A Strange Year

It was a strange year.

On one hand, we experience the greatest sorrow imaginable in our young lives, our child died. The first quarter of the year was filled with a deep sorrow.

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After she died, I looked around and asked myself, what is life to be like now?

In asking the question, I learned my Masters in Clinical Psychology was of no use to me in the state of California. At least the question was settled. Since it still seemed a pipedream to complete California requirements for licensure, I was relieved to no longer feel I was not doing what I should be doing. It was impossible. We need to be near family. We need to be in California right now.

I looked around again. What else can I do? I began to write.

And after finding my rhythm, thinking again and again how I would love to write news stories on community events, I saw an advertisement in our local paper asking for a part-time freelance writer, or stringer, in newspaper speak. The publisher was thrilled when I wrote him.

Now, I have the freelance writing, the newspaper writing, the weekly column and can see the finish line in my memoir on our journey of darkness and light. One writer astutely put it, “writing is editing.” This is edit #4 which I think will be a very productive edit. Then I plan to read it to someone for feedback. Then it might, might I say, be time to send it off. Regardless, it will be time to apply myself to the book proposal.

Meanwhile, my husband’s story differs only slightly. He began to play cumbia. I reached the dream of being paid to write and he reached the dream of being paid to play. He began to sell wind chimes.

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More than all this, around the corner, on his second birthday Peter will have been five months out of the hospital. Five months without imbalances, infections or rule-out fevers. Pink eye landed him in the hospital last year. Mild colds landed him in the hospital. Inexplicable, life-threatening immune reactions landed him in the hospital. Over the course of five months, the hospital faded into the distance. Life at home is normal.

Two years of terror and heartache, one crisis after another, and then the springtime.

And yet, I wonder. I wanted to write, “and then the springtime, when all our dreams come true,” but then I remember what New Year’s Day was really like.

I wept at her grave wishing she were with us.

Then I suppose the wisdom is that no matter what we achieve in this life, heaven is our home. Our longing ought never to stop. These are not the things that matter. To be honest, if it were not for Celeste I am sure I would forget in this season.

It is a season. Though I stare at the meadow now on the trail up the mountain and feel the breeze that brushes against its sweet stream, I know this is only temporary. Life is not meant to be sweet forever, it is a valley of tears. One day our path will turn…and that’s okay.

Because the meadow is not far away. It never was.

Nor is it the goal. The summit of the mountain is our destination, whether the view is fragrant and green or dusty and barren.

One day, Peter will get sick again. With his wonderful doctors I do not expect him to be in danger again, but sick and we will be separated.

One day, I will either be pregnant or sorrowful that the season of new babies has passed. For this, I will not presume on what God has in mind for us. I hope to take what comes with gratitude and trust.

One day, there will be more deaths, because living is dying. It cannot be avoided.

One day, my heart will break because my other children suffer.

But today is not that day. Today I can take the good and the sweet, embrace my work and projects and wrap my arms around my children laughing at a healthy two-year-olds antics. I take it and rejoice, strange as it is.

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Ghost of Christmases Past

Previously published in the Weekly Column “Here’s to the Good Life” in the Hughson Chronicle & Denair Dispatch.

Wintry image of a mountain village covered in snow
Photo by Pigoff PhotographY on Unsplash

I opened a box of ornaments and saw a handful of baubles which I could not remember using in my house. I recall buying them, but where did I use them? Then I remembered…

The same thing happened with a string of lights. Our outdoor lights are strings of 200 LED little lights. Why did I have these strings of 60? Then I remembered…

Lastly, I found the tree. I gave my mother a shopping list and had this artificial tree ready and waiting. It was the tree I set up, with the lights and the ornaments and all this wool finger garland in my son’s hospital room.

It was as if I looked up just as the heavy drapes pulled back from the inside. Looking through the window into the candlelight I saw myself, living in a hospital with my son who was sometimes stable, sometimes not, in the faraway land surrounded by water called San Francisco. I slept outside the hospital at a beautiful place called Family House which exists to support people like us, people like we were, the people in the window, the woman decorating the hospital room because by December 22nd it is not clear where she will celebrate Christmas.

The more illuminating moment arrives when studying the woman in the window I think of how different my life is from hers. That was a woman of a different age, a woman who could pack a suitcase in less than five minutes, a woman who knew silence in her life. I have little silence in my life with four children at home, including that particular son running around with his short toddler legs after his siblings. And I fumble when I pack because I am out of practice.

