Wednesday, October 9, 2013

For Crying Out Loud-- Notre Dame's Orientation

For Crying Out Loud-- Notre Dame's Orientation 

When they began to play the final song at the liturgy that closed the freshman/parent orientation weekend at the University of Notre Dame, I started to cry. The song, Canticle of the Sun had been the opening song at our wedding, 20 years before. As the choir and congregation sang, I struggled to compose myself, as my way-too-verbal brain created new lyrics to accompany Marty Haugen’s. 

            The heavens are telling the glory of God (You have grown up, Jacob. Sob, gasp.)
            And all creation is shouting with joy. (I am incredibly happy for you. More tears.)
            Come dance in the forest, come play in the field. (Wasn’t I just playing Legos with you?   How             could that be ten years ago? Tissue from Bill.)
            And sing, sing to the glory of the Lord. (I had no idea on our wedding day what we were                      embarking on. How glorious. How difficult.)
Jacob later told me he could see me weeping from where he sat with the rest of the students, fifty rows away, across the Joyce Center’s Purcell Pavillion. I asked him if he was crying, too. He just smiled and shook his head.

My liturgical crying was nothing new to Jacob. In the weeks leading up to the orientation weekend, I was on the verge of tears all the time. Everything was crisper and held more meaning knowing that Jacob’s days as a full-time member of our household were limited. Good family moments became beautiful and small problems between kids became unbearable.

But even as I bubbled over with emotion for the entire month of August, Jacob remained true to his calm nature. Never a kid prone to extremes, he matter-of-factly started piling his clothes, books and electronics on the ping pong table in the basement, next to his suitcase. He met his soon-to-be roommates on Facebook and ordered a glow-in-the-dark Frisbee so they could play at night, if need be. We fell comfortably into our roles: I was the mom holding onto the memories; he was the young man ready to leave.

Until one night, when we were cleaning the kitchen alone after dinner. I handed Jacob a pot to dry and he said, “I don’t want to go.” 

I looked up, startled. I scanned his eyes—soft, clear, worried, and a little ironic.

“You don’t have to go,” I said brightly. “Stay here. It will be great. There are lots of universities around.”

“I don’t want to do that either,” he said, after a pause. “I just want things to stay how they are right now. I like being here. I liked being at Dominican. I don’t want it all to change.” 

I nodded. And despite all the crying I had done in the past month, and all the crying I would do at orientation weekend in a couple weeks, in that moment, in response to that statement, I did not cry.

Instead, I told Jacob everything I knew that was true. That the friends he would be meeting in the coming semester could very well be friends he would have for the rest of his life; that over the next four years he would glimpse a career he might be called to; that he was soon to become even more of the person he already was—the adult version of the fantastic kid we had always known.  I told him that I had no doubt that God had led him to this point and that as much as he loved our family, this house, his high school, God had more in store for him.

Jacob didn’t cry either, when I told him all this. I wasn’t saying anything new. Anything he didn’t know. He nodded, finished drying his pot and didn’t bring it up again.

Now, a month into his new school year, Jacob sends us quick texts about delicious funnel cake fries from the cafeteria. He emails us news of Frisbee club happenings, and we can look at the picture of himself, his roommates and Nicholas Cage posted as his Facebook profile. He’s filled us in on the young, newly-ordained deacon who is rector of his dorm and the funny French calculus professor who teaches barefoot.

And as he tells us of all the good going on around him, I can read through the emails and texts how happy he is. I think back to all the years he lived at home, and to that summer day in the kitchen, when he actually said he didn’t want to leave, because he liked it here so much. And how, even after saying this, he left anyway.

Twenty years have passed since our wedding day. Our oldest son is in college. He is happy. All creation is singing for joy. And that’s why I’m crying.


Friday, September 13, 2013

Discovering Motherhood: A new blog

I have been writing about my children since Liam, now 15, was born. Interestingly, I didn't write about Jacob, now 18, when he was a baby. I don't think I realized at the time that he wouldn't always be a baby. Sure, other people had toddlers, kindergarteners, college students. But those days were impossibly far off for me. Baby Jacob would be a baby for a long, long time, I thought. By the time Liam was born, when Jacob was three, I had caught on. Time moves; these children were growing, and I had thoughts, ideas and reflections about the whole process. I thought it best to write these down. In the years following Liam,  our daughters Teenasia and Jamie joined our family through foster care, then adoption.

 This blog is the story of our family.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

May, 2013: Letter to Jacob, graduation from Dominican

 Dear Jacob,

How can you be graduating in three weeks? Last Saturday at midnight, I woke up and you weren’t home yet. Usually when this happens I drift back into a drowsy half-asleep state, waiting for either the ding of a text telling me you are on your way, or the buzz of the garage door opening, telling me you are home and safe. But last Saturday night was different; my mind snapped fully awake.

