Saturday, July 21, 2012

Catholic Infertility: Separate but Equal?

I am having a hard time wrapping my mind around an interesting phenomenon that I have started to notice.  It would appear that being infertile, or more specifically, being a childless married couple, is not seen as a big a tragedy as it is made out to be in non-Catholic circles.  I am strictly going off my own experience here, of course.  For years I participated in a secular online forum for adoption and then infertility.  Towards the end of last year, when our journey took us to a new option, I found it necessary to seek a forum where life is appreciated as starting at conception, and human embryos are recognized as distinctly and fundamentally different from the gametes that they are conceived from.  So for almost a year now, I've also been involved with an online community for Christian women struggling with infertility.  And while I found exactly what I was looking for in terms of their Pro-Life stance, and it has been wonderful to have our shared faith in Christ central to our decision-making process as well as dealing with grief, I've noticed something that wasn't much of an issue before.  Most of the women on this forum are Protestant, and I've found that when I bring up a uniquely Catholic view, it is not received the way I would hope.

For instance, I will not find encouragement in turning to Mary for her intercession.  At best, my comment will not get picked up.  At worst, I will have opened a can of worms regarding how asking Mary to pray for me is idolatry (while asking friend to pray for me is not ;) )  Also, when it comes to making certain decisions regarding what treatment options to pursue, there is a lot of freedom of conscience on the Christian forum, which I applaud.  In fact, there have been some controversial subjects discussed, and for the most part, everyone is able to say their piece but agree to disagree.  But if I'm trying to be in line with a Catholic teaching, it doesn't do me much good to hear 20 different opinions on whether or not it would be morally appropriate to use a surrogate, for instance, when all I really need to hear is the opinion of Christ's church.

Don't get me wrong; I have no qualms about either forum.  However, neither is a Catholic environment, and as I have grown deeper in my faith, I'm finding that it does make a difference whether or not the company I keep or the books I read are Catholic or not.  That's not to say that I will now shun my non-Catholic friends and burn all secular books, by any means!  But it does mean that when it comes to something as personal and intertwined with my identity as the unfulfilled desire for a child, then it does matter where I find my support.

So what's the problem?  Aren't there Catholic forums out there?  Yeah... this is where my dilemma comes in.  I have tried on multiple occasions to become involved with one such forum, only to find the posters there completely unconcerned with being sensitive to others' feelings, and God forbid you actually question a Catholic teaching.  I am of the opinion that questions are healthy, and they help one grow in one's faith.  I am not unique in this.  I once attended a talk by a Catholic priest, Father Joe Breighner, author of a book called "Does it all Make Sense? 10 Best Guesses about the Meaning of God and of Life", who encouraged spiritual seekers to ask the tough questions. But I digress.

On the Catholic forum, first of all I found there is no separate place for discussion of infertility.  It's a hodgepodge where everyone can comment on every which topic you can imagine.  This is fine and dandy, except that what inevitably ends up happening is that everyone thinks they can share some pearl of wisdom on a topic they have zero personal experience on, and then they get upset with you for trying to steer the conversation to a more appropriate angle and accuse you of only wanting to hear what you want to hear.  Yeah, I only want to hear comments that are respectful, relevant, and sensitive.  I thought that was a given.

The other handful of people I've "met" there who indeed have struggled with infertility or are even childless after 40+ years of marriage, don't seem to consider it as big a part of their lives as the posters I've met on the secular or Christian sites.  I've started a group for married but childless couples, yet no one feels the need to join.  And frankly, this extends into real life as well.  At our parish, we ran an ad for a month trying to start a support group for people going through infertility, and did not get a single taker.

I have to wonder - is there something inherently different about being Catholic and infertile?  Is there a stronger faith?  Is there less focus on the self?  Is there a better ability to join one's suffering, grief, and disappointment with Jesus on the cross?  Does the fact that Catholicism includes vocations to the priesthood and consecrated life, not just family life, make being married without children seem less obvious, less hurtful?

And then the elephant-in-the-room question arose in my mind; Have I allowed this one aspect of my life to completely take over everything else in my life?  Have I allowed infertility to define who I am in the sight of God?  Have I forgotten everything else that kept me going in life before I became fixated on having children?  Is my inability to find an ideal niche of a support group, one that would join Catholicism and infertility, a gift from God?  Is this perceived dilemma God's way of telling me that I seriously don't have anything to complain about?

One of the classic faux pas in infertility support circles is that you do not tell someone grieving the loss of their fertility to look on the bright side.  You do not compare their suffering with the suffering of others.  You do not point out all the blessings they could be grateful for.  This is considered belittling a person's feelings, and everyone has a right to their feelings. Hmmm... and now as I reread that, other thoughts come to mind... political correctness, enabling, short attention span.  Let me explain.

