Getting Beyond Random Acts of Kindness

Random acts of kindness are so overrated. I mean, really. It doesn’t take much to pay for someone’s coffee in line behind you at the drive-thru. And, sure, it’s wonderful to buy groceries for November food drives, but most of us aren’t putting our own groceries back on the shelves in order to purchase food for someone else’s Thanksgiving meal.

Every year, my church seeks out several families in the community who are experiencing a lean Christmas. We collect an offering, find out the families’ needs, and church volunteers shop for gifts. My friend Kathy, has typically been the angel shopper in our church, buying gift cards for groceries and gas; clothing and toys for children, and whatever else we find on a wish list. The lists can give you a glimpse at how basic some needs are. One year, a mother asked for feminine hygiene products for Christmas.

These are good things: buying coffee for a stranger; feeding the hungry; sharing with others in need. They are good things, but let’s face it, in so many ways, it is ever so much easier to swoop in and perform some quick, kind deed for a stranger than it is to be consistently kind and generous and thoughtful and self-sacrificing to those closest to us.  It can also be easier to hand over some money to buy a stranger some stuff rather than take the time to get to know people well and be personally invested in their lives.

A few weeks before Thanksgiving, my pastor preached a sermon about how difficult it can be to be close to certain people over the holidays, and yet how important it is for us to tend to those very pesky relationships. There were knowing nods and grimaces across the pews.

Sometimes, I’m short with my children even as I’m wrapping Christmas gifts for a stranger. I’ll be horribly impatient and annoyed with my parents as I’m rushing off to deliver items for an Angel Tree.

I don’t have any great insights to share here, just the thought that our moment-by-moment interactions with the people around us, related to us, should be every bit as grace-filled as our random acts of kindness to strangers. I don’t know why, but it’s just harder to do.

I’m also thinking about how to extend Christmas further through the year. No, I’m not planning to leave my Christmas lights up until June. And Kathy, you can relax. My Christmas tree won’t go up a moment before Veterans’ Day. I guess I’m thinking about the families we adopt at Christmas and wondering how I/we can walk beside them through January, February, March…

Do their children need some adults to help with homework? Are there parents who need transportation to doctor appointments? Help figuring out taxes, government forms, or healthcare forms?

Someone once spoke of the gifts of the Magi. The gift of gold denoted royalty. Frankincense was burned on the Altar of Incense in the temple, with its rising smoke, denoting the prayers of the people rising to the heavens. (In the temple, the offering of incense took place only after the sacrifice had been done, when Atonement allowed for communion with God.) And Myrrh, in those days, was used on burial shrouds to help prevent the smell of decay.

The gifts were, at once, both symbolic of Christ and immensely practical as the impoverished family of Jesus likely sold the precious gifts as they fled King Herod and escaped to Egypt.

The gifts of the Magi, it seems, were less random, more intentional. Maybe it’s time for our acts of kindness to be the same…

Thoughts for Thanksgiving

I’m supposed to be working on a final paper for one of my master’s classes today; an overall analysis of what’s worked and hasn’t worked on this blog. I have a cool table of the stories I’ve posted on here overlaid with traffic patterns and metrics of likes and shares.

Instead, my mind is on an email I received from my friend John’s wife today:

This morning at 6:32 a.m., John died in my arms. A few days ago, our hospice nurse (affectionately known as “Rachel the nurse”) told us that he would not last much longer. So his last days were spent with our whole family, lots of loving visitors, gorgeous notes, tearful Facebook messages, and precious time laying on our bed together. Last night, we sang hymns and prayed for John and ALL OF US in our bedroom, surrounded by dimly lit candles, tons of Kleenex, close friends, hope-filled hearts, and the peaceful presence of God.

It happened just today but it seems like so long ago. As for me, I am doing alright. In fact, John said last night that I have been “a trooper.” As I woke Jake up this morning with the news about his dad, he said “I’m sorry, Mom. You know we are gonna be OK, right?” Rachel knew why I was waking her up a bit early, but she smiled and said, “He is not suffering anymore, so I am very happy.”

I hate that this has happened to our family. I want God to bring good out of this, and I have asked Him for that. By some of your notes to me, I think He is doing that. Please know how sad we are, but how hopeful we are that we will meet again, and that God is working this out for all of our good. I’m not exactly sure how or what, but I am trusting in His Word that this horrible chapter in our story has not escaped His notice. He’s not going to leave us hanging. Never has.

