Friday, September 15, 2017


     It's Framily Dinner night and several families are gathered for a communal meal and fellowship. I am sitting in the corner on a couch making a list of things I need to do the following day for work.  My friend walks in toward the latter part of the evening, with his beautiful wife, and precious little daughter. It takes me a moment to notice he is walking free of the crutches that have been his traveling companions for many moons.  He sits down next to me and gives an update on the current condition, prognosis, and pain level of his knee. It is the first time I have seen it without the usual swollen marked red angry inflammation. My friend was hit by a drunk driver, almost two years ago, while on duty as a police officer. He is still recovering and healing from the injury he sustained.

We begin to discuss very very very important things, such as the
multiple colors of kryptonite and the various powers and attributes they each possess.  In my best (I wish I was only feigning being this nerdy) 'Can you believe it?' voice, I chide, "some people don't even know there are other colors besides green and red. Sad, really."   We move on to debate Batman vs. Superman, a movie which I refuse to see on principle. I don't want to watch the good guys fight each other. It feels like superhero betrayal. My friend is trying to convince me otherwise about the film, but I am not budging. The subsequent areas of pressing analysis include critiques of Doomsday, Bizarro, Lex, and Zod. Then...I throw in my perpetual tangential issue of angst-the incredibly anticlimactic death of Captain Kirk (original series).  I am speaking in a fairly quiet tone, so that others in the room won't hear me talking about this. You I can control the narrative of the level and type of nerdom I am willing to publicly acquiesce to. ;) 

His wife plops down across from me and I quickly switch gears as she and I begin gabbing and fangirling about two of our favorite shows currently on the air. Our hostess spent time working as an actress on one of the shows, and she joins us for a momentary recounting of fond memories and cast stories. I smile to learn my favorite I'm-not-a-doctor-but-I-play-one-on-TV is exceedingly kind and sweet in real life. I knew it! 

My heart warms as their precious little daughter brings over a Russian nesting doll, and lets out peels of delighted laughter as she discovers there are more and more dolls inside the largest doll.

(The next part of this post includes a graphic depiction of events, please discern before continuing)

Last week, I was laughing to myself as I read an article highlighting my personality type on the Myers Briggs (INFJ) as the least likely to successfully work in law enforcement. I am prone to agree. My time working for our local police department was a bit of a square peg/round hole fit...but it was also an invaluable experience that shaped me in the way I now look at and analyze many situations. There remains a depth of loyalty and altruistic care for the coworkers I spent 12 hours a day with...that is unwavering, even years after my time with them has passed. 

'We became friends at work,' seems like such a nonchalant statement. It's true, but it's barely descriptive of what that initial experience entailed. As I watched my friend quip brotherly barbs with another officer in the living room, my mind flashed back to the night I met him. A night that is seared in my memory, and one that has continued to have an impact on my life since then.

When I was fairly new to the police department, I was assigned as a rider to my friend for a (aptly named) 'ride along.' This constituted spending a night shift in a patrol car with him as he responded to emergency calls around our city. The idea is an opportunity to see what the officers encounter while they are out patrolling the streets. We were going to be covering one of the highest crime areas of town.

Even though I understood the seriousness of what the ride along would entail the week prior, I don't think it really clicked for me fully until I was strapped into a bullet proof vest, walking downstairs for shift change. A kind of gravitas descended over my demeanor, followed by a nervous stomach, as I walked into that crowded room.

Sitting in the patrol car, he gave me a safety briefing, described a general overview of the night shift, ran me through the various firearms should we find ourselves in a life or death situation, and explained how to radio from the car if he became gravely injured. That was definitely a sobering moment.

Shortly into the shift, there was a report of a possible dead body in the trunk of a car. I still remember my mental self talk as we sped toward the address, "Okay, you'll be staying in the car for this, but you'll probably still see it. This will not be your first time seeing a dead body. You've seen several before. You've got this. Don't make his job harder by freaking out. Be cool."

Thankfully, it turned out to be an unusually large bag of gardening soil! We responded to a few other unsavory calls for service, and a couple that didn't need police assistance because they were civil matters. It's funny...most people don't realize how much of the work police officers do involves using well honed social work skills. Among the many hats they wear-social worker is right up there; they spend a significant amount of time providing brief counsel and resources to citizens.

Then, we went to the call. We ran code (lights and sirens) until we were in close proximity to a dimly lit large apartment complex. Exiting the vehicle, he beckoned me quietly to get behind him. I realized he had drawn his firearm. It felt like a surreal moment of déjà vu, plucked directly from scenes played out in movies and television shows. We walked up a couple sets of stairs, as he cleared each area, and we met his partner on a landing.

