Heidi Hess Saxton is an acquisitions editor and founder of "A Writer's Life" and "Life on the Road Less Traveled," resources for Catholic writers, caregivers, and parents of adoptive, foster, and special needs children.
If all had gone according to plan, I would be arriving in Rome today with my husband and our friends Katy and Todd, to celebrate our 20th wedding anniversaries. On Monday we would have boarded a cruise ship, which would have conveyed us across the waters to the single most important item on my bucket list: a guided tour of the Holy Land. All the while we were planning it, my heart raced to think of what it would be like to walk in the footsteps of Jesus, to visit the place where heaven truly touched earth.
This was my plan. As it turns out, God had a different plan. And so, this year Craig and I hosted Thanksgiving for a small group of family and friends, while Katy prepares to take the last round of chemo. They had tried to get us to go on the trip anyway … but I had made a pact with God. “Just make her well. The trip will wait until we can go together.”
Of course, it’s a bit foolish to bargain with God, who I am sure sees how it all turns out, and even knows whether we ever get to make that trip. All our plans, seen on that scale, really don’t matter. One of the most important lessons we need to learn in this life is that there is precious little that we can control ourselves. That’s why it’s so important to learn to trust.
My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.
Maybe it’s because Daylight Savings ended this weekend. Or maybe the house has just been too quiet, with Craig and Chris gone. Or maybe it’s attending a baby’s first birthday party, and thinking of how much time has passed since that particular milestone in my own kids’ lives. Whatever it is, I’m in a bit of a funk.
Now, don’t let the title of this scare you. This isn’t about “falling out of love” or losing natural, motherly fondness for my teenagers. It’s not even about throwing in the towel with caregiving. I have so much to be thankful for, including work that (most days) I love, and extended family and friends who never miss an opportunity to show they care. Like I said, much to be thankful for.
But here’s a dirty little secret about middle age that I’m only just now realizing: Everything declines. Everything slows down. Everything gets … harder. And that doesn’t even factor in the specific realities of my particular situation.
There was a time when I enjoyed making the “grand gesture” — the epic love poem, the handmade gingerbread villages, the cross-stitched samplers that took months to complete. Now I’d rather pick up a package of Rice Krispy bars from Walmart and call it a day. I’m not proud of this … but I’ve reached a point where I need to own it, I think.
What do you think? Is it seasonal? Organic? (Went in for a stress test this week to find out why my chest keeps fluttering. Stress does that, the doctor says.) Need more exercise and fewer Rice Krispy treats? Maybe.
But if you can relate, feel free to give me your secret. How do you stop the decline?
There are some things a mother will do for her teenage daughter that she wouldn’t do for anyone (or anything) else in the world. Sitting in the nosebleed section of the United Center in Chicago, waiting two hours for the Jonas Brothers to make an appearance onstage definitely ranks right up there. But while we were waiting (and throughout the concert) I found love. All around me, in different forms, I saw in other concertgoers expressions of love far more profound than I’d heard in any sermon or homily. It made me glad I was there.
It all started about an hour before the concert, when I spotted a gal in her late twenties (I’m guessing) frantically waving at a sixtyish (again, only guessing) woman slowly toiling up the nearly vertical incline of stairs. The older woman was shaking like a leaf, moving painfully from one step to the next as the usher waited patiently at the top to show her to her seat. “Here, Granny!” Ms. Twenty-Something called out. “I’m over here!” Seeing her grandmother’s plight, she got up and went to the older woman, grabbing the plastic bag and coat the woman had been carrying. It took another ten minutes to get her to the actual seat … which is exactly how long it took for the elder woman to have a full-on panic attack. Apparently she was afraid of heights, and this was too much for her. The trouble was, the only way was down. And that was unthinkable. The first aid staff came and tried to calm her down, but no dice. Before the first opening act made it to the stage, Granny and Granddaughter had left the building. VERY S-L-O-W-L-Y.
As Sarah sat, oblivious to what had just happened, I wondered at the love that grandmother must have had for her grown granddaughter, willing to face her greatest fear to spend time in the younger woman’s element. And I marveled at the love of the younger woman, who gave up the concert she most wanted to enjoy, for love of Granny.
The homily wasn’t over, though. A few moments after the two women left, the seats next to them were occupied by another pair, this time a Hispanic duo that must have been of legal drinking age, but looked younger. He wore double man buns on top of his head, with huge hoop earrings. She was a big girl, and had her hair piled in an updo, with earrings like his. Clearly there was no romantic interest between the two, yet just as clearly they were the best of friends: accepting, celebrating, just enjoying the fruit of friendship. As C.S. Lewis described this kind of friendship in The Four Loves, “Two creatures gazing together toward an object of mutual admiration.” At the first note, their excitement hit fevered pitch, as they held hands and jumped up and down, clearly glad to be alive, right there, in that moment.
