Friday, October 30, 2015

Meeting His Maker

(Please go here to read Part One of Henry's Crossing Over:

This week has been spent in a slow burn.  My father-in-law Henry has not been with us in any real sense of the word since Monday, when he was taken to the hospital and Oscar received a distraught call from his sister, after which he made his way over there.  We assumed Henry would cross over by the next day, but it didn't happen that way.  He was switched over to comfort care and sedation on Tuesday, and on Wednesday got moved to a nursing home near Yoli's house.

Oscar had said his goodbyes before leaving on Tuesday.  He had spent the day carrying his dad on a couple of occasions - like a baby, he said - since Henry would get disoriented and want to move around, his frailty however not allowing him to do so.  Oscar prayed over his dad, said whatever else he needed to say to him, thanked him once again for raising him.  There was no sense - Oscar said - to stick around and watch his dad essentially sleeping, yet really just waiting for his body to die.

I've noticed that I've been quite particular about my choice of euphemism regarding Henry's passing. It's not so much on purpose as it is based on what feels natural.  The phrase "crossing over" has stuck with me very strongly.  I really see it that way - that upon death, our soul (that which in essence is what we call "I") merely leaves this body behind and continues on in the spiritual realm.  The details may not be clear, but the fact is unquestionable in my mind.

Henry's youngest son, Elliott, was able to spend the day with his non-responsive father before he passed.  I was glad to hear it, though I'm not sure how big of a consolation it was for Elliott, unable to get a response from his dad anymore.  Still, Henry knew he was there, and Elliott can feel reassured by that.

Elliott's wife came by as Oscar was leaving.  Oscar's mom didn't want to see her - and who could blame her - but Yoli agreed to let her see Henry.  Apparently she had played a part in convincing Henry to let Oscar bring him up to Virginia, where he would spend the last year of his life among his children.  That had to count for something.

Last night - Thursday - Elliott called to tell Oscar that the medical personnel were saying the time is soon upon us.  Of course, that is a vague and relative term, for we had been waiting in one sense since Monday, and in another sense for a couple of months.  Still, Oscar and I decided to make plans to spend the weekend near family, anticipating Henry's imminent passing.

I thought about how strange it was that a nursing home would have visiting hours.  After all, this automatically took the choice away from the family and the person preparing to cross over, regarding whether or not he would want to be surrounded by loved ones.  So often I hear people regret not being able to make it to the hospital where their loved one passes on before they get there. Here though, the family is left to anticipate a call each morning, should their loved one pass during the night.

I thought about my great-grandmother, the first whose death I somewhat witnessed.  I technically missed the actual moment of her crossing over, but I was with her just minutes before and again just minutes later.  She crossed over in her own home, with her daughter by her side.  There was comfort in that - not just for us, but I imagine for her as well.  It seems that everyone should be allowed the privilege of crossing over in their own home, surrounded by loved ones, if at all possible.

We weren't sure if we'd still see Henry alive or not.  Either way, Oscar had made his peace and said his goodbyes.  As for me, I still regretted that Natalia hadn't been able to show more affection for her Abuelo, but at this point, it didn't really matter much anyway, except maybe to me.

This morning, before the sun was up, I awoke to Natalia sleep nursing on my left, and Oscar kneeling by the bed on my right, whispering that "it's time".  I slowly remembered the gravity of the day and fought hard with my sleep idol in order to get out of bed.  I assumed Oscar just wanted to get an early start on the day, but after I got up, I realized that Henry was gone.  "He's gone.  My dad is gone."  We hugged quietly, and I remembered the other times we hugged this way.  When my dad had his accident and was in an induced coma.  When we learned of our severe infertility.  When my best friend took her own life.

Oscar pointed out in that moment, that this is why married people live longer, because they have someone to comfort them in times of need.  I felt strangely closer to him, closer than I have since Natalia became my primary occupation.  And over these past few months and especially the last week, I didn't feel so much as a stranger in my in-law family.  I was grieving right along with them.  I knew Henry, I liked Henry, and I had so wished for Natalia to grow up knowing him.  This last point was probably the loss I'm grieving the most. After my dad’s accident, his brain injury resulted in aphasia, an inability to express himself properly with words.  As Natalia began to say her first words, I became self-conscious about how this may make my dad feel.  And I thought of her other grandfather, how she would be able to have regular conversations with him.  And now, that possibility is gone.

We packed our two dogs, booked a hotel for the weekend, and headed out - earlier than Natalia and I usually wake up for the day.  We drove straight to the funeral home, where they were holding Henry's body.  Apparently, they were just waiting for us to come by and see him one last time and say goodbye.

He didn't look much different from the last time I saw him, five days earlier.  He was on a stretcher, covered to his neck with a dark green blanket, wearing a navy blue knit hat.  His eyes and his mouth were closed.  In that regard, he actually looked more peaceful and less scary than the last time I saw him sleeping in his hotel room in Virginia Beach.  That day, his mouth had been ajar, and it looked like he had exactly every other of his teeth.

I brought Natalia in on my arm, trying to make sense of the situation for a child too young to even remember what's happening.  Oscar and Yoli had a few moments of saying goodbye.  Natalia and I gave Yoli a hug, then I caught myself saying that Abuelo was asleep and quickly searching for a way to qualify that so that she didn't associate regular sleep with such finality.  Luckily at her age, she isn't going to make that leap.  But I added that Abuelo went to be with Jesus.  Yoli and Oscar exchanged a few words, to which Natalia shushed them, putting her index finger to her lips.  "Abuelo sleep" she said.  They smiled and Oscar repeated what I had just told her - that Abuelo is now with Jesus.

