Today once again marks the anniversary of the first date with My Love. Fourteen years. Last year, I wrote about my spirit crushing loneliness and shared the story of that first date. This year, though my spirit is still crushed, and I am still lonely for my husband, it’s not as intense or terrible. This spiritual darkness that I am experiencing is nothing new for me. I have lived in and out of it for years, ever since Lent 2011 when I asked the Holy Spirit to expose the dark parts of my heart. I was surprised at what came out during that Lent. I continue to be surprised as each time I endeavor to go deeper into my relationship with Christ, I first seem to descend into a deep darkness before coming up for a period of unparalleled joy. Now as I vacillate back and forth between a total rejection of God and a desperate drive toward faith, I sometimes wonder if this is how it will always be for me. Certainly for the past few years I have felt like one caught out in the desert as a sand storm blows in, as someone constantly trying to move forward as sand blows against their body, harsh, scratchy, and the wind pushes them back. Then as suddenly as the storm comes up, it abates. The sky becomes clear, the sun has gone down on the storm, and there are a million stars illuminating the sky showing the infinite possibilities of life and unending hope.
~ The Reluctant Widow
Maybe I am just getting old, or maybe it’s just the extreme busyness of our family schedule, or maybe it’s being a widow, but I find myself craving silence. On one of my Christmas CD’s there is a song by Amy Grant that I play frequently because I so identify with it. The chorus goes like this:
“I need a silent night, a holy night. To hear an angel voice, through the chaos and the noise. I need a midnight clear, a little peace right here, to end this crazy day with a silent night.”
The days leading up to Thanksgiving, knowing that the beginning of Advent was just days after that, I began making preparations for a different Advent season this year. I think it’s been ages and ages since Advent really and truly meant being in a period of hush, the silence of waiting with bated breath for the big exhale of glory in Christ’s birth. Like most Americans (dare I say Westerners), Advent has been about decorating for Christmas, getting everyone the perfect gift even if it means the hassle of running around to five stores to find the one thing that a child really, really, wants only to find that you are not going to be able to find it in the stores or on-line and you have to substitute something else. Which leads to comments on Christmas morning like “but I wanted ______________. How come you didn’t get me it?” And then you explain that it was so popular that it sold out everywhere really quickly. The child is disappointed and you feel devastated that your gift was rejected and that your child hasn’t learned to be grateful because you have always given him everything he’s asked for in life.
This year, out of a desperate need to have things simpler, I chose a group gift for the children, one that will continue to give to all of us once Christmas is long past. They know about it because it’s something I had to do ahead of time. It’s not what they wanted. They never asked for it, but I know that they will love it. It is a gift I can enjoy with them. I added a 15′ x 25′ slab of concrete to our backyard where we can enjoy playing hoops together. The goal I picked is portable so that when the kids are grown and gone, it can be moved out-of-the-way to make an entertaining space. The expense of Christmas wasn’t the real issue for me. It was the grasping for things that don’t last. It’s the reports on the news of crazy people fighting over things in stores on Black Friday. It’s the constant chorus of “I want, I want, I want…” in a culture of abundance. There is nothing we really lack in our culture except perhaps to be silent for a time, to take a break and set aside time to just “be,” whether it is with the Lord or with our families and our neighbors. The first week of Advent focuses on the Hope of Christ’s resurrection.
I have struggled these past months with the darkness that threatens to overwhelm me but doesn’t quite as I am able to push it back to see the light in my life. I ask myself and you this question: Can we push away the darkness of addiction to things, to electronic media, to consumerism, the unforgiveness for past hurts, and having to know through reason, to embrace the waiting and the silence before Christ’s joyous birth?
~ The Reluctant Widow
This morning on my FB feed, there was a post in my Story Sessions group with a prompt to “Write a Letter to December.” I’ve never actually written a letter to a month but I immediately wanted to, so here I am. My “Letter to December.”
