The Gift of Life…

On Friday, a friend shared a video that was posted on The Blaze website about a mother and her reaction to her prematurely-born son, and their journey of life. He was born 3 1/2 months early and weighed barely a pound.  When she held him for the first time, she wept.  I am sure it was with joy,  but also with sorrow/trepidation at the journey that lay before them.  The video was put together by her husband, for her birthday, and it detailed their journey through the NICU, the day they brought their son home, and it continued up through his first birthday.  And I have to admit, I wept.  No, I cried.  I really, really cried.  Watching that little heart beat right through the skin of his chest just unraveled me.  I have not had the best success when it comes to bearing children.  My husband and I have suffered through 7 miscarriages in our marriage and it is hard for most people to even understand what that means.  Many of our family and friends don’t even know I’ve had that many losses.  It got to the point of just keeping quiet when my mother said to me once, “Why do you keep having babies?  You have a son; just be happy with that.”  She did not understand my desire to birth lots of kids.  My parents are both only children.  And my parents came here from New Zealand.  Think about that for a moment.  I have no aunts, uncles, or cousins.  My dad’s parents eventually moved to the USA to be near him and their grandchildren.  My parents had me and my brother and opted to not have any more children.  My dad always joked and said, “We had one of each; any more would have been repeats.”  Our holiday dinners consisted of six people.  My parents, grandparents, and my brother and me.  Pretty quiet, tame, and boringly British.  I longed for the chaos of a large family.  We had good family friends who were Greek.  Now there was a fun family!!  They only had two daughters themselves, but man oh man, where there ever cousins, aunts, uncles, 2nd and 3rd cousins, etc.  I loved holidays at their house. I learned to roll grape leaves and make Wedding Cookies as a young girl.  I loved being in the kitchen with all the ladies, the noise, and the wonderful foods cooking.  My quiet, staid, British heritage always seems dry and boring to me.  Don’t get me wrong, I love British food; I was raised on it, and I love being British and am proud of my heritage, but I always longed to be a part of a large family.

When I met my husband, he rocked my world.  To start with, he was pretty cute!  And a man of deep faith, and it was like a moth to the flame!  I was immediately drawn to his faith life; I wanted that for myself.  And then he had 3 siblings, his dad was the oldest of 10 kids, his mom the eldest of 3 kids, and they were Volga River Russians!  On both sides! How exotic!  My first holiday with them, I was freaked out.  There were going to be 17 people at the dinner table and I was a nervous wreck.  How would I remember all their names?  Which kids went with which set of parents?  My future husband thought to calm me by saying, “Don’t worry! This is my mom’s side; there aren’t very many of them!!”  Ha-Ha-Ha!  It was one of the most fun Christmases ever.  I learned about snow and I taught them to love snow all over again. My father-in-law was tickled by the fact that I noticed how the snow sounded under my feet – crunch crunch crunch!  He never forgot that.  I met several of my father-in-law’s siblings and while we stopped alongside the road to chat with an aunt,  I saw my first snowflake, too.  I always thought when we cut them out of paper at school it was all make-believe.  I didn’t know snow flakes really looked like that (California girl!!).

fallen-star.img_assist_custom-600x400My husband and I married on December 29th, almost 29 years ago.  I loved winter and wanted a Christmas or New Year’s Wedding and got as close as I could.  We had no snow on our wedding day, but it snowed the day after and kept snowing for about a week.  We were married in Colorado with all his myriad family in attendance.  People asked me if I was nervous to walk down the aisle and I truly wasn’t, as I only knew about 20 people there!  Hardly anyone from my side because there were just the six of us, and my grandparents were too old to travel, which cut down considerably my side. My parents had divorced and remarried by this time, and my brother brought his fiancee, so I did have 6 family members there.  My in-laws were so nice; they reminded me that St. Thomas More was set up as a sort of round church with no center aisle, so it wouldn’t look lop-sided and they would have the ushers just seat people in the center area.  I could save face! Ha-Ha!  It was an incredible, candle-lit wedding and from the moment we said “I do” my husband and I were open to the possibility of life.  We wanted children as soon as God would give them to us.  I conceived almost right away.  Our oldest son was baptized on our 1-year anniversary and each of our children has since been baptized on that same date (makes it very easy to remember!!).  Our oldest was born 5-weeks prematurely, and I should have guessed pregnancy would not be easy for me.  I lost 4 more babies before conceiving our second son, who was born 4 years after our oldest.  After his birth, I suffered three more miscarriages and God just stopped allowing me to conceive at all. We adopted our youngest son 15 years ago this month.  In about 15 days, actually!  What a blessing he has been to our family.

