The Hard Goodbye

I remember the moment like it was yesterday. I’m crossing our bedroom at the old house. Dom is sitting up in the bed when he firmly announces to me, “I’ve made a decision.”

I stop in my tracks. “You have, eh?”

“It’s time for us to get another puppy.”

I almost drop whatever it is that I’m holding. “Seriously? You’re serious?? You want two dogs at once? When? What kind? How is this going to work?”

He shrugs and shoots me a crooked smile.  “Start looking.  Didn’t you say you wanted a black Lab next?”

Yeah, I had said that alright. We already had our beautiful yellow Lab, Mason, and I had determined that my next dog would be a black Lab named Mabel – so named for the express purpose of allowing me to hang out the back door and yell, “Hey, Mabel! Black Label!!”  I don’t know why that image enticed me so, but there it is.  I also knew that I would call her Mabelline and sing the catchy question, “Why cantcha be true?”

The search was on.  Phone calls, classifieds (those were the days!), breeders and litters and small towns so remote I thought we might not make it back from them.  But there in the heart of Castor, Louisiana, were three 10-week old lab pups. One was a black female.  Stacey went with me and Dom to pick her up.  Mabel wrapped her little paws around Stacey’s arm as she held her, and we all fell in love.  The breeder said we needed to name her right then and there so she could tidy up her AKC records, and that she would appreciate it if we included Rose in the name, on account of the numerous Roses in the bloodline. Fine.  Whatev.  I had no intention of ever calling this pup Rose, much less registering her myself, so what could it hurt? Mabel Lena Rose Mainiero, it was.  A few signatures and $300 later (the first and last time I paid for a dog!) and we were headed back to Shreveport with an adorable surprise for the kiddos. 

Mabel on the day we brought her home, November 2008.

Mabel was sweet and docile that first night, as one could only be with Mason slobbering his welcome all over her. Mabel enjoyed being kenneled when we weren’t home, and thankfully so, given the amount of damage she did when we were present. I’ve written numerous posts about the things Mabel has eaten, the embarrassment she has caused, and the times she has worn my patience to its last tiny thread. I have said countless times that she was our wild-child dog. In her early and middle years Mabel cared only for her own entertainment, and let me tell you… if life was a car, then Mabel drove it like she stole it!

Mabel, all up in the camera! 2010

Mabel was known for eating and/or destroying absolutely everything that caught her attention. Her favorite things to “love on” until they were obliterated were Webkinz stuffed animals. She started with only the birds, which always cracked me up. Once the kids were out of bird Webkinz, she moved on to the other Webkinz toys and finally to any stuffed animal she could find until the entire line was extinct. With all of her antics throughout puppyhood and beyond, Aaron disowned her at least twice. Once, for chewing up one of his Lego Bionicle masks. I still remember the renouncement. “Vic!!!!” he yelled to his sister as he balled his fists up at his sides, “You can HAVE her!” I looked from my red-faced little boy to Mabel. Despite having just been declared dead to him, Mabel showed not even an ounce of remorse for having destroyed Aaron’s toy. In fact, I was pretty sure she was sitting on go to do it again. Remorse, regret, repentance…these three R’s were forever absent from Mabel’s vocabulary.

Who, me?? 2014.

Mabel was the quintessential pesky little sister to Mason.  She used to bite and tug on his neck to the point that I would feel sores under his fur when I’d snuggle with him.  Her favorite thing to do was be the first to run outside when the door opened, and immediately spin around to attack Mason as he stepped over the threshold.  I honestly don’t know how he tolerated her.  At one point when Mason was getting on in years, Mabel decided she would hide behind the wall at the top of the stairs and attack him each night as he came up for bed.  What a brat she was!

Ready to pounce, 2012

I spent many years of Mabel’s life calling her “Dom’s Decision,” as in, “Hey, honey, your Decision ran off down the street again,” or “your Decision brought a locust into the house tonight,” and my favorite, “your Decision stole a pound of candy corn from the kitchen and puked it up in the living room.”

The public shaming, 2013.

Life with Mabel was never dull. Fiercely independent and rocking her need for no one, Mabel tried to live on her own terms. Several years ago we nicknamed a large field near our home “Mabel Acres” in memory of the day during Sunday lunch when she took off out the side door and down the street to cut circles in the grassy field while the entire family tried to catch her. But Mabel had her sweet side, and though she preferred to act like she didn’t need our attention, she never seemed to mind when we lavished love on her.

Vic and Mabel, my brown-eyed girls, 2010.

Like me, Mabel loves sunshine.  She would often lay in the yard as her black fur soaked in the warmth.  She enjoyed the porch swing with me on many Saturday mornings. Looking back, I’m not entirely sure the time she spent with me wasn’t all about the coffee.

