Holding on For Dear Life

“She is a tree of life to those who grasp her, and those who hold her fast are happy.”

Proverbs 3: 18

Occasionally, in a quiet lull, while I’m washing dishes, or driving… my mind sifts through fading memories of being a little girl. I was my mom’s “velcro kid.” I picture a time when I’m maybe three or four years old, shielding myself behind her knee. It was usually when we went somewhere unfamiliar with a lot of people—a big family party, or when my mom stopped to chat with someone unrecognizable at the grocery store. I’d wriggle myself into the spot I felt safest. From behind her legs, no one else could spy me. Like a vine, my hands, arms, head, and legs happily entwined around that life-giving trunk. I usually went unnoticed if I remained very still and didn’t speak. My skin was firmly pressed against hers creating one fleshy amalgamation. But if the person with whom she was speaking addressed me directly, my mom would swivel her torso and reach around to find me. And sometimes to my great horror, she would grab my arms and carefully peel me away. If this action had been accompanied by a sound effect, I imagine it would mimic a long, thick strip of velcro being ripped apart. 

I was attached to my mother, both physically and emotionally. Even as a gangly teenager, and a young college student I sought physical closeness with her, sometimes laughably to her utter annoyance. Never too big or mature to insist that she “scootch” over on the recliner where she comfortably planted. After seizing enough room for myself, (I was practically on top of her) she would stroke my arm or scratch my back as we took in a tv show or football game on a chair meant for one. I clung to her stability, protection, and warmth until the day she died, a little over a month after my 22nd birthday. When she was ripped away that last time, it wasn’t the sound or feeling of velcro being parted, more like a piece of aged, worn duct tape suddenly and harshly yanked from a smooth painted surface. The damage was unmistakable.

For a time after, I thought maybe I had been too attached to her and resented our closeness. Sometimes, I even targeted my resentment and anger towards the very woman who I thought loved me into the mess. Maybe I should have been more cautious about how dependent I was on her. It was a childish attachment that resulted in grief and I would avoid that mistake in the future. I began to believe the lie that self-reliance was the only answer.

Over the many years (more than two decades!) since my mother’s death, I have had time and perspective to consider that treasured bond we shared. I’ve come to regard it as a good and natural connection, a tremendous blessing from God that many people never experience. Sadly, it took a decade-long-journey into my rabbit-hole spiral of self-reliance to finally figure it out.

Not until I was thoroughly dissatisfied with my life did I reassess. My disordered attachment to myself: my desires, my comforts, my plans resulted in a whole lot of emptiness, coupled with disappointment.

We are made to attach. I’m convinced God has put velcro in the human DNA. It is both natural and Biblical that we bond with others.

“That is why a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, and the two of them become one body.”

Genesis 2:24

We are created for relationship. But that good and natural inclination can very easily become disordered, as did my attachment to self. People can readily become attached to bad relationships, addictions, fear, pride, and even good things like life itself–in fact, during this COVD pandemic, I see myself easily drifting to a disordered attachment to life. I love my life. I’m pretty certain God wills that for me, but when the love of my own life starts to supersede the love of God and His children, that’s a problem. So how do we cultivate healthy attachments? Faced with a potentially deadly virus, I wear a mask in public to ensure the safety of the vulnerable, and I gently, but regularly remind myself that my life on Earth is passing, whether now or fifty years from now. God calls us to attach to Him. We are to cling to Him on the cross. In so doing, our tears and suffering meld with His.

“Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me;”

Matthew 10:37

God is not telling us to ditch our parents, kids, friends. When we cling to him with abandon, all of the other connections in our life that are good and healthy are strengthened, nurtured, and sustained. Our other attachments become ordered. He is our shield, our protector, the immovable tree trunk which serves as a wise mediator with the world.

God ordained the beautiful mother-daughter relationship I experienced. He has also willed all the subsequent holy bonds in my life: my marriage, my relationship to my children, family, and cherished friendships. But those attachments must always receive their lifeblood from the source—Christ Jesus. That doesn’t mean those relationships will be perfect and without struggles or loss. But when we are with Him and can feel His heartbeat against us, we will come through the trials, stronger, with greater hope, and deeply loved. He never leads us into fires, but through them. And He is attached to us the whole walk.

