Monthly Archives: June 2009

Small Talk Made Awkward

Recently, I was at a gathering where the guest of honor was the only person I really knew.  As I sat eating dinner with Isaac, a opportunity for small talk opened up with a young couple at my table.  They had a small child in a high chair and the wife was obviously very pregnant.  (Very pregnant ladies are great for small talk!)  After we had exhausted the requisite questions about their family, they asked, “so do you have other children besides him (Isaac)?”

How to talk about your dead child?  I remember distinctly asking this question a few days after Peter’s funeral to a friend of mine who is also the mother of a baby saint.  She had flown out from California to support me and shortly before she left town we met for coffee.  “What will I say to people when they ask how many kids I have?!” The thought was occurring to me for the first time as I processed with her.  “You’ll know, Libby,” she said, “you’ll figure out who to tell and who not to”.

She was right.  As I’ve muddled through the past two years, I’ve worked out a system for how to handle “the question”.  Not that I ever sat down and drew up procedures or anything, but I’ve figured out how I am most comfortable handling the question.  Here it is:

* People who I will likely never see again. For these people, like those at the party above, or clerks, people in waiting rooms, etc, I answer their question without lying.  For instance, if they say, “Do you have kids?” I will often answer, “I have a preschooler at home”, and proceed to talk about Isaac.  If they ask a more pointed question, such as the folks at the party did, I will answer honestly.  Morally, this is not necessary.  It is not a lie to withhold information from people who don’t need to know it.  And perhaps someday I will leave my saints out of the  answer.  For now, though, it feels almost like betrayal to not include them in such a direct question.

* People I will see often, or be in relationship with.  I don’t say, “Hi, I’m Libby and my babies died”, but I do talk about them even if the question is only indirectly asked.  I would rather them find out up front then tiptoe around it.

* Amount of disclosure.  I have no problem talking about my kids.  What mom doesn’t want to brag about her babies? I realize, though, that death is a touchy subject for people, and stumbling upon a story like mine over sheetcake and coffee is not what most people are expecting when they arrive at someone’s party.  When people seem freaked out, I quickly change the subject.  If they have questions, I answer them.

* I make sure people realize they were infants. I realized after a few tries, that when you say “we lost a baby” people think you had a miscarriage.  I understand that the loss of miscarriage is great, so it’s not a grief snobbery kind of thing.  It’s just not what happened to my family.  Plus, Isaac talks about his brother and sister sometimes, so I think it’s an important distinction that he actually held them and touched them and met them.  Again, not neccessary for the folks in the first category, but something I still feel is kind of important.

* I have accepted the awkwardness. Let’s face it.  Dead babies are awkward.  No one knows what to say or do when they come up.  It is part of our cross that we have the power to bring the most pleasant conversation to a screetching halt.  I just try to ease the burden of the subject on the other person, and be gentle with myself as well.

Like many parts of grieving, I don’t think there is any right or wrong to this question.  Are you a grieving parent? How do you handle this question?


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Lessons Learned From Yardwork, pt 3

So, things have been pretty dry around here.  It is the time of year when you can tell exactly how much people water their lawns, because the shade of green (or yellow) is a dead giveaway.  The one thing that never ceases to amaze me about drought is that weeds still thrive under such circumstances.  Before I pulled them today, they were flourishing in my remaining rock beds, by our lightpost, in my tomato pots, under my deck and of course in the grass itself.  We get actual little trees popping up in our back yard since the dead grass back there does not get mowed, but those pointy little buggers do!

I have tried a few things that I thought would be fool proof guards against these unwelcome botanical visitors.  The first was to put down that landscaping stuff in my little garden in the front yard.  I ripped it up after a season because of the great difficulty I had trying to plant anything new, and because the mulch I had to put over it to keep it down was getting all over the place.  The second was the area under our deck, which I put the same landscaping stuff on but then left for a season because I just never finished filling the area with mulch.  This year, the area that I did cover well is now blooming with an altogether new variety of weed.  I can only guess there were tiny seeds or spores or whatever in the mulch we got free from the compost pile. And then there is the issue of the landscaping rocks I have already blogged about twice.  No need to remind you that those had long outgrown their weed-prevention effectiveness.

So, what to do about weeds? Our parochial vicar was showing us the great landscaping strides he made in his little courtyard at the rectory, and provided this insight.  He said that he understood now why men of all ages spend so much time in their yards with every imaginable method of weed removal.  It is a battle.

