Crossing The Road

It was sort of a sick joke really. ‘Well, at least it can’t get any worse,’ I’d say. But then it just kept getting worse. The kid got sicker. The marriage got uglier. The husband got meaner. So I switched it up after awhile, ‘Hey, even Job caught a break…eventually…’

It wasn’t funny. Hell never is. And that’s where I was. Then one day I ran across a book and in that book was a quote. One little line from the Psalms that caught my eye and sent me digging for the battered bible that the sisters at Our Lady of Mount Carmel had given me back in 1982 when I made my First Communion. I bought a journal and started writing again for the first time in years. That one little line from Psalm 34 touched off a chain reaction that flipped my life upside down.

‘The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and those who are crushed in spirit, He saves.’
Yup. That was me alright. Crushed and brokenhearted.

I took my life back. Some days it’s been one minute at a time. I’ve been rebuilding ever since and I’ve had to fight for every blessed step I’ve taken. I’ve had plenty of days when I’ve been wiped out, beat down, used up and empty but I’m still standing.

I’ve met a handful of people in my life with a fierce fire in their eyes. A combination of faith, trust, and deep desire sort of all kindled into one huge bonfire. When I was a kid, I asked for that same fire. I kept asking until things got hard and I gave up on God. But over the last few years, I started asking again. Deep down, I still want it. I don’t really know what I’m asking for, so that prayer has been ‘I want what they got… God, you know what that is.’

So here I am seven years later feeling sometimes like I’ve gone nowhere. And on the outside, maybe that’s how it looks. I have my critics who are happy to point that out. But on the inside, I’m in a whole new space and every time I run across that line from Psalm 34, I look over my shoulder to see just how far I’ve come. Now there’s a new road on the outside too. Not an easy one to follow.

‘God is leading me to a crossroads,’ I told my friend.

‘My dear friend,’ she replied, ‘It is not a crossroad. You have to cross the road. Take the chance. You will…eventually. You just need some time to get used to the idea. Six months maybe?’

I know where this new road goes… or at least I think I kinda sorta know. I do know my whole life is going to get flipped upside down – AGAIN. But for the first time, everything that has happened in my life up to this point has a place, even my biggest screw-ups. Nothing is left over. Nothing is useless. Nothing is wasted. I feel like I’ve finally come home. Without thinking, the words flew out of my mouth, ‘I’ve waited my whole life for this!’

One of those people with that fire that I want heard me and said to me, ‘Ah…when I hear that, I know we need to talk…’

No sooner had those words left my lips than that voice popped into my head, ‘Oh shit! You don’t think ACTUALLY think God would let you get there, do you?! Doesn’t He know you better than that?’

Damn that Gremlin! He managed to plant that thought: What if I’m wrong…? And if I am wrong, am I strong enough to handle being crushed again?

And yet… perhaps even more frightening…

What if I’m right?

Stuff My Dad Taught Me


I could spend this weekend trying to avoid Father’s Day. I’d actually gotten quite good at avoiding it over the years. Seems kind of stupid really. After all the good times we had, why would I try not to remember? (She types bravely with a tissues close at hand.) I was looking at some of my favorite old pictures and ran across this one. I was 11 and we were in Kansas City then. I still remember that Christmas Eve. It was cold, as in 15 degrees below zero cold and that was actual temperature. Cold, as in we got to church for Midnight Mass and the water in the baptismal font was frozen. I don’t mean it had a thin crust of ice on top. It was frozen into one big solid block or as Dad put it, “Holy ice cube, Batman!”

That was also the year that the RA first acted up although the doctors wouldn’t find it for another 26 years. In that picture, he’s got my hand completely wrapped up in his because mine were so cold, they’d turned white. He said he could feel the cold on the other hand right through his flannel shirt. Everything hurt that night. When Mass was over, my knees and ankles hurt so bad, I could hardly walk. Dad left Mom and I in the church while he brought the car around. He carried me to car, stopping to let me swipe my fingers across the the holy ice cube on the way out. When we got home, he carried me inside and he sat on the couch next to me holding my ankles in his hands because the warmth made them feel better. It’s funny looking back, I don’t remember anything I got for Christmas that year or for my birthday a few months later. What I remember was his tenderness and his mischievous sense of humor. I hear that same sense of humor from Eugene on a regular basis and Andrew inherited that big heart of his. I can only imagine how much fun they would’ve had with their grandpa, and how much trouble they would’ve caused together.

