Courage and Grace

The busyness of Andrew’s Saturday sports schedule was a welcome distraction to the reality of missing the person who has been a central figure in my life for over four decades. As she had taught me, I tried to just be in the moment, enjoying the beauty of the warm sun on my face, the brilliant fall colors of the leaves and the thrill of Andrew’s games. During one of these games, I perused my prayer-book and realized that today is the feast day of the great Saint Teresa of Avila. Mom and I both love her and used to share and discuss her story.

As I thought about the life and legacy of St. Teresa, I realized how much she and Mom have in common. In her famous book The Interior Castle, Saint Teresa describes the journey of faith through seven stages ending with total union with God.  Mom was a life long learner, always searching to become more faithful and closer to the person God had made her to be. She did this through love, daily prayer/rosary, Mass and reading various books which educated and inspired her in faith. I loved talking with her about our faith because the discussions were always interesting, deep and challenging. Mom never stopped striving to purify her soul on this earth so that she could know and love our Lord more deeply.

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Like Mom and many of us, St. Teresa struggled in prayer in her early days. It was not always easy and she experienced periods of spiritual dryness. After a time and with perseverance, she was rewarded with consolations of her faith when God “spoke to her”affirming the depth of her desires to serve Him and his church. St. Teresa blazed a trail and stood up for reform in the church and her Carmelite order at a time when it was needed. Her courage and perseverance served her well and she paved the way for many vocations and conversions.

As a professional nurse, wife and mother, Joan Mary also blazed a trail.  With courage and perseverance, she and my dad put God and family first when raising my siblings and me. They faced many of the same challenges families face today – balancing work and family, tight budgets, sick children, college tuitions, ailing parents, relocations due to work, traveling husbands and the demands of a secular society.  Mom kept the home peaceful and happy because she knew how to love; it came from God and He was a partner in my parents marriage.  She taught my brother, sister and me to do the same in our marriages and this is a trail we have followed with gratitude.

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Like St. Teresa, Mom has drawn many souls to God due to her courage and grace. St. Teresa’s famous quote is one that properly sums up Mom’s attitude about life before and after the cancer.

“Let nothing disturb thee;
Let nothing dismay thee:
All thing pass;
God never changes.
Patience attains
All that it strives for.
He who has God
Finds he lacks nothing:
God alone suffices.”

I was looking through some photos from my sister and came upon the picture below.  I’ll admit that it caused a few tears.  But when I stopped to truly look at Mom’s beautiful face, I saw her incredible courage, grace, beauty and love in those deep, brown eyes and was filled with gratitude.  This is a picture of a woman who was filled with love, who gave without seeking anything in return and who loved God with her whole heart and soul – looking at the photo, one would not know that this was her last breakfast before enduring a two-week silence in preparation for heaven. Indeed she gave her all to our family – right up until the moment when our good God called her home. That is courage, that is grace – that is my beloved mother. May we all find the strength to follow her example and be more like her.

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Walk the Path of Love

It’s hard to believe that one month has passed since my beloved mother has passed from this life into the next. My sister and I were talking tonight and shared that we still expect her to walk back through our front doors. It just doesn’t make sense to us that the one who loved so deeply is gone from our daily presence.

After pondering this for some time tonight, I was drawn out of my sadness by my son Andrew. He joined me in the basement as I attempted some back strengthening exercises. When I looked over at his innocent face he said “it’s okay mom, we all miss her, but she’s here.” That’s all I needed to hear, to coax me out of my sad state and cause me to reflect upon the incredible goodness of my mom’s life which was lived in love.

My mom walked the path of love as a child, a newlywed, a young mother, and a grandmother. Later in life, she walked the path of love as a cancer patient. She surrendered to God and allowed his grace to flow through her during her entire life. Because of her deep faith, His love flowed through her to everyone she came into contact with and they were better for it.

Because Mom walked the path of love so faithfully, she was able to take up her cross every day.  Before cancer, these crosses looked similar to those many of us encounter daily – challenges with a young family, household finances, college tuition, minor health issues, etc.  Later in life, her crosses became more serious. They came in the form of brain radiation, chemotherapy, hair loss, numerous trips to Dana Farber, clinical trials, and many unknowns about the disease that had invaded her life.  She handled these crosses in the same way she had always done – with deep faith, steadfast courage and unfailing hope in God.

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Bishop Robert Barron shares “the Gospel of Luke reminds us that the gate is narrow precisely because it is in the very shape of Jesus Himself, and entrance through the gate involves conformity to His state of being.”  Mom conformed herself to the shape of our Lord by walking the path of love and taking up her cross every day of her life.  I am confident that she is safely home with Him in heaven where we will hopefully join her one day.

Andrew is right (a child always is) – I shouldn’t be sad – Mom is right beside me.  I just need to follow her incredible example and walk the path of love every day. With God’s grace and a little help from my beloved mother, I will be okay. (We all will – Joanie has shown us how it’s done – let’s follow her path of love.)