John is having his Thanksgiving Feast a day early….and it will last for all eternity. He probably ate a hamburger first! Having not really eaten ANYTHING for about 6 weeks, that man—that gorgeous, funny, admirable and courageous man—is enjoying so much….feasting on the beauty of heaven, the beauty of our Savior, the non-caloric food, and the fellowship of those who have gone before us. Let’s be thankful today for John’s journey home. Thankful that he is no longer suffering. We know we are going to be OK—it is just going to hurt for a really long time. I already miss him so much. And I forgot how he taught me to transfer funds from one account to the other…John????! How do I …..? There will be a LOT of those “missing John moments” in the days ahead. Happy Thanksgiving, faithful friends. Enjoy your family and feast. Remember John and pray for our broken hearts.

Feeling God’s comfort,

Kristin, for John, Rachel and Jake

I’m sitting at my computer with three screens open: Final paper, blog metrics, and Kristin’s note. I read Kristin’s note and had to stop writing to find a box of kleenex to blot all the tears streaming down my face.

I’m not sure why this blog is so filled with references to death, with notes about attending funerals and tributes to friends who’ve passed away. I set out to write about my children and life and so much of the laughter that punctuates our days.

Maybe it’s because the specter of death makes the moments of this life all the more precious. I believe there’s another world, one without sorrow and tears. A world of health and healing and reunions of more perfect souls than we’ve known here.

But the partings from this life just make me want to chuck the paper and go and see a movie with my kids. I want to hike a mountain. Listen to some beautiful music. Swim in the ocean at sunset. Get lost in a novel while I bask in some sunshine. Eat a really great meal with people I love. I sort of want to crawl between cool, clean sheets with a hot guy, but that’s not my life right now. It’s a reaction to death that makes me want to seize life.

The paper just needs to be written. Then I need to buy cat food, join the throngs of folks at the grocery store, and pack clothes for the kids for our trip to my sister’s for Thanksgiving. I’ll pray throughout the day for Kristin and Rachel and Jake. And I’ll remember John who worked with my magazine team for years.

John jotted down all special occasions and took the time to note each one. I’d call his office in Charlottesville, VA to ask about a production issue and John would say, “Isn’t today Megan’s birthday?”

Several years ago, a group of us were having dinner together at a conference in Nashville. I excused myself to renew a parking meter for my rental car, and John and his colleague Greg insisted on leaving their dinners to walk me to my car. A gentleman, always.

I know a little too well what lies ahead for Kristin, feeling her way through the next weeks and months of some aching loneliness. Seven years later, and I’ve never learned how to sleep in the center of my bed. I still have a side.

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving. And I’ll celebrate the day with gratitude for the small normalcy of our days. You have no idea how good it is to buy cat food and make small talk with Larry, the nicest, friendliest cashier at QFC, until normal is gone.

May your Thanksgiving be filled with both the lovely mundane as well as the moments that take your breath away. May you be grateful for both in your life.

John Baltes
March 26, 1976 – November 21, 2012

Life in the Trees

Shelly’s Note: I have several friends who are gifted writers with incredible perspectives and stories. From time-to-time, I’m inviting them to guest blog on here with me.

Kari Costanza is one such friend. Kari and I met at World Vision in 1996. We were both young women back then. We’re not old women now, but let’s just say that people call us “Ma’am” more often than they used to.

Kari is always traveling the world for work. I suspect she doesn’t have a closet in her home. She just lives out of her suitcase for the few days of the year that she’s there. I asked her if I could share this particular story, fittingly about her luggage. Here’s Kari…

Kari, on an previous trip to Rwanda in 2009

Aug. 6, 2012 – I travel a lot for work and usually everything runs smoothly. My biggest travel decision is between chicken and beef. Unless there is fish. Fish trumps them both.

But yesterday was a different story. The day started well with a sendoff brunch at my in-law’s in New Jersey. If your last name is Costanza, you know how to cook.

I had frittata, waffles, and scrapple—a sumptuous Pennsylvania Dutch pork product I eat once every two years because it takes that long to digest.

We drove to the Philadelphia Airport where I would connect to Detroit, Amsterdam, and finally Kigali, Rwanda.

In Philadelphia the weather literally turned. Sunny skies were replaced by ominous clouds. Still we boarded the plane and prepared for takeoff. As we waited in line to taxi, the pilot came on the radio: “There is a band of nasty weather to the West. All flights have been cancelled.” We waited on the runway for an hour until he said: “We’re heading back to the terminal.”