How faraway the past looks when it becomes the past.

How strange Scrooge must have felt looking through the window at old Fezziwig’s wondering who that man was, the man cheerful and in love. We learned to ignore the vestiges of the life we once lived. We learned to live in the present, hoping not to be bothered by the past.

But the past comes up. It comes up in the way our lives are lacking now. It comes up in the way our lives are fuller now. Whether we feel the grief that comes with something lost that cannot be recovered, or the relief of a period of suffering ending and health returning, the “Ghost of Christmases Past” haunts us and calls for us to pause, reflect, and allow our past to be part of our present and influence our future.

The Catholic Church calls this an examination of conscience.

A thousand moments can pass us by. Yet somehow we are meant to hold them in our hearts, turn them over, and then set them aside until it is time to look at them again.

The sensory experience of Christmas is a powerful trigger. I lit candles and Christmas lights as soon as we were home. And we were home. The quiet of Christmas had already settled into the hospital hallways as the staff was reduced to accommodate vacations. Yet our room was in a flurry as I packed up to rush home and celebrate Christmas where we belonged, all of us, son included.

Now this moment of opening a box of ornaments is the Ghost taking me back, asking me, “do you remember?”

It permits me to draw my own conclusions.

The invitation will not happen in one night, but I will not let it pass me by.

December Links

Since Thanksgiving, I’ve been off my blogging game. Here are some pieces that stood out to me since then.

Here’s a great post on giving each season its due, in this case, Advent before Christmas. I’ve heard the analogy of celebrating Advent the way we prepare for a new baby (you’re allowed to decorate). This writer draws a similarity to how one plans a wedding:  “Ideally, I think, that’s still how we’d celebrate it today. I think of it like I was planning a big wedding. It would be on my mind months ahead of time. I’d get a few major projects done well in advance so I wouldn’t have to worry about them as the big day approached. Then in the weeks before the wedding, I would focus on having everything I needed available and organized and cleaned. I would bake the cake and prepare the food. I would scrub down and decorate the church and the reception hall in the days just before the wedding. I would be prepared to celebrate. We’d have the rehearsal dinner the night before. But what I wouldn’t do is throw a reception or two a couple of weeks before the wedding and eat the cake and the wedding bell cookies and drink all the champagne before the happy couple is even married, before they’re in town even. That would be crazy.”

This article on the effect of “contemplative architecture” on our brains is inspiring. I think there will be a movement towards an architecture that lifts our minds to God. It just may be a while before we see it.
On grief:
Is this negative or positive? I do not know. It looks like difficulty reading it tied more to factual knowledge than expected. We should work on teaching our children about things in those early stages when memorization comes easily. It means Wikipedia has an important place alongside a novel.
I was grateful to read this piece called “When the Holidays are Hard” on the holidays today. It has good recommendations for those who are grieving and those who know someone who is grieving.
“I will joyfully welcome Jesus on Christmas, but my joy will likely be a tearful joy, a joy that still hurts and wonders at what’s happened, a joy that moves in and out of peace, but ultimately, a joy that trusts.” From Nancy.
Love this shopping advice! I particularly like the idea of “Choose one or two brick and mortar stores and get inspired.” Our shopping trip is planned Thursday for downtown Turlock, though my kids’ gifts were purchased elsewhere.
And one last one on grief. This article on miscarriage highlights the intriguing phenomenon of cellular memory. I appreciate articles that explain how things work, like our minds.

Days of Promise

Today is the Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Today is one of the days of promise.
The Immaculate Conception is the day we celebrate God’s gift of redemption to Mary, through the merits of Christ cross, applied retroactively in order to prepare a place fitting for God-made-man to dwell. In the same way, he applies the glory of his second coming retroactively by assuming her into Heaven, body and soul.
In this, he honors his mother and shows us the way.