Political correctness is all about being tolerant about other people's opinions, because you don't want to hurt their feelings.  I was very "PC" at one time, being careful not to step on any toes.  But what ends up happening if you take this to the extreme is that right and wrong become relative.  There's no moral truth anymore.  You can't correct someone's action for fear of it hurting their feelings, even if the action hurts their soul.  I never understood why anyone would be against being "PC", but now I do.  Certainly, one ought to be civil and respectful towards even those one disagrees with, but this should not involve compromising one's beliefs or withholding one's own opinions.  Proper civil conduct is truly an art that not a lot of people master.

As for enabling, this involves the idea that you can love someone too much.  For instance, say a loved one has an addiction problem, and in order to help them feel loved, you allow them to continue down a dangerous path when you could try to speak up, prevent access to the source of the addiction, or even insist on them getting help.  You think you're helping them because they continue to "feel good", but in the long term, you're just perpetuating the problem.  The antidote to enabling is "tough love".  Not terribly popular because it creates uncomfortable feelings, but very useful in terms of life lessons and long term goals.

Finally, by a short attention span I am not insinuating ADD or ADHD, since I don't know enough about the condition.  I mean that in general, we in the US are a culture that thrives on being entertained and/or challenged.  If we aren't being entertained or challenged, we get bored and give up.  Passive entertainment such as television watching tends to be preferred over reading a good book.  The average American will go through 5 career changes (careers, not jobs), often because they get bored at their current job and seek a new challenge.  Now, there is nothing wrong with that, unless you cannot sit still long enough to reap the rewards of patience and perseverance.  Yes, even mundane tasks have the ability to be rewarding if one is looking for solitude, reflection, mediation. But as a culture, we are not encouraged to do so because we are not taught the value of "slow living".

A quick anecdote - for over a year, I church hopped and could never be satisfied with a place of worship that "felt" right to me.  I was looking for an emotional paradise, but I had no idea how to find it.  When I finally realized that there was always going to be something I didn't like, I returned to the Catholic church for better or for worse, and chose to serve God by going to church instead of going to church to be entertained.

At any rate, as I sit here thinking about how our fixation with making everyone feel good has contributed to my expecting to have my feelings over infertility validated, I am starting to consider that perhaps reverting back to Catholicism was one of the best things I could've done on my infertility journey as well as my spiritual journey.

I've realized bits and pieces of this truth before, especially courtesy of my mom (whom I've blamed for being too insensitive to my feelings!), but only now am I starting to see how this can have a life-altering impact on a person's perspective on life.  Infertility is my cross to carry.  Others have different crosses.  If we all isolated ourselves and moped around about our lot in life, not only would nothing constructive get done about it, but we'd also fail to look for the hidden blessings God has placed among the obstacles.

I'm not talking about the sort of annoying things that well-meaning fertile people tell infertile people: you can travel! Or, you can sleep in on the weekends!  I'm talking about much more important blessings.  In my case, our 9 years of marriage without children has allowed Alex and me to grow in our relationship in a way that few people do.  We are realizing the joy of the Sacrament of Marriage more fully by not having children, because we have had to find meaning in our marriage outside the stereotypical purposes given: to procreate and educate children.  Also, the hurts along the way, and there have been many, have forced us to our knees, quite literally.  We each have a closer relationship with the Lord than either of us did when we first married.  We pray together regularly.  We enjoy attending church activities together.  We are able to get involved with causes like the Green Team at our church (an environmental effort that is part of an organization called GreenFaith) because we have the time.  That is not to say that people with children can't or don't experience these blessings.  The point is that WE, by being the people that we are, with our particular personalities and preferences, wouldn't be who we are today had we been blessed with children early in our marriage.

For the first time, I'm looking at our infertility through the lens of Catholicism, and I see that they're not two separate aspects of my identity, like being Polish and a woman.  Rather, being Catholic is paramount, because through our faith we are able to reach God, to serve Him, and to seek His will.  There is nothing about being a parent that can compare to being a child... of God.

Luke 9:23

Then [Jesus] said to everyone: “If anyone is willing to come after me: let him deny himself, and take up his cross every day, and follow me."

Friday, July 20, 2012

Don't believe everything you hear.

Take everything with a grain of salt.  These are good lessons to keep in mind while going through life, and it's important to remember that no one and nothing is exempt from their wisdom.  We've heard the cliches: lawyers lie, as do used car salesmen, and politicians cheat, as do auto mechanics.  But these are sweeping generalizations that are unfair to those lawyers, salesmen, politicians, and mechanics who actually live godly lives.  What's more, it muddles our expectations as to where we can expect to find lies and cheating.  Newslfash: innocent people go to jail.  This means that one or several of the people involved along the way did not do their due diligence: the arresting police officer, the attorneys, the judge, the jury, the expert witnesses.  You may think that I watch too many crime shows, but you know what they say... life imitates art.

Furthermore, we may think that we live in a free society, but really, this depends entirely on who you are and what your personal beliefs are as they compare to the status quo.  For instance, I think that teenaged premarital sex is more dangerous than having a glass of wine or a bottle of beer with dinner.  Yet I dare you to serve beer or wine at a Prom afterparty to the same kids who can pick up free condoms at their high school's nurse's office.

