Holding On and Letting Go

My daughter shared that on her family’s recent trip to the Grand Canyon her 11-year-old son became concerned with her welfare on one of the trail hikes and took her hand. She’s not sure if he thought that the steep incline might be too challenging for her or if he was worried because she was battling allergies or perhaps, he thought she might be frightened of the heights. Regardless, he held her hand. This is something that this 11-year-old boy doesn’t normally do in public anymore. He’s too big now and too vulnerable to 5th grade peer pressure to be seen holding hands with Mom.

A few weeks ago at church a woman who I know needed some assistance. I know her in the “from church” sense of the word. I know her name and that she was recently widowed and that she had been a teacher years ago, but I don’t really know her well. Still, we’ve always spoken to one another in the polite ‘have a nice day’ kind of way that casual acquaintances do. Lately she has acquired a walker and on this particular Sunday, I helped her retrieve it after Mass. That simple gesture was repaid by a smile and a grasp of my hand and squeeze from her old bony hand. It was a sweet, warm encounter. I wondered as she scooted off how much she must miss the touch of her beloved late husband’s hand.

I lost my Mom nearly three years ago and there is not a single day that goes by that I don’t think of her. Usually, they are happy thoughts and fond memories of the times we shared. Sometimes, I feel the ache of her absence profoundly; I feel her loss in my heart; in my soul; and in my physical being. On those days I am comforted by the memory of one of our last times together. A week before she died, I stopped by to visit, and Mom was on the sofa in the family room. Her pulmonary fibrosis had gotten the best of her that day and she was listless and breathless. We sat side by side on that sofa and she put her hand in mine and we sat there in silence. No words were needed. I remember feeling like a young boy once again being comforted and reassured that Mom was going to be okay. There I was trying to take of her and instead she was taking care of me.

Holding on and letting go.

My grandson held on to my daughter on that canyon hike as she was struggling to let go of the baby boy who is no longer there. He let go of his fear of being seen holding hands with Mom. She is comforted in knowing now he will always take care of her while is she busy also taking care of him.

My friend from church is holding on to her walker and letting go of some of her independence. She is forging ahead in a life without her spouse. And she is blessing those around her who offer her small kindnesses.

My Mom gave me a such a beautiful gift on that day on the sofa together. She gave me hope and peace. As we were holding on to one another she let me know without words that it was time to let go.

And here she, is still taking care of me…

Peace,

Denis

Finding God In All The Right Places

I’m an usher at my church. Which means I stand at the back of the place like sort of a friendly sentry, making sure everyone has a seat, and keeping the doors open and closed at the appropriate times, always ready to jump in when someone needs something. Mostly it’s just standing and watching. Of course I’m there to worship as well, but my worship is often distracted by the goings-on of others. God and I have a deal – I pay as much attention as I can. As an adult with attention deficit disorder, being an usher is a blessing. And I’m exactly where I should be.

I’m often entertained by rambunctious children and their beleaguered parents. I silently chuckle when the parents have reached their breaking point. Given the opportunity I thank them and their dapple-cheeked delinquents for the distraction, particularly during a dry and dull sermon.

Yesterday was no exception. The Gospel reading was the Wedding Feast at Cana. A beautiful story of Jesus’ first public miracle. A tender moment between mother and son. A lovely reminder that weddings and marriages should be celebrated. Instead our associate pastor took the opportunity to drone on about his command of biblical scholarship or something. I honestly don’t know because his message was completely unrelatable and I mentally checked out. I admit I could have tried harder to listen but it was BORING and so my attention quickly turned to the two young families sitting nearby.

Our little miscreants back in the day

The first family had too many children. They were up and down, in and out and looked completely miserable. Had they asked, I could have told them that after our third child was born we realized we were out-numbered and henceforth out-maneuvered. I’m not saying couples shouldn’t have more than two children but they should be informed that somebody’s hand is not going to get held. And those “STOP IT RIGHT NOW” silent stares in church are less effective if you can’t squeeze the aforementioned sweet little hand. I know this from experience. Our three knew how to make the most of church time by poking each other or fighting over a book about how much Jesus loved them or feigning some discomfort and lying on the pew. Not to mention that their tiny little bladders needed to be continuously emptied. If I had a dollar for every trip to the bathroom during mass I could start my own church.