His comment coincided with a realization that had been slowly dawning on me like creeping charley moving across my yard into my neighbors’.  There is no easy way to win the Weed War.  It must simply be fought.  The only guarantee is that if you give up, you will lose.

And so it is with life.  I think sometimes we put down landscaping fabric or even old trash bags over our wounds and sins and vices and cover them up with mulch, thinking that the sparkling facade will last forever.  And maybe we do look great for many years.  But sooner or later, the roots of those little nasties begin to creep their way to the surface.  We have to continually engage in the battle.

This is why people sometimes look at the saints as being overscrupulous or even downright bizarre.  When told that John Paul II and Mother Theresa went to Confession every day, some of my teens looked at me as if to say, “wow, what freaks”.  In a similar way I have been guilty of secretly mocking people with really nice yards.  But in backyards or souls, the truth is, the more diligent you are, the more sparkling the outcome.  The more we pull weeds, or treat them, the fewer we will have.  The more we confess our sins, work on virtue and seek healing for our hurts, the closer to holiness we come.  There are no shortcuts.  And actually, when we do engage in things we think will finally land us the easy life, we often end up later having to still dig out the weeds, but having to pick through all the rocks we threw on top, as well.

You would think this realization, both in my yard and in my heart, would be a huge bummer.  But it is actually very freeing.  Before I felt frustrated all the time that things weren’t easier.  That the weeds wouldn’t just die already, that broken things in my life wouldn’t be instantly fixed.  To recognize life as a battle is to see things clearly.  To make peace with the struggle, and to realize that since Jesus has won our victory, the only way to lose is to just give up.

Plus, the process of getting holy is totally “green”.  No harmful chemicals involved.  Sometimes you get a twofer.

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Lessons Learned From Yardwork, pt 2

Okay, so yesterday I talked about my helper in the landscaping rock removal project.  Today I am going to talk about my neighbor.  Those four years when our yard was not in optimal shape, I would look at my retired neighbor’s lawn and cringe.  I started to call it Disneyland, because it was always so nicely manicured.  And I would wade through my own weedbeds and feel like the folks next door were secretly glaring at me through their windows thinking, “I can’t believe we have to look out our windows at that yard.  Maybe we should put up a fence!”

I should clarify right away that the couple next door could be most genuinely kind people that God ever made.  It is clearly my pride that 1.) thought enough of myself to think that the whole neighborhood gave a hoot about my yard, and 2.) didn’t think enough of my neighbors, who probably just thought, “wow, they have a lot going on over there”.  I am getting better.  I am going easier on myself and actually trying to tap into their expertise for advice, which they are always happy to give, but never offer.

Anyway, back to the rock bed.  After my helper abandoned ship, I remembered that my wonderful neighbor had offered to loan us his wheelbarrow if we ever needed it.  Seeing as my Home Depot bucket could only hold about two shovels full of rocks before it got to heavy for me to carry, I jumped when I saw him in his driveway.  We went back to his shed where he not only had a wheelbarrow, but offered me a very solid metal rake and a shovel.  Holy cow, those tools made a HUGE difference!  Earlier, my first attempts at shoveling had proved fruitless because the rocks were so ground in.  But after raking them, they came up easy.  And having the wheelbarrow meant I could actually get a decent amount of rocks loaded before having to dump them on the side of the house.  The project that moments before had seemed eternal now was moving along at a workable pace.

The right tools.  Are you using them in your difficult situation? Of course, for us Christians, the primary one is prayer.  There is a funny correlation in my life between my deepest moments of self pity and my lack of prayer.  How do we expect to keep our eternal perspective, to experience God’s love or the peace that passes all understanding if we are cut off from its source?? And we Catholics have the amazing privilege of the grace of the sacraments.  Reconciliation to free us from the bondage of sin and Eucharist to fortify us in grace.  And don’t forget about Baptism and Confirmation which fill us with the Holy Spirit’s gifts, or the needed vocational grace of Holy Orders or Marriage.  Also, there is study, where we go deeper into our faith so we can come to love God better by knowing him better, and the support of Christian friendships.  Without these tools, at best we plug along patiently picking one handful of rocks at a time, making record-slow progress.  At worst, we simply give up, faced with the impossibility of completing something way beyond our capabilities.