You are a month full of contradictory feelings for me, feelings which can vary from year to year depending on where I am physically, emotionally, and spiritually. This year, my feelings and spiritual condition both sink and soar making me feel that I might actually be bi-polar. I can’t decide whether to anticipate you or dread your coming. This year, Advent appropriately begins on December 1. The season of waiting, of anticipation, and hope beginning on the first day of the month seems like some sort of sign. Yet I feel none of those things this year. I don’t want to wait, I don’t want to anticipate, and I have very little hope. I want God in a big way and I want it now. Now!
I think some of the discontent in my heart belong to still being a relatively new widow. I thought making it through all those “firsts” would mean that everything would get easier, but it doesn’t. I think I dread this holiday season more than I did last year’s. Last year, all I focused on was the kids. It was all for them, making them happy, making new memories and creating new traditions while still trying to honor some of the old traditions. What I have discovered though is that I worked so hard last year to help my kids that I didn’t help myself. I didn’t do the work of healing, a healing that can’t take place instantaneously but it could have begun. Now this year I find I don’t want to celebrate. I want to hibernate like a bear over the long, cold winter. To sleep, to forget, is what I want, but all that does is forestall the process of healing.
The other bits of my discontent come from some blog posts I read recently by Calah Alexander (scroll to the bottom of the post and she links to all five pieces). She was responding to another blogger’s post and she wrote a series of pieces called “Sentimental Clap-trap.” Boy did some of those posts bring up some vile thoughts. Phrases like “God has a plan for you,” “God wouldn’t give you more than you can handle,” are phrases I, frankly, do not ever want to hear again. I don’t believe them. In fact, the phrases make me so mad that I want to reject God altogether. I can not accept a plan wherein my husband dies and leaves me a widow to parent four children on my own. And as for “handling” it, well, I am not. I am not handling it so if God wouldn’t give me something more than I could handle, he seriously misjudged my abilities. I do believe in God though and I just can’t reject him. Because these phrases are not really about God, but they are about the people who utter them. The people who say, “God has a plan for you…” are saying it because they don’t know what to say, or they feel that they must have an answer for life circumstances for which there really is no answer. There really is no answer why my husband died. He just did, and I don’t think it’s God’s fault or that it was his plan. People say “God won’t give you more than you can handle” because in a way it let’s them off the hook for offering to help you. What I mean by that is that if I am handling everything OK on my own, then they don’t have to feel the need to offer assistance. I think they also feel that it is encouraging to someone like me, like somehow I should feel boosted up in my confidence, but I don’t. I feel like screaming, “I am not handling it. No one in my position could really handle it. You are making me feel like a failure, that I lack faith, and that I am flawed because I break down, because I need help, because I need you to come along side of me and let me rant, cry, and cuss.”
December, I both love you and loathe you. I love the lights, the candles in church and the ones we set on our table at home. I love the music and the generally festive feeling people have this month. I love seeing the bell ringers and all the people digging into their purses and wallets to give more generously than they would any other time of the year. I love the quiet hush that seems to surround this month as we focus once again on our Savior’s birth. I love St. Nicholas and stockings filled with clementines, gold chocolate coins and nuts. I love decorating the trees, taking out the ornaments that all have meaning, lovingly gathered over the years of a shared life as a family, loving stories to go with each. I love the smell of pine trees, pumpkin spice and cinnamon which evoke warmth and comfort. But I loathe the crowds in the stores, people shoving trying to get things crossed off their gift buying lists. I loathe the extra traffic on the roads, impatient to get to the next place. I loathe the Christmas lists from children, filled with expectations of fulfillment and the pressure one feels when you can only get one or two things and you hope they are the right one or two things. I loathe the commercialism of the month, which has really extended back into November these days. I loathe waking up on Christmas morning, attending Mass, and all the while there is an empty place in my heart that was once filled with love for one who is no more. I loathe the sadness I will feel and that I will have to cover it up with smiles and good cheer so as not to ruin anyone’s day. I loathe that when the big day is over, suddenly the world seems greyer, colder, and the next few months stretch out cold and empty.
