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.”
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?”
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.