Far from Home

My Uncle Jim just passed today…. cancer.

And I am heartbroken because I can’t be with my family right now. We’re from Kansas but live in Illinois.

And while I love my new job, I haven’t earned any time off and have barely been there a month– I can’t ask. Even if I could, I don’t have the cash to go by car or plane. My parents can’t either.

And you can send flowers and make a tearful phone call to express sympathy…. but nothing replaces a real hug. Or holding hands together at a service, and those wonderful stories people tell that breaks the tears into laughter.

So many times, we’ve been stuck here when family members passed on both sides– my dad’s and my mother’s.

I have an incredible, hardworking, loving, affectionate, close family. But I hardly know them beyond visits for a few hours or a weekends when we can make it back– usually every few years. Phone calls.

I got to talk to my Aunt Judy, his widow, for a few minutes tonight at least. I’m glad we got to cry a little bit together.

I feel terrible because Uncle Jim sent me so many cards over my lifetime– birthday cards and even money for years even into adulthood. He even wrote me letters for awhile. Usually it’s the woman in the family who maintains correspondence but he was the one who signed their cards.

He was a journalism major in college also, and a competitive runner in the senior Olympics. He was so happy I’d found running. Even when I would call to check on him and how chemo was going…. he barely mentioned himself. So humble. He was always “okay”– he wanted to know what was happening with me. He was honest about how he felt, but he had such a deep faith that he always had a positive attitude about it.

His Catholic faith was part of the bedrock of his life. He was a husband, father and business owner.

Uncle Jim, I miss you so.

Thankfully, a good cry usually makes me tired and I sleep well.

Please keep him and our family in your prayers.

Uncle Donnie’s Last Thanksgiving : Saying Goodbye and the Power of Touch

*This is the speech I read today at his funeral, written last night.

HERE is his obituary, if you’d please take a moment to read about his life.

Regrettably, I didn’t spend much time with Uncle Donnie. But I was happy when he moved to Illinois circa six weeks ago to Brookdale Assisted Living.

I never knew my grandfathers– both died before I could meet them. I visited his room three times, and twice in the ICU at Presence Medical Center in Joliet. I didn’t know exactly what to say– I felt a bit intimidated. But he made and effort to make me comfortable as if it were his own home. I found I liked him, though he was a bit gruff. He sat in his leather chair and I sat on the bed, and we shared a companionable silence. We watched TV.

Both of us had a hearing-loss, but he really struggled to hear me. I could see how much he struggled to communicate. Even speaking slowly and enunciating well, often I still failed to convey my words in a way he could understand. But he took an active role in our conversation and asked me questions when I was feeling shy.

In his mini-fridge, he had a few basics: green grapes, Cheesehead’s string cheese, Sprite and Hershey’s milk chocolate bars. Each time I visited, he would offer me anything available– he wanted to be hospitable. He ate the string cheese in bites, while I peeled it. Thought he possessed little, he was instinctively generous and wanted to share.

I regret that I waited till the tend of his life to cultivate a friendship with this gentle man. He wore a beautiful gold watch, and allowed me to clean it up for him. He trusted me so easily with what must have been a prized possession. He also wore two medals on a gold chain– St. Christopher, and St. Francis, I believe. He had a beautiful crucifix on his wall. Clearly, he was a devout Catholic man.

I never called him in Florida for the same reason I never reach out to many family members I wish I knew better- I don’t know what to say. But I learned while visiting that what we say does not matter-rather, it’s our gesture of reaching out that matters.

When my Dad told me he was in the ICU on Black Wednesday, I went to visit him. He had a breathing apparatus on, but recognized me when I touched his arm. A nurse came to draw blood and I held his opposite hand for support. I knew how much it can hurt. He didn’t fuss or complain as she did her job.

On Thanksgiving my parents and I went back, and I was able to see him one last time. He was less responsive, but still fighting. Breathing was hard for him. We watched TV.

Other family arrived. Uncle Donnie never spoke that day, but he responded immediately to touch. He would turn his face toward the person and it seemed to deeply relax him. I watched our family keep a vigil at his bedside- holding onto Uncle Donnie. Letting him known we were there, that he was loved. We took turns being alone and saying goodbye. We were sitting around his bed just talking normally, when I left for maybe 20 minutes. I came back and he had just been unhooked and passed. All of us cried. We prayed over him.

I’m grateful I was given this chance to know him. To have a few moments to experience what it must be like to have a grandfather. Our love for him brought us together on Thanksgiving and he made his peace with life, his beloved family, and departed.

Now I bet he’s up in Heaven, smoking his Pall Mall Menthol 100’s, eating a Hershey’s bar, and watching over us.

