Monday, January 11, 2016

The Sign Around My Neck Says Welcome

I realized the other day that it had been five years since I really bought make-up. Y'know, went into a nice store, got a lady to help me, et cetera. Thanks to Tom, I had a gift card burning a hole in my pocket and on Saturday got the chance to head to ye olde Sephora shoppe and see what damage I could do.

(As a side note, man, has that place changed. Granted, I don't think I've been in a Sephora since...2007...but still, wow. Also everyone there was fourteen. How can fourteen-year-olds afford $60 foundation and $45 blush brushes?) 

I had a list of things I was looking for and asked for help. The lady I asked was only a floor manager, who then assigned me a makeup artist - like I said, very different from the last time I was there. The guy who came over to greet me was a very sassy, immaculately-coifed gay man. I explained what I wanted and he was very helpful, showing me a few options, explaining the pros and cons while being conscientious about price points. Suddenly, in the midst of our consult, he stopped me and said "Oh, I love your medal. That's the Blessed Mother, isn't it?" Yes, of course, it was - he recognized Mother Mary on my royal blue medal I bought in Sacré-Coeur, years ago, while on pilgrimage. I explained where I got it, how long ago. He pulled out from his black button down a lovely medal of St. Jude - "he's my guy!" he said emphatically, patting his heart. We went back to the point at hand, connection made.

As I was dallying around the brushes, I was offered a free facial. I agreed, despite not really knowing what a facial was. "Just 30 more minutes, OK?", I fired off to Tom, occupied a few storefronts down at the playground with the kiddos. The lady doing my facial was very kind and we got along great. She was chatting to me about her six children and her grandkids, life, Filipino food, and her boyfriend - who she hates calling her boyfriend because she's a mature lady and it sounded like a teeny-bopper term. Tom walked down as we were finishing up, whereupon Zuzu clambered up into my lap to tell me she was 'a queen!' To which I replied (as is standard in our house), "But who is Queen of Heaven and Earth?" She grinned big and cried "Mother Mary!" My facial lady laughed and said, "hmmm...guess you guys are Catholic!" Turns out she was too, and we chatted about our love for our faith and its firm rules. I had to run, everyone was hungry, so I said goodbye and rushed back.

Back to my real life.

I was struck by the fact that both of these people had a connection to the Church, a connection that was real and living.  I don't know whether they would call themselves Catholic, but I do know that despite both of them having an situation that we would not call 'normal' within the Church (a gay man who had a boyfriend, a mother of six with a live-in boyfriend), they were holding onto their faith in some way. The truth is that when someone has a true experience of Love within the Catholic Church, it stays with them - it stays with them and often they hold onto it, no matter what else changes or sways - and I believe it stays with them because they know the Church is home. The Church is home for everyone - the Church holds herself out to be the place we can all come, every single soul on earth, and find refuge and love and hope. You do not have to know the protocol; you do not have to be perfect; you do not even have to be Catholic. The Church is your mother and she will love you as you are - even when her love looks like rules about not leaving your socks on the floor.

I was so glad to be reminded of these truths by these encounters that were sparked by my medal. The truth is, I don't wear my medal every day like I used to - I like to switch it up, wear different items and oftentimes, no jewelry at all, since lots of little hands do lots of grabbing at me all day long. But I should wear it everyday: wear it as a sign that we, the Catholic Church, are waiting to welcome you, people of the world. Every day, in every country on earth, we are still here and we are waiting, and we always will.

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Thursday, December 3, 2015

My St. Joseph

After over a week of illness, I think we are starting to get better. Certainly not out of the woods yet, but at least clawing our way to something better. Over Thanksgiving we had two emergicare visits, lots of interrupted sleep, and nearly a whole family of sickies. Coming home was not what I wanted it to be: I realized the very first night that I could not jump right back in to the routine. I had a whole list of things to do the next day: grocery shop, take down the fall things, pull out the Advent wreath, wrap all the books, fold the piles of clean laundry we had left. But faced with this wall of still-persisting sickness, I did for once what everyone beseeches moms to do: rested.

I not only rested - I let my husband take care of me. Which, I'm really rubbish at generally. I can't stand being sick and not being able to care for all the needs of my family. But too often, when in my full strength, I push Tom away - I think maybe sometimes I make him feel like we don't need him. But oh, we do.

