Monday, April 25, 2011

Because It Does

I can think of only two songs that transform me from a merry songstress into a tearful mess long before the final note is sounded: “Because He Lives” and “Borning Cry.” When I see the title of either of these pieces written in a church bulletin, I know that I will be able to start singing the song with others in the congregation, but I won’t be able to finish with them.

It doesn’t matter if I try to sidestep this result, either.

I have tried not singing these songs at all to steel myself from this outcome. It doesn’t matter. When the second verse of “Because He Lives” begins or when I get to whichever lyric of “Borning Cry” might best reflect my current state of affairs, I begin busily wiping tear, after tear, after ongoing tear, trying – with great difficulty – to hide my obvious spiritual groanings from others.

And that’s what happened this Easter morning.

As the 3rd stanza of the first verse to “Because He Lives” began, I felt a familiar lump forming in my throat. Then, as I heard “How sweet to hold a newborn baby” at the start of the second verse, I fully gave in to the emotional journey, having learned long ago that I would be whisked away on it anyway. I have come to think of this transcendent trek as the divine order of the world stopping me in my tracks. No way over it. No way around it. The only way forward is through it, pulled by omniscient power.

It’s as if the One who orchestrated my creation has reached out with an intensely personal, extra-sensory message designed purely for my assurance and understanding.

In the case of “Because He Lives,” I can hear my Grandpa Fred playing this classic hymn tune on the electric organ in his and Grandma Delma’s formal living room. I’m a child of multiple ages – all young – listening for his feet to find the pedals. He plays the baseline notes, adjusting the song’s rhythm to match his capacity to locate them.

To my grown self, it doesn’t matter who is playing the hymn or how much better they can play the song than my grandfather could. I can only hear my Grandpa Fred and feel what it was like to hear him play it, long before the song had the capacity to melt me into a teary-eyed mess.

Joined by my grandfather’s presence, I float into the song’s second verse, becoming a mother who is also the caretaker of a child with multiple, severe disabilities. A persistent sense of dread bubbles a cadence in time with the song’s blissful reminder of how “sweet to hold a newborn baby and feel the love and joy he gives.” Then, as if to deepen the reality of that sweetness, the lyrics offer something proposed to be sweeter still: a blessed assurance that my child can face uncertain days because of a God who lives.

That’s the moment I arrive back to the present time, and my heart cries out in groans that words cannot express. It’s an “Oh, please…” and a “Really?” and a “Give me proof of that now” and a “Thank you” and a “How awesome” and an “Amazing!” and a “Please, please be true” and a “God, I know that you know I know that” and a “My life is painful” but also a “My life is rich.”

It is all of that and even more.

It is my reminder that I face uncertain days – extended periods of uncertain duration that weigh heavy with responsibility for an uncertain reality. Most of the uncertainty is tied to my firstborn son who has come to symbolize the shape of my future. A scary, overwhelming-at-times, complicated-but-necessary-to-navigate future.

Who could possibly know the fullness of what that means better than the firstborn of creation?

And who could possibly understand what living for someone else’s future demands than a sacrificial savior? One who was and is and is to come. Living then. Living now and already alive amid my tomorrows – my uncertain days.

Hearing that my child can face uncertain days “because He lives” emotionally wipes me out every – single – time but not because I hear the words and am fully assured.

Not exactly.

As big as that promise sounds, what I experience hearing those words is ... well ... bigger. I am confronted with my then, my now, and my not yet. An eternal mystery of divine humanity. Even the possibility of that kind of reality is greater than full assurance.

The actuality of Creator and Creation is fully present in such a moment. I am fully present in such a moment. Whether sitting next to my firstborn as I was today, or sitting alone in the midst of others.

While I can recite the lyrics of the first and second verses to “Because He Lives,” I cannot recite lyrics for the third. It’s as if my soul – at attention in the here and now – cannot attend to things dealing with future days. But that is the whole point, isn’t it? As the song itself asserts, uncertain things are nothing to a living God. So why do they need to be anything more than a curiosity to me?

That is the challenge. The difficulty. The overwhelming sensation that brings me to tears whenever “Because He Lives” is played.

I don’t look for this to ever change. In fact, if this morning is any indication, my capacity to hold off my tears – triggered by my thoughts and feelings as the song plays – will only get worse. But, paradoxically, my capacity to embrace the divine order of life gets better. Not easier. Certainly not. In fact, the embracing of what is to come might even be regarded as more difficult. Yet each successful embrace of my uncertain future makes my present life better.

I cannot explain why. I can only verify that it does. And for that I am grateful.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Puppy Love

I cannot be classified as a pet person. My only reasons to have ever shopped in a pet store were linked to a few goldfish and a series of Beta during my children’s younger years.

I never had a cat or a dog. I didn’t even have a hamster or gerbil. But I didn’t care, for I never really wanted a pet anyway.