Stealing my joe, 2009.

Mabel changed when she became an only-dog in 2014.  She mourned Mason for a couple of weeks, not wanting to be alone outside, needing to know where Dom, the kids and I were at every moment.  She became gentler and more loving, and sweetly earned the famous phrase on her dog tag, “Mischief Managed.”  Her nickname morphed from “Dom’s Decision” to “Daddy’s Baby Girl.” She knew who was responsible for her sweet and easy life. 

In Daddy’s arms, 2014.

Mabel was none-too-thrilled with the introduction of Maximus to our home.  But she did eventually adjust to him as he grew and she realized that annoying little thing with the big ears was, in fact, the same species as her. 

Someone get this dude off my back!” 2016.

Max took on the role of pesky little brother, paying Mabel back in spades for all the torture she showered on Mason.  Despite my best efforts to keep it sized properly, Mabel’s collar got stretched so that it ended up looking more like a red necklace draped around her shoulders.  I can’t think of a time they played together that Max wasn’t gnawing on her collar. 

Always with the collar! 2019

Mabel earned herself many nicknames over the course of her life. Mabelline, Mabellini, the Vixen, the Vixenator, Mablet, Mabel-Label, the Leine, Leinie-poo, the Bottomless Pit, the Unfillable Belly, Dumpster Diver, Teeny Weeny Mabellini, Baby Girl, and finally Grandma. I especially loved calling to her in an Italian accent: “Ciao, Mabellini! Andiamo, Mabellini! Why-a do you-a bark-a so much in the house, eh?!”

Helping me study, 2014.

Mabel became a diabetic in 2018. Diabetes for dogs is much like Type 1 childhood diabetes in people, meaning that you can’t “diet-and-exercise” it into submission. Even with the prescription dog food and the twice-a-day insulin injections, Mabel’s blood sugar levels would not normalize. We did the best we could for three years. We spent many weekends running blood glucose curves on her and charting her progress. I spent approximately two months right after her diagnosis chopping, measuring and packaging precise proportions of meats and vegetables to feed her a completely raw diet, and then cooking it for her, and then realizing I was cooking more for the dogs than for the humans before throwing in the towel and signing up for prescription dog food.

Mabel with Walter, 2015.

Mabel went completely blind this year, but she could still hear me come home in the afternoons and would know it’s Wine-Time – that’s when she and Max get to run in the front yard while Dom and I sit on the porch and chat. Sure, it took a little extra effort to get her in and out of the house, leading her through the forest of lilies in the flower beds because she couldn’t go up steps anymore.  But who could resist how happy it made her?  

Wine Time in the jungle, 2021.

I have said for the past few months that as long as she still enjoys Wine-Time, she still has life to live.  There is nothing we won’t do for our fur-babies.  But eventually we realized there’s nothing more we can do.  And that’s where the heart breaks. 

Mabel with another fuzzy, September 2016.

I remember seeing a poster on the wall at the vet’s office when Mason was just a puppy. It was a life expectancy poster and it showed the various breeds of dogs with their approximate life span in years. Labs were marked at 11 years. We were fortunate that both of our pups lived longer than that – Mason at 14 and Mabel, just a month shy of 13. As we realized Mabel’s age and illness were wearing her down, it was devastating to make that final decision. Ironic, that the first decision was so easy, and the last one so hard.

Loving on Aunt Stacey, Thanksgiving 2012.

I hate goodbyes. I hate this part of being a pet owner. There is never a “good” time to say goodbye. We always want one more day, one more chase, one more trip around the water bowl. We took Mabel to the vet for the last time today. The goodbye was just as hard as I thought it would be.

Christmas pup with her stogie, 2016.

The Book of Proverbs tells us that “a righteous man has regard for the life of his animal,” and this is the only thing getting me through this. Caring for them, even to that last day’s decision, is loving them. Mabel has so much more than our regard. She has our undying love and gratitude for the marvelous and mischievous ways in which she brightened our days and enhanced our lives.

Mabel claims all the decorations, 2009.

Take now to that “far green country under a swift sunrise,” sweet Mabellini, and run like somebody left the gate open. We will miss you terribly and love you forever.

Sunning in the backyard, August 2021

Mabel “Mabellini” Mainiero
September 17, 2008 – August 20, 2021

Good Riddance: The 2020 Farewell

Well, this has been a year none of us wants to repeat.  Illness, loss, suffering, isolation, confusion and death have forever marred this year in our hearts and minds.  We have grieved missed events, neglected milestones, and suspended family gatherings.  We have gone months without seeing people we care about – family members, church members, friends.  Some, we will never see again and our hearts break when we think of the year that took them from us. 