Strange as it may sound, I swear it appeared that Natalia teared up and started wiping her eyes.  It was a quiet kind of crying that a sad adult would do, not the tantrum-style wailing I was used to hearing from her.  I did notice an eyelash coming out of her right eye, so perhaps that was the culprit.  But the timing was nonetheless ominous.

Natalia and I circled around the large room where Henry lay on his stretcher.  She knocked on the door we came in, trying to leave.  We went back one final time to see him, and as I held her up, she repeated after me, "bye Abuelo" (waving her left hand).  Then, putting both hands to her chest per the ASL sign for love she whispered after me, "I love" (dropping the "you" as is her habit).

A little later, in the car, she recalled the events of the morning.  "Abuelo nie placze. Abuelo cama sleep" (Grandpa not crying.  Grandpa bed sleep).  And she added, "Jesus" (pronounced the Spanish way, with an initial "h" sound and the accent on the "u".)

It's strange to be here.  There will be no funeral.  Henry requested that he be cremated, and his ashes will be available to the family in about a week.  We are planning on taking a trip down to Florida around February/March, so that we can spread his ashes at the park where he and his kids hung out growing up, per his request.

I'm used to there being some official ceremony surrounding death, and perhaps the spreading of his ashes will feel that way to me.  But for now, it's as if his death has been a sad but natural part of life. It's strangely comforting, actually, since the last funeral I went to - one of two in my life - was of my best friend, who had taken her own life.  Rachel's death was unexpected and tragic and it angered me. I was upset with her for leaving me on purpose, and all the religious speak that I not only bought into but perpetrated by way of my eulogy ignored the fact that if she truly trusted God's plan for her life, she wouldn't have taken matters into her own hands the way she did.

But Henry's death... has been different.  We all knew it was coming.  He was at peace about it, but he didn't seek it out.  He was simply content with the life that was given him, and was happy to be going home to his Maker.  I guess it makes no sense to call one death tragic and not another death.  All death is tragic.  But Henry's death hasn't angered me.  Saddened, of course, but not angered.  Perhaps others are angry not so much with Henry as with God, but this is a normal human reaction to any death, any event period, that doesn't live up to our expectations.  We acknowledge that death is inevitable, but we have an idea of when that inevitability is the most tolerable (at a very old age, in one's sleep) and are quick to blame God for not letting everyone die this kind of death.

Going forward, I hope to see us all, especially Henry's family, rally around God the way they rallied around Henry in these last days and weeks and months of his life.  Priorities were rearranged.  Pennies were not counted.  Grudges were laid aside.  Time was spent on what matters most.  What a beautiful reminder for every day of our lives!  What a privilege it has been, albeit a sad and difficult one to bare, to receive advanced notice of Henry's passing.  I've often thought that anticipation is the worst, but really, it just means you can start the grieving process earlier, when you still have a chance to make amends, so that when your loved one crosses over, you don't have regrets and shock piled on top of your grief.

Perhaps this is what it means to be a witness to God's love even in death.  Not through some heroic action or profound words of wisdom, but simply by being present, and allowing the will of God to create the circumstances that have the best chance of bringing our loved ones closer to the One we will all meet one day.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Henry's Crossing Over

rieved several times in my life.  It's generally been after a loss.  This time, it's different.  This time it feels like I'm mourning in advance.  Maybe it's better this way?

My father-in-law is dying.  I don't mean in the sense that we are all dying from the moment of birth. I don't even mean in the sense of having been diagnosed with a terminal illness.  Though both of these are true.  I mean he is actively in the process of dying.  His organs have started to shut down.  He is no longer lucid.  Essentially, we are waiting for him to breathe his last.

I'm not very close with him.  Then again, I'm not very close with many people period - relatives or otherwise.  But I was always fond of him.  When I met him 16 years ago, I immediately liked him.  I didn't worry about being judged by him.  I was new in my relationship with Alex, and very self-conscious about how I came across to his mom and sister in particular.  Latinas, let's just say, intimidated me.

But when I met Henry, he was this short little Central American Indian man with long, black, wavy hair down half his back. Always smiling.  He had a bit of a goofy demeanor about him.  He moved a bit like a little kid that couldn't sit still.  He always seemed happy and excited.

The first conversation I had with him, he explained to me that in spite of having never formally adopted Alex and his sister, he always thought of them as his own.  He came into the picture before Alex and Marilena reunited with their mother in the United States.  He and Alex's mom had a son together, Ritchie.  They were still seemingly in love and happily married when I met my in-laws.  Sadly, by the time Alex and I got married four years later, his parents had split up.

On one of our visits back to Florida, home base for my in-law clan, Henry insisted on introducing Alex and Marilena to some buddies of his.  I remember staying in the car and waiting - we were en route somewhere, and I generally get traumatized by meeting strangers.  Henry was practically bursting with energy and jumping rather than walking as he corralled his two grown kids into the friends' house.

