Friday, December 9, 2016

A Reluctant Eulogy

My parents couldn't reach me by phone so they drove an hour to deliver the message in person.  Only...I wasn't home.  So it fell to my youngest son to tell me Aunt Riesa was gone.  I'm not sure either of us were prepared for my reaction.  I'm not even sure I knew, until that moment, how very much I loved her. 
Later that night, my mother asked me how I'd feel about preparing and delivering Riesa's eulogy.  "No.Way.  I am waaay too emotional...I'll never make it through.  Listen to me!!!  I can't even form a sentence without falling apart!"  That's when I learned she had already volunteered my services and her suggestion had been universally approved.  Gee thanks, Momma. 
In the end, I was glad she proceeded without my permission, because it forced me to engage in the active work of remembrance, grief, and thanksgiving which I might otherwise have avoided...or at least delayed.
Since many of you knew Riesa along the way and were blessed by her life, I'm sharing these "good words" in reflection of her 58 years. 
My sweet little girl, Riesa Kay Waggoner, was born on March 18, 1958.  In spite of the objective reality embedded in that date, the fact is: Riesa didn’t age like the rest of us.  When I was 11, she was 18.  When I was 23, she was 18.  Somehow I blew right past her all the way into my late 40s while she managed to linger guessed it...18.  But who was I to question?  She didn’t take kindly to those who attempted to persuade her that she was actually 30-something…or 40-something…or 50-something!
Riesa didn’t always have control over the realities of life in the same way she assumed control over her age.  Her birth was accompanied by some measure of chaos and her entrance into this world was traumatic, resulting in an APGAR score that was too low…a troublesome indicator of things to come. 
In 1958, attitudes and perceptions about babies born with Down’s Syndrome were drastically different than they are in 2016. Once Riesa was labeled as “Mongoloid” – as they called people with Down’s in those days –  some doctors suggested she be institutionalized and forgotten.   After all, she wouldn’t live long and certainly not well.   She would only be a source of inconvenience and trouble for an otherwise healthy family.  But these doctors didn’t reckon on one thing:  Mother Shirley
Thankfully for all of us, her mother – my Grandma – saw things differently.  She valued the life of her “sweet daughter, Riesa” and devoted herself to her survival.  That’s no exaggeration.  Riesa’s very life was at stake because she was unable to nurse or take a bottle for sustenance.  Her mother remained on active duty around the clock in order to feed her from a medicine dropper at intervals that allowed Riesa, not only to survive, but eventually to thrive.  We owe you a debt of gratitude, Grandma.  Because of your dedication and intensive labor in those early days, all of us have been allowed to share in the joy of knowing and experiencing life with Riesa.
In reminiscing on those experiences that span several decades, I made some rather obvious observations that I think many of you will relate to based on your own experiences with her:
Riesa loved family.  Because Riesa was 7 years older than I, I don’t remember much about her early years.  In fact, my clearest memories originate sometime during her teen years.  Our family would make trips from Chicago to visit G’ma, G’dad, and Riesa and since we were coming from a distance, we would also stay in their home.  6 children – or when it was a holiday and ALL the cousins showed up, it could be as many as 12 children! – would invade her space…play with her toys…ride her bike…hijack her skateboard…monopolize her scooter…listen to her records…sleep in her bed…cover her bedroom floor with pallets…and all around disturb her normally peaceful world.  But I never remember feeling like we were an imposition on her.  I don’t remember her trying to keep us out of HER stuff.  Perhaps I was  young and clueless, but I’m pretty sure she WANTED us there!  She was amazingly accommodating and patient with all the disruption that accompanied our arrival and with the ensuing demand to share her stuff, her people, and her space.
One of my favorite memories from a time when we lived in their home,  is of her sitting for hours around the living room with my sisters and me as we thumbed through bridal magazines, each of us imagining our own special day yet to come.  I remember Grandma worrying that it might stir an expectation in Riesa of her own wedding day, which would never come to pass.  But she loved the beautiful gowns as much as we did and she dreamt right along with us.
Riesa loved music.  From the earliest days, it was clear that she had inherited her daddy’s love of music.  She spent hours sitting by her turntable playing her records.  I remember hearing many hymns, LOTS and LOTS and LOTS of Marcy, with a hearty dose of Phil & Lori thrown in…and she sang along with all of them.   Riesa had a remarkable capacity to memorize songs.
Riesa loved to write.  I never knew just *how* much until she lived in my home and I saw her sit for hours upon hours, filling page after page after page with words and numbers and sometimes shapes…but mostly words.    I couldn’t always decipher those words or her meaning, but that didn’t deter her.  The most common words were the names of people she loved and their ages or birth dates.  This is what she wrote in her notebooks, because this is what mattered to her because...
Riesa loved people.  Well…*most* people.  Everywhere she went, she endeared herself to people.  Years after high school ended, she could rifle through old school picturess and name every one of them and often add some personal detail about them.  She made friends at each church, school, workshop, residence…it didn’t matter…she made friends.  She always had her favorites too.  You considered yourself lucky if you made it into that category.    
Riesa loved to laugh…and she loved to make US laugh.  A lot.  She left us a host of Riesa-isms that have become permanently embedded in our family vocabulary.  My personal favorite conferred upon me:  “Your hips are too fat behind your back!”
She loved to be silly and she loved it even more when WE were silly.  Pam was one of those chosen favorites who could get her laughing so hard she could hardly catch her breath.
Riesa loved home.  She seemed to have a sense of place as important and she not only loved being at home, but she also loved being invited into other’s homes.   She had to adapt to a number of homes over the years…whether it was a new house in Festus after many years in Jackson, her first stint at My Place Residential, her time living in my home, or her final stay at My Place…Riesa adjusted and contented herself in each of those homes with an uncanny adaptability. 
Her way of expressing her contentment with a particular place was to say “This house is better.”  If she pronounced that over YOUR space, you knew she felt loved and welcomed and accepted and that she wanted to stay for as long as she could.  She might even be a little irritated when you forced her to go.
Riesa loved Jesus.  Another evidence of Grandma’s dedication was that Riesa memorized a lot of Scripture as a child as she worked her way through the Bible Memory Association program.   One of my great joys during her stay with me was praying Psalm 23 together and passing by her room to see her sitting in her bed with her Bible open as if she were reading it before she turned her lights out at night.   She couldn’t read it, but there was a sense that it mattered.
When her mother taught her the implications of John 14…that Grandmother, or Grandma Palmer, or Daddy, had gone to live with Jesus in his big beautiful house, she believed it.  Well…mostly. There was that one time when she was told that Grandmother went to live in Jesus’ house and she uttered what all of us *feel* sometimes at the loss of a loved one: “stupid Jesus”…and yet...many more times, she voiced her childlike faith in Jesus as she’d talk about these loved ones being in his “big beautiful house.”  
So…despite  doctors' early predictions, Riesa lived both long AND well.
In some ways, it’s almost impossible to believe that she is gone from us.  Some joys of this life have flown with her, but so has the worry of what might become of her as she aged…what measure of illness or pain she might have been called on to endure…and we can give thanks that her merciful Savior spared her from prolonged suffering, including the death of her dearest, Mother Shirley. 
When I’m able to lay aside the suddenness and shock of her absence, I am mostly consumed with thoughts of what Riesa might be experiencing in the presence of her Savior and what her life might look like at the Final Resurrection when body and soul are re-united in glory. 
I look forward to the day when I will share in resurrected life with Riesa without the limitations that plagued her in this life. 
I want to hear as she joins her voice with the hosts of heaven and all the Family of God in singing praise to that faithful Shepherd of Psalm 23. 
I can’t wait for that first conversation where she is unhindered by her ability to express freely all those words and thoughts she penned over the years. 
I eagerly await her participation in the Wedding Feast of the Lamb when she will have no regrets about the absence of married love in this life. 
But for now, along with her mother, I imagine Riesa walking – with a lightness in her step – through Jesus’ big, beautiful house saying with renewed vigor and unmitigated certainty: “THIS house is better.”