I waited for my luggage in the jetway. The plane was small and the baggage handlers had taken it from me at the airplane door. When we deplaned, they gave it back—damp, but in my hands.  I waited with thousands of stranded passengers in the terminal, watching a spectacular lighting storm. We oohed and aahed and hoped it would end soon.

An hour later we boarded for Detroit. We sat at the gate, not moving. I grew more and more nervous. I was going to miss my connection to Amsterdam. I did what nervous people do. I bit my nails. I twirled my hair. I tapped my fingers. I may even have twitched. We finally got underway.

I decided to read. I always take books about the country I’m visiting along.  For this trip I’d brought My Father, Maker of the Trees, by Eric Irivuzumugabe, who had survived the Rwandan genocide in 1994. Eric told of losing his mother and siblings during those terrible 100 days. How he’d watched the massacre from the top of a cypress tree. He described the horror he felt, listening to the screams of women and the cries of babies as they died below. How it was difficult to remain in the tree, how the branches dug into his legs and how perching exhausted him. How he nearly gave up and climbed down to die.

My tension level increased with each page. The flight seemed to be taking hours. When we landed, we just sat—again—on the runway. Not moving. Just sitting. With no one explaining why. I was screaming inside my head, Get me off this plane! 

Once in the terminal I learned my plane for Amsterdam had indeed departed. I would arrive in Rwanda late.

I talked with Delta agents, got new flights for the next morning, and settled into a hotel in Detroit. I’d been on the road for more than 12 hours and had gone backward—West, not East.

When I opened my suitcase, I found that everything was wet inside—my socks, shoes, shirts, and slacks.

My first inclination was to feel woe. But then I thought of Eric in the trees. He endured true hardship. This was just a blip. I covered the floor with my wet clothes, creating a small forest on my hotel room rug.

Kari’s forest of wet clothes

Then I climbed into bed, a luxurious bed, the kind that makes you think, “We need a new bed.”

As I rested I thought about Eric. How frightened he was. How uncomfortable he was. How he wanted to give up. But how those branches held him. And about how lucky I was. Mine was an inconvenience. A chance to do what I’m supposed to do anyway—trust in God’s ways rather than my own.

I’ll get to Rwanda. The story will be there. My clothes may smell like rain, but I’m from Seattle. That’s how I’m supposed to smell—like rain. Abundant rain. Rain that gushes from the skies, soaks the earth, and grows sturdy trees with strong branches.

[Kari Costanza is the editor of special projects for World Vision. She has written, photographed stories, and produced videos in 40 countries for the organization.]

Psalm Sung Blues

Blues Vespers at Immanuel Presbyterian Church, Tacoma, Wash.

Last night, my friends Kari and Tom invited me to a Blues Vespers at Immanuel Presbyterian church in Tacoma. Those were two words I’d never heard together before: Blues Vespers.

Vespers, for the uninitiated, traditionally refers to evening worship marked by music and prayer. I grew up in the Seventh-day Adventist church where these services were often held on Friday evenings, the beginning of our Sabbath.

At our University church, vespers often consisted of Christian musicians or string orchestras performing the works of Tchaikovsky, Mahler, or Dvorak.

My grandparents lived near the church, so if my sister and I happened to be visiting their home on a Friday evening, we would hear the church bells chime at sundown.

We either attended the church’s vespers program, or my grandmother would find my grandfather (who always seemed to be stepping out of the shower at sundown), round-up whichever grandkids happened to be at her home, and we’d have family worship in their front room. Grandma played hymns on their upright piano. Grandpa read a short devotional piece or a story from the “Kids’ Corner” of the church’s magazine, The Adventist Review. And we would pray.

Every denomination has its specific sub-culture. Adventists are no exception. Yes, we believe in blood transfusions, and we celebrate holidays (you’re mixing us up with Jehovah’s Witnesses). No, we’re not all vegetarians, although Adventists are strong proponents of healthy living.

Sabbath observance from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday is particularly central to  Adventists who believe that the fourth of the ten commandments is frequently disregarded among Christians.

When I look back on my childhood, Sabbath-keeping was both terribly legalistic and amazingly beneficial to me.

