Reflecting on October with my Mother

My mom recently told me that the last leaves to turn are the Sugar Maples. They turn a brilliant red, an impossible color to describe. She tells me this as we meander our way through a state park on a perfect, October day.

I don’t remember growing up with brilliant Octobers, though my Pakistani childhood in the foothills of the Himalayan mountain range must have had some sort of fall. As I travel back in my memories, I remember pristine snow-capped mountains and tall pine trees that whispered in the spring wind, roared in the summer monsoons, and lay heavy with snow when we left for winter vacation. Fall colors are not in my memory. Fall colors feel quintessentially New England and the October I now experience is the October of my mother.

She grew up in New England. Until she moved to Pakistan she lived in a world of seasons and colors. White, mountain laurel in the summer, golden, red, and orange leaves of the fall, cold snows of the winter, and buds peaking over picket fences in the spring. Or so I imagine.

It was a delight recently to spend time with her – not in New England, but in New York where she now makes her home. My mom is 91, a vibrant, lovely 91. She is an example of aging with an attitude of intentional flexibility. She looks and acts younger than many 75 year olds that I know.

“How are you doing?” I say to her on the phone. “A bit achy,” she replies and then goes on to tell me that she took her walk this morning, finished up a chapter of the book she is writing, and went to Bible Study. She has aged with intention, yet has made room for the inevitable change and losses that come with the word and the reality of a body that is destined for a better world than the one where it currently resides.

Her home is now with my brother and sister-in-law in Rochester, New York. Rochester has its own beauty and the recent weekend that I visited her in October was not a disappointment. We made plans to go to a state park, where miles and miles of roads and untouched beauty are there for pure pleasure.

We meandered along, stopping occasionally to look over a gorge or take pictures of the cascading trees that bent toward the road below. We had lunch at an inn, savoring the food and the time together. We looked out over a waterfall, the spray reaching high above even as the water fell far below.

It was beautiful. These days with her are slow and reflective. We spend time reading her old diaries, talking about our different current realities, and eating at least one decadent pastry during our time together.

Anyone who has walked the journey of watching a parent age knows the bittersweet realities of time together. We watch as a process beyond our control takes away too many things from the person we love. We watch, and inside we sometimes shudder. It is too close to home. It will come for us too. Though not yet, it will come. This we know. This we can count on. But to step away from the shudder, and into the beauty of an aging life is so worth it. To laugh, read old diaries, sit comfortably in the shadow of an Autumn evening, and eat pastries with more whipped cream than a cardiologist could possibly approve of – these are times that won’t be forgotten, times that we will look back on with immeasurable gratitude.

“I’m so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers.”

Lucy Maud Montgomery

It was Lucy Maud Montgomery, creator of the beloved Anne of Green Gables Series who wrote that quotable phrase for all of us to use through these years. As I reflect on my October weekend with my mom, I think “I’m so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers and my mother.”

A Slice of Life in Charlestown – Volume 2: Death, Debts Forgiven, and Fitting Rooms

Two years ago today my father died. There are times in life where you remember exactly where you are at a pivotal moment. I was at work, chatting with my dear friend and colleague, Suzana. My dad had been declining and we knew the end of his life was drawing closer. Still, no matter how much you expect it, you never really expect it. That thin line between life and death; between heaven and earth. It’s a mystery.

I remember him today. It’s a beautiful day here in Charlestown, and he would love where we live. It is Boston at its prettiest in our neighborhood, with gas lamps that shine their light day and night, and neighbors who say hello to each other.

So I remember my dad today and I pause in gratefulness for his life and legacy.

Debts Forgiven

I am always on the lookout for a good story. There are plenty out there, but unfortunately we don’t always hear them. But on Wednesday I heard a great story on forgiven debt.

