Category Archives: Families

Letting Go Of Normal

 Last week my 13-year-old cat, Angel, was diagnosed with cancer.  Her veterinarian/acupuncturist told me the tumors had spread, there was nothing that could be done, and that I had the option of euthanizing her that day.  I said no:  Angel didn’t seem to be in any pain, she was still running around the yard, leaping onto high window sills and purring.  What Angel isn’t doing is eating much.  She is getting noticeably weaker.

 After receiving this news, my mind raced ahead to practical matters:  is there a spot in the yard where I might bury her?  Would it be easier to cremate?  Yes, but what if she dies at an inconvenient time, like a weekend.  In this valley heat I’ll need to put her body in the fridge till Monday, and she’s a big-boned cat, probably part Maine Coon.  Will she fit?

 Some of you may be thinking, It’s a cat; get over it.  And if you’re thinking this, I hope you don’t have any pets of your own.  But that’s another subject.  One reason I’m writing this is because it is easier to write about these thoughts when they’re about a pet.  So many of my friends are caring for (or have just finished caring for) elderly parents and/or spouses.  It’s hard to talk about.  But I can say these things because my cat won’t read this.  She won’t feel bad if I’m sad because she’s sick.  I don’t have to put on a brave face for her the way I did for my Mom.

 I find there’s a part of me that wants this time of waiting and watching to be over with.  And yet of course I’m dreading it too.  I don’t want my cat to die.  But when she’s gone, I can get back to normal.  Normal.  I realized recently that I seem to be living under a fallacy that life has a default setting of “normal.”  After the funeral or the surgery or allergy season or “when the kids get over these darn colds,” then things will be back to normal and we can get stuff done.  We’ll be happy.

 We do this with happy events too:  after the wedding, after the baby’s born, when we get back from vacation, then things will be back to normal.

 I just finished reading Richard Rohr’s Everything Belongs with my dear soul sisters in the Sacred Conversations group at Sister Margie Will’s Franciscan Living Center in midtown Sacramento.  Rohr says we “idolize normalcy.”  Imagine that!  He cautions against this, saying, “Instead, we have to allow ourselves to be drawn into sacred space, into liminality.  All transformation takes place there. We have to move out of ‘business as usual’ and remain on the ‘threshold’ (limen, in Latin) where we are betwixt and between. . . . Get there often and stay as long as you can by whatever means possible. It’s the realm where God can best get at us because we are out of the way.  In sacred space the old world is able to fall apart, and the new world is able to be revealed.”

 So here I am in liminal space with my cat.  When I look at her I feel sad, but I feel grateful she is still here right now.  And when I remember, I say a prayer for all care givers who are sad and angry and impatient to return to “normal” and feeling guilty as hell about it.  It’s not easy, but it’s a good place to be.

Post script—please don’t send me advice about pet burial, cremation, or cold storage.  I’ll figure it out when the time comes.  This can’t be fixed.  Just say a prayer for all care givers and all those who are grieving.  Thank you.

 

Easter Musings 2015

For thirty-something years I had the privilege of working with children who have severe disabilities. Often when I was out in the community with my students, strangers would approach me and say, “You must be so patient.” Yeah, sure, but probably no more than any other teacher. Other times folks would tell me I was doing “God’s work,” and once a school nurse said I would get a “crown in heaven” for all I was doing for these children.

The truth is working with these kids was a hecka lot of fun, and I don’t need any greater reward than that.

Tim Shriver, one of the Kennedy clan and current chairman of the Special Olympics, was quoted in Parade Magazine last weekend, and what he had to say really summed it up for me too. Just as his parents taught him, this is what my parents emphasized to me: “What our Catholic tradition has done well is make you not just ought to help, but want to help—hunger for it. Be hungry for justice, be hungry for healing, be hungry for connection, be hungry for leveling the playing field. That’s more than just a moral imperative. It’s believing that your best self will always be in solidarity with those who are having a hard time.” After all, he adds, “Jesus was all about [taking care of] the poor and the marginalized and then having a party.”

Yes, Jesus teaches us to be hungry for justice, hungry for healing, hungry for fun and hungry for cake. And I think Jesus would be fine with Christians making wedding cakes for same sex couples too. Just thought I’d throw that in there.

Happy Easter

Loving Harvey

Last week my former companion Harry called me to see how I was doing since the passing of my dear friend Craig.  It was incredibly kind of him to call because our relationship has at times been rather prickly.  We had a brief conversation and as we were about to hang up he said, “You’re in my heart, Nance.”  I responded most sincerely, “I’ll always love you, Harvey.”  OMG!—I called him Harvey!

Harvey—as Harry well knows—is the name of one of the main characters in my first novel.  Best laugh I’ve had in weeks!  (Harry thought it was funny too.)

Now let me assure you that Harvey is a fictional character.  Resemblance to any person living or dead is accidental and unintentional.  And the similarity in names is coincidental!  I’ve always loved the name Harvey.  I named our kitten Harvey when I was a kid, and he grew into one of the best cats ever.

Later that day in a more introspective mood, it occurred to me that what I’d said was the absolute truth. I want to love Harry, but what I really love is the image of Harry I’ve created in my head.