In the Adventist community where I grew up, these were the things one generally didn’t do on the Sabbath, unless your family was…what do the Mormons say, Jack Mormons? Unless you were a Jack Adventist, I guess, this is a bit of what Sabbath observance looked like:

  • Parents didn’t work. Children didn’t study.
  • Adventists didn’t purchase things on the Sabbath: groceries, clothing, gas. You organized your week to take care of those things before Friday night. In fact, Adventist schools and business often closed at noon on Fridays to allow families to have time to “prepare for the Sabbath.” (In high school, my friends and I got out of school at noon and “prepared for the Sabbath” by sailing the afternoon away at nearby Lake Perris.)
  • Families didn’t do household chores: laundry, cleaning, yard work, car washing, etc.
  • Media remained off for the day. Television sets were turned off. Radios went silent unless they were tuned to Christian stations or classical music. You didn’t go to the movies. (Then again, you didn’t go to the movies pretty much any other day of the week, either, if you were a more conservative Adventist.)
  • You didn’t compete in organized sports on Saturday because it was a day of rest and worship. A casual game of frisbee in the park? Yes. An organized soccer match or baseball tournament? No.

Families differed on what recreation was permissible on Sabbath. Generally hikes and nature walks and bicycle rides were good things that helped you appreciate God’s creation. Water skiing or downhill skiing were likely on the “no” list.

A friend in high school jokingly explained that if it required any kind of motor, it was taboo. Cross-country skiing: yes. Downhill skiing: no, because of the ski lifts. I suppose it would have been permissible if you were willing to forego the ski lift and sidestep your way up the mountain for a downhill run…

In many ways, Adventists would have made legalistic Jews of old proud, the Jews who crucified Christ and then hurried home to observe the Sabbath. Form and outward behavior sometimes eclipsed the real values of a day of rest and worship.

Looking back on my childhood, I grimace at some of the legalism surrounding the Sabbath, but then I’m also grateful for the boundaries and structure it provided.

My workaholic father wouldn’t consider breaking the Sabbath by taking business calls or meetings with clients, and my mother wasn’t consumed by managing our household. For at least one day a week, my parents were utterly available for walks and board games, bike rides and trips to the mountains or beach.

My family went out to lunch almost every Sabbath after church (my parents were liberal Sabbath observers that way!), and we’d linger over our meal, in no hurry to get to sport practices, run errands, or home to do chores.

In high school and college, Saturday was a complete break from studying and homework. It forced me to manage my time better knowing that I wouldn’t have that day to get things done. And it taught me how much I needed a break; a day to stop so that when I resumed whatever I was working on, I’d be starting up relaxed and refreshed.

The Sabbath reminded me that God was sovereign and didn’t need me to keep everything going for him. The earth continued to rotate on its axis while we took a day off. Observing the Sabbath also helped me put consumerism and entertainment in their proper places. For one day, you unplugged and said ‘no’ to purchasing more things.

A weekly Sabbath reminded me to stop and worship and reflect on God’s grace in my life.

As a parent, I have to determine anew what Sabbath looks like for my family. (Legalism isn’t great, but at least you can save yourself some thinking if you just adopt a set of rules!)

Instead, I’m forced to think about whether or not I take my children to the theater to see “Wicked” on a Friday night. Are sermons in a church any more “spiritual” than moral stories on a stage? I discuss with my kids which school activities we participate in and don’t participate in when they fall on a Saturday. I’ve come to dismiss the notion that only classical and Christian music genres are “religious.”

I smiled when the Rev. Brown of Immanuel Presbyterian got up last night at the Blues Vespers to read sensual poetry laced with images of “intermingling” and “intertwining” because this stuff belongs in the church, he said. Then the “Blues Buskers” resumed their music set for vespers.

With apologies to Neil Diamond, I thought of them as Psalm sung blues.

“Blues music expresses in its words and music human joy, longing, passion and pain. This evening’s music reminds us that God is there for us in all of life, often in the places where we are most human. Blues, like many other forms of music, can help express what we experience in life. At times, music can be a prayer.” -Immanuel Presbyterian program

Going Solo

Earlier this week, I was trading text messages with my friend Tim, a widower raising three sons and a daughter on his own. We were commiserating over parenting issues (I have the inverse of his family, with three daughters and a son) when Tim mentioned that he knew a thing or two about raising daughters…and had the toe nails to prove it. Hmmm…toe nails?