The second family had two boys (perfect number) and were especially well behaved. Not perfect however as the younger boy had a moment or two where he ‘went all limp’ as if the bones in his body had temporarily been removed. But here is the remarkable thing: The Mom kept her composure. The Dad stayed calm and only slightly noticed limp-boy and recognized Mom had things under control. The older brother, who is also very young, either ignored little brother or chose to tolerate his behavior. Not a perfect family but a family in perfect harmony. Simple and profound. And there for me was the Wedding Feast in Cana. A mother devoted to her son and accepting and supporting his behavior. A marriage of two people who complemented one another. A family who by their love and devotion to one another witnessed to this old usher and gave me a sweet journey down memory lane.

I’d like to think all those years ago that we behaved more like the second family most Sundays but the reality is that we were probably more like the first family. Still, on those rare occasions when we were in harmony I hope someone saw God in our tiny family and realized that we were trying our best and I hope they were blessed by our distractions.

Peace,

Denis

There was a wedding at Cana in Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there.
His mother said to the servers, “Do whatever he tells you.”
John 2:1,5

Making Christmas Past Present

This Christmas feels more nostalgic than most Christmases. My wife and I both lost our Dads this year.

Deb’s Dad was quieter, more thoughtful in his approach to family celebrations. He often took a backseat to the festivities. He was an observer; cherishing the love and joy from a slight distance and holding it all in his heart. Still, he knew more about what was going on than most because he watched; he listened; he paid attention to the details. And he loved us.

My Dad liked to be front and center. He was always in the mix (sometimes in the way). He was bold and loud and he loved the spotlight. He sometimes missed the subtlety of a situation because he was way too busy trying to get his point across; tell his joke; make his mark. But he loved Christmas and loved being being surrounded by his family. And he loved us.

Two very different men. Two very different ways of celebrating Christmas.

So here we are, celebrating Christmas without our patriarchs. I know that both would want a happy Christmas for us all. This year I will try to make Christmas past present.

I will step back when I can (realizing of course for me this is a struggle) and breathe in the spirit of it all. I will try to be the astute observer that my dear father-in-law was. I will try to cherish those quiet moments and pay attention to the often overlooked details of our gatherings. I will keep an eye out for the forgotten; the weary; the under-served in our family, community and world. That’s what Pop would do.

I will also be cheerful (even when I might feel a bit melancholy) and try to lift the spirits of those around me. I will eat a little too much, laugh a little too loud and tell some of the same old jokes a little too often. I will compliment everyone on everything and truly be thankful for what I receive. I will remind us all how lucky we are to be part of this family, community and world. That’s what Dad would do.

We are blessed this year. Our children and grandchildren are with us to celebrate Christmas. We are healthy. We are fed. We have shelter. We have faith. We have hope. And even though two great men have left us this year, they remain present in our love for one another.

May you and those you love find peace this Christmas,

Denis

For a child is born to us, a son is given us; upon his shoulder dominion rests. They name him Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero, Father-Forever, Prince of Peace. His dominion is vast and forever peaceful. Isaiah 9:5-6



The Greatest Gift

They say the greatest gift a father can give their children is to love their mother. Our Dad gave us that greatest gift! Dad was an example of a loving and devoted husband. Dad worshiped Mom.

He talked his way into their first date by playing on her sympathy because he had just returned home from the Pacific after World War II and he spent the next 72 years talking her into other various situations. Thank goodness, because I might not be here otherwise. In truth, Mom took care of Dad more than the other way around but Dad was still her hero and her protector. And their love story is one for the ages.

We lost Dad yesterday. He was 95 years old. In the 2-1/2 years since Mom passed away Dad has lived in an assisted-living community. No visit was complete without hearing how much he loved and missed Mom. He disliked the fact that she had died before him and often wondered aloud why God would have done that. He couldn’t change it and he couldn’t understand why it happened that way. He couldn’t fix it. He couldn’t negotiate a better deal. He couldn’t talk his way out of it.

And Dad was a talker. And a dealer maker. And a fixer. But he couldn’t fix the fact that he was alone after a lifetime with Mom. So, he adapted and learned to live without her physical presence but she remained always with him.

