Blocking the Tackle

Gandalf photo

We visited my husband’s centenarian grandmother yesterday, at a nursing home in Wisconsin.  Although we had a lovely – and lively! – visit with her, something happened when we were about to leave that was kind of interesting.  A woman who was walking up and down the halls tried to follow us out, but she was wearing a wristband that set off an alarm, and a couple of staffers quickly came alongside her.  They stood outside the building and quietly talked to her, as she became more and more agitated.  The woman pointed at our band of children, and you could tell from her body language that she thought she belonged to our family, and was upset that we were leaving without her.

It reminded me so much of how, during my dating years, my family members – especially my dad and one of my sisters – tried to “herd” me away from bad dating prospects and help me to make good decisions regarding men.  I was one of those girls who saw boys as Projects, not Partners.  Only three of the men I had dated since the age of 18 were grown, mature, Real Prospects — the rest of them were wounded, dysfunctional, angry or broken people – or even verbally or physically abusive.  I really thought that if I paid these men enough attention, showed them enough love, or said all the right things, that they would straighten up and flight right.


You can guess how that went.

When you attach yourself to Projects, there’s no equality involved.  Your main job is to placate and attend to emotional wounds.  Your duty is to try to fill those holes that other people created before you even met the man.  Your desperate attempts to “fix” the person actually creates a dynamic in which the man loses so much respect for you, because they recognize that you will put up with – even encourage – bad behavior, all in an attempt to Save the Person.  So although it makes you feel good to reach your hand down and try to pull someone else up by your own bootstraps, it never works:

If you are successful at it, you are no longer needed, right?

If you fail at it, you have to keep trying, right?

I recently saw one of my Projects at the grocery store.  He was covered in bad tattoos, one of which was an upside-down star with a horned devil inside (that one was on his neck, for all the world to see).  He looked strung-out, worn down, and pathetic.  He was following a woman in her fifties who was verbally chastising him (like a mother would to a toddler-aged son), but you could tell they were together.  He saw me, and immediately turned tail and walked away.  The whole time I was in the grocery store, anytime I came across him in an aisle, he avoided my eyes, hunched his shoulders, turned the corner.

He was walking shame.

As well he should have been!  That man was too needy to chase me off when I decided he should be the next Project, and I proceeded to waste a year of my life trying to fix/help/save him.  He was verbally abusive, couldn’t keep a job, lied about staying off of drugs, went through the motions of becoming Catholic, was welcomed into the church and then totally lost his common sense because of the strain of trying to maintain a duality of purpose.

At which point we parted ways (yes, I actually had a limit!).

Leaving the grocery store, I did two things: I thanked God for the common sense and blessing of knowing when to cut him loose; and I prayed for him.  There must have been pity and shock in my eyes when I looked at him, and he responded with shame.  I know he is living a hardscrabble life, the wear and tear on his face showed it.  I pitied him and then thanked God that we didn’t end up together.  I also thanked God that I had so many relatives praying for me during that time, that I would come to my senses and leave that man.   Just like in football, they formed a line and kept me from permanently going after a lost cause.  The things that I would have ruined – and lost – if I had stayed with that man are just – incalculable.

I then gratefully thanked God for my life now – which, while not perfect, is certainly complete and grace-filled.

Everything happens for a reason — I especially believe that about those who form the line and block the tackle.  They stand in the gap when we are not strong enough to do it for ourselves.






Scrappy is, as scrappy does


Occasionally I look into the meaning of names.  My name is taken from Genesis, its origins and namesake being the wife of Isaac, and mother of Jacob and Esau.  It is a belief of Hebraic scholars that an individual who carries her name has a measure of her unique strength.  In looking at Genesis, it is apparent that Rebekah had full complements of gifts and weaknesses.  She was both obedient to the will of God, and enslaved by her own wishes: the dreams that she had for her future, her marriage, and her favored child Jacob.

She was, in a word, scrappy.

I am, in a word, scrappy.

I, also, was drawn to my husband in an inexplicable spiritual way.  The Lord honored that drawing by deeply binding us shortly after we began to date.  Our identities and fates intertwined and we walked on, together.