Tim’s 8-year-old daughter, Mary, wanted to gain some experience with nail polish and decided to practice on her Daddy’s toes. Bright pink polish. (You need to know that Tim is 6’ 3” to fully appreciate the image of him with flamingo-colored toe nails.) Mary finished his left foot and decided to stop. One foot was all she wanted to do.

Tim’s been walking around for a few days with his pretty, pink toe nails. I guess he’s enjoying them too much to find or purchase some nail polish remover.

That’s life when you’re both Dad and Mom to your kids. Parenting is full of some of the sweetest moments of unrehearsed whimsy, but single parenting can also be a bit like having fewer hands than you need, and two left feet, minus the pretty polish.

Sure, my children have their Dad in their lives, an evening a week and every other weekend, but it’s not the same as living in a household with both Mom and Dad.

I have no argument over the value of two-parent families. I believe two parents are optimal for children, wherever possible. But it’s frustrating to have single parents, particularly single mothers, held up as the causal factor of various societal ills such as gun violence.

Like it or not, single-parent households are a reality in the United States where 13.6 million parents are raising 21.2 million kids on their own, according to the latest U.S. Census Bureau statistics. That number represents just over a quarter of the children under the age of 21 in the U.S today.

Those single parent households statistics include families like Tim’s, who’ve lost a spouse and parent through death. And those single parent household numbers include my family, through divorce.

I wince over the label “single mom.” I’m afraid it conjures up negative images and (shall I say it?) binders full of women: Unemployed women. Women on welfare. Undereducated women. Promiscuous teens.

The term elicits disparagement or pity from people, and I cringe over the thought of being the recipient of either sentiment. But it’s my reality; the label that technically fits, even if the stereotypes don’t.

I don’t intend to delve into measures and programs and policies that might help to lower the number of single parent households in America. Interesting topic, but not one for me to take on right now. Instead, it might be helpful to share some thoughts on what I’ve learned about being a single parent.

It takes time—and time for yourself—to get it together

You know that speech flight attendants give about securing your own oxygen mask before assisting those around you? It’s relevant to single parenting as well. In the immediate aftermath of death or divorce, there’s so much to handle….everything from legal tasks, to household issues, to your kids’ needs. Unfortunately, there’s no child-pause switch to activate when you’re overwhelmed by it all.

I came down with pneumonia a few years ago and, in desperation, planted my kids in front of the television so I could sleep for a few hours. I awoke to my 4-year-old, Katie, standing by my bed poking me. “Are you done being sick yet? I’m hungry,” she told me.

A friend listened to me share my concerns about my divorce’s effect on my children and my fears about not having enough time and energy for them. Then she said to me, “The best thing you can do for your kids is to take the time to be solid and stable yourself.”

She was right. You can’t assist your children with their oxygen masks if you’re passed out on the floor. I had to be sure I was exercising, eating well, and getting enough rest (ha!). I’ve learned to streamline household tasks and decline extra activities that just can’t be maintained in a one-parent household.

Initially, it felt selfish to hire a sitter to go out to eat or to see a movie with friends, but then I remembered that these actions are my way of securing the oxygen mask to my face. Sure, there are extremes: Parents who are constantly out taking care of their own needs while their kids struggle through on their own. It’s a fine balance of making your kids your priority, but taking care of yourself in the process.

It takes a village

More than ever, I’ve needed a village: a community of church members, neighbors and friends who help to fill in the gaps. These are people like my girlfriend Judy, who drove 30 minutes to my house and then 40 minutes over to Gig Harbor to take my daughter Megan to a Halloween party when I was down with pneumonia.There were neighbors who came over to my house to stay with a sick child when I needed to be in the office for a meeting.

I don’t know what the mom/son equivalent is to dads-painting-toe-nails-with-their-daughters, but I do worry about raising a son in a female-dominated household. My son, Ryan, might have been 3 or 4 years old when he came up to me one day and told me he couldn’t find his panties. Yikes.

I wish that was the last of it, but just last year I discovered I didn’t know a thing about boys’/men’s underware. I thought there were boxers and there were briefs, only to find out there was a third category: boxer briefs. How did I not know this? And which ones to buy for Ryan?

I consulted mom friends with sons and husbands who know these things and was advised that Ryan needed boxers or boxer briefs before he gets to the locker room.

I know, crazy example. But it’s the stuff that keeps me up at night!

(By the way, I laughed my way through a recent story on public radio’s The Vinyl Cafe where the mom was utterly perplexed when her son told her she neglected to buy an item on his sport’s uniform checklist: athletic support. She had checked it off assuming she was his athletic supporter!)