But the best part of the homily came next, when a tall, lanky blond fellow and his date – a tiny little Latina spitfire – took the seats immediately in front of us. He was at least 6’6”, while she couldn’t have ridden most of the rides at Disneyland. She didn’t even come up to his shoulder. Then the headline finally arrived, and everyone stood up, screaming. (We had earplugs, thank God.) That’s when the real magic started. For as the first song started up, the girl raised her hands above her head and started jumping up and down, as though she was about to fly to the stage. He looked down, a bit mystified and with just a hint of a smile on his face. Clearly he was smitten. Next she started throwing her long, dark head of hair around, jumping like she had a spider in her pants. This time he took a step back, but his eyes never left her (I wondered if he was spotting her to be sure she didn’t tumble down the stairs.). He just stood, clearly entranced. Occasionally he’d look up at the stage when she pointed. But he couldn’t have cared less about the Jonas Brothers. His entertainment was standing right beside him.
This time, even Sarah noticed. “Wow. He really loves her, huh mom?” “Yes, I think he does.” “You think she knows?” “I hope so, honey. He seems like one of the good ones.” “Like Dad, you mean?” From the mouth of babes. “Yes, honey. Just like Dad.” My own husband wasn’t there, gazing down adoringly at me, of course. He was at home, watching my mother so I could take our daughter on this adventure. And he, my friends, is my Love Homily every day. Because “Happiness Begins” when yo u least expect it. And best of all when you’ve been sleeping beside it every night for twenty years.
If you have made it this far in the “40 Day Challenge: 20th Anniversary Edition,” you discovered that I made it only a little over half-way before the previous edition kicked in.
There’s a reason for that. Though I didn’t originally intend to drop the ball, at a certain point I realized that I had to choose between getting the series done by Easter … and or take one for the team and admit that I didn’t have the bandwidth to do both this and everything else.
While perseverance is an important part of marital success, I’ve also found that finishing something just to say that you’ve finished it is not always a good thing. Whether it’s a trashy novel or a frost-bitten half-pint of Ben and Jerry’s, there are times when it’s really, truly okay NOT to persevere.
In twenty years of marriage, I’ve discovered that our capacities — whether physical, mental, or financial — change, and often shrink. At sixty-four, my husband’s energy stores quickly become depleted when he attempts to work several twenty-hour days in succession. I’ve found my sense of humor grows equally in short supply when attempting to be everywhere and do everything at once.
For both of us, when we try to be and do too much, one of the first things that suffers is our relationship. He becomes loquacious, I become irritable. We retreat to opposite ends of the house, instead of meeting in the middle (after the kids and my mother turn in) for a cuddle. And don’t even get me started on what this does to the sex life.
Middle age is a time of transition, a time to dig deep in the storehouse of wisdom that we’ve acquired over time and with experience. So, in closing, I’d like to offer this one last “Prayer of Abandonment: Twenty-Year Edition.”
Let us continue to abandon ourselves, come what may,
not knowing what the future holds, but confident in the One who does.
Let us be ready for inevitable change, and lingering struggles.
Let us say “I do” to each other, over and over and over again.
I offer you all that I am, and all that I have,
to claim or ignore or appropriate, as needed.
Let the love that we have continue to grow,
and to reflect in some small way the Perfection
to which we try to surrender ourselves, body and soul,
For Labor Day, we were invited to some friends’ house for a barbecue — they are new friends from church, a young couple and their adorable ten-month-old. If those cherubic cheeks didn’t seal the deal, the fact that she asked me to make my potato salad and favorite frozen dessert gave me warm fuzzies. This kind of casual hospitality is wonderful because it (a) lets me contribute and (b) is so low-pressure: just sit out on the covered deck, sip wine and feast on burgers and sides … and if someone misbehaves, no one cares. They even invited the dogs to come and romp in their spacious back yard.
The best part was watching mom’s eyes light up as I sang silly songs to the baby … the same silly songs, I’m sure, that she once sang to me. “You look just like a grandma,” she said to me. And the thing was, I kind of reveled in it. My own teenagers sat with their faces in their phones, until Chris got bored and started playing with his dog … our eleven-year-old Aussie shepherd who chased a ball, pulled something, shrieked, and fell down.
That was when life set in again. Mom urgently needed a rest room, Craig stood to leave because two hours was the most he could spare away from his desk right now (he’s been working nonstop for the last month), and Sarah launched into a never-ending monologue about her birth family, who she would be spending Christmas with this year.
Reluctantly I got up and started clearing the dishes. It was nice while it lasted.
We all got home and went to our respective quiet places … and the next thing I knew, three hours had passed. I had NAPPED for THREE HOURS! Probably would have kept on napping, too, if my daughter’s tumbly hadn’t started rumbling. “What’s for dinner, mom?” I was struck by the heaviness of the quiet. I could feel the stress closing in again, like a suffocating cloud.