Friday, August 19, 2016

Holy Sonnet 1: Donne

by John Donne
Thou hast made me, and shall Thy work decay?
Repair me now, for now mine end doth haste;
I run to death, and Death meets me as fast,
And all my pleasures are like yesterday.
I dare not move my dim eyes any way;
Despair behind, and Death before doth cast
Such terror, and my feeble flesh doth waste
By sin in it, which it towards hell doth weigh.
Only Thou art above, and when towards Thee
By Thy leave I can look, I rise again;
But our old subtle foe so tempteth me,
That not one hour myself I can sustain.
Thy grace may wing me to prevent his art
And thou like adamant draw mine iron heart.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Cemetery or Sanctuary?

Today, I leave this place.
When I walked through the door three years ago with only my clothes and shoes in tow, I never imagined it would become anything like home.
My first night portended otherwise and is permanently seared into my conscience.  Courage gave way to uncertainty as I sat on the floor in a room that, despite the St. Louis heat, was decidedly cold and lifeless...devoid of memories.  Until that moment, I hadn't understood the power of Place and Memory.
For the first time in 18 years, my sons were laying their heads on pillows in a place where I was not.  That was the single haunting reality I could neither justify nor escape.  I wept for them.  I wept for me.  I wept for all the previous and ensuing sorrow.  There was more than enough sorrow to go around in those days.
Because I didn't want to disrupt their world even more, and because the external emptiness reflected my internal reality, I refused my sons' offers to take furniture from their house.  About a month in, they got real: "Mom, this place feels sad. Seeing you in an empty space and eating dinner on a blanket makes it hard to come here."
That rebuke snapped me out of my grief-induced lethargy.  My sons still needed a place that felt like home.  Maybe not The Home, but A Home.  I immediately set out to make it inviting.
For 3 years now we've been making memories here...lots of them.  Meals.  Formative conversations.  Games.  Friends.  Holidays.  My dearest friends have come too - we've shared food, wine, stories, joys, and sorrows here.  I've actually grown quite fond of the place.
It's a bit of graveyard though.  I showed up dragging a lot of already-dead things - my reputation, my dignity, my vision of who I was and what my life would look like.  I had to mourn these losses, lay them down, bury them one by one and walk away so I could live my sons could live.
I carried other baggage too.  Things that needed to die: pride, old wounds, new wounds, anger, severed relationships, and loads and loads of shame.  There was  more than enough of that to go around in those days too.
Some of these things died a painfully slow, stubborn death, and not without oceans of tears and desperate pleas to God. 