Moreover, I need a close community of families where my son and daughters can interact with other fathers; where they can see how husbands and wives relate to one another. Keeping my own circle of friends ensures that I’m not tempted to turn my children into my confidants. I love spending time with my kids. They’re funny and mature, and it’s a blast to talk with them. But end of the day, I’m their parent and they are my children—children who need to be kids without having to be my friend or assume responsibilities for me.

It takes hope 

Finally, I’ve learned my kids can adapt and even thrive despite adverse situations. A relative of mine sighs and murmurs to my Mother every time she sees her over how sad it is that my kids will be “so damaged” because of the divorce. She means well. She’s full of sympathy and pity for us, but it’s hard for her to fathom how much power we have to choose our response to difficult things.

I wish my children got to experience growing up with both of their parents under one roof. I wish my nieces’ father didn’t pass away when they were so very young. I wish Mary could paint Tim’s toe nails…and her mother’s as well.

It makes me long for another home; A different world. But for now, perhaps what my kids gain from the losses is a clearer understanding of what it takes to make a marriage last from their parent’s mistakes. They’ve watched me struggle, but maybe they’ve also learned that it’s not the end of the world when people leave or someone dies. In the hard stuff, maybe they’ve witnessed what it means to have a peace that passes understanding and composure regardless of life’s circumstances. I don’t know, but this gives me hope.

Always Attend the Funeral

In the 1950s, Edward R. Murrow hosted a radio program called, This I Believe, where people from all walks of life took a few minutes to share the guiding principles by which they lived.

The show featured essays from Helen Keller, Harry Truman, Jackie Robinson, and Eleanor Roosevelt. They also broadcasted pieces from cab drivers, scientists, and secretaries.

In 2005, National Public Radio resurrected the concept and invited a new batch of contributors, famous and unknown, to share their core values. The series included everything from advice on being kind to the pizza guy to Bill Gates’ thoughts on unleashing the power of creativity.

The next year, a collection of these short essays were published into a book, This I Believe. They’re wonderful essays. Funny. Poignant. Profound. I love the brevity of the pieces because distilling your life philosophy down to 350 – 500 words forces you to get to the heart of things.

Among the many great essays, one by Deirdre Sullivan, a freelance attorney in Brooklyn, has stayed with me over the years: “Always Go to the Funeral.

Sullivan writes about how her father forced her as a teenager to attend the funeral for her fifth-grade math teacher and her awkward expressions of sympathy to the family. Eventually, Sullivan realized that a personal philosophy of “going to funerals” meant more than that:

“I’m talking about those things that represent only inconvenience to me, but the world to the other guy. You know, the painfully under-attended birthday party. The hospital visit during happy hour…In my humdrum life, the daily battle hasn’t been good versus evil. It’s hardly so epic. Most days, my real battle is doing good versus doing nothing. In going to funerals, I’ve come to believe that while I wait to make a grand heroic gesture, I should just stick to the small inconveniences that let me share in life’s inevitable, occasional calamity.”

I’ve been to a lot of funerals: A high school friend who committed suicide. My high school journalism teacher/mentor. The younger sister of our babysitter. My friends who died along with their children in a private plane crash in Montana. The husband of my friend and colleague who took his own life a few years ago. Parents and spouses of my small group friends from church. My 40-year-old brother-in-law, Richard, who died of a rare brain disease in 2005.

This past week, my sister and brother-in-law would have celebrated their 20th wedding anniversary. Up close, I know what it meant to her to have so many people show up at Richard’s funeral 7 years ago. The salesman from a car dealership came to the funeral. Another salesman who sold home theatre systems attended Richard’s service as well. It says something about Richard, who made friends with everyone he encountered, that these folks came. Moreover, it was comforting to my sister that people showed up to grieve with her. Richard’s life mattered, and physical bodies at the funeral spoke to that.

Today, I’m attending a memorial service for a woman who passed away from cancer. I’m attending the service to honor her memory. I’m attending the memorial for her husband. And I’m going for me, because while there are some logistical inconveniences of time and travel and shuffling kids around to attend, I’ve started to realize what a privilege it is to be friends with people; an honor to celebrate births, mark life’s milestones, and be present in their grief.

Always attend the funeral.

Grace Like Rain

Two years ago, my ex-husband, Eric, and his new wife, Angela, had a baby together. They named her Tessa Faith.