Still I did spent time wondering about a pet’s capacity to feel emotion. Could Man’s Best Friend really be a man’s best friend? And could animals share feelings or merely act on instinct?

A few years ago, I saw something that led me to believe that animals could express feelings. When driving down our street toward home, I came upon two rabbits in the center of the road – one lying dead, the other using his nose to nudge the lifeless body of the other. I stopped my car, waiting for the live rabbit to hop to safety. Instead it turned its head to look my direction, and then looked back to begin nudging his furry counterpart some more. Finally the live rabbit hopped a few feet away before stopping to look back at the fallen rabbit as if to say, “Come on. Let’s go.” Then the rabbit again approached his immobile counterpart, making another attempt to rouse him.

This living being seemed to have little regard for my presence, yet I regarded him with awe. He knew I was there. He also knew his friend could no longer follow. However, he wouldn’t leave. So I began inching my car forward, hoping my advancement would hasten the live rabbit’s departure. Rolling slowly, I kept my eyes on the scene as it played out like a battlefield scene from a war movie.

The imagery pulled at my heart. I decided that animals must know when something is wrong. They may even be able to comprehend that death is final. Therefore, I reasoned, animals might even know when something is wrong with their offspring. Could it be?

I didn’t have to wait long to witness another scene that I believed provided an answer.

A few months after the rabbit incident, I looked out my living room window to watch a young couple leaving my next-door neighbor’s home with a newly weaned Golden Lab puppy on a leash. Mother Lab was standing in my neighbor’s doorway next to her owner who was holding her back by her collar. Mother Lab’s eyes were fixed on the puppy as it pulled back on its leash. The pup attempted to walk toward the house, but the woman held the leash fast. Frustrated, the puppy looked at the couple, then the mother dog, then the couple, then back to the mother dog. Finally the puppy sat on the sidewalk and seemed to whimper. In response, Mother Lab tried to move forward. This caused the woman to tug on the pup’s leash, while my neighbor pulled back on Mother Lab’s collar, using her legs to keep the agitated grown dog inside the house.

Meanwhile, the young woman walked to where the pup was sitting and picked her up. As she headed to her car, the pup crawled up the woman’s body to perch on her shoulder, trying to look back at Mother Lab. The pup was clearly whimpering now, loud enough to be heard through my double-pane windows.

I couldn’t watch anymore. Tears had splashed onto my eyeglasses, fogging any view of Mother Lab or her pup. Yet what I had seen was clear: The puppy didn’t want to leave the only home it had ever known, and the pup’s mother did not want her to go.

Perhaps it is good I have not become a pet person. The emotional demands would drain me. I have a difficult enough time with the emotional demands of human relationships.

Some believe we can learn a great deal from our animal counterparts. But I wonder how practical many of those lessons would be? For instance, what do animals do when their offspring are born malformed? Or how do they care for young that aren’t able to keep up with the rest of the litter or clutch?

I can imagine what they do, but I don’t really know. I don’t think I want to know.

I don’t even know what other human mothers do when those things happen with human babies. I only know what I have been inclined to do for nearly 20 years now. I protect when I need to, advocate when I need to, cajole when I need to, nurture even when I don’t need to, and love always.

Always, always love.

Unlike a family of eagles living atop a tree, Mark’s and my oldest offspring won’t be spreading his wings to take flight anytime soon. It just doesn’t work that way in our human world. In fact, our youngest offspring will likely leave our nest first.

And all that angst I believe I observed from Mother Lab as her pup left home – I worry that I may experience that one hundred fold when my oldest pup ultimately does leave home to live some version of supported independence. There might even be another person pulling him toward a new life while someone else is trying to keep me in place. I sure hope not. I sure hope we navigate that transition more humanely. For now, I can only envision angst and fear of the unknown even though I believe it doesn’t have to be that way.

Call it instinct. Call it emotion. Call it whatever you want. I don’t care.

I call it love. Always have. Always will.


Love always.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Annual Personal Performance Review

It is creeping up on me this year, but earlier than typical. At first, I didn’t recognize what was occurring. Too many other life distractions seemed likelier culprits of my demise.

Yet I’m fairly certain I’ve accurately diagnosed my condition: Stross’ birthday is nearly here. Therefore, my annual personal performance review has begun, and I have no idea how I am doing.

The symptoms have basically remained the same for 20 years.

A fleeting thought triggers a moment of breathlessness – the kind that happens when I get caught off-guard but then regain a sense of presence with a deep cleansing breath.

Or a lingering thought leads me to a land far away, into an existence not yet known, and I languish between a grief that is familiar to me and a type of sorrow I’ve yet to identify.

And then there are the unannounced tears.

