Hate Does Not Build; Love Does Not Destroy

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There are two things which are eternal: Love and the Soul.

If the things we do in this temporal world do not nurture that which is eternal, then we are doing all people a terrible injustice.

Three Women

Foreword: Today I was one of three women comforting a co-worker in her hour of grief.  Later, when reflecting on the day, I realized the significance of three women and was instantly honored to be one of them. The essay below was my personal Thank-You note to the three beautiful ladies who got me through one of my darkest hours. It was written just days after Pop’s death in 2018.  Today’s events made me reflect on this, and I post it now to honor the friends who love beyond measure.  

On the last day of March I interviewed for the first time with OIB, after which I went back to my office at the Catholic Center, certain that I had not made the impression necessary to land the job. I reasoned that I could find peace in that fact, that God would place me where he needed me, even if it meant staying where I was.  An hour later I was sitting at my desk when a call came in with news I almost couldn’t bear.  My father-in-law’s upper GI that morning revealed a tumor in his esophagus.  A biopsy had been performed, but even without full results doctors knew it was most likely cancer.

I recall sinking into my chair and putting my head on my desk as tears threatened. We had just come through the darkest night with my mother-in-law’s cancer.  Her healing had been the miracle we dared not expect. Her illness had been tumultuous, and I had taken her care as my personal responsibility, though in fact it was shared by many. The news of Pop’s tumor burst the bubble of hope and ease, the promise of brighter days, that I had allowed myself to seek comfort in for almost a year.

When I raised my head from my desk, three women surrounded me. They were the family I chose, the friends who would stand by me through any storm. I burst into tears as one held me.  All I recall saying is, “I don’t think I can do this again.”  They each assured me that not only was I strong enough, but that they would not leave my side.  And they didn’t.

Leaving the daily presence of those friends whom I love so dearly was not easy. I feared for a long time that I might not enjoy relationships that close, that near to my heart, in my new work environment.

I was wrong.

Last week when I answered the phone call that told me of Pop’s exit from this earthly life, I felt the weight of a sadness I have never known. As a family we have not sustained loss this close.  Dom and his brothers, their wives and I all have our parents, alive and well.  I was wading into territory none of us knew how to navigate.  Fear and hopelessness closed in on me and I could not contain the emotion, regardless of my preference to remain wholly dignified in that moment. I laid my head on my desk and tried to breathe through the sobs that simply would not be silenced.

When I raised my head I was at once moved by the sight of three women surrounding me. Three beautiful women whom I have grown to care for quite deeply in the short time I have known them.  Three women who held me and assured me that I could weather this storm, and that they too would be by my side.

When I consider the parallels of the journey I have taken over the past year, I am struck by God’s truly amazing grace and the constant reminders of his love. His joy shines through you daily and gives me courage to press on through all things. His love poured out through you three on Wednesday and in the days that followed.   For everything you have done and everything that you are, I love you immensely.  Thank you.

As the Decade Disappears

It’s a grey day as I write this last post of the year.  The branches are bare against the clouds and this time, unlike so many times before, I can see no sun peeking through them.  Looks like 2019 will exit just as it entered – dreary and mild.  And once again, my mood matches the weather.

My funks don’t last for long, but I have noticed them much more frequently this year and I really need to snap out of it.  Perhaps it is the threat of the “empty nest” that looms closer and closer to our reality. If you asked me this year how my children are doing, somewhere in my reply you would hear me complain that I never see my daughter anymore.  True, it feels like she is constantly on the go, what with school, her job and ever-present social life.  So it surprised me as I looked through all the photos of this past year to see that they were predominantly of Victoria.  There is not a single month of photos on my phone (save January) that is not dominated by “Vic pics.” Perhaps it was my subconscious storing up memories for when she, too, is away at college next year. Or perhaps it is only in my imagination that she is never home, and this is my reminder to be more present when she is. Either way, I am so very grateful for the remembrances this time of year brings and for its lessons.

Enough with the whining already, right?  Let’s get on with our seventh annual pictorial year in review, or, as it’s known in my phone for 2019, The Victoria Show.

January

Once the Christmas season ends with Epiphany, we Loozianans drape everything in purple, gold and green and jump head-first into Mardi Gras.  I got the baby in the first King Cake of the year.  I posted it on FB and was censored for the porn.  Oy.

February

Victoria fast-tracked her Confirmation at St. Elizabeth – the benefit of three extra years of religious ed at St. Mary’s. I was too in-the-moment to take pics during the Mass. I always feel awkward pulling out my phone during Mass anyway, so I politely waited until we were home. The ambience was not quite the same.

March

This is why only my tee shirts hang on the bottom rack of my closet.  I love putting on a shirt to find the left sleeve covered entirely in dog hair.

April

Ahhh, April.  The month of Prom.

