Hide not your talents,
they for use were made.
What’s a sun-dial in the shade?
~ Benjamin Franklin ~
I think a hero is an ordinary individual
who finds strength to persevere and endure
in spite of overwhelming obstacles.
~ Christopher Reeve ~
She was 16 years old and living in a nursing home.
You know the type place – where the smell of stale bodies and crumbling memories meets you when you walk through the door, where the cries of lost hope and discarded dreams echo through the hallways.
That type nursing home. Smelling of mustiness and mothballs, of dried food and forgotten flowers.
A 16 year old innocent with the most severe form of muscular dystrophy. Lisa couldn’t talk (but she could grunt), couldn’t walk (but her limbs jerked with uncontrolled movement when she was excited or agitated), couldn’t see (blind since birth), but had about 60% hearing in one ear. Her days were spent in bed, alone, waiting…
Waiting for a family who never came, who was too poor to properly take care of her and who couldn’t deal with the heartache when visiting their daughter. So they stayed away…
Who am I to judge? I had no idea what I would be able to do for her by visiting her once a week, but I do know that after each visit, I needed to shake off the sadness that I wore like a heavy cloak when I walked outside the door. But at least I could leave…
Her caregivers in the nursing home took care of Lisa like she was their daughter. Her bed linens were fresh, her clothes clean, her hair smelling of roses…and there was always music playing, since that seemed to keep her calm. And she loved to hear prayers recited at any hour of the day or night, especially ones that spoke of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
When I first met Lisa, she was half sitting up in her bed, enjoying some crackers as a snack. Even though more crumbs were on her lap and the bed, she seemed determined to get her spasmodic hand movements under control enough to aim for her mouth. She made it more times than not; she kept trying until she succeeded.The nurse’s aide explained my presence in a soothing voice, and cleaned off Lisa’s hands and face so we could visit. I sat still while her hands shook their way across my face, studying my features intently the only way she knew how. Satisfied, she sat back and I told her a bit about myself.
In later visits, through trial and error, I found that singing the “Hail Mary” prayer to Lisa in a soft voice, sitting on the side of her bed where she had her good ear, quieted her agitation. She would lay down and close her eyes, grunting occasionally while I sang off-key.
Hail Mary, full of grace. The Lord is with thee.
Blessed art thou amongst women,
and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God,
pray for us sinners,
now and at the hour of our death. Amen.
By sheer luck, I found that Lisa also loved “Hail Holy Queen.” I had my Trappist monk friends to thank for knowing how to sing that prayer, since it was part of their Compline Office each evening when I was on retreat with them at Holy Cross Abbey (Berryville, VA).
Hail, Holy Queen, Mother of mercy,
our life, our sweetness and our hope.
To thee do we cry, poor banished children of Eve:
to thee do we send up our sighs,
mourning and weeping in this valley of tears.
Turn then, most gracious Advocate,
thine eyes of mercy toward us,
and after this our exile,
show unto us the blessed fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
O clement, O loving, O sweet Virgin Mary! Amen.
One spring day, I arrived at the nursing home in a thunderstorm, the torrential downpour and gray skies matching my mood. I ran inside, repeating Chaplain Susan’s reminder to me (“She Who Hears the Cries of the World“): “Theresa, you are their light; Theresa, you are their light.”
The staff told me that Lisa had a rough night, her restlessness almost unmanageable, and that she was finally asleep. I thought I would look in on her anyway, since the loud thunder might have awakened her since the last bed check. But when I stood at the side of Lisa’s bed, she was fast asleep, her thumb in her mouth, hugging her favorite blanket.
As I sang the Hail Mary prayer and carefully pushed back the hair on her damp forehead, suddenly a beam of sunlight pierced the near-by window and settled on Lisa’s face.
Sunlight – not lightning – where you could even see dust motes in its beam as it traveled across the room to illuminate her peaceful face.
She smiled, as if aware of what was taking place while she slept. Her skin literally glowed.
In the middle of a thunderstorm, the rain pounding on the windows, a shaft of sunlight piercing the gloom just long enough to recognize Lisa’s soul – beautiful, healthy, vibrant, singing.