We are so free, in fact, that if you're a law-abiding citizen, you're not getting the full extent of the benefits afforded you under this premise.  After all, if you trespass into your neighbor's fenced-in yard and slip and fall into their pool, you have the right to sue your neighbor.  Think I'm making it up?  Read this: .

Oh, and while we're on the subject, you may THINK that you are innocent until proven guilty, that the burden of proof lies with the prosecution, and that there need to be all three aspects of a crime needed to convict a jury of guilt (motivation, opportunity, means), but only if the person accusing you of a crime is a) an adult and b) the alleged crime cannot be defined as abuse or neglect.  Otherwise, everything you learned in civics class goes out the window, and you have no way to defend yourself.  Don't believe me?  Just google "child protective services" and "false accusations".  All it takes is a child's say-so, and you're toast.  Even worst if the child in question is yours, because they will take your kid.

Speaking of the "authorities" taking away parent's children... kind of brings us back to this notion of "freedom", doesn't it?  No one will disagree that it is morally and legally WRONG to abuse or neglect a child in one's care.  The tricky part lies in who gets to decide what constitutes abuse and neglect.  Think that discipline is only a controversial subject in parenting circles?  Think again.  If you so much as smack your child's hand away from the cookie jar, they may be spending some time in foster care.

The government also tells you how you can and cannot arrange your home. How do I know?  We have a finished basement with a sliding glass door leading to the back yard, a door closing it off, and a private bathroom.  In the past, we've used it as a summer master suite to keep us cool.  When going through a homestudy to be approved to foster or adopt, we were told that we did not have three bedrooms, as we had thought, because a room without a window cannot be considered a bedroom.  Now, I don't know what they had against the sliding glass door doubling as a window... it lets natural light in, and it certainly is much more handy as an emergency exit than a window.  But there was no talking common sense with social services... a pattern I have now seen repeat itself ad nauseum.

Not convinced that we're not really free?  See here:  And if you still believe what the authorities tell you "because they said so", well, all I can say is vaya con Dios, amigo. Vaya con Dios.

Joshua 24:15b
But as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Becoming an adult

I remember approaching my 30th birthday still wondering when I would finally start to feel "like an adult".  I was married, we lived in our own house, I was working full time and going to graduate school... it appeared for all intents and purposes that there was no question; I was an adult.  And yet I didn't "feel" like it.

Now, several years later, I've been able to isolate the feeling and rename it.  It's not so much that I didn't feel like an adult, but rather that I felt hindered by my past experiences.  Sadly, this continues to this day.  My own personality has limited my being able to fully experience life.  I'm slowly figuring out where this sense of incompleteteness is coming from, so that I can address it once and for all.

Growing up, I was an only child in a household full of adults for 2 very crucial years of my life.  At the age of 6, my father emigrated out of Poland in search of better economic opportunities.  Shortly thereafter, my mother and I both got carbon monoxide poisoning in our condo, and we moved in with my maternal grandparents.  Also in the household were my maternal great-grandmother and my mom's 22 year old sister.  I had 4 cousins at the time, but all on my dad's side, so in this household, I was the apple of everyone's eye.

I was regularly told what a great little girl I was - well-behaved, intelligent, pretty.  So far, nothing wrong with that, right?  In fact, I know plenty of people would have happily switched places with me.  I was never left with a babysitter, since there was always a relative around to take care of me.  And when I say "take care of me", I literally mean it - take an active interest in me, play with me, teach me things.  No one just sat me in front of the TV... cable was having 2 channels back then, and children's programming only came on at prescribed times of the day (namely, "dobranocka" shortly before kids were expected to go to bed, around 7pm).

I accompanied my grandmother out on the town to the farmer's market, downtown, to the park.  On one such outing, she managed to sneak me into a private music school interview, where I listened to a lady play some keys on the piano as I named them.  Before I knew it, I had been admitted to start "0" grade there.  It may sound like just another name for kindergarten, but make no mistake about it, Zero Grade had an academic curriculum, with pre-algebraic concepts and everything.

I followed my great-grandmother around the house as she went about doing her chores.  Hanging laundry outside to dry stands out in my mind, as it took up most of the front yard. She kept a vegetable garden in the back, and we'd go there to pick ingredients for dinner.  We also had plum trees lining the sides of the house, which I climbed for fun and picked for food.  There was a huge walnut tree in the front, and no walnuts you can buy in the store compare to the freshly picked and cracked walnuts that are still moist and slide right out of their thin coating.

My aunt used to play various games with me, "Post Office" being one that stands out in my mind.  It's a wonder I didn't end up working for the post office when I grew up.  My grandpa worked nights, but I do remember watching soccer games with him on TV.

Whenever my mom got a letter from my dad, we'd sit around coffee for adults and tea for me, with some delicious tort or other sweet delicacy, as my mom put on a show by reading the letter out loud, acting out any parts that begged to be acted out.  In fact, I actually coined a term for these sorts of gatherings: "kawka", or "little coffee". We'd also go to her friend's house for scheduled phone conversations with my dad.  We didn't have a telephone at home, so we'd go over to Ciocia Gosia's and wait for my dad to call.