Evidently a group of churches in Chicago have decided to help almost 6000 people pay their medical debts. The total cost? Around 5.3 million dollars. ⠀ ⠀

In the next few days, each person will receive a letter in the mail with information on the payment and these words “⁣may you have a beautiful, wonderful holiday. Your debt has been forgiven. Enjoy Thanksgiving.”⠀ ⠀

I grow weary of bad news and cruelty, of incompetent leadership and lies at high and low levels of government. I grow weary of petty meanness – in others, yes – but in myself even more. Then I hear a story like this, and I know it does not stand alone. I know there are other churches and other people doing work that matters, living out their faith in actions big and small. And I am convinced that these small acts matter in big ways. These small acts make a difference, and we may never really know of their true impact. ⠀ ⠀ ⠀

One of the ministers from one of the churches involved in the debt relief effort said this about the decision: ⁣”Well, I began to cry because I knew what it would mean for – it was exactly 5,888 people. I’ll never forget that number. I knew what this would mean for them, that it was a new start for people.”⠀ ⠀ ⠀

A new start. Your debt is forgiven. What amazing words those are! The link to the full story is here. You’ll be glad you listened.⠀

Warning: You Are Entering the Fitting Room!

I don’t know about you, but the older I get, the more I believe that fitting rooms need a warning sign. A warning sign that says “The mirror may reflect things that surprise, shock or astound you! Please refrain from sudden outbursts!”

Here’s the back story: We head off to a family wedding in Florida today. I love weddings, I love family, and I love palm trees so I’m looking forward to it.

In thinking through what I would wear, I realized I’d like to look a little firmer. You know that thing called gravity? It creeps around and through you in the oddest ways!

I had limited time, but I was armed and ready – or so I thought. I picked up a few things from the rack of undergarments and headed toward the aptly called “fitting room.” Five minutes later, busy with Lycra and straps, I caught sight of this stranger in the mirror! I shrieked! “By God, who is that? Who is in my fitting room and what is she wearing?” Thankfully the store was short-staffed, so no one came to my aid, because the moment after I screamed I realized that the chubby, wrinkled person in the mirror was me.

How did I get to be HER?

What? How could this be? How could the beautiful, lithe, me who I thought I was be Her of the Stretch Marks and Muffin Top? I gasped in horror. Where is the me who I thought I was?

While those of us who are of a certain age have our own challenges, any female who has reached the age of being able to go to the fitting room alone knows the “thrill of victory and the agony of defeat” that are part of the shopping experience. Too often we women drag along men, expecting them to  make a potentially self-esteem damaging experience easier. It rarely happens and I can’t count how many couples I have watched in the same scenario.  It goes something like this:

She: You don’t like it. (in flat tones) He: I didn’t say I didn’t like it. (in defensive tones) She: But I can tell – you didn’t say anything. If you had liked it you would have said something. He: It’s not whether I like it, it’s whether you like it. She: But I need an opinion. He: Look, I don’t know women’s clothing. I guess I like it. Maybe you need something that doesn’t have stripes. She: I knew you thought I looked fat(in an accusing and hurt tone, eyes welling up). He: I did not say that. She: Let’s just go.

It’s a set-up for failure of both parties. We are desperately looking for words of  affirmation and have a completely unrealistic expectation of what those will sound like. 

But back to my experience looking for undergarments. As I laughed at the stranger in the mirror, I thought about our bodies and our souls. How one can be revived daily, and one is daily losing something. What if I spent as much time on my soul as my body? There is so much to think about in that statement. But I’m not going to unpack it here and now. I’m going to leave you with the vision of me screaming at the me in the mirror. “By God, who is she and what is she wearing?” The person in the mirror started laughing, and strangely – so did I.

Routines & Nesting

We are settling into something of a routine here. Though there are boxes in our cellar, this has become a good place to call home and nest for awhile, and we are loving the neighborhood and this little red house. We have begun family dinners with my daughter, son-in-law, and nephew and we have already had a couple of overnight guests. This is a true joy for us. The neighborhood provides beautiful walks, sunrises, and sunsets in a truly historic area of the city. What a gift!

Kurdistan is close to our hearts but far from our bodies and in moments of honesty we confess to each other how difficult that is. We pray and talk about our friends and Kurdistan all the time, and we are with them in spirit during this difficult time of history.

If you’d like to read more on the Kurds, this is an excellent site: The Time of the Kurds.