Oil painting of the Assumption of the Virgin by Titian, 1516 - 1518

Today is a great day for me. Last year, I read post after post, related the Assumption to the Theology of the Body and resurrection of the dead. None of this resonated.
I have only held one deceased person in my arms, the same person I held within my body. This girl leaped with joy at John the Baptist did in utero. With the glow of angels around her, she died before she had a chance to breathe the air if she would have breathed at all. We did not see her body as it was. At our request, the nurse placed her bonnet on her head before we saw her.
I knew I had two children already waiting for me in Heaven, but I never saw them, never held them. I know there are other dearly departed in Heaven we long to be with, but we did not see them often on earth. My body was primed to know her every movement, as it was with all my children. This year’s celebration is different than before. When I think of Heaven now, it is a richer vision than ever before.

For the Lord himself, with a word of command,
with the voice of an archangel and with the trumpet of God,
will come down from heaven,
and the dead in Christ will rise first.
Then we who are alive, who are left,
will be caught up together with them in the clouds
to meet the Lord in the air.
Thus we shall always be with the Lord.
(1 Thessalonians 4:16-17)

These are days of promise. I will see her perfect body, restored and complete, not as she grew, but whole.

Assumption of the Virgin Mary, Pierre Paul Prud'hon
Assumption of the Virgin Mary, Pierre Paul Prud’hon

It is easy to accept God what God has on resurrection days like this. That is what these days are for – to carry us through the valley and dark times with the light of God’s promise. They are moments of Transfiguration to keep in mind as we travel the Way of the Cross. So let us stop and celebrate, seeing the way it went with Mary, and how it will go with us, should we fight the good fight, and hold fast to the faith.

Sad Haikus

These are from earlier in the week. The memories move back and forth in my heart, sometimes at the front, sometimes at the back, always there.

My peace is the belief in the communion of saints. As C.S. Lewis writes about the mother, it is “a comfort to the eternal spirit within her. But not to her motherhood. The specifically maternal happiness must be written off. Never, in any place or time, will she have her son on her knees, or bathe him, or tell him a story, or plan for his future, or see her grandchild.”

These haikus reflect that reality…our reality.

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Daddy

 

He sits on a chair

Wishing her to sing her a song

Rocking her to sleep

 

No song will come out

She is already asleep

On her way to light

 

Tears fill up his eyes

A man who almost never cries

Cries to say goodbye

 

Silence fills the room

For death has taken her home

Little baby girl

 

Me

 

Filled with emptiness

Memories of silence

Warm blanket on her

 

Goodbye my sweet girl

For long I will not see you

Till I come to you

 

A life lived in fear

Waiting for another grief

Mark left on my heart

 

I don’t know your cry

I never saw you alive

I don’t know your touch

 

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The Story of our Year: a eulogy

At the end of her funeral, Kyle and I walked to the front of the Church and, in front of our family and friends. There , we shared the story of our year, a eulogy for Celeste Casey. I want to share that story with you now.

Man cannot truly find himself, except through a sincere gift of self.

We learned from John Paul II that to love truly is not only to will the good of the beloved but also to be willing to give of oneself, to sacrifice oneself, to that end. There is no title or status change when a parent loses a child. Until recent history and place, parenthood was synonymous with loss. Indeed it still is. From birth when they are no longer protected in the womb, to the first time they fall, to the two-year-old insistence that only one parent may help with shoes, to the four-year urge for independence “I can do it myself” to the age when they really and truly can. Or, more painfully, the first illness, the first injury, the first hospital visit, and the first terrible day when you think of what could have happened, and thankfully did not.

A year and a half ago, we faced for the first time, the knowledge that a child of ours would have a birth defect. Following the birth of Peter, we faced our first NICU visit, first ER visit, first long hospital stay, first fear of losing our child, first surgeries, first inherited genetic mutation, and first understanding that this could have happened with any of our children and future children. But we also faced our first cleft smile, which is the biggest and brightest full-faced smile you can imagine, first easy going baby, first baby to self-soothe bringing some much needed nighttime relief. No cup of suffering came without the relief and joy of meeting this boy and knowing him and living with him in our family.

We were changed by these early experiences.

Armed with the strength of the previous year, we learned of a diagnosis much worse than what we already knew. At 18 weeks pregnant, I could see the sonogram images were not as they should be. Our baby girl had anencephaly, a condition that develops in the early weeks of pregnancy, in which the child does not grow a brain. In my womb, she could continue to grow to full term, be born naturally, and then pass peacefully away. Guided by the Catholic Church’s teaching, we came to understand her life should not be cut short. Over the course of pregnancy Celeste Casey became part of the fabric of this family. “Celeste in mommy’s tummy” entered the canon of toddler speech. To their joy or bewilderment, the older children felt her kick. We experienced an even greater outpouring of love then we had already known.