I have always referred to my childhood as idyllic, because I don't remember any drama, I was healthy and safe, and have lots of pleasant memories to boot.  So why am I talking about this as some sort of hinderance to my feeling like an adult at age 30?

When my mother and I immigrated to the US when I was 8 years old, you can imagine that the people I spent a lot of my time with at school in this new place did not share my family's high regard for me.  Not knowing the language, I couldn't have been called intelligent by people who didn't know what I thought or understood.  Good looks were apparently based on a different standard here, starting with name brand clothing and premature sexualization of  children. (It was appropriate to ask preschool aged children if they had a "boyfriend" or "girlfriend" here, something completely unheard of in Poland. Dating was taken seriously, and children do not date.)  And my previously polite behavior would do nothing in the way of teaching me how to stand up for myself to being bullied.

In one incident I remember early on, I was outside our apartment complex playing with some neighborhood kids in the snow.  This was the winter of 1986 in the DC metro area, and there had been a huge blizzard with tons of snow.  I don't remember the details of how it came about, but one of the boys punched me in the face.  Bizarre, I know.  I remember not crying, but standing there for a minute completely shocked, having never been in a violent situation before.  Once I shook off the shock, I went home and told my dad, who followed me outside and asked who punched me.  But when I pointed at the boy who punched me, I did not see the reaction I had expected.  Instead of my dad going up to the boy to give him a talking to, or to locate his parents, my dad admonished me under his breath for pointing my finger.  You see, pointing was considered rude, and apparently politeness was king, even when you were punched in the face.

At any rate, this set up the drastic culture shock that would shadow me for years to come.  I had to learn a whole new set of values from my peers, and unfortunately my parents were not privy to the new information. They didn't understand the new culture any more than I did, and I couldn't turn to them for help in navigating the often confusing terrain.  Trying to live up to two different sets of expectations, one at home and one at school, I didn't end up perfecting either one.

And so I grew up a shy child, one who kept to herself and never learned to defend herself from bullies.  My parents never knew I was being bullied in school.  I didn't think they'd understand, or worse, believe me.  I don't know why I thought this, but I did.  So my self-image went from being the center of everyone's attention in a good way to being the butt of Polak jokes, with the worst insult coming in 8th grade from a boy who called me "it", putting my budding femininity into question.

My adult years, I now realize, have been spent trying to regain that first sense of importance that I got from my family in the first 8 years of my life.  I am now coming to terms with the fact that while idyllic, that self-image was not realistic and did nothing in the way of preparing me for real life. For years into my adulthood, my grandmother would continue to insist that I was "smarter than", "prettier than", "better behaved than".... but what good was it for me to walk around looking down my nose at everyone else?  Life has to be lived among others, not trampling on top of them.

To be fair, I do understand that my relatives only taught me what they felt was missing in their own upbringing. Now that I know why I am the way I am (shy yet snobbish), the hard part is trying to undo or redo years of thinking and believing and acting one way, and learning a whole new way of being.

One of my early claims of adulthood, during Army's basic training.

Luckily, I have my husband for that.  Yet it is nonetheless a difficult process.  Starting to feel like an adult won't magically happen because of a PhD, a respectable job, a certain amount of money, or being a mother, goals I previously thought would do the trick. No, it has to come from within.  And this will involve removing myself from my comfort zone and taking risks.  To do that, a strong faith will be indispensable, so I am trying to lean heavily on it. 

Phillipians 4:13
I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Acceptance a stage of grief

This week will be one month since the passing away of my best friend.  Two days ago I realized, as I lay in bed at night, that it was the first day I went without crying over her loss.  Now, I still thought of her that day, but it would seem that I am finally starting to reach the acceptance stage of the grief process.  I managed to escape the anger phase, which is certainly good.  I realize that there will be times when I will think of her and still tear up, once again realizing how much I miss her and how important she was in my life.  But life does go on.  Immediately after hearing of her passing, I was not open to hearing these sorts of words of wisdom.  It struck me as most insensitive when someone told me "that's life".  Obviously, but how is that comment helpful to a grieving person?  Still, I am now able to hear such a comment and agree with it.  The timing and circumstances came as a surprise, but certainly we are all headed to the same destination - eternal life.

Rachel's beautiful final resting place

So while I do feel a tiny bit of guilt over the idea of my moving on, I know that Rachel, in all her wisdom, would support my desire to do so.  Therefore, I am now able to reflect on a couple of other observations I made regarding the way people grieve.