I awoke early this morning with a solitary, quiet tear falling from the outside corner of my right eye. It made a cool trek down my cheek before landing on my pillow. Instantly I traveled back in time to a hospital bed where I once laid in the same position with a river of tears quietly traveling from cheek to pillow.

Twenty years ago on the fifth day of May, my life changed inexplicably. Strangely, I have never been hung up on the “why” of it. However, I think I will always wrestle with the “how.”

26Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” Genesis 32:26

Like Jacob – stressed with the prospect of encountering Esau and thereby coming face-to-face with his past and his future – I wrestle, praying that the One with Whom I wrestle is God and not some shadow of a former me.

Bless me, I demand. Help me retain a sense of hope. Give me a future that matches my present reality. I will not give up until I am assured I am blessed. I will wrestle as long as I have to.

Yet I know I cannot escape such an encounter unscathed. I know it means I will forever walk wounded toward the future my family and I will share. But I believe the blessing will be worth it. At least it has been for 20 years.

I am in for a long bout of wrestling this year. I can feel it. But I won’t let go. I refuse to. Not until I am blessed.

Monday, April 11, 2011



One person
perceives such
as proper.

perceives such


Whose perspective?

Proper, poppycock or poo?

Oh, bother. Not mine?
But ... YOU?

Friday, April 8, 2011

Liz and Whitney: Acquainted with sorrow, familiar with grief

I hold respect for Elizabeth Taylor and an affinity for Whitney Houston that have little to do with celebrity but a lot to do with tenacity.

While driving to an out-of-town meeting days after Taylor’s death, iconic images of the violet-eyed legend passed through my memory as the car radio began playing the haunting a capella opening to I Will Always Love You. The lyrics accentuated the sultry earlier voice of Houston, focusing my thoughts on the striking and sensuous early life of Taylor, whose death I had yet to process.

One represented a voice no longer able to be heard even though the one who gave it life still lives. The other personified an iconic face that lived on even after the one to whom the face belonged no longer resembled its visage.

Unparalleled talented. Incomparable beauty. Inimitable lives.

Legends – one living and one no-longer-alive.

I regard both women as more than a metaphor for what was but cannot be again.

They are examples of life continuing beyond tragedy whether the deep heartache came circumstantially or was self-inflicted.

For Taylor the heartaches were borne from life-altering injury, addiction, divorce, widowhood, debilitating illness and personal despair.

For Houston the heartaches are tied to addiction, divorce, illness and personal demons that haunt a complicated future.

I find both women inspirational and relate to both on a level I don’t fully comprehend. My best attempts to understand lead me to my own past, yet I can list nothing comparable to what these women have accomplished, wrestled with or conquered – unless I get to count struggling with grief over a life that felt promising once upon a time but no longer seems recognizable some days.

It is a but-of-course sort of grief that says, “Your life was beautiful back then, but you weren’t fully aware of how beautiful it was, were you?”

But it doesn’t matter, I guess, for who truly does realize life as they live it? Thorton Wilder offered that poets and saints perhaps do – at least some. But I would venture that survivors surpass even poets and saints, for survivors have a perspective that reaches from depths to heights. Surely that makes the milestones in between noteworthy whether measured in moments, minutes or minutiae. Surely survivors realize life more fully as they live it.


They understand that living means embracing a new way of being – a new standard for beautiful. And the beauty of survival is breathtaking. The tenacity of time, astonishing.

If I get to claim any similarity to Elizabeth Taylor or Whitney Houston, perhaps it lies in an understanding that life continues to be wonderful despite it all – whatever “all” might be. Life insists on moving past what I recognized as my life’s previous dreams, toward new dreams that are capable of carrying me toward something more.

Elizabeth Taylor kept making life something more. She showed what it meant to champion the beauty of others who were fighting to survive through her establishment of AMFAR, the American Foundation for AIDS Research. Whitney Houston keeps putting herself out there, giving something more. She continues to influence beauty in others: Beyonce’, Mary J. Blige, Rihanna, Brandy, Alicia Keys, Jennifer Hudson and Lady Gaga. Each has shared they look to her as inspiration for what’s possible.

Perhaps I am on the verge of discovering my something more. My what’s possible.

As Taylor once said: "I don't entirely approve of some of the things I have done, or am, or have been. But I'm me. God knows, I'm me."

She was tenacious, authentic and genuine. And she never stopped fully being who she was. The same is true for Houston. She never pretends to be anything more or less than who she is. That is enough.

I take comfort in that. I admire that.

Remembering Elizabeth Taylor and listening to Whitney Houston that day helped me celebrate what had been – what I knew as my personal past. In doing so I was reminded to cherish what continues to be. But I also know I need to keep finding my way forward. To tenaciously determine what is possible, because life keeps marching on.

Being familiar with sorrow and acquainted with grief puts me in good company.

Grief lingers, but it is love that lives on.

To that I say: Sing it, sister.