There has been much grieving in this family this year. In the summer, the loss of a Grandma P, who lived a long-lived life surrounded by 3 children, 13 grandchildren, and many great-grandchildren. In the winter, the untimely death of our brother, Trevor, a man full of potential and love. And now it is spring, and now the death of Celeste who went from the peace and security of the womb straight to the arms of the Father to join her two other siblings lost through miscarriage. With the saints of God, she will pray for this family, she will care for us, as we ached to care for her.

Richard John Neuhaus wrote, “At the heart of darkness the hope of the world is dying on a cross, and the longest stride of the soul is to see in this a strange glory… The cross is not the eclipse of that glory but its shining forth, its epiphany.”

Death on a Friday Afternoon by Richard John Neuhaus

There is no title for a parent who has lost a child.

The grief that comes with faithfulness is built into the definition of mother and father.

We will walk forward in the mystery of life with the joy and suffering that it brings, and will one day, in the hope of God, find meaning in it all.

Parents hold fingers of baby girl

To the mothers who never met their children

I did not plan on writing today. I posted two things about Mother’s Day yesterday and the day before. But I feel somewhat compelled to write.

Happy Mother’s Day.

Happy Mother’s Day to those mothers who never had a chance to meet their babies,

who never had a chance to see their babies,

who never had a chance to act in all those wonderful ways their hearts ached to act,

who, at too short a time, could never again hold their babies,

who, at too short a time, had to say bury to their babies.

You have lived out your vocation to its very depths.

Our Lady walked the road of discipleship, the way that follows Christ, the way to the Cross. And with pain and tears, she stood by the cross, waiting, wondering. How many times, how many threats on his life, times when they nearly threw him over a cliff, did she hold her breath and wonder, is this it? We don’t know how much she knew. Maybe she knew nothing of the path laid out for her. But she walked and stood and loved and gave.

I have three children…I have five children. I thought of my two children today, the two I never met. One of whom there is no evidence except a CD with sonogram images of an empty sac from the emergency room. For the other we have a grave. We will not know their sex until we are in Heaven. But we named them.

John Marie.

Paul Joseph.

They are my children. They are with God.

You may have children too, in Heaven, who, because of original sin, our broken world, the chaos and madness of death, you have never been able to meet. I pray for you.

I count my blessings that I should have three children alive. But I know, if my time comes again, I will wonder, is this it? Will I have to endure that loss again?

No spiritual consolation changes the devastation of a mother who could not love her child in all the countless ways God made mothers to love their children. The earthly sorrow cannot be comforted.

The gentleman who sell the carved wood statues from Bethlehem were at our parish recently. I told my husband of a statue that moved me very deeply. An angel held a child in it’s arms. I could barely speak the words: it looks like the angel is taking it to Heaven.

This morning, my husband gave me the statue. So I would like to share this with you.

 Angel with Infant carved in olive wood

God be with you on this Mother’s Day.

The madness of miscarriage

Mary's face with tears near the face of the Crucified Christ.

The madness of miscarriage and stillborn babies. 

I remember the madness of miscarriage, of grief staring me in the face, the devastation, the hope and the expectation wiped away in a brief moment of confirmation.  I asked the question that changed my worldview: how can God let this happen?  Growing up in a stable family, financially secure, peaceful California weather, only deaths of relatives I saw once or twice a year, no illness, no injuries, no real suffering.  And then this. 

I never imagined it could happen.  I found out I was pregnant on St. Monica’s day.  That same day a classmate shared with a group informally about her miscarriage at five months.  What peace she had as she shared the story!  

Some Saturday two weeks later I began to spot. Not knowing spotting could be normal we went to the emergency room.  Tests, sonograms, it’s early but maybe we’ll hear the heartbeat, could find the sack but not the baby, should go to my doctor on Monday for lab work, the practitioner with the least bedside manner, “yep, looks like a miscarriage.” The pause, the shock, how can this be?  How can God let miscarriages happen?

It’s an evil world, wracked with original sin. 

When the first two fell, sin entered the world, something in nature ruptured and we have death and disease.  It’s senseless.  That is what I came to know. The world was a different place. Heaven made sense and became something I could long for.  I conceived again a few months later.