So instead of avoiding Father’s Day, and with only a little sniffling, here are a few of the things Dad taught me in the 14 years I had him and the things I try to pass on to my boys.

Practical jokes break up the monotony of life. They require forethought and careful planning. Some also require an escape plan.
(He had his car keys in his pocket, ready to roll and flipped the ceiling fan on high over the receipts Mom was carefully sorting for tax time. It looked like snow. She yelled and we ran like hell. We spent the rest of the day at the mall. He cooked her favorite dinner later to make up for it.)

Read. Read everything. Read it over and over. Read until you can recite it. Reading is knowledge and one of the greatest joys in life.

Reach for the books on the higher bookshelves. Teach your kids to do the same.

When you read to a kid, use THE VOICES. Yeah, you know which ones.

Beauty is everywhere, even in the ugliness. You only have to open your eyes and see it.

Never pass up a chance to do something kind for someone. It’s the little things in life that mean the most.
(He used to bring my mom two cups of coffee in bed every morning on a pretty little tray he’d bought for her on one of his trips to Belgium.)

Knowing all the constellations is wonderful, but sometimes you just need to look up at the stars in awe.

Whenever you have the chance to take in a scenic vista, do it. Stop. Get out of the car and breathe in the view. You may never pass that way again.
(I mean this quite literally. On the way from Connecticut to Indiana, we stopped at Niagara Falls. He talked me into going on the Maid of the Mist and I still remember breathing in the spray. I’ve never been back.)

Learn the names of the wildflowers. Leave them where God planted them.
(He taught me that one only after I had picked a big handful of bloodroot. Yuck!!)

Take the time to look at the flowers. They may wilt by tomorrow.

Learn the names of the birds in the back yard. Sing back to them.
(I have lovely conversations with the mourning dove who lives in the tree behind my garage. The neighbors think I’m a wee bit odd.)

Catching bugs is fun, so long as you let them go.

Wild animals are meant to be wild, not caged. Predators aren’t cruel. They only hunt for food and they are part of the balance in nature.
(Beauty in the ugliness. I’ve developed a particular fondness for the osprey that hunts in the Stratford Marsh.)

Praying isn’t something to do in church on Sunday. It’s as all day, every day conversation.

Learn to be quiet. That’s when you hear God.
(Dad’s habit of a 5 AM coffee on the back porch makes more sense to me with every passing year.)

Read the Bible. Read it so much you know whole passages by heart. Someday, you’ll need those words when the book isn’t close by.

Never quote the Bible to score points in an argument. Using God’s words to win man’s arguments is the utmost sign of ignorance and arrogance.

Sometimes life gets so absurd, all we can do is laugh. And that’s okay. God has a sense of humor, so should we.

Sing. God gave you that voice and it’s beautiful to Him.
(Either that or God is deaf, I haven’t quite decided that one for myself yet.)

Bad stuff happens in life. It’s not God’s fault. Someday we’ll understand why.

Death is part of life. It’s not goodbye. It’s see you later.

Blind Ashes

I spent the last few days pulling together pictures to make a video scrapbook for my son Andrew’s fifteenth birthday. As I worked my way through the project, I realized I don’t have many photos from before 2007. When I walked away from my house and a bad marriage, I left nearly everything I owned behind, including box upon box of baby pictures. At the time, I simply did what needed to be done. To move in with Mom and Cathy, to sign away the house, to walk away with nothing but my name, to start rebuilding my life for myself and my boys: I’ve been told it was a bold and courageous thing to do. To my mind it was survival, plain and simple.

I tend to do that, to slip into survival mode. I come through hell, never look back and several years later I’m suddenly looking around wondering why I’m covered in ashes. Going through all those old pictures, I found a lot of ashes.

