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.

kmp

 

 

 

 

 

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family, mental health, Uncategorized

The Working Title Is…How Do You Sing Your Song?

Any mention of the date September 11th triggers memories of the moment our lives were forever changed. Certainly, for my generation, it was our day that will live in infamy.

I vividly remember the night of 9/11 and the days that followed. The waves of fear that rolled through every attempt to reach family and friends who were potentially in the air that morning, or who were undeniably in New York, DC or stranded abroad, had us holding our breath through those disturbing unchartered waters.

Once we learned “our people” were safe, we were entombed with empathetic grief for so many that wondered, worried, feared and knew.

After what was, admittedly, a completely inappropriate amount of time, I asked my husband how this might impact our planned vacation to Disney World that was to take place in three weeks time.

After a more appropriate amount of time (two days) Pat called the Disney resort and was told they would offer us a full refund or allow us to rebook anytime without penalty. As planes were returning to the air, we struggled to decide what to do.

I talked about our quandary with a friend who also happens to be an Orthodox Jewish Rabbi. I shared with him my concern and worry. He replied by saying, “Katie, you need to live your life as if it is a song to G-d.”

(He actually said the word “God” but in deference to the Jewish tradition of utmost respect, I’m typing it the way he would.)

He continued saying, “Every day, you must sing your song in the very best way you can. I knew of a man who was afraid to travel to Israel for the High Holidays because of the unrest in the region, so, instead, he was sitting at his desk in the World Trade Center when the first plane hit.”

He implored me to take an active role in my destiny and to, “Live your life as if it was a song to G-d, every single day.”

So, despite offers of full refunds, Pat and I hopped on a plane with our girls to the Magic Kingdom where we pretty much had the place to ourselves. Mickey and Minnie were on a first name basis with Maddie and Clare by the end of the long weekend.

October 5, 2001, in the eerie middle of Main Street USA. Disney World was a ghost town

That memory and the life lesson associated with it — living your life as if it were a song to God — has been in the forefront of my mind over the past few months.

Am I doing that?  Living my life as if it is a song to God? What about the people I love? Are they? And, if so, what are the lyrics of our songs saying about who we are and what is important to us?

Earlier this year, I realized my song had taken on a much more melancholy tune and, try as I might, I couldn’t shake it. My life is blessed with family and friends who I know would do anything for me…as I would for them. I have so much for which I am grateful, and yet, I couldn’t unshackle myself from this pervading gloom. So I turned to a doctor for help; much like I would have if my symptoms were elevated blood pressure or cholesterol levels. And as a result of her care, I feel as though, once again, my song is one of hope and happiness, curiosity and contentment.

I thought about this very thing when I learned of Kate Spade’s suicide, and now Anthony Bourdain. How did their songs become so dark and painful that they could no longer manage the burden?

So much is written about the mental health crisis in our nation. In 2016, there were more than twice as many suicides than homicides in the United States. The CDC reported yesterday that US suicide rates have increased more than 25% since 1999.

The loss of these bright lights and so many others whose deaths may not have captured headlines have left behind loved ones with immeasurable pain rooted in the depths of their hearts.   And they have left everyone wondering what can be done.

The article linked here from the Huffington Post offers great direction about how to talk about suicide in a way that is actually helpful.

And, while it may sound trite to some, we can listen to my Rabbi’s advice. Live your life as if it is a song to God. If your song has taken on an atypical dark and bluesy tone that is impacting how you look at the world, then that is a sign it’s time to reach out for help to change the melody or rework the lyrics.

We also must continue to be more aware of changes to the songs others are singing. When that happens, as it has many times over the course of my brother’s life, we search for a new song with counselors as composers and psychiatrists as lyricists…whatever it takes to just keep singing.

2,997 lives were lost on September 11th in an act of terrorism that changed our lives forever. In 2016, there were 44,965 deaths by suicide. Read that number again. 44,965 excruciating acts of desperation that should also change our lives forever. We should, through our words and deeds, aim to ensure that the legacy of those lives lost to suicide is one of hope and peace, honest discourse aimed at ending stigma, inviting comfort and living our lives as if they were a song to God.

We are stronger together. And so is our song.

kmp

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