I began this post with death, and I will end it with the same by leaving you with a quote from the highly acclaimed novel – Laurus.

“⁣Each of us repeats Adam’s journey and acknowledges, with the loss of innocence, that he is mortal. Weep and pray, O Arseny. And do not fear death, for death is not just the bitterness of parting. It is also the joy of liberation.”

Laurus

“By God! I don’t Know!” – A Post on Aging


We were sitting Kurdish style on the floor, a kerosene stove pumping out heat to keep us warm in the solid concrete building, when the subject of age came up. We were all in good spirits after enjoying a hearty meal of Yaprak, assorted vegetables stuffed with rice and meat and cooked in a lemon sauce, and had begun to drink hot, sweet tea. In Kurdistan, it is not rude to ask someone their age. First it was our host telling us how old he was, then it came to my husband and myself. The younger members of the family all chimed in – 18, 21, 23, 33, 28 – the numbers were called out like a Bingo game at a Catholic Church hall. Finally it was the mom of the house. “How old are you?” said one of her sons. We all looked at her, waiting expectantly.

“By God! I don’t know!” She said. We burst out laughing. I repeated the words after her in Kurdish, marveling at them and wanting to memorize the phrase. The conversation quickly turned to much more important things, like the weather and when the pregnant daughter-in-law would give birth, but I kept on thinking about her response.

What a great response to the question of age! Age is so fickle and so contrary. Time is already a cruel dictator, why must age also be? This woman might not have known her age, but she sure knew that it didn’t matter. “By God! I don’t know!” So many things were said in that one statement!

It doesn’t matter!

Let’s get on with it!

Who cares?

Let’s talk about something else!

It’s just age!

There are a million ways to interpret that one statement!

I turned 59 years old yesterday. Unlike my new friend, I do know how many years I’ve lived. 59 years around the sun. 59 years of trying to figure out what this life is all about. 59 years of growing and hurting and laughing and loving. 59 years of eating, sleeping, and participating in the mundane of life, only to learn that none of it is really mundane – it’s all sacred.

59 years of learning to forgive and working to live at peace. 59 years of learning that discontentment creates far more wrinkles than the sun and envy rots the soul. 59 years of learning the value of friendship and family. 59 years of learning how to live out of abundance not scarcity. 59 years of laughter and joy, 59 years of sadness and tears.

I have birthed five babies on three continents and watched them grow into young adults with their own dreams and sadness and joy. I have lived in four different countries and learned to count to ten and bargain in several different languages. I have hurt people and people have hurt me. I have loved people and people have loved me. I have had days where my stomach ached with laughter and other days where my heart ached with tears. And the days have turned into years and they have both slipped away – sometimes with a lot of drama and other times quietly, like a background person in a television show. You see them, and then they’re gone.

Last night, after birthday cake and a sweet offering of presents from my husband, we watched a couple of episodes of a television show that we have been following during this rainy, Kurdish winter. During a dream sequence, the grandmother in the show is talking to the mom who died two years previously. She is talking about getting older. As they sit companionably on a twin bed in the grandmother’s bedroom, she contemplates aging.

The days slip under the closet and disappear.

Shtisel

These words describe so well the journey of aging. You blink and the days have gone under the closet, never to be retrieved. Unlike dust balls that gather unwanted but always present, the days turn into years and disappear. They slip under the closet and into the memories that each us have, creating tapestries of people, events, and conversations, each tapestry as unique as its owner’s fingerprints.

This past year has taught me much about faith, advocacy, resilience, hope, and joy. I have learned and I have grown. And then just like that, it slipped under the closet and disappeared.  

Fearfully & Wonderfully Body Scanned

doctors-office-1944117_1920

“Take off all of my clothes?” My voice intonates the last word as a question, rather like a child who asks her teacher if she has to complete all of the homework assignment.

I am sitting on an exam table under fluorescent lights in a clinic.  I feel cold, not only because it is an unseasonably cold April, but also because there is a deep loneliness associated with clinic visits and full body scans.

You lie naked as a stranger examines every bit of your skin. They concentrate on freckles, moles, and imperfections with frowns and furrowed brows. A magnifying glass assists them on the troubling areas and a computer helps them document what they see.