Just like that, the light disappeared.
I looked around her room for the source – nothing. No flashlight, no lamp, no one popping their head into the room wielding a camera. We were alone.
Then again, maybe we weren’t…
Circles of Grace.
A communion of light filling a lost soul who was not lost, but rather, found.
Never doubt that you are blessed, dear Lisa. You were anointed in the midst of a raging storm. Be at peace.
You are beautiful. And you are loved…
[ 9/11 Memorial Museum – In Memoriam Exhibit ]
[please see: Collage of the Heart]
He stood alone in his dress FDNY uniform, ribbons aligned perfectly, shoes buffed to a patent leather shine, gloves snowy white.
He walked up to a specific one of the 2,983 pictures on the Wall of Faces, gently placed his gloved hand flat on the portrait, lowered his head, and stood motionless for a full minute.
His prayer done, he moved to another FDNY face in another photograph in another row, placed his gloved hand flat on the portrait, lowered his head, and stood motionless for a full minute.
And then he did it again for another of his FDNY brothers.
I lost count. But he didn’t.
He performed the same homage over and over, honoring each of his many fallen comrades.
Too many lost. Gone too soon. Too much heartache.
At last he reached his Captain. He placed his gloved hand flat on the portrait, lowered his head, and stood motionless for a full minute. Then he smartly saluted his superior, his hand steady and strong.
And the tears flowed…
Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life.
Don’t let the noise of other people’s opinions
drown out your own inner voice.
And most important,
have the courage to follow your heart and intuition.
They somehow know what you truly want to become.
Everything else is secondary.
~ Steve Jobs ~
[ 9/11 Memorial Museum – In Memoriam Exhibit ]
The 2,983 photos cover the four walls, this microcosm of humanity. Gone too soon, and far too young, no matter the age.
The Wall of Faces.
Young and old; black, white, red, brown and yellow; smiling and carefree; serious and professional.
Mothers and fathers; brothers and sisters; husbands and wives; sons and daughters; bosses and co-workers; captains and lieutenants; lovers and friends.
People from over 90 countries, but Americans all.
The impact of the sheer number of people lost punches you in the chest, the intake of breath keening out in an anguished, “Oh, my God…,” over and over in a litany of disbelief.
Oh – my – God.
Frozen tears pour out in a scalding torrent.
Here, then, a Captain in the Fire Department of New York, dress uniform shining and starched, dedication in his gaze.
Next to him, a middle-aged woman, motherly, soft around the edges, her eyes rimmed with lines from years of laughter.
Down some rows to the handsome young man in a tuxedo – model handsome – with a smile that can light up a room, along with his wife’s heart.
My eyes move up to the older man, graying at the temples, dignified in his Wall Street clothing, his face a mask of professionalism.
The young woman, so vibrant and full of life, the girl-next-door, prom queen and cheer-leading captain all rolled into one.
The man of indeterminate age, his ebony skin matching his eyes which radiate compassion and a quiet reserve.
The young EMT, eager to help, focused, smiling, full of hope.
I remove my glasses as if to rub the images from my vision and instead visualize a sea of colors, a tapestry, that together unite into one huge photograph of humanity.
Out of many – One.
Oh. My. God.
On Monday, 428 people at Granite Telecommunications in Quincy, MA shaved their heads in the lobby of their corporate headquarters, raising $2.1 million to support cancer research.
The idea began as a joke when CEO Rob Hale dared one of his employees, who sported a ZZ Top-style beard, to take it off for charity. It turned into something far beyond expectations.
“I told him, we’ll give $10,000 if you’ll shave it, and he agreed to do it,” Hale tells the Good News Blog. “The next day, one of our teammates said his family had been affected by cancer, and he would be willing to shave his head for $1,000.”
Hale sent an email around saying that he’d donate money for anyone who agreed to follow suit. When the number of people involved neared 100, Hale said he would double that amount, making it $2,000 a head. When it neared 300, Hale’s mother got involved, agreeing to match the initial pitch and bringing the stakes to $3,000 a head. When close to 400 employees were ready to be sheared, Hale set the bounty at $5,000 a head.