As my father said, our dear Uncle Donnie went home for Thanksgiving. Home to rest with our eternal Father.

On All Souls’ Day

Today is All Souls’ Day….

I didn’t make it to Mass.

But I will honor it with a blog post.

I send up a prayer to those in my life who have passed on and crossed to other side to be with Him, in Eternal Rest.

I lost a lot of important people in my family when I was young– and consequently, I carry a bit of sadness with me. I have wonderful days where I feel the full grace of God’s love in my life and I couldn’t be happier– but that’s also tempered by a feeling of loss that never quite abides. However, I think it’s made me a better person.

Because of those losses, I am so much more appreciative of what I do have. Of the people in my life who have blessed me.

I think it’s made me a much more empathic person– because I understand how grief can shape your character and also cause you to feel angry for a long time until you learn to see the beauty even in the darkness. It forces you to grow up faster. And it gives you a serious personality, even as a young child. A lot of people would characterize me as extroverted and friendly– and I am. And the joy that I exude at those times is genuine. But I’m also very intuitive about the sadness in others, which is sometimes a gift and sometimes feels like a burden. I feel what they feel, and sometimes wish I was less aware of these feelings in others. But when someone confides in me, I feel honored. I’m not the person that’s angry you called me at 3 a.m.– I’m the person who just asks what’s wrong and what I can do to help. If you need to be picked up, I’ll be there. Or I’ll just listen or give you a hug, or whatever I can do.

Sometimes it’s weird– I still have to draw boundaries about it. You don’t want to put yourself in danger, physically or emotionally, and you need to be aware that some people use a front of vulnerability to evoke pity in order to take advantage. I’ve become savvier over the years about sensing this facade. I’ve learned to know when I can give my time, and to whom– while also taking care of myself and my own physical and emotional boundaries.

I have been naive, and I have suffered for that as well.

But I’d rather have a heart that’s too big than one that’s too small.

I also feel that these losses early in my life have been a blessing in disguise. I feel as if I have a team of Guardian Angels, looking out for me. I feel that they protect me constantly. No matter how much someone wants to argue with me about God and the “facts” of faith, I have daily, hourly evidence in my life of God’s grace and the power of prayer.

Sometimes I wish I could just dismiss my faith– it would make my life simpler. My conscience smaller. I’ve tried. I’ve tried to intellectualize everything.

But at the core of my being, I feel that I am deeply loved by Him– and that I owe it in return to extend that love to others.

I struggle with that, of course. But it’s a choice that I make whenever possible. And as I age, I make better decisions.

So thank you Lord, my dear Father, for all those in my life who have influenced me– positively or negatively.

They all have something to teach. They all did the best they could. They all are human, both saint and sinner.

A Funeral and a Reservation: a Day of Affirmation and Family

Today, I went to a family funeral for my Uncle Ken.

It was a day of affirmation.

Uncle Ken lived to be 80, and was a devoted family man– married for 56 years to his wife, Patricia. He was a Navy veteran  of the Korean War and also retired from Nicor after 30 years of service.

I drank three cups of coffee in his honor today. He is the reason I became a black coffee-drinker overnight! One Thanksgiving we were at their home, and the usual creamer I preferred was not on the table. Only nondescript powdered creamer was available, so I sucked it up and braved a cup of black coffee.

Uncle Ken was seated across from me, and for some reason was very attentive to my cup. Each time it emptied, he kept refilling it! And I’m not sure why I felt the need to drain each one, but I did. So I drank all SIX cups he poured me. I needed them to keep up with all the family chatter! The next day, I tried to return to my usual cup with Irish creme added in– and couldn’t.

I was both shocked and impressed with myself. I felt more like an adult! I was in my early 20’s then. I laughed, and reported it the next time I saw him. He was quite impressed with his feat as well!

I wish I could have done six cups today, but three was all I could manage.

But I digress.

Today our family was linked together as beads in a Rosary– encircling Uncle Ken in prayer, connected by our Catholic faith and the solidarity of grief. Being together was a healing salve that allowed us to celebrate his life and strengthen our bonds with each other.

His abundant white hair was not styled the usual way– he had incredible hair. But it was still there, and we had the privilege of being able to say goodbye to him with an open casket before the public arrived. When it was my turn I knelt down, whispered a prayer to him, and lightly touched his shoulder to say goodbye.

As the priest announced the wake would be ending, he asked us to join him in prayer. We said the Our Father and the Hail Mary, and it wasn’t as strong as you would hear in Mass– it sounded as if maybe not quite half of us were saying it. But it was comforting nonetheless.