(Medics stage for their own safety before attending to injuries on scene. The police officers assess that a scene is safe, and then EMS can come in to treat the wounded)

We could hear the screaming/sobbing of a woman's voice as we approached the apartment door. The sight that greeted us was by far one of the saddest things I have seen close up. As we entered, there was a behemoth of a man standing in a bedroom doorway, wearing a pair of underwear. There was a short, thin, fully clothed man arguing with him. And, on the couch, was a young woman, clad in skimpy lingerie, sobbing, and covered in blood. My mind felt like it was underwater as it was trying to piece together what I was seeing...a pimp, a john, and a trafficked woman. I watched my friend and his partner move toward the men to arrest them, and my eyes turned back toward the woman. I glanced down at the box cutter lying on the table and realized she had vertically slit her arm from her wrist all the way up to her elbow. Time seemed to move exceedingly slowly, though in reality it probably wasn't more than a few minutes passing by. I remember my friend briefly nodding at me, as I was pulling black disposable gloves out of my pocket and walking toward her. I held her arm up, trying to put pressure onto it to stop the bleeding, and made a little pseudo tourniquet out of one of the other gloves, until the paramedics could assist her.  Her eyes pierced into mine with desperate pain and terror, as she rocked back and forth sobbing the words, "I want my mom! I want my mom! I want my mom!"

As I looked at the suspects in the corner, I felt imprinted with a new truth, "this will always be my memory and reference point on the subject of pimps and johns." At that moment I felt hatred for the two men, bearing no desire for justice, rather...some semblance of vengeance.

My friend and his partner, charged and arrested the two men. I felt a little awed that they could both respond in a perfectly calm and professional manner. The paramedics pulled away in the ambulance, treating the woman for her injuries en route to the hospital. I don't remember the other calls for the rest of that ride along. 

Being present at that call changed the trajectory of my next years of academic study-to focus specifically on vicarious trauma and complex PTSD. It changed the way I responded to an officer at the end of his or her shift, when I needed paperwork, but recognized they might be walking into the station from a truly terrible event, needing a few minutes to breath... There were subsequent ride alongs with other officers, the witnessing of different abject horrors, but none of them stuck to my soul like this one did. I've wondered on and off throughout the years if the young woman ever found a way out of her terrible situation, or if she ever found any peace in her life. She remains in the litany prayer of my heart.

A small hand reaches up to tickle my face with a rainbow fiber optic toy and my mind snaps back to the present moment. Mischievous brown eyes stare up at me, accompanied by a miniature grin, and bubbly giggles that fill the room with joy. The little girl in front of me has discovered her power of making rainbows appear on faces. Her enthusiasm is contagious, and all of us smile and giggle in unison at her antics.  She turns to look at her dad. "Be a pony! Be a pony!" His wife and I exchange a grin. My friend's face is relaxed and happy as he plays with his daughter. The only thing he needs to be vigilant about tonight is dodging rainbows to the eyes.  

Friday, July 14, 2017

In The Land of White Bandages

These are a series of vignettes I've written over the last several months. 

Our country's most successfully decorated Olympian: 
Michael Phelps 

Did you know Michael reached a point of severe depression, in which he seriously contemplated and planned his suicide? He had been smoking a lot of marijuana, was consuming alcohol excessively, and then proceeded to get arrested for driving while intoxicated. These events all played out in the public eye. In his own words: 
In the immediate aftermath of that DWI arrest, I cut myself off from family and other loved ones and “thought the world would just be better off without me ... I figured that was the best thing to do — just end my life."

At the age of 30, before her worldwide fame and renown, J.K. Rowling, author of the beloved Harry Potter series, had survived an abusive marriage, was divorced, diagnosed with severe clinical depression, and also reached a point of seriously contemplating suicide.

I can't remember when I started sharing these stories in my groups-but I've watched the shame abate from the eyes of many (teenagers especially) as they recognize fame and achievement don't serve as effective remedies or masks against depression and distress. As they imagine a reality in which Harry Potter might never have been penned, there is a little spark that does not go unnoticed as they begin to recognize their own lives have many chapters ahead to unfold.


       At the first hospital, I watch the patrol car pull up outside. One of my former coworkers comes through the sally port door with his partner, escorting my patient. He gives me a professional nod and the slightest trace of a smile. We are too focused on the situation at hand, to be distracted with small talk or catching up right now.  "10-15, attempted 11-28 in traffic, 38 history" the officer says to me quickly, quietly, and solemnly in policese. I nod sadly and step out of the enclosure to consult with one of the other clinicians, and to grab the breathalyzer. When I reenter the sally port, our PNA is preparing to wand the patient and lead them through the metal detector. I begin my introduction and spiel: "If we take these handcuffs off, I need to know you aren't going to try to hurt yourself, or hurt any of us...will you agree to that?" 