Over the years, Marilena moved up closer to us, followed by their mom, and finally Ritchie.  It seemed strange that the issue of Henry's homelessness just sort of crept into my consciousness as one of those things that is a sad reality but not really something I could do anything about.  A few years ago, Alex and Marilena split the cost of sending Henry back to their native country of El Salvador, where he got to visit his mom.  He had a falling out with his brother since I met him, and apparently he wasn't close to his sister either.

Last year, Henry finally agreed to leave Florida.  Alex made the road trip to get him, and Henry moved in with Marilena.  I remember seeing him for the first time in many years - and having Maya meet him for the first time ever - at a cousin's baby shower.  He was like I remembered him, for the most part, though clearly much less enthused than before.  Perhaps he was ashamed of having spent a decade living on the streets?  Perhaps he was just nervous about trying to fit back into the family again?

Then Maya turned one, and Henry was there.  In fact, Maya has a cute photo of herself on Alex's lap, with both her grandfathers - my dad and Henry.  Soon after that, Alex's brother got married - this January, actually.  I insisted on getting a photo of Maya with both her paternal grandparents, even though they weren't on speaking terms.  Thankfully, both agreed.  The photo shows Alex holding Maya, and his mom decked out on one side, while Henry - in the usual style I remember, stepped up behind Alex and leaned onto his shoulder in a sort of peak-a-boo pose.

At the wedding reception, Maya and I sat with Henry for a bit and had one of our awkward yet friendly conversations.  I - trying to speak Spanish yet ever self-conscious about it, Henry responding in English to ease my stress.  At one point, he told me that he was very sick.  He put his index finger to his lips and shushed as he asked me not to tell his kids.  I didn't really make much out of it.  After living on the streets for a decade, struggling with alcoholism and isolation from family, and the resulting lack of regular medical care, it was no secret that he needed some medical attention.  Alex had already told me as much.  But it seemed that he was talking about something much more dire. He seemed to have a keen awareness of where he was on his life's journey.

Soon, Henry was working again, his son-in-law bought him a car.  He got a taste of normalcy again, it seemed.  But none of this lasted very long.  A few months ago, on Marilena's birthday no less, Henry was diagnosed with throat cancer.  Apparently, it had been weeks since he was able to comfortably eat anything.

At first, the conversations Alex and I had centered on trying to stay positive.  "Let's not jump to conclusions" we would take turns saying.  Nonetheless, Alex wanted to "prepare for the worst but hope for the best", as he researched funeral arrangements.

It didn't take long - maybe a week, maybe two - to find out that Henry's cancer had spread.  First to his back, then to his brain.  He had his first chemo therapy by then, so we kept thinking that as long as there's treatment, there's hope.  But once the cancer spread to his brain, we had to face the reality of Henry's situation being terminal.

We didn't know how much time he had.  It could be six months, maybe more, maybe less.  I remember asking Alex to remind me when Henry's birthday was.  When he said it was April, my thoughts rushed around trying to figure out if he might live to his next birthday or not.  Part of me hoped so, yet part of me was doubtful.

Marilena took on full responsibility for caring for him.  He of course quit working and driving. The first time we visited after his diagnosis, when we came in and he approached the door to greet us, I was struck with how much he had changed.  He had lost a lot of weight, and it showed very drastically in his face.  He wasn't oblivious to it either.  Seeing Maya's resistance in greeting him, he noted that it must be because he's so skinny in the face, that she doesn't recognize him.

I knew Alex would be back and forth between our state and where his dad was living, taking his turn escorting him to doctor visits.  But I didn't anticipate many more visits for myself and Maya.  I saw that visit as a goodbye visit, although we would actually see him several more times.

I managed to get a photo of Henry with just his two granddaughters.  There was a kickboxing bag on the patio, so I hid behind it and held Maya sitting on top.  Then her cousin and Henry stood next to it.  He wore a hat hiding a big bump on the top of his head.  It wasn't clear to me if this was a visible sign of the brain cancer, or something else entirely.

Shortly before we left, I reheated Maya's mac-n-cheese to feed her on the way back.  Henry followed me into the kitchen, asking what I was making.  Having forgotten that he hasn't eaten over a month by this time, I just brushed it off as nothing much.  But he persisted, looking around my shoulder to see for himself.  I told him macaroni, and then realized what Alex later told me - that he was living vicariously through us by his interest in what we ate.

I knew that every time I asked Alex where he learned to be so kind, so laid-back, so flexible, so generous, he would always say "my dad".  Now that it became increasingly clear that Henry's time on earth was limited, I thought this was something he should know.  I was terrified of broaching the subject myself.  It was already an emotional topic, the circumstances of it were dire, and I wanted to relay the information in Spanish.  As Henry walked me and Maya out that day, when we were getting ready to go home, I got a burst of courage and I started.

I stopped once or twice to collect myself, as Henry patiently waited for me to get to my point.  He may have teared up a little, but it was clear that he had made peace with the fact that his time was coming to an end.  He smiled, pointing and looking up to heaven, referencing God, and said that he's ready.  I said that I didn't know if Alex had every shared this with him or not, but that I wanted to make sure he knew what a role model he had been for him.  His facial expression when I said this told me that I had done the right thing in braving through.

I quickly commented on his earring, which I hadn't noticed before.  He had just gotten his long hair cut, in anticipation of going bald from chemo, and gave it to his son Ritchie.  So I also tried to show Maya his short hair, trying to point out how Abuelo may look different than she remembers him but he's still the same Abuelo.