In Poland, it is customary to wear all black while "in mourning".  I'm not up to date on all the details, but I know that widows traditionally mourn their husbands for a full year.  Frankly, I've never seen a man in mourning according to this tradition, but that's not where I want to go with this.  The first time I experienced this tradition first-hand was when my maternal great-grandmother passed away after an extended illness at the age of 85.  I had recently graduated high school and was spending 5 months in Poland with her and her daughter/my grandmother.  The day after she passed away, I began wearing the traditional all black.  My grandmother didn't think it was necessary.  She thought this was only necessary for spouses and parents.  Still, it felt right for me to take part in this tradition.  I wanted to express my grief outwardly.  Yet, since there was no specific time frame laid out for grieving one's great-grandmother, a little over a month afterwards, when I turned 18, I decided to officially end my mourning period by dressing in colorful clothes and going out dancing with my cousin.  (Oh yeah, one also doesn't attend any festivities of a happy occasion during mourning, except maybe once-in-a-lifetime celebrations like marriage, baptism, etc.)  By having allowed myself that time when I wore black and actively mourned her loss, I think I was able to have a healthy experience and be able to move past it.

On September 11, 2001, even though I didn't lose anyone close to me, I felt a tremendous weight of grief over my adopted homeland, and my reaction was to start wearing black.  I did this for only a few days before the call from the president came for Americans to wear red, white, and blue as a sign of patriotism, unity, and resiliance.  It was a strange idea for me at the time, but I obliged, realizing then that the customs of mourning differed by culture.

When Rachel died, I started wearing black.  I wasn't sure how long I'd wear black for, but it felt right to do so.  I was in mourning, and I needed a visible way to express this.  But then her widower requested that everyone wear blue - her favorite color - to her funeral in her honor.  Again, I was a little surprised, but having had the 9/11 experience, it didn't take me long to know I'd have to honor this request.  Interestingly, her mother wore black nonentheless, but she did comment with apparent appreciation on my wearing blue "for Rachel".  If I didn't wear black to the funeral, I had no reason to wear it afterwards either.  So these past few weeks I've been wearing regular clothing but still mourning on the inside.  Now I finally feel as though my inside is catching up with my outside.

The second observation I'd like to make is a bit shorter and to the point.  People seem to have come out of the woodworks to give their condolences and share stories of Rachel.  Yet I think it is clear that no matter how many wonderful things you have to say about a person after they pass away, none of it really matters or is sincere if you weren't there for the person when they were alive.  The only exception I can think of is for famous people who may have very well touched the lives of people who had no way of sharing their gratitude while they were alive.

Finally, everyone processes grief differently.  I shouldn't have to wear my heart on my sleeve in order to prove that I loved my best friend and that I miss her. Likewise, I shouldn't be accused of not having been a very good friend to her because I am finding a way to move on.  After all, no matter how close we are to the person who leaves this world, we should be even closer to the One who made us and who awaits our turn with open arms.  This is the reason we go on.  No single human being should be the center of our lives.  The center of our lives should always be God, and if He is, then He will help us get through our grief and on to the next phase of our life.

Phillipians 4:13

I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

grieving my best friend

Our mourning is nothing more than an indication of our attachment to this material world.  If we are people of faith, then we must not let grief get the better of us.  Of course, it is a natural response to any ending, the death of a loved one being particularly final.  As I reflect on my own grief over my best friend, I have been able to dissect it into two observations:  1) I grieve because I miss her.  The realization of not being able to be with her or talk to her leaves a void in my heart.  2) Likewise, this realization makes me keenly aware of how little control I truly have over what happens in my life, and this prospect is scary.

With the latter observation, I've known for some time that I need to work on turning my life over to the Lord and letting Him have control of it.  My friend's passing is just forcing to the surface what has been true all along.  I did not bring myself into being, and I do not control when my time on Earth is done.  It is a waste of time to dwell on this truth, because there is nothing that can be done about it, nor should we want to change it.  Knowing that God is in control is comforting.  He, being all-knowing, knows what is best for me in the long run, even when I don't see it yet.  He, being all-loving, only allows those things that do benefit me in the end, even if they hurt in the process.  He does nothing differently than any human parent would do for their child.

With the former observation, I think what becomes useful here is the adage "time heals all wounds".  The funny thing is that I did not talk to Rachel every day during our friendship.  At best, we probably averaged a proper conversation once, maybe twice, per month.  Lately, with the addition of social media networks and texting, we were in touch a bit more frequently, but still not daily.  And yet, now that she is on the other side, I think of her every day, and I miss her every day.  Every day, I am reminded of her, and I can't figure out why.  I can totally understand why her husband would long for her day in and day out - she was a part of his daily existence.  But why me?

The theory I'm going with is that this missing of her that I feel has to be needed in order for me to DO something.  It must be required as motivation or inspiration for something.  The Lord is able to use any circumstance for His holy purposes, after all.

I'm aware of my need to make myself available to her husband as he mourns her, even though it hurts me to talk to him since it reminds me that he can't put her on the phone.  But of course I'm sure the feeling is mutual.  Yet I know that I may give him some comfort, having known Rachel for so long, being able to relate to a lot of her quirkiness and ideals.  I'm so glad that the Lord had blessed her with such a wonderful husband.  She didn't have the best luck - or taste - in men before him!  :)

Shortly after she died, I tried my best to honor her on facebook.  I shared photos and observations about her, and I reached out to other people who knew and loved her, feeling a bit closer to her by touching base with someone else she was close to.  It was amazing to hear the various testimonies at her funeral and realize that I actually did not know the whole Rachel!  This was something I think we all realized.   She was such a multi-faceted person, with such a rich diversity of interests and hobbies.  Yet one theme stood out loud and clear in all the testimonies:  Rachel was a woman of God, an example of Christian charity.