The scariest thing is that it’s not over yet.  One virus decimates our bodies while another decimates our nation.  One is thus far incurable; the other completely preventable.  I will say only one thing on the political front: Can we all please act our age and recognize that our personal opinions are not the only ones that exist?  I mean, really.  Don’t make me use my mom voice.   

But this post is not about the crap we’ve all experienced this year and the hardship that may still be to come.  This is about a look back on the weird and the wonky, the mysterious and the mundane, the little moments that I will want to remember when I am old and drooling into my jello.   

So, in keeping with tradition, although this one is several days late, I present the 9th annual year in pictorial review.  Here’s how 2020 looked from the inside of my heart and home. 

January

This is the year I’ve tried to learn to paint instead of just winging it.  However, this picture is totally winged.  For over a year I had been mulling an image over in my head, trying to illustrate a combination of my Texas roots and my Louisiana upbringing.  This is the end result. It’s the first time something I’ve created has looked as good in reality as it did in my head.   

February

Continuing the painting theme, and because there are so few other pics to choose from this month, I finally filled my living room wall with something Dom likes.  The center tree pic is currently being re-created so that it will no longer look like a Kindergartener drew it.  Wish me luck. 

March

Dom and I were each sent from our respective employers to work at home during the state stay-at-home orders.  Dom took the home office for his workspace and I converted my craft room into my “office.”  I may have gotten the printer, but I dare say he got the nicer digs. 

April

Because when you’ve been quarantined for a month together, every day should end with a pristine Irish Coffee. 

May

The month Vic would have graduated (the actual ceremony was postponed until August).  She and Bella executed her Senior pictures instead. 

June

Just what everyone needs… a technological gadget harassing us into exercising.  I learned that Siri does not understand the reply, “Bite me.”

July

Here it is: the annual weirdo picture. I was slicing tomatoes to roast and this slice ended up looking like lips. Ha!

August

One evening on the way to dinner Dom said, “I want to stop into this dealership and look at a truck real quick.  It won’t take long.  I just want to look.”  Three hours later, we finally made it to dinner.  In his new truck. 

September

A rare picture of Max and Mabel together, sitting still and generally looking toward the camera.  Sweet puppies.   

October

Max is not supposed to beg at my table, but he does it anyway. Who can really resist that face?

November

A much scaled-down Thanksgiving gathering, just us and John and Kasie’s crew.  It was not the same without the usual crowd, but we made the best of it.  If you notice a new face in the pics, that’s Aaron’s girlfriend, Annie.  If you notice a new hairstyle, that’s Aaron.  Feel free to hum the theme song to Welcome Back Kotter.  We do it every time he comes home. 

December

Meet Boo, Victoria’s new kitten.  She got him in October, specifically wanting an orange kitten for free and VOILA! The Ruston dog shelter had two such kittens that they just HAD to get rid of (because, dogs…).  Halloween Kitty was not without his issues, and a sinus infection caused his forehead to burst, so he had to seek refuge with us and care from our regular vet.  By the way, Boo is no longer considered “free,” as evidenced by the “medicare” collection jar with his name on it that now has permanent residence on our kitchen counter. 

Looking back on all that this year has dealt us, I’d still like to raise a glass to the hardship we’ve faced, the strength we’ve discovered, and the promise of tomorrow.  I’m having a dry January, so my glass only has decaf tea in it.  I hope that doesn’t jinx anything. 

Happy New Year, everyone.  May 2021 be infinitely more palatable. 

Beautiful Brides and Black Lives

Twenty four years ago, in the months of May, June and July of 1996 there was an epidemic of wedding fever within my social circle. Having recently seen all the anniversary posts on Facebook, I believe there were roughly 10 couples in my relatively close friend group who married within mere weeks of each other, Dom and I making our own vows somewhere in the middle on June 1.

At one wedding in particular, as the bride straightened her veil and bridesmaids fluffed her train a friend commented, “Doesn’t she just look beautiful?”

Another nearby friend replied with a disinterested eyeroll, “Well, you know, all brides are beautiful.”

The backhanded compliment shocked those in earshot and diminished that particular bride’s feeling of joy and elation in that moment.  While the words themselves taken out of context were essentially true, the statement actually refused to acknowledge the bride’s individual beauty and produced an air of awkward tension for a while. It had such a profound impact on our circle that for years later, any time we truly meant to dismiss something, regardless of the subject matter, we would give a Miranda Priestly-like wave of our hand and say, “Well, you know, all brides are beautiful.”