I suggested that on his next visit to see his dad, Alex would tell Henry himself what I had told him.  He did, and he later texted me that his dad just lit up upon hearing it.  I'm sure hearing it from his own son was much more meaningful than hearing it second-hand from his daughter-in-law.  Now he had heard it twice, so I was confident that he knew he had made a positive impact on the world.  Not that he doubted that.  I don't know, I don't think so.  After all, he seemed at peace.  But when I put myself in his shoes, I thought that this was exactly the kind of reassurance I would have liked and needed to hear.

The next time we visited, Henry not only looked weaker but seemed to be weaker.  Henry only got up to go use the restroom.  To do so, he needed to turn off and unhook his feeding tube.  Alex helped him so that it would stop leaking. He spent most of the time of our visit on the sofa, watching Univision.  He and his ex-wife (my mother-in-law) had recently made some sort of peace.  He agreed to let her care for him, which was a big step.  Earlier, he only consented to speaking to her on the phone.  He must have not wanted her to see him in his frail condition.  Yet here they were, in the same room, exchanging normal friendly conversation.  She looked at the show he was watching and asked if he preferred it to the other Spanish-language channel, Telemundo.  He said yes, that there were only telenovelas (soap operas) on the other channel.  Perhaps something got lost in translation, as the show he was watching on Univision seemed like a telenovela to me!

Maya didn't want to give her Abuelo a hug or a kiss, not even a high-five.  It broke my heart, though I understood that she wasn't trying to be rude.  She was genuinely shy of the strange-looking guy who didn't resemble the Abuelo she had met the year before.  She wasn't even two years old yet, after all.  It was a lot to ask her to be extra nice to her Abuelo.  She did go get some ice for him when I tried to convince her to show some sort of interest in him because he was sad.  She took that to mean that he had a boo-boo.  She led me to the fridge, had me open the freezer and take out the ice stick, and she brought it ever so tentatively and pointed it in the direction of Henry.  I suppose I should count that as a success.

It was during this visit that Alex started to formulate a plan to show Henry the ocean one more time. He had loved the ocean, and Alex saw an opportunity to bring the family together again, the way they were before their parents split up, before the kids each went their separate ways.

In spite of sensing the urgency of the situation, it still took two weeks for the weekend trip to take place.  Henry was getting his second chemo treatment the morning before his daughter drove him to meet the rest of us at Virginia Beach.  It had been delayed because of various problems in the interim - an infection and the need to replace his feeding tube, a fall that resulted in stitches on his eyebrow, a fever that had to be controlled before he'd be cleared for chemo.

Alex, Maya, and I were the first to arrive Friday evening.  Alex booked four rooms on the beach, with ocean-views.  Thank God he did.  Henry was very frail and weak post-chemo and due to the meds he was on to control his nausea.  He no longer walked on his own; his daughter rented a wheelchair from the Walgreens across the street.

It was no surprise that Alex's brother had another falling-out with his bride. The point of this weekend trip seemed to have been completely lost on her.  She wanted Ritchie to go to work instead of coming on the trip.  I remember saying to Alex, "doesn't she understand the gravity of the situation?  The point of this trip?"  I was very upset, assuming that Ritchie would do what his wife wanted instead of being there for his dad, but I was pleasantly surprised.  Marilena picked him up straight from work and he came as he was.  He watched his dad both nights and during the days as well, giving Marilena a little break.  Considering that he was facing losing his dad and possibly his marriage all at once, he held up pretty well.

Friday evening was the last time I exchanged a greeting with Henry. We had adjoining rooms, so when he and his two other kids were sitting on the balcony with him, I came out with Maya and we waved and said "hola Abuelo".  He looked at us and I'm pretty sure I saw a faint smile across his face. During Maya's two hour nap, Henry was taken for a nice walk with the family.  Alex texted me a photo of them on the boardwalk.  But later when we brought him a strawberry slurpie to the room, he was asleep, and his ex-wife was caring for him.  She had brought her boyfriend, who was relaxing on the other bed, watching TV.  I was struck by the strangeness of the situation.  I don't know if I was projecting my apprehensions onto Henry, or if he actually felt the way I imagined he did, having his ex-wife there with her boyfriend.  Maybe it's a cultural thing.

At any rate, Maya and I sat down for a quick second upon Abuela's insistence.  I was worried that Maya had sucked all the flavor from the slurpie on our way back to the hotel.  She wouldn't let up until we let her hold it, and in the elevator we noticed the ice was more pink than the original red.  I looked over at Henry, sleeping with his knit hat on, under the covers, mouth slightly ajar and the spaces between his teeth reminiscent of tiny caverns.  He looked familiar in an eerie way. He didn't look like himself.  He looked like what I imagine everyone looks like when approaching death.  He had aged tremendously in the past few months.  No one would guess he was only 55.

I left the room keenly aware that something had changed on this weekend.  I wasn't sure how much it was discernible to the rest of the family, but I knew that Henry was dying.  I thought about the timing of this trip, and how it came not a moment too soon.  I thought about how this was probably his last week on earth.

