Fall is turning to winter and we are, once again, considering Christmas preparations. But as we do, I think back on the events of my fall and they seem to coalesce around one concept: HOME.
What a loaded word that is.
HOME. My third-grader listed it as one of the places he most likes to go on his “All About Me” poster for school. This blessed me greatly. For him, home is close to what it should be – a refuge and stronghold of love.
And I fervently hope my children will always feel this way about the home they’ve grown up in.
HOME is where we live, where we once lived, and what will be our place of living at some point in the future. And yet despite our best efforts to make HOME stable, it is perpetually in flux.
From one year to the next, home changes.
Because the people are changing. Moving in and out. Closer and farther away.
This is my lesson from fall 2018.
Last month, I sat across from my 15-year old son at a wedding our family attended, and felt the years stretch out ahead and behind.
The bride was radiant (as all brides are) and the groom was dazzled by her. Family and friends wished them well and prayed for their happiness. I was especially hopeful, as the bride is a diamond of a person whom I’ve known for 15 years. Yes – ever since she started babysitting an infant boy – who grew into the teenage boy sitting across from me at her reception dinner. Back then, she herself was his exact age.
I see the way his increasingly broad shoulders fill out his blazer, how remarkably relaxed he is in a tie, joking with his teenage sister in a manner closely approximating adulthood. There are clear outlines of the man he will become; only the shading need be filled in.
And I returned again to my mind’s refrain – the one I’ve heard daily since September.
I miss him already.
He’s only a sophomore in high school. A couple years to go.
But you can see a bird is going to take flight when it raises its wings off its back, and that’s where we are now.
How do you sit with melancholy?
The instability of knowing the inevitability of an event that is both happy and sad? Desirable – even prayed for – and yet – not exactly what your heart craves.
He will be leaving his home.
I can stand back and watch time pass quickly – like sand through an hourglass – or I can break open the glass and examine each grain.
So I watch him eat. I listen to him laugh. I hear his stories and respond empathetically. Try not to react with alarm when surprised or concerned. I ask questions that I hope will bring us closer, and when he shares with me – I thank him. His life is his. I know this. And yet….and yet….
Home is where we want to be….together. But togetherness is fleeting. All homes are temporary shelters of love since the members come and go. They draw closer to us. And pull away. For days, months, years, or forever.
There is no real home here on earth.
I bear this in mind, and take my heart to the only One who can console, and who loves my son more than me. It’s his Creator, and mine, after all.
And while I pray for my son’s protection, I am reminded that this boy was given to me for a time, and no more.
Let’s live the days as if they are numbered, for indeed – they are.
So teach us to number our days, that we may present to You a heart of wisdom. – Psalm 90:12
Today – May 23, 2018 – my husband Chris and I celebrate our 20th wedding anniversary. About a month ago, I asked my beloved if he’d like to write something about marriage for my blog to mark this occasion, and I was delighted when he said yes. The final product is a gift that exceeded all of my hopes and expectations, and I am both humbled and overjoyed to be sharing it with you.
All the days of my life
The first 7,304
It never occurred to me that marrying Gretchen was a choice. Truly, it was no more a decision than it was whether to draw another breath. I suppose I could have put it off, but then I’d eventually pass out and start again. Breathing that is. But you get the point.
We were engaged ten months after our first date and wed six months later. It didn’t seem fast because marrying her was the most natural thing I have ever done. I had also been brought up to believe that’s how it should be. Blessed to be born into a family overrun with happy marriages, my mother used say that “you just know it when you know it.” It was a uniquely unsatisfying, irretrievably irrational and absolutely accurate piece of wisdom, and I never doubted.
I gave little real thought to how “just knowing it” would feel. But when I fell in love with Gretchen, I remember having a sense of peace that I hadn’t known before. It was the kind of serenity that comes when you flow effortlessly in the stream of life. I recall thinking calmly to myself,
“So this is her. The love of my life. I knew she’d be smart. Glad she’s pretty. Figured she’d be blonde.”
And I exhaled, as if I had been holding a small measure of my breath for the better part of 24 years.
Of course we did have some difficulties which were also learning experiences. To this day, our biggest fight came as newlyweds setting up our first apartment. The Great Spice Rack Dispute will live on in family lore for decades to come. Well it should as a tale rife with lessons about life.
The facts of the matter, as stipulated by the parties, are these: Gretchen wanted the spice rack concealed in a cabinet so the kitchen wouldn’t look messy. I preferred the spices visible and within arm’s reach. Needless to say, it’s a miracle our marriage survived.
I recollect nothing of what was said but I remember it being explosive, at least by our standards. I think I even left the condo that night, coming back a little later. After all, my magnificent dog, Crash, was still there.
When the dust settled, we spoke about what had happened. It turns out that Gretchen was actually not arguing about the spice rack’s precise location. Instead, I learned that she had a lifetime of plans and ideas about how to create a home; that these notions were an extension of her identity; that our disagreement seemingly threatened our very being as well as endangering all manner of critically important, authentically valid, truly emotional and deeply-held thoughts about herself, me and our new life together.
And for my part, I was arguing about where to put the spice rack.
An important lesson to this day, I understand that the real cause of most conflicts usually has little to do with the ostensible terms of the debate. That is, it’s easy to confuse the symptom with the illness and growth in our marriage has usually come from focusing on underlying issues.
That said, we have developed a few everyday strategies to avoid unnecessary flare-ups. These include:
No discussing anything after 10pm. Not the kids, not tomorrow’s schedule, not rainbows, not unicorns. No matter how seemingly innocuous, a late day conversation is about 500 times more likely to end poorly and/or stupidly.
No mind reading. And no demands for telepathy. We try not to conjure up each other’s thoughts and if we want something, we need to say it.