Dad was always quick with a joke and looked at life as a glass half-full. He never met a stranger. He made friends everywhere he went. As a kid I used to be embarrassed by his knack (or annoying habit) of striking up conversations with anyone he encountered. He was the kind of guy that could ask an amputee how they lost their limb and somehow not be offensive. He talked his way into places, jobs, relationships and talked his way out of jambs and traffic tickets (and probably some jobs as well). He adjusted pretty well to life at his assisted-living community. The other residents and the staff at his complex loved him and he was sometimes the life of the party or the instigator of some mischief. Always smiling. Always talking. Always making the best of it.

Lately he seemed to be missing Mom more than usual. He died on what would have been her 93rd birthday. It was his last gift to her, that they be united once again. The greatest gift Dad gave me will live in my heart forever. His loving devotion to Mom eases my pain and lessens my grief. And I pray that I can give my children that same gift.

I have a great example to follow.

Peace,

Denis

In word and deed honor your father that his blessing may come upon you;  For a father’s blessing gives a family firm roots.  Sirach 3:8-9

We Are Family

In his book, Julian of Norwich: Wisdom in a Time of Pandemic and Beyond, Matthew Fox quotes Julian, a 14th century mystic: “Those who were Jesus’ friends suffered because they loved Him”. Fox then adds in his own words, “It hurts to be with the pain of others, of loved ones. But it also grows the soul.”

This week we celebrated the life of my cousin Michelle who passed away on October 7th. Michelle was a gentle soul who accepted every one of us as we were. I never heard her speak ill of anyone. She dearly loved animals because the love they returned to her was unconditional. Her life was not always easy but she carried joy in her heart and she shared that joy with all who encountered her, especially her furry and feathered friends.

When I think of Michelle I am reminded that Saint Francis, who also had a gentle nature, believed that humans and animals could live in loving harmony. Francis is attributed as saying, “My brother birds, you should greatly praise your Creator, and love Him always. He gave you feathers to wear, wings to fly, and whatever you need. God made you noble among His creatures and gave you a home in the purity of the air so that though you neither sow nor reap, He nevertheless protects and governs you without your least care.”

Michelle’s service was beautiful and spending time with her siblings and her mother “grew my soul” this week. Our family, of which 4 or 5 generations have lived in the same town, is now spread throughout the rest of the world like many families today. There was comfort in being in our hometown and laying Michelle to rest next to her father, with those other 4 generations nearby. Knowing that we belong to those who came before us is comforting and grounding. Knowing that we belong to those who remain with us gives me strength. We shared our grief and our heartache on Monday but we shared our joy and our love for one another as well. This is our tribe and we carry one another when necessary. I held my cousin Kim’s hand as we prayed and watched Michelle’s remains be interred. That simple gestured calmed my soul and lifted my spirit. We are family and we belong to one another in a way no one else can.

Michelle had many gifts. She was a talented artist. She was generous to a fault. She didn’t have a pretentious bone in her body. She never met a stranger and welcomed all strays (even the two legged kind). But most importantly, to me, the greatest gift she possessed was simply this: every time I saw her I always left feeling better. Tomorrow when I am giving thanks, I will thank God for Michelle and for allowing my soul to grow. And I pray that she is flying in the purity of the air in heaven and smiling down on all of us.

Peace,

Denis

“Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is darkness, light; and where there is sadness, joy.” ~ Saint Francis

Noah

Today is our grandson Noah’s birthday.

Eleven years ago he stole my heart and conquered my world. He single-handedly restored my faith in God. He gives me hope for our future. It doesn’t hurt that he’s kind of my mini-me as well. We look a little bit alike (okay, more than a little bit). We laugh at the same jokes. We love the same folks. We like the same food. And we like being together.

I suppose that most men are just little boys at heart and with Noah, I can celebrate my inner 11-year-old. We both like to win at card games, contests, feats of strength, riddles, etc. No, I don’t let him win. Yes, he usually beats me.

Noah loves to point out our similarities: eye color (although his are bluer); hair color (although mine is whiter). We’re both color-blind (something that he thinks is sort of cool). Blue is our favorite color because it’s a color we can see. He looks up to me. And I’m his biggest fan.

There’s an awesome responsibility when someone sees you as a role model. What I say and do in his presence matters. My opinions, my actions are being observed and studied and often mimicked. If I act like a jerk, he might as well. If I behave with compassion, he might too. If I am patient and kind, loving and generous, he might follow that example as well. It’s tricky, this business of being a responsible adult.