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Blessed are the Humble

Driving to the Cape early this morning, it was hard to keep my eyes open amidst the dark, rainy weather pelting the SUV as we hummed along RT 495.  Luckily, responsible Emma was driving, happily listening to her music thus there was no risk of veering off the road. As I closed my eyes and listened, a refrain from a country song I was not familiar with caught my attention. The deep male voice sang something about being humble and kind and how that is the best way to live. Immediately my mind turned to Mom – of course – and the memories flooded in.

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By the time we arrived at Christ the King parish to meet my dad, sister and niece for Mass, all I could think about was Mom and how these two words described the very essence of her being.  As a mother, Joan was the epitome of humble. She sought to be last, so others could be first. She lived this in everything from serving dinner to her family before taking her own, to bringing her beloved husband his first cup of coffee in the morning. These small loving acts made her happy because they made others happy. Mom never sought attention or acknowledgement for good deeds; she knew that her reward was in heaven.

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After Mom was diagnosed with cancer, the only time I saw her outwardly troubled was the day we visited the Dana Farber Friends shop to get fitted for a wig. On Tuesday, August 30, 2013 , I wrote: “When mom and I walked in, I could tell she was exhausted and not really in the mood for this. After trying on at least 8 wigs, mom decided on a cute blond one that really complimented her face. I think losing her hair is one of the hardest parts for mom because she does not want anyone to feel sorry for her. She wants to feel normal, look normal and be normal, living the life she has known.” Looking back, I see her humility shine through – she didn’t want to be viewed as sick thus treated differently by anyone. She wanted to keep being Nona, Mom, Joanie – a woman who volunteered, took care of others and lived a full life.  You know what?  She did.

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Mom CHOSE to live joyfully and humbly during her entire life, right up until the moment our Lord called her home.  I am sure it was not always easy.  I am sure she had difficult days before and during the cancer. But her faith sustained her and her humble spirit allowed her to put her trust in God who makes all things possible. This is a lesson for me and so many of us who tend to let our pride get in the way. When this happens, the result is usually disappointing.

So today I will choose to follow Mom’s example, and like the country song reminds us, be humble and kind.  With God’s grace, I will be a little more like Joanie.

Expectant Faith

We all have those times in life when things just don’t go as planned. Mom had those days – big and small – and was challenged to handle them as any of us would, with faith and courage. The gospel reading from this past Sunday was about faith. Jesus spoke to his disciples saying “If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you would say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.”

To be honest, I’ve never truly understood the depth of this gospel – until now.  The loss of my beloved mother has caused me to prayerfully reflect upon her heroic life and what I’ve realized is truly remarkable. My mother lived a life of faith that moved mountains, not only during her battle with stage 4 cancer, but during her entire 75 years.

I think Jesus’ words in the gospel when referencing the tiny mustard seed are telling us to have just a little faith in order to find peace in this world and for eternity. He wants us to know that even a little authentic faith is meaningful to Him. But sadly, many of us fall short, because of worldly distractions and temptations.  My mother knew differently and showed it by the way she lived and practiced her faith which gave her strength for the difficult part of life’s journey.  Below are a few journal entries which display her tremendous expectant faith during her 3 year battle with cancer.

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Tuesday, August 13, 2013 – During Mass yesterday I held her hand during the Our Father. My eyes filled up as we recited the words thy will be done.., I kept thinking that I want to freeze this moment and never let her go.  She looked over at me and asked “why are you crying.” “I’m not, I said, my eye’s are watering.”  She knows deep down that this is torture for all of us.  None of us want to see her suffer and all of us wish we could take her place.  And yet, she has accepted this cross with courage and faith and is therefore setting an example for all of us to follow.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013 – After a long, upsetting day which included a brain scan and confirmation of cancer in her brain, Mom came with us to Mass for the Feast of the Assumption the next day.  After Mass, mom and I went to Adoration.  During our prayer, she said she wanted to go to confession.  I kept praying for her and when she came back, I could see a difference in her – she seemed lighter and more peaceful.  Looking back on this day, I am amazed at her grace and faith.  She could have easily skipped Mass and taken her sadness and anger out on God.  But she did the exact opposite – she turned to God with faith the size of a mustard seed and received two sacraments (Reconciliation and Eucharist) on the day she found out that her cancer had spread.  Many folks would not have had the fortitude to do this, but through God’s grace and the lifelong practice of her faith, she was able to surrender her will and turn to God. She is an example for all of us.

Friday, August 16, 2013 – On the way home from Dana Farber I asked Mom if she wanted to stop at the Adoration Chapel and she did, she is amazing.  It’s funny – you’d think that she would NOT want to thank God after the news we received today but both Mom and I did want to thank Him.  Something is happening here and we can’t explain it. Despite the bad news that we have gotten every day, we are still lifting up our hearts in gratitude to God. We are grateful for so many things – the gift of family, of love and togetherness, of support and determination when times get tough, of intelligent healthcare professionals who exhibit compassion and love in all they do, of hard-working family members who pitch in to do what needs to be done and so much more!  Mom and I feel the palpable embrace of our good God after spending time with Him at Adoration. Even though we may not realize it at the time – our moments with Him are truly life changing and He is giving us so much. Each day we receive exactly what we need. It may not be what we want, but it is enough. God tells us that He will do this, and we must trust.  The more time we spend with Him, the easier it is to believe.

