Favorite Stories

That’s the Way I Feel About You

Backpack pix

That July morning, I awoke to the clicks of a broken fan blowing humid air across my face.   My life was like that fan; worn out and in desperate need of repair.

Earlier that year, our Downs syndrome daughter, Sarah, had undergone heart surgery and now we faced mounting medical bills.   We were falling behind on our house payments and losing our home seemed inevitable.

As I closed my eyes to try to put together a morning prayer, I felt a small hand nudge my arm. “Mommy, I got  ready all…all…by myself.”  she stuttered.

Next to the bed stood five-year-old Sarah, her eyes twinkling through thick pink-framed glasses. Beaming, she turned both palms up and exclaimed: “Ta-dah!”

Her red checked shorts were on backward with the drawstring stuck in the waistband. Wearing a polka dot top turned inside-out, her socks were mismatched and a baseball cap was slipping off her head.   Her favorite tennis shoes were on the wrong feet.

“I packed a..a…backpack too!” she said while unzipping her bag.   Curious, I peered in at the treasures she had packed for her first morning at Vacation Bible School; five Lego blocks, a box of paper clips, a fork, a cabbage patch doll, three jigsaw puzzle pieces and a crib sheet from the linen closet.

Gently lifting her chin so our eyes met, I said very slowly, “You look beautiful.”

“Thank y-y-you.”  Sarah said, as she began to twirl like a ballerina.

Just then the living room clock chimed eight o’clock which meant that I had forty-five minutes to get Sarah and her two younger sisters out the door. As I hurried to feed my the kids breakfast, the morning minutes dissolved into urgent seconds.  There just wasn’t enough time to help Sarah change her outfit.

Buckling each child into a car seat, I tried to reason with Sarah. “Honey, I don’t think you’ll be needing your backpack for Vacation Bible School.  Why don’t you let me keep it in the car for you?”   I suggested.

“No-o-o-o. I need it…” She said.

I surrendered, telling myself that her self-esteem was more important than the knapsack she had filled with useless stuff.

When we got to the church where the Vacation Bible School was held, I tried to redo Sarah’s outfit with one hand while keeping an eye on my other two children.   But Sarah pulled away, reminding me of my early morning words, “No…I…I….look b-b-beautiful!”  she said.

Overhearing our conversation, a young teacher drew near. “You do look beautiful” she told Sarah.  With that, she took the hand of my Down’s syndrome daughter. “You can pick her up at 11:30.  We’ll take good care of her.” The teacher assured me.

As I watched them walk away, Sarah waved to me, her eyes shimmering beneath her glasses.

While Sarah was at church, I ran errands with my other young daughters.    As I dropped late payments into the mailbox and shopped with coupons at the grocery store, my thoughts were filled with fear.  What did the future hold?     How would we make it through this difficult time?   Did God really care about our family?

After the last errand,  I drove back to the church and arrived a few minutes early to pick up Sarah.  A door to a sun-filled chapel had been propped open, and I could see the children seated inside a semi-circle listening to a Bible story.

Sarah, sitting with her back to me, was still clutching the canvas straps that secured her backpack. Her shorts and shirt were still on backwards, and her cap was tilted on her head, ready to fall off.

As I watched her, one simple thought came to mind: I sure do love her…..

As I stood there, I heard that still, small voice that I have come to know is God’s—

 

That’s the way I feel about you…

 

I closed my eyes. I imagined my Creator looking down at me from a distance; my life so much like Sarah’s outfit—backwards, unmatched, mixed up.

“Why are you holding that useless ‘backpack’ full of anxiety, doubt and fear?” I could imagine God saying to me.  “Let me carry it…”

We all go through times when our lives seem backward, mismatched, and out of control.  But God calls us to trust that what we need will always be provided.  In these vulnerable times of weakness, we invited to give our fear filled backpack to the one who says:

“You are precious in my sight and I love you.”   Isaiah 43:4.

Today, if you are shouldering a backpack of worries, there’s no need to feel burdened. God is ready to carry it for you.

 

 

Our Great “I AM”

candle-pix

Why does God allow suffering?   I remember asking this question when I was a young mother.   At that time, our first baby was barely holding on to life.   Not only did she have Down’s syndrome, but our little Sarah was born with two holes in her heart and a valve that needed repair.   At six weeks old, Sarah had open heart surgery and for many weeks, my young husband and I kept vigil over her in intensive care.

