God, A Good Man, And The C Word

Dear God,

Tomorrow is a big day, as you know. My dad gets back his test results. We will know if the cancer has spread or not, and if he is facing a long, torturous death.

If the cancer hasn’t spread, it means that those nasty sky-high marker numbers were wrong. Wrong! In my heart I am sure they are wrong. I have faith that they are wrong. I cling to this faith, this beautiful faith.

Faith is such a funny and old-fashioned word, but so powerful. It propels us forward, fills us with courage, and lets us fight on another day. Without faith, I would have nothing, be nothing. Long ago I would have given up on so many things that seemed so impossibly hard, but finally passed.

But death does not pass.

I know I’m not the best religious person, and I know that I’ve said some not-so-nice things about my religion. I admit it: I make fun of the woman who runs the religious education program and who talks to adults like they are naughty children. I complain about the lack of women priests because I happen to believe that women would make incredible priests. In fact, I think that divorced women would make the best priests, but that just reminds me about all my discontent about divorce and my religion.

I like to think that man created my religion’s rules. You didn’t do it. I know that because many of these rules just don’t Sound Like You.

Maybe I have no right to come back to you and ask for this Big Thing. But God, you made such a beautiful day today. Were you watching when this grandfather took his grandkids out to breakfast? They walked along brick city sidewalks, smiling and laughing with each other, a little boy, a littler girl, and a man, each one with so much to offer the other.

This little boy doesn’t have a good role model as a father. This littler girl will never know the unconditional love of a father. But they have this man, who will give him these things.

I’m sorry I said such lousy and wretched things about my religion. Because when the shit hits the fan, as is happening right now, and I am floundering, and man and science and modern medicine look like they are failing me, I am pulled back to the church of my childhood: silent, solemn, and larger than myself.

Little Graces in Paradise

The man sat in a chair on the pier, carefully weaving palm leaves into tiny rosettes as tourists passed him by. A sign sat by his side: Please Help. I’ve fallen on hard times.

He wore glasses, and for that I was glad. But his face was deeply, darkly tanned, and grizzled from too much sun and perhaps other unhealthy habits. My children and I walked by him, distracted by the water and waves, when suddenly a boy came out of nowhere. He was about ten or eleven, and he walked right up to the man. 

“Can I give you a hug?” he asked. 

“What?” asked the man, not unkindly. 

“Can I give you a hug?” 

The man looked at him, bemused, and said, “Sure.” 

And then the boy hugged the man, his smooth youthful arms around the leathery old man. And I watched the man’s face relax and break out into a smile. The boy smiled back. And then he disappeared into the crowd. 

Little graces are everywhere. I hug my children and remember that the old man was once young like them. 





i love de rain…

i love de rain

rain cleans dust
from tired air

charges flat lined
polluted air space
swift rain cleaned

with vibrant
negative ions
rain inspires

breathable creativity

– Terrence George Craddock

Spring Break is over, but spring is delayed again. A cold, snowy rain falls here in my city. Everyone complains, but I know how deeply I’ll miss the cold, clean rain soon enough!

This is how I feel about my children during these weeks or months before I go back to work.


Goodbye Dear A

Today I said goodbye to my aunt A. I will return to her tomorrow, but I am not sure if she will be there.

I wasn’t going to write about this because I’m not sure if my aunt would like the idea of it. “Oh Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, a blog,” she would say. “About me? Don’t waste your time. Go and have fun with your children instead.”

But my children are sleeping, and I can’t help myself.

One might think that I would be prepared for A’s death by now. She was diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer almost two years ago. She nearly died from her first round of chemo. After that, the doctors said No More Chemo.

Then came the day when we were supposed to have lunch, but when I arrived at her house she didn’t answer the door. She had fallen, broken her hip, all alone, and pressed the emergency button she wore around her neck. When I got to the local hospital, she was on morphine and shouting out in agony. “I don’t know why God is doing this to me,” she cried. “I’ve always tried to do the right thing.”

It was the only time I saw my feisty, independent aunt reveal any self pity. And the only time I heard her question God. When I left the hospital I ran to my car and curled up and sobbed because I couldn’t stop her suffering.

“Well, this is it,” everyone said, shaking their heads. “People with stage four cancer don’t survive broken hips.”

I thought they were wrong.

And I was right. They underestimated A. At the rehab center, where the people taking care of her stole the money out of her wallet while she slept, the physical therapists told her that she could go home as soon as she could walk a certain distance in 60 seconds.

She told me this, and I knew she would be going home.

Within a week, she walked their line, and they sprung her free.

“It’s like getting out of jail,” she said later, sitting in her sunny living room and grinning. I laughed with her.

My aunt loved her beautiful home. She worked hard for it. She was born in Bay Ridge, in Brooklyn, New York, during World War II. A was smart, even smarter than her brilliant brother, my father. But she was female. And her parents, a homemaker and a U.S. postal worker, could only afford to send one of their three children to college. And it wouldn’t be the girl.

So my aunt, the valedictorian of her high school, started out in the secretarial pool. My dad started college, and their other sister married a policeman. That left A to live at home with her parents and take care of them.