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August 11, 2016  And then 3 years later after God had given our family the gift of quality TIME with our beloved Mom, she said this to me just 2 months ago “I do trust God – you know that – I love Him!”  That was one month before He called her to heaven where she resides with Him forever and where she waits for her beloved family to join her for eternity.

Until then, her life is a reminder that we must pray with expectant faith and trust in God’s beautiful plan.  Adoration was a time for Mom to be alone with God – to listen to Him – and she shared this Catholic gift with our whole family.  In fact, at this very moment, my beautiful dad is beginning his holy hour at their chapel – the 10 pm slot that they picked for the first Friday of the month.  He won’t be alone though – Our Lord is there of course and his Joanie is sitting with him from heaven.  I know he will feel her presence.

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Egg Sandwiches for 3

The alarm bell rings at 5:15 am and I reluctantly climb out of bed at 5:30 am, headed for the kitchen.  My first thoughts of the day are on Mom. “Good morning” I whisper in the quiet darkness of my home. After getting the kids up, I begin making breakfast as I do every morning with the hope that I can get something healthy into their bodies for the demands of the day ahead.

I stand over the stove cracking eggs and immediately am drawn back to the 1980’s when I was a girl growing up in south Jersey.  I recall with vivid detail this same scene except the mother in the kitchen was my beloved mom Joan and the kids were my siblings and me. Mom got up early every morning before going to work as a nurse to make sure we had a good nourishing breakfast.  To be honest, we were less than appreciative of this effort preferring cold cereal to her good egg sandwiches.  This did not deter her though because she knew what was best for us and she kept doing what was best, despite our attitude or ingratitude.

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As I close my eyes I can still see her smiling face and happy greeting as we entered the kitchen “Good morning guys – it’s going to be another great day!”  Always the eternal optimist, we could count on Mom to greet us in this same joyful manner every day. Looking back, I now realize how amazing that was.  I’ll be honest, I did not feel like cooking eggs at 5:30 am today nor did I feel too happy in the cold darkness of the early morning. I bet she didn’t either yet she overcame her own feelings and put the best interests of her children first. Drawing on her deep Catholic faith, she sought to give her whole self to her family so they could know the love of God by her very example.

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Andrew has happily finished his egg sandwich today, because I had time to “shake things up” and put it on a tortilla in the hot pan thanks to Emma.  Emma is driving him to school so I can go to Physical Therapy before work.  Thanks to their Nona, my children have learned how to give of themselves in order to help someone in need.  Today, that someone is me and the morning  school ride for Andrew is a blessing.  (Andrew eating his breakfast is also a blessing.)

As I wave goodbye to my two youngest in the dawn of the early morning, my eyes are misty thinking of Mom. I quietly thank her for the incredible example of how to be a good mother. From egg sandwiches to helping out when needed – I have learned these things and passed them on to my children because that is what she did.  I trust that my children will do the same and the beautiful example of her love – the selfless giving of oneself for the benefit of the other will continue in this world, thanks to the gift of my mother, Joan Mary.

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Beaches and Tea

The tapping of the raindrops on the skylight reminds me of cozy afternoons spent with Mom complete with a steaming cup of tea, piece of lemon bread and candle flickering in the late autumn chill.  Memories like this are a gift – etched in my mind for a lifetime. Thinking of times spent lovingly in Mom’s company, I decided to read my journal from the past three years.  I was struck by one particular entry from October 2013 – 3 months after Mom was diagnosed. This was a time when she was quite ill from the chemo and brain radiation and experiencing serious side effects.

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October 27, 2013 “Today was a gift – truly special and entirely unexpected.  After deciding to bypass the mall, Mom and I ventured out to the beach road for a walk in the brilliant fall sun.  We finished our walk by going onto the beach – for just a moment, or so we thought. The beauty of the blue ocean, combined with the warm sun and clear sky led us to a perfect spot in the sand to rest.  We chatted for a few moments, and then entered into the quiet. Leaning back on our jackets, we lay side by side and just listened. We heard the sound of the waves crashing on the beach, the bells of the church ringing in the distance, and the whistle of the Cape Cod Railway echoing over the water and all was good and right and as it should be for just a moment.  

For in that moment, there was no cancer, no side effects, no worry about the future, and no concern about the time we have together. In that moment it was just mother and daughter lying on the beach together, taking in the sun and enjoying one another’s company.  Had someone passed by, they would not have known the pain of the last few months – that was the beauty of this moment, it was authentic and real. In the quiet on the beach, we also heard the voice of God whispering in the wind  saying “steady…trust…gratitude.”  I am trying to do all these things, I thought  – and as we departed the beach arm in arm, I looked up to the sun and nodded in deep gratitude to our loving God who blessed me with this incredible woman, my mother.  