In no time at all, the total was at over $2 million.
“In a few weeks, it went from a whimsical comment to a galvanizing moment,” Hale remarks. “It makes a powerful statement about our company, and it makes a powerful statement about cancer.”
Nearly two-thirds of the male employees at Granite Communications were part of the cutting ceremony Monday, as well as 20 women who either went bald or put their coifs toward Locks for Love. Eighteen local barbers donated their time, lining up chairs in the lobby of the office and trimming away as music played in the background. There were also gift bags for everybody and a mural to be signed.
“It speaks to a team that’s caring compassionate, bold, energetic; I hope we are all those things and I think we showed that Monday,” Hale comments. “The other truth, cancer affects everybody… nearly everybody who was doing was doing it support or to memorialize someone who has fought or is fighting cancer.”
That includes Hale, who lost his father to pancreatic cancer six years ago. All the money raised will be donated to the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, a hospital which helped Hale’s father survive more than 18 months after his diagnosis.
All in all, the Granite Communications team did something immense that will be felt far behind the walls of their building.
“It was a really an electric couple of hours,” Hale remarks.
For once, it appears everybody got the memo.
An honorable defeat is better than a dishonorable victory.
~ Millard Filmore ~
To put the world right in order,
we must first put the nation in order;
to put the nation in order,
we must first put the family in order;
to put the family in order,
we must first cultivate our personal life;
to cultivate our personal life,
we must first set our hearts right.
~ Confucius ~
Imagination has brought mankind through the dark ages
to its present state of civilization.
Imagination led Columbus to discover America.
Imagination led Franklin to discover electricity.
~ L. Frank Baum ~
Author, “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz”
Dreams are the touchstones of our characters.
~ Henry David Thoreau ~
In Memoriam – Mom
April 25, 1928 – February 29, 1988
[written March 1, 2009]
I thought it had passed.
Just yesterday, I remarked to my sister – “This is the first February in 21 years that hasn’t been brutal.”
Then this morning, just the mention of the phone call in the early morning darkness, when Dad told me you had died and I said, “Good” – (Good for who – me? You? The echo of guilt lingers still…) – brings back the grief like a wave crashing into rock, and I am pulled under in an instant, drowning.
The well of grief swallows me, the darkness returns, and I ache with loss – the emptiness – the missing of you – the longing for your closeness – (Me? The one who hated hugs? The one who now hugs all those in need, desperate for their/my/your touch?).
My right hand trembles, my teeth chatter, and I rock…I ache…I mourn.
My tears flood the emptiness with despair, until the well is filled to overflowing, and just when there can be no more left, the flood gates open with a rush of white-hot tears – searing, scalding, scarring – as they traverse the channels carved in my soul.
I escape then, but to where? A place of quiet, of gray, of nothing, where no one or no thing exists…where no one or no thing can hurt.
I am numb.
I cease to feel, to breathe, to mourn…quiet, waiting, collecting, remembering, forgetting. I want to stay in this nothing, where the past and present blend, simply waiting. I could spend eternity here, neither warm nor cold, neither black nor white – nothing.
But then a soft white light burns through the fog – slowly, steadily, purposefully – coming toward me. And when I turn from it, it envelops me with warmth, an embrace, a distant memory, a familiar voice, a whisper. It seeks, it flows, it permeates, it dissolves, it heals – slowly, completely. It restores breath into my lungs, it touches my hand and the trembling ceases.
The crying stops and I return. Depleted, yet complete, filled with the sense that love hurts and heals, devours and regenerates, erases then re-creates, takes away only to be made whole.
If I love, I risk.
My losses seem legion, but my blessings lift me to a place I would not have seen had I not been buried. The tears that drowned me in their ending are transformed into the healing waters of a baptism, a beginning, a grace.
I hesitate – these wings have weight – do I want what they hold? A familiar stirring inside me – a blossoming – a peace – a knowing that this is right and good. The weight will be lifted when I surrender.
And I hear the whispered promise – “I will be with you, always.” – and I feel Your embrace lift me up, then release me. I soar back into life, toward the light and Your promise, and I know I am who I am because of You, because of Your love.