I thought about a lot of things the morning Eric texted our daughter Megan that Angela was in labor. I thought about the births of our four children and wondered if Eric was remembering those days, too. I thought about the baby showers Angela and I threw for each other when we were friends; the day she went into labor with her daughter Julia, and called Eric and me to take her to the hospital because her husband was out-of-town. We were close friends back then, back before I knew about the affair she was having with my husband.

I wondered if Angela was experiencing really awful labor pains this time around. And, because I can be a mean and spiteful person, I hoped her contractions were excruciating. I wondered if God would be okay with me praying for her labor to hurt like hell. Does He answers prayers like that?

When my kids announced the baby was named, “Tessa Faith” I was curious to know if anyone else besides me thought the name sounded like a “Test of Faith.” Was that intentional? Did they see her birth as some test of faith? Or was the sound and meaning of her name merely overlooked, the way my parents might have inadvertently named me, Ida Ngo? [As in, “I dunno.”]

I’m not an overly sentimental soul. My kids have had to rescue their artwork from the trash in my unrelenting desire to purge the house of stuff. No heroic dry-cleaning efforts to preserve and mummify my wedding dress in boxed splendor. I donated the dress to Goodwill years ago.

But Tessa’s birth made me ache. For me, a baby is such a tangible reminder of an intimate relationship. Eric and I dated for 6 years and were married for 14, so after 20 years of life with someone, it’s difficult to be reminded of his intimate relations with another person. I know. I have romantic notions of what babies symbolize. In reality, they’re actually sophisticated sleep deprivation units.

The morning Tessa was born, I unloaded the dishwasher and wiped my eyes and blew my nose and felt miserable for crying over Eric’s new baby. I was jealous of his celebration with a new wife. I felt a sense of betrayal all over again. I can’t explain how much it hurt, except that it was the worst possible deep and throbbing pain.

The next day, Eric came over to the house to get our kids to introduce them to their new half-sister. I sat by myself at home and thought, What fresh hell is this?

It’s been two years now since Tessa was born. Slowly and somehow, something has shifted. The pain has dissipated. Sometimes there’s the smallest twinge, the way my ankle might occasionally shoot me a reminder of the time I twisted it last November. Yeah, I’m still snarky at times. I think my children are immensely cuter than Tessa, but that’s a factual statement rather than mean-spiritedness. Over time, goodwill has replaced grief.

I wonder a bit at how this happened because if I could map the path of forgiveness, I might be able to take other offenses down that road. Except I can’t trace the path. I have no idea how I traveled from the initial agony, to finding myself offering to help Megan purchase and wrap a Christmas present for Tessa. Or taking my little girls, Paige and Katie, to buy a pillow pet for Tessa’s birthday this past March. My children return from their Dad’s house with tales of what Tessa said or did, and I find myself smiling at how cute toddlers are.

In July, Eric and Angela took a road trip with their seven (yes, seven: yours, mine, and ours) kids to California to visit Disneyland. Megan called to talk with me one evening and told me about how my 8-year-old, Katie, took Tessa on a kiddie ride at Disneyland. The ride scared Tessa, and Katie wasn’t sure what to do, so she wrapped her arms around Tessa and hugged her throughout the ride. When Megan shared this, all I could think about was how proud I was that Katie has such a kind and tender heart. A kinder, gentler heart than mine at times.

This is what I’ve come to believe: There is a God who is at work within us; a God who heals the unfathomable hurts in our lives…in my life. He lets me sit for a while with things I don’t want to forgive; with my own stuff that I don’t even want to be forgiven of, and then, in time, He pries open my hands. I’m unaware that I’ve been clutching sharp blades, and forgiveness is about taking the knives away.

Refusing to forgive, the saying goes, is like drinking poison and expecting your enemy to die.

Yet some things in us have to die in order for us to experience rebirth: Our anger and resentments; Our stubborn sense that life needs to happen on our terms, in our way. In some odd irony, Tessa Faith, has tested and grown my faith that God can work through circumstances I hate, and yet all will be well in the end.

If my faith has grown, so has my sense of grace. I love that we gave Katie the middle name, Grace. Katherine Grace. I love the sound and the meaning and the beauty of Grace. I have an image in my mind of Katie wrapping her arms around Tessa through the scary parts of the ride, and I glimpse God holding me close whispering, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.”

 And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to His eternal glory in Christ, will Himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you. (1 Peter 5:10)