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We continued our quiet afternoon by stopping at Riverview Cafe, our favorite coffee shop on 6A before heading to the Adoration Chapel.  Mom doesn’t drink coffee anymore – she has no taste for it due to the chemo – but she loves to see me enjoying a cup.  As we entered the Adoration Chapel, I could tell Mom was happy to be there together.  It had been some time since we had the chance to pray there and we both felt relieved to come back to the place that has been such a spiritual home for us.  We sat next to each other and quietly prayed.  When it was time to leave, I looked over at Mom and just smiled.  

She continues to teach me – really witness to the power of God’s love.  She is entirely free of any anger, regret or fear.  She exudes faith, love and confidence in all that she does.  It is something that I don’t think is normal, given her circumstances, but that’s just it – she isn’t just normal – she is extraordinary and through this struggle she will draw many souls to Christ.  I finally get it –  I think – the pain and struggle are gifts that lead us to God. Without them, we are left to our own thinking that what we do,think, and plan are the keys to life rather than surrendering our lives to God’s will.  Mom has done that and has shown me the true path to happiness.”

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The fire is flickering now as evening has come to Dad’s house on Cape Cod and the rain is still softly thumping on the skylights. I have made us a cup of tea and we lit a candle. I read him this blog post and he loved it, agreeing that it portrayed Mom as the faithful, selfless and extraordinary woman that she was and still is in heaven.  We both agreed that everything about that beach day was happy.  Yes, Mom had cancer but she and I enjoyed being together despite that reality. Mom continued to fully live each day and trust in God until the moment He called her home.

On that cool fall day in October 2013, we were mother and daughter together on the beach – simple – beautiful – what could be better?

 

 

Put on your Walking Shoes

Did you ever spend a moment looking at your shoes and wonder about the places they’ve been?  I must admit that this is something I’ve never thought about until my sister and I wandered into Mom’s closet last Sunday.  We were looking for a sweater or something special of hers to wear to Mass with Dad.  Our eyes were drawn downward to her shoes and rested upon a worn pair of her favorite Sperrys.  These were not the shiny, fancy ones but the worn, brown ones that she loved to wear often. These were the shoes that accompanied her to many places and greeted many people.  These were the shoes that supported a woman who gave without seeking anything in return and who only sought the best for others.

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This past spring, Mom came down with a serious pneumonia after a chemo treatment.  It was a scary time and we were all quite worried about her.  My daughter Grace, who was home on spring break from college, drove Nona from Cape Cod to Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston so that Papa could sit in back to care for Nona.  Once there, the doctors went into high gear so that emergency care could be administered right away. In the midst of this chaos, I contacted my sister and brother out-of-state.  When we finally got Mom into a room and on medication she was quite weak and unresponsive as you can imagine.

My sister arrived from Connecticut and together we stayed by Mom’s bedside.  At one point in the evening Mom kept saying “get the chicken, get the chicken.”  We thought this was an effect of the meds or pneumonia and ignored it.  Sure enough, Mom continued into the night “please get the chicken, I bought enough….get the chicken”  We finally discovered that Mom was scheduled to cook for the Noah Homeless Shelter in Hyannis that week and while she was extremely ill, she did remember her obligation to these honored guests whom she’d gotten to know over the years.  My sister and I were literally blown away.

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Our beloved mother was fighting for her life and all she could think about was the meal – the chicken – for the Noah Shelter.  This incredible effort by my mother reminded me of a famous quote by St. Mother Teresa “It’s not how much we give but how much love we put into giving.

This is just one example of my mom’s generosity.  She gave of herself to everyone – those who knew her and those who did not.  If she passed someone on the street, she’d smile.  If someone would tailgate her on the road, she’d say “well, he must have an important reason to be in a hurry.”  If someone needed a friend to listen to a story, that friend would be her.  If a relative needed a lift, she’d bake her famous Italian cookies and mail a care package.  If one of her children were down or overwhelmed, she’d send the most wonderful card, with the perfect message to lift them up and let them know they were not alone.

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Most of all, she prayed for everyone – all of the time.  Mom was a woman of deep faith her entire life.  I don’t think she could be a woman of selfless giving, if not for her deep faith in God.  It is because she trusted so fully in the love of God and the promise of eternal life that she was able to give fully and completely of herself.  She filled herself up with God’s love and then poured out His goodness to everyone around her.  She exuded this goodness  – it was her very being.

Looking down at the brown Sperrys in Mom’s closet causes our eyes to fill with tears. These are tears of gratitude though.  Gratitude to God for the gift of this incredible soul – this beautiful, light filled woman who we were lucky enough to call our mom.  And this soul blessed so many others by putting on her Sperrys and stepping out in service each day with the goal of giving back and spreading joy, light and love.  May we all follow her example and wear out our shoes in the very same way.