Over this last week, while we have been caring for our family in the midst of illness, he has been my rock. He has been up with me at 1am - 3am - 5am - with little people burning with fevers or sobbing with ear pain. Nary a grumble has escaped his lips when I explain the need for yet another child to join us for yet another night in bed, or when the baby wants to play at 4:30 when we only just went to bed at 3. He held our son in the a steamy bathroom while I sat with our restless toddler, and then swapped when I  needed to.

Traveling home, he was our protector: getting us food and drinks, grabbing a blankie that had fallen, given snark to a gate agent whose rude attitude threatened to put me over my emotional edge. And now we're home and he's soldiering on, despite having to dive back into his busiest work season. The first morning home, I got a nap while he took care of the children's many needs. He then came home in the afternoon with roses and needed items for dinner. He got up with the children this morning at 4:30am, and let me sleep for as long as I wanted. When I awoke, everyone was down for a nap after having had breakfast.  He cleaned the kitchen before he left.

This exhaustive laundry list is the smallest glimpse into just this week's offering of love. This is what my husband, Tom, does for me, week in and week out. He is tireless, cheerful, and loving. Just as the Blessed Virgin needed St. Joseph for the long walk to Bethlehem, to bear witness to the miracle of the birth of God's son, and then for the flight to Egypt, God has seen fit to start my Advent by showing me my need for my husband.

Maybe I don't even mind.

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Wednesday, November 18, 2015

To a Good Dog

"Mama, can you hold me?" 

"No, dear, not right now." 

"Why not?" 

"Because there's a great sadness inside me, and I have to write it down." 

I took my dog, Blackacre, to be put down this past Monday, while in Orlando visiting my parents. He was sick and pain medication wasn't able to give him enough relief to walk. X-rays revealed advanced degenerative arthritis and a mass surrounding an enlarged spleen and liver. The vet and I figured his indignities would only get worse, so I put him down before it got too bad.

It was a decision I made with my brain, and clung to with robotic clarity after having made the appropriate moral calculations. Yet in the moment the wonderfully kind vet asked me if I was ready, a sudden great loneliness seized me and I wanted to knock the syringe out of her hand. This dog - this good dog - had been my dog since I was a much younger woman, and suddenly I could not fathom my dear black shadow passing out of this world. I let that moment pass, because I couldn't make a choice based on my comfort at the expense of his.

Since that moment, I have been mourning that big black dog. Oh I know - he was a dog, not a person, and I don't attribute to him any qualities that he didn't have. And it's true, there are far greater sorrows in this world than mine and I have no corner market on grief right now. But it is good, and right, to mourn a creature whose care was mine for over six years, that God gave to me and I returned. Animals are part of Creation, and they reflect something of their Creator, and I'm grateful for that.

I bought him because he was too big and cheerful and out of control for anyone else. I changed his name from Lenny to Blackacre, and learned to run with him by my side. We went all over in my silver Honda Accord, to state parks, on road trips to Florida, to wherever we wanted to go. My last year in law school, I sent him to live with Tom since my new place didn't allow dogs. He bore this separation patiently and thrilled to see me on my breaks. Tom let him lay on the furniture, so I guess he didn't have it too bad.

But Blacks' true nature didn't really shine until after Tom and I were married. After my first miscarriage, I was distraught - I laid in bed and sobbed all day. He laid right by my bed, staring up at me with his deep black eyes, and knitting his eyebrows into a funny face of concern. Then, when we got pregnant with Zuzu, he was even more worried - because all I did was sleep. I'd wake to his face, resting on the bed, staring at me with that same concerned intensity. He was always worried about me.

Now that we're home in Naples, his absence is even more marked. Last night, I rose to nurse David and there was no click of nails following behind me. After nursing, I did my rounds of the house - checking on all the sleeping occupants, double-checking locked doors, peering out windows to make sure all is well on my sleepy street. As I did all this, I had no shadow to double-check my eyes, no alert ears to hear what I missed. There was not the familiar dark shape laying in the door while I nursed the baby, as there always has been, every day since I became a mother. I went into the bathroom and the mats in the bathroom were cold, which was odd because they're always warm since he liked to lay in there instead of on his bed. My floor has more food on it than before, since my floor cleaner is likewise retired. No dog to let out in the morning, no one to hush when UPS drives up, no letting the dog out as the last chore of the night. It's Wednesday, but I don't get to check "wash dog" off my chore chart list. There's no dog to wash, no sweet face pushed into the towel to get dried off.  The last time I saw him, he was still and heavy, laying on the floor with his soft head in my lap. That picture comes back to me again and again throughout the day, and I want to break in two because it seems wrong that something so beautiful should end.

