The text from my brother was there when I woke up. “Mother’s gone.” I rolled over in bed and laid there for a minute.
Gone. Mother was gone. The space she never really seemed to fill up completely, or well, was officially empty.
I texted my children. “Grandmother’s gone. I’ll keep you posted on details. Love you madly.” Heart heart.
I got up, peed, and called Bob.
“She passed quietly, when Karen was out of the room. It happened early this morning … about 2:30.”
“Any idea what the plan is?”
“No plan yet. The funeral home has been there, and Karen has gone to breakfast with Cornelius.” Cornelius is Karen’s grown son.
“Okay. Just keep me posted.”
Bob. My brother. I was the oldest, he was next in line. We spent our childhood together in the family foxhole. We grew up, drifted apart, then back together. He and I, in our separate lives, had sought all the good counsel we could find, determined — each of us — to land on our feet as the people we were put here to be. And for the most part we succeeded. Our lives had been shaped by our childhoods, as most lives are; we were determined that our choices as adults were not defined by them. We’re now in our senior years, and we’ve never been closer.
The funeral arrangements lunged and looped like a Chinese fire drill. Ten grandchildren were all over the world, we six children were spread across the country … and schedules were impossible to coordinate.
“Karen said the funeral director told her he could oil mother down if we need to wait a few weeks till everyone could be there.” My stomach turned, but before I could respond, he continued … “and she said no, she’s not going to leave mother in an icebox that long. We’ll schedule around when we siblings can be there, and hopefully the grandchildren can make it. But we gotta move on this.”
So we gathered, we hugged, we rosaried, we viewed mother’s body in a box. We attended the funeral Mass where the young priest talked, in personal terms, about life, and death, and the fact that the circle of life, while it can be painful, is also beautiful.
We drove to the cemetery and sat facing the box. The deacon read a passage, we all bowed our heads. We watched in silence as the swarthy worker removed his hat, adjusted the pulleys, and lowered the box into the ground. When he was done, he gave a quick nod, put on his hat, and walked away.
After a couple of minutes we began to rise and drift into small groups; we chatted in hushed tones, and headed to our cars. It was a sizable group, I guess. Mother’s six children, some of her grandchildren, a couple of great grandchildren, nieces and nephews … each person knew a ‘piece’ of Ruth. And now, she was gone. Her story is gone with her, except for those pieces she left with each of us.
No two pieces were exactly the same, and I couldn’t help wondering … if we put them all together, would they make the whole of who she was? There was no way to know. And maybe that’s the way it’s meant to be, after all.
My daughter Michelle was heartbroken that her schedule prevented her from coming.
“I can’t be there then.”
“Go, my darling, and live your life. Grandmother is not in that box. She’s up above the clouds, young and healthy, dancing the jitterbug with Granddad.”
The weather’s finally turning cool. A fall nip is in the air, the one that tells me, “cozy nights by the fire” are not far off! I smile as I sip my coffee, and am happy that I’ve once again turned my attention to shoeboxes. I mean the shoeboxes filled with gifts that Samaritan’s Purse gathers. They spend their Holiday carrying them to children across the world who might otherwise not have a Christmas at all.
My boxes for this year are just about ready. A couple more things to tuck into them, and I’ll be done.
A couple of years ago, I was in a very tight space financially. In my life, money has ebbed and flowed, and I’ve always been pretty good at rolling with it. But that year the money was especially thin.
I was watching TV one morning that autumn, and heard Franklin Graham talking about Operation Christmas Child. He was saying that people could fill shoeboxes with items for children in third world countries. He explained how the process worked, talked about what to put in the boxes, shared video footage of children exploding with excitement over these shoeboxes, and … while he was still talking …
I went upstairs. I went to my closet and opened the door. Almost like a robot, I dumped shoes out of two large shoe boxes, turned, and carried them downstairs. How will I afford this, I thought. But even before that thought was finished, the answer came: you’ll figure it out.
I pulled out wrapping paper, and went to work. These shoe boxes were the big ones with hinged lids, so the wrapping took its own time. I’ll tell you with no pride whatever that I’m a perfectionist. It is a curse more often than not. The results are usually worth it, but when it came to these boxes I’d call it a draw. I re-did them. Twice.
Once the boxes were ready, I had to find things to put in them. I poured the loose change out of the money canister in the kitchen, counted it … it came to about 12.37, I think. I put the money in a baggie, put the baggie in my purse. I grabbed my coat, got my keys, went to the car, and drove to the Dollar Store.
What was I looking for? I wasn’t sure. Tooth brushes, maybe? tablets, crayons, combs, stickers, a stuffed animal. Two.