After the police officers exit, all of my senses are honed and heightened as I watch for any signs of danger. The team is aware of where we are each standing, our proximity to the patient, and our hand positions. The initial clinical assessment is brief and needs to be very accurate. My team needs to be kept safe, the patient needs to be kept safe, and my clinical judgment needs to be thorough and sound before I give the okay for us to proceed into the hospital. Adrenaline rushes through me as I gauge for lucidity/psychosis/mania/acute drug withdrawal...any sign that violence could be imminent.  Imposter syndrome makes a momentary entrance into my psyche and shivers its way down my spine, and as I mentally chastise myself for the defeatist thought, it passes as quickly as it came. "St. Michael, the Archangel..." My silent prayer is always the same as the door closes behind us, and we all walk down the hallway toward the evaluation clinic.  


       At the second hospital, the following day, it is a sunny dawn as I pull into the parking lot. Par for the course, I've already spilled a little coffee on myself (truly, a daily occurrence). A momentary rush of love warms me as I walk past the Jesus statue, with his arms outstretched like a welcoming orchestra conductor. "You and me, Lord...give me your strength for the day, and guide my words and actions."
It's a little sacrilegious, I know, but sometimes I imagine the statue is animated, giving me a little wink and thumbs up (like the buddy Christ from Dogma) complete with a "you got it, babe!" 

I make my way through the doors, as various doctors, nurses, technicians, and other hospital personnel rush past me through the hospital corridors. As I walk by some of the bleary eyed night shift staff, I am tempted to give them a high five as we pass one another. They hand us the metaphorical race batons with a "tag, you're it, go," as we prepare to sprint our leg of patient care. My hand moves up to my forehead to make the sign of the cross as I rush past the chapel. An unknown coworker smiles and beckons to me from the elevator she is holding.

My spirit is very tired today. Of my own doing. I haven't taken a day off in a long time between the two hospitals, and the much needed über introvert alone time to recharge has been fleeting. There is a secret spot on my floor, to be alone for a few minutes nestled amongst some plants. I begin to pray for the patients I am about to work with that day. My thoughts drift to some former and current coworkers from several agencies who are participating in a suicide awareness event tomorrow. 

As my eyes close, a rolodex of names flips through my mind...all
the patients and clients I have worked with over the years who have completed suicide. The many souls I have privately mourned in my HIPAA shrine of solitude...tears and prayer as I've read about their deaths through the years...or watched their faces staring back at me from local television newscasts, or heard a coworker whisper to me at shift change, "so and so was found dead last night." Internally, I scream. Internally, I weep. Internally, I feel defeated and curse the darkness. Externally, I convey barely perceptible emotion, a deep sigh and slow metered head shake left to right. The conversations often feel like a hellish version of Groundhog Day. "What?" I exclaim to the nurse.  "So-and-So was just here a month ago, and was doing so well!"  "Yep," "I know," the nurse responds with heavy familiar resignation and her own obligatory head shake. Duty affords us only that brief exchange and acknowledgement, as we each have pressing patient duties to attend to.  I stuff the news down somewhere in my compartmentalized mental landscape, to deal with later.

There was a facebook post on a friend's wall called 'describe your job in a sentence.' What popped to my mind was "cheerleader against death, in the land of white bandages."  I didn't post that on the social media thread. It's morbid. It's gallows humor...a way to joke and make light, a strong mental defense, so as not to drown in the sorrow of so many peoples pain. 

It hurts, Anastasia. Everything hurts. Tears stream down so very many faces. My eyes have grown accustomed to the sea of bandages; to the carved up arms and legs, to the ligature marks around necks, to the seizures from the toxicity of overdoses, to injuries I never fathomed before being here. When they tell me everything hurts, they are never referencing just their physical injuries. 

Life is hurting. Living is hurting. Everything seems like too much, and they are so weary and bone tired of fighting to live one more day of painful misery. Sometimes, they vent and dump their rage and sorrow that they were unsuccessful in their suicide attempts. Furious to have woken up on the other side of an overdose, a crash, a hanging, slit wrists. Often embarrassed, they feel deep shame at what their families and friends will think of them, and what they have tried to do to themselves.

The next few weeks will involve helping each of them to come up with plans to support their recovery, to attempt to inspire them to hold on one more minute, hour, day, through the depths of the gripping convince them there are reasons to have hope for the future. Our teams work diligently to provide the best care we can. We strive to be effective healers, empathetic listeners and encouragers, and try to provide connection as they grope their way out of the blinding depression/anxiety/mania/etc... 


       Sometimes, I feel like a sommelier of suicidality. This type of therapy for major depression with suicidal ideation...that type of therapy for borderline personality disorder with suicidal ideation, this intervention for mania or psychosis with suicidal intent.  It's really tough work...individualized trial and error to help someone find the right breakthrough and will to keep holding on.  

When I was much younger, people would often praise me ("I don't know how you can do that job, I could never do something like that!") for work that involved exposure to a lot of horror/suffering and things not spoken about in polite society. Their words once spurned me on to work harder...mentally arming myself with a badge of determination-tough, hardcore, able to withstand whatever was thrown at me, bring it on! It fed my pride quite terribly. But, I was naive, and ignorant then, and blithely unaware of the cumulative effects of vicarious trauma that would level me several years later.  

