Saturday, December 24, 2011

Love you, my Mom. Merry Christmas.

I think it’s fair to say that there is some part of me that never quite detached from my mother. That’s not to say I didn’t leave home in my early twenties; marry a few years later, have children of my own and lead a life that included a mostly healthy relationship with her and with my Dad. I did. What I mean by not detaching is that I’ve never lost sight of the fact that no matter what I had weighing me down or causing my anxiety, I could tell my Mom and she would listen. No question.

I’m positive that over my half century + in her life, I haven’t been all that she hoped for in one way or another. Couple of highlights: The day I told her that my boyfriend and I were quite committed to each other and no, I wasn’t still a virgin – that must have kept her up for many a night, and worn out a rosary along the way. The day I told her I wasn’t going to be married in ‘The Church,’ also not a celebratory moment in her life, I’m sure. Announcements like these distressed her, and she shared that emotion honestly but kindly. But I never felt any coldness or withdrawal from her when I let her down in some way. And after my own twenty-plus years of motherhood, I call that miraculous. Because honest emotion without judgment has to be the hardest thing ever with children, right? Loving them unconditionally sure; but not holding any resentment or sadness or even anger about what they’ve done or not done; about choices they’ve made in their own lives? I know that’s hard for me.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve sobbed on the phone or in her kitchen, dumping many of my life’s challenges into her always accessible lap. I wasn’t quite looking for answers or advice, although she often offered insight I valued. No, somewhere along the line I’ve discovered that I did it for one reason: To hear her tell me, “It will work out.” The days I would cry about some situation with one or more of my sons and she would say, “I have faith in him. I do. Everything will all be okay.”

As much as we’d all like to believe in nothing but happy endings, things that trouble me may or may not “work out” as she always claims they will. But it’s her certainty and her faith that inspire me. I feel certainty about almost nothing these days but I am just a little suspicious of anyone who exists in a relative sea of calm. That is; toward anyone – except my Mom.

If I wanted to take a more cynical approach to her attitude, I could call it her view through “rose-colored glasses” or quite frankly, her inexplicably and relentlessly positive point of view, when almost none of the facts would seem to offer her reasons for good cheer. I could say that choosing to believe in one good scrap of promise when the reality of a situation is telling you something quite the opposite gets you nowhere.

Or does it? Here’s what I do know – and part of me will always have a girlhood point of view on this, that can’t be helped: She married a complex but loving man with his own personal sadness and demons to fight, and never, ever gave up on the good person he was born to be. She saw the loving man he truly was despite the many aspects of his young life that were a challenge as he grew to adulthood and found his way into the world. During the worst periods of my dad’s alcoholism, she was the one steady, reliable force in our home daily; the parent my sisters and brother and I knew we could rely on for everything, everyday.

My sister and I talked recently about the response many reasonable, intelligent people would understandably have to discovering and then enduring life with an alcoholic spouse who had yet to reach sobriety. Anger, resentment, fear, withdrawal, bitterness, unfairness, anxiety, sadness, and abandonment come to mind. Add children into the marriage and quadruple all those reactions.
We felt none of them from my mother; a testament to the strong woman she is. I expect she spent many an evening crying to her own mom who, according to the stories I heard, listened but then reminded her of my dad’s many good qualities, of the man my grandmother knew was buried inside him, trapped under decades of abuse of one kind or another. She reminded my mom that her love and support was absolutely required if anything positive was to come about. [After my dad died, I learned only a few of the sad stories about his childhood and young adulthood and knowing only a few is quite enough, thank you.]

I started this post a few days ago and my idea here was this: My Mom read every single word I ever wrote, and cut my columns out of the newspaper for almost ten years, saving them in an album. When the column ended, she lamented her “unwired” condition and as a result, couldn’t read my blog posts or online pieces easily. My goal with this piece was to help her understand how much her life and outlook has influenced me and given me a perspective I know I wouldn’t have had otherwise on many, many things. My plan was to read it to her, or at least print it out and share it that way.

When she learned of her cancer just two months ago, and the bleak prognosis, she broke down quietly with me and said, “Renee, I’m not ready.” We held each other and I just cried along with her because if I spoke it would have been to say. “I’m not either Mom. Don’t leave me.”

But because she was who she was, her next thought was, “What’s next? What do we do now?” And she moved on. To new specialists, a new hospitals and the procedures and a surgery that would arrest her condition.

Except it didn’t. And for the past five days, she has been in an intensive care unit, with no fewer than seven machines doing something for her. The yellow, blue, red, and turquoise lines that march across those screens look not unlike the rollercoaster I’m on inside.