I spent more time than anyone should in that store, parsing pennies and figuring out how to get the most with what little money I had. I was able, with my meager sum, to get everything I needed. Yay, Dollar Store!!
I then went to Kohls. My Kohls credit card had a little room left on it, and I knew they had stuffed animals for $5.00 each. I went in and selected a monkey (Curious George) and a bear (Classic Teddy). I found a cute girl’s jewelry set on clearance, and a boy’s shirt.
I went home, and tucked everything inside the boxes. They were looking so cute! My heart was soaring, even though my pockets were empty. EMPTY.
There were only a couple of days left to deliver the boxes to the drop off location. I looked up the address for Lighthouse Baptist Church, put the boxes in the car, and headed out.
When I walked into the church, there were several ladies waiting there.
“Welcome,” they chorused. One woman — whom I learned was “Miss Rita” — came toward me to take the boxes.
“You’ve brought shoe boxes! God bless you!” I had a grip on my two boxes. Strange sensation; I didn’t want to let them go. But I let her take them with only a slight tug; we walked to a long table where she placed them and began labelling them for gender, age, etc. I looked along one wall and there were filled boxes, several deep, stacked about twelve feet high.
Miss Rita finished up and snapped a rubber band around each of my boxes. “I had to do this,” I croaked lamely. My throat was tightening up. Why am I so emotional? My heart was racing.
“You had to do this?”
“Yes. Because I’m broke. I’m flat broke.” She looked confused, so I continued.
“This for me is an act of faith. God will take care of me. He sees me helping these children. And yes. He will.” My eyes welled up. “He will. He’ll see me through this. And Lord, it feels good to give! Doesn’t it?” My speech brightened and I smiled, but there was a tear rolling down my cheek.
“Baby, God sees you, He KNOWS you, and He knows your heart.” She reached up and wiped my cheek, wrapped her arms around me. “Would you like some hot cider?” I nodded, blinking fast so I wouldn’t cry. What in the world is wrong with me, I thought.
She handed me the cider, and said,
“We always pray over the boxes, and we would also like to pray over you today. Would that be alright?”
“Oh, my … yes, I would be so humbled. Thank you.” Eyes welling again. I looked down, swallowed hard, and took a sip of cider.
The ladies gathered in a circle around me, hands linked. Miss Rita prayed. She prayed loud, and proud. She asked God to bless my shoe boxes, and to bless me. She prayed me so big, and so full, that when she ended it and all the ladies shouted, “Amen,” I could hardly breathe.
I hugged Miss Rita. “Thank you. So much.”
“No,” she said, “thank YOU. Baby, you are the blessing. And God uses you to bless others. He’s got His eye on you.”
We said our goodbyes and I went to my car. The woman I was climbing into the car was different from the woman who had climbed out. I’d been changed. I was lifted. Lightened.
I turned on Christmas carols; I sang, and cried, and laughed along with them all the way home.
A few days later, I was watching a morning show and there was a handsome young man who was talking about the scarf he had around his neck. It was a muffler like we wear in the winter. But his story was incredible:
When he was a little boy, he’d received that muffler in a shoe box of gifts at Christmas. He said that shoe box was all he got for Christmas, and he chuckled when he talked about taking out that scarf. He said,
“Where we lived it was never cold. Ever. I had no idea what that scarf was for. But I knew it was something important. So I kept it. I used the toothbrushes, and the crayons, and the toys … but that scarf I kept with me.
“And now, here I am, a grown man in New York City. It’s winter time here, and look:” He held up the tail of the scarf around his neck. “This scarf. This is my shoe box scarf. I’ve always kept it with me. And I always will. It’s more than just a piece of cloth. It’s a message that I’m not alone, that the world is bigger than I know, and it’s filled with good people.”
That man’s message stopped me in my tracks. I pray that the shoeboxes I pack will help fill the hearts of those little children with hope, and the knowledge that God sees them. God loves them. They are never alone.
That’s also true for me.
And for you.
Beginnings are sometimes hard to wrap our brains around.
A baby’s last push into this world, that would be seen as an ending — of life inside her mother’s womb — and yet, that first gulp of air is the breath of Spirit; a beginning infusion which, repeated throughout her life, will sustain her, until she draws her last.
What happens then? Some say they know; have crossed over and come back. Who am I to question them? I can only wonder, hope, and believe.
I’m wondering this morning if life itself isn’t one long, dramatic birth canal that carries us to places we’ve only read about, dreamt of, and imagined.