That evening, after Alex, Maya, and I went to mass, the family - minus Henry and Ritchie - went out to eat.  It was my birthday.  I got gifts, I was sang to, I got dessert. What a strange juxtaposition, I thought.  On one hand, I was sad that Henry wasn't with us.  On the other hand, I was relieved he didn't have to be tempted by all the food he couldn't eat.  He hadn't been able to eat not because of some dietary restrictions.  He physically couldn't eat.  Food would inadvertently go down his esophagus and into his lungs instead of his stomach.  The cancer was blocking the correct tube - hence the need for his feeding tube.

The next morning, we took family photos.  I'm pretty sure everyone knew this was the last time we would be taking a family photo of everyone together like this.  All three siblings, both parents.  I tried again to convince Maya to say hello to Abuelo.  Give him a kiss.  Give him a hug.  Give him a high five.  Sit on his lap on the wheelchair.  Nothing.  She recoiled and buried her face into my shoulder. Under normal circumstances, I wouldn't have even tried to push her past her comfort level.  Since birth, Alex and I agreed that we would respect her boundaries regarding whom she wanted to greet and how.  At least while she was a baby.  But these weren't normal circumstances, and I couldn't help but feel badly on account of Henry.  It must have felt like a rejection for his little granddaughter not to want to sit on his lap.

Technically, in Maya's defense, she did do her little "dinosaurio growl" that she started doing that week as a way to break the ice.  She didn't feel too shy to say "dinosaurio" and put up her hands like a little T-rex while growling and laughing at perfect strangers.  Generally, the adults responded in kind, and everyone got a good laugh out of it.  But this time, she said it so softly, that only I heard her, by virtue of holding her up and having just suggested it to her and therefore watching to see if she'd comply.  It didn't seem that Abuelo heard her.  Or maybe he did but not having the benefit of the context, didn't get what she was doing.  She wouldn't do it a second time.

We all left the hotel in our separate cars at roughly the same time, with the intention of stopping on the way home to have lunch together.  So it didn't even cross my mind to say goodbye to anyone.  In the car, Alex told me that his dad had said he's waiting for Maya to come around and give him a hug.  I didn't know if this meant he had hope of being around until she did, or if he had just said that for Alex's benefit.  To be honest, the very first thing that came to mind was an image of Maya wrapping her little arms around an urn with Henry's ashes in it.  After all, once on the other side, Henry won't be bothered by her toddler slights.  He won't remember any of the suffering or sadness from his earthly life.  He'll be in the presence of his Maker, and no joy or peace that we know could compare to that. But for now, I worried about how he felt.

A few hours into our journey, my mother-in-law notified us that they'd wait until they were home to eat, in order to have Salvadoran food.  It was completely out of the way for us, as we had an additional hour and a half traffic-free and on the highway once we passed their exit.  And so no goodbye joint lunch took place.

Alex was planning on taking his dad to a doctor's appointment on Tuesday, but Monday he got a frantic call from his sister.  Somehow, it came to her awareness that the doctor's office "tried to contact" Henry with the results of his pre-chemo bloodwork.  His calcium levels were very high, and he was urged to go to the emergency room.  This was apparently a voice mail left on Henry's cell phone Friday.  At first, I joined in the grumbling about how idiotic it was for them to leave a message with such urgent information and not bother looking in his chart to see that they were supposed to be contacting Marilena directly.  But then it occurred to me - had they done that, this beach trip wouldn't have happened. Not this past weekend, and not ever.

As it turns out, excess calcium in the bloodstream is related to one's bodily organs beginning to shut down.  And upon Monday's examination, that is precisely what started to happen.  Marilena was overwhelmed with grief and shock and exhaustion from trying to care for her dad while also working and parenting her daughter.  Henry started to separate himself from reality.  He stripped down to his birthday suit at home, and again later at the hospital, that time also pulling out his IV.  When Alex arrived there close to midnight, he confirmed that Henry was no longer lucid.

Over the weekend, Henry was already showing confusion as to where they were going and the like.  I had assumed it was the brain tumor affecting his memory.  And maybe it was.  But just two days later, he was simply not Henry anymore.

As it stands now, Henry is expected to be moved to a hospice tomorrow, to spend his last days there. His doctor doesn't expect him to live past Friday.  And while I normally try to take doctors' life expectancy guesses as that - guesses, under the dire circumstances, I don't doubt it.  And considering Henry's poor quality of life right now, I don't think it's a bad thing either.

Essentially, Henry's mind has already checked out.  He's been ready to cross over for a while, and he was at peace about it.  Really, these last few days of waiting for Henry's body to completely shut down are a strange transition period for his family, time for us to slowly come to terms with the immediate inevitability of Henry's death.

Last night, before Alex left to go be with his family, I texted a bunch of people requesting prayers.  I was vague except with the few people who responded asking for specifics.  Within an hour or so, over a dozen people had confirmed that they were praying.  Some didn't know what they were praying for, a few did.  It gave me a strange sense of spiritual awareness as I envisioned their prayers being lifted up, united with each other, traveling to surround Henry, Alex, and his siblings and mom.

I don't know how intercessory prayer works, but I do know that it is helping me - a mere bystander really, as the non-native Spanish speaking distant daughter-in-law - to make MY peace with the coming death of my father-in-law.  What I also hope it will do is turn Henry's death into something positive in terms of Alex's family.  I hope it will bring them closer together again.  But I also hope it will bring each of them closer to God.  Perhaps once Henry crosses over, he can start working on that himself :)

(Go here for Part Two of Henry's Crossing Over:

Sunday, October 18, 2015

We Should Be Coming Out of the EA Closet Soon

I've been struggling with the discussion of embryo donation/adoption lately.  Before our daughter was born, I was very open about our journey and what avenues we were considering in our pursuit to parenthood.  But now that she's here, it's her story too, and I'm afraid of giving too much away without her consent.