Huddling over her hospital crib, Don and I held the tiny hands of our baby. We listened to the beat of her heart as jagged lines on the monitor above etched her progress.   Underneath a sign that read: Sterilized Area, nurses adjusted her breathing tubes and changed her bandages. Doctors murmured softly and wrote notes on clipboards.

“This is brutal.” Don often said.   Unable to cradle my baby, I would simply close my eyes and sigh.

Sometimes it was all too much, and I needed to get away from the sterile syringes and the pulsing of electrocardiographs. Each day, I slipped down the hall to a lobby lined with chairs.  There, I turned the pages of magazines, watched talk shows and chewed on leathery apples from the vending machine.

Other parents sat there too. Parents whose children suffered from cancer, heart abnormalities or the rarest of diseases.  As we shared our stories, I wondered how God could allow such a disproportionate amount of pain and despair.

Then one day a new face arrived, a tall bearded man holding the hand of his five-year-old son. He wore the distinctive clothing of an Orthodox Jew, a tall dark hat with a brim, a long coal-colored coat with tails, and black tapered trousers.  I watched as he placed a shawl and a small black prayer book on his son’s lap.  Then he looked up and gave me a quick nod in greeting.

“My name is Shimon.” he said.   A Rabbi, he had flown in from Boston that morning as his son needed a new kidney.  “I’m staying with a Jewish Community in Minneapolis.” he continued.

As the days passed, Shimon turned that lobby into sort of a living room.  He set a gold-framed picture of his family on a table next to the vending machine.  Each day he offered me kosher food from a paper bag: fresh baked bread, red grapes, seasoned fish.  And every morning he put on the shawl and his yarmulke, then with his prayer book opened he recited several Hebrew prayers in a soft voice.

Whenever he prayed, something beautiful happened in that lobby. One by one, each parent turned away from the talk shows and magazines that had become so much a part of our daily routine.    Together, we bowed our heads.   I don’t think any of us really understood his prayers.   Most of us had grown up in Christian traditions but we all felt a quiet strength and calmness as he prayed.

In between those prayers and the breaking of bread, Shimon and I exchanged conversation. We talked of the cold Midwestern winters and the ocean breezes in Boston, our families and God.   He spoke of the great I AM, an inextinguishable fire that led his people out of darkness, a brilliant flame that blazed in times of uncertainty.   “You have a better relationship with God than I do.”  I told the Rabbi.  I wondered how a God of warmth and light could allow the darkness of so much disease.

Then, early on Sunday morning, Sarah took a turn for the worse. The doctors discovered a staph infection in her blood.   “It may take her life.” our Cardiologist warned.    As Don and I stood by her crib, our baby lay almost lifeless, her small chest marked with incisions and stiches.  Like the other children in that ward, she had battled more disease in a few short weeks than most people do in a lifetime.

As I held her tiny ashen hand, I retreated to a dark, despairing place where the light of faith is snuffed out and God’s absence seems real.   While Don spoke with the doctors, I made my way to the lobby and buried my head in my hands.

“Can I help you?”  I heard the Rabbi ask.   After a long silence, I finally looked up.  “Rabbi,” I heard myself say, “Why does God allow suffering?”

For a moment, Shimon bowed his head, as if he was collecting his thoughts. Then he turned to me and said something I will never forget.

“I do not know much about the God you hold in your heart,” he began, “except that He suffered and died on a cross.  Perhaps it is your suffering God who draws near to you now.”

As he spoke, images of Calvary came to mind.   I imagined the women who stood courageously before our Lord and sensed that Mary, the mother of Jesus, was right beside me.   In that moment, I could feel a wounded Christ wrapping his injured arms around me, my sick baby, my husband, Shimon, and every parent in that lobby.  A suffering God aching with the anguish of his people.

Soon a warmth began to fill me.   It started as just a glimmer of hope but soon became a blaze of faith.  God was present.  I knew it.  I felt it.

Three days later Sarah recovered from the infection that had threatened her life. With suitcases packed to leave the hospital, we passed through the lobby one last time.  Cradling my baby, Don and I searched for the Rabbi to say good-bye.  He wasn’t there.  Some of the other parents happily reported that a kidney had been found for Shimon’s son.   “The surgery will last most of the day.”  they said.