Today, I am both grateful, and wistful when I recall being my mom’s velcro kid—a treasured memory, but more importantly, a profound preparation for the ultimate attachment in my life–to a God who gave His only son that I might have abundant life now… and beyond this one. So grab hold!

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.

John 3:16

Like it or not, Mom, someday, we may share that recliner again.

*1st Photo by Trent Haaland on Unsplash

*2nd Photo by V Lionel on Unsplash

Universal Weirdos

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This is the second chapter of my short memoir, “Chasing Normal.” It details the acute period of grief right after my mom died. I posted the first installment earlier.

I felt surrounded by the grave. The last time I had been to my grandparents’ Florida home, I had accompanied my mother. Back then, I was a carefree teenager. A lot had changed. My grandmother had courageously fought mouth cancer, enduring a significant part of her palette being removed. She did not survive. I could not have conceived at the time that her firstborn, my mother, would follow just two years later from lung cancer. It was strange being in that home with two crucial people missing.

The home was completely different. My grandmother’s soft, feminine touch was nowhere to be found. Instead, every available space had been covered in a swashbuckling nautical theme. My grandfather had hung paintings of ships and seascapes, sadly erasing almost every trace of his deceased wife. It was unsettling, but not completely surprising. While hey had eked out forty-nine years of marriage, I suspect it was not always the happiest of unions. They used to bicker—a lot. His hearing was going, so she would raise her voice. “John!” was often punctuated with heavy sighs and exasperated eye-rolls. It never erupted into a full-blown argument, but there was always an undercurrent of seething.

I liked my maternal grandma. Although, I sometimes sensed that there was a time limit or expiration date on our welcome. Past that window of time, we grandkids were interlopers. It was understandable; She had raised seven children, almost single-handedly. As a typical husband of the 1940s and ’50s, my grandfather dutifully provided for his family. He was away a lot while serving in the Navy, and later, as a U.S. postal worker, who moonlit as a musician. Grandma had finally retired from the business of child-rearing. This was in contrast to my dad’s mom, my Italian Grandma Pippa. She couldn’t get enough of my brothers and me, as if her happiness depended on breathing the same air as ours. As different as they were, both were as good as gold and surprisingly linked through their deaths. Grandma Pip had died about one year after my maternal grandma, and precisely one year before my mom. Three years, three deaths. The matriarchs of my family were dropping like flies.

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Chasing Normal

I’m working on a short story about a series of random events that happened shortly after my mother died. Her death is a theme that makes its way into much of my writing. This is the first edit of my first installment. 

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Armed with a Cucumber and Cheap Ham

In the days and weeks that followed my mom’s sudden death, I was feeling anything but normal. Yet circumstances and the people surrounding me seemed to be marching onward. It was all strangely just as before… Oh, but it wasn’t.

We buried my formerly vibrant mother. I headed back to college to complete the last days of my senior year. Finals. Not sure how I managed. It could have been the result of a handful of professors who took pity, although I don’t know if anyone actually knew. Or maybe I was on a mission and the distraction offered a sort of respite from the darkness, allowing me to become hyper-focused on my studies. My mom had happily anticipated my graduation after all. Whether it was attaining that noble goal, or a blind eye from the administration, or a combination, I will never know precisely how I passed—with an impressive 3.5 G.P.A., I might add.

Graduation followed without my biggest fan present. Troubled and searching for her in the faces of all those happy onlookers, I reached for the diploma. My dad and brother were there, albeit late. There had been a panicked minute or two where I thought no one from my family would witness my proudest achievement to date. When they rushed in, visibly harried, I let out the breath I had been holding. They were emotionally lost and grieving as well. But I couldn’t help thinking that she would’ve been on time.

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Happy Mother’s Day: Lessons My Mom Never Taught Me

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I think about my mom almost daily since her death 26 years ago. While it’s been too long since I’ve heard her laugh, she has left me with a bounty of wisdom that sustains me. In fact, there are simply too many lessons to enumerate. She was a Catholic school teacher by profession, so it was in her nature to instruct and impart knowledge. But there were also things she most certainly did not pass down. There are some worldly teachings she decidedly left by the wayside. And for that, I am even more grateful and bolstered.

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Where, O, Death is your Victory?

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For those of you who mourn the death of a loved one, this is the time when we joyfully (yet often with tears in our eyes) anticipate our eventual reunion in heaven. May the powerful hope of seeing our dear ones again, that is made possible by our Lord’s victorious Resurrection, be with you this Easter season and always. Oh, what a glorious day!