I am going to try to embrace you December. I am going to try to focus on the good and on the lovely. On the waiting and the anticipation that once again we welcome Christ into the world. I am going to try to love more and loathe less, to breathe easier, to let go of the unimportant and to be content with what is now and not what was. Sometime during your month, December, I will go to the confessional with my heart repentant, tax collector that I am, crawling on my knees, face to the floor, begging God to forgive me for my unbelief and asking him to bring hope into my heart again, and I will walk out with my faith renewed, eyes to the tabernacle where Christ himself resides, ready to receive him body and blood in the Eucharist.
~ The Reluctant Widow
To call this a short story is a joke. It’s not even close yet. Fifteen hundred words makes a nice post, not a work of short fiction. My very generous goddaughter, Kassie, called it “Flash Fiction.” It is just a start though, a quick piece I wrote last month for a writing class. I have never tried writing a short story before. It was fun. I know the mechanics are horrible, but the idea and shell of the story has potential. I actually plan for this to be part of a short story collection, of which I have an additional four stories outlined, and will probably come up with more.
I walked slowly up toward the lectern, my breath catching and fighting tears. I bow slightly to the alter and remind myself, Just breathe, don’t think, read and breathe.
“A Reading from the Book of Ecclesiastes:
For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die…” Focus on the words “a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;” Who will build me up now? I will. I am strong like her. “a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; You taught me to laugh, and to dance even if I only dance in my heart. But now I weep and mourn, you who have been more of a mother to me than my own mom, you who have been my confidant and friend. “a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; a time to seek, and a time to lose;a time to keep, and a time to cast away; a time to tear, and a time to sow;a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;” You weren’t a woman of many words, at least not frivolous words, when you spoke, your words were meant to be listened to, to be heard. “a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace.” I love you G.G.
“The Word of the Lord.”
I walked back to me seat in the second pew on the right. Just where my grandmother and I always sat for Mass. It was “our spot” and people tacitly knew not to sit there. Now I sit here alone, staring at her casket, wondering whether I will sit here on Sunday or if I will even come to Mass. My name is Grace O’Malley. I am not like the feared Irish female pirate of the same name. My grandmother, whom I am named after was more like her. ”Grandma Grace” or G.G. as I and my cousins called her. She was one strong woman. You wouldn’t think it from her diminutive stature. But when she “got her Irish up,” all 5’1″ of her, you paid attention. I guess in some ways she had to develop that strength as the mother of seven boys. Seven! I can’t even imagine. My father was her youngest son. I don’t remember my father very well, just vague memories of riding on his shoulders, of breakfasts with him at G.G.’s house, and a song he would sing to me at bedtime about a dappled grey mare though I can not remember the words entirely. It was some song from some 60′s folk singer. He was killed in a car accident when I was 6 yrs old. A drunk driver hit him while he was out running early one morning. He and my mother grew up in the same town, lived in the same neighborhood, and attended the same schools. It’s odd but I can’t remember anything about my parents as a couple, I just have the vague impression that my dad loved my mother more than she loved him. Maybe that’s just my anger with my mother for a lifetime of neglect. Within a year after my father’s death, my mother was remarried and pregnant. From the moment my brother took his first breath, everything was all about him. I began to spend more and more time at G.G.’s house as I grew toward my teen years, and by the time I entered 8th grade, I was pretty much living there full-time. Nothing was ever formalized but I just went over there one day with a few things, and gradually moved more and more things over there, until G.G.’s home became my full-time home. I think my mother was relieved because then she could pretend that this new family she’d created was her only family. The last time I had any contact with her was five years ago on my 18th birthday. She called to say “Happy Birthday” and to say that she’d meant to bring by my gift earlier but Mikey (my baby brother) had a game, and… I knew there was no gift but I had long since given up on gifts from my biological mother. G.G. was my grandmother, my mother, my father, my friend, my all for as long as I could remember.