When we say or when we acknowledge that black lives matter, we are not saying that all other lives don’t matter. But when we counter “Black lives matter” with “No, ALL lives matter,” it has the same diminishing effect.  Yes, all lives do matter.  As a Christian I believe that without doubt and without compromise.  But I believe that we must particularly acknowledge in this time that black lives matter because we who have never worried about the color of our own skin have for so long diminished them, dismissed them, ignored them. We may not have been overt in doing so, but by not actively living as though we believe black lives matter, we may as well have said that they don’t.  We need to say, “Black lives matter,” because our collective past actions have demonstrated otherwise. Our actions and attitudes have relegated black lives to the expendable.  If we truly believe that all lives matter, then we don’t need to qualify or specify that they all do. Saying that black lives matter puts the appreciation on every black life and forces us to recognize their inherent value. We should, without reservation and without hesitation, acknowledge the life before us.  Acknowledge that that life matters – the person in front of you, the person next to you, the person you don’t know who might look different from you.  THAT life matters.

Let us not diminish anyone’s value simply because the world is full of valuable people.  My friend was a beautiful bride on her wedding day, even if every other bride in the history of weddings was also beautiful.  We said it out loud simply because we loved her and it deserved to be said.  Can it not be the same for black lives?

Historically, civil rights for all, inalienable rights for all, freedom for all did not really apply to the collective all.  It doesn’t exactly apply today.  Despite history’s best efforts to teach us, we still have a lot to learn.  We can learn.  The question remains, looming like a squall on the horizon: will we?

Cousins, COVID, and the Class of 2020

My mom texted me this morning. Her phone had reminded her – a week early – of Victoria’s high school graduation ceremony that would have been held on May 16 at 9:00 AM.

That is, if the world hadn’t fallen apart.

That’s right – if we were pandemic-free, my baby girl would have graduated next weekend. I would have watched her walk across the stage right behind her cousin, Lucas.  I would have snapped a million pictures.  Seriously.  I would have totally drained my phone battery or my storage capacity, whichever proved to be the weaker link.  We would have left the ceremony and gathered with the entire family at our house, celebrating and laughing until the kids finally decided they had spent enough time with all us oldies and driven off in search of their friends.  Kasie and I would have uncorked a wine bottle and probably dusted off a photo album or two.  Oh, the photos!

We would have first turned to this page. The page appropriately titled “Yucas and Tortilla,” because that is what they called each other when they were toddlers. Cue the awwwwwwwww’s.

Yucas and Tortilla in the toybox – 2004

Born just six months apart, these two were so stinkin’ precious.  And trouble? Don’t even get me started! I mean, really.  Look at those faces.  (Although, I have to add one small caveat here… it was Lucas’s sister, Bella, with whom Vic spent the most time in “time-out” at Mimi’s.)

Trouble with a toy train – 2005

But days become months, months become years.   Kids grow up.  Moments get breathed into being, then reshape and reform until they blur into one strange memory on whose continuum we cannot determine exactly when the change occurred.  We miss the growth while it’s happening.  We miss the sprouting of the seed and the budding of the leaves.  We look around one day and we have a tree.  Or an adult.  Or two, as the case may be.

Growing, growing, GROWN! – June 2019

When we recognize the moment, when we see the pending end of an era that we honestly don’t want to end, we smile at the memories.  We swipe away a tear before it has a chance to ruin the day’s makeup.  And we pray that those trees have strong enough roots.

As my children grew, one of my dear friends told me that it may not always be the “firsts” that tug most at my heart; oftentimes, it will be the “lasts.” She was so right. This is my last baby.  Grown, even if not quite flown from the nest.  But I know it won’t be long. These photos make me sad and nostalgic, but they also make me immensely happy.  For our family, both tearjerkers exist here.  John and Kasie are experiencing their first child to graduate, and Dom and I are experiencing our last.  It is bittersweet, to be certain.  It is worth celebrating; it is worth writing; and it is even worth crying over. We are so madly proud of our babies, though it’s evident they aren’t babies anymore.

Marion C. Garretty is credited with saying, “A cousin is a little bit of childhood that can never be lost.”  I believe it.  I’ve witnessed it. I feel it when I look at these photos.  I am eternally grateful to my niece Bella for taking such great cap-n-gown pictures of these two. Her talent has made my heart smile.

To all the graduates of 2020, but especially to Lucas and Victoria, may every day be an adventure, may you love and live life to the fullest, may the sun shine always on you, and may the stars write your name.

I love you forever,

Mom / Aunt Lori

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.

Hate Does Not Build; Love Does Not Destroy

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.

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.)

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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.