I realized for the first time why faith is something I’m so glad to have especially when confronted with funerals. Regardless of whether you’re there to honor a close family member or support a friend, the structure of our faith provides some familiarity in a situation defined by the unknown. We don’t  know how life will change without the person, we wrestle with guilt and sadness for the failed connections and the times we didn’t reach out enough. But at least in following the simplicity of a funeral service, there is some comfort in routine.

Many of us know the prayers being recited, even if we don’t know each other. Even if we have no idea how to speak to each other about the deceased or make small talk about something neutral, we have an opportunity to bond in prayer. We can give each other a hug, or a quick smile. We can pass a box of tissues.

Today I was astonished by how much warmth I felt from everyone there. Especially since I’m only family by marriage. Uncle Ken was my step-mother’s brother-in-law. But Diane’s family has never treated me like a step-cousin, or a step-anything. They never use that prefix. They welcome me, tease me and hug me as one of their own.

After the funeral Mass, we went to lunch together at a local steakhouse.

On my way there, my Dad called me.

“We’re in the back room honey,” he said. “We saved you a seat.”

I smiled at his kindness.

And I wondered if that’s what it’s like when we pass on and go to Heaven.

If when we wake into eternal rest — with any luck– we arrive at the pearly gates and St. Peter tells us that yes, we have a reservation. Our name is right there in his book. And then someone that we loved comes to escort us, saying,

“We saved you a seat! We’re so glad you’re here.”

A Year without Theresa Lang

By Amee Bohrer

For the past year, I’ve tried to live the way Theresa Lang did: boldly, with joy.

And a year later, I stand humbled.

How did she do it? How did she love so much, and pursue happiness with such zest?

Her short life, only 29 years, shattered the collective hearts of the Joliet community. I’ve never seen a memorial service packed the way hers was for such a young person. There was a line out the door. Usually you only see that for people who have been teachers or community leaders for decades.

I’ve never seen men cry the way some of my closest male friends did for Theresa.

A year ago, I was thunderstruck with how much her death affected me: for 15 years, Theresa had been an acquaintance. And yet I sobbed like she was a member of my family at her beautiful funeral Mass.

I had just been getting to know her better, she had asked me to go to a concert with her the weekend before she died. I had said no, thinking I would have another chance.

This year I’ve tried to be kinder. I’ve prayed more. I’ve cried a lot more.

I’ve laughed more.

I resolved that by the first anniversary of her death, I wanted to make peace with some old hurts and reconcile connections that were broken if possible.

I’ve dared to forgive, and asked for forgiveness in a way I never was brave enough to attempt until I lost the light of Theresa. I didn’t succeed in all my attempts; sometimes I was too afraid, and others I’m still working on.

But even in those situations, I have a new sense of empathy and compassion.

We met in youth group during high school, because our parishes shared a youth minister.

I went to St. Paul the Apostle, and she the Cathedral of St. Raymond Nonnatus, both of Joliet.

I don’t remember the first time I met Theresa, but I do remember a retreat we both attended at St. Charles Borromeo Pastoral Center, in Romeoville.

And because I’m a sentimental fool, I still have the affirmations from that retreat. I meticulously put them in a binder, and now I’m glad I did.  Affirmations were little notes we wrote to the other students, small group leaders, and youth group staff to make the experience special. Even if you had just met someone, you were encouraged to write them a simple note to say you enjoyed meeting them.

Luckily, I have two affirmations from Theresa saved. One is yellow, a piece of scrap paper, written in pencil. The second looks like it was ripped from a spiral journal or notepad, written in blue pen. Both times, she spelled my name right—a detail that many overlook. Some of my friends for years periodically spell my name “Amy.”

But Theresa paid attention to details. Both are signed, “Big Hugs, Theresa Lang.”

The messages were simple. But the point is, she took time to write them. At these retreats there were sometimes 20-50 people. It was impossible to write them to everyone, and some people chose to only write a few that were more in-depth, to their closest friends.

Theresa made time to write one to a girl she had just met, me.

Mostly, I regret that I never realized what an incredible friend was on the fringes of my life, and never ventured beyond being acquaintances with Theresa.

She was a blazing spirit. She hugged you with her whole heart.

When I feel a sudden urge to do something ridiculous and fun, that’s Theresa.

When I feel confident enough to talk to a stranger and find some little thing in common, that’s Theresa.

And when I can throw my head back and cackle until I lose my breath, that’s Theresa.

Sister’s light brought me back to my faith: Common Sense column #12

This is my most personal column yet.

I wrote it in tribute to my aunt, a nun who helped to build my faith. I believe it she who guided me to the opportunity, and praying to her gave me the strength to apply for the job at all.  And as the Year of Faith begins in my church, I declared mine via my column.

Here ya go!