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Hold Your Hand High

Sitting at dinner tonight in a quaint Italian restaurant on Cape Cod with my beloved dad and sister, it occurred to me how blessed we are as a family.  The three of us spent much time talking about the grandchildren in our family and how each them brought something special to the celebration of mom’s life.  Looking back just 2 weeks, it is amazing to think about how these young people stepped up to honor their beloved Nona in such a profound way.

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We asked: How did they did they do it?  I mean, they are young, close to Nona and filled with grief themselves. We called upon them to assume leadership roles in the Mass and not one of them from age 20 to 8 cringed at our request. Then it made sense –  LOVE.  You can only give what you’ve received and Nona’s grandchildren have received unconditional love from her and Papa their entire lives, so when called upon to give back, they were more than ready.

The older girls, Grace and Emma, who read the first and second readings at Mass, mentored the middle girls, Tasha and Bella.  Grace told Tasha and Bella, who read the Prayers of the Faithful to “hold your hand up high” so the folks in the back will see you and know when to join in.  As it turns out, this was good advice as a friend told me that she was sitting in the back and could not see due to the crowds but saw the girls raise their hand high thus knew when to respond and felt connected and included in the service.

I like to think that Nona inspired Grace to give this good advice because Nona always liked everyone to feel connected and join together in community.  Imagine how Nona felt watching from heaven when her granddaughters clearly read the Prayers of the Faithful and then had the entire congregation join together in prayer to God by “raising their hands up high.”  She must have been so proud.

This may seem like an insignificant point but I don’t think it is.  Nona knew that you could not give what you don’t have.  So she made sure to spread love to everyone – no matter the person or circumstance.  If a person experiences love, then they have something to give back to others and can “raise their hand high.”

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Loving unconditionally is a simple thing and Nona knew that.  She did it when she was feeling good and when she was feeling low.  She did it always.  That is why the list of thank you notes for flowers, Mass cards, meals and gifts for her is extremely long.  Folks are giving back because they received Nona’s love – always.

My sister, dad and I are privileged to respond to all of this kindness in Nona’s memory.  I invite you to think about someone in your life who needs love today.  Don’t delay.  “Hold you hand up high” and reach out – you will make an impact and the result will be life changing, as the life of my mom has been for so many!

Heaven is for Real

On my second trip home from St. Joseph’s School this evening, all I could think about was a heating pad and my comfortable, warm bed. The thirty minute commute to Andrew’s school is worth it for many reasons, but a sore back and late night Back to School Night had made me less than happy on this particular evening. Needless to say I was not planning to write a blog post tonight.

And then it happened. I had casually turned on my podcasts and hit random when a favorite speaker’s deep voice spoke out confidently in the quiet of my dark car as I sped through the winding, deserted back roads toward home. “The Resurrection in faith tells us that death…you don’t win! This world as we know it is not the final reality and we are not meant to live here permanently. We are meant to be born into a higher world.

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I burst into tears thinking about the meaning of these beautiful words that I know, in my heart, to be true. How did God know that I needed to hear these words…tonight…alone in the darkness of my car?  Why did that particular podcast of Bishop Barron’s play now? My mom always told me that there were NO coincidences in this life and I don’t think tonight’s podcast episode was one either. I think it was God’s voice, prompted by my mom – because she knew how much our family needed to hear from her – to know that she is exactly where she is supposed to be.

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Sometimes when life is difficult, it is hard to believe in and live our faith. But these are the moments when FAITH is essential. Mom knew this and taught me this important lesson. When her cancer progressed in the last year of her life, she didn’t stop praying or going to Mass – deep held practices which have sustained her for 75 years. She may have questioned God or been frustrated, which is normal, but she still persevered in faith. Even though mom may not have felt anything, she still made an ACT of faith and this very effort gave her many graces to endure the challenges of the last month of her disease. I am sure that mom knew, “This world as we know it is not the final reality and we are not meant to live here permanently. We are meant to be born into a higher world.

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My mom lived her Catholic faith every day of her life and knew that heaven was real. She taught all of us to believe in that reality with the hope that we would one day meet our Lord in His glory. As a family, we used to ponder what it would be like in heaven. I’m not sure but I loved my brother’s description from his beautiful eulogy at my mom’s funeral: “Heaven is like pulling into mom and dad’s home on Greybirch Road, Cape Cod. You arrive with your family and bags of treats. Entering through the side door, you turn the corner with anticipation and notice the flickering candles and fresh flowers on the counter. Trays of cheese, fruit and wine adorn the side counter and the lights are dim and welcoming. Coming toward you with arms wide open is the loveliest woman you have ever seen – she is pure love. Her wide, joyful smile are eager to embrace you….” That sure sounds like heaven to me.

Despite the pain of desperately missing my mom, I hold on to God’s promise that someday I will see her again. But until then, I will try my hardest (in this life) to follow her heroic example to be a woman of deep faith, unfailing hope and unconditional love. After all, she’ll be watching.