Almost in spite of myself, I started compiling a eulogy of sorts for her.  I had no idea if the format of her final arrangements would include an opportunity for me to say something or not, but I found it therapeutic just to put down on paper (ok, on screen) what I would like to say about her.  Lo and behold, her husband did ask if I would like to say a few words, and I was honored that he thought to give me a little bit of the floor.  When he greeted me the day of her funeral, he said what Rachel must have told him about our friendship: "The one and only!"

I know why Rachel was my best friend.  She always made time for me.  She was always truthful with me, but never judged me.  She took interest in my interests.  But why was I her best friend?  I was not as good a friend to her as she was to me.  I don't think so, anyway.  She had been asking me to come visit her and see her new house for 3 years before I finally booked  my flight.  Granted, I always had the excuse of our differing schedules, but still.  Yet perhaps our friendship was only half merited on our own efforts, and the other half strictly circumstantial.

I met Rachel in high school, and she was the only one of my friends that my parents trusted to drive me (I didn't get my license until I was 18).  After we graduated, she was the only one of my friends who seemed to have the same idea I did about what it meant to have graduated - we're free!  We hung out at Denny's a lot, just talking late into the night.  When I finally turned 18, we went dancing at clubs together, pretending that we were "a couple" when either of us got some unwanted attention from a strange guy.  She showed me her world, which was so different from my sheltered upbringing.  I truly felt like I was growing up in her presence.  Granted, she corrupted me a little bit ;)  But maybe that's precisely why I enjoyed her presence so much!  She made me feel good about myself.

But actually, this intense time together was a rather short part of our friendship.  After graduation, I spent 5 months with my extended family in Poland.  A year and a half after I came back, we were both on our way to different lives - me to basic training for the Army (in Ft. Jackson, SC), she to college in Florida.  The remainder of our friendship remained long-distance.  We were at each other's weddings and 30th birthday celebrations, but other than that, I pretty much only saw Rachel when she would come up to visit her family and by virtue of proximity, me too. 

Still, for some reason, none of my other close friends shared themselves with me the way she did.  She trusted me to understand her, and I trusted her to understand me.  So when her husband asked me to say a few words at her funeral, I could've drawn on countless stories, some that may be better if they remain untold ;)  But being given a strict time limit (which, by the way, I seemed to have been the only one to adhere to!), I tailored it down to the essentials.  Rachel loved Spanish, and that's how we met.  We had an inside joke that involved my native language.  She was an angel in disguise by virtue of her selflessness.  That is Rachel to me in a nutshell.

My mom didn't think I could pull it off.  Frankly, she should've been right.  I made a speech at their wedding 7 years earlier, and it wasn't very audible or comprehensible.  I was so overtaken by emotions, I couldn't get through the words properly enough.  Not sure if anyone understood a word I said, and that had been a happy occasion!  How on earth was I going to get through a eulogy?!  Yet I was determined to share my little piece of Rachel with those who had gathered, and I only had to pause once to blink the tears out of my eyes and clear the lump from my throat.  I could've said so much more. 

The irony of her passing has not gone unnoticed.  She died the day after the final word of her year-long drama with betrayal (see "last conversation with my best friend"), as if her work on this planted was completed.  She had a feeling that this was the month she would finally get pregnant, so I wonder if she was picking up on a spiritual sense of a big change upon her, and just misreading what it was.  Her funeral was sadly on her 7th wedding anniversary.  Her husband did a beautiful job of addressing husbands and challenging them to cherish their wives.  He also took the opportunity to invite those in attendance to come to Christ, just like Rachel would've wanted.

And boy, were there a lot of people there!  There were many others that couldn't make it, and still others whose lives she's touched that probably didn't even know of her passing.  She had made such an incredible impact on the people God put in her life.  As her father said, "she packed a lot of life in her 34 years."  Indeed, she lived life to the fullest, and I think this is why the Lord was happy with her and called her home.

Matthew 25:23
Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master's happiness!

Last conversation with my best friend

On Wednesday, July 13th, I spent an hour on the phone with my best friend, Rachel.  She had been going through a year-long drama of betrayal, lies, slander, and downright meanness.... from a church leader she thought was her friend.  I didn't understand the nature of their friendship when it first began.  I never met the guy.  All I know is that she spent enormous amounts of time helping him - to study for his exams, to write his papers, to joining him with financial counseling, to launching a marriage counseling element to the business he made her partner in, to coauthoring an article, to writing an entire program they had planned to present together in area churches, to writing a book on the subject together.  I thought it strange that a newly made friend would just give her half of his business, but Rachel always saw the good in people. I thought, if her husband and this guy's wife don't have a problem with the amount of time they spend together, so be it.