May

During our vacation to the Big Easy, Stacey and Lee insisted it is tradition to pose on the Pontchartrain Bridge. Aaron and Vic were mortified that we stopped on the bridge, and then promptly wished they had grabbed sunglasses.

June

Marion C. Garretty is credited with saying, “A cousin is a little bit of childhood that can never be lost.” So it is for Lucas and Victoria, both Seniors and both chomping at the bit for life after high school.

July

After the July Fourth holiday, when I had traded out the patriotic pillows for the summer décor on the front porch, Max claimed my star-spangled pillow as his own.  To date, he still has not relinquished it. And that look says I can fuhhgeddabout it.

August

Our first foray into sausage-making without Bishop Duca.  I texted him photos of the sausage to let him know we miss him but are carrying on.  He agreed that we didn’t do half-bad.

September

More proof that I did actually get to hang out with my daughter, even if she thought I was crazy for snapping odd-angle pics of her.  We never see the beauty in ourselves when we are young.

October

Max is not allowed on this couch, but was apparently feeling all full of himself one evening. He kept eyeing us like he knew he was disobeying, and we just kept waiting for him to explain.

November

One.  Happy.  Family.

December

There’s always one text conversation that makes the end-of-year cut. Dom and I texted the same reply at the same time. The reference here is to Sixteen Candles.  But surely you knew that already.  Seriously.  Tell me you KNEW that.

As this decade slips quietly into the shadows, I wish you every joy that the new year can bring. I pray that we all remember to live the moments and be truly present to those in our lives. Take the weird photos – maybe they will remind you, as they have reminded me, that we have so very many blessings.  And when the sun comes out again, may it shine brightly on you (as long as you have sunglasses). 😉

Peace and love to you, my friends.

The Vaulted Files: Reflections on Advent (2010)

My latest project is recipe scrapbooks into which I am compiling recipes, photos and stories.  As I scrolled through my vault of writings in search of holiday themed essays, I came across this one from 2010. I think it was written as a way for me to reconcile my Catholicism with my love for Christmas decorations.  My kids, now on the brink of full-blown adulthood, are not as likely anymore to gather around the Advent wreath with me for prayers, or collect stars from the Advent calendar as we count down the days to Christmas Eve. But this narrative reminds me of all the joy that is still present in the season, even as my family scatters like dandelion seeds to fulfill the duties of our days.  Happy Advent, everyone. 

While the city is alive with Christmas decorations and as families are planning their gifts and activities and preparing their homes, we Catholics are reminded throughout the Advent season that it is not, in fact, Christmas just yet.  Sometimes, I attend Mass only to leave feeling guilty for having already put up my Christmas tree. Obviously, I need to work through these feelings.

I love the Christmas season, whether it is celebrated liturgically or secularly. I love it for the lights and decorations, for the magic and mystery.  I love the planning and preparing – both in my home and in my heart.    I am generally cheery and positive, but let’s face it – I am waaaaay more joyous during December.  I find that I smile more, I giggle more, and I am more generous with both my time and my treasure.

Every time I look at my office doorway and see the red stocking peeking in, I am reminded of the season’s magic.  I love the signs of the season, and I want to display them as early as possible because I love the feeling that I have during the holidays.

I know the season is not all about presents, shopping and Santa.  I know it is about celebrating the birth of Christ.  I love the liturgical significance of Advent in that it tells us to “prepare.”  I want my children to feel the Christmas spirit all year long, because the reason for Christmas is with us all year long.  I also want them to understand the liturgical significance, so we have an Advent calendar and an Advent wreath.  We say daily prayers during Advent, and we do our best to prepare room in our hearts and home for the Christ Child. Advent is a time to recollect and ready ourselves for Christ. I always thought that meant I had to chill on Christmas until December 24 and allow Advent in as a time to rest and wait.  But that’s virtually impossible for me to do.  I want Christmas, like all. the. time.

To me personally, Advent is about anticipation, not delaying. Preparing, not waiting. We should be busy now – preparation is not a passive thing. May each Advent – whether busy or restful – lead our hearts to the perfect Christmas.

Not All Who Wander…

I said some day I would write this down.  Figure it all out. Make the story make sense.  Because I am a figurer… and a planner… and a puzzle solver.  It’s what I do.  I may do it on a small scale, but I do it whole-heartedly.  And often.

It was 2014 when I said to Dom, “What if I went back to school? What if I wanted a master’s degree? Would you be cool with that?”

I wasn’t asking permission to expand my horizons, mind you; Dom would never hold me back from what I felt called to do with my time. But we are a team, and I needed to know if he could sacrifice some dinners or pitch in with the housework while I studied for the next two years. I knew this would not be easy on any of us.   I would publicly state two years later, “If I ever say that I want to go back to school for a  third time, someone hit me in the head with a rock.” It was an adequate statement, and I sensed it before I even began.