We were married within eight months of meeting, and I have never looked back.  I have never regretted moving forward into marriage with a man whom others would say I barely knew.  I have never doubted that our bond was God-created and God-blessed, and that bond has endured for the twenty years since we met, and I don’t doubt that it will endure, still, for the forty or fifty years that we have left together.

But unlike Rebekah and Isaac, we have each become closer to God and more united with each year we have spent together.  We have spent 18 of the last 20 years improving each other and our children through our unity.

The first two years of our marriage was dicey, mostly due to the lingering effects of hurtful relationships I had experienced in the past, and my inability to cope with those hurts.  Through the sage advice of my husband, I sought refuge and attitude-shaping through individual therapy.  My therapist Alan was thoughtful, spiritual, and gave amazing insight into what grave hurts men are capable of; and what great healing I could allow in my self through the attention of my patient and loving husband.

Together we have spent the last 18 years of our lives awake in our marriage, thoughtfully stepping through the landmines and oases of friendship, intimacy, parenting, spiritual development, Christian community, and personal relationships with our God.  We have fought – hard – when ghosts of our pasts threatened our sense of security or purpose.  We have spent many hours both organically growing our marriage, and seeking the wisdom of couples who have gone before us and navigated similar deep waters.

Sometimes it has been very difficult; my scrappy nature and my husband’s quiet strength have been both a boon – and a detriment – in different scenarios.  My fighting spirit has sometimes inhibited my ability to “sit on my hands”, mentally and spiritually, and that has caused some problems in our relationship.  My husband’s patience has sometimes allowed for pauses – where there should have been action.  But any time we have set aside our own individual wills, and subsumed our natural personalities in favor of where we felt God was leading our marriage, we consistently saw growth, change and increased strength in unity and purpose.

I am very sure that God led me specifically to my husband, and intentionally to that therapist.  I am very sure that God is leading us every day, further onward – and upward.  I am very sure that God is not done with us yet, as individuals and as a couple.  I am very much looking forward to see what God has in store for our marriage!  He is always transforming darkness to light, divisiveness to unity – as much as we will allow Him to.

The Best Promise


     Recently I was talking with friends about what I consider to be the “worst day of my life.”  I was 19 years old and had gotten a call that morning about a very young relative who had been diagnosed with advanced leukemia; I was waiting for the results of a medical test, and THAT was haunting my moments; and I was in a car accident which scared me half to death, and my knee was throbbing from being slammed into the back of the seat in front of me.  I was reflecting on the day and was thinking, “O Lord, thank you for bringing me through it”, but I was also thinking, “O Lord, what a horrible day, I feel like I want to throw up!”

     And then I envisioned Joan of Arc.  Not the popular image of her (the one I also love!), armored to the hilt, sword unsheathed, rushing into battle – no, the Joan of Arc burning at the stake, at the age of 19.  Burned for heresy and for not renouncing her belief that she had heard the voice of God and the voices of saints, she was basically burned for the sake of fear.  An influential bishop took it upon himself to take her out in order to silence her.   He could not let her live and risk that she would influence the soldiers – and the common people – any longer. 

     Funny, how “poor me!” moments turn into “oh my” revelations about our (my) inherent self-centeredness.  And recognition of the promises made to us in scripture, that if we are faithful to our call to Live the Word, we will be redeemed by our Heavenly Father. The perfect scripture passage for this is in 1 Peter 5:6-11:

    “Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that in due time He may exalt you.

     Cast all your anxieties on Him, for He cares about you.

     Be sober, be watchful.

     Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.

     Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same experience of suffering is required of your brotherhood throughout the world.

     And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to His eternal glory in Christ, will Himself

         restore, establish, and strengthen you.

     To Him be the dominion forever and ever.  Amen.”

     Isn’t that the best promise?  Not that you WON’T suffer, but that when you do, it will only be for a little while, and then you will be restored and strengthened.  Not that you will be spared from pain, but that God will be there to relieve you and take your suffering from you. 