While watching that video, I was brought back, once again, to the fragility of human life.  I commented to my friend that maybe if science would have been more advanced all those years ago, I would have 7 more children in my life.  But then again, perhaps my “quiver” would have been full much sooner, and the joy of my youngest son would not have happened.  God knows the reason; He opens the womb and He closes the womb.  I thank God for the gift of my sons, and for all the babies I did not get to hold and love.  I think that loving through death made me stronger. It made me more sensitive to the gift of life. I met a very dear friend many, many years ago.  It was a casual meeting. She was pregnant at the time.  We struck up some wonderful conversations, but it was nothing too serious or deep.  Then she lost her baby.  I thought to call her and offer my comfort, as I knew deeply and personally her pain.  Our friendship grew from that day into something I will always treasure. Our children became friends and my husband and I are the godparents to the beautiful daughter she welcomed the very next year, after her loss.  Death bonded us together in ways no one understands.  And it also made us fiercely protective of these fragile lives of the unborn.

I know some people are fiercely protective of the right to choose.  I get that. But for me, I feel that it is a mis-construed ideology that has caused that fierceness to develop in our culture.  When we choose to engage in behavior that can produce a life, we need to take responsibility at the point we are choosing that behavior.  It is like saying that spoons make us fat; guns kill people; cars kill people…we don’t get rid of the spoon, we stop eating so much.  It is called self-control.  We don’t kill the product of our choice of behavior, we welcome that child and we change our behavior.  There are so many who cannot have children; we bear those children conceived in “error” and we allow them to be adopted. I have personal experience with adoption and it is an incredible blessing.  The right to kill another human being is wrong.  Pope John Paul II said that in a “just society” we have the right to execute people.  But our society is so far from just.  There are loop-holes, exceptions, corruption…our world is in a mess.  God is the ultimate judge, not me.  Incarceration is a completely different topic from this post, so I will not delve into it here.  I am lamenting, rather, the right to choose to kill a child.  An innocent life.  It is not the mother’s body…it is a baby in there.  It is not an organ, or her tissue.  The heart is struggling to beat, the little hands and feet are working their magic. Random tissue doesn’t have brain waves.  It is a child.  And I believe that even if we cannot afford a child, or have the life-long desire to commit to another human being (parenting is for life…it’s one of the little things people don’t tell you when you become a parent.  You just cannot turn it off even when they are parents, themselves!!) we can allow that child to have life, outside of our life, by allowing them to be adopted. It is the loving, best option.  Be chaste to your state in life.

And as I watched the video that morning, watching that little boy grow and smile, and the adoration on the face of that mother, my heart just swelled with love for my sons and for the babies I longed to hold but whose souls I know are safe in God’s care.  In this season when we celebrate the Birth of Our Savior, Jesus Christ, I offer a prayer for all our unborn babies, to come safely into this world.

This is the Christmas Kontakion, or the Kontakion of the Preparation, we sing in Church from now until Christmas Day.  I offer this as a prayer, through the story of Mary preparing to give birth to God the Son, for all our sons and daughters, and those still to come:

“Today the Virgin is on her way to the cave where she will give birth to the Eternal Word of God in an ineffable manner. Rejoice, therefore, O universe, when you hear this news, and glorify with the angels and the shepherds Him who shall appear as a newborn Babe, being God from all eternity.”