So there I was, rocking along toward an MBA.  Dinners were still relatively on schedule.  Dom was becoming a laundry KING. I was stressed out and stretched too thin, but I was killing it, or so I thought. And then the bottom fell out.

October 2015.  I’d been in school for a year. One down, one to go.  Mid-way through Halloween decorations and smack in the middle of terms, my mother-in-law was diagnosed with Stage 3 pancreatic cancer.  We live right next door to her, and of the six of us “kids” (her three sons and their wives) I had the most flexible work schedule.  So I rose to the occasion.  I managed to balance school and work and doctors’ appointments.  Against all odds, Mom lived.  Hell, she was outright cured.  I fell to my knees in gratitude and when I rose I danced and cried and danced some more.  I had plenty to be thankful for and I was ready to shout it from the rooftops.

Six months after the doctors looked at my mother-in-law in astonishment and I thanked God and every saint I could name, I finished that dang program and got my MBA.  The trials were over; the dust had settled.  There was light at the end of our tunnel.

I thought the achievement of the degree would satisfy me, but a desire to do more started murmuring in my head and wouldn’t shut up.  What good was that degree if I wasn’t going to use it? What had all the struggle been for if nothing was going to change? Why did I pay that tuition if my family would never see some return on the investment?

So I said to Dom one morning, standing at our bathroom sinks, “Among those companies that your company works with, if you hear of any job opening that I might be good at, let me know, okay?”

I don’t know how much time passed between that statement and a certain phone call.  “Hey, remember when you said for me to keep an ear open for jobs?” he asked.  “OIB is looking for a credit analyst.”

“A what?”

Seriously.  That’s how this journey unfolds.  The next thing I knew, I had an interview.  I’ll never forget it – March 30, 2017.  My father-in-law had a doctor’s appointment that morning at the same time as my interview.  After two years of my accompanying them to every appointment and my helpful ability to recall dates and details so that I was almost a walking medical file on my mother-in-law, Pop wanted me there at his appointment.  “That’s alright,” I remember him saying. “They’re just going to look at my esophagus and figure out why I can’t swallow. It’s no big deal.”  That wasn’t self-pitying sarcasm; he genuinely meant it and I believed him.

I had my interview and came back to my office at the Catholic Center to tell my co-workers, “Y’all, I bombed that thing! There is no way I’m getting that job.”

Within an hour my phone was ringing.  Remember that light at the end of my tunnel? Turns out, it was another train.  Dom told me that Pop’s appointment that morning had taken a morbid turn. Esophageal tumor.  A biopsy had been scheduled, but it was most likely cancer.  No. Just, no.

Sometime in the next three weeks, Pop’s diagnosis and treatment were confirmed, and I got the job.  It was bittersweet, to say the least.  In a new work environment with entry-level vacation time, there was no way I could attend all of Pop’s appointments as I had attended Mom’s.  Everything felt upside down and I felt guilty for so many things –  for being happy about new opportunity when those I loved were so distraught, and also for not being available to my extended family when they needed me.

I cannot imagine that I was much good those first six months of my employment at the bank.  My family was going through some tough stuff – scary, and yet too familiar all at the same time – and I did not have my same confidantes and supporters in my day-to-day world.  I had new people. Wonderful people, but not those onto whom I thought I could dump all my crazy and still keep my job.  I held it in, for the most part.  I only let out the little bits that I thought wouldn’t send my new coworkers running for the hills or searching for the nearest straightjacket.  I know now that I did not give them nearly enough credit.

As 2017 drew to a close I experienced my first series of working holidays. Switching careers from the Catholic Church to banking is culture shock, to say the least.  We work on Christmas Eve?? Are you kidding me?? Perhaps I would not have been as selfish with my holidays if I were not watching Pop dwindle in strength and spirit with each passing day.  I managed to take some time off after Christmas that year, and I vividly recall taking a phone call from my new friend and supervisor as I stood in the backyard on a partly cloudy, cold December day.  She was informing me that our community bank was being bought by a larger bank. Our merger would be complete in February.

I spent that last week of December mentally willing myself to see the silver lining in our merger.  Maybe I would start to grow into my position and gain some confidence. I had not been with the community bank long enough to feel credibility in how I did my job; maybe that would change.  I don’t know if I was tricking myself, but I managed to feel hopeful about the whole thing.  Maybe this was why God led me into banking. Perhaps I would find my footing after all.

Three days into 2018 Pop succumbed to the cancer we could not beat.  I don’t have to tell you how badly that hurt.  I started comparing the timelines and sizing up his cancer journey and my OIB journey.  Both began on the same day. Both ended within just a few weeks of each other. Both turned my world upside down.  Both were beautiful and painful. Both would leave permanent marks on my heart.