Now I am much older, painfully wiser, and incredibly realistic. I am in a profession that breaks my heart all the time, in a vocation that once in awhile leaves me crying alone in a utility closet after I've simply heard and sat with too much pain. But I wouldn't change my life in the trenches, nor the ability of keeping my heart soft, open, and malleable. I never want to be able to look into a pair of broken eyes, and listen to a shaky voice telling me about what it was like to be trafficked, while possessing the capacity to return that gaze with a blank stare, and a deadened internal response of numbness. The day that ever happens, is the day I need to walk away from this work.  
Time has taught me not to bottle the pain of what I hear for more than a day, and it has also stripped away any vestige of belief that I am super human in what I can handle. Sometimes, I simply need to cry, pray, listen to music, go for a drive, and then I am fine. I've learned to cling tightly to all the simple joys my life affords me, and diligently and unapologetically practice self care.   


       One of my dearest and best friends is perhaps the most naturally empathetic man I've ever known. He might argue that being true, but it doesn't change the fact that he is. I lovingly call him 'a real life Gilbert Blythe' (If you've seen Anne of Green Gables, you'll be able to imagine the level of kindness and goodwill he possesses toward others). After grueling work weeks, I will habitually begin a lunch excursion with him by exclaiming in exasperated frustration, "I'm done! To heck with this! I'm going to go work at Nordstrom!" He will usually smile at me with an amused and knowing expression and join me in a sigh. He gets it--- as his vocational demands, and the suffering he has to sit with are equally grueling. 

Once, when I was ticked off that God kept putting so many people in my path when I was feeling like an empty cistern, my friend said very matter of factly, "Anastasia. There is no vacation from vocation." 

It is a sentence I repeat to myself often when things really sting or my heart is particularly black and blue. The phrase reminds me that this isn't my work at is God's. I may be one of the associates in the vineyard, but I am neither the vigneron, nor the vine. 


       Awhile ago, a woman I had worked with since her early childhood, (through various agencies) completed suicide after taking another's life. Thinking about this woman through the years has bothered me for the entirety of my adult life. When I met her as a child, and after spending time with her, she went quickly into the category of "child I had no idea what to do with, or how to help." I was once in a situation with her when she was a teenager, in which she got a hold of a weapon, and had an opportunity to take my life, had she been so inclined.  Because I was a constant figure in her life (one of the few), she chose not to harm me. But I will always remember watching her eyes make the determination as to whether or not she would follow through. She chose to hurt someone else later in the day.  

I believe we are made in the image and likeness of God, and that we are each inherently good. Yet, there have been a handful of children I have worked with over the last twenty years that seem to contradict that truth in every manner possible. It's not merely a matter of traumatic experiences and attachment issues shaping their reactions, nor merely a lack of empathy in their character; not even demonic possession...rather, it is an absolute and sheer delight in harming others, seeking violence at every turn, with no traceable or discernible qualities of what it means to be human. To cope with exposure to this thing the mind cannot process, I used to semi-joke, "well, Ted Bundy didn't wake up an adult. He was a child, and those lacks would have shown up for him in childhood as well."

Once, a coworker strongly upbraided me for saying that I believed this little girl was going to grow up to become a monster. What an absolutely heartless thing for any decent person to say about a child...especially after multiple paragraphs of me waxing poetic about empathy and hope. But I have worked with thousands of traumatized children with emotional disturbance, and there remained a handful, the one percent extreme that I could never internally reconcile or ever be at peace about. 

She did, in fact, leave a tornado in her wake, and sowed seeds of destruction and violence everywhere she went. She committed horrible and heinous crimes, society loathed her, everyone who worked with her eventually gave up on her, and some even wished her ill. I spent years praying for her, knowing with certainty that she would die by her own hand, or someone elses very early in her young adult life. I remain haunted that some of us could see her trajectory from the time she was a small child, and could do nothing to stop it-or stop her. I am haunted by the theological confusion she caused for me for so many years. I am haunted that we were right about her early death, and I am haunted imagining what her last moments on Earth were like. Haunted, until one day, finally choosing in my utter powerlessness, to turn her over completely to God's mercy and providence. 

Age and wisdom bring freedom from the bullshit they teach you in school, "you must never take your work home, because if you're thinking about a case on your off/personal time, it means your boundaries aren't strong or solid enough."  Granted, cases shouldn't be invading one's thoughts frequently or daily on off time, but if one's profession is to be steeped in tremendous suffering, if it is to really connect with other humans in their pain to steer them through darkness, if it means hitting your knees every day pleading with God to do something to help them, for their anguish, the chance of it always being nicely contained and wrapped into a small eight hour bubble is very slim. Especially, when you see and work with the same patients/clients throughout their lifetimes.