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There’s a random post going around Facebook, asking people to list 10 things you might not know about them.  It has been interesting reading about my friends and acquaintances.  It is a sign of the times that we have so many people in our lives, but when it comes down to it, there isn’t the depth we used to have in relationships.  I am opining here, so I know there will be objections!  And that is okay, too.  Our world has become so instant and so automated, that quite often, there is much we do not really know about the people we interact with.  Quite often I have been told people date, have a relationship, and break up – all either online or through texting someone.  I find that absurd in some ways, and infinitely sad in other ways.  And the other part is the instantaneousness of it all.  “I just met this guy and he is so awesome! I am in love” or I was friended by this girl online and we’ve been talking on Facebook.  I don’t know but I think she might be “the one!”  I find it all so indicative of our culture, and immensely sad.  We do not converse any longer, we chat.  We do not write or read, we text.  We do not sit down to dinner and actually talk to each other, rather everyone is on their phones.  A friend suggested this article to me and I just read it.  “18 Things Everyone Should Start Making Time for Again.” (http://thoughtcatalog.com/brianna-wiest/2013/11/18-things-everyone-should-start-making-time-for-again/).  I commented to my friend that just reading it was like a sigh, or a pause, like a breath of fresh air.  It is depressing to think we even need a list like this, but it is also wonderful!  It brings into the light things we do not often think about.  One of my favorites was #3 – Thinking before responding.  You can actually watch people in conversations and see (sometimes I feel I can hear the gears turning in their heads) them formulating their response before the speaker has even fully expressed their idea or position on something.

Intent to replyAnother point she made was #13 – Making sure relationships are based on spending time with people.  This speaks to our digital, instant, rapid-paced culture.  There is nothing like a cup of tea shared with a good friend, taking hours and hours to talk about our lives.  I miss the friends I have who enabled me to sit and chat with them. Those moments of my life are some of my most treasured.

The past few days there was a discussion on pews or no pews on a Facebook page, as well as another post about confession that was a video tape of a conference.  The talk was awesome; the discussion on pews was enlightening.  I enjoy the intellect and the banter, although I am saddened at the vehemence with which Christians attack or defend positions.  It still baffles me, but I love the fervor, nonetheless.

Tomorrow we begin our Advent Fast (well, we really start today).  Today is the Feast Day of St.Philip and the Fast is often referred to as St. Philip’s Fast.  Regardless of the title, this marks 40 days until Christmas.  This year has sped by so rapidly, it is hard to comprehend it.  We have had such an upheaval since the Holiday Season of 2012.  Thanksgiving last year we were hosting my god daughter for several days, and attended a dinner at some very dear friends’ home.  It was one of the most memorable Thanksgivings for all of us. A peculiar mix of people at the table, wonderful food traditions shared, great wine, and some of the best conversations, ever!  The joy, laughter, and love experienced that day will stay with me always. I loved that day.  And Christmas of 2012, we hosted extended family in our home and it was lovely.  It was a difficult Christmas, as it was the first without my father-in-law, but it was wonderful to sit with his brother and sister-in-law, as well as my mother- and brother-in-law, and share stories about Joe and his early life, and to hold each other up in our own grief over his passing.  It is hard to believe we are entering into the preparation phase for holidays so soon.  This year, I am facing the season without my stepfather, whose birthday is today (Memory eternal, Frank) and trying to support my mom, who is suffering with Dementia and the loss of her “anchor” in life.  We are also in a completely new community and physical environment, but have the blessing of family nearby (son, daughter-in-law, and two grandchildren) and a great support of our Church family.

All of this lead me to think on my relationship with God.  If I look back on all the things, events, and people who have made up my lifetime, I find that God is the constant – always there, always the same

“Let us go straight to Bethlehem…”

fallen-star.img_assist_custom-600x400A few people who actually read my posts asked me why I haven’t posted anything recently.  Life has been chaotic.  This move has “upset the apple cart,” as they say.  We had lots to adjust to.  We moved about 3,000 miles to a completely new environment and God had lots to do with us.  We found acceptance at a wonderful parish and are making friends I know will last many years.  We are learning new traditions, new foods, and new tones to try and sing (I am tone deaf, so it is particularly painful for everyone.  I have no idea if I sound bad or not! Ha-Ha!!).  We have entered our first “craft fair” season in a place that takes craft fairs quite seriously, which is a new thing for me.  Although I have found I am drawn to them and enjoy them very much.  Working at one all day is also not that bad.  Lots of fun conversations, amazing co-workers, and scrumptious perogies and haluski filling the air with amazing scents and delicious tastes!!  I am a perogy convert!  LOVE THEM! Haluski, well, not to brag, but I made it and it was VERY GOOD!!! (In case you do not know what it is, it is cooked cabbage, onions, lots of butter, and noodles.  So good!! Thanks to a wonderful family who taught me how to make them!)  So much that is new in our lives.