     None of us is spared.  But let’s get some perspective; when you are having a hard time at work, think of Joan of Arc, burning at the stake for her faith in what she had been told by God.  When you are struggling with making ends meet, remember the Christians who are being persecuted and killed in Syria, Iraq, and Turkey – for their faith.  When you miss your bus to work, think of agonizing parents sitting in rooms up in Children’s Hospital, listening to beeping machines that are keeping pace with their child’s vital signs.  When your grown child makes the ten thousandth questionable decision and you are not sure that you can keep vigil – one more day – while they struggle and scrape to find their way in the world – remember that God Himself is with you, and He already knows what is going to happen, and that He has always held them in His hands –

     and that He is capable, beyond all human belief or speculation, of taking care of His own.


Grieving Well


     Our family pet of 12 years recently died of cancer.  Lacey the cat developed a tumor on her side which grew very slowly for about four months.  When she started acting strangely (eating less, sleeping more, restlessness), we took her to the vet and she had two injections, one an antibiotic, the other a steroid.  The vet told us it would just be temporary relief; that it was definitely cancer; and there was no point in putting her through an operation, because the cancer would just grow back.  She did very well for two or three weeks, and then the tumor grew larger, and more aggressively.  We did everything we could to make her more comfortable; she wasn’t in a lot of pain, but it was difficult for her to do steps because a finger-sized portion of the tumor had grown from her side into her joint.  We carried her up stairs, moved her food and water to the kitchen, and each of our family members made a point to spend more time petting and talking to her. 

     In the midst of all of this, I was getting testing, going to doctors, and processing through the diagnosis of a benign brain tumor.  I would have dreams about going to the vet for shots.  I joked to my husband that Lacey and I were “tumor twins.”  I reminisced about how we had adopted Lacey from a no-kill shelter; she had been the best pet we had ever welcomed into the family.  Her sweet disposition was evident to everyone who met her; and on those nights when I was too anxious to sleep, or the headaches got bad, she somehow knew that, and would come to comfort me.

     On April 23rd, I sent my son to the basement to find her.  I hadn’t seen her for five or six hours, and knew she had gone down to the basement at some point to use the litter box.  While carrying her upstairs, the tumor ruptured.  A hole about four inches deep opened up in her side, and she was clearly uncomfortable.  Even the color of her eyes changed, went from clear and piercing yellow to a cloudy and muted yellowish-green.  We knew it was time to have her put to sleep, but there wasn’t anyone at either of the local vet clinics and she wasn’t in horrible pain, so we decided to wait until the next day.  She sleep fine that night, but didn’t move from her spot on her blanket on the couch. 

     We had each of the kids say goodbye to her that school morning, and took photos with each of them next to Lacey; my oldest daughter had a stomach ache, so I let her stay home and keep Lacey company while I got ready to take her to the vet’s office.  We walked down the hill (we are temporarily a one-car family) with Lacey in a 31 bag, and checked in to the office.  My daughter cried from the moment we walked in there, her eyes just leaking tears, so I tried to comfort her by reminding her of all the funny stories of Lacey and her playful/spooky ways.  She really was going to miss Lacey, because our cat had been around for as long as she could remember.  In her old age, Lacey would often wander the house in the evening, often ending up on my daughter’s bed while she read books.  There was a kindness in her that is common in old, wise cats; she was gentle with the kids, even when they were toddlers and would chase her around, or pull her tail before I could get across the room.  My children have each spent time reading books out loud to Lacey, and she always stayed for the ending.

     After asking the vet if it was okay to stay, my daughter and I came back into the room after they gave Lacey her Propofol injection, watched her relax; we nervously laughed when her tongue popped out of her mouth and wouldn’t go back in. The vet and her tech then returned and gave her the final injection that would stop her heart.