G.G. used to tell me that we were just alike the two of us. Two strong, courageous over comers. We were survivors. I always suspected that it was true of her though I am not entirely sure what she had to survive because G.G. was of the generation that you didn’t talk about uncomfortable subjects from the past.
“Gracie-girl,” she’d say to me, “I don’t understand all these people who have to sit with therapists moaning all the time about their troubles. We O’Malley women, we are made of strong stuff. When life throws you a curve ball, you just accept it and move on.”
I’m not sure what curves G.G. had thrown at her before marrying Da but I do know she lost her mother as a young teen. Her father had to work a lot and she was responsible for taking care of her younger sister, Meg. Meg died young. Family whispers I have heard seem to indicate that Great-Aunt Meg wasn’t entirely right in the head. She was reckless they say and G.G. was always having to get her out of a jam. G.G. married Da and Meg came to live with them but soon she moved out to live with a man who was an alcoholic and abusive. In the end, he shot her, then shot himself. Maybe Great-Aunt Meg is the reason that G.G. was always warning me to be careful with men, to make sure that I find a nice Catholic boy who goes to Mass with his mother and doesn’t drink.
Not that G.G. followed that advice.
“Gracie-girl, my mam always wanted me to marry a nice Jewish lawyer because she said they’d have lot’s of money and in the Jewish religion the husband has to let the kids be raised in the wife’s religion. So it would be OK. Our children would be raised as good Catholics.”
“But, G.G.” I said, “you married Da and he was an Irish-Catholic policeman.”
“I know,” she said. “I married for lust.”
I have to admit, looking at pictures of my Da in his youth, he was a really good-looking man in that 1930′s Cary Grant kind of way. She said she always wanted to marry a Bohemian artist and be poor but madly in love. She married my Da, who “was very good-looking and all the girls wanted him,” because she decided good looks and the stability of being a policeman’s wife were more important to her than being madly in love. Not that they didn’t love each other, they did. Some might have seven children out of obligation to the Church, but G.G. said it was lust, they just couldn’t keep their hands off one another.
G.G. was strong. She outlived her husband and four of her sons. Two were stillborn. We visited the cemetery next to the parish monthly to place flowers on the graves of Da, my father and his brother, my Uncle Danny, we also placed flowers on the markers for the two boys who never took a breath in this life. G.G. named them Patrick, after her favorite saint, and Michael, after the famous Irish revolutionary Michael Collins. My father was Kevin. Uncle Danny died of cancer. You know about my dad. Every time we visited their graves, G.G. would say the same thing,
“Gracie-girl, losing your Da to old age, that I could handle. But a mother burying her sons, that just isn’t right. It should have been them standing here at my grave.”
Now, I am the one standing next to her grave. I place a rose on her casket and whisper, “good-bye G.G., I am really going to miss you. See you soon.” As I walked away, with my arm linked through my Uncle Eamon’s arm, I knew the answer to my earlier question “would I be back here next Sunday?” I knew the answer was yes. I will be sitting there in the second pew on the right. I know I will. It’s what we do. G.G. will be here with me. No longer “Gracie-girl” but Grace. I am Grace O’Malley. It’s my time.
A couple of weeks ago, I finished reading Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art.* This topic really spoke to me. It slapped me upside the head and reached into my heart, not just as an aspiring writer, but as a mother, widow, and Christian. It’s message continues to travel through the passages of my mind and I have become more aware of just how much resistance affects my life. The premise of Pressfield’s book is that as we begin to move toward the life we are called to live, we will run smack-dab into “Resistance.” He says, “Most of us have two lives. The life we live and the unlived life within us. Between the two stands Resistance.” Well, ouch. (I was going to give you the page reference but the pages aren’t numbered at the beginning. It’s in the Introductory section under “The Unlived Life.”) Resistance and I have locked horns in battle many times in life. Resistance usually takes two forms for me. It is either in the form of fears, the “what ifs” in life or it takes the form of lack of confidence “I can’t do that!” most often spoken in a whiny voice. Occasionally it takes the form of my two-year old self, “I don’t want to do that and you can make me.” This is usually directed at God.