The following month I spent my birthday in training for the new bank.  My heart was still heavy, my body was still tired, and my head hurt with too much new information. While I had only six months of procedures to re-learn, my co-workers had years’ worth. I was quite surprised (and somewhat ashamed) at the relief I felt as more and more people joined me in my unsteady little boat of The Unknown.  I finally felt like we were all on the same ground, rather than me being in a pit while everyone else stood far above me. To be fair, some days we were all above the pit, and some days we were all down in it, but at least we were together.  Misery does indeed love company.

It was somewhat similar at home.  Some days we were all smiles and some days we were just weepy messes. Oh, I could talk a good game – God’s plan for our lives, waiting patiently on the Lord, no need to worry about tomorrow, blah blah blah.  I was saying it, but I wasn’t instantly buying into it even as the words were passing my lips.  Okay, yes, my heart knew the truth.  But it was like my brain had just been through a war-zone video game that it couldn’t shake even though the game was over.  There were no winners in that game, by the way; it was all just destruction and shambles – programmed blood and pixelated gore that I couldn’t unsee.  There was real loss that I couldn’t unfeel.

I recall one particular Spring day when I was feeling especially down and I was complaining to Dom that making new friends at work had not been easy, that I missed terribly the sisterhood I left behind at the Catholic Center, and that I didn’t know if I’d ever have that level of emotional camaraderie again.  His response gutted me. “I know how you feel,” he said. “Think of who I hung out with, who I shared everything with when I wasn’t with you. Daddy was my best friend; we did everything together. If I wasn’t with you or at work, I was with him. I don’t have that anymore.”

The realization stung as it sunk in.  I had been so laser-focused on what I was missing that I failed to see the innumerable layers to Dom’s loss.  My selfishness had known no bounds.

I wasn’t willing to ignore our feelings at home, and fortunately neither was Dom.  We began to set aside time every night just to be together and talk about our day with no distractions. We tried to make sense of where we were, both personally and professionally.  Did we want what we had? Did we like who we were? Were we simply too scared to change? The answers varied, depending on the day’s events, but ultimately we realized that we had been changed by our experiences, not ruined by them.  The question that remained was simply, “What now?”

In the midst of our grief-filled year, we had some pretty significant events – Aaron graduated from high school and we dropped him off at college. I managed to distract myself from the additional changes in our home by focusing on travel, crafts and holiday party plans.  But December found me at my lowest point. For the first time in memory, my favorite season of all was not filled with hope and wonder and peace. I had no spare vacation time and was working through Christmas. I came home one night in tears and vowed to Dom, “I will not do this to another Christmas season. I have to have a different job before this time next year.”

As 2018 became dust and shadows I realized that we had been to Mass approximately four times during the year, not counting Pop’s funeral.  How had I been such an idiot?  No wonder the year had been so hard.  I prayed still, but my prayers were more akin to venting sessions with the hopes of a magic eraser.  They lacked gratitude.  I began to see that as a general rule, I lacked gratitude.  This had to change.

“We gotta go to Mass,” I finally told Dom after the year anniversary of Pop’s death.  “We gotta get our butts back in a pew or we are never going to recover from this.”

He nodded.  “I feel it too.  We need a major change, though.  Maybe a different church.”

I could be on board with this.  I understood the sentiment.  We needed a drastic enough change that we could see and feel a fresh, new start. “Okay,” I said. “But, can I ask one thing?  When we change churches, can we still be Catholic?”

“I’m not gonna quit being Catholic!” he exclaimed, and then we both laughed – he with amusement and I with relief.

There were so many issues with changing churches that my stomach soured at the thought of addressing them all.  Victoria was in the middle of her Confirmation year; I served on the church finance council; our church had a new pastor whom I deeply respected and whose feelings I did not want to hurt; we had grown to love so many of the congregation members, and all of those people had supported us and loved us through the highs and lows of the previous twelve years. There was no way leaving wasn’t going to be awkward.

I decided to start with the pastor of the church we would attend: the church where it all started – where I fell in love with Midnight Mass, where I became Catholic, where we were married, where our children first learned how to sit still in a pew. In other words, home.  I called Father Tim, whom I know from my days at the Catholic Center, and said, “I need confession and consultation.”  He came to my office and we talked about all my issues. There wasn’t a single problem I brought up for which he didn’t have a reassuring answer. It was not official, sacramental “confession,” though I did share with him all the ways I had gone wrong in the past year and my general state of discontent.

“You need to come back and work for the church,” he said.  I laughed.  He didn’t.  “Why not?”

It was the question that would start the healing I needed.  The next time I saw him, he outlined a job description for a new position he was creating. I didn’t tell him right away, but that description was exactly what I had decided I wanted to do – a little HR, a little insurance, budgeting, facility management – basically, managing a small business.  I just never thought that business would be a church.  But, if I’m qualified for anything, it’s a church job. We touched base with each other several times over the next two months while he fine-tuned the position and took applications and I prayed for direction.