But then it seemed that the guy had a sudden change of heart about their friendship.  He passed his exams, they finished their book, and all of a sudden he no longer saw any need for her friendship.  At first, it seemed that he was just being rude with her.  When she would tell me what he said and what she did to warrant those comments, I tried to be as diplomatic as possible in discerning what might be going on.  I never met the guy, and I also wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt.  But when she started telling me that he was standing her up after she drove and waited for hours after her full time job, or that he started insulting her for "making herself at home" at his house when she arrived and no one bothered to greet her at the door for their near-daily standing meetings, I stopped having faith in the guy.

"Rachel," I would tell her, "you're dealing with someone who is not your friend."  She found it hard to believe that after all she had done for him, he wouldn't be her friend.  She continued to try to figure out what went wrong, calling or emailing, asking and apologizing.  This only led to him accusing her of stalking and harassing him.  She just couldn't let it go.  She truly thought they had been friends, and she wanted to make right whatever it was that went wrong.  But this was met in turn by the guy claiming his wife now had a problem with their contact.  He suddenly wanted her out of their business.  He straight up told her that he wasn't going to even put her name on the book or program that they had jointly worked on.  She was crushed.  All those hours upon hours of freely giving of her time, and this was the thanks she got.  She felt betrayed.  It hurt even more that this was someone who was a bible study leader at her church.

As the months went on, she found she could no longer even attend his bible studies because of the hostility she felt from him.  He had apparently started talking badly about her, or so she thought.  She no longer felt welcome at this church.  She had been expecting to take on a leadership role of her own after the years she had spent there, involved with the Hispanic ministry, helping in any way she could.  But this bizarre situation with who she had thought was her friend ended up forcing her out of the church.

She lamented having to find a new church home.  She loved her church, and didn't want to start all over again.  And yet, it seemed that there was no other way.  About 5 months ago, after visiting a few churches, Rachel and her husband settled on a new church and started attending there.  The drama with the guy from the other church seemed to cease after many emails back and forth trying to explain how his behavior made her feel and vice versa, all with no resolution in sight. Yet she missed her other church, and wondered if there was anything else she could do to make things right.

Out of the blue, the guy showed up at her work to apologize for the way he had acted.  She was thrilled that he had seen the light!  All she wanted was an apology!  They started treading lightly again as friends, with occasional contact. Meanwhile, she and her husband had been working on beautifying their house, and they were planning a party to show off their pride and joy.  She thought about inviting her "friend" as well.  Her husband agreed, saying that if he does show up, he'll see this as evidence of a changed heart, and therefore, they may think of going back to the old church again.  Music to her ears!  She so wanted to be able to return to her old church.  Starting in a new place is always difficult, even with friendly people.  Unfortunately, in her enthusiasm, she came on too strong by texting the guy about the party.  At the last minute, he bailed, but she persisted.  It was then that she got his message loud and clear, when he said to her that he did not want to have anything else to do with her anymore.

Confused and heartbroken, she realized that if he did this to her, he could do it to countless other unsuspecting church members who may volunteer their time and efforts to help.  The last straw came when, out of the blue and completely unprovoked, the guy shows up with another church leader at her new church and slanders her to her new pastor.  When she found this out, she filed a formal complaint with her previous church.  She wanted to make sense of what she had been through, and she wanted to protect others.  Clearly, this guy was unwilling to be humbled by admitting his wrongs or making restitution for them.  How could he then be an example of Christian leadership to others?

On June 6th, I got a text from her asking me to pray.  She managed to arrange a meeting with leaders of her previous church.  She had high hopes for this meeting.  The next day, I asked her if she'd return to her previous church if things went the way she had hoped as a result of that meeting.  She replied, "No.  It doesn't mean he won't attend and I think he told the class some lies about me.  Most people have stopped talking to me."  So at this point, she was just looking for justice, an acknowledgment of having been wronged.

A week later, on the 13th of June, I got another text from Rachel.  "I am so upset.  The church sent us an apology.  They said there were faults on both sides so they have decided to just move on and leave things as they are."  She forwarded me this email, and when I read it, I got the sense that they truly did not see her hurt at all.  They called her misguided attempts at friendship and reconciliation "faults" on her part.  They noted that showing up at her new church was "unfortunate", yet they did not think to take any disciplinary action whatsoever against those who took part in this type of harassment.  What's more, the person who accompanied the guy to her new church was one of the leaders who signed this email!  Clearly, the whole process was a joke, not at all objective or being taken seriously.  She was crushed.

We spent an hour on the phone that evening.  I don't think I remember her ever crying before, because I recall listening to her sob over the phone and having no idea how to comfort her.  I did what I could, though. I reassured her that she did everything she could on her end.  She stood up against ungodly behavior, she brought light to it, and what happens now is entirely in God's hands and in His timing.  I remember telling her that God must want her to be in a leadership role in His church, but after all that drama, He had to get her out of there and into a new church, where she could rise to leadership.  She agreed.