My mother is 96. She lies in her bed … old, frail, a mere shadow of the woman she’s been. She’s unresponsive, for the most part, and time is growing short. Soon, she will be gone.
But on that other side I see her emerging, young and beautiful, running into the arms of my Daddy, who passed four years ago. Truth is, I believe that, in many ways, she is with him now.
Beginnings — endings. The circle of life. All of it a painful, and wondrous, and a miraculous journey.
What the caterpillar knows as an ending, is the beginning to the butterfly.
The depth and breadth of the things in this building suck the oxygen out of the room.
- First exhibit, childhood. Promises to hold, support, love … to encourage and protect. They lie in pieces on the ground, dusty and forgotten. Forgotten to everyone but me. Check check check. Check check.
- Up the escalator to the mezzanine, is high school, and teenage years. Potential recognized and undermined. The remnants of hope’s fire, a burnt offering of the dreams held there. A young girl with no one to reflect back to her the truth of who she was, gifts she brought, or the light she shined.
- Shattered glass on the second floor, shards of a dark and betrayed relationship. Two beams glow bright, the children born, and a third, the tender flame of one who left too soon.
- Top floor, on golden shelves sit baskets, overflowed with bit and pieces, half-made promises of friends and family. Those whose only real crime was that they failed themselves before they ever could fail me.
- The ceiling above is open to the sky, dark and starry. Constellations weave a spiderweb, a language all their own. They tell of secrets yet revealed, and assure me that … no matter how it seems, I am not alone.
I was a child of the sixties, and grew up in a household centered around the Holy Catholic Church and Pabst Blue Ribbon beer. My parents were children of the Great Depression; they learned that life means do without, stretch a dollar, work hard, and drink harder. I was their first child, born to them when they were still young, tragically beautiful, and very much in love. When I was a little girl I would shyly study my mother’s face … her wide eyes, long eyelashes, full red lips. She was clearly a movie star in hiding. I wondered what she was doing in this little life, in this house on North Marion Street, with its linoleum kitchen floor and one parched sapling in the front yard. Even at five, I knew she’d been miscast. Through the years, five more babies, and alcoholic chaos, it became an undeniable fact: my mother belonged in a different movie.
As the oldest daughter, I took on the job of laugh inducing peacemaker. Lots of oldest daughters have that role. My brother, two years younger, was mother’s tenderhearted caretaker. We spent our childhood together in the family foxhole. Nothing will bond siblings like friendly fire. It’s a sort of hellish, heartbreaking love that no one else knows. No one. But at the time, it was our family’s brand of ‘normal,’ so imagine my surprise when, years later, I learned that some families have no foxhole at all.
I lurched through the decades, reinventing myself over and over, determined to be whoever those claiming to love me told me I was. It took over forty years, and one spectacular betrayal for me to stop, and turn my attention to the whisper of truth. It was there all along, but I hadn’t heard it before, because I wasn’t ready. Not only had I become ready, I threw up the white flag of surrender. I’d run out of things to try, people to be. And I was exhausted.. All I had left was me. When I finally gave into myself, it felt like declaring bankruptcy.
I remember the date. May 12, 1991. My attorney’s call that morning woke me up. She was calling to let me know the divorce was final. She’d used the word, “Congratulations.” I got off the phone, and laid in bed, waiting. I didn’t know what to expect, but I thought surely I would feel … something. Relief? Excitement, maybe? All I got was silence. I threw off the covers, walked into the bathroom, and stared in the mirror. I looked into my own eyes, searching for … someone. Who will I be now? I whispered. I had no idea.
Ever since I was a tiny girl, there’s been … something … like a tiny thread … woven deep inside me. Piled over with years of Catholic school, alcoholic parents, sweet babies, abusive marriage, broken dreams … you’d think that thread would have broken, or suffocated, or disintegrated. It never did.
Like a flower finding its way to the sun through a crack in the stone, that shimmering little strand found its way back to me.
The very thing I feared would be most difficult has become easy, feels natural. Coming home to myself is simple, and honest. I am moving back toward the center of someone I’ve always known. It warms my heart, settles my belly, and brings perspective into sharp focus. I know where home is now. And I see that I was right here all the time.
The other evening, I was on the internet at my desk. To be specific, I was on YouTube. To be even more specific, I had been there for about an hour, watching video after video of singers auditioning before Simon Cowell and friends.
It’s easy to get pulled in by these clips. They’re inspiring; sometimes the performers have overcome incredible odds to be standing in front of that panel of judges. So I watched, and cried, and cheered, pumped my fist in the air. But the last woman woman who sang that night has stuck with me. I can’t stop thinking about her. When she told her story, it was as if I was listening to myself.