       There have been and continue to be many beautiful moments encapsulated in my heart and in this work. I pause in the grocery store as a former adolescent patient bounds toward me with her friend. "OMG, that's totally my therapist! She's so rad."  I can feel myself grinning uncontrollably from ear to ear at the compliment I overhear...what higher praise from a young one? She excuses herself from her friend and before I know it, she throws her arms around me in an excited hug. She whispers to me, "I'm doing really good. Really. I mean it. A lot better! SO much better than before." She smiles at me warmly, waves, and skips off with her friend in a fit of teenage giggles. 

And I keep smiling to myself the rest of the way home. 

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Because, tonight I miss you...

Dearest Fr. Stan,

It is Easter Monday.  I wrote a blog post about you. About us. About God. About friendship. About grief. About love. I typed it all out fiercely on Saturday evening. Deleted half of it. Rewrote it on Sunday. Deleted most of it. Decided I hated blogging. Wondered why I didn't just write a book already. Decided I have no patience to write a book. Redecided I liked blogging, and loved here it is:

"Dear Fr. Stan," my 23-year-old-self writes to you in a glittery pink gel pen, on what was bound to be a long, disjointed, and rambling letter, scrawled on my Florentine Italian stationery, with butterfly stickers affixed on the corners of alternating pages...

"We've just started Dante's 'Divine Comedy.' Have you read it? Surely you must have ages ago." 

Your reply comes neatly tucked into a succinct sentence in one of your letters the following week, "I've picked it up a time or two."

It was only the fourth letter. Our first month of correspondence. Four letters in four weeks. 

I am so young then, with sweet wide eyed piety, an optimistic outlook on life (bordering on the Pollyannaeque), that type of wonder that happens in certain saccharinely disposed youth...seeing and believing in divine goodness---everywhere and in everyone, spiritually high and on fire, wanting to evangelize the world with love, with a penchant for glitter gel pens (that never abates with age, by the way), possessing the attention span of a sizable gnat; quick to minimize the seriousness of all I construed as too horrific or depressing in the world...including any of my own experiences which merited gravitas of consideration or reflection.

You, are in fact, a world expert on Dante...and of course, had picked up 'Divine Comedy' a time or two. If I have to be teased for some of my greatest bloopers, this perhaps has been one of the best ribbings...akin to asking Einstein if he'd ever come across E=mc2. My only solace is in knowing that you found it refreshingly charming and comical back then. There was so much I didn't know about you that first month...that you won your PhD in English Literature at Cambridge many decades earlier. How very many hats you wore to so many people who cared for you...beloved priest, religious in the Order of Preachers, professor, wise confessor, dear friend, brother, confidant, retreat master, superior, and colleague.  

Or...that for the nine years that followed, before your death in 2009, we would write letters to one another almost every week, and over the course of that exchange you would become the dearest friend I've ever known. 

We were an extremely unlikely pairing, you an I, as far as pairing go...separated by 50 years in age, diametrically opposed in both temperament and talents. But, we had a common thread you could see at the time, that I could not. "We were both meant for the grand romance of God, seekers of truth and wisdom, and lovers of all in the world, of all of humanity, which was so desperately in need of such love and care. Our hearts were meant for God alone." You saw my vocation to Him long before I was willing to surrender to it. You laughed at me as I told you each new beau, "might be the one," knowing my heart could only be satisfied by the Lord. We also had a thread God could see at the time, that you and I could not. You could love me in a way that would serve as a healing balm for some woundedness in my young life, and I could love you through an extended period of doubt, pain, and depression, and back toward the light. God, in His infinite wisdom and goodness, brought us together in deep spiritual friendship for a decade of this life. And what a decade it was. 

It's been awhile since I've missed you. Well, missed you with a tinge of sadness, that is. Usually, when you come to mind, I feel joy...or you skip across my memory like a pebble across a pond, in a fleeting dash of happiness. The first years after your death, I would envision you talking to Jesus and Mary, to St. Dominic, arguing with St. Thomas, visiting with all your family and friends. Then, I would see you turning toward me, peering over your glasses (yes, I realize you don't need glasses in heaven, but it's my post-mourning fantasy--so roll with it) gruffly telling me to stop wasting my time thinking about such things, I would know soon enough what it was all like when it was my time, focus on living and doing good on Earth, and that you were (of course) right about everything you've ever told me. Then, you would give me a little smile and chuckle, there would be little a twinkle in your eye, and I would (finally) get out of my head and move on with my day. It's been years since even those thoughts were necessary to help me through the grieving process.

Yet, here I am on Easter Saturday night, almost eight years after your death, and...seemingly, out of the blue, a couple hours before I am supposed to be at Mass, I am wracked with gut wrenching, sucker punched filled grief. My mind and heart, suddenly and completely, yearn for you. I am overcome with desperately wanting to see you. Right now. In my living room. I want you to materialize onto the couch. 