She was healthy, perfect, a bit feisty.  The pregnancy was easy, the labor was…well, not too bad considering labor, she was perfect with her little bent ear and squished face.  She grew to look just like I did as a baby.  She was our delight.

1 in 3 first pregnancies end in miscarriage. 

We don’t look at causes until another one happens because it’s so common with the first.  Surely, if my firstborn could be born, then I was capable of carrying another.

Another pregnancy, ill-timed, as we packed to move across country, no jobs secured, no home prepared.  An act of trust; an act of acceptance.  For Christmas I wrapped a blueberry in a box and gave it to my parents to tell them the current size of their next grandchild.

Soon after the spotting began.  I hadn’t even gone to the doctor.  I tried, but they usually won’t see a woman so early.  It hurt.  I knew the day it was happening.  The first was lost the night between the Triumph of the Cross and Our Lady of Sorrows.  Those memorials I cherished and eagerly read and meditated on in the Office of Readings.  The impact of those days, I avoided the Divine Office for two years following. 

I’m glad I can’t remember what day Paul Joseph passed from me.  We were able to bury him.  My husband had some peace being able to do something for his child, which he could not do for John Marie.  We called every priest we could for answers, “he’s a human being, we believe that, so you must bury him with dignity.”  Calling cemeteries, they don’t understand, you need a death certificate, but he was never born. Finally, hope came from a compassionate woman at a funeral home and a Catholic cemetery.  They understood.  We buried him.  I visit him on All Souls’ Day.

I conceived again a month later: healthy, perfect, a bit feisty.  I remember being on my knees sobbing at the grave of baby Paul while I was full with the child about to be born.  The first three months of his pregnancy I held my breath, frightened, scared to love this child. 

I read The Problem with Pain by C.S. Lewis. 

Yes, these words said the inaudible words inside my heart, he understood:

“If a mother is mourning not for what she has lost but for what her dead child has lost, it is a comfort to believe that the child has not lost the end for which it was created. And it is a comfort to believe that she herself, in losing her chief or only natural happiness, has not lost a greater thing, that she may still hope to ‘glorify God and enjoy Him forever.’ A comfort to the God-aimed, eternal spirit within her. But not to her motherhood. The specifically maternal happiness must be written off. Never, in any place or time, will she have her son on her knees, or bathe him, or tell him a story, or plan for his future, or see her grandchild.”

Some healing came.

Then, I read A Grief Observed

The first appointment.  I shared my fears with the midwife.  She found the heartbeat.  “Now you can bond with your baby.”  You don’t have to be afraid.  He is alive.

Did peace come?  Somewhat.  Another pregnancy. Would the pattern persist?  Death, birth, death, birth…would this next baby die too?  I kept the fears at bay.  What else can you do?

I nearly had a panic attack.  But we made it through the first trimester.  She’s kicking me now, soon to be born, though not soon enough, it feels, as every third trimester feels.

Am I healed? 

Does a birth wipe away a death?  Hardly.  Never will I know that peace.  Never will I be able to share without fear and devastation that I am pregnant while in the first trimester.  Perhaps I will always envy those women who can. 

I don’t attend pro-life gatherings.  I am scared to see photographs of the bodies of babies torn from the womb.  I didn’t make it happen.  Nature did, the brokenness of nature and the brokenness of a fallen world. But those images feel like the closest think I have to know what my babies might have looked like, had they grown just a little bit more.  If women lose their babies later, my prayer is that they might have peace in holding their dead child, looking on him.  I don’t know, it seemed to bring the other woman peace.

The madness of miscarriage. 

No explanations will ever make it make sense.  I can only look forward to Heaven.  I will raise my children for Heaven.  The world is a hard place, full of struggles.  There are joys.  The joys point us to Heaven.  A father of a baby who died at five months gestation said this publicly, they had fulfilled their call with this child, they have given a child to God, and now their child is in Heaven with God.  No natural consolation, only supernatural, in order to get us through.

A baby girl's feet poking out of a baby blanket.

How beautiful this is, a sculpture which truly portrays that moment of anguish in the Memorial for Unborn Children by Martin Hudáček.

Memorial for an Unborn Child, statue of grieving mother and soul of her daughter reaching out to comfort her.