She’s stable.
She’s slightly, just slightly in the littlest way improved.
We can’t expect much at this point.
She’s very, very sick.
She’s hanging in there.
She’s holding her own.
You need to be patient.
Let her know you’re supporting her.
Be positive.

We’ve heard these and more like it with all the best intentions from the medical people we talk with every day. All of them are some code for this: God knows. Truly: God knows what will happen here.

I’m tired of doctors asking me what I want to “do.” I want to talk to my Mom again. I want to hear her voice. I want to look at her, have her look at me – really see me – and smile at her. I want her to be comfortable. I want to tell her just one more time: I love you, and have her hear me.

I want her to be here. For a little while longer.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Saint Monica would be weeping all over again. And I wouldn't blame her.

Let’s start today’s incrankulous thoughts with some context, shall we?

From Santa
1769: Father Juan Crespi -- a Franciscan in Gaspar de Portola’s expedition party -- inspired by a free-flowing natural spring names the area after Saint Monica, who wept for her wayward son.
“The city of Santa Monica's story began when a Franciscan monk, inspired by the region's natural springs, named the area after Saint Monica. The rest, as they say, is history, and a rich history at that.” Ho Nguyen - Santa Monica Historical Society

From The Catholic Encyclopedia and, and I’m absolutely paraphrasing here; the prose the sites offer is much more complete and sober. But this is a blog, after all:

Turns out, St. Monica (b. 333) was a never-say-die kind of woman. The kind who refused to give up, no matter the circumstances. She and her husband, Patricius, had two sons, Navigius and Augustine, and a daughter, Perpetua. Old Pat, he was a pagan, an explosive man who wasn’t a complete joy let’s just say. Oh, he also despised Christians. As a bonus for Monica, her mother-in-law was not unlike her son in temperament. For thirty years, (that’s three zero) Monica lived with this tyrant/husband, always praying for his conversion.

Her example and piety finally prevailed. Patricius eventually converted to the faith, then up and died a year later.

Monica, not unlike other widows, said, “Never again” regarding marriage and moved in with her son Augustine in Italy. Now Augustine, being extremely bright and a young man of a certain age, had abandoned the faith of his youth and “subscribed to Manichaeism.” (Nope, of course I didn't know what that was either. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, Manichaeism is a religion founded by the Persian Mani in the latter half of the third century. It purported to be the true synthesis of all the religious systems then known, and actually consisted of Zoroastrian Dualism, Babylonian folklore, Buddhist ethics, and some small and superficial additions of Christian elements. The theory of two eternal principles, good and evil is predominant and gives color to the whole. Manichæism is classified as a form of religious Dualism.)

So there was Monica. Devout, but sadly tormented. First by a husband who treated her like crap for thirty years before he turned over a new leaf, largely as a result of her never losing faith in him and the man he could become. Then by a son who turned to the new age religion of the day while away at school, and eventually moved in with his mistress, disappointing her in a different way.

Like any mother would, she tried to find help for him. When the Bishop himself intervened but struck out, he basically told Monica, “Sorry, he’s pretty stubborn. You better just keep praying.” More on the record, he encouraged her by saying something like, “It is impossible that the son of so many tears should perish.” Much more poetic, right?

So she did. She prayed and never gave up, and just seventeen short years later, it paid off. Augustine was baptized at the age of 28, and went on to become a priest.
When Monica died at the age of 56, Augustine had returned to the faith and her daughter had become a nun. (No word on Navigius. He may have been the boring but faithful son who never got headlines.)

Why this walk down St. Monica lane today? Because of the story in the news about the atheist group in Santa Monica that has prevailed this year and gained exposure for their philosophy this Winter Solstice Season in Santa Monica’s Palisades Park. Through a city lottery, they earned 18 of the 21 plots available to city groups for seasonal displays. The remaining three spots contain one Jewish display and two Christian ones.

Truthfully, none of this makes sense to me because it would appear that for at least 45 weeks a year, the Jewish and Christian groups in and around Santa Monica don’t angle for space to display scenes or symbols of their beliefs. The idea of offering space to them at this time of year makes sense to me but I’m not an atheist. In fact, I’m even going to allow that if I were, it might bug me to see enormous displays of something I believed to be fantasy on public display.

But here’s the part of the story that made me insane. According to Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the Madison Wisconsin based Freedom From Religion Foundation, “[Christmas displays are] littering – literally littering – these spaces…[and are a] territorial attempt by Christians to impose their beliefs in this season. That creates an atmosphere of intimidation. Christians are the insiders, and everyone else is an outsider.”