I scrawled a thank-you note on the back of a candy box and tucked in underneath Shimon’s family picture.

It’s hard to believe that I am now in my early sixties. Sarah lived just twenty-three years but what an extravagant blessing she was to our family.  Most of her days on earth were free from the health constraints that defined her first days of life.    Though the world called her disabled, Sarah bore the light of Christ and her non-stop smile brought constant joy to our home.

Though I will never stop missing her, I know that one day we will be reunited in heaven and what a great reunion that will be. Ten years after her death, I’m still unpacking the spiritual lessons she imparted and I can’t stop thanking God for the gift of her life.

I’m also grateful for the Rabbi who walked alongside our family so many years ago. Because of him, I came to understand my faith in a whole new way.

When hope is snuffed out by disease, death, or unexpected loss, despair has no power.

In the darkness, our suffering God draws near.

Our light.

Our comfort.

Our Great I AM.

 

 

Teacups of Love

teacups

When I was a little girl, every Sunday morning was like a holiday. After mass, my family, all eleven of us, would gather in my grandmother’s kitchen. Wrapped in scents of cinnamon rolls and percolating coffee, “Mema” would make her rounds, hugging us tightly, one by one, as if she hadn’t seen us in months. Soon, aunts, uncles, and countless cousins would arrive.  Everyone loved Mema.

One Sunday morning, when I was about nine years old, Mema’s kitchen got a bit crowded so I slipped into her dining room. It was a much quieter place where the warm sunlight streamed through the windows and a clock on the wall ticked softly.

Next to a drop leaf table was a tall china hutch with glass doors, it’s shelves filled with polished teacups. All the cups had been given to Mema during the years of the Great Depression; a colorful array of second hand treasures from moneyless friends and relatives.

“They’re cups of love,” Mema used to say.

That morning, I found myself admiring the patterns on the keepsake cups; all the lovely roses, hearts, and vines.

“I’ll collect teacups someday” I said as I pressed my hands against the glass.

Mema peeked in on me from the kitchen.

“Which one do you like best?” she asked, wrinkles framing her cocoa-brown eyes.

“That one!”

I pointed to a lavender cup trimmed with gold leaves.

Sixteen years later, on the day of my Wedding, I opened a small box that Mema had decorated with a white bow.

On a little card, she had written: “You’re favorite!”  As I held the cup in my hand, I knew it would be the first in my collection.

The early years of my marriage passed quickly. My husband and I didn’t have much money, but I could always find a few dollars to buy used teacups at a garage sale or thrift store.

By the time our second child had arrived, I had scraped the peeling paint from an old glass-doored cabinet and refinished it with maple stain. Gradually, I began filling each shelf with secondhand teacups. I placed Mema’s wedding cup in the middle of the collection—It would always be my favorite.

But while I was busy adding cups to my collection, Mema was giving hers away. She was growing weaker with each passing month, a cancer invading her bones.  Nonetheless, she made sure that her keepsake cups found a home.

Like me, each of my sisters received one on her wedding day. So did the brides of my brothers and cousins. Every grandchild got a “cup of love.”

A few weeks after my third child was born, Mema’s health began to worsen and I visited her one last time.

Before I reached the bedroom where she lay, I passed through her dining room. Stopping for a moment, I pressed my hands against the glass doors of her hutch. All the cups were gone; only sunlight filled the shelves.

Moments later, I sat by her bedside.

“Mema,” I said. “Was it hard to give away your teacups?”

Mema took my hand. Though her breathing was labored, her brown eyes shone brightly.

“They were cups of love and love is meant to be shared,” she said.

As Mema drifted off to sleep, a beautiful thought came to mind.

Mema’s life was like a patterned teacup, brimming with love, a gift to our family.

She was like a “keepsake” passed down to us from God, ours to cherish–ours to admire forever in the hutches of our hearts.

Many years have passed since Mema died. I miss her, but I’m constantly reminded that she is never far away.

Just last Sunday morning, I sat with my two daughters, Christina and Rachael, at the kitchen table.

As we talked about Christina’s upcoming wedding, I turned my glance toward the hutch in my dining room. In the sunlight, I noticed Mema’s cup in the center of my teacup collection.

I smiled.

Her favorite cup was waiting to be wrapped.

 

 

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