Let me give you a recent example, though examples from my life, they are legion. I may or may not have mentioned that we have had to do a little bedroom swapping in our house due to my daughter’s fears of being separated from me. When we moved into our new home in December 2012, I took the smallest bedroom in the house. I did so for two reasons: 1) it was on the opposite side of the house from the other bedrooms (being a recent addition to the home), and 2) it had it’s own full bath attached. When I say the room was small, I am not joking. The room, once filled with my queen-sized bed, dresser and nightstand, felt like a monk’s cell. There was literally about 2 ft on all sides to walk. But I painted it a soothing, grown-up color, I had my things, and it gave me some solitude. In the moving of bedrooms, my oldest son now has this room, my daughter moved into his room, and I moved into hers because it was at the end of the hallway and a little separated. I do have to share a bathroom with my daughter, but I put my foot down about the other two boys. I was not going to share with two messy boys. They have to go share with big brother for showering. They have a half bath attached to their room for taking care of other needs.
What’s this to do with Resistance you say? Well, I never fully moved my daughter out of her room or myself fully into it. For four months I have lived with a mess of a room, kids things scattered every where, and not a whole lot that says “It’s mine.” I made excuses, “this room is a color that clashes with my comforter,” “the closet is two awkward,” “maybe this won’t be permanent.” Finally last week I decided to tackle the beast named “Resistance.” I moved everything out of the room that did not belong to me or that I did not want to keep. I unpacked a couple of boxes of memories and placed them on a book shelf I re-purposed from the living room. I purchased a duvet cover that would compliment the walls and other accessories I already had. I vacuumed, dusted, wiped sticky fingerprints from walls, and washed the baseboards. It was done. Almost.
I have been unable to complete the very last task to make the room my own – to hang the picture over my bed. There it sits, two weeks later, on the floor beside the bed, waiting to be hung. I don’t know exactly why it’s so hard for me to hang that darn picture, but I suspect it has to do with my two-year old self, “I don’t want to do this!” I don’t want to fully move in because then it signifies that everything that occurred over the last 16 months is permanent. There is no going back to the old life. It’s me moving on, and that brings with it fear of an uncertain future, and worry that I just can’t do it on my own. So the picture represents my inability to fully accept this new way of life. Resistance’s last stand.
~ The Reluctant Widow
* There is also a YouTube video interview here conducted by Oprah for her Super Soul Sunday show. It’s a good interview even if, like me, you aren’t an Oprah fan.
For as long as I was married and even after My Love’s death, I felt that I wasn’t a very good wife. I am not sure why I developed this idea to begin with but I know that I always thought that I got the better end of the deal. My husband was so kind, encouraging, supportive, and generous to me, that I just felt I never measured up or gave him as much as he gave me. All of this is true, except that I was a good wife. I realized that the other day. Not only did I like being married, but I was good at being married. I was good at being a wife.
Being a good wife or a good husband isn’t really about 50/50 or tit-for-tat, “you scratch my back and I will scratch yours.” It’s really about sacrificial love. It’s about moving to another state even because your mother-in-law died and your father-in-law was elderly and not coping well with the loss, even though you leave behind all your family, your friends, and your job. It’s about saying “yes” to more children because it’s what your spouse wants and deep down you know it’s what God wants too, even though you’d really rather be selfish and take that trip to Tuscany. It’s setting aside, temporarily, your own dreams to support the dreams of another. It is about respecting the other’s opinion even when you disagree, and it’s about being open to the somewhat likely possibility that you might, occasionally be wrong, and not lording it over the other when you are right.
My Love and I did these things and more for each other each and every day. We were in it 100/100. Every day I woke up and I decided to put him before me, and it was pretty easy because I knew that every day he made the same decision to put me before himself. I may not have been the best housekeeper, cook, financial planner, or at times not even the best human being, but I was a good wife.
~ The Reluctant Widow