The nuances of your physical appearance feel lost to me now: the memory of the exact shade of your eye color has faded away, your hair line, the sound and cadence of your laughter, the shape of your thick black glasses against your eyebrows...time has stolen away what I have tried so purposefully to commit to memory. That I cannot easily call to mind fundamentals which I ought to know so well, lends to the incorrect, though rather pressing belief, that I have somehow failed friendship, and failed love. Like a small child, I am acutely aware, that I will not be consoled by your materialized presence, and become both irrational and inconsolable. Heavy tears stream down my face for a long period of time. I curl up on the rug and cry your name over and over in my head. I don't make an external sound or whimper. It is all too personal for the air to hear. (That sentence doesn't make any sense to me by daylight hours, but it made sense on Saturday night.) What a strange and unusual type of crying this is. Deep confusion sets in as I seek solace from the pillow I am hugging tightly and burying my face against; intellectually stunned and dumbfounded as to why I am so distraught and upset.

Had you actually materialized in my living room, you would have brought me some Earl Grey tea (with honey) and a biscuit. Then quoted Julian of Norwich to me, “All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.” When you had soothed me, and I was composed, I would have looked across to you, to see your eyes brimming over with tears. I wouldn't have needed to ask, "why on Earth are you crying?" Because, I would have already known.  You would have been so moved to see someone love you so much, as to be in such grief at separation from you, that it would strengthen and solidify your belief that such a love must exist in God's heart for you. That emotion would be so overwhelming to your soul, only a response of tears would suffice. I can play out the interactions and conversations that would have unfolded even though you are long gone these many years now. 

In hindsight of a few days, I realize I am so incredibly wrong, that I begin to laugh at the comedic nature of my incorrectness. That scenario would never unfold in the way I imagined, because all your tears have been wiped away. You have no reason to ever doubt, wonder at suffering, feel sadness, or confusion ever again. You now know God's love in its fullness. My imagination is insufficient because I do not know you, as you are now. One day, I will. But for now, who you are in your new will remain, a mystery to me. Oh, how I shall try not to envy you, and simply rejoice.  

It is a curious business, grief. The moment Fr. Vincent told me you had died all those years ago...oh, the scream that left my body as I dropped the wasn't even a scream really. It was a wail. The next day at Lauds, when we prayed De Profundis, I fell again to my knees. Wailing. There was no way to easily explain our friendship, or the anguish that accompanied the blow that had been dealt to my soul. You weren't my grandfather, you weren't my father, you weren't my parish priest, you weren't in a category that would make sense to most people. I doubt most of your religious brothers, or any of my friends, would have known I was sobbing my broken heart out because my 83-year-old priest best friend had died. They couldn't understand the significance my empty mailbox would carry in those months that followed.

When I pray the Psalms now, read, or listen to stories about grieving; and the word "wailing" comes across the page in a text, I call to mind the moments of those first two days. That was what it was like to wail. The first morning I woke up after you died, I remember thinking, "You're not on Earth today. You're not breathing. You don't have lungs to breath!"  For some reason, knowing you weren't breathing any longer bothered me more than anything else about your death. I cried and cried because you weren't breathing. 

Do you remember...a couple weeks before you died, you told me, "Don't think of me as that little grubby caterpillar crawling along the Earth, Anastasia. Imagine me with my wings outstretched, like a butterfly at the Resurrection, finally free, flying higher and higher, toward the beloved, after so much waiting, finally seeing the face of God." Or, when I pleaded, "Fr. Stan, when you are in heaven with the Lord...will you please send me a butterfly? I need to know. I need to."  

"Just one?" you laughed.  
For those first two years after your death, a butterfly came to me in some form, every day. It was absolutely amazing to experience. Every. Single. Day. That's about how long it took to get through the soul crushing part of missing you. Thank you. 

The vulnerability. Can people grasp what this kind of corresponding relationship does to one's soul? If they could, wouldn't they seek such friendships out immediately? To write and receive a letter to and from another human being every week for almost nine opens the most fragile vulnerability, freedom, duty, dependability, depths of acceptance, loving, knowing, take and cherish part of another person, able to cipher their thoughts and feelings like a sieve. Impulsive, heat of the moment impassioned scribble in anger or stress (which will vanish in a fortnight and should be discarded as such), or new onion layers of the soul being revealed, sentences of intense profundity, seemingly innocuous lines, little gems and invitations into the depths of another's inner life, humdrum activities of the day, commentary on world events, witnessing another's triumphs and tragedies, a welcoming to the soft glow of the embers of the soul fire, stoking the flames of trust and companionship brighter and brighter with each passing year. The ritual, the familiarity of the stationery, the comfort of seeing the handwriting of your cherished friend.  How very deeply I wish this type of experience for others.  