Then we went on to talk about more pleasant things.  After 11 years of being a 2nd grade teacher, her principal had asked her to teach 4th grade math.  She was nervous but excited.  She had texted me that her principal said "he needs someone who is truly smart in math and on the whole campus, I am the only one he can think of who is.  He also said I know how to move and grow kids. YIKES!!!"  I wasn't sure if this was a good thing in her mind or not, so I asked, to which she replied, "Big kids scare me."

Trying to put a positive spin on it, I pointed out that God must be preparing her for a big change.  She and her husband had been trying to conceive, and I suggested that perhaps she's about to have a little child of her own, so that's why God wanted her with big kids at work.  She liked that idea.  She was always so positive, so sure of God's plan.  She was trying to regulate her cycles this year, and if this didn't result in a pregnancy, she was prepared to adopt at that point. She was going to be a wonderful mother.

Rachel with one of her kitty-kids

We hung up after briefly discussing what we were going to do on an upcoming trip I had planned.  She won some tickets to SeaWorld, so that was on the agenda.  She was going to be teaching teachers a linguistics course, so I was going to sit in on her class. She was going to go to Spanish Vigil Mass with me on Saturday, and I was going to go to her new church with her on Sunday.  She was going to show me all the great things she had done to the house - painting, arranging her library, her scrapbook room, her Michael Jackson collection... I was hoping that my upcoming visit would give her something positive to look forward to so as not to dwell so much on this latest bad news.  When her husband got home, I felt it was OK to hang up, and we did.

A few hours later I remembered something funny that happened to me that morning, so I texted her that a goose had hissed at me.  (We have geese that live near the lake on our campus.  As I was walking past a momma goose and her babies, apparently I looked at her chicks a bit too intensely, so she hissed at me.  I thought it was so funny!)  I had to teach a class that evening, so I couldn't talk, but I did peak at her texted reply "When did you see a goose?"

The next day, shortly after noon, when I was done with my morning class, I noticed I had a facebook message from Rachel's mom to call her ASAP.  I immediately thought that she was worried about Rachel because of the bad news she got and how she wasn't taking it very well.  I tried calling Rachel first, to see if I could get an update from her before talking to her mom, but she didn't pick up.  So I called her mom.

I remember being utterly confused at the words I heard:  "Oh, Karolina!  Rachel passed away this morning."  I wanted to yell "No way!" But I just listened in disbelief as her mom told me what she knew of what happened.

Tomorrow will be 3 weeks since Rachel went home to be with her Maker, and I still am not sure what to make of her untimely and unexpected death.  I just wanted to memorialize my last conversation and my last communication with my best friend of 17 years, so I don't forget that no matter how in control we may feel, our very lives from moment to moment are a gift from God, to be cherished, taken advantage of, but never taken for granted.

Matthew 24:37-42

 As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away. That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left. “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come."

Launching my blog

My best friend of 17 years passed away 3 weeks ago, completely unexpectedly.  This latest tragedy in a series of struggles and challenges in my life has inspired me to utilize my gift of written gab in some constructive format, in hopes of being able to make sense of it all.

I am not one to run out of things to say, at least not "on paper", and I have a tendency to perhaps share more than necessary in the online communities I am a part of.  Hopefully, having this blog as an outlet will help me process my thoughts and ponderings more effectively and appropriately.

I envision myself writing about 4 general topics:  my faith, my heritage, my struggles, and my joys.

1. Faith
   a. My spiritual journey over the years has introduced me to various religious traditions.  Since committing to walking with Christ, my journey has  led to various epiphanies about the meaning of life that I can't wait to share.
   b. I'd also like a place to ponder Catholic Christian apologetics, which may very well be mixed with various Catholic devotions that are near and dear to my heart.

2. Heritage
   a. Having emigrated from my native Poland in the second grade, at the age of 8, I left early enough to have been able to assimilate completely and comfortably in my new homeland, but late enough that I continue to hold the Polish language and the history of my people near and dear to my heart.
   b. My early childhood memories and family traditions continue to embroider my life with Polish influences.

3. Struggles
   a. Growing up a shy child-immigrant left me prone to low self-esteem, the results of which I continue to deal with as an adult.
   b. Furthermore, two other key circumstances have had a deep impact on my self-identity.  My father was involved in a vehicular accident 13 years ago, which left him with a serious brain injury that has changed the course of our family's life.  Also, my husband and I are among the unfortunate 20% of the population affected by infertility. We continue to discern where the Lord would have us go, as thus far, our attempts to adopt have been unsuccessful.

4. Joys
   a. One of my long-time passions is environmental stewardship, aka "being green".  My husband, Alex, and I recently joined our church's GreenFaith team in hopes of spreading this important aspect of Christianity that sadly generally gets ignored by Christian leaders and faithful alike.
   b. In my college and graduate school years, I developed a taste for critical media analysis.  I take everything I read, watch, or listen to with a grain of salt.  I enjoy interpreting the world around me in this way, though it does tend to be a buzz-kill at times.

So there you have it - these are the sorts of things that make me who I am, what I stand for, and therefore, what I am most likely to write about.  Welcome!  Enjoy the ride!