves from God, we are without him after we die, and we call that hell. I also believe that prayers count, even for the dead. I believe that it’s worthwhile to pray for our beloved dead, that they may become ever closer to God. I hope people will do so for me when I die.

So, what do I tell my boy? I tell him that we really hope that Grandpa Ed gets to be with God in heaven. And I invite him to pray with me to that end.

—6—

Somehow, I don’t think that’s quite the way to end this post. So let me just draw your attention back to that NPR piece: “‘Death Class’ Taught Students A Lot About Life.” I hope you’ll follow the link and listen to the story. It’s just five and a half minutes long. Perhaps it will pique your interest, like mine, in reading journalist Erika Hayasaki’s book about the class: “The Death Class: A True Story About Life.” And perhaps it will cause you, like me, to ponder death for a little while — your reactions to it, your fear of it, your appreciation of it (and therefore of life), what you think will come of it…

As repulsive as the subject might initially be, death isn’t really such a bad thing to think on for a bit. It seems like a worthwhile investment to me, at least.

7 Quick Takes Friday (Vol. 23): Skiing as a Metaphor for Life; We Parents as Enough

7 quick takes sm1 Your 7 Quick Takes Toolkit!

—1—

This week…

Have you ever been skiing? You know how, when you look around from the top of the slopes, all the world spread out below you seems open and peaceful? And then you ready yourself to ski down the mountain and there’s this moment (for a wimpy beginner like myself, at least) when you’re right on the edge, wavering between that peacefulness and the scary/awful/fun/thrilling trip you’re about to make down the mountain?

That’s what this week has felt like for me.

It began quietly, a carryover from our quiet December. Then we had a couple days of teetering-tottering on the edge of peace/angst. Yesterday, I tipped over that edge and began my descent down the mountain. We moved, moved, moved through the day with much to do, much to contemplate. I imagine we’ll move ever faster through the next few months. There’s so much work to do, so much fun to be had, so much to figure out, so much tedium ahead. The thirteen weeks before this baby comes will fly, I am sure.

—2—

Speaking of which, do you want to get an idea of how huge I’m becoming? Over Christmas, it seems, my belly grew several sizes (something like the Grinch’s heart). I almost never think to take pictures of my “bump” (I hate that term), but just before our open house a couple of weeks ago, it occurred to me that maybe I should do so. And my dresser was momentarily not covered with piles of laundry, so it worked out just fine.

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25 Weeks. Two weeks later and I’m already way bigger.

I’ve started to get those sympathetic looks from strangers who think I must be nearly there. But nope! Three more months to go! And I’m actually feeling really good, only mildly uncomfortable when I bend over or stand up. So I offer a few cheerful words of comfort to those who realize they’ve seriously overestimated my gestational stage: “Oh, it’s okay! I’m always a big ol’ pregnant lady. You should see me when I’m nine months along!” They smile and look relieved that I’m not offended. All is well with the world.

—3—

But back to my skiing imagery. Let me share with you a bit of my top o’ the mountain peace and joy:

This weekend, we took the boys (3- and 2-years-old) to see “Frozen,” their first movie in a theater. This was a really big deal for us, because (1) Brennan and I never see movies. Seriously – I can’t even begin to tell you the last movie we saw at home, let alone in a theater. (2) We never go out to do fun things. We seem to spend every weekend doing laundry and home repairs. (3) Being out in public is such a novelty to our boys that they’re awestruck at the grocery store. The mall just about blows their minds. So a movie theater? Huge and mysteriously lit with lots of people and arcade games that blink and make noise? Beyond crazy. (4) Did I mention that they’re THREE and TWO?

So, you get it: this was a big deal. But we took some deep breaths and dove in. And believe it or not, it was GREAT. The boys sat quietly and (mostly) still. They didn’t seem to annoy anyone sitting near us. They paid attention to the whole movie, and they had a blast. Our 3-year-old, who is on the sensitive side, sat on his daddy’s lap the whole time, a little scared. But he said he enjoyed the movie and he was obviously paying attention to it, because he talked about it quite a bit afterward. Our 2-year-old unabashedly loved it. He sat on the edge of his seat and kept turning his head to look at me, grinning ear-to-ear. It was all warm-hearted goodness. We did a good thing for our boys.