I feel an indignity as I wait, a feeling of vulnerability and loss. An indignity manifest in a naked body, the words of Adam and Eve reverberating through the centuries “I was naked and ashamed.”

I am acutely conscious of my own frailty and humanity during these times. I am astute at covering my imperfections, at dressing and acting my part in the world where I daily interact. But these moments erase all of that.

And yet, I have come here voluntarily. I have come here because I know that a short time of discomfort is far better than a diagnosis of a skin cancer. I know this well because a few years ago I was diagnosed with a skin cancer. Caught early, I now bear a beautiful scar, a war wound of sorts reminding me that scars are evidence of battles fought and souls made stronger.

We live in a world where our aging bodies betray us and tell a different story than the story that we feel. We watch as through the years people begin to respond to us differently. First, we are masters of the universe, we are young, and we are beautiful in our youth, even if we are not beautiful in our looks. We walk through this time with little thought to the older among us, or to the ones who have bodies that do not work as ours do. We may interact with a grandmother or a cute, elderly neighbor, but in our age-segregated society, we do not really know them. Out of embarrassment, discomfort, or just plain ignorance we avoid those who are trapped in bodies that do not function the same as ours do.

Then middle age comes along and the jokes begin. “Look how she’s aged” we whisper with giggles, certain that we don’t bear those same marks. But then, we catch sight of ourselves in car windows, and we wonder who we are and how we got so old, so fast. We continue to live, but the reflection that looked back at us from the car window showed us a reality that we would rather avoid.

And then the phone calls begin to come. One friend has had a heart attack; another friend is given four months to live when cancer is found throughout their body. Friends are diagnosed with diabetes and heart disease, arthritis, and cataracts. Funerals that used to be for others are now for us and ours.

We are eternal souls in temporary bodies that will need a new heaven and a new earth to redeem a broken process.

We still think we are immune – except for those now yearly physicals or body scans, where we lie naked before God and a stranger. Perhaps it is in those undignified moments that we realize that we aren’t so different from our friends. Then someday, the phone call will be about us. It’s in those times that we realize the reality of our humanity. Our scars, our freckles, and our moles on our earth suits are more pronounced, and we wonder how it will all end.

My faith tradition affirms that I am “fearfully and wonderfully made”.  And I don’t think that just means the young and able among us. Even as those who are fearfully and wonderfully made, we still need medical exams and physicals, body scans and preventive health checkups. We who are fearfully and wonderfully made need to brush our teeth and wash our bodies, eat healthy foods and exercise. In coming to earth in a human body, Jesus too was bound by his earth suit. He got hungry, tired, and dirty. He needed food, rest, and soap. He watched people get sick and die, and he didn’t heal all of them.

We are eternal souls in temporary bodies that will need a new heaven and a new earth to redeem a broken process.

How does one embrace every stage of life, appreciating what was and what is? How does one move gracefully through these seasons, putting trust in the Creator not the created; believing that there is something profoundly beautiful in our aging bodies? What does a theology of aging look like? What does holiness look like as I face my birthday and my body scan every year?

Before I have figured out the answers to those questions, the body scan is over. I am told that I don’t need to come back for another year. I am left alone with my body and my thoughts in a room that is still cold.

I get up and get dressed, inhaling a breath of thanksgiving. I am fearfully and wonderfully body scanned, and right now, that is enough.

An Old Love

mom and dad

Every night before they went to sleep, my dad would kiss my mom. Even during his final month of life, when he was feeling weaker by the day, the last thing my dad did before he fell asleep was kiss my mom goodnight. They would pray and then he would kiss her. He knew that time was running out and so he got his kisses in before death came and separated them.

My dad was 91 when he died, my mom 89. “I’m so glad we had nothing between us. There were no regrets.” My mom has a far off look in her eyes as she tells me this. They were one in body and spirit, a tremendous heritage to give those who come after you.

Their love was an old love, but it hadn’t always been that way. Old photographs showed their young love, crinkled with time. A faded wedding picture, honeymoon pictures of a young couple by a lake and that same couple climbing a mountain are all evidence that they were young once.