Where are you?! What do you want from me?! Don't let me go. 

I'm exhausted from crying!  I'm wasting away! Don't let me go! 

Open my eyes.  Heal me!  Cleanse me!  Please don't let me go!! 

Teach me to forgive.  Soften my heart.  DON'T LET ME GO!
In that way, this cemetery also became a sanctuary because here, in this place, the Lord heard my cries.  He made himself known.  He rescued me.  He set my feet on a rock.  And he didn't let me go.  He's still healing, cleansing, teaching, and turning this heart of stone more and more into a heart of flesh. 
So here I am...moving again.  In this new place, my sons will once again lay their heads on pillows where I am.  This is a great mercy that brings unimaginable comfort.
I expect that in this new home there will be other burials and more resurrections.  We'll build new memories here and it too will become a cemetery-sanctuary.  I don't know exactly what that will look like, but there is one thing I DO know: HE WON'T LET US GO.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Peter Kreeft: Practical Theology

Peter Kreeft’s new book Practical Theologypromises “358 pieces of wisdom from Saint Thomas’s masterpiece the Summa, which are literally more valuable than all the kingdoms of this world because they will help you to attain ‘the one thing needful,’ the summum bonum or ‘the greatest good,’ the ultimate end and purpose and meaning of life.” Kreeft, a professor of philosophy at Boston College and the author of many books, presents “Spiritual Direction from Saint Thomas Aquinas” — in “an easily digestible sample” of Aquinas’s “distinctly religious wisdom.” He responds to questions here about it. — KJL

Kathryn Jean Lopez: Is your Practical Theology a self-help version of Saint Thomas Aquinas’s Summa? An executive summary for beginners? Is it just for beginners?

Peter KreeftPractical Theology is as far from self-help nonsense, i.e. pop psychology, as you can get. It’s theology, and it’s Aquinas, and it’s the Summa, for goodness’ sake. I have no idea what “an executive summary” is, but I’m quite sure this isn’t it. And it’s for everybody, therefore it’s for beginners. When it comes to God we’re all beginners, especially the ones who think they are experts. Only fools think they’re sages; sages know they’re fools. (P.S. Aquinas wrote the 4,000-page Summa “for beginners.” That was not satire. It’s really a very simple book.)

Lopez: Is theology ever practical, really?

Kreeft: Theology is always practical because nothing is more practical than living in reality, living in the real world, and God is the origin, center, end, and meaning of reality. If that’s not true, let’s be pagans, atheists, or TV executives.

Lopez: You say that “if our love is right, everything else will be right.” How does the Angelic Doctor propose that we get love right? Is he the love doctor, too?

Kreeft: Augustine wrote, “Amor meuspondus meum” — “my love is my weight,” my gravity, my destiny. How to get love right? Ask its inventor, origin, and standard, the God who is love. He told us in many ways: conscience, saints, Scripture, Church, above all Christ. Yes, he is the love doctor. And he’d tell a culture like ours that identifies that title with Ruth Westheimer that it is as right about this as it would be in identifying expertise on Einstein with Archie Bunker.

Lopez: What is an angelic doctor, anyway?

Kreeft: He’s called “the” (not “an”) angelic doctor because (a) he got the angels right, and, most especially, because (b) like an angel, he was remarkably free from lust, greed, and other foolish human passions.

Lopez: Why is Saint Thomas Aquinas such a big deal? And one of the best spiritual directors?

Kreeft: He’s big because he was very large, like G. K. Chesterton. His mind is big because he gives us “big pictures” all the time, not little crabbed clever pieces of “scholarship.” And he’s a great spiritual director because he has the personal virtues that takes: personal sanctity (love of God and His creation, especially human beings), brilliant insight into good and evil, humility and open-mindedness, absolute honesty, and the habit of saying everything as simply, clearly, and directly as possible.

Lopez: Unless you’re discerning a religious vocation, or deeply invested in Catholic apostolic work, the phrase “spiritual direction” may be foreign to a lot of Catholics, as a practical matter in their lives. Should it be an element of every Catholic’s life?

Kreeft: A Catholic is one who believes what the Catholic Church teaches. The Catholic Church teaches that the meaning of life is holiness, happiness, and heaven. Spiritual direction means help in that journey. If that’s practical only for priests or apostles, we laypeople can say, of the supreme wisdom, “The hell with it; it’s not for me.” It’s the other way round: The clergy are for the people, not vice versa. The pope is “the servant of the servants of God.”