Of whom do I speak? Of my Mother? Of God? Of His Mother? It matters not; only that I return. Only that I remember Your voice as I reach out to those in need. That I am present in their pain – that I quiet their tears – that I wait in their darkness – that I am their light and their hope as You were/are/will always be to me.
Lift me up, so that I might lift them.
Love me, so that I might love them.
Give me hope, so that I might bring hope to them.
Guide me, so that I might guide them.
Give me Your words, so that I might speak them.
Give me Your hearing, so that I might listen to them.
Heal me, so that I might heal them.
Remember me, as I remember You.
I am who I am, because of You.
Related Post: Remembrance
“Lord, take me where You want me to go.
Let me meet who You want me to meet.
Tell me what You want me to say,
and keep me out of Your way.”
In Fr. Gregory Boyle (My Journey with St. Francis, the Jesuits & Pope Francis, Part II), I introduced you to a very special Jesuit. In Fr. Mychal Judge, I’d like to introduce you to a very special Franciscan.
Fr. Mychal Judge – Chaplain of the New York Fire Department. A gay, Irish, recovering alcoholic Franciscan priest, friend to the homeless, policemen, firemen, addicts, politicians, AIDS patients and so many others.
He was not a “conventional” priest, but rather a human being with flaws, like the rest of us. But a human being much beloved by thousands of people to whom he ministered, much admonished by those whom he antagonized. He was sensitive, humble, compassionate, extraverted, vain about his hair, a committed multi-tasker always on the go who kept a journal, still wrote letters and had a “wild” laugh. Hugging people, blessing strangers, ministering to the firemen and their families, advocating, listening, loving, serving and never judging.
He resided in the friary of St. Francis of Assisi Church in Manhattan, the same saint who served as a role model for Fr. Mychal’s life.
Fr. Mychal responded to any fire of three alarms or more, so it made sense that on September 11th, he was at the WTC in record time. One of the firemen who saw him in the lobby of Tower One noticed concern on Fr. Mychal’s face, his lips moving, “like he was praying.” Minutes later, after giving Last Rites to a firefighter from Company 216, Fr. Mychal was caught in the debris from the collapse of the South Tower.
Rescuers carried him out of the rubble, captured in an iconic photograph by Shannon Stapleton, which one of Fr. Mychal’s friends calls “a modern Pietà.”
Fr. Mychal was given Death Certificate Number 00001, a posthumous honor as the first body released from Ground Zero. Although already gone, the priest was given Last Rites by a Lieutenant on the Manhattan Traffic Task Force and a fellow New York City police officer, since no priests were available. He wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.
Sacred Ground. Light in the darkness.
Fr. Mychal’s funeral, a two-day event, brought thousands of people – blue collar workers, policemen in dress uniforms , firemen in work clothes straight from Ground Zero, a former President, Senators, mayors, governors, archbishops, cardinals, priests, the homeless, AIDS activists – so many people from all walks of life. Fr. Mychal was buried on the 23rd anniversary of his sobriety. His body may have been buried, but not his spirit. Not his memory.
As Fr. Michael Duffy, homilist at at Fr. Mychal’s Mass of Christian Burial, said:
“I think that, if he were given his choice, Mychal would prefer to have happen what actually happened. He passed through the other side of life, and now he can continue doing what he wanted to do with all his heart. …Mychal Judge is going to be on the other side of death…to greet them (deceased firefighters) instead of sending them there.”
In the 2006 documentary “Saint of 9/11,” a younger Fr. Mychal, when interviewed, had this to say about his life:
“Life and death – so valuable.
I wonder when or what my last half hour will be…
will it be doing something for someone, trying to save a life?”
Yes, Fr. Mychal. Your wish was granted. Your last half hour was ministering to those in need. In the midst of the chaos, you presence offered comfort and peace. You did your job – you affirmed your calling – and you did it well.
So I recite Fr. Mychal’s prayer which so resonates within me.
And I hope – indeed, I pray – that my last 30 minutes of life will be even half as good as this very human, yet very holy, Franciscan.