So much that has been the best about my life was in my correspondence with you. To be completely uncensored, accepted, and understood by another person is a beautiful gift. You taught me about love, about God, humanity, about poetry and beauty...about myself, about the world, perception, expanding the way I looked at life...much of my becoming a strong and confidant woman came as a result of my friendship with you. I often reflect upon you as my compass-due North back to Jesus through some very difficult storms during that decade.   

And now that our letter writing is no longer dearest Fr. Stan...I read, watch, and listen to other peoples letters... searching for the echoes of familiarity and fulfillment, listening for the intimacy of sharing of souls, of those seeking truth and beauty, of those looking for the face of God in neighbor. I've read all of the books I can find about the world's greatest letters, famous correspondence, any works of fiction about writing back and forth. Last week I listened to a dialogue on BBC called 'My Dear Bessie.The writing and performance was excellent. You would have enjoyed it tremendously. Then we would have talked about how differently their letters would have been if God were actively recognized as part of their lives. If they wrote about God during the war...God and war...some of the conversations we would have had...are still quite predictable. 

I catch glimpses of you every now and then, a moment here or there, but most are hollow echoes...because...they are not your voice, nor your thoughts...many 'nots' that in the end...are simply not you. In new friendships, I still continue to seek you, looking for similar traits in others I suppose. Futile really, and quite unfair of me to do. What a laugh you would have though, for I have become dear friends with one of your brothers who knows Dante well, and finds it unacceptable that I've yet to crack Dostoevsky. Tolstoy is "baby food" evidently. You would be terribly fond of him. You know full well how secretly delighted I was, to be teased, and slightly condescended a sweetly challenging manner (to improve my literary competence). The comment was indeed, "so you."  One of my best girlfriends is busy reading 'The Complete Works of William Shakespeare.' She has such interesting opinions, and you'd find her as fascinating as I do. Your heart for social justice, in that one. She'd give you a run for your money in conversation, and you would happily argue for hours, purposefully baiting her... to critique the defense of her arguments. Then, if triumphant, you would recite a poem for her on the spot.  

Many of your letters have been returned to your community's archives, to be opened 100 years from now. By then we'll both be dead, and anyone we talked about will be long gone.  Most of what you have given me has been passed along to others.

When I really miss you, I open one of your books and read a chapter. Or I drive out to Beluga Point (listening to that cheesy Celine Dion CD you liked) and pray, hoping you are there listening to me through space, time, and dimensionality. Then you lean over to one of your other dear girlfriends up there and say, "Julian, dear, will you please repeat it one more time for her?"  

And she does, "All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well."

IHM, ~Anastasia 

Saturday, February 11, 2017

We Now Return You To Your Regularly Scheduled Life

Some days I feel like my emergency broadcasting system has been activated, tested, tried, and now...what?

I wish I could explain what it feels like to prepare for death, and then just go back to daily living like it was no big deal. It's certainly not a scenario I have any kind of a monopoly on...there are many others who have faced serious illness, wars, and traumatic events that brought them to the moment(s) of facing their own mortality, and then, when those moments had passed, back they every day living.  

Several friends have asked when I was going to write a post surgical update- but until now, I couldn't find the wherewithal to write. I had to go through the first part of the healing process and learn the lessons. 

On The Unexpected: I've been to two funerals in the last few weeks. The first, for an acquaintance, a couple years older than me...who was a cherished husband, and father to two little girls. He was an avid coffee aficionado, and a man deeply beloved in my community as a kind and generous philanthropist. He was constantly working to remember and care for the least among us, and encouraged each of us to do the same. 

The second funeral was for the 3 year old son of one of my best friends. I sat in the hospital room in the predawn of the morning...her recently deceased son lying between us on the hospital bed. We stroked his hair, and marveled at his beautiful, peaceful little body. His mother held him, sending him home to God, amidst ample tears and kisses. The following week, still in somewhat of a daze, the Church was packed full of many loved ones, and his funeral Mass was beautiful.  

This little boy had a terrible start in life, the victim of horrific and incapacitating child abuse at the hands of his biological parents. My girlfriend and her husband adopted him from the foster care system. They wrapped him in constant support and care, everyday, in their large and bustling family. As he came to the end of his brief earthly life, that little soul was cradled and rocked in his mother's loving embrace, as he passed into eternal life. I don't know that I have ever experienced a greater intimacy than being present in that sacred space with a parent who has just lost their child. My girlfriend and I speak very candidly and uncensored about many things (read: pretty much everything).  We mused that her son's resting place, and my future den of earthly repose will join us together with yet another thread of connection. Her son was cremated and interred at the same columbarium where my remains will one day be placed. We joked (but were simultaneously quite serious) about how comforting it was to think that we would be there side by side. He in his carved burled wood urn, and I in my butterfly one. A twofer stop for a prayerful visit...nestled in a garden cloister adjacent to the Church.  