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Bring the Gift of Yourself

Many of us feel inadequate in one way or another in this life.  Perhaps in our professional work, family life or within our friend groups.  My mother constantly reminded me that this type of thinking was not from God.  When I close my eyes I can still hear her say “God loves you just the way you are…today.”

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It is fitting then that at her funeral Mass last Thursday, Monsignor Tosti leaned over to my nephew Johnny, the youngest grandchild, during the procession of gifts and whispered “you bring the gift of yourself.”  When 3 of the youngest grandchildren approached the gift table during Mass there were only 2 gifts, so Johnny (age 8) quietly folded his arms in prayer and approached the altar – as himself.  What a beautiful gift to Nona. I can just see her beaming with pride from her heavenly home, gazing lovingly on her beloved Johnny as he confidently approached the altar of the Lord to honor the grandmother he adored.

Confidence like this comes from only one thing – LOVE.  Little Johnny has been loved unconditionally by his parents, siblings and most importantly by his grandparents.  He knows who he is in the eyes of God and feels very comfortable bringing the gift of himself anywhere – even at age 8.

Nona and Papa instilled this “confidence from love” in my siblings and me and we have tried (and still try) to instill it in our children.  There is no greater gift than to know deep in your heart that you are loved as a son or daughter of God. Once we know that, Nona taught us that we can do anything, because with God, all things are possible.  We can reach the highest mountains or deepest seas and attain whatever goals we set for ourselves.  It all begins with love.

So be like little children and bring the gift of yourself to whatever life situation you find yourself in today.  Nona would want that for you.  She would want you to love yourself just as you are, right where you are – because that is where you will find peace and happiness – that is where you will find the face of God.

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Birds of the Air

Sizzling sausages, buttery pancakes, and fresh brewed coffee – the smells of breakfast at Nona’s awoke me this morning and for a very brief moment I felt that all was right in the world.  I would descend the stairs of her sunny Cape Cod home and there she’d be in the kitchen, smiling and cooking happily for her family as she had done her whole life.  Love is to will the good of the other, and on this morning my beloved brother and sister-in-law got up early to make the weekend breakfast that we’ve all come to know and cherish. While Nona may not be here physically, she is certainly here in spirit through her children and grandchildren who carry on her legacy of selfless giving.

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What would inspire folks from so many states, backgrounds and interests to stand in line for hours on a busy Wednesday night in September?  They lined up by the hundreds to pay tribute to a woman who always greeted them with a smile and kind word and left them better than when they met her.  She gave herself – it is that simple. They stood in line for hours because this woman exuded unconditional love in the presence of all she came in contact with.  They waited patiently because this woman touched their lives in a way that few people can or ever will in this world and they wanted a chance to have one last moment with her.

It is the people in this life who fulfill us and make our existence meaningful.  My mom knew this and was grateful to love and spend time with so many extraordinary friends and family members from her hometown in Barre MA to Utica NY to Peabody to Plymouth to Woodstock NY to Yarmouth ME to Ridgefield CT to Holliston and back home to Cape Cod. As my brother so beautifully shared in his eulogy, “Nona’s personal treasure and only definition of worldly wealth was her family, and the crown jewels were her grandchildren.”

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My brother Joe, sister Liz, Aunt Sue and I are counting on our children to carry on all the beautiful virtues that Nona instilled in each of them and use them to make our world a better place: Andrea – courage, Sarah – empathy, Grace – natural charisma/inner beauty, Emma – unwavering faith/compassion, Isabella – Renaissance woman with natural gifts of music & discovery, Tasha- unconditional friendship, Josef – unabated curiosity of natural world, Andrew –  inner humility/treasured peacemaker, Julie – smart /focused and tenacious, Johnny – unconditional love!

Yesterday unfolded like a gentle breeze.  We spent our morning reflecting on the love WE received from our many hometown, college and neighborhood friends and work colleagues who traveled a far distance to pay tribute to our beloved mom.  It was a moment to share stories, smile and even laugh – Joanie would have wanted that for all of us.  We found ourselves driving toward the beach in the afternoon and without any planning at all, turned into the cemetery around 3 pm.

At approximately 3:05 pm, our family gathered around mom with the late afternoon sun spilling through the trees.  It was exactly one week to the minute since her going home to God.  We decided to pray the Glorious mysterious of the rosary.  Our collective voices were lifted in prayer to God, amidst tears and sadness,  but with mom’s faith.  Even if we didn’t feel anything at that moment except sadness, we made an act of faith knowing that mom was at peace,  was happy and was with us in this quiet moment of prayer and togetherness.

We then continued on to our original destination of the beach and took a very long walk down a picturesque walking trail surrounded by the shore on one side and beautiful coves on the other.  As we made our way down to the tip of the peninsula, our minds were thinking of one person – our Joanie.  When we finally reached the spot where mom and dad had frequented, we all found a place to stop and reflect.  For me, it was a time to give thanks to God for the gift of an incredible mother – a person who gave love rather than consumed it, a person who sought the good in everyone, a person who loved without boundaries – like the vast ocean before me.  While the sadness is deep I know I am blessed and with time, I hope that I can fly like the birds of the air above the sea – free and confident in God’s love for me.  That is what Joanie would want.