But the years came, and with them five children, then daughters and son-in-law, grandchildren, and finally great grandchildren. Before they could catch their breath, they had an old love.

Old loves are free from the false expectations of youth.  Old love passes by newsstands featuring glossy magazines with covers that guarantee sleek, well-chiseled bodies, amazing sex, and “real love”.  While the images suck others in like dust in a vacuum, old love is oblivious. The world’s obsession with “young lust” and “young love” does not faze them. They travel as beloved ones in their own world, a world that knows better.

I will remember these love gifts forever.  The look my mom would give my dad, a look that whispers so confidently of care and shared understanding that even strangers would know this was born of a lifetime of loving. Or my dad, his formerly strong body broken, still looking out for my mom’s safety.

Theirs was a love that had died a million small deaths to self and false expectations. It was a love that saw others as better than self, and gave people bouquets of forgiveness, something far more costly than roses. It was a love that understood the hard process of aging, and the losses that come with it.

My eyes mist over as I remember their old love; wordless stories of a lifetime of sacrifice and trial; hurt and healing; misunderstanding and forgiveness. Their old love may have limped at the end, but it shouted of strength.

There are many times when my dad wistfully talked about an inheritance and how he wished that he could leave his kids and grandkids more money.  But he left us so much more. He left us a lifetime of loving my mom and that is enough.


 

This is 58

It’s my birthday. One week ago I woke up in a foul mood. It was a mood rife with I hate life and life hates me. I hated who i had been; I hated who I was; I hated who I would become. I began to believe my feelings were truth.

Thankfully I have people in my life who won’t allow me to wallow. (Things like “Snap out of it, ya big baby” might have been said by family members.) Sometimes you need empathy and other times you need to “snap out of it, ya big baby!”

So today I’m here to talk about 58.

What is 58?

It’s a massive thank you to a Mom who birthed me, nurtured me, and continues to love and challenge me in ways she will never know.

It’s a Dad whose memory is eternal; who lived life well until the day his body could no longer go on.

It’s four brothers who live around the world; who model tenacity, joy, and faithfulness to me and to their families. It’s four brothers who teased me mercilessly when I was little, and have my back now that I am older.

It’s four sister-in-laws who love well, who have raised amazing children, who continue to wrestle with the big and hard questions of parenting and faith.

It’s nieces and nephews who I would kill for; who are opera singers and nurses; diplomats and day care owners, who make the world a better place for you and me to live in.

It’s a husband who makes me laugh every, single day. A man who can make friends with an inanimate object like a wall and make that wall feel special, not to mention the people he befriends from around the world. A man who tells stories in virtual reality, prays for and loves his children so much it hurts, and will remember the names of refugees long after he has met them. A man who affirms my writing, challenges my faith, and prays with me every night.

58 is four (no five) adult children who are smart, passionate, and gifted. Who meet the challenges of life with stubborn resolve. 58 is the cutest grandson on ever earth who has a waddle toddle and is growing to be his own person.

58 is the dearest friends from here and around the world that a woman could ever hope for – friends who love the world and their families; who are not caught up in what culture says is worthy and instead fight for what is true, good, and right.

58 is cousins who live as far as Moscow and as close as Washington DC; cousins who are also friends.

58 is a creative job with often horrid bureaucracy; fighting for good healthcare for marginalized communities and pressing forward when it’s hard.

It’s colleagues who make me laugh hard, work harder, and allow me to get mad and cry.

58 is a body that sometimes betrays me, but responds pretty well when I treat it properly; it’s 10,000 steps a day because modern medicine allowed for a bionic hip; it’s wrinkles that I can only partially hide; it’s girlfriends laughing together because we never thought we’d have beards or boobs that hang to our knees. (The boobs that is)

58 is curling up on week nights and watching Stranger Things; it is knowing that grilled cheese served in candlelight with the man you’ve been through hell with is really great.

58 is a church community that I never thought possible; it is entering into Divine Liturgy with the blind, the lame, the deaf, and the troubled. It is working out my faith with a community of broken people, all desperately in need of the Eucharist.