If these tools make our burdens so much lighter, why don’t we always avail ourselves to them? Back to my neighbor situation.  One huge one is pride.  I can do this myself, I don’t need your stinking help.  Another can be a form of pride which is that we assume things about God that aren’t true.  Like me with my yard, we assume God is wagging his head at what a failure we are, and we are afraid that our requests to him will be met with an “I told you so”.  We don’t realize he understands exactly why our yard is such a mess, and is waiting to lend a hand to get it cleaned up.  Or maybe we had just never considered that there was a better way than a pair of gloves and a four-year-old’s dump truck.  Whatever reason, when we recognize that we are off track, we need to equip ourselves.  As I mentioned yesterday, uniformity with God’s will is not just something we “muster up”.  It is a work of grace that comes as a result of using these tools on a regular basis.

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Lessons Learned From Yardwork, pt 1

Last summer my daughter died.  The summer before that, I was in my first trimester of pregnancy.  The summer before that I was in my third trimester of pregnancy.  The summer before that I had a child attached to my hip that would eat all the grass he could get his hands on.  All this to say that this is the first summer when none of those things apply, and as a result I find myself somewhat available to actually do some projects around the yard that I’ve wanted to get to for, oh, four years.  Mind you, when I say “projects” I am not one of these people who builds retaining walls or puts in their own patio or something.  My current endeavor is removing landscaping rocks (aka “weed holders”) and replacing them with transplanted hostas from other parts of the yard. I think I might get crazy and buy and plant a shrub or two as well.

Today was a perfect day to work on the task at hand.  Cool, dry and I was home alone with Isaac anyway, and heck, kids need fresh air, right?  I was pretty proud of myself, too, for devising a way for my eager preschooler to help.  I had him get his rather large dump truck, and showed him where to dump the rocks.  Then I would load it up, and he could drive the truck over and dump actual rocks onto a pile.  Genius!

For about fifteen minutes.  Considering this was about three times longer than he usually stays on a task I desire him to complete, it was pretty good.  But there are a ton of stinking rocks in that rock bed, and to be honest, he was actually helping at the time he quit!  After that, he piddled around, clipping things with the garden scissors (though not my highest priority weeds), throwing the rocks into a nearby bush, requesting my participation in a stick fight, and generally just being kind of whiny.  My helper was not super helpful to say the least.

I couldn’t help but think that this is often how we are with God.  Or, at least how I am.  I begin with a burst of excitement to “help him” somehow further the Kingdom, and when it starts getting mundane or even slightly uninteresting or frustrating, I start to whine.  Or I get a better idea, to go do something else.  Nevermind if it is actually something God wanted me to do.

If you haven’t read Uniformity With God’s Will by St. Alphonsus Liguori, skip your Starbucks tomorrow and buy it (it costs about as much as a grande coffee of the day. Or better yet, buy it and read it at Starbucks. It’s not long).  He talks about just this thing.  To be really effective in living out our Baptismal call, we need to be doing what God wants us to be doing, not just some nice stuff that strikes our fancy.  St. Alphonsus goes so far as to say that we shouldn’t just accept God’s will, but want what God wants.  I’ve read this little book many, many times and fall short every time.  It is a tall order, because uniformity is not something we “muster up”, it is the action of grace at work in our lives.

On the retreat I was on in February, at the height of my pity party and despair over the effectiveness of my ministry, a fellow retreatant received a word from the Lord for me.  She said, “God wants you to be his useless instrument”.  She explained that this did not mean that I was useless, of course, but that I only needed to do what was asked of me and not worry about the rest.  In theory, I can imagine how freeing it would be to really live that kind life.  That life of uniformity.  Like John XXIII I could say every night, “It’s your Church, Lord, I am going to bed!”  So, as we continue on this path of uncertainty about jobs and family and whether I can keep a transplanted shrub alive, I am praying for grace to align my wants more closely with God’s.

PS: Going back to Isaac for a minute… it would take a lot of trust and discipline for him to keep loading rocks for a few hours.  He’s a kid who is uninterested in our house’s curb appeal.  If he were to keep at a task he found brain-numbingly boring, it would have to be because he trusted my vision for the project and loved me enough to know that I was keeping him on task to complete something great, even if at the end of his little part, he didn’t see any results.  (Okay, theoretically. Stay with me.)  How much more so with God.  It helps to see the big picture of what we are doing for him.  For instance, a volunteer who bakes cookies for a youth ministry event realizes she is “sweetening” the kids up so they might be more open to hearing about God.   But even in times when we can’t possibly imagine how what we are going through helps anything, we need to trust the One who can see the whole project, and understands exactly what our part is in that project.  And in order to trust this One, we must believe that he loves us and has our best interest at heart.  Let’s all pray to be convinced of that love in a deeper and deeper way.  It makes all the difference in the world.


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