In addition to that, my husband was blessed with employment.  God waited for the right time to bless us with work.  He knew what we needed to go through, and how we needed to find work.  We bring so much with us (baggage) when we go from place to place, and learning to belong to a new culture sometimes takes awhile, and sometimes requires prayer, patience, and work.  We also learned how we can be extremely humbled and taken down to pretty much our lowest denominator, but to feel the love of God surrounding us all through it.  He brought us to a place where we fit in with all areas of our lives first, and then He provided work.  In our last home, we had the job, the house, the money, but lacked community and a strong place to worship.  This time, He brought us to a place filled with people who accepted us and loved us right away.  He let us feel “belonging” and “home,” before He brought us work.  Our home is little but is perfect.  Our neighborhood is modest but in the perfect location.  My husband’s job is a little bit of a drive, but is working out perfectly for us.  We have family around us and faith and friends, too.  We are blessed.

Since I last wrote a post on this blog, we have also been blessed with a new grand daughter.  Being at the hospital and holding that tiny baby on the day she was born, was absolutely incredible.  (Well, she weighed 8 lbs 13 oz!!).  I was able to stay overnight with my grandson, who is 21 months old, at my son’s home…just the two of us…for two nights.  I cannot even describe how my “gaga” heart just exploded with love for that little guy!  We had so much fun playing together.  (Gaga is his name for me).  We live less than a mile from them and being able to see our grandchildren often is such an incredible blessing, I cannot properly express it. We had dinner with them just last night and I melted, just holding my little grand daughter.  God is good.

And we also had our first serious snowfall of the season.  We got 6″ overnight.  And all my Thanksgiving/fall decor came down.  It feels like Christmas!!!  It was all of 7-degrees this morning, and as I type this, it has dropped to just 1-degree on our back porch, and it is in full sunshine!  There is such a difference in the approach to Christmas here.  It is a snow state.  There is often snow from November to April.  That’s 6 months of the year, if you were counting.  So for a climate like this, Christmas takes on a whole other meaning.  To fight off all the hours of darkness, Christmas lights are up all over town.  Downtown keeps lights up for months, to encourage joy in the hearts of everyone, while our days of sunlight significantly lessen.  The tradition is to get your lights up early (before the first snow) and keep them up until almost Easter.  Inside and outside.  I remember in California it was hard to keep our tree up until Epiphany, or the Baptism of the Lord, because they got so dry and it was usually getting warm outside.  Here, people keep lights, decor, and trees up until there is more sunshine.  A completely different outlook!

Recently, a friend remarked to me that our fasting for Advent seemed a little strict.  In the East, when we fast, we traditionally fast the same during Advent as we do during the Great Fast of Lent, except we are not as strict as during Lent.  But we Fast in a serious way.  No meat, dairy, wine, olive oil, eggs, or fish.  Basically, a vegan diet.  And I started to think about the juxtaposition of decorating all out and early, and starting a fast.90_02_53---Christmas-Lights_web_zpsbe84d5fa

When I was first introduced to the concept of a strict fast, one that lasted each and every day of the 40 days of Lent, I was overwhelmed.  My pastor assured me that with years of practice, I would be able to fast well, and in fact, that I would welcome the periods of fasting throughout the Liturgical year.  That was more than 10 years ago and I am still not a total vegan during the Fast, but I have made great strides towards that.  And one of the things about keeping a strict fast for whatever season we are preparing for, is that fasting becomes a way in which we enter more deeply into the preparation of what we will be feasting.  All around us, during the Great Fast of Lent, we are assaulted by ads for Peeps (my husband’s favorite Easter treat), chocolate eggs, and the Easter Bunny.  It detracts from the fact that we are preparing to experience once again that ultimate sacrifice of life – the Crucifixion – and ultimately, the Resurrection.  To get to the good part, you have to go through the hard part.  Entering into a strict preparation period helps us enjoy the feasting and celebration we have prepared for.  I remember my first Divine Liturgy on Holy Saturday night.  We started about 10pm and ended in the 2-3am time frame.  Our pastor jokingly told us no vegetables were allowed in the hall!!  We exited the Sanctuary and made that short walk to the hall and when the doors opened, the smell of meat was enticingly overwhelming! Boy, did we feast!  Meats and treats we’d been without for 40 days were joyously eaten (and imbibed).