It’s realizing that #metoo is no match for who I really am and no man can truly take away what God said is good;

58 is knowing in the depths of your soul that no matter what, you are God’s beloved and no amount of wrinkles, stretch marks, saggy boobs, or dementia will ever, ever take that away.

58 is you reading this and letting me know in a million creative ways that you care.

And 58 is a Mimosa, calls from Family and friends, and celebrating this thing called life — because tomorrow anything could happen.

58 is pure grace.

Also, I made a little video – watch it if you like!

Sacred Spaces

On Saturday, my youngest daughter, my mom, and I shared laughter and joy in an unlikely space – a women’s fitting room.

We began with tea and decadent sweets at a European tea house and restaurant. In an elegant space we sipped our tea while whipped cream, chocolate, raspberries, strawberries, almond cream, and meringue mixed together in fruit tarts, chocolate mousse cups, and Viennese Torts. It was delightful in every way.

Satisfied and full of whipped cream we headed off to shop for dresses for my mom. Some may say that dress shopping after whipped cream is not a good idea. They would be wrong.

Earlier in the day my mom looked at my dad and said “I’m going to buy a dress.” She added, slightly defiantly “I might even buy two dresses!” He looked at her from his recliner, nodded, and without hesitating said “One for my funeral and one for your birthday.”

Just one day prior, my father had officially gone on hospice. Hospice – where you know the end is near, but you don’t know how near; when what you’ve done all your life to keep as healthy as possible changes. Instead, you weigh the options with the goal to be as comfortable as possible as you journey toward the end.

It doesn’t matter how much you have sat and talked with friends who have lost parents, when it happens to you, it’s all new. It is a new map with a final destination. The stops along the way are sacred and hard. They include both hard talks and soft moments; funeral plans and sipping tea.

So this weekend held the hard and the soft. The tea, whipped cream, and dress buying was the soft.

We marched in to the store with a purpose: Two dresses. One for a funeral. One for a birthday party. My daughter and I scooped up florals and plains, ones with little jackets and others with none; navy, teal, tan, and burgundy. We loudly found the fitting room and the fun began.

The old clothes came off and the new were tried on. Over and over we erupted into oohs and aahs followed by laughter.

“That’s beautiful Grandma!”

“Well, it would be if it zipped up.”

“Oh.”

“Try this!”

“I look like an old lady!” (My mother is not old. She is 89.)

All three of us looked in the mirror. Three generations stared back.

You’re right! You look like Grandma K!” (Grandma K is my maternal grandmother.)

“And I look like you!” (That was me looking in the mirror.)

“And I look like Marilyn!” (That was my daughter looking in the mirror.)

We women know what it is to watch our bodies change. We have watched this all our lives. We see ourselves in mirrors and sigh, even as we know that mirrors can never tell the true story of our bodies; will never reveal true beauty. True beauty is revealed through the eyes of another.

Women’s fitting rooms can be horror shows or sacred spaces. When we are alone with our own thoughts and imperfections, it’s like watching a horror show unfold. The aging female body, with its bulges and bruises, scars and wrinkles does not do justice to the lives we have lived, the loves we have known, and the sorrows we have wept over. But when we are with those who love us and see us through the eyes of love, those horror shows become sacred spaces of laughter and love. Each bulge and scar is a badge of honor, for battles won – or lost, but at least fought.

The same is true as we walk through death and the dying process. It can be a horror show or a sacred space. We, along with the person dying, bear witness to bodies that betray their owners. We can no longer laugh about bulges and scars, because each breath is a labor. But when we walk this same journey and see it through the eyes of love, it becomes a sacred space, a sacred journey.

My mom now has a funeral dress. When she put it on my daughter and I gasped and said “You look like the queen!”

The truth is that I wish she would never have to wear it. I wish that life didn’t include death. I wish that all of this was easier. I wish our world wasn’t broken. I wish there was no Aleppo.

But my wishes will not make it so. Instead, I will choose the sacred space. I will walk this sacred journey with all the love I can. And while I do I will drink tea, eat whipped cream, and thank God for the joy of generations in a women’s fitting room.