     We petted Lacey as she slipped away.  My daughter and I were very sad; she and I are kindred spirits, we have always had a love for animals and their place in our life’s journey (she was my kid who refused to eat meat for a few years, starting from when she was a toddler; it was probably a texture thing, but I liked to joke it was because she knew where meat came from!).  The vet asked if we wanted her cremated, but we had already found a spot in the backyard for her.  We bundled her back into the blanket, placed her into our fancy bag, and walked back home.  We decided to wait until later in the day to bury her, and to have a short ceremony.  My daughter decided to write a poem for the event.  After safely depositing Lacey’s remains in the shed, we walked to a cute little Italian place for lunch, and spent some time together, talking about anything and everything.  It was a lovely segue to the rest of the day!

     We had our funeral for Lacey that afternoon (we had had other ones in the past, because of how short a life that hamsters have!), we had a nice, subdued dinner, and that was that.  The end of a pet era.

     This experience (the first time I had ever had to have an animal put to sleep) made me reflect on some things: the role of tradition in the transitional moments of our life (birth, puberty, marriage, death); what it means to grieve “well”; how to fit the reality of death into our spiritual concepts and beliefs, and what life means because of death.  I believe that most Americans do not grieve “well.”  Many people avoid funeral homes and funerals, instead sending their regrets via card or flowers.  Many families do not bring their children to churches and funeral homes for the ritual of sending a loved one off to their eternal rest.  Many people do not speak of death at all; maybe it’s superstition, maybe it’s upbringing, maybe it’s fear or avoidance. 

     I believe that death is as much a part of life as LIFE is.  That the reason we should cherish each day that we are allowed to have, is because tomorrow may never come.  That each time we leave a person, it may be the last time we see them, so we should try (TRY) not to leave them in anger, or with angry words or thoughts.  I myself have broken this rule many times…but there are things I have experienced that have reminded me of the fragility of life.  The death of the mother of a good friend, in her sleep: not getting to say goodbye.  The death of the child of a good friend in an accident: not knowing it would be the last time she would see her vibrant child, not getting to say goodbye.  My father having a stroke, all of us frantic that he wouldn’t make it back to the States in one piece, or as he used to be; and the fear that created in some of his children, things left unsaid.  The death of my grandma Nunni in a hospital, on Mother’s Day many years ago (I think I was 12?); not getting to say goodbye.  The death of my husband’s aunt in Wisconsin, a lovely woman who had always welcomed my large, boisterous family into her home; the last phone call to her, but not being able to hug her properly before she passed away. 

     At the University of Wisconsin, I graduated with my B.S. but also a certification in Gerontology.  I learned during that long, hot summer of endless classes many useful things: how to recognize (or create) family traditions around death and dying.  How to come alongside others as they grieve loved ones.  What NOT to say to a family member after the death of a loved one. 

    I took a course at university that focused on Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’ five stages of grief, and how NOT to short-cut them.  D.A.B.D.A. : Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance.  I learned to recognize the stages.  I learned that grief is not linear, but a circle that loops back on itself, and that stressors can knock you back into a previous step that you thought you had mastered.  I learned again what I already knew, which is that death is a much a part of life, as living is.  That everything lives, eventually dies; that accepting that, feeling the pain when it is happening and not burying it with busyness, substances, or food can substitute healthy grieving.  That grieving well is an art, not a science.  That coming alongside another person AS they grieve, can be as much a transformative experience for you, as it is for the person who has lost a loved one. 

    That to children, animals are people.

    That telling them HOW to believe about animals and their deaths is probably not a good idea, or how and when to grieve.  

    That the deaths of beloved pets and family friends is practice for the inevitable death of close, loved ones whom your children will have to grieve.

    That talking to your children about death AHEAD of time (using teachable moments, such as coming upon wildlife that are dead, and explaining the natural end of ALL life) will open up the door to communication about life, death, God, eternity, and our role in ecological balance and stewardship of the earth.

     That death is neither unnatural nor to be feared, but to be understood and accepted.

This will be a gift to your children, one that they will pass on to their own children.  Wrestling with the concept of life and death, talking about it openly, can become a family ritual for you.  If you are ready.