She never married or had children, the fate of so many New York Irish-Catholic girls of a certain generation. This allowed her to lead a different life than most girls from Bay Ridge. She went on to work as the personal assistant to the head of a fortune 100 company. She travelled the world, got smuggled out of Panama during the U.S. invasion, loved ski mountain and beaches, took cruises with her girlfriends, met presidents, and bought house after house near New England beaches, each one larger and a better investment that the last. She grew beautiful rose bushes and taught me their names. In each house, I would find the homemade patchwork pillows that I had made for her, prominently displayed on a sofa or love seat.

Those pillows are still in her home, thirty years later.

A loved white cars, and later white SUVs, and named them all, names that made children laugh. My brothers and I adored my aunt, and she adored us right back. Some people are simply born Good With Children. And that was A. She would swing by and pick us up and bring us up to the beaches for the weekend. We sped up I-95 with her CB Radio humming – though she shut it off fast when a truck driver tried to chat with her. She was an early to bed and early to rise person, and she spent years making fun of my night owl ways. She taught me to laugh at myself. We got to custom order our breakfasts at her home before we made our way to Sea Street Beach. Thrilled by the chance to eat whatever I wanted, I requested grilled ham-and-cheese sandwiches for breakfast, and she said, “Sure, since you wake up at lunchtime, you might as well enjoy a nice lunch.”

We loved our aunt for her humor, and generosity, and because she asked us what we thought about things. We loved her stories, her famous tins of Christmas cookies, her crisp sheets, her french onion dip and mashed potatoes, and her independence. She seemed impossibly tan, thin, chic, and fabulous.

My aunt had a big personality. When I walked into the hospice a few weeks ago, the grumpy receptionist nearly jumped out of her chair when she heard I was there to see A. “We love A!” she said. Then I met the doctor, who was sitting there flirting with my dying aunt. “I love your aunt,” he confided. “She’s the queen here. From Brooklyn,” as if I didn’t know.

My aunt used these people skills to her advantage. A hated pain. I once watched her cajole the nurses to “knock her out” during one unpleasant procedure. These were some hardened nurses – not a pushover amongst them. But my aunt kept it up, making them laugh. Finally, right before I left to go home, the meanest one ducked her head into my aunt’s room and winked.

“Well, tomorrow’s your lucky day. You’re gonna be knocked out.”

She grinned, and my aunt smiled back. She won again.

Of course it’s possible to win every battle and still lose the war in life. Tonight she is laying in hospice, her beautiful hair plastered against her head, eyes closed, rosary beads across her chest, her head tilted back on the pillow and her mouth open to absorb every bit of air. As usual, my body knew before my brain did – it spun around when I saw her and walked me right out of her room.

That is what a dying person looks like, I knew.

I didn’t want to see my aunt like this. I fled to the parking lot and called my dear friend K and railed against a God that did this to A. I said terrible things about a God that allows a non-smoker to get lung cancer, who lets wonderful, good people suffer like this. I could come up with a big fat list of people who should suffer before my aunt should suffer. I think I might have said that perhaps someone else would be better at God’s job. Maybe God should be replaced. He obviously didn’t know what he was doing.

My friend D later asked if my aunt said anything to me, anything I could keep with me forever and remember. The answer is no. But when I returned to my aunt’s room, I reached out and took my aunt’s hand. It was warm, and felt beautiful and strong and reassuring to me. After a while, I realized that I wasn’t just holding my aunt’s hand. She was holding it right back. And I felt this sense of wonder. I sat there with her for a long time, counting her breaths. I said very little, but I think that dear A knew I was there.

The Journey

If there is one perfect poem in the world written for divorced woman, I think it must be The Journey, by Mary Oliver.

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice–
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do–
determined to save
the only life you could save.

There But for the Grace of God

“Grace doesn’t depend on suffering to exist, but where there is suffering you will find grace in many facets and colors.”

Wm. Paul Young

One afternoon this week, my seven-year-old and I drove down a city street lined with mansions. We stopped at a traffic light, and my daughter screeched, “Mom! What is that man doing?”

I looked up. A middle-aged man was pawing through a garbage can, grabbing food that was most likely thrown away by students from the nearby magnet high school.

I grew up in New York City in the seventies, so homeless people have been part of my consciousness for long as I can remember. Women covered in dirty blankets, shuffling through Grand Central Station. Shadowy men huddled over burning trashcans along the Bowery. Mothers clutching babies, elderly men begging. I remember them all.

But my daughter is growing up in a different kind of city, in a different type neighborhood, in a different type of school than mine back in 1976 when I was seven years old.

I told her that the man was looking for food.

“Why doesn’t he go to a food kitchen?” she asked, thinking about all the sandwiches she’s made at school for the homeless over the years.

I explained that you can’t live in a food kitchen all of the time. And then I said something I haven’t said in ages: “There but for the grace of God, goes you, goes I.”

I learned these words from my Irish grandmother, Mary. Mary never said a bad thing about anyone. Other people’s business was none of her business. If she didn’t have anything nice to say, she just didn’t say anything at all. And most of all, There but for the grace of God . . .

My daughter understood. “We’re very lucky, mom.”

I agreed.

“Mom, maybe we should make some more sandwiches and bring them to the pantry,” she replies.

“Yes,” I say. My life is filled with so many graces. Mary Oliver wrote, “Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness. It took me years to understand that this too, was a gift.”

Little graces rise out of the darkness, tiny pinpricks of color and light. Without the darkness I would hardly notice them.