As Dad slept on, oblivious, images flashed through my mind. Images so clear, Jacob, they seemed to be from last week, rather than from eighteen years ago. Newborn Jacob. Your tiny fingers with remarkably sharp baby nails; your fuzzy aqua sleeper with the giraffe on the front; your quiet, content personality, agreeable and reasonable from your very beginnings. Baby Jacob, I remember being amazed at how large you seemed at your six-week check-up. Now I look back—how could I have thought a twelve pound baby  was big? Dad and I used to speak about your age in days; then we spoke about it in weeks or months. Finally we moved on to years, but sometimes we added a half for clarification, because when you’re very young that half makes a difference. He’s six and a half. And now you are graduating?

And I think the reason I bring such disbelief to the end of your childhood is because my feelings for you, eighteen-year-old Jacob, are not that different from my feelings for newborn Jacob, or four-year-old Jacob or twelve-year-old Jacob. Your birth brought me into motherhood. Your birth taught me a love I had not previously known. Holding newborn Jacob, wrapped tightly in a blanket, I understood, as I had never before, what Mary must have felt for Jesus. I wanted only the best for you. I wanted you to grow to be kind and compassionate; smart and funny; I wanted you to be faithful and to hear the voice of God. And what I want for you now has really not changed since those blanket days. During my fearful moments as a mother, I have whispered to Mary, asking her to pray for my children, to pray for me. I have talked to Mary about you, Jacob. She has listened.

You are graduating. Last Saturday night, as I waited for you to come home, I tried to make peace with the idea of your graduation, of your upcoming move to college. New images rushed at me. You, at age two, crawling around barking, pretending to be a dog. You, a fourth grader with your Battle of Books notecards. You, a seventh grader, impossibly skinny, playing first base, stretching to catch the throw. In each memory of you, I was there, too, gradually stepping back. As you grew, I handed more and more of your life over to you, believing always, that I was never handing it to you alone, but to God, also, who was with you; who was in you. And often, as I stepped back, I would whisper to Our Lady, to Mary, who I knew understood all about letting go.

So, Jacob, I will step back again, believing that along with the literature and calculus, you have also learned about prayer and God’s presence. I will step back believing that you will search for the Holy Spirit’s nudging when you need direction. I will step back, believing you will call me, text me and trust me to step forward whenever you find yourself in need. I will step back, knowing that as I do, your university will step forward to teach you things that Dad and I cannot. And as I step back, I will continue to whisper to Mary. Jacob, I pass you to a university wise enough to choose the mother of Jesus as its namesake. I step back with faith. I step back with profound love.

And I pass you to Notre Dame.  



Friday, April 5, 2013

April, 2013: Frisbee

            For our family, the melting snow heralds in Frisbee season. Jacob is an Ultimate Frisbee enthusiast, hopes to make the club team in college and has signed up for a weeklong Ultimate Frisbee camp as soon as school ends. He learns new Frisbee moves by watching You Tube and can rattle off the names of the world’s premier players in the sport—and yes, Ultimate Frisbee is a sport with its own governing body and premier players.
            I did not see this coming.
            Jacob began his athletic career with lots of variety as a young child-- baseball in the spring; swimming and tennis in the summer; flag football, soccer or cross country in the fall, and basketball and skiing in the winter. Table tennis was his year-round indoor sport. I watched many of his early grade school games with a toddler on my hip and a preschooler at my side. Taking Jacob’s younger brother and sisters to watch his interminable little league games was especially brutal. It was like taking them to church, but longer, without the distraction of music, and with the hazard of foul balls.
            While many of my friends’ children eventually showed a special talent in one sport, and began to specialize, joining club traveling teams, Jacob remained stunningly average at every sport he tried. He enjoyed all of them, but didn’t have a true passion for any of them. Even in high school, not good enough to play soccer or basketball for Dominican, he continued to play on a rec soccer team one season, and a parish basketball team the next. He played JV baseball for a couple of years and then switched to tennis for junior and senior years—all while occasionally playing dodgeball, ping pong and other random sports.
            When Jacob was introduced to Ultimate Frisbee in gym class and quickly signed up for a Milwaukee Ultimate league, I was impressed with his initiative, but didn’t think it would turn any more serious than any of his other sports.
            Ultimate Frisbee (actually known simply as “Ultimate” because Frisbee is a brand) is played by two teams of seven on a football field. It is a fast-paced running game with similarities to football and soccer. Teams try to score by passing the disc to open teammates into the end zone. No contact, picks or screens are allowed.
            Jacob’s athletic history of jack-of-all-sports fits perfectly with Ultimate. Few young children are groomed to toss a Frisbee, and by college, the serious athletes are off riding scholarships for their serious sports, allowing a medium athlete like Jacob to have a shot at the ones below the radar.
            But the element of Ultimate that I appreciate the most—and fits the most for Jacob—is what the USA Ultimate national governing board calls “The Spirit of the Game.” Strong competition is encouraged, but should never get in the way of the joy of playing.
            Ultimate’s focus on their trademarked Spirit of the Game is woven through the board’s official rules. Recognizing it’s not enough to simply tell people to play fair, the national governing body gives ten specific guidelines of how to play within the Spirit of the Game. Their first point is the golden rule: “Treat others as you wish to be treated.”  Shortly thereafter, the authors acknowledge that many athletes have thick skin, and amend the rule to: “Treat others as you wish your mother to be treated.”
Point two tackles containing emotion under pressure and point three explains the difference between good-natured heckling and mean-spirited taunting. The ten points are so beautifully written and complete that they could be a guide for any sport—indeed, for any activity in life—not just Frisbee.  “Be generous with praise,” the governing body advises in their eighth point. “Compliment an opponent on her good catch. Remark to a teammate that you admire his honesty in calling himself out of bounds.” Perhaps the best direction is given as part of point six, titled simply, “Breathe.” The guideline says, “After a hard foul or close call, take a step back, pause, and take a deep breath. By giving yourself just a bit of time and space, you will gain enough perspective to compose yourself and concentrate on the facts involved.” The full document of The Spirit of the Game reads like an inspiring homily.
            In the The Spirit of the Game, I see Jacob’s spirit, as well. A love of sport combined with a healthy sense of competition-- wrapped in a perspective that running, passing, diving and catching are fantastic parts of life, but shouldn’t be taken too seriously. Once Jacob moves on to college, Bill and I will still have three other young athletes in the home. We have almost another decade of dribbling and jumping; bumping and hitting. Another decade of moving toward the Ultimate goal— The Spirit of the Game.