Lately I find myself following his lead. He, in many ways, has become my role model. When we are together we share our stories – mine of days of old; his of school, soccer, baseball, robotics, and electronics beyond my understanding. We connect both physically and spiritually. He believes in God and I truly see God in him.

Noah has a habit of sitting next to me and taking my old arm and wrapping it around himself. That small gesture is sublime! It soothes my soul and calms my spirit. The fact that an 11-year-old boy still wants my embrace is a nothing short of miraculous. It’s my little bit heaven on earth and it will sustain me beyond the years when he no longer needs me. But I pray (selfishly) that he will always need me. Because Noah strengthens me. He makes me a better man.

Noah is eleven. He’s my boy. But in the blink of an eye he will be twenty-two. And thirty-three. And forty-four. And…

More selfish prayers – I hope that I am around to see the man that I know he is destined to become. I know that he will change our world. He’s already changed mine.

My birthday wish for him is that he will always know how much he is loved. And that he will always know I have felt his love and God’s presence whenever we are together.

Peace,

Denis

Saints and Angels

Below is a text exchange I had today with our teenage granddaughter. “Teenage granddaughter”. I still hold my breath a little when I say those words. That tiny baby girl who I held in my arms just moments ago is a teenager. But today I got a glimpse of the woman she is becoming: strong and smart and loving and faithful.

Here’s our exchange:

Me: We honor Mary’s parents, Anna and Joachim, as saints. We celebrate the joint feast day of Jesus’ grandparents on July 26th. Their love for one another and for Mary is an example to us of how God calls us to live. They also remind us to honor our own grandparents and to thank them for the blessings they have passed down to us in love. Happy Feast Day Anna! (I have to admit that part about honoring your grandparents was blatantly self-serving but I sent it anyway.)

She: I am greatly blessed to have you and Nana as my grandparents and today I am especially reminded of that. I love you.

Those words: I am greatly blessed… and I love you.

Just when the world seems to be too much to bear. Just when I’m not sure if I’m even fit for humanity. Just when I can’t seem to find a kind word or a kind thought, there she is. My girl. My teenager. She softens my roughness. She calms my restlessness. She looks past my ugliness. She ignores my mean-spiritedness. She digs deep and finds the love and beauty and truth that I sometimes keep buried deep under the angst of everyday living. But she finds it! She lifts my spirit and she soothes my soul.

And I am greatly blessed. And I am loved.

Peace,

Denis

“Dad” – the best honorary title I’ve ever been given

It’s Father’s Day. The day that Hallmark invented because men were feeling a little left out because of all the Mother’s Day hoopla. It’s true. The dollars spent on Father’s Day pale in comparison to what we fork over on Mother’s Day gifts, cards and flowers. Of course, mothers deserve more respect and reverence (and stuff, I suppose) if for no other reason than enduring childbirth. I was in the room for a couple of those. I’d take a double hernia any day!

Still, dads have some tough stuff to do, too. As dads we change our share of poopy diapers and mop up puke and wipe away tears. Some of us taught our kids how to ride a bike or drive a car. Some of us have instilled great wisdom in our young charges. Some of us are models of virtue, faithfulness, patience and courage. But most of us are just trying to make it through to another day.

Did you ever take your 13 year-old daughter swimsuit shopping and have to examine in detail nearly 100 swimsuits all of which “weren’t quite right”? Or have to sit through your 9 year-old’s ‘Parent-Teacher Conference’ and listen to Junior’s litany of sins while realizing that your kid is smarter than this teacher? Or did you ever have to fish something out of the latrine at boy scout camp that your son couldn’t manage to hold on to, and find yourself screaming, “Why the hell did you have that in here in the first place!” These experiences are not for the faint of heart. It takes a real man. It takes a Dad.

I’ve been blessed. God has chosen me to be a Dad. Somehow with limited intellect and no training or background in child development I was able to plod through this journey of fatherhood. My efforts were, at best, questionable and my mistakes as countless as the stars. Still my results were beyond my imagining. Three amazing humans walk this earth that I have the joy of calling my children. They are loving, caring, capable people who you would be better for knowing. So if a dumb-dumb like me can pull off a feat like this, there is hope for all of humanity.

Being called Dad is an honor and it is one that I treasure with my whole being.

Happy Father’s Day to all dads, stepdads, foster dads, mentors, and men who make a difference in the lives of children.