Always assume the best intentions. We want the best for each other. Our frustrations are usually borne of a lack of understanding rather than an absence of love.
No quinoa. Ever. I’ve forgiven Gretchen for knowingly eating Grape Nuts, but there’s a limit. Quinoa is bad for a marriage, your soul and for America.
Most importantly, over the years we’ve found that approximately 99.3% of our issues are not between us as a couple, but within us as individuals. Gretchen brings out my better qualities, but she doesn’t rid me of my flaws. I still bring me into every situation.
That’s one of the many reasons spiritual growth has become part of our life together. We don’t always approach it in the same way, nor do we have to. For instance, Gretchen is a Catholic convert. Her kind can be found singing during Mass and probably sitting upfront being all attentive and holy. On the other hand, I was raised Philadelphia Irish Catholic, so my brand of religion involves telling jokes during funerals.
Such superficialities aside, we both care deeply about growing personally and growing as a couple. Early on, especially when we were finding our own way, we stepped on each other a few times. But we have accepted that our spiritual paths run alongside each other, each meandering at its own pace, sometimes crossing, sometimes in parallel, always moving the same direction. And that works for us.
When reflecting on marriage, it’s easy to dwell on the bumps in the road. I think doing so misses the joy in it all. After all, perfection is a fine thought, but it means that there is no further growth, no greater joy, nothing more to be revealed. I’m in no hurry.
The fact is that our problems are really just challenges, and our challenges are really just worries. The worries, trifles. Job stress, busy schedules, not enough time for all the people we care about. Each and every one just a reflection of some wonderful blessing in our lives.
I often need to remind myself of that great truth and to bask in profound gratitude for having been given such a beautiful, intelligent, loving woman with whom I can greet life. Gretchen is my greatest blessing.
When we married, I promised to love and honor Gretchen all the days of my life. Great days do adorn our past, but the best lay yet ahead. And as each has passed over the last twenty years, I remain forever overwhelmed.
Some people just aren’t ‘animal people.’ They can’t help it, really. They just haven’t ever connected with a dog, cat, or some other creature in that deeply beautiful and inexplicable way that changes everything about how a person sees the world.
And then there are the rest of us.
Too many times over the last couple months I’ve watched friends wish a forever goodnight to a beloved dog or cat, and every time I hear of an animal passing, I go back to the days of losing the ones who were most precious to me.
There was Sassafras – the Puli I grew up with – a Hungarian sheepdog who looked like a Rastafarian. She endured hours of ‘dress up’ as I styled her in my old baby clothes.
Crash – our 107 lb. Yellow Lab – who was afraid of linoleum, occasionally howled when he heard sirens, and adored flowers so much that if I came home with a bouquet, I had to let him smell it right away or he’d tackle me trying.
And Shiloh – our Golden Retriever – a big, red, fluffy guy who befriended all the neighbors and was so diligent about “checking” on our infant daughter I had to close the door to her room or he’d wake her up by pushing his nose through the slats of her crib.
It’s this last dog I think of with regret.
Regret. Commingled with our cravings for peace and comfort, it’s often the unspoken part of loss.
Sometimes it’s big. Sometimes it’s not. But one way or another, it can creep in.
We got Shiloh – a 9-week old puppy – on December 22, 2003 when our oldest son was not quite one year. I house-trained him in the dead of winter by strapping my son into his high chair, giving him a handful of Cheerios, and running Shiloh outdoors. He learned inside from out, but was never trained in obedience. My husband and I fully admit – our timing in getting this dog was not among the best of our decisions.
Our daughter arrived two years later, and I was perpetually preoccupied with the work of mothering young children. Shiloh just didn’t receive the one-on-one time and love he so richly deserved. We lost him to an irreversible heart ailment at 8 years old; it was far too soon.
I went to the vet on Valentine’s Day in 2012 to be with him at the end, and the doctor gave us a few minutes alone to say goodbye.
I looked into his eyes and was overcome, so I sat on the tile floor, and with my arms wrapped around his huge red neck, I poured out my pain-filled heart.
There was so much to say. So much I still wanted to do. And couldn’t redo. And all I was left with was precious little time.
I told him I loved him.
I thanked him for his constant devotion to me and our family…for the joy he had brought to our lives.
I followed my soul’s prompts…and I asked him for forgiveness.
I said I was sorry. I listed many things I did that I regretted, and all the things I didn’t do that I regretted even more.
And this dog knew.
Why am I sure?
I saw it in his eyes.
There is one thing domesticated animals do betterthan their people: they love unconditionally.
And he did.
Just then, he leaned into me – physically and in spirit. He rested his head on my shoulder and licked my tears.
If every life moment is a glimpse of the divine, what was I seeing just then?
These critical life lessons:
Do not look back and wish for something else. We must live and love right where we are. To do otherwise is futile.
Forgiveness is a matter of turning the heart in the right direction: owning up to wrongs and then relinquishing them. Often, the hardest person to forgive is ourselves.
If facets of God can be seen here on earth – present in the unconditional love and forgiveness of an animal who trusts us and accepts us as we are – then in the same way, we can rest in the knowledge that if we approach Him with contrite hearts, admit our mistakes and ask for mercy, it will be granted to us.
And what of the animals? Where do our friends go?
I appreciate the words of Pope Francis:
“Eternal life will be a shared experience of awe, in which each creature, resplendently transfigured, will take its rightful place and have something to give those poor men and women who will have been liberated once and for all.” – Laudato Si
It warms my soul to consider this…to savor the fact that the God of my experience and understanding so loves the whole world, and God wants me to experience perpetual joy and love to such a degree, that He will use any means necessary to show me this Truth….
Even a dog – here on earth, and someday, forever with me in heaven.