I know too many ignorant people who do not censor their thoughts before they speak.  Case in point.  Last night we were getting our check at a restaurant when the waitress, looking at Maya, asked, "Who does she look like?"  Awkward pause... "She doesn't look like either of you!"

Hmm, I chickened out and took the chance to focus on my daughter not spilling her drink so that I wouldn't have to address the waitress.  Alex, luckily, responded with a vague truth that seemed to satisfy our rude inquirer, "She's got a little mix in her."

Apparently, as Maya gets older, she is growing more into her Filipino looks.  To be honest, we both assumed that we could bank on her being mistaken for Hispanic and therefore, since Alex is Latino, not have to face these sort of questions.  We've been getting comments about her beauty since the beginning, and I've had two different men ask me - when Alex wasn't with us - if she were "mine".  Alex generally sailed by on their daddy-and-me escapades, until just this month.

Apparently, he recently got his first comment questioning where Maya gets her looks from.  There was a guess that I - his wife - may be Chinese.  He got the exact same comment from someone else just the day before the restaurant situation.  So if even he's getting these comments now, we have to be proactively prepared to respond in a way that lets our daughter know 1) that she absolutely belongs in our family regardless of resemblance, and 2) what an appropriate response to such a nosy question would be if she ever gets asked something like this directly.

The other piece of the puzzle is that we do want to celebrate her British and Filipino ancestry.  We want her to be proud of it, though to be honest, I don't know what that means.  What does it mean to be proud of a group that you belong to?  To be proud of the accomplishments of those who share your DNA?  Your ethnicity?  Your cultural history?  Why is that something to be proud of?  I'm not saying it's not, I'm just wondering what makes this phenomenon relevant in a person's life.

Regardless, we can no longer ignore that Maya's ethnicity is not Polish-Latina.  Don't get me wrong - she absolutely still is Polish, by virtue of having a Polish mother who speaks Polish to her, and she absolutely still is Latina, by virtue of having a Latino father who speaks Spanish to her.  Furthermore, she is American - that which unites the three of us.  But to think that this last identity would take precedence over race, ethnicity, or culture is a bit naive.

Several months ago, Alex and I agreed that if the topic of conversation naturally presented an opportunity to share Maya's unique beginnings, we would matter-of-factly share.  I had the chance to do just that with a new friend whose husband is Filipino.  It made more sense for me to share this information with her than to go out of my way to hide it, since I was asking all sorts of questions about Filipino culture!

But there are other friends, both old and new, who don't yet know.  Not because we're hiding it, but because we don't think of how she came to be in our family anymore. I don't want anyone to ever question how "real" our relationships to each other are.  I don't know what I would do if someone said something like "does she know her 'real' parents".  Would I cry?  Would I curse?  Would I start yelling or even lash out with a backhanded slap to the back of the accuser's head?  I honestly don't think I could just calmly correct the person.

Quick aside.  I was recently asked if I "just stay home" with my daughter.  I tried to make light of the phrasing.  As in, yeah, I don't really do anything much.  But it didn't catch on and the person asked if I did anything before having Maya.  I took the bait and responded that I taught ESL, and the moment was gone after that.  But the implication was heavy and is still with me, though I don't think what I do is easy at all (hence the word "just").

Based on my lack of a witty yet polite reaction to the "just staying home" conversation, or the "she doesn't look like either of you" exchange, I can't say that I would know what the best way to respond would be to a "real parent/own child" interaction.

I think the best defense is offense, as counter intuitive as that may sound.  I should probably test the waters one person at a time, until I am very comfortable sharing just enough but not too much information, so that I am prepared for the inevitable stranger comments and questions.

By the way, here's what I've come up with regarding any future comments about our family's resemblance to each other:

1. Yeah, I don't look like my mom either.
2. Really?  You don't think?  Everyone else says she's a spitting image of her dad!
3. No, she looks like herself.
4. I know, aren't genetics a fascinating phenomenon?
5.Well, she's all ours!  I gave birth to her myself, naturally at home, even.
6. Why do you ask?  What makes you say that?

Hoping for Faith

In the Discovering Christ series I'm attending, CS Lewis's famous quote was brought up, where he says that Jesus can only be "a liar, a lunatic, or Lord", and that He is only worth following if we deem Him Lord.  I actually disagree with this dichotomy.  I think there is no reason to discount a person's teachings based solely on his or her personal character.

Both Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. are deemed as heroes in their respective civil rights movements, yet both are purported to have been abusive or neglectful to their own wives.  Should people have refused to follow their leadership regarding civil rights because of their personal shortcomings?  And what about the political scandals of government officials whose personal lives may indeed be a hot mess, yet who have their head on straight when it comes to public policy that's in the best interest of the people?

So I don't think that people are merely being patronizing when they do not believe Jesus to be Lord.  Even if they actually took that step of saying they do think Jesus was mentally unstable, or lied for some reason about the kingdom of God, this in no way negates the value of His teaching - namely, forgiveness, mercy, justice...