She was in her thirties, and Simon asked why she’d waited till now to give it a try. She said, “I was born loving music. I have sung my whole life, but all along, people told me I couldn’t. That I shouldn’t. And then,” she paused. “I was in an abusive marriage. He was cruel, and destroyed my belief in myself. So, for many years, I didn’t have music at all. But,” she smiled … “I am single; I am free now. I’m free to sing whenever I want to.” And then she did. She blew the roof off. I cried.
I shut down the computer and tucked in for the night. And that night, I had a dream. I dreamt that I approached a male friend who had a band, and told him I wanted to be their female singer. Even when I was dreaming, the “lucid” me shrunk back from that idea. Was not sure that I could. If I should.
In these later years I’ve had to make peace with the fact that my hopes/wishes/dreams regarding music have not materialized like I thought they would. I’ve also had to give myself a break in the ‘lack of determination’ department. And part of that is embracing the truth that God’s plan is at work in me, regardless of the path I’m on.
As far as my past, it’s one thing to be a cute little baby who sings before she talks; whose first words were “Ickle ickle ickle.” That’s something that new parents think is cute, and smart.
It’s something, in fourth grade, to be singled out to sing a solo in the school music program, with no clue that how you sang was unusual. It was just you. Singing.
Then again, it’s something else entirely to sing while washing dishes as a teenager, and have your dad walk into the kitchen and hiss in your ear that if you’re going to make that racket, go to the back of the lot to do it. Singing — me singing — was suddenly not cute. Not okay. Stop.
My folks were very strict, which I guess may have helped drive my love of music. It was my salvation; my only escape. I could go into my room, tune my little Philco radio to KAKC, make the volume barely audible, and sleep with my ear against it.
During the divorce from my husband of twenty five years, one of his complaints was that I was always singing. We were both in the music business, but he was determined to keep me as far out on the fringes as possible. He was fairly successful at that. But not as successful as I thought at the time. Many years later I’ve had conversations with music industry people who make it clear they were aware of the gifts I brought. Of what my contributions were, and can still be.
At first, that was hard to wrap my brain around. I’m still learning to be okay with people who acknowledge my talents, what I’ve done, and what I do. I’m getting better at that.
Like the woman standing in front of Simon, I am single; I am free now. I’m free to sing whenever I want to.
Another year has come … and gone. I’m on the fifth day of “next year;” it feels good to have a full tank of gas.
That’s what I call it when a Birthday arrives. The month sliding into my natal day typically finds me “running on fumes.” Through the years I’ve observed that I’m usually a little scatterbrained during that time, forget where I put things or what I’m talking about. Yeah, that can happen any time of year, but it becomes a several-times-daily occurrence during February and most of March. My wheels get loose and jangly, and I careen a bit from side to side. Until March twenty-one.
Somehow I picture myself on that auspicious day, jumping out of bed, backlit. Looking good in spandex. Doesn’t happen quite that way.
This year I spent the entire day in my robe and slippers. It’s a fairly new robe, quite cozy, and the weather was spitting snow in the morning, freezing cold, so … it seemed a good choice. And I thought a lot that day about life, and Birthdays, and what they are. What they mean.
I know some people don’t think Birthdays are a big deal. But I love celebrating other people’s Birthdays. I’m responding to the day they arrived on the planet. I’m saying, “I am cheering that you were born, and that you’re in my life. And every year, on this day, I get to say ‘YAY’ to you!” In this world of automated distance between us all, to me that’s more important than ever.
I saw a story the other day about a man who was celebrating his 105th Birthday. There were people crowded around him as he sat in his chair, wearing his military cap. He was staring at the inferno of a Birthday cake on the table in front of him, and grinning from ear to ear. That man has experienced things I can’t even imagine. He has a lifetime of stories to tell, and I hope there are people he can tell them to. They will be richer for it.
We bear a growing wealth of knowledge, the longer we’re here. None of us know everything. But those of us who pay attention, we know a lot. And much of what we know won’t launch a rocket … but it will settle a fussy child, comfort an old dog, feed a family of eight on one potato and one onion. Plant and tend a garden; use a remedy from that garden to heal a sick one.
It feels good to become “one of those” to whom some turn, seeking comfort, or knowledge, or aid. I have more to give than ever, because I’ve never been here longer than I have today. And with each day that comes, I pray I am open to know more, that I learn new things, and that I have opportunities to share what I know and who I am with any and all who seek it out.
For through wisdom your days will be many, and years will be added to your life. [Proverbs 9:11]