family, grief and loss, Inspiration, Uncategorized

The Working Title Is…Wisdom from a Christmas Stocking

Behold, a hand-knit depiction of a right jolly old elf. And just as it is written, his droll little mouth is drawn up like a bow, and the beard of his chin is as white as the snow.

This is my Christmas stocking and my oldest personal possession. Almost exactly 51 years ago, this stocking was my traveling companion on the journey to meet my parents for the very first time.

These days, it is referred to as Gotcha Day or Homecoming Day; the day on which a person joins a family through adoption. But in 1967, it was simply thought of by my adoptive parents as the day their prayers were answered.

For the first time, they held in their arms the baby girl they had said “yes” to, the baby girl who had spent the first six months of her life in a foster home because she was born with a congenital deformity that labeled her handicapped and ineligible for immediate placement in a forever home.

I remember my mother telling me that the adoption agency would only tell her and my father that they had a baby for them, but the baby was handicapped. They would not reveal the nature or severity of the disability. My mom told me they didn’t even have to think twice about their answer. God had sent them this baby, and they were prepared to welcome her home.

And so they did. On a Wednesday afternoon in December, the little girl they would name Kathleen Mary first unreservedly offered a toothless smile in their arms as the social worker explained the very simple care of her “handicap” which was ultimately disclosed as a dislocated hip that would be guided into place within a few months time.

The precious Christmas stocking that accompanied the baby was filled with teething toys and rattles that had become comfort items during their little girl’s first six months of life. The stocking was handmade by her foster mother as her foster father, almost certainly, offered his loving praise over her handiwork.

My mother was told that this foster family had recently petitioned to adopt the baby girl but had been denied because their ages fell above the agency’s maximum allowable for adoption. During my first six months of life, this foster couple’s loving care included having me baptized at St. Agnes Catholic Church.

The social worker smiled when my mom told her they would give me the name Kathleen Mary, saying only that it was incredibly close to that which the foster family had me baptized.

A strange truth to many, I have never had the desire to seek my birth parents, but I have thought of this foster family every Christmas; throughout my childhood as my Christmas Stocking was hung with care in our living room and filled by Santa with treats galore and throughout adulthood as each year it holds a place of honor near our Christmas tree. When I learned a few years back that St. Agnes Parish was closing, I called to inquire about baptismal records with the hope to identify these foster parents who tenderly cared for me the first six months of my life.

I wanted them to know how blessed I had been to be placed in my forever home with a family whose faith life was the foundation of who they were and all they did. I wanted them to know that I had a remarkable journey through Catholic schools and the finest Jesuit university in all the land; a journey that led me to a lifetime of friendships and the love of my life. I wanted them to know I was a mom to two beautiful daughters of my own whom, unreservedly, have offered me their smiles for decades. I wanted them to know I still have that Christmas stocking and it means the world to me. I wanted to say thank you.

My call to the Parish Office was placed just days before it was set to close. In fact, the voice on the other end of the phone quickly led me to believe that the elderly pastor was personally manning the phones…and that I caught him in the middle of his lunch.   Between my inability to offer a concise summary of my request and his really loud chewing, I offered to call him back. Well, life interrupted, and I never did.

Not the dramatic ending you were hoping for, I bet.

I most likely will never know the identity of that foster family. In addition, those wonderful adoptive parents, my Mom and Dad, are now both deceased. But I have that stocking to console me–on their combined behalf– over the delicate and often paradoxical emotions of a season that almost demands one to be “merry and bright.”

As I hold this stocking in my hands, I envision foster parents handing over a baby they had nurtured over six months time and had petitioned to adopt. My heart hurts at the thought.

As I hold this stocking in my hands, I have a much clearer vision of the adoptive parents first holding a still bald, toothless baby because that joyous story is detailed in a memory narrated by my Mom. My heart bursts at the thought.

The wisdom offered by this Christmas stocking is not unique to my life story. In fact, it should offer a universal consolation.

It’s important to acknowledge that there are feelings beyond our control that impact our lives everyday and are often exacerbated during the holidays for a variety of reasons.

The holiday season may pose painful struggles; certainly for those who have experienced the death of a loved one, but also for people who yearn for the Christmases they had, but have since lost, or perhaps desired but never even had. Some may crave that family closeness…past or present, imagined or real. Others may mourn unfulfilled childhood desires…realizing your life didn’t travel the path you had hoped.

The wisdom of my Christmas stocking reminds me that in the midst of the darkest winter, the path to an amazing spring is waiting for me…in my own heart.

Maybe the universal message is one of accepting and loving who you are right now, especially if you are sad or angry or feeling empty or lost. Whatever the case may be, you must accept where you are in order to usher in the day when the light returns to your soul and your spirit.