Craig was still at his desk. Mom needed her meds and a bath, but she was still passed out on her bed, fully clothed, having been exhausted from our excursion. Chris was perched by the dog crate, plaintively wondering aloud if Maddy needed to go to the vet. (We spent three hours that night at the animal ER.) Sarah was alternately blasting her music and screaming at us to get dinner NOW.
I whipped up a sheet of Super Nachos, heated up some leftovers for mom’s dinner … and then I dug a Buster Bar out of the fridge (half a bar is my go-to indulgence), closed my eyes, and thought about the day. I could still see my mother’s happy smile and hear the infant’s delighted chortle as I blew a loud raspberry on her tummy. My tastebuds still danced from that glass of pino grigio, juicy burgers, and my friend’s delicious green bean almond salad. Tomorrow would come — the caregivers, the workday, the chauffeuring kids hither and yon. Yes, we were likely looking at thousands of dollars if the dog needs surgery. But today … today we made a memory.
If you are a caregiver for an elderly loved one (or younger ones with special needs, or whatever your particular situation entails), it can be easy to get caught up on the frazzle dazzle. But try not to. Try to find one thing … anything, really, to enjoy. To remember and treasure as a memory. Those bright spots are golden when the rains come, as they inevitably do.
Moms are the heart of the home, the keeper of secrets and memories. If we find a reason for joy, the rest of the family tends to follow suit. And when we give in to the dark side, home becomes a dark place indeed. So … hold on to those wine-sipping, baby giggling memories. Find something to laugh about. It matters more than you know.
I’ve got two non-driving teenagers (well, one has driven long enough to wreck two cars), a frequent-flying husband, and a mother who believes with all certainty that a black-robed judge is going to show up at the door one day and “do away with me.” (Though what my good Christian mother could possibly have done to deserve this staggers the imagination.) In any event, until our Chiweenie successfully passes her driving test, it’s pretty much me driving everyone in the house where they need to go: work, therapy, doctor’s appointments, choir practices, grocery shopping … you name it, I’m driving there.
Now, some extremely devout and well-organized women I know use this time for prayer or some other high-minded pursuit. And yes, I occasionally flip on Catholic radio or plug in a little Matt Maher when I need a little faith-lift. The trouble is, no sooner do I get behind the wheel than my brain kicks into high gear and starts spitting out two dozen items for my to-do list that I am quite certain will be lost if I cannot write them down. Items for the shopping list. Phone calls that need to be made. Stops I need to make. These things whirl around and around my brain like it was Midnight in Menopauseville. You know what I mean.
And then there is the never-ending, nails-on-chalkboard prattle coming from my wide-eyed daughter, who seems to live for the moments she can make steam escape through my ears or yell at a pitch high and loud enough to unnerve livestock. “I can’t wait until I’m eighteen so I can get a tattoo … no, a piercing. No, both. And dye my hair black, like a Goth. And did you know that my boyfriend D____ (her current love interest) kissed me in the hallway? Well… he almost kissed me. Like, he looked like he was going to …”
Yes, I know she’s just looking for attention. Yes, I know this is what teenagers do. Yes, I’m sure I drove my mother crazy, too, and this is just God’s particular brand of cosmic justice. And so, I pay it forward the same way my mother did, with a benevolent mother’s curse: “One day may you be blessed with a child just like you.”
The thing is, she’s really not. And I know this because in her more lucid moments I see my mother look at my daughter when she’s raging against The Mom, and clearly she thinks she wandered into Comedy Land. Her eyes light up with barely suppressed humor as she watches her granddaughter spout off at me, and me trying to keep from blowing my ever-loving gourd. She doesn’t say anything. Certainly doesn’t try to take my side about ANYTHING. She just sits there and chuckles. Dammit.
Suddenly I feel like that old battleax Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. So I tell myself it’s time for a Mommy Time Out, pour myself an Arnold Palmer, thank my children for “volunteering” to do dish duty, and turn on Jeopardy. Because I have yet to figure out how to deliver two children at opposite ends of town to start work precisely at 9:00 and still make it to the office dressed in something other than pajamas to meet my new boss. I haven’t the foggiest idea how to extricate the Judge from my mother’s cognitive processes. But by Jove, I’ll take “Weird Stuff Nobody Knows but an Editor” for $1000, Alex.
If you are even thinking of becoming a foster parent, you need to read this book.
Like many people who decide to become foster parents, Jennie Owens and her husband, Lynn, were confident that love would conquer all. The trauma. The anger. The pain and loss experienced by every member of the family.
And like many such couples, they never knew what hit them. The isolation. The bone-chilling fatigue. The mental strain. Most of all, the unrelenting inner refraing that keeps on and on: Am-I-going-crazy?
I wish I had had this book fifteen years ago, when I needed to have someone explain to me why self-care is good for the whole family. Why “bonding” can be a subtle trap that prevents kids from becoming as strong and self-reliant as they need to be. Why getting a dog might be the one thing you really do need most. Most of all, why the hardest stuff really is the best.
But better late then never. Thank you, Jennie, for sharing your beautiful heart.