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Facing Breast Cancer Like a Man

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“Hmmm… ” Slow intake of breath. “That’s right… It’s your dad who had the breast cancer…” recognition dawning as he squints at the data on the computer screen.

A solemn nod from me.

“Two separate occurrences?” he asks, though it’s more of a statement as he already knows the answer which is spelled out in clear Helvetica 10-point on the monitor before his spectacled eyes.

“Yes.”

We share a moment of deliberate eye contact. I look away first. He turns back to the digital records with renewed concentration.

No one enjoys flummoxing their doctor, unless it’s some singular distinction of good health, like having perfect cholesterol levels, or never having taken an antibiotic in one’s entire life. I can claim neither.

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Crying as We Rejoice: The Bereaved at Christmas

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I secretly cried after Mass yesterday. My kids told me that one of the new altar boys that they served with had his grandparents in town for Christmas. The enthusiastic Nanna and Papa were so gleefully proud, they couldn’t refrain from snapping photos to memorialize their beloved grandson’s biggest moments. Clearly, their hearts swelled with pride for their daughter’s treasured offspring.

On the drive home, I told my boys that if Grandma Maureen and Grandpa Jerry were living, they would have taken loads of pictures too. How proud they would be. How proud they are. “Maybe they’re taking photos from heaven…” I mused. Then the quiet tears.

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Radio-Active (my national radio interview!)

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Last week I was on the radio! And I didn’t even have to get out of my bathrobe. My recent post about the etiquette of speaking to those who are grieving got the attention of a national Catholic radio show. A producer from “Morning Air” on Relevant Radio contacted me via email asking if I’d be interested in being interviewed about my essay, “I cried with Michael Jordan.” So, I peeled myself off the ceiling and quickly replied yes. A couple days later, after gravely bribing my children to remain silent in the background, I was live on the air with John Harper of the “Morning Air” show. I can’t help thinking my parents were smiling down on me since I finally got to use the Radio part of my Radio/TV/Film degree from the exorbitantly priced Northwestern University. Thanks, mom, and dad! (My mom used to urge me to apply wherever I wanted. “If you get in,” she’d remind me, “I’ll clean toilets to cover the cost if need be.”) Such parental sacrifice they modeled for me.

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I Cried with Michael Jordan

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Certain iconic sports images of epic underdog wins and poetic last plays witnessed over the course of my life remain imprinted on my brain. Consider Tiger Woods dramatically donning the green Masters’ blazer as the first person of color, Michael Phelps shattering the record for the most gold medals, the Chicago Cubs’ curse-breaking World Series triumph against my beloved Cleveland Indians. I could easily go on, but there’s one memory that is even more enduring. Yet, I suspect many of you probably won’t even recall it.

For me, the moment crystallized not just a legendary sporting achievement, but an encounter with sadness and mourning in the midst of victory. It was Father’s Day, 1996. Michael Jordan had just won his 4th championship for the Chicago Bulls. His win was rendered even more momentous after a brief retirement and triumphant return to the sport that made him a household name. Also notable, this marked Jordan’s first major career win without the support of his father in the stands. Jordan’s dad had been murdered three years earlier.

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Fantasy Mom

Today is the 25th anniversary of my mother’s sudden death, a singular event that undoubtedly forever changed me. While the sting has lessened over time, I still struggle with the profound loss almost on a daily basis. It informs my thoughts and dreams, which may explain why I wrote this essay.

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Don’t tell anyone, but for quite a long time I’ve had a Fantasy Mom. Just as four-year-olds will gleefully gush about their imaginary friends, I’d like to brag about my Fantasy Mom. She’s the most loyal, loving, funny, kind and of course, wise mother who ever did NOT exist. Fantasy Mom is an intricate combination of my real mom, and every warm,  maternal character I’ve admired over the years.

Fantasy Mom firstly derives from the foremost matriarch, the very real Blessed Mother who quietly, yet staunchly remained at her son’s side during His greatest suffering. Despite doubtless unimaginable dread and fear, she never wavered. I’m confident she journeys alongside me too, especially as I navigate life’s more dodgy roller coasters. Her presence offers such peace and calm. She’s certainly my gold standard for all mothers. So how do you improve on sinless perfection? I mentioned this was a fantasy, right? 

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