Because I’ve experienced the darkness, I can savor the light in my life.

This past weekend, the candle of joy was lit on Advent wreaths in countless churches and homes around the world. It is that call to joy that led me to consider the wisdom of my Christmas stocking and pray for everyone in my life for whom joy is a really, really tough sell this year…be it because of disappointment or regret, an unfulfilled dream or a broken heart represented by an empty chair at this year’s holiday table.

I pray for strength and for peace in the hearts of those who are hurting.

And I thank God for the perspective my faith provides me, for the strength the Advent season instills within me, and for the belief that an Easter Sunday will follow every Good Friday in my life, until that day when God reunites me with those I loved and have lost– and those I have loved and never even met.

Hoping your Christmas stockings are filled with light, I wish Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night.







family, grief and loss, Inspiration, Uncategorized

The Working Title is….Trapped in a Love/Hate Relationship

I find myself being defined by the complexities of a love/hate relationship I simply cannot escape.

No, it is not a torrid romance with a fella. Nor is it in my relationships with family or friends. (love/love)  The love/hate is not found with food or booze (love/love) or exercise and clean living. (hate/hate)

My love/hate relationship is with the Gregorian calendar.

Every since I was young, I loved the order and structure the calendar provided our home. It served as an infallible guidepost hanging in the kitchen, directly next to the phone, with every family birthday and anniversary noted, every party, appointment and school activity logged, every holiday and vacation blocked.

When I became an adult, my head almost exploded when I first walked into the Franklin Planner store. It had the unmistakable magnetism of a fibrous-pulp crackhouse for any type-A, hyper-focused organizational freak like me. When technology amped up the game, I dove headfirst into life with a Palm Pilot, and I haven’t looked back since my iPhone calendar took things to the next level.

The first time I hit “add attendees” to alert my kids to scheduled dentist appointments on our shared Apple calendar, I wept tears of organizational joy.

I love seeing important dates in print, like my girls’ birthdays on a newspaper masthead. Heck, I get excited when I see my own birthday as an expiration date on milk in the grocery store.

Birthday Expiration Date

Our calendars are so much more than the here and now. They are as much a look into the future as they are a reflection of our past.

Ay, there’s the rub.

From mid-July through the beginning of September, my calendar serves a dual role as a painful diary.

Most everyone I know has one’s own personal “day that will live in infamy” where your life changed course forever. For me, those days are nestled in what is supposed to be the most leisurely, fun filled time of the year.

My mom died suddenly and unexpectedly on July 16th.  In each subsequent year, I would replay that day in my head…hour by hour…the call to get home as quickly as possible, standing at a payphone in O’Hare as an ER doc says “despite our best efforts..,” landing in Syracuse to face my Dad’s mournful gaze. It may sound self-destructive to be lost in such reverie, but I can’t help it.

Exactly fifteen years later, to the day, I sat in the hospital with my husband as they tried to diagnose the source of his uncontrolled pain. I thought, for sure, no bad news would come our way on this day that already had its ominous shadow hovering over my calendar, and yet, that very afternoon, we heard the words “cancer cells” for the first time.

Fast forward eight more years to the current year, and again on July 16, a pathology report returns with a melanoma diagnosis for my brother.

It defies understanding.

The beginning weeks of August always replay in my mind like a horrible movie flashing back to Pat’s final days. It’s a movie that I still don’t fully understand or even believe the ending. There is no dramatic goodbye scene, which only leaves the audience feeling woefully unfulfilled and forever at a loss. His absence continues to loom large. The heartache looms larger.

As my calendar flips to September, I remember keeping vigil at my Dad’s bedside. As he slipped from consciousness, I read countless prayers and bible verses to comfort this dear man for whom his Catholic faith was so important. As he continued to hang on, I moved on to Jewish prayers then Hindu, Sanskrit, Buddhist and Islamic. I guess I wanted to make sure we had all our bases covered. After 36 straight hours, I whispered in his ear that I was going home to sleep just a little in my own bed, and I would be back in bit. I hadn’t even yet pulled into my driveway when they called to say he had died. For whatever reason, he did not want me in the room when he breathed his last. I suppose he could finally rest in peace without me babbling in his ear.

For me, it is impossible to ignore these difficult days on the calendar. But they serve to remind me that I am a sum total of all my life experiences, the good days, the great days, the bad days and the devastating ones.

This morning, I went to mass to celebrate my Dad’s life on this third anniversary of his death. I could hear his voice in the reading. It was about God strengthening each of us through the Holy Spirit.

I was reminded that the Holy Spirit aims to bring us gifts of wisdom, knowledge, understanding, courage, right judgment and wonder and awe.

A different day may call for a different gift.   We can only aim to have hearts open to receive them everyday…no matter what may be on our calendar.