“You still interested?” he’d ask.

“Yep.” I handed him my resume. “You still hiring?”

“Yep.”

It became official on April 17, 2019, just a few weeks past the two-year anniversary of the kick-off of my journey. I got the job.  I’m back in the fold.  I’m going home.

In The Lord of the Rings epic, Tolkien wrote, “Not all those who wander are lost.” It feels like I have wandered for two solid years, and I frequently felt lost. Hindsight is 20/20, and only now I can look back and see that I may have lost myself but God never lost me.  Even when I let go of his hand, he still had my back.  He blessed me with new, dear friends and a bank “family” who consoled me in my loss and lifted me with their daily presence for two years. Perhaps he blessed me with a little darkness so that I could appreciate the light. And he blessed me with opportunity – to sacrifice, to grow and to love.  My mental image is of me as a child, toddling away toward something shiny while God gently reaches out and holds a belt loop to keep me steady. The toddler, oblivious to everything in the periphery, is only aiming for what’s ahead, and what’s ahead is always going to be unknown to us.  But we learn when we wander.  We learn so much.

 

** Since this post contains Dom’s feelings as well as mine, I had him read it to be sure he was okay with my sharing and required no edits before this was published.  He said he had only one edit from my original draft: that I share my mental image of God as Henry Blake from M*A*S*H. It’s true.  From the time I was little, I envisioned God with Colonel Blake’s quirky hat and fishing vest, complete the the pinned lures. I have no idea why I made that association at such a young age, but there it is.  Since Henry Blake was always smiling and happy, yet still Large-and-In-Charge, I suppose it’s fitting in its own way.  I can definitely picture him corralling a toddler by the belt loop.  And that’s good enough for me.

2018: A Year of Love

As I reflect on the year that began with so much pain, I realize that love has been our constant companion both inside and outside of that pain. Love came to us in friends, and in the form of hugs and texts. It took the form of cards and covered casseroles, potted daisies and even a few corked bottles. It saw us through a year that was simultaneously sad, hard, maddening, bittersweet and joyful.

To paraphrase a few lines from a book I just finished reading, we are never entirely healed. We will be “a patchwork of love and grief, of gains and losses”.**  Even though it was an emotionally draining year, we saw through each other our ability to laugh and be happy. Lennon was right. Love really is all you need.

With a full heart I present the sixth annual pictorial recap of a year that was ultimately filled with love beyond measure.

January
After Pop died, we all needed a place to direct our grief. Tearing down his oldest and most decrepit shed provided our catharsis. This is the only pic I have of the day, taken after the shed had been razed to the ground. I wish I had a picture of the tug-of-war team that pulled it down. It truly felt like Family Olympics.

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February
Goofing around at my parents’ house one weekend, my dad and Vic played Heart and Soul together on the organ. (Go on, sing a measure. For the entire rest of the day. You’re welcome.)

02-18

March
Baby Girl turned 16 and got her license. We haven’t seen her since. (Kidding…sort of).

April
A pic of my favorite men just before Aaron headed out to the Senior Prom.

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May
This. Just… this.

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June
Three days after we watched A Dog’s Purpose, a stray German Shepherd showed up at our house and wouldn’t leave. He looked neglected so we fed him, bathed him and named him Bailey. He’s a genuine sweetheart who lives with Charolette now, and Kasie and I believe he was sent by Pop. I just love big dogs with big paws.

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July
My kiddos altar served at our church for nearly six years. As Aaron prepared to leave for college, Vic announced she didn’t want to serve without him. This was the last time they served at Mass.

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August
Here’s the one WTH? picture. There’s always one. Breakfast time and one of our eggs had two yolks. Was this really the most exciting picture I took in August, you ask? Why, yes. Yes it was.

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September
Labor Day weekend found us driving to Ruston to leave a huge part of our hearts at college. I cried the whole way home. Max didn’t take it too well, either, and spent the next ten days sulking in Aaron’s room.

October
Part of our first-ever trip to New York to see Harry Potter on Broadway (which deserves its own full-length post) was the fun I had making t-shirts for our Hogwarts-loving travel companions, customized with each person’s favorite quote. And of course, experiencing the magic of Broadway and the Big Apple with my favorite wizard.

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November
Nothing like a wedding to remind us all that life is good, family is precious and true love is eternal. My oldest nephew, Jacob, and my newest niece, Cassidy:

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December
Remember that family I told you about in my most recent post? The ones who make Christmas entirely magical? This is them.  I love these people to the moon and back!

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Well, there it goes, folks. The credits are rolling on 2018. May your 2019 be blessed and may you find peace, love and joy in every single moment it holds for you.