Well…yeah. If you’re not a Christian, Christmas decorations and celebrations are irrelevant, and yes, possibly offensive, to you as an observer, although ‘imposing beliefs’ sounds a bit much to me.

In fact, it’s possible the displays feel not unlike the billboard from that feature images of Poseidon, Jesus, and Santa Claus and labels them all as mythical figures. Wouldn't the same standards apply here? One could say “it is a territorial attempt by atheists to impose their beliefs in this season. That creates an atmosphere of intimidation. Atheists are the insiders, and everyone else is an outsider.” The billboard might very well offend Christians, or followers of ancient Greek religion for that matter.

We could go back and forth all day here so I'll move onto this: The other insane moment in the article I read was courtesy of Santa Monica atheist, Damon Vix. He remarked that the display “defines Santa Monica as a Christian city, and I feel excluded by that.” That’s unfortunate but at least his feelings are confined to the Christmas season.

Or are they? If he wants to feel excluded 52-weeks a year, I would respectfully direct Mr. Vix to, where he can stop on the history page. The city itself welcomes visitors to the site with references to a Franciscan monk and a Christian saint. Maybe the local atheists should leave the Hanukkah display and Christmas tableau alone and contact the city webmaster if they have a problem with the town, its tolerance of religion and its presence in their lives. I think their concerns go back almost 250 years.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

I made it. So why do I feel this way?

I've been neglectful of my running tally and the ongoing virtual journey to Toronto. The good news is it wasn’t for lack of progress. Quite the opposite. In fact, Thanksgiving Day turned out to be auspicious. It was the day I reached my goal: 450 miles on the record this year, which places me somewhere north of Ontario, Canada. That means I made it. I did it. With my usual clarity and forethought, I based this whole program on exactly nothing and completed the journey one month earlier than I had planned.

The numbers look something like this (so far):
Average mileage per month: 42.5
Average mileage per run: just under 3 miles
Average number of days run / month: slightly more than 15

I found myself looking at the number at the end of November and thinking: well, I can’t stop now, right? I can run about 49 miles in December and hit 500, right? Right? I had logged that many miles (and more) in a month already. I could do it again, this time for the big payoff; the ‘extra’ mileage I never imagined I’d be able to claim.

Well, I might. But I might not. The month started off slowly and I have another 30 miles to go before the ball drops in Times Square again. Sure, I could do it. Sure I could.

The good news is I can always fall back on my “go to” movies to make the time pass more comfortably on the treadmill. For the record, these movies make my all-time, top eleven, always watchable, always distracting list. That means I’ll stop on them, knowing them well enough to not need every word; knowing they will engage me to the point where I can disengage from the numbers that are moving way, WAY too slowly on the mileage tracker or the timer, depending on how I’m running that night:

11 The Hangover

10 The Break Up

9 Leap Year

8 Tropic Thunder

7 The Muse

6 Rudy

5 Wedding Crashers

4 Along Came Polly

3 Forgetting Sarah Marshall

2 The Princess Bride

1 Groundhog Day

Three Vince Vaughn and two Jennifer Aniston? Why not – never said I was looking for deep while I run. I can barely manage it when I’m sitting still.

The thing is: I should be celebrating this accomplishment with a little more enthusiasm than I feel right now, shouldn’t I? Maybe it’s because my right knee is starting to ache a tiny little bit. (It does, really.) Maybe it’s because I wish it all felt more effortless than it did a year ago. (It doesn’t. Really.) I think it may be because I want to feel like a runner and I don’t. I’m not even sure what that means. Or maybe – and this is closer to my typical truth about lots and lots of things in life – actually accomplishing something might just mean it couldn’t have been that hard. More positively stated, I could say that my passion lies in the journey, not in the arrival.

The support I've felt – from personal friends and blog friends - all year long has inspired me to keep it up; to keep moving; to keep believing this is not at all insane. I can’t explain the kindness of so many, who wanted to help me succeed and meet my goals. Thank you doesn’t begin to cover it but thank you. You were my virtual pace group, keeping me on the road and focused.

So here I sit, or run, as the case may be, just about 31 miles away from hitting a total of 500 for the year. I have about 15 days to do it but let’s face it: they’re in the second half of December, when I just happen to have a couple of (dozen) other things to do. So I’ll aim for a nice round 475. That’s only six more miles. And then 480. And then, well, who can’t find time for 20 miles? Honestly, who? Me, probably, but you can see where this kind of thinking has gotten me: Just 468 miles from Allentown in eleven short months.

Who would’ve believed it? Certainly not I.