Another possibility is that Jesus actually taught one thing, but He was misunderstood, either initially or after the Gospels were written down.  Personally, I don't see how Jesus could be considered a liar or "a lunatic", if in addition to teaching, he also performed miracles of healing, exorcisms, mass feedings, control over forces of nature, and defied death - both that of others and his own.

The question becomes - did He indeed actually do these things?  Because if He did, it makes no sense to ignore the miracles and split hairs over the teachings.  And if He did not, then we do not necessarily have to throw out the proverbial baby with the bath water - his teachings, be they actually his or not, resonate with many, and have been proven to change lives.  There's no reason not to acknowledge and appreciate that.

Now, what does ride on giving the "right" answer to Jesus's question, "Who do you say that I am?" (Matthew 16:15, Mark 8:29, Luke 9:20) is not whether or not we do as He command us, as God expects of us.  Rather, what we believe about Jesus will affect our personal satisfaction with our lives.  If we are following a prophet, sage, guru, the teaching is what takes priority.  We model our lives on his example, to the best of our abilities, and hope for the best.  This may or may not be sufficient for any given person to live a meaningful life.

But if we believe that we are following no mere mortal, but God Incarnate Himself, we are instantly humbled first and foremost, second we are made cognizant of God's incredible love for us that He should suffer in our place, and therefore, our entire lives are filled with the joy and peace that only Christ can bring.  At least, that is my understanding.  That is where I hope to get to in my faith journey.

These last couple of words are important to me: faith journey.  Up until now, I have always thought of myself as a spiritual seeker, on a spiritual journey.  But today, what naturally came across instead was not a spiritual journey but a faith journey.  I am in the religion I want to be in.  I have left twice now, and I have returned twice.  I know that happiness is not attainable for me outside of Catholicism.  I am no longer interested in questioning and doubting the basic teachings of Christianity, as though proving them wrong would somehow improve my quality of life. If I turn out to be wrong about the nature of God and all that follows according to Catholic tradition, so be it.  At least I pursued a life worth living.  But if I end up being right, there's no comparison to the joy I will feel at the leap of faith I had to make to get there!

So now I'm on a faith journey.  I'm seeking to grow closer to Jesus, that aspect of God - if you will - that is most relatable to me as a human being.  I'm only interested in delving deeper into the Catholic tradition, Catholic interpretation, Catholic spirituality.  This does not mean I no longer find other paths valuable, but I cannot have a foot on each path and expect to find any real meaning in any of them.  Multiple roads may lead to the same destination, but in order to actually arrive at one's destination, one must first choose a single road.  No, I want to focus from now on on what Catholicism has to offer, as I know there is a lifetime's worth of beauty and truth to be discovered.

The intellectual side of me shall focus on the years between the time of Jesus and the acceptance of the current canon of Scripture.  In other words, the early church.  May this intellectual pursuit allow my mind to be opened to bridge the gap between faith and hope for faith.  Amen.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Lectio Divina Gospel of Mark

I have recently (about 2 months ago) decided to become religious again.  I didn't believe, but I wanted to, which was an improvement from not wanting to believe before that.  I tasted life without religion and decided it wasn't for me.  I had no interest in a secular, even deistic, view of the world.  I wanted to ground my life in something greater than myself.  Yet I find it hard to literally believe everything taught in Christianity.

One of the problems is that there are as many takes on who Jesus was/is and what He meant through His teaching as there are denominations, and in trying to make sense of them all, I abandoned the one interpretation I was most familiar with.  Even as I didn't believe in Christianity anymore/yet, I knew that if I were to consider myself a Christian again, I had previously determined that Catholicism makes the most sense.

This last year or so, I was looking for spiritual truth outside of Christianity all together, which led me down a path of chaos and despair.  I finally decided that I wasn't interested in being considered intellectual enough by secularists, modern enough by materialists, or even religious enough by traditionalists.  I just wanted to be happy, and I knew that I couldn't find happiness outside of Catholicism.  So that's where I was when I returned to the Church mid-August.  I began receiving the Eucharist again, "as a sign of hope and a promise", per my retreat confessor's advice.

I'm still iffy on the creed, and that's really what I've been trying to come to grips with when I reread "Rediscovering Catholicism".  I began to follow the spiritual practices suggested in the book. Some have been coming easier than others, but I'm committed to applying them all in my life in the hopes of drawing closer to God once again.

One of them was to start reading the Bible daily, which is how I began my Lectio Divina journey. And indeed, God has been meeting me where I'm at.  The message that is unfolding through the verses and phrases that are jumping out at me is geared specifically towards helping me understand who Jesus is.  Without this basic core, I cannot expect to grow in Catholic spirituality.

I started with the shortest gospel, Mark.  I read once, stopping to consult the footnote explanations on the bottom of each page.  I read a second time all the way through.  When reading the third time, I wait for a certain verse to stir something inside me, and these are the verses noted below.  Before each reading, I pray for God to open the eyes of my heart, to speak to me through the Scriptures. I noticed that within each verse, there were words or phrases that further resonated with me.  These are in red.

About halfway through the gospel, I started to see a pattern from the red phrases.  A message directed at me, meeting me right where I am on my faith journey, began to unravel.  Soon after I noticed this, I started to feel drawn to go back and read another chapter, even as I'm reading some other spiritual reading or think I'll skip that day. I actually eagerly open the Bible and wait to see what the Lord has to say to me today.  It's quite exhilarating. I've taken out all the red phrases and listed them below to show the message I feel I am getting from the Lord.