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What Would Joanie Do?

This may seem like an odd question, but I promise that it is an appropriate one. In fact, it is a question that my siblings and I have found ourselves asking often over the past 3 days as we prepare to celebrate the life of our beloved mother.

At a time when stress levels are high, sleep levels are low and emotions are on overdrive, my family has found that all we have to do is ask WWJD, What would Joanie do?  Many folks know the popular WWJD as What would Jesus do? In our minds though, our mother Joanie embodies many of the same heroic virtues as our Lord thus WWJD is a fitting title for her in this instance.

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Bishop Robert Barron shares “the path of love is traveled by taking up one’s cross every day.” Mom was a woman who took up her cross daily in big and little ways. Growing up, she would put herself last so that others could be first – she took the smallest plate of dinner and dessert giving the largest to my dad and brother, she had a kind word for everyone – even when she didn’t feel like it, she worked long hours as a nurse in order to help support our family and send her 3 children to Catholic schools and universities. More recently, she never complained about being in pain for fear of burdening someone with her illness.  She even continued her volunteer work at the shelter and church right up to the month before God called her home.

Mom’s whole life was a path of love that Bishop Barron is talking about.  She loved with all her being, willing the good of my dad, my sister, my brother and me.  She picked up her cross every day whether it was a long shift at the hospital caring for her patients or enduring another chemo treatment at Dana Farber – there was no difference because both of these efforts were rooted in God’s love and offered up to Him for the good of her family.  She surrendered herself to God daily thus he was free to work through her – His love flowed through her beautiful soul to others and that is why she shined so bright.

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What would Joanie do? It is a question we have asked ourselves lately and this is what we have heard in prayer: Mom would love her family and friends unconditionally; she would turn her face to the warm autumn sun; she would plant fall mums and stand back and admire the beauty of their colors in her yard; she would cook for the Noah shelter and greet each guest with a warm smile and a hug; she would attend her grandchildren’s games and dance competitions and clap louder than any other grandparent there; she would take a meandering drive with Papa down 6A, walk with him on the beautiful Cape Cod beach and then cook him a favorite Irish meal.

Life would be simple and uncomplicated but she would be happy and content  – she would not get sidetracked with worrying about silly stuff.  She would pray and love God with all her heart, soul and mind. We will try to be more like you mom – you knew the path to lasting happiness. This is what Joanie would do.

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Heaven Gained a Saint Today

I hadn’t planned to write anything tonight but then I remembered her beautiful face shining in the late Cape Cod sun and the promise I made to her just a few days ago – “write about what a beautiful family we were.” Watching my precious father, sister and brother walk my mother to the gates of heaven today prompted me to keep that promise to a person who brought out the very best in each of us.

At approximately 3 pm today, my beloved mother Joan Mary took the hand of her lifelong friend, Blessed Mother Mary and entered paradise.  She was surrounded by her husband of 52 years and her 3 devoted children.  Shortly before her departure, we surrounded her in prayer, reciting the rosary, her favorite prayer, with quiet classical music playing in the background.  It was a serene, yet sorrowful setting, to say farewell to a woman who had made our lives more than we could have ever hoped for or imagined. Thanks to her deep faith which she passed on to us, we knew this was not goodbye, merely “so long” until we see you again – in paradise – where there is no more cancer, no more pain, no more suffering.  And this was the ultimate prayer for our humble mother who had always put herself last so that others could be first.  Even in the last months of her cancer, she didn’t share how much pain she was in for fear of worrying her children.  I will never have the privilege of knowing a more selfless and humble servant of God.  She is, and always will be our hero.

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Love is to will the good of the other and my parents always did that for each other throughout their marriage. They taught us (their three children) to live our marriages in the same way. We feel especially grateful to have been given the gift of Joan and Joe as our parents – two people who loved and respected each other deeply.  In fact, mom and dad’s wedding song 52 year’s ago was I Love You Truly.

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As I shared, mom was always giving to others – even when it was most difficult. When we arrived at the Hospice Center 2 weeks ago today, she turned to my dad and said “Can we dance one more time Joey?”  Even though this was incredibly hard for her, she got up – with help – and danced one final time with her beloved Joey.  She even sang I Love You Truly in his ear. When she was done, she quietly whispered “I’m ready.”  Having given all she had for the one she loved the most, she was ready to rest.  This is what true love is all about – giving of oneself for the good of another – the act of sacrificial love.  Mom did that until the moment our Lord called her home.  There is no greater example of selfless love. She is my mom, but she is also an extraordinary example for so many others – a person who loved without boundaries, gave without questions, helped without being asked, judged not, envied no one,  offered a hand to the needy and infirm and listened with an open heart.