I don’t think this is so unusual.  I’m guessing a lot of couples idealize their partners (especially in new relationships).  When our partner doesn’t live up to the character we’ve created, that we imagine them to be, well, there can be hell to pay.  Parents might do the same thing with their children, and children (particularly “adult children”) with their parents.  Employers definitely have created a box they want their employees to fit into.

It seems to me that Christmas is a good time to open our eyes and hearts and do the best we can to love our families, friends and co-workers exactly as they are.  Most of us have some picture of an ideal holiday:  it was generated by a childhood memory, a saccharine TV show, Martha Stewart’s magazine or a frienemy’s boasting of holiday bliss on Facebook.  If only we could get our families and friends to comply!  Then we too could have a perfect holiday!  I’m not sure, but I’m guessing this isn’t how Jesus would want us to celebrate His birthday.

And what about Jesus?  What about God?  Are we willing to love God exactly as God is, or have we created an image of God inside our heads that we love and worship?

Now it would be very tempting for me to point a finger at people who hold political views divergent from my own and say, “You have created an image of Jesus to justify what you do, but you’re wrong!”  Yes, it’s tempting but that’s not my purpose today.

I think there may be as many ideas of what God is—and what God is not—as there are people on this planet.  I believe every idea is valid, but every idea is incomplete.  In How the Light Gets In, Pat Schneider explains that she has come to use the word “mystery” (with a lower case “m”) as her pet name for the Divine.  Her story acknowledges a hard truth:  none of us in human bodies (what my friend Janice calls our “earth suits”) can fully know and understand God.

This Christmas season I invite you—while praying, meditating or just sitting quietly—to ask God to reveal a bit more of Him or Her Self to you.  I don’t know what will happen.  Maybe nothing will happen.  But, hey, it’s Christmas!  Maybe God will surprise you!

My Mother’s Orange Tree

On December 7th, 1941, my mother was at her friend Louise’s house.  They were picking the first oranges of the season when Louise’s mother came out to the yard to tell them the news that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor.

 

Every year after, my mother commemorated the date by picking, and then eating, the first orange of the season in honor of those who had fought in World War II.  Hers was a silent tradition; for decades she never even told anyone she was doing this.  She finally shared the story with me, and if I could, I would come to her house on December 7th so I could pick an orange with her.

 

My Mom died in October 2009.  That first December I made a point of driving over to her empty house after work to pick an orange for her.   My brother and I were preparing to sell the house where we had grown up, and I wondered where I would pick oranges in the coming years.  I wondered if I could fit a tree in the tiny yard of my midtown bungalow.

 

Later the following year I made a decision that surprised even me:  I decided to move into Mom’s house.  It’s been nearly three years since I’ve moved home, and it’s been a great blessing for me to be here in this lovely, quiet neighborhood.  Now another December has arrived, and I’m excited to see all the beautiful orange fruit hanging like Christmas ornaments amid the glossy dark leaves.

 

So I invite you to join me:  eat an orange on December 7th in memory of my Mom, and in memory of any of your family—your parents or grandparents—whose lives were touched by that horrendous time in our history.  Its aftermath has affected us all.  Eat an orange in memory of the Greatest Generation!

 

Post script:  please say a prayer for California citrus farmers whose crops are enduring a week of hard freeze as I post this.  Hoping I don’t lost my entire backyard crop, but at least my livelihood doesn’t depend it!

On Feminism

I’m writing this for all the non-feminists out there.  Please take a look!

My playful suggestion in a recent post that we close all our schools leads me to a bigger question about raising children.  I think if we, as a culture, were to write a mission statement, the first thing I would want it to say is “There is nothing more important than our children.”  Sure, after 30 years working in elementary education, I am admittedly biased.  But I say it can’t be any other way.  As the song says “children are our future.”  A people that doesn’t care about the propagation of its own species really has its priorities screwed up.

I’ve yet to read Sheryl Sandberg’s best selling book Lean In:  Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, but I’ve heard her in more than one interview relate the following anecdote:  when she drops her children off at school, she feels guilty, knowing she is making the choice to entrust their care to others, knowing that other moms who choose to volunteer at the school may know more about her children than she will know herself.  But when her husband drops the children off at school, he feels great knowing he has participated in their care in a way men of previous generations may not have done.

I’m sure there are a lot of working moms who nodded in recognition when they heard Sandberg tell this story.

As a teenager in the 70s I was proud to call myself a feminist, and I am still proud to claim that title.  A lot has changed in the past forty years, but to me, as Sandberg’s story proves, we’ve only scratched the surface.  Whether or not a woman has a career or whether she “just” has a job to make ends meet, whether or not she likes her workplace, she still feels torn when she has to leave her children.  And so do a lot of men.

To me, the issue isn’t whether or not parents feel guilty when they leave their children to go to work.  I’m NOT saying—hey, women should feel less guilty and men should feel more guilty, and then we’ll have equality!—what nonsense!  No, what I’m saying is this:  I wish we could do more to balance our lives, so we can have the rewards of work (i.e. money, social outlet with co-workers and clients, creativity) as well as the sustenance of family life (and not just a half hour of face time as everyone is wolfing down food at the dinner table).  We and our children deserve to have it all.

I have been dismayed in recent years to discover that many young women refuse to call themselves feminists.  I want to tell them that it is my feminism that is the underpinning of my defense of family life.  My feminism feeds my spirituality and my creativity.

More on this next week.