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.








The Working Title Is…Retreat, But No Surrender

retreat [ri-treet] (noun)

the act of withdrawing, as into safety or privacy


a period of retirement for religious exercises and meditation


The summer before my senior year in high school was a pivotal time in the ongoing relationship with my pretend boyfriend, Bruce Springsteen.

I listened, over and over and over again, to every song on his “Born in the USA” album and stared for hours at the album cover that celebrated one of his most magnificent physical assets.

Every song on that album elicited a deep emotional response during a transformative time in my life. Weird thing is, this morning, one song popped into my head and is now stuck there.

Side Two, Track 1: No Surrender.

It took me 30 years, but I just realized that my pretend boyfriend was feeding me some bad advice when he sang to me, “We made a promise we swore we’d always remember…. no retreat, baby, no surrender.”

My daughter is now the same age as I was when Bruce first sang those words to me. And within the last twenty-four hours, I returned from one kind of retreat and she left on another, which led me to this cathartic realization.

I’m sorry to break a promise to you, my sweet darling Bruce, but, you see, sometimes we have to retreat in order to keep from surrendering. In fact, walking away might be the only thing that keeps that white flag of surrender nestled safely in our back pocket, much like your red baseball cap that I stared at for an inappropriate amount of time that one summer.

My daughter left on Monday with her entire senior class on a retreat, as in the second definition listed above; a period of retirement for religious exercises and meditation.

I pray that this will prove to be a deeply meaningful spiritual experience. There will be times of prayer and discussion. There will be opportunities for her to share personal messages of thanksgiving and hope directly with her classmates, and time for my daughter to reflect on messages of hope and praise written by people who love her more than words could ever say.

My prayer is that she comes home with a deeper awareness of the blessings in her life, an increased fortitude for facing the stress of the college application process and a profound sense of peace in the belief that God will guide her decisions. My hope is that her retreat will foster within her the strength to never surrender to the stress, anxiety and pressure that permeate our society.

In somewhat ironic timing, the night before she left, I returned from a different kind of retreat, closer to the first definition above. I withdrew into semi-seclusion with a group of women I have known for just about as long as Bruce has been singing those words to me.

What was billed as a “girls weekend” felt a little like I was running away.

While the last few months of my life were not without their moments of brightness–they have been uncharacteristically dark.

I have faced a number of challenges, significant loss and sadness, and it began to define me.

During those same months, people whose friendships I cherish felt the pain and fear of frightening diagnoses and the heartbreaking death of loved ones at far too young of an age.

And while all that was going on, the weight of the world just seemed to pile on even more…shootings in schools and movies theatres, beheadings and bombings, children in freezers and babies in desk drawers. Even though I am surrounded by loving family and friends, it all became too much to process.

I retreated, and it just so happened to be into the arms of nearly a dozen Marquette women who reminded me of one specific thing.

We are Warriors.

Each of these women were keenly self aware of the blessings in their lives. But none of us would have ever guessed the challenges our families and extended families were to face in the years following our college days. As I listened to these women share their stories, who would have predicted funerals for a child, a husband, parents and friends? Who would have guessed there would be job losses, divorce, loved one’s addictions and mental/emotional/physical illness, a positive BRCA gene test and an invitation to a swinger’s party. (Actually, that last one we probably saw coming.)

My retreat was marinated in booze and highlighted by stories of survival, endless laughter, a few tears and a visit from the cops telling these beautifully aging retreat goers to keep it down.

Sometimes we need to walk away to regain the perspective that was there all along…everything is going to be ok.

Retreat, baby, but no surrender.