Affliction vs. Opportunity


For almost three months I had been accosted by daily headaches, and only on the right side of my head.  I prayed about whether to go in early on, but wondered in the first month if the headaches were caused by my part-time job (cranky people wanting to get their meds, fluorescent lights, a chronically maladjusted co-worker), and so tried to dismiss my symptoms.  When I went to the doctor in March, she showed me that my previously-low blood pressure had been steadily creeping up since November of 2013, and put me on a beta blocker.  She also wanted to put me on a migraine medicine, but I pushed the issue with her, and she agreed to get some scans of my head.

The first MRI experience didn’t go very well – basically, as soon as they shoved the upper part of my body in the “open MRI”, I freaked out and asked them to cancel the test.  If it weren’t happening to me, I probably would have been cracking up laughing at my response.  Instead, they sent me to get a head CT with contrast (in which they inject a dye into your arm which promptly makes you feel like you have peed your pants!  thankfully, the nurse had warned me about that ahead of time). 

I knew something was up when a doctor from my practice called me the very next day, and asked me to sit down.  I was helping my mom to clear leaves from her flower garden and so refused, but I already knew what she would say, which was “We found something that looks like a meningioma, a brain tumor, on your scan.  We need you to get a sedated MRI as soon as possible.”  Believe it or not – I was relieved for a minute.  My nephew had had a very large meningioma removed from his head, and I knew that they are almost always benign; and the doctor said it was less than a centimeter, which to me sounded tiny.

And then I got the MRI (with the hand-holding assistance of my lovely husband and something called Xanax – also lovely), and the neurologist said in his report to my doctor that he felt it was “atypical” – a category that they lump tumors into when it looks something other than benign, but not as aggressive as an obviously cancerous malignant brain tumor. 


What the????

For five weeks I got to hold my breath (in between anxious calls to my sister, the mother of my nephew who had had that craniotomy) until I met with a neurosurgeon, THE guy in Western Pennsylvania for meningioma treatment.  I also got to enjoy daily, chronic bad headaches and a new ringing in my ears – both of which led to me acting like an 80-year-old because I was so distracted – “what, what did you say? What do you want me to bring upstairs?.”

That was fun.

That IS fun.

So now I felt afflicted: ear ringing, minor or major headaches all day, having to skip out on my women’s groups or other activities when my head felt like it would split open like a melon, getting irritated by my children – because, of course, the pain is WORST during my busiest mom times, which is 4 to 8 pm.  Part of the time, I felt sorry for myself (and my family), part of the time, I felt PISSED. 

Mad at God. 

See, as much as I would like to believe the opposite, there is a part of me that thinks that – if I am a good person, a good Christian, do works of service and mercy, give to my church and my prayer group and the food pantry, that I should be EXEMPT from this crap. 

“Crap” being suffering.

And then I read the book of Job.  AGAIN.  Job was a Man of God.  The Lord Himself, when questioned by the devil, called Job “blameless and upright.”  God allowed the devil to take everything from Job: his children, his sheep and goats, his HEALTH, his fellowship with others (as his body was so afflicted that worms had set up camp in his flesh, and his skin had started to break open).  At first Job was accepting of these things, and still praised God (as I had). 

And then, he got mad.  He complained to his friends, rent his clothes, rolled around in the dirt, and said to God “I loathe my life.  I will give free utterance to my complaint; I will speak in the bitterness of my soul.  I will say to my God, why hast thou condemned me?”  One of his friends responded, “For you say, ‘My doctrine is pure and I am clean in God’s eyes.’  But oh, that God would speak, and open his lips to you, and that he would tell you the secrets of wisdom! For he is manifold in understanding.  Know then that God exacts of you less than your guilt deserves.”  He then tells him to suffer with grace; that if Job lifts his eyes to heaven, that all these afflictions and bad circumstances will be lifted from him and he will have more children and flocks and health than Job had before.

And then for TWENTY-SIX more chapters, Job bemoans his fate.  What is that in real time, a couple of weeks??? He bitched, and he moaned, and he rent his clothes, and he yelled at his friends. 