Mark 1:17
Jesus said, "Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men."

Mark 2:5
When Jesus saw their faith, He said to the paralytic, "child, your sins are forgiven."

Mark 3:21
When His relatives heard of this they set out to seize [Jesus], for they said "He is out of His mind."

Mark 4:22
"For there is nothing hidden except to be made visible; nothing is secret except to come to light."

Mark 5:41
[Jesus] took the child by the hand and said to her [...] "Little girl, I say to you, arise!"

Mark 6:42
They all ate and were satisfied.

Mark 7:14
[Jesus] summoned the crowd again and said to them, "Hear me, all of you, and understand."

Mark 8:29
"But who do you say that I am?"

Mark 9:7
Then a cloud came, casting a shadow over them; then from the cloud came a voice, "This is my beloved Son.  Listen to Him."

Mark 10:36
"What do you wish me to do for you?"

Mark 11:25
"When you stand to pray, forgive anyone against whom you have a grievance, so that your heavenly Father may in turn forgive you your transgressions."

Mark 12:14
"Teacher, we know that you are a truthful man and that you are not concerned with anyone's opinion.  You [...] teach the way of God in accordance with the truth."

Mark 13:5
"See that no one deceives you."

Mark 14:27
Then Jesus said to them, "all of you will have your faith shaken."

Mark 15:39
When the centurion who stood facing Him saw how He breathed His last, he said, "Truly this man was the Son of God."

Mark 16:14
[Jesus] appeared to them and rebuked them for their unbelief and hardness of heart because they had not believed those who saw Him after he had been raised.

Follow me.
Your sins are forgiven.
He is out of his mind.
There is nothing hidden except to be made visible
Little girl, I say to you, arise!
All ate and were satisfied
Hear me, all of you, and understand.
Who do you say that I am?
This is my beloved Son.  Listen to Him.
What do you wish me to do for you?
When you stand to pray, forgive
You teach the way of God in accordance with the truth.
See that no one deceives you.
All of you will have your faith shaken.
Truly this man was the Son of God.
[Jesus] rebuked them for their unbelief and hardness of heart.

Included here is a synopsis of the realizations I'm making from these phrases.

Sin is stagnation - no progress, caused by lack of faith.  Jesus reaches out to us, urges us to leave our sinful habits behind, and to open ourselves to greater possibilities.  This requires movement on our part.  God is a mystery longing to be known.  Discovering this about God brings peace.  God wants to give me mercy, peace, understanding, and lead me to greatness - all I need to do to claim His grace is to have faith.

Peace and understanding lead to greatness.  But sin stops peace and understanding and interferes with greatness.  Therefore to live a great life, we must first receive God's mercy.  We do this through faith. Peace comes from understanding that God is a mystery longing to be known.  We must take a leap of faith to know God.  True greatness is impossible without faith.  Is Jesus "out of his mind" for revealing and offering this "secret" to happiness?  Or is He the incarnation of God?

The above two paragraphs were written after some content analysis up to Mark 8:29.  Amazingly, the next day, what stood out for me in my reading was the answer to the question posed the day before. "But who do you say that I am?" (Mark 8:29) --> "This is my beloved Son.  Listen to Him." (Mark 9:7)  Furthermore, the day after that, I hear from Jesus, asking me "What do you wish me to do for you?" (Mark 10:36).  My response was unexpected.  I knew as I was writing the verse that I wanted to give him an answer.  I assumed that my answer would be "understanding".  Yet when I turned to him in prayer, my mind instead directed me to Mark 2:5, and I asked for forgiveness. I named various habitual sins, and I asked to be freed from them.  Amazing still was that the following day, the verse that stood out for me seemed to be a response to my request from the night before.  Mark 11:25 tells me that I can be forgiven only if I forgive others.  It blew my mind that I was essentially having a conversation with God through Lectio Divina.

Tonight I start a seven week series at my church called "Discovering Christ" which I am now even more excited about than when I first registered, because I believe that I will once and for all learn who Jesus is, who He can be in my life, and go from there.


I have completed reading the Gospel of Mark.  Amazingly, as I told Alex, I feel as though this experience has been a conversation between my Maker and me.  Towards the end, I couldn't limit myself to just one chapter a day, and so I went ahead with the remainder of the gospel.  I see that the underlying theme is the identity of Jesus and what He can do for me - precisely what the Discovering Christ series aims to establish.  Wednesday's session dealt with the meaning of life as the starting point.

I'm comforted by these last few pearls that jumped out at me.  Mark 13:5 came in handy today in the library, as I scanned the bookshelf of religion in search of some additional spiritual reading and found more books questioning faith than reaffirming it.  In my head, I heard Jesus instruct me: "See that no one deceives you."  Then this afternoon, I was comforted with Mark 14:27, "all of you will have your faith shaken."  Yet the apostles went on to do great things for the Lord, which gives me hope for myself as well.  Mark 15:39 reminds me of what I am starting to believe but I'm not sure what exactly this means to me, "Truly this man was the Son of God."  And just as I questioned the previous verse, the last one given me was Jesus rebuking me for my "unbelief and hardness of heart".  I'm excited.  I believe that I can believe once again!