Bonus pic from the NYC trip: I couldn’t resist. So long, 2018. See ya in the funny papers.

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** Clare, Cassandra. Queen of Air and Darkness. New York: Margaret K. McElderry Books. 2018. Print.

Christmas Past

What follows was originally intended to be one chapter in a larger collection of essays that chronicles our family’s journey through cancer over the past three years. I began writing the collection just as the dust started to settle from Charolette’s cancer, and before the storm of Pop’s.  It has been through several edits since Pop’s illness and death, but the original version below is one of the happier essays and captures the joy and peace with which I have always viewed Christmas Eve.  In the spirit of the season I’d like to raise a glass to Christmases past, and to my family who made them magical.

I frequently tease Dominic that I’m going to start dragging him back to Midnight Mass during one of these Christmas seasons in our future. He staunchly refuses, stating in no uncertain terms that he is over any desire to stay up late enough to attend Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. (Even in college, it was well known that Dom would be the first one to call it a night and go to bed.) Once we had children, Midnight Mass was no longer a viable option for our schedules. But, oh, how I miss it.  Of all my memories, our family’s attendance at Midnight Mass and the wee-hours celebrations that followed are some of my most treasured.

They say you can’t go back, and I accept that; really I do. And I accept that those memories may have to remain only memories, being that so much has changed within our family since the days when we were young, just beginning our adult lives, full of hope, possibility and promise.  When I reflect on that time of my life it is as if I am seeing it transpire inside a snow globe.  I shake it and a memory forms, its edges slightly blurred. We are walking up the driveway of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church. The air is bitterly crisp and I clutch my winter-white wool dress-coat tightly around me. Dominic offers me his arm, and I loop my own through his and snuggle close against his suit jacket, resting my cheek against his shoulder as we walk. Bob and Charolette walk beside us, elegant in their Christmas attire, as we are joined by Victor and Melissa and then by John and Kasie. We enter the church and head up the center aisle to our familiar pew on the right-hand side six rows from the front. We genuflect and file in, filling the pew almost to capacity.  We greet and are greeted by familiar faces throughout the sanctuary, which is adorned in boughs of greenery. Deep red poinsettias and several Christmas trees decorated only in lights flank the altar while a large, solitary manger stands nearby. As Mass begins the smell of incense tickles my nose and makes my eyes water, but I love the tradition of it all. This is Christmas to me – holy and unrushed, simultaneously simple and resplendent.

I watch the memory for a while before shaking the globe again, and the memory fades out like a dream sequence as another forms in its place amid the falling snow. We have left the church and returned to Bob and Charolette’s home. We are loud and lively. We redress in blue jeans and sweatshirts, getting comfortable for the festivity ahead. A thousand tiny white lights shine on the Christmas tree, which is filled with so many jeweled and ribboned ornaments we can barely distinguish one branch from another. The ornaments were handmade by Charolette’s cousin, Boots, many years prior, and they are the only tree ornaments I will ever know inside this house. We have a full meal planned and ready. Wine glasses are filled and Pop reaches far back into a kitchen cabinet to retrieve a bottle he will use to top off the eggnog. We laugh and eat and laugh some more before settling in to exchange gifts in the living room, a process in which we take turns opening one gift at a time. Sometimes Father Dave is there, standing at the kitchen counter, popping the top on a beer and joking with us. He is as much a part of this family as we are, and his relaxed smile says that he feels it.

The memory morphs easily into one of my most favorite Christmases, when during our gift exchange John hands Kasie a wrapped box of running shoes. On the laces is tied an engagement ring. She opens the box and proclaims her excitement that he has bought her exactly the shoes she wanted. And then, removing one shoe from the box, she sees the ring just as John kneels on the floor in front of her. Her hand flies to her mouth and a second later she is in his arms, crying and saying yes. John had almost given her that gift in private; I had to beg him to please let us watch, though I’m sure it was Charolette’s asking that actually convinced him to propose publicly. I believe that is the widest I have ever seen him smile.

Sleepy and satiated, we depart for our homes around three in the morning, only to regroup in the same place the next afternoon for lunch with the extended family. It is at these lunches that I would enjoy spending time with Dominic’s cousins and getting to know Charolette’s aunt and uncles.  Oh, the stories these people can tell on each other!

The tradition changes slightly after those early years of our marriage when we begin filling the church pew with children. Now the snow globe reminds me that we have committed to an earlier Christmas Eve Mass, Victor wears the well-deserved title of Gumbo Chef for the night, and the unwrapping of gifts is no longer facilitated one person at a time.  Tiny fingers rip bows from presents and hold books and dolls high in the air for all to see. “Look, Mommy, look!!” is shouted so much that Kasie, Melissa and I can’t tell who’s opening what or who’s calling to whom. We begin to nod and smile at every child in turn, saying, “Oooh, that’s great, sweetie! Did you remember to say ‘thank you?’” Pop examines the instructions that came with his gifts, collects wrapping paper into a trash bag and plugs batteries into new toys. Mom sits beside the tree, handing out packages still to be opened while her sons gather at the kitchen table to admire a new toolset someone has received.

