Reflections on loving God, being Catholic, being a woman, being ill, loving life and anything else that comes to mind.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Both Sides Now

My foster mother’s death was ugly – months of loneliness, anger, frustration. Sickness and death filled the house. The children existed to be shushed, to fetch and carry and participate in the most intrusive aspects of caring for her declining body, to be pummeled with helplessness and torn down whenever we reached for something that was not illness, something that was happy and joyous and full of life. We were not important. Neither was she. Impotence, my foster father’s impotence, was what really mattered. And anything any of us did trumpeted that one fact, he was powerless before death.

She shouted repeatedly, “The devil is a liar!” – a mantra he had insisted she use to fight demonic possession, to fight the disease, to fight off death. And as she became sicker, he heaped much blame on her: she didn’t fight hard enough, she should have insisted that she was really, really sick, she hadn’t somehow prevented this terrible disease from taking hold of her. A great deal of money was spent on ambulances and private nurses and attendants who accompanied every member of the house when we were bundled into sundry vehicles and transported to faith healers and miracle workers; their requests for donations continued to come for years after her death. Ultimately, my foster father began to be convinced that he too could work miracles. When she died, he took me and one of his daughters to the funeral home to show us how beautifully he had arranged for her to be prepared for burial and the two of us held our breaths in terror as he commanded my foster mother to “come forth!” What if she did?

Years later, after Mass one Sunday, a friend who often gave me a ride home asked if I’d accompany him to the hospital to visit his cousin. For me it was one of those overwhelming, tingly experiences of God telling me this was very, very important. On the way, my friend explained that his cousin had lived a prodigal life: gambling, prostitutes, alcohol. No one in the family had heard from this wayward child until his mother had received a telephone call about a week earlier that he was very ill and in hospital. My friend, the only family member in the area, had been visiting him and doing what he could but now, feeling helpless, sought the comfort of a friend; his cousin had AIDS and was very close to death.

An emaciated, severely jaundiced young man lay in the bed. He was being well cared for, my friend had seen to that, and was very happy to see both of us. He kept repeating something over and over but my friend’s queries began immediately we entered the room, in a hollow, almost booming voice and prevented us from hearing what he was saying. I walked closer, finally told my friend to hush, and finally we heard the young man’s breathless amazement: “I’m going home. I’m finally going home.” “Yes you are,” I said. And then turned to my friend and said, “Sometimes questions aren’t important. Sometimes all you need to know is that you’re going home.” And I took the cousin’s small, wasted hand and put it in my friend’s large, strong one. We prayed together, thanked God for making him, thanked God for making home. About a week later, my friend’s cousin died.

I had hated hospitals, remembered them as places where I was left to sit in the waiting room or hallway because I was too young to see my foster mother stuck full of needles. It was an experience of awful smells, of loneliness, of despair. Without God telling me it was important, I would have refused to go with my friend. And I would have missed something. Because the awfulness was not the smells, the being left alone, the illness, or even my foster mother’s death. The awfulness was despair, was impotence before death, impotence before life. The awfulness was that in the midst of the agony, we could not thank God for her, we could not thank God that she was finally going home.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Holy Innocents – What I Left Out

Thanks to all who have commented on the Holy Innocents pieces and please forgive my failure to respond. This has been a very busy time in my life and, as Anonymous commented on Holy Innocents – Part I, it is very difficult for me to write about the loss and the abuse, and perhaps even more difficult to write about what God has done with them. And that’s odd since through therapy and prayer and grace, I have already worked through everything I am writing about. Except, perhaps, the working through is a bigger process than I knew and this too is part of it. And too, writing about this makes God’s grace more real, more palpable but it’s excruciating, like warm water over frozen fingers (I have Raynaud’s and that pain is very familiar).

One thing I edited out of Part II that I’ve come to realize is important to the story: As a child, I honestly believed that I was supposed to be dead – I knew I belonged with my parents and if they were dead, I should be too – that is why I waited for the executioner to come and chop off my head. In fact, I would apologize to God whenever I failed to kill myself – that is how deep the conviction went.

But I wasn’t some sort of extraordinary child, conscious that suicide was wrong. I saw death as young children do and it certainly did not mean to me then what it means now, what it began to be after my foster-mother’s death. Death was a journey, was being with my parents and God. It was a very good thing and what God wanted for me.