Peace,

Denis

Take My Hand

“Take my hand.” It’s such a simple phrase. It can be delivered as a command. Many times with my children and grandchildren it is imperative that they must ‘take my hand’. It guards against danger – traffic or crowds or unfamiliar surroundings. It can be offered as a gesture of kindness or friendship. Please ‘take my hand’ and I will help you along the way over rough terrain or an uncertain future. It can be a request. ‘Take my hand’ and help me, steady me, hold me, give me strength and the courage to continue on.

For me, it has mostly been an expression of love. ‘Take my hand’ and join our souls. Walk with me on this journey of life.

I have been blessed beyond measure. I have a wife of 45 years who is still the light and love of my life. I have three grown children who amaze me and challenge me and love me as much as I love them. I have five grandchildren who fill my life with love and joy and laughter; they give me hope for the future. I have friends and family who give tirelessly of themselves and bring balance to my life.

Each of them – all of them, have held my hand; have strengthened me; have pulled me up from the depths of despair. They have held my hand in times of joy and sorrow. We have clasped hands in times of immeasurable happiness. I have felt their heartbeats pulsing through my own veins. They have rescued me from mundane annoyance and incomprehensible pain. All of this by simply ‘taking my hand’.

As a child I held my parents hands. Whether crossing the street or being consoled, I felt protection in that hand. I was rescued from fear and uncertainty with the simple gesture of having my hand held. Now with aged fathers, Deb and I often find ourselves holding their hands. The roles have reversed in a way. The protection that our Dads’ afforded us is now being returned by steadying old hands that need support, tenderness and guidance.

I believe in a higher power. I believe in a God who has brought these loved ones into my life. I know when they ‘take my hand’ it is God’s hand holding mine. Each of these people is bringing Christ to me.

My prayer is that I can be allowed to be Christ to them as well. God rescues each of us; sometimes we just need a hand.

Peace,

Denis

Red Rover

“Red Rover, Red Rover, send Denny on over…” 

I remember as a child playing “Red Rover” with my cousins at my grandparents house. Because we were Catholic and growing up in the ’50’s and ’60’s, there were always a lot of us. Having 45 first cousins didn’t seem exceptional in my little world. Games that required a large group of small kids were pretty easy to play at Grandma and Grandpa’s. The object of “Red Rover” was lost on most of us. Certainly it was lost on me. I think we were supposed not let someone break the line or maybe trap them when they attempted to break the line. Perhaps there were no rules or we made them up to serve our purpose. Anyway, we would laugh and capture or repel one another or whatever we thought we were supposed to do. And we would do it over and over again.

1920283_10203140571134940_7189401573547634534_nWhen I think about those days of long ago, I realize that my cousins were my first friends. My cousins were my first peers. They were the ones that would laugh at me when I burped or farted or peed my pants or picked my nose – good peer pressure. I’m still thankful for their encouraging ridicule. Thanks to them, I am (nearly) socially acceptable.

My cousins were also my first partners in crime. We laughed when we heard our uncles and dads talking and some of them would use cuss words. Their cussing was pretty mild compared to today’s standards but we thought it scandalous and hilarious. On occasion we would “pretend smoke” our candy cigarettes and try out some cuss words. We were not allowed to play in the corn fields or in the beans or in the tomato plants but we could be persuaded to step foot into the forbidden zones when the adults were otherwise occupied. Grandpa always said to leave the barn cats alone, but at our own peril, we messed with them. These were not sweet little house kittens. These were nearly feral cats whose only goal in life was to keep the mice at bay. Picking one up would usually result in scratches and bites. The fact that the barn cats were “forbidden” made them that much more enticing. 

I’m still close to many of my cousins. Three of us are the same age (which I suppose happens a lot in big families). We still laugh and play together. We three still use some cuss words now and then and although we’ve given up candy cigarettes, we enjoy an occasional adult beverage together. Our lives are simultaneously different and the same. Being connected to one another in love and friendship makes the months and years between our get-togethers seem merely like days. And being together makes us feel like kids again.

10478692_10202593128809224_3266273771514063748_nMy cousins were the ones who taught me that belonging is important and necessary. We belong to one another – we share a history. Somehow I think God is mixed up in all of this. God decided we belonged together. For better or worse, we are family. 

I hope that there is a heaven. And I hope that if I’m fortunate enough to be there at the end this life, my cousins will be calling out, “Red Rover, Red Rover, send Denny on over…” 

Peace,

Denis