It is at the end of these evenings of frivolity that Dom announces, “Saddle up!” and we wrestle cookie-filled children into car seats and drive home.  Once they are tucked safely into bed and our Santa duties are fulfilled, Dom and I continue our tradition of exchanging one gift each before turning out all the lights except for those on the tree and in the garland. This is where I find my silent night. We plug It’s a Wonderful Life into the DVD player and snuggle on the sofa. We know it’s okay if we fall asleep before Clarence gets his wings; we will watch it again the next night.  And maybe the night after that.

 

The Process

We all grieve.  We grieve things, circumstances, pets, people. It’s a process.  It’s long and it’s messy. I hate messy.

Sometimes during the process I realize all over again the finality of the situation. The bus just pulled away from the station without me. The person I love is on the bus. Gone.  Just like that.  Can’t call him.  Can’t go visit. No more last minute Hey-would-you-mind or How’s-your-day-been.  The imaginary line just buzzes, or worse, I get that upward ringing tri-tone and the voice that annoys me even though it’s pleasant. “We’re sorry.  The person you are trying to reach…”

I know, I know. He’s gone. I get it.

For the last two nights I’ve dreamed about Pop. They’re perfectly normal days and circumstances in the dreams, except that I’m aware Pop is supposed to be dead.  I’m glad he’s not, but I’m confused.  He awakes from his chair, round faced and wide-eyed. “Hey!” he says as he gets up and walks outside.  The family follows. He chats ‘em up.  I hear him laughing. That laugh.

I’m staring dumbfounded after him. I turn to my sister-in-law. “They embalmed him,” I say. “How is he walking and talking?” She shrugs.  And then she smiles.

“Where are the groceries?” Pop asks as he throws his arms around a grandson. Groceries are dinner. Pop’s ready to eat. What in the world is that doing in my dream? I don’t know, but there it is. I hear him laugh again.

I think of cooking, and suddenly remember that my food-prep knives are dull.  Really dull.  Pop always sharpened them for me.  I’d send them next door and he would bring them back, five deadly weapons wrapped neatly in newspaper. “Wash those before you use them,” he would advise. Hey, maybe Pop can sharpen my knives while he’s here.  I’ll ask him after dinner.

Pop moves to stand beside me and I examine his profile.  His hair is not the white I expected.  It’s black, peppered with a little grey, I notice. He’s younger than when I last saw him. How is that possible? I reach to touch him and he moves away.  If he’s aware of my confusion, he doesn’t let on. I let it go. Food. Pop was hungry.  I need to get food made.  I turn toward a kitchen I do not recognize and wonder why my legs are bound. I can’t move as freely as I should. I look down into nothing.

My eyes open and I’m staring at my bedroom ceiling. My legs are bound by the sheets, comforter, and a Siberian Retriever. Move over, Max.  I gotta go help fix dinner.

Except that I don’t. There’s no dinner to fix. No Pop to eat it. The realization brings back the heaviness. Ding, dinng, dinnng… “The person you are trying to reach…”

This sucks.

The Vaulted Files: A Letter to Youth

I was cleaning up my laptop files today and found this letter I had completely forgotten that I wrote back in 2015.  I do not recall if I ever sent it, nor do I think I could even retrace my steps to find the person for whom it was originally written.  But when I read it today, it struck a chord, as I’m sure the writings of the young girl for whom it was intended originally struck me. I still feel the sentiments expressed here quite powerfully, so they belong in this forum.  I hope it helps somebody.


Hi there.  Let me introduce myself by saying that I am a mom.  I sing horribly, embarrass my kids with unbridled car-dancing, and say cliché things like, ‘I am old enough to be your mother,’ mostly because I am.  I have two teenagers, and one has turned me on to the Gorillaz.  So there I was, surfing around for the backstory on the characters so I could know more about why this real band had these interesting cartoon images, when I stumbled upon your blog.  And for the life of me, I cannot get your personal comments out of my head.  So, that is essentially why I’m writing to you…because I’ve read your blog, comments others have made and comments you have made back in reply.  And they touched me.

Let me also say that I do not make a habit of getting in the business of other people’s families.  I have never suffered from anxiety or depression or gender fluidity, so I am puzzled by my own need to reach out to you, for I know I have little to offer you in the way of support.  Except that I am a Christian.  I hope that confession does not instantly conjure negative images or emotions for you, because I believe that as a Christian it is my mission to love.  And with that in mind, I want to give you hope.