My Blackacre Valentine was a good dog and that's why I mourn him. Good things deserve to be marveled at, loved, and then missed - and a good dog no less than any other thing, far greater than some things in fact. In a world where so much seems to shift and move, it is grounding to know - there are still good dogs, and they are true to their nature to the very end.

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Monday, November 9, 2015

Postpartum Thoughts

"When her mother reproached her for caring for the poor and sick at home, St. Rose of Lima said to her 'When we serve the poor and sick, we serve Jesus. We must now fail to help our neighbors, because in them we serve Jesus.' " 
- Quoted in the Catechism, at number 2449 

Teeny tiny David, relaxing while I frantically guilt-sew a doll blanket for Zuzu, which she then promptly threw on the floor sobbing "it's not a dress! I wanted a DRESS for my dolly!" 

Consensus has it that something is majorly wrong with the West's postpartum practices. On various parenting or breastfeeding forums that I'm a part of, I regularly see women asking about getting back down to pre-pregnancy weights or fitting back in old clothes at a month - or a week! - postpartum. Blythe Fike wrote a much hailed post about how to do the postpartum period differently, and it's also been written about notably here and here.

My postpartum experiences have been so incredibly different from others that it's hard to relate, but honestly, my time after David was so much harder. Jen wasn't living with us, so I didn't have on-going help; my mom had to go back home relatively soon, and David was born during Holy Week, so Tom was basically gone for those first tender, difficult moments. And of course, we had Zuzu. I forgot how very emotional I am postpartum - how sensitive and frightened I become. I need more emotional support than I realize - I need people to force me to relax and to speak truth to me that will calm my heart. But this time, I sprung back physically very quickly, and I think this gave many people false reassurances of my well-being.

Zuzu had a lovely Easter this year, which I'm sure she would've had anyway, even if I had stayed in bed and let other people cook. Instead, I cooked a leg of lamb and arranged an egg hunt, less than a week postpartum, because I am dumb.

So the problem is well documented. What is the solution? What can we, as people who value women, children, and birth, supposed to do to create a better culture of postpartum care?

First of all, care for the pregnant women in your life. If you have a friend who is pregnant, inquire about her postpartum plans and needs, who will help her, what her fears are. Then offer to help where you can: organize her meal train, collect money to hire her a housekeeper, or a postpartum doula. Maybe find her a mother's helper, a teenager or older child to come over and play with her other children, or do light house keeping.

As Kendra Tierney says, few things make having a baby easier than also having a ten year old girl. My nieces come to visit and more than earn their keep by entertaining Zuzu in all her toddler shenanigans.

Affirm keeping the postpartum time sacred. It is so easy to see what we value by what we compliment. "You look great - so skinny!" or "She's wonder woman, just had a baby and she's out here coaching the soccer team." Compliment women differently, and honestly - "we haven't seen you much since you had the baby - good for you for making time to adjust." Text these things to your new postpartum friend, write them in an email or better yet, a lovely hand written card she can tuck in the new one's baby book (that maybe you can buy for her, if she forgot!).

Fight the isolation with visits - and don't be a guest that makes work! So often I think women get out so quickly afterwards because they are lonely. They are at home with at least one small child, their husbands or other help must get back to work, their neighborhoods may be empty of any other mothers. After the flurry of activity that surrounds the new arrival, ask if she would like a visit. Yes, this can be hard - maybe you have to arrange childcare for your kids because they're sick or she's not comfortable with them around yet; your own life is busy with many demands. But make the sacrifice, show how important this new little soul is to the community, let this be a corporal work of mercy. Bring food, drink, and little comforts for her and baby. While you talk, be mindful of her - does she seem comfortable? does she have a drink? when did she last eat? does she need a shower? The visit will not do as much good if you do not use it to gauge her needs and either attend to them, or make arrangements for them to be tended to. You will not be a helpful guest if you are making her take care of you!

