My Lent this year was disappointing, mainly because of
my extreme suckiness I didn’t completely live up to any of my resolutions and felt that I didn’t grow closer to Christ or cultivate any great virtue. My Holy Week and even my Easter didn’t meet my expectations either. Idealist that I am, life rarely does. But what about God? Isn’t that what this is all about? What did He see?
Instead of viewing everything from my limited and oftentimes cynical scope, I tried an exercise in rehashing what went on last week, how it played out in my mind, and how, maybe, God’s perspective may have been a little different.
The Triduum was supposed to help make up for my lackluster Lent. None of us, including myself, had been very kind lately. Tones had grown more snippy. Children were bickering more than usual. It seemed like we were all suffering from what Kim John Payne refers to as “soul fever” in his excellent book, Simplicity Parenting: Using the Extraordinary Power of Less to Raise Calmer, Happier, and More Secure Kids. Despite trying to live a deliberate, simplified life, our recent weeks have been chock full of activity – from showers for friends to recitals, from soccer games to plays. There has been no time to take a breather, and it was weighing on all of us. My hope was that Holy Week would afford us the opportunity to pause and reflect, to slow our pace.
Then Mary Elizabeth became flushed with a fever in the middle of the night early in the week. She had several wakeful nights. In the darkness, she cried. In the daytime, she cried, too. She wasn’t happy or even quasi-content unless I was nursing her or holding her.
Contemplative prayer during the holiest of weeks? Not for me.
In my eyes, this all spelled big, fat failure.
Later, though, (ah, the gift of hindsight!) like as in almost a week after all of this unfolded, I wondered if in God’s eyes this was another chance to show me that my life right now as a mother to littles is often a prayer in and of itself, a hymn of love and sacrifice, and that if I would just accept this with humility and love, I would find my feet were surprisingly planted firmly on ABC block-littered, holy ground.
Our Thursdays are always our busiest day of the week since Madeline has her homeschooling fine arts program on that day and Rachel has speech therapy. I dropped Madeline off, and then I took Rae and Mary Elizabeth along with me to run a few errands before we had to head to speech therapy. We were nearly out of dog food, and I had it in my insane mind that my pregnant self could somehow manage to lug a 20-pound bag of kibble, needy toddler, and preschooler without any big hitches. I am woman ! Hear me roar! I roared alright, especially when Mary Elizabeth decided to park her bottom in the middle of the parking lot in a pile of shattered glass and refused to move one inch until I picked her up. I attempted to hug the huge bag of food with one arm and pull Mary Elizabeth by her dress straps.
“There’s glass. You’re going to cut yourself,” I shrieked, nearly matching her own shocking decibels. Unfortunately, I pulled some tiny wisps of her silky hair along with her clothing, and she howled even more loudly.
So I put the bag down, picked her up, then hoisted the dog food onto my left shoulder, and told Rachel to please hold onto my shirt. She pulled my shirt down enough so that my bra was showing (last week the two youngest were fighting over hugging my legs at a restaurant and pulled my skirt down so that I flashed the lunch crowd; sharing my humiliation proved to be my most popular Facebook status update ever).
Like a lame pack mule, I limped to the van.
The next stop was the grocery store, and we managed to pick up a few essentials without causing too much of a scene. We headed to speech therapy after that and then it was nearly time to pick up Madeline.
That afternoon some neighborhood children ended up at our house. The girls had fun playing, and it showed. The entire square footage of the upstairs was blanketed with boas, sparkly dresses, and other dress-up accoutrements.
By the time bath time rolled around, I was spent. My entire body ached, especially my left heel and lower back. I immediately thought of my mom, who deals with chronic pain day in and day out and how demoralizing it must sometimes be when your body feels like it has failed you, and every inch of your flesh is crying out in pain.
“Come closer, please,” I asked my girls as I tried to squirt shampoo on their wet heads. I could not will my back to bend any farther, but they were too busy splashing and having fun to notice. That’s when I began to cry.
Silently tears tracked down my face. Madeline, always my empathetic one, noticed right away.
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
“Nothing,” I said. Which was true and wasn’t at the same time. Nothing and everything felt wrong.
“I’m just tired; that’s all,” I added.
Then my sweet child wrapped her arms, slick with soap, around my neck. Her sisters followed suit, and I smiled through the tears. But I still felt kind of hopeless, and guilt was mingled in there with it because, really, what did I have to be hopeless about?
That night I went to bed, still feeling down and exhausted. At the time, my limited human vision didn’t see the significance of me struggling to serve my children on Holy Thursday, to wash behind their ears, to scrub their stinky, little feet, to humble myself and to do an ordinary, routine act with love even when it felt like I didn’t have the strength to do so. I didn’t make it to a Holy Thursday service, but like the Master and the Teacher, I still ended up serving, washing others’ feet.