Thursday, January 3, 2013

January, 2013: Memories

An article in Slate magazine recently reported on a phenomenon that I had long suspected was true. Most people remember the events in late adolescence and their early twenties more clearly than any other events in their lives. Researchers call it the reminiscence bump. “A little-known but robust line of research shows that there really is something deeply, weirdly meaningful about this period,” writes Katy Waldman in the Jan. 18 edition of Slate. “It plays an outsize role in how we structure our expectations, stories, and memories. The basic finding is this: We remember more events from late adolescence and early adulthood than from any other stage of our lives.”
            Scientists are still trying to ascertain the cause of the reminiscence bump. A leading theory is that our identity formation takes place during this phase of life. Events during these years become “self-defining episodes” for us.  A study by scientists Judith Gluck and Susan Bluck found that an event more likely to be remembered for a long period of time has three qualities:  “It is joyous. It allows us to exert control. And we perceive it to be highly influential over the course of our lives,” Waldman writes.
            If this research is true, our son, Jacob, a high school senior, is moving into the phase of life that he will most remember; the time of life that will form how he defines himself. While I continue to cherish events from his kindergarten and first grade years that Jacob has already forgotten, his college years will be indelibly marked in his mind.
            I don’t know if it’s because Jacob goes to a Catholic high school or if it’s because five of the six universities he applied to are Catholic, but it seems that more than half of the marketing materials that fill our mailbox each day come from Catholic colleges and universities.  The pages are slick, glossy and sometimes customized. One postcard came with Jacob’s name spelled out in a collage of photos of the college campus. Imagine yourself here was written under his name. 
            The brochures speak of gorgeous campuses filled with bright students, brilliant professors and incredible extracurricular activities. Even their taglines are inspiring. Preparing people for extraordinary lives (Loyola);  Higher Purpose. Greater Good. (St. Louis University); Be the Difference (Marquette).
             And while I’m not one to be swept away by photos of regal ivy-covered stone buildings, I can’t help but believe that on their best days, Catholic universities deliver on their lofty promises. Whether or not they’re familiar with the reminiscence bump theory of memory, Catholic universities understand that part of the formation of young adults includes the formation of faith. My best memories from my days at Marquette include retreats, service trips over spring and winter breaks, going to dorm Masses in my slippers and sweats, and protesting the Jesuit university’s failure to divest its holdings in Apartheid South Africa. My own memories of college are, as the study suggests, among the strongest, clearest memories of my life. And as the researchers indicate, my experiences of that phase of life defined me— I was equally defined by both the joyous moments and the ability to make decisions on my own. I want the same for Jacob—not the exact same experiences, of course, but the opportunity to form his faith at the same time as he is forming his identity. It’s hard for me to imagine separating the two.
            Yet, I understand enough about the call of God to know that there are many paths that can lead a person where he or she needs to go. If Jacob chooses a university that is not Catholic or Christian, I will watch eagerly to see how God will manifest in that circumstance.
            I look back with gratitude at Jacob’s 14 years of Catholic education. From Mrs. Kisslinger’s junior kindergarten prayers before lunch to his senior retreat, Catholic schools have shaped Jacob. His decisions, including this decision about college, are informed by his faith. God goes before him, leading him to the place where his greatest memories will someday live.