—4—

And my teetering-tottering? On Tuesday we had this:

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What a lovely, peaceful, sweet shopping trip it was. Big brother at school, little brother asleep, would-be shoppers afraid to come out in the bitter cold… and a nice, warm Starbucks in my hand.

—5—

But then we also had TRIAL! TORMENT! TEARS! TINY TERRORISTS!

Nah… it wasn’t that bad. It’s just that we’ve gotten to one of those points where bad behaviors have gone unchecked for too long and parents can no longer deal with the consequences. One child has developed situational deafness: whenever Mommy speaks, he hears nothing. I’ve practically got to jump up and down in front of the kid to get him to listen to me. The other child, too cute for his own good, has become used to getting his way. And he turns downright surly when challenged.

So we’ve instituted a crackdown period: Stinkers get tossed in time-out for every. little. thing. It’s as fun as it sounds.

—6—

As for tipping over the edge and taking the plunge down the mountain…

Yesterday I drove our older son to and from pre-school, I delivered school flyers to eight locations in town, I took our younger son to story time at the library, I did that little “Mommy Dance,” I had coffee with a friend, I took the boys to get their hair cut, we went for a walk, and I attended a school meeting. Plus the usual feeding/diapering/keeping boys alive stuff.

The next couple of weeks are filled with play-dates and volunteering and doctor’s appointments. Weekends are booking up fast. There’s a long list of preparations to make and a shorter window in which to do them.

My head will spin if I let it.

So at this point, my plan is to try to enjoy the ride as long as I can. Deep breath, Julie… Take in the scenery wooshing past… Enjoy the ride…

—7—

And now for an almost wholly unrelated, far more beautiful, and yet heartbreaking Take.

When she was just eleven years old, my good friend Krista lost her mother to cancer. This week Krista marked the 23rd anniversary of her mother’s passing with a reflection not on what she lost when her mother died, but rather on what her mother lost when she died:

When my mom died, she didn’t just lose her own life. She lost her life with her children. For her, my life and my brother’s life, intertwined as they were with her own, ended when we were eleven and six.

I can’t even imagine how painful it must have been for her, when she finally accepted that the end was near, to know that she was about to lose her future with us. That she would miss all of the moments of our lives, big and small, for the rest of our lives. That she would never know us as adults, or meet the people who would become important to us as we matured. That she would never, ever, hold a grandchild in her arms…

When she knew that she was dying, she also had to know that she was letting go of a million moments with her children. That the past was all she would ever have with us. She must have experienced the kind of pain that pray I never have to face.

I have been hearing about Krista’s mom (a testament, I think, to the powerful impact she had on Krista’s life) ever since Krista and I became friends some sixteen years ago. I found this recent reflection so moving both because it brought another dimension to her mother’s story, and because it resonated with me in a personal way. I have what is perhaps an unreasonable fear of something happening to prevent me from raising my children, from seeing them grow. Oh, the ache of even contemplating such a thing.

But Krista doesn’t leave us there, ending on the ache. Nor does she admonish us to treasure every moment with our children. Rather, Krista simply asks that we parents worry a little less about our parenting, about whether we’re doing it right, or whether we’re doing enough.

Because if I have learned one thing after 23 years of being without my mother, I can tell you that what I missed, what I craved, was her. Her presence. The knowledge that the world contained her.

I didn’t need any extras. I didn’t need perfection. I would have preferred to have had her healthy, but to have had her at all was a blessing and, as I have learned, a luxury. To have had her, just as she was, was enough.

And if just having her was enough, then it follows that just having us, their parents, is enough for our own children. The fact that we are in their lives, that we are actively loving them, is enough. Our flaws and imperfections and mistakes do nothing to lessen the impact of our mere presence. Isn’t that a freeing thought?

It is indeed a freeing thought. And maybe it’s something of an invitation to just go ahead and enjoy the ride.

Be sure to check out Krista’s full post here. And as always, head over to Jen’s for more Quick Takes.