The day set aside to remember the Lord’s Passion was a microcosm for my entire Holy Week and Lent; it was full of good intentions but on the surface, it seemed like woebegone futility. I woke up the girls earlier than normal because we had plans to pray the Stations of the Cross with our old homeschooling friends. This required us trekking along congested highways for about an hour and a half. Before we left, I was trying to use the bathroom when my two oldest began shouting at each other. Arms soon were flailing. I admonished them (while rising from my porcelain throne and wiping), and my oldest started back-talking. This spurred a lecture on kindness from me (all my pontificating spouted from my mouth as I brushed my teeth and applied makeup to my face). Not exactly the Sermon on the Mount, but it would have to do. We all agreed to try to be kinder toward one another.
For a few precious minutes, everything seemed to be going more smoothly. Mary Elizabeth remained rooted to me like kudzu strangling a tree trunk, but we were managing. Then Rachel spilled an entire box of Cheerios all over the kitchen floor. (This shortly after I mopped up a lake of water that she’d spilled.) I pulled her away from the piles of oats and snapped, “Now we’re going to be late.”
Madeline hugged her sister. “We’re supposed to be more kind!” she said.
Ah, my little conscience. She was right. I told her so, and I apologized to my children.
We finally made it into the minivan. After navigating through a sea of cars, we eventually arrived at our old church. We were 10 minutes late for Stations. We were there for about 10 minutes of prayer. An hour and a half of driving for that. But that wasn’t all. (It’s not about me. When will I ever learn?) I did get a chance to catch up with old friends, and one lagged behind and we shared our newbie homeschooling challenges and pushed our girls on the swings and somehow managed to keep Mary Elizabeth from killing herself by either getting creamed by a bigger child swinging or by plunging down the slide of death (the slides at my old church playground launch children at a scary-fast pace and proceed to dump them a bed of thick tree roots snaking their way through the dirt; this is also the same playground where my oldest suffered the casualty of a broken arm). Today every child escaped unscathed, and some of our kids even had a chance to pose for a perfect picture.
Driving home after dropping off the two older girls at my husband’s parents for a sleepover, I was feeling somewhat uplifted until I hit a small bird that darted in front of my van, heard a thump, and saw a flash of brown pigment fly, not by choice, to the side of the road.
So on the day of the Lord’s Passion, I managed to snap at my child, miss most of the Stations, and kill a bird. Nice.
My take on all this? More failure.
God’s (I hope)? Fidelity – trying to make prayer a priority in my little domestic church – and good intentions are worth more than I might imagine. And my willingness to accept myself in my brokenness and to admit when I’m not kind and then to look my children in the eyes and apologize – a real way to show my humanness as well as God’s mercy. The opportunity to reconnect with sisters in Christ – a grace, a gift given to me when He already gave everything He had to give, every last drop of blood shed for us all.
As for the death of the bird? I’m not going to go there. I killed a bird. It was an accident, but it still felt terrible. I’m not sure of the big meaning in that one other than that life is tenuous. Handle it with care (and pray that when you hit an animal with your car, that it’s small enough that your children don’t even notice your murderous ways or that they aren’t along for the death ride).
In the morning I read my Magnificat Lenten Companion and the suggested penance for the day: Spend the 30 minutes in quiet (or something close to that; I don’t have the book in front of me), and I thought that sounded more like paradise than penance. A more appropriate penance for me would have been something like this: Spend 10 hours in utter chaos and embrace it all with peace and patience.
We spent a good chunk of the day in the car driving to the grandparents’ (my parents’ house now). Then hopping back in the car to go to a couples’ shower (alone since my husband was working) for my little brother and his future bride. It’s worth noting here that since my husband was on call and my parents were also going, my brother invited me to bring my daughters, whom he adores. So my girls were the only children there. Mary Elizabeth missed her nap and still was under the weather. I was now as well, having come down with a cold. She started to cry as soon as we arrived in the main party room. I took her outside and she was fairly happy but as soon as we returned to the crowd, she started to cry again. We repeated this process over and over.
Meanwhile, Rae spilled a big glass of lemonade all over the gift table and burst into tears. I wanted to cry, too, but I thought that might make things worse and that all of my brother’s future bride’s family and friends might be wondering about the emotionally charged women in the family she would soon be marrying into.
We eventually made it back to my parents’ house where we’d be spending the night. Everyone was exhausted. I prayed the bedtime routine would go smoothly. It didn’t.
As catechumens waited in darkness to be received into full communion with the Church, that night I kept my own kind of vigil. I planned on going to bed as soon as the girls did because I felt so lousy, but Mary Elizabeth had different plans. The poor thing was inconsolable. I nursed her three times in less than an hour. It was approaching midnight, and she still wasn’t asleep. I tried carrying her, rocking her, snuggling with her, singing to her, gently shushing her. More tearful sobs. She finally grew quiet and still. Her eyes slipped close, so I softly, slowly placed her down on the bed. I tried to crawl in beside her, but she immediately woke up and started crying.
