Tuesday, April 22, 2008

April, 2008-- How many mothers?

How many mothers?
Jamie and Teenasia  were getting ready to play house the other day and were deciding on roles.
            “I will be the mom,” Jamie announced.
            “But I wanted to be the mom,” Teenasia said.
            “Maybe we can both be moms,” Jamie suggested. Teenasia considered this, then turned to my husband Bill who was standing nearby.
            “Dad, can we have two moms?” Teenasia asked.
            “Sure,” Bill said. “You have two moms in real life.” Teenasia nodded in agreement, satisfied with this answer, and the girls went off to play.
            I am one of Teenasia’s two mothers. In her six years, Teenasia has been in foster care three separate times—23 months total--  with our family. She calls both her biological mother and me “Mom,” and if she is referring to one of us in conversation, the context is almost always clear enough that she does not need to differentiate further than an occasional “my” in front of  “mom” when she’s not talking about me. Because she lived with our family from ages 1 to 2, and her biological father was given custody of her at that point, T does not have a memory of living with her biological mother. Right now, T visits her once a week for four hours.
            On a day-to-day basis, I rarely think about being one of two mothers to Teenasia. Instead, like most mothers, I am focused on getting the lunches made, the shoes found, and the homework checked all while having three conversations at once.
            It’s not during the busy times that I think of being one of two mothers. It’s during the quiet. Ironically, it’s when I’m not actively mothering — when the kids are in bed, when I wake up in the middle of the night, when I’m on a run — that I think most about being Mom #2.
            Many mothers are one of two moms. I join stepmothers, grandmothers raising their grandchildren, mothers in same-sex partnerships and thousands of other foster and adoptive mothers in not being the one and only. Sharing the stage takes practice, and I certainly don’t have it down yet. There are many times I think of how much easier — for both Teenasia and me--  it would be if I were the only mom T had.
            But I am so clearly not the one and only, and it seems to me that the most healthy approach for both T and me is to embrace this hand we’ve been dealt. As long as we have it, let’s play it well. To me, that means being as matter-of-fact as possible. Just because Teenasia’s situation with two mothers is unusual doesn’t mean she has to feel odd or uncomfortable about it. There is plenty of drama in foster care without me escalating it. Teenasia will tell me things about her biological family and look closely at me for a reaction. While I know I need to teach Teenasia that parts of her experience were not acceptable, I also need to make sure I don’t make her feel that the mother she was born to is not deserving of respect.
            Teenasia is part of this other mother. She carries this other mother in every cell of her body. Sometimes, when she smiles or laughs in a certain way, I see her other mother so clearly that it takes my breath away. I know that by valuing this other mother, I value Teenasia as my child. Yet, the juxtaposition is that even as I value her as a “mother,” I know she does not have the wherewithal to add the “-ing” to that word. And that is the balance I must learn to live with. 

            Teenasia’s mother has had a life I cannot even imagine. I have had advantages she cannot even dream of. We are so different from each other, yet the one thing we have in common is the most important of all — we both love Teenasia. We live out that love differently, as we are able. I think about the other mother in the quiet. And I wonder when she thinks of me.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

April, 2008-- A tiny chapel, a late night

As a student at Marquette University, my friends and I often attended the 10 p.m. nightly Mass at the Joan of Arc Chapel on campus. We’d finish up our studying for the evening and meet in the tiny chapel. The chapel has radiant heating in the stone floor and five or six benches seating three each around the perimeter. Because I tended to get to the chapel about 45 seconds before the opening song, I usually didn’t get a seat, so I sat on the floor, and shifted positions often so that my bottom didn’t get too hot.
            While I loved the Masses, I also took them for granted. I took for granted that I attended Mass with a community of about 50 people, and at the Sign of Peace I could greet more than half of the people by name. I took for granted the guitar playing, the lively music, the way the sound filled up the space of the chapel in the darkness.  I took for granted students voicing petitions about the same worries that we might talk about later that evening over a dish of ice cream or a cold beer. I took for granted the 500-year- old building; the wrought iron candle chandelier, probably centuries old; the huge ancient wooden beams. I took for granted the Jesuits—young and old—men of wisdom, intelligence and prayer, who led the students gathered to look deeper into ourselves and discover who we were called to be. But mostly I took for granted attending Mass almost daily; going to a Mass so tailored for me, my schedule and my peer group, that not only was there no excuse not to go to Mass, I liked it so much, I wasn’t even looking for an excuse.
            Graduation gave way to young adulthood and I moved away from the campus.
            Despite my love for the St. Joan of Arc 10 p.m. Mass, I never went back. I don’t know why, exactly. At first, maybe I felt that I had closed that chapter in my life—I wasn’t a college student; I didn’t belong there. Eventually, I didn’t go back for practical reasons—a Mass that ends at 11 p.m. is substantially later for a mom of small kids than it is for a college student who can hit snooze until 15 minutes before the first class of the day. In any case, I never went back.
            Until last night.
            Maria, a friend and Marquette alum who now works at the university, had suggested that we take our mutual friend, Jill, to the Mass. Jill was diagnosed with breast cancer a few months ago, and the last round of chemo had been particularly difficult for her.
            “I heard the music on Tuesday night is really good,” Maria told me. “Music is healing. Are you free?” Of course I was free. I’m always free at 10 p.m. on weeknights because I am usually asleep.
            We got to the campus over an hour before Mass was to begin, planning to have a little picnic outside beforehand. The wind was cold though, so we moved our picnic to the lobby of the library. Maria had brought Pinot Grigio, candles, and cheese and crackers. I brought flowers and high quality chocolate. We toasted to Jill’s making it through four rounds of chemo—and to the rounds coming up. We toasted to the cancer going away and never coming back. Students entered and left the library, glancing quizzically at us and our plastic wine glasses. Then we packed up our picnic and went to the chapel.
            St. Joan of Arc was just as I remembered it, but better, because I wasn’t taking it for granted. We had gotten there early enough to get seats, but soon the entire chapel was packed and students were crowded on the floor. As a student, I had not much looked around and noticed the faces of other students—except for the guitar player on Thursday nights that I had a mad crush on—but as an adult, I took in their faces. They were so young. Beautiful. Just five to eight years older than Jacob, my own son. I saw in them what I hoped he would be someday. Chatting animatedly before Mass began; singing the opening song loudly, enthusiastically; sitting reverently, listening to the readings, the homily. Laughing at the Sign of Peace. Hugging. Shaking hands.
            Looking at the students, I remembered my own prayers inside that chapel. Prayers so different than my prayers now. Not less, just different. Different prayers for different stages of life. Then, I prayed that God would guide me in all the huge decisions I was making about my life. I had prayed about my relationships and my future. Now, having already made so many of those life decisions I was wondering about in college, I prayed for Jill and her family. That the chemo would work. That the cancer would be squashed and that her hair would grow back.
            As I sat next to Jill, I couldn’t help but think how many of my college prayers in the chapel had been answered. Buoyed by the memory of those answered prayers, I prayed again for Jill. I prayed that the peacefulness, the holiness of this place would permeate her being. That the cancer would feel unwelcome amid the goodness and youth that surrounded us.

            I prayed for Jill’s healing and gave thanks for this tiny, holy chapel. And somehow, it felt like the same prayer.