And finally, after all of that, the Lord responds!  “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?? Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you will declare to me.  Where were YOU when I laid the foundations of the earth? ….Have you commanded the morning since its days began?…Have you entered into the springs of the sea, or walked in the recesses of the deep?….Can you lift up your voice to the clouds, that a flood of waters may cover you?…etc.”  And Job, chastised, answered the Lord: “Behold, I am of small account…I lay my hand on my mouth.  I have spoken once, and I will not answer; twice, but I will proceed no further.”  And God answered Job by reminding him of the relationship that they had had before Job was afflicted:  “Can you draw a Leviathan from the sea?…will he speak to you soft words?…Will he make a covenant with you to take him for your servant forever?…etc.”  and he continues to list the ways that a Leviathan that seems to be unstoppable –  is NOTHING next to Job’s God – the God speaking to him and questioning him – the God who was promising to restore to Job everything he had lost, and more, including numerous more days on the earth – 140 MORE years in which to prosper.

And Job stops.  Stops complaining, stops moaning, stops whining.  And remembers.  And declares aloud that he knows not what God’s plan is, and then repents before God, and covers himself in dust and ashes.  He is ashamed.  And he knows that even though he rent his clothes, and spoke ill of the Most High God, that his life and his belongings will be restored to himself.

I think, regardless of what happens from here on out, that I need to open this book every week.  To look at how quickly I crumbled into harshness against God, into grumbling, complaining, whining about my pain. 

To look at how my circumstances can serve to slow me down, to remember to be grateful, to see this pain as something to offer up, to find a way to be gracious, regardless of the circumstances. 

To see this as an opportunity for grace, and for the suffering to bring me closer to my God, and to others: to my husband, neighbors, siblings and friends, who continue to pray for me.  For those who have done little things to remind me that the love of God is apparent all around, if I just would lift my bowed head.  Who have joked with me, called me, texted me, made me meals on tough days, hugged me, cried with me, and who have let me talk when I am scared, frustrated or disappointed.  Who have been Christ’s hands and feet to me even when I’ve been acting like a spoiled brat.  For those who have encouraged me to run TO God, instead of FROM him.

Who have shown me, day to day, the face of God.

Who have blessed me.

May you, in your own suffering, allow others to love you.


The stars in my eyes


     Recently my 12-year-old daughter came home with a book she had borrowed from a friend.  It was called The Fault In Our Stars.  I skimmed through it and told her to return it to her friend, that she wasn’t quite ready to take on the themes in the book, it was just too mature for her (which, of course, she took the wrong way!).  The language is a little too dicey, the relationship themes are more appropriate for an older teenager, etc.  That’s pretty much my job, right?  To keep life from knocking my kids down before they are ready to handle what comes next.  To keep her innocent just a little bit longer.

     Everyone has hardships in life that can leave them questioning their next move, their faith, their purpose, even their eternal identity.  If you experience something devastating, what does that say about God?  That He doesn’t care about you, that the deck is stacked against you, that life is just some cosmic joke or biological accident and that we are the punchline? 

     I believe that hardships say more about the HUMAN condition than about GOD’S condition.  These “clay vessels” we reside in are complicated, delicate, breakable.  This world we live in caters to the flaws and foibles of the clay vessels, and all of our bodily cravings and desires can be satisfied on a whim.  The steel cages we zoom around in at 65 miles per hour can’t stop on a dime.  Something we eat, drink or inhale can react to our chemistry in ways that can cause us sickness.  Some of us believe that we are temporary beings, that our purpose is served on this plane, in this existence, alone.  That we live and die and become fertilizer, and that’s all she wrote. 

     I believe that we are Eternal Beings, created through the mercy of a real God.  That our souls are contained in these clay vessels for a very short time and then we are released, to live eternally in whatever condition we have gained by our compassion and mercy – or lack of it.  So my personal philosophy is – when life kicks you in the pants, put on shorts.  When life knocks you down, roll over and look at the stars…just LOOK at them!  There are no faults in those stars.  They represent light, and depth, and unmet goals, and dreams in the ether.  They represent the perfect bodies we will attain at the end of our journey.  They represent hope!