I want to tell you that your life has value, that you ARE important and dignified and worthy of love beyond measure.  I want to tell you to never, ever, ever give up on who you are, because you are an inspiration to people and can be even more of one if you just allow yourself the time and space to grow.  What you have done with your blog, in my opinion, is given people a chance to let their thoughts be heard without judgment or repercussion.  You have allowed people to be free to express themselves in a way that we stuffy adults don’t seem to understand.

Honestly, we do understand it.  I think sometimes we’re so jealous of youth that we would rather hold it in oppression than let it blossom into something new and beautiful. I, for instance, still feel 25, newly initiated into adulthood, swinging the world on a string.  I look in the mirror and that is not a vibrant 25-year old staring back at me.  It’s a little unsettling sometimes. 😉

YOU are strong and brave and amazing for your honesty and strength of spirit.  And I know that not every day is sunshine and roses, but I want you to recognize the days or even the moments that are, and believe that in your future those days and moments will become more numerous than they are now.

I am not the sort that goes around spewing scripture at people, and I am certainly not going to preach to you.  In fact, the only people I want to hit over the head with a Bible are the ones who are using it to spread hate.  But I heard a verse today and it made me think of you, so I want to share it, in the hope that it will give you some peace:

“Everyone will sit under their own vine, and under their own fig tree, and no one will make them afraid…” (Now, why that is not grammatically correct is beyond me and it drives me crazy, but I digress.)

That made me think of you because I think that sitting under our own vine means we are each different, living our own ways of life, enjoying the customs and lifestyles that fit each of us.  The part that I hope you find comfort in is the second part: ‘and no one will make them afraid.’

Some day, some day we will get it. Some day we will stop trying to change people because we disagree with them.  Some day we will stop trying to control others because we want them to be just like us. Some day there will be no reason to worry or fear.  That day, I know, has not yet come. But as long as you breathe you have hope within you.  I will pray that sustains you in the hard times.  Please, please remember that even when you think this party we call life is not worth the cover charge, there is a middle-aged lady in Louisiana who thinks you’re pretty cool.

Peace for your beautiful soul,

Lori

 

When the Sun Shines Again

It’s been ten days since Pop left us.  So many people have offered consolation and wisdom for what we face.  They tell me it will get easier, that time and memories will see us through.  I believe them.  I have certainly found reasons to smile and laugh in these past days, but I also find that I cry over the smallest things now.

I think it’s the moments in between the moments that get me the most.  The quiet moments when my mind is still.  That’s when I think of the little things, just out of the blue.  Like lunch, and how every day when Dom and I would meet at home for a lunch of leftovers from last night’s dinner, we would be stirring or re-heating or pulling plates out of a cabinet and he would casually ask, “Want me to see if Pop wants any?”

“Of course,” I’d say. “There’s enough.”

A few minutes later Pop would come striding through the side door into our kitchen, tea glass in hand. “Hello, hello,” he’d say, quickly followed by, “Get back!” as he admonished our dogs to stop greeting him with such enthusiasm.  He would stroll around the island and take a seat at one of the middle barstools before launching into a lively conversation about something on the news that day, or a chat he’d had with a friend that morning. Many conversation topics began with Pop waving his hand in the air as a means of pointing our attention in a certain direction as he stated, “Dominic, we need to…” followed by a task or chore that he wanted Dom’s help with somewhere on the property.

Pop would eat with us, compliment the meal, then lean back in his chair with a satisfied sigh before saying, “Alright. Let me get back to your mom. Thanks for lunch. It was delicious.”

“Alright, Pop,” Dom would say. “See you tonight.”

I’d chime in with, “You’re welcome, Dad. See you later.”

And then Pop would walk out the door with one last, “Thank you.”

Pop thanked us every time he saw us, even when I didn’t feel like we had done anything to be thanked for. Each time I told him goodbye, he would answer with, “Good night, now. Thank you.”

The last time we spoke he thanked me. I truly feel like it should have been the other way around. Of course, I didn’t know that was to be our last conversation. That night, it should have been me thanking him – for unbridled laughter, for raising his boys to be perfect gentlemen and showing them how to be great husbands and fathers, for being an amazing father-in-law, for letting me see his own strength as well as weakness, and possibly for leaving that strength behind so that each of us who miss him can use it to get through the hard times without him.

I imagine it will always sting when I think of the things we won’t get to do again with him. But I will be forever grateful for the time we had and for the gifts of his love and laughter, which he shared with all who knew him, holding nothing back. I will remember to say “Thank you” every time I think of him, and I will smile at the memories. One of my favorite Rose Kennedy quotes reminds me that it’s okay to find joy even after loss: “Birds sing after a storm.  Why shouldn’t people feel as free to rejoice in whatever sunlight remains to them?”

You know me.  I’ll be looking for the sunshine.

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Robert Joseph Mainiero
October 27, 1942 – January 3, 2018