Every week during my pregnancy, my sister Kitty called me. She lived in Maryland and she was as excited as I was about my first baby. I mailed her copies of the ultrasound pictures and we ran through baby names. As my due date grew closer, our phone calls got longer and it wasn’t unusual for us to talk until the phone batteries would give out. The Wednesday before Mother’s Day was one of those nights. Kitty and I laughed about all the joys of late pregnancy, in particular having baby feet perpetually wedged in my ribcage. She told me that she was planning to come and stay with me for a few weeks after he was born. ‘I won’t come when he’s born,’ she said, ‘everybody comes then and you’ll have plenty of help. I’m going to come later, maybe for his Baptism and stay. That’s when you’ll need the most help.’ The phones started beeping in low-battery protest shortly after that. We said our I love you’s and hung up. I never talked to her again. On Saturday morning, Mom and Cathy knocked on my door at 7 AM. Kitty was gone. She’d died suddenly of a massive heart attack sometime Thursday night. The police found her on Friday. I literally felt my heart break. It was pain compounded when the doctors declared me too close to my due date to travel to the funeral. The day of her funeral, I was home screaming into a pillow on the living room floor, devastated by shock and grief.

Three weeks later Andrew was born. I refused the epidural. My tremendous fear of needles trumped the pain of labor and delivery. When he was born, the doctor laid him in my arms for only a moment. He had aspirated fluid and they wanted him rushed to NICU for observation. I was blind from the pain and while I heard his first cries, I couldn’t see him. Then they whisked him away. Two hours later, I was feeling weaker rather than stronger and the doctor, fearing I was bleeding internally, knocked me out so she could do stitches if necessary. She told me to count backwards from ten. I got to ‘ni…’ and everything went black.

Then Kitty was there with me. ‘I told you I’d come,’ she told me. ‘Wait until you see him, Chris, he’s perfect! He had the biggest blue eyes.’

‘You bitch! You cheated! You saw him first!’ But I was glad she’d seen him. ‘He’s okay? They took him away.’

‘He’s fine. Daddy’s with him.’ Dad had died eleven years earlier but somehow I knew what she said was true. ‘He’s breathing beautifully. He’s so precious.’

We talked about other things too but before she left me, she promised she’d stay with us. Maybe it was nothing more than a drug induced dream but it didn’t feel like one. When I finally came to, several hours later, that rip in my heart wasn’t quite so raw. Once I was upstairs in my room, they brought Andrew to me. Sure enough he had the biggest, brightest blue eyes and he was wide awake.

As I’m working on the video and pulling together pictures, I can’t help but think how much my life has changed in the last fifteen years. The hopes and dreams I had as a new mom at 25 seem so very far way from the way life has turned out at 40. Andrew is heading off to high school in the fall and Eugene isn’t all that far behind him. It’s been in the back of my mind since I turned 40 that Kitty was only 43 and her son was only 17 when she died. I find myself more and more aware of what things I want to pass on to my sons. As I talk to guidance counselors and teachers, I have a growing realization that I’m more concerned with raising intelligent, kind, compassionate, spiritually grounded young men than I am about raising successful A students. That usually doesn’t translate well in parent-teacher conferences but then I’ve always been one to do things my own way.

Now with Andrew’s birthday looming and memories of Kitty lurking, I decided I needed to go out and get lost this morning. I filled up the gas tank and queued up some new music, Ruthie Foster’s Let It Burn to be precise. There’s nothing better then a little blues gospel on such a perfect day for a long winding drive through the Naugatuck Valley. As I drove, I passed many old overgrown cemeteries with the lively new spring grass having little respect for the forgotten and neglected memorials of those long dead. I couldn’t help but think about how much birth and death have intertwined in my life. Dad died on my birthday. His funeral was on Kitty’s birthday three days later. It was an odd bond that we shared as sisters. Then too, Kitty’s death will be forever linked to both Mother’s Day and to Andrew’s birthday. And yet, every year the calendar slap in the the face becomes less about what I’ve lost and more about what remains, namely the love and guidance of my father and my big sister.

Years ago, my friend John told me, that having experienced neither in his immediate family, he considered me fortunate to have known so intimately the two greatest miracles of life: birth and death. I couldn’t, or perhaps wouldn’t, see it at the time. I know now that he was right all long. I just needed to rub the ashes out of my eyes.

Mary Margaret ‘Kitty’ Pelfrey 20130601-165719.jpg