These two deaths reinforced for me, the very strange mystery of the time we are given here on Earth...and that there are many questions we will never have answers to this side of heaven...why do some get to live long lives into old age, while others die so much earlier? How can we make sense of the problems of suffering and evil? Why does {when} death comes seem so deeply unfair, with no discernible rhyme or reason as to who will be chosen for its embrace?

To mentally and emotionally wade through the agonizing pain and excruciating loss that exists in this world can seem to be both nonsensical and emotionally paralyzing. Keeping despair at bay may become a daily challenge. It might strike with morbid wonder what the purpose the life of a small abused child who would die at such an early juncture? What benevolent God allows such suffering? What God creates an innocent child who will know so much pain? Wouldn't it have been better that he had not been born? It is tempting to pridefully rise up in personal comparison to God. To think (as many of us have done, if we are honest)...if we were to be found at the helm of steering all of Creation, we would never allow a child to suffer, as so many do the world over. We would never allow many of the evils that plague our world. We would have done it differently, we would have done a better job at "being God."  It can be easy to fall into the pride of believing ourselves to be wiser than the Creator. With angered broken hearts, we can begin to believe that we would make better choices. If we presume God to be indifferent to the cries and groaning of humanity, eyes turned away from all of us below, then we can fall into the sad state of deeming God unworthy of our worship and devotion. 

When I was younger, I worked in the field of child protection, and my girlfriend, mentioned in this story, still does. We each carry an indelible mark on our souls and psyches at having seen the darkness, and the abyss of evil that exists in the destruction of innocence.  I've had to wrestle with some of the above questions I mentioned, and I still do wrestle through the night, like Jacob and the angel, with a few of the confusing ones from time to time.

I've made as much peace with the lack of satisfactory answers (and with God) as possible, by acknowledging and truly believing a few things: A. free will must exist in order for authentic love to exist. Each human had to be given free will. It is the misuse of this free will (that we each possess) which creates many of the problems, evils, sins, and suffering in the world. The flip side of this, is that we can each (like my girlfriend and her husband) use our free will for all that is good, virtuous, healing, and holy. 

B. I am NOT, in fact, in any way or by any means, smarter, wiser, or a better planner of how the universe should unfold than God is. There was a point at which I had to decide that if I believed my faith was really truth, I had to surrender to mystery. To be able to say (and to mean) to God, "I can't understand your plan God, I don't know why 'xyz' is happening. It makes absolutely no sense to me, I don't know why you allow this, but "Thy will be done." Choosing to accept that I just have to live without a complete/acceptable answer to my burning questions this side of heaven, has been oddly peaceful.  

C. I can only seek to assure you of the one part I am absolutely sure of...the lesson of this little boy's life (and each one of our lives) is about love. I fully trust my senses as they have taken in the experiences of watching many loving parents look upon their children with joy, delight, and deep unconditional love. It is not merely an evolutionary accidental that such a capacity exists within us. My nephew and nieces come to mind...and I think of how I love them with a depth of love I never knew existed in myself until they were born. The capacity for that intensely magnificent pure emotion, duty, dedication, determination, and will their good above my own is God given. If it is God given within our souls, it must first exist within God, God must have those delights and joys for each one of us. If that is the case, then I can never be correct in believing God to be indifferent, disinterested, or deeply cruel in His allowance of suffering. It is overly simplistic to lay out these thoughts late at night, in a mish mash way that cannot stand up to exacting rigors of theological and philosophical scrutiny. There is no truth I need to reinvent within my faith; and my theological, intellectual, and spiritual answers come in understanding the person of Jesus Christ. I have 2,000 years of ancestors who asked many of the same questions, and there are catechetical responses and explanations to all that has been posed.

But I mean something different by what I write here...acceptance? It took years to form and solidify the tools I have: to believe in, by my own discernment, firmly for myself...that my lingering questions about the allowance of the horrors I have seen in real life, and through the news around the globe, will (in many respects) remain unanswered mystery. I will not master the understanding or the scope of God's design, in this Earthly life. But, I will (and do) trust God's love as truth, and want to remain within it.


I imagine and believe it all does make sense...the macro design. At present, all we can see is the underside of a large quilt-the scraggly edges, wayward matted, tangled threads, knots, and the mashed together pieces that don't line up. We have an eternal promise that one day all the tears and pain will be washed away. For the virtues of hope and faith do not exist in Heaven. They are unnecessary because they will have been fulfilled. Of the three theological virtues, only charity will remain. After our deaths, when that divine promise is fulfilled, we may finally be able to turn the quilt over to gaze upon it, in its entirety, of swirling colors, shapes, patterns, and beauty. Then, at long last, we will finally understand that which we were incapable of comprehending (while only viewing the under side of the quilt, from our Earthly lives below). The mystery will finally be solved, and in peace, we will fully admire and appreciate the grand design of God's plan. Which, was love all along.