His response to my childish conviction was a resounding, “No!” and he gave me exactly what I needed to stay alive until I was old enough and strong enough and healthy enough to accept life even without my family. I am continually awed and overwhelmed with gratitude. And I suppose that one reason I began this blog was to give a Catholic witness to God’s presence in our lives – to his extravagant love. Just thinking of how much he loves us is one of those warm water experiences.

Thank you all again. And thanks for making me aware of the Ravensbruck prayer – I was not aware of it. More to come soon.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Holy Innocents – Part II

As for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good. (Genesis 50:20)

There is much I never told my foster father. He heard many of my complaints, quite a lot of sarcasm, earfuls of vitriol; though it cost me in tears and scars, I refused to back down. After hitting me, he would say, “I am doing the best I can.” After my foster mother died, he often added that he had to be both father and mother to us. I would mutter that he was neither to me which often led to another attack. But I never muttered that I loved him. Nor did I tell him that his worst crime was that he was unable to give me my parents. And I never told him that his best, though it was filled with rage and hate, had had immense value in my life. But then, while he was still alive, I didn’t know how important he was, how God used him to help me.

In my foster father’s house, I was never allowed to speak of my own family. It was assumed that I would forget them, would accept his family instead of my own. My foster father prided himself on loving us all equally. But I ached for my parents with an indescribable pain that filled my life, made nearly every moment dark. I was never happy, only distracted for a short time. Everything, every book, every moment of play, every bit of quiet, every conversation led back to tears, to confusion, to longing for death.

From five until about a year before my foster mother’s death, I’d crawl under the bureau in my room, place my neck over the stretcher and wait for the executioner to come and chop off my head. I tried smothering myself but couldn’t keep my face pressed into the pillow long enough. Night after night I begged God to let me die but each morning I awoke to the pain. Eventually I began rummaging through the medicine cupboard and swallowed anything with a warning label – aspirin, Tylenol, cold medicine – except they didn’t work. When I was nine I found some quinine tablets. My foster sister had collected a prescription for her boyfriend who was planning a trip to the far east. I hid them, read and reread the warning label, talked to God about them and one afternoon, when I had been sent off to have a nap, I swallowed four capsules and thought that now I would go to sleep and not wake up. Half an hour later I was vomiting and crying inconsolably. No one understood the violence of my reaction. I had often been sick before.

Soon after that, my foster mother’s illness permeated every corner of our world. A nurse and daily helper supplemented the regular housekeeper – there were more eyes around and no opportunities for anything other than attempts at smothering myself. Within the year, my foster mother died.

While she lived, she had stood between her husband and my responses to the abuse. After her death I faced my foster father’s brutality without any mitigation. But he also faced me, my anger, my rage, my stubbornness. I fought him just as I had fought her and refused to give way. Whereas my foster mother had often tried to understand me, he only tried to control me, to break me. I would be neither controlled nor broken and continued to fight with everything in me. Fighting him saved my life.

I was deadly serious about dying, more serious than I knew. As I grew older I became more daring. And because I am so smart and so curious and so capable, I would have found a way, would have succeeded – eventually. Kindness hurt too much. My foster mother’s kindness, though sullied with her own brand of abusiveness, was still excruciating. But that brutal child abuser was not kind and neither was I. We fought and fought and fought. And I learned that my life was worth fighting for, worth living; I learned to fight my own desire for death. My crazy foster father directed my attention away from wounds that were too big for me, wounds that were destroying me. Had I not been forced to fight him, I would have died at my own hand and God knew it.

John Hume in G.K. Chesterton’s, The Moderate Murderer, asks, "Did you ever hang somebody to prevent him being hanged?" I did not know what God had done until my mid-twenties and when I saw it, I was awed that God knew precisely how to break my insane focus on death and bring me back into life, that he would risk hanging me to prevent me being hanged. The abuse in my foster father’s house was horrible, was absolutely real, something no child should experience; I saw it do immense damage to me and my foster siblings. But that damage is only one part of the story and not necessarily the biggest part. Once I stopped insisting that I had already fulfilled my quota of suffering, once I was willing to see how God used abuse for my good, it became a source of healing, became additional evidence of God’s favour and love.

I wonder what use God might make of the abuse in the lives of my foster siblings. What story might they someday tell? And I wonder about my foster father. Whether he sought forgiveness as he died. Whether God credited to him all he did for me. I was never able to tell him how God had used him to help a desperate little girl but perhaps he knows now. Perhaps he knows that for a time, he wasn’t my father but he was the father I needed. Perhaps I will see him again one day and with my papa, we will all laugh for joy because of what God has done.