I started to cry right along with her.
Then I began to pray, angrily, asking God to cut me some slack, to allow me to get some sleep. Please, oh, please, I begged, just make her stop crying. She didn’t. She cried harder, longer. Then my mom crept in. “Let us help.” She gently took Mary Elizabeth from my arms; she started screeching. “Mama! Mama!” she sobbed. My body responded, clenching as tightly as a fist, and I wanted to snatch her back. But my physical exhaustion forced me immobile. So my mom took her away. I heard Mary Elizabeth crying for awhile. Then silence. My mom crept upstairs. “Dad has her,” she told me. “He’s going to try to keep her settled down.”
We climbed into bed together – Mom and I – and we talked and cried softly in the darkness, each of us in our own passion for different reasons. Neither one of us slept well. I know because every time I sneezed throughout the night, I heard my mom say, “God bless you,” and I’d say, “Thank you.”
The sunshine was just beginning to seep through the blinds when two girls jumped into bed with Gaba (my mom) and me. They were brimming with Easter anticipation and joy.
I sadly wasn’t.
That night I went to bed feeling like my prayers weren’t being answered, like God had abandoned me, abandoned my mom.
But now, looking back, I know my dad, who stayed up with a restive toddler all night, was my answered prayer. So was my mom, who told me in the dark of night that sometimes hope is all you have to cling to and that it’s enough; sometimes it has to be. (She’d recently started praying to Padre Pio along with my dad for a personal intention, and she said he’d given her that – glimpses of hope during an extremely difficult time in her life.)
Easter day left me stumbling through a fog of sleep deprivation while coping with a super-needy toddler who continued to only want mama despite many helping hands being around. My girls looked so pretty in their bright dresses, their light hair trimmed with coordinating ribbons. The sun was warm. God’s canvas was blossoming all around me; my mom’s flower beds were rich with color.
Unfortunately, it felt like a lot of the beauty stopped there. I spent most of Mass outside with a clinging-turned-sobbing-toddler, and I remember thinking more than once why I’d ever climbed upon a soapbox to encourage parents to bring their young children to Mass.
When I was outside (as in outdoors since she was crying so loudly there was nowhere to safely retreat to within the church building without dampening everyone else’s Easter joy with a child wretchedness), trying to console my sweet Mary Elizabeth, I finally decided sit her on a bench because my pregnant body could just not carry her any longer (my husband was still MIA for work, and my parents were busy with the other girls in Mass). She started rocking her body to match the rhythm of her high-pitched sobs when she fell flat on her face. I immediately scooped her up (she was fine, not even a scratch) and started to cry, too. Why, oh, why God have you forsaken me? Can I not get a little break? Easter is supposed to be about joy, not helplessness!
I was so deluded in the hope and optimism that I thought Easter owed me that I became overwhelmed suddenly by how tough life really is, Easter or not.
I felt robbed of my Easter joy all day, but then something (a divine nudge perhaps?) reminded of a book I read at the start of Lent called How Big Is Your God?: The Freedom to Experience the Divine. Its author, Fr. Paul Coutinho, SJ, is an Ignatian scholar from the Bombay province of India who, according to his bio on the book’s back cover, “brings an Eastern influence to Western spirituality.” The book covers a wide range of topics, but it’s essentially about deepening your relationship with God partly by shifting the way you see things. Ah-ha! Just what I needed now more than ever. In one chapter, he writes,
“Life is not pleasurable. Any mature person, any person with common sense, will tell you that life is full of suffering. Birth is suffering. Death is suffering. Meeting people is suffering. Separating is suffering. Saying hello is suffering. Saying good-bye is suffering. Life is full of pain. Life does not owe us pleasure; it offers us meaning. Pleasure is a by-product of meaningful activity.”
I expected Easter, after the interminable Lent and difficult Holy Week, to be pleasurable. It wasn’t. My weary human eyes looked around and thought maybe, in a blur of snot, sleep deprivation, and unmet expectations, I’d missed any shred of joy the celebration could offer. I didn’t. There was still joy. There’s always joy. Jesus’ cross never promised freedom from suffering. What it gave us – another point Fr. Coutinho makes in his inspiring book, is “the freedom in suffering, in sickness, in the face of death.”
Later Easter night, when we were back home, and my tired, sugar-high children were finally asleep, I believed – a little more than I had earlier that day – in God, in meaning, in hope, and in a joy that’s up to me to find even when life isn’t as pleasurable as I expected it to be.
And that’s when I knew that in God’s eyes, and maybe in my own perspective as well, my Lent, my Holy Week, and my Easter weren’t as big of a bust as I’d initially thought.