Jen's strategy when I was postpartum with Zuzu was just to always hold the baby so I could shower, sleep, eat, and cry unassisted. It was amazing.

Lastly, if you are a woman of child-bearing age, make room to allow care for yourself. That is, unlike what I did with David, ask for help and accept it graciously. It is good to make freezer meals, lovingly craft quiet books for the toddler to play with while you nurse, and all the rest. But let your community take care of you as well. It is a blessing to others, as well as for you.

When David's godmother had her third baby this past June, it was such a great blessing for me to care for her. The first few weeks she was well attended by her parents and in-laws, but after that calmed down, I arranged her meal train. In the interim period, I made her new daughter a name blanket and texted her at regular intervals (not too much!) to keep in touch. When we got the green light to visit, I made sure Zuzu knew not to touch the new baby, and brought them several dinners over a few weeks. I would come earlier in the day, and sit and talk with her, watching our babies stretch on their blankets, while the older kids played in another room or outside. I hope it was good for her, because it did such a great deal for me - to see her adjust to life with three kids, to hear her incredible birth story, to revel again in the gift of new life.

I truly believe that respect for the postpartum period will help women be the mothers that God is calling them to be. And that could not be more vital for our society since, as the old adage says, "the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world."

At least this little world. 

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Monday, October 12, 2015

The Zee is Three

Three years ago, I was seven hours from my water breaking, and just fifteen hours away from laying my eyes on my firstborn child. Birth story here.

Three years.

I remember so much about my pregnant, so many moments, so much anticipation. I nostalgically look back on her newborn days - six weeks of watching LOST with Tom and Jen, eating amazing food delivered by my fantastic community, staring at her for hours. I remember so much about her first year (first month!), every single first etched in my mind forever: first time she rolled over, waved, the sound she made when she sneezed, her funny pirate crawl, sitting up, walking, saying Dada. I remember the first flower she picked for me - a Don Juan rose from the bush that grows by my parent's mailbox in the house that I spent a good deal of my growing up life in.

And now, somehow, we're here. This past year flew by - between my pregnancy and David's arrival, house projects, travel - it feels like just yesterday was her second birthday. Here we are, and she's changed so much. She's potty-trained, takes swim lessons, hangs out in the YMCA daycare, goes to her little faith formation preschool.

Yet she's the same. Oh, she's the same. As one. As two.

From the day she was born, she was special. Doesn't every mother say that about each child? Oh, I don't care - I'll say it about her. She's different. She is bright, and sensitive, and funny. Her memory is stunning and her sense of comedic timing truly impressive - I'm thinking of her kicking back in her brother's baby bathtub and cheerily declaring, "I'm in a holiday mood!" As Grandma Jean said of her, "she dazzles me." She is still watchful, a bit guarded with newcomers, relentlessly affectionate with her intimate friends, and happiest relaxing near water with me, her mother. I remember being able to work in the garden with her from the time she was little - 14 months - and she'd stay right by me, listen when I told her to stay, ever watchful and careful and wise.

Although, it isn't that easy being her mother anymore. Toddlerhood hit her with a vengeance about two months before David was born, and it's been very hard on all of us to adjust to her growing pains, to learn anew how to care for her best. Even harder still, I feel my responsibilities keenly where she is concerned: to help her mold and train her talents into virtues, and to work to acquire that which doesn't come easily. I feel so much responsibility because I see her as so very amazing - I want to lay the foundations for virtue so that she will be ready to do whatever great work God asks of her. Some days I overly complicate this; on my best days, I realize this comes naturally when I love her deeply for just who she is and work to communicate that love in all we do day by day, side by side.

It's hard for me to say what I really think when I look her, which quite honestly is: you are my dream come true, you are what I've always wanted, my greatest work in this life is to care for you, and your siblings, until God calls me home. Susannah's entrance into the world ushered in the start of my great adventure, what I am doing to make the world more beautiful. I am humbled to be the recipient of such a gift; each day, I endeavor to deserve the honor of being a mother, and having so precious a child.

Happy birthday, Susannah Marshall. May this year bring you great joy, grand adventures, and lots of strawberry donuts with sprinkles (your favorite).

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