My family and I have been passing through that hard part and are starting to see that good part of life.  And so I can sort of see why my friend would think that our fasting is a little strict.  The neat thing about belonging to a truly universal Church is that there is room for a variety of traditions and a variety of liturgical expressions that support those traditions.  I believe that I have been tested and strengthened through the recent hardships we have been through, and that without it, the sweetness of the good times would just not be as sweet.  Christmas morning’s joy is enhanced by the anticipation of what lays before you.  I love rethinking, reliving, and retelling the story of the Incarnation of Christ.  The part where an angel appears to the Theotokos and she contemplates what has been prophesied about her; “A virgin shall bear a son and His name shall be Immanuel…” (Isaiah 7:14). Not to mention the moment Our Lord is born “and suddenly there appeared with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased.”When the angels had gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds began saying to one another, “Let us go straight to Bethlehem then, and see this thing that has happened which the Lord has made known to us.”… (Luke 2: 14-15)  We have so very much to celebrate and look forward to, and so much to reflect upon as we prepare to celebrate.

lightsI don’t know about you, but I personally love the separation of the Holidays. Up here, we seem to go from Halloween directly to Christmas, skipping Thanksgiving.  On November 1st, and even during the weeks leading to Halloween, the Christmas items were already in the stores.  They are now all decorated for Christmas and lights are up and the Christmas music is playing.  I tried to find a new Thanksgiving yard flag but had no luck.  We are now in full Christmas mode up here.  So why fast?  Why deny myself the full enjoyment of the season?  For me, it is a way to slow things down, to simplify our lives, and to learn to stop and focus on what we are putting in our mouths and why.  Do not get me wrong! I love Christmas and I love Christmas baking and creating wonderful meals, decorating my home and sending out cards. I love everything about Christmas!  I collect Old World St. Nicholas statues and wall decor, anything remotely reminding me of the historical “Santa Claus.”  I also love eating and drinking things we only have at Christmas.  But I also know I can get caught up in baking and buying, wrapping, shipping, eating and celebrating, that I forget what I am wrapping and buying and baking for.  And in the Eastern Church, we are not supposed to attend or host Christmas parties until AFTER Christ has been born.  That week between Christmas and New Year’s is when we celebrate…and on until the Baptism of the Lord (in the west, Epiphany). In the past my husband was always off work that week between Christmas and New Year’s because that is the week we were married.  It makes the Christmas season that much more special and each of our children were baptized on our anniversary, and so that week is very unique for us.  But how special is it if we indulge from Halloween until the middle of January?  When do we look up from our bowls of Halloween candy, turkey stuffing, and candy canes and take note of what we are celebrating?  How can we make Christmas more meaningful?

I believe the fast is how we bring Christmas into a reality that we can appreciate and handle.  There are foods only eaten during this time of year.  Plan for them, savor their imminent presence on our tables, but keep a check on what we eat and drink until we can celebrate the birth of our Savior.  Consider baking a birthday cake for Christ.  Consider not eating meat from now until Our Lord arrives.  I cannot fully describe how awesome Christmas dinner is when you haven’t had meat for a month.  The sights and smells are overwhelmingly decadent and so much more enjoyable. In this world of excess, why don’t we try and do without and perhaps donate money not spent on food to a local food bank or homeless shelter, ensuring a holiday for those with less? Instead of buying meat, buy small tubes of toothpaste, soap, brushes, towelettes to put in bags for your local shelter? Instead of eating out, attend Divine Liturgy or Evening Vespers an extra night a week.  Denying self allows Christ to enter in.  Going through the rough stuff makes the good stuff so much more enjoyable!!!

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