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So long mom – I will miss you every moment of every day but I know you will make yourself known – I am counting on that.  I promise to pray often and to try to become half of the woman who you are.  I thank God for giving me to you – there could be no greater love between a daughter and mother.  You are my hero, my beloved, my inspiration, my everything – I LOVE YOU! Rest easy now – our Saint in heaven.

Ladybugs and Love

Have you ever prayed for a sign from God when times got tough? On Tuesday, August 13, 2013 I was at the Cape navigating the early stages of mom’s cancer diagnosis and praying for anything that would indicate God was aware of our difficult plight.  On this particular morning, mom told me that a single ladybug had appeared in her bathroom for the fourth morning in a row.  I didn’t think much about it at the time.  Later that day I was texting my cousin Bonnie (mom’s Godchild)  and told her about the ladybug phenomenon.   Being a spiritual person, Bonnie knew there was something more to this than meets the eye.

Bonnie wrote “I’ve been thinking about the ladybug all day and look what I came across, your Mom has always been the most loving person–the beetle of our Lady really rings true–after reading this I really believe that it was there for Joanie.”

  • When the ladybug appears in our life it is telling us to “let go and let God.” Seen often as a messenger of promise, the ladybug reconnects us with the joy of living. Fear and joy cannot co-exist. We need to release our fears and return to love – this is one of the messages that the ladybug brings to us. The ladybug teaches us how to restore our trust and faith in the great spirit. When the ladybug appears, it is telling us to get out of our own way and allow the great spirit to enter into our lives. The name ladybug finds its origins in the middle ages when this beetle was dedicated to the Virgin Mary and called the “beetle of our lady.” 

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When I shared Bonnie’s words with mom, she was overjoyed.  We both knew that the great spirit was God and the little ladybug who had been hanging around her bathroom mirror was His outward reminder that all would be well – we were being called to trust in Him.

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Over the next 3 years, the ladybug would appear in mom’s life often, especially at particularly difficult times – after brain radiation, chemo and changes in meds.  Her appearance always gave mom strength, the boost she needed to turn her eyes heavenward and trust in God’s plan. Looking back, I am confident that God was holding mom’s hand during her entire cancer journey and His unconditional love for her was being affirmed through this little creature who is dedicated to the Blessed Mother.  How fitting for a woman who loved without boundaries with a devotion to our Blessed Mother Mary, as deep and wide as the oceans.

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A few days ago, some family members were praying over mom at the Hospice Center.  As you can imagine, mom’s decline has not come as a surprise, but it has been extremely heart breaking for all who know and love her.  During this prayer service, my brother Joe looked up and behold, there on the cavernous ceiling was a tiny ladybug.  He nudged mom’s sister Sue and together they smiled, knowing that it was probably mom who had orchestrated this visit.  She was perhaps asking God to assure all of us of her love and tell us to trust, have faith and know that all will be well.  We received her message with gratitude and finished praying through tearful eyes.

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Laying on my cot in her room at the Hospice center last evening, I listened to mom’s breathing in the quiet of the night.  My mind kept wandering back to the days when her wide smile and generous heart would light up a room.  I realized that despite her ability to talk or sit up, she is still lighting up a room.  Her love for others is so deep and so genuine that is pours forth from her very being.  I am not sure that I will ever have the privilege to know anyone like her again, but I do know that heaven is blessed because it will soon be gaining a beautiful saint.  I wonder if there are ladybugs in heaven?

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Hope Does Not Disappoint

This is the excerpt for your very first post.

It wasn’t hard to make the decision.  Laying in the Hospice Center late last night it suddenly came to me while looking over at her through the dim evening lights.  She had lived a life of joy in every circumstance – that was the answer.

Shortly before mom stopped speaking – days before the cancer stole her ability to talk – she asked me to write about our family.  When I asked her what she meant, she simply replied “tell them what a great family we were.”  Through tearful eyes I corrected her and replied “what a great family we are, mom.”  And with that, a promise was made.

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I’ve decided to inaugurate a new blog dedicated to a woman who lived joy throughout her 75 years.  She made it a habit to always look on the bright side of life with unfailing hope and faith in God. Her very presence encouraged others to do the same and when one left her company, they were better for it.

It is fitting then to begin with hope – a theological virtue that is essential for a person to live in joy.  Hope can be described simply as “not giving up” and this would be an accurate description of my mom.  She taught her three children to reach for the stars, regardless of ability or talent and to pray unceasingly.  The combination of these two was a recipe for lasting success in life.

Unfortunately today, I see kids giving up when they don’t win first prize or get all the attention.  Mom had no patience for this type of thinking and trusted that God had a plan and it was up to us to realize our own path with hard work, faith, hope and love for one another. I can honestly say that she got it right!  Thankfully, she passed this plan on to her children and grandchildren and we are the beneficiaries of her hopeful outlook on life!

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Over these past three years, hope was a virtue that she modeled so heroically to everyone who knew her.  From her oncologist at Dana Farber to the women in her book club, she was admired as a woman of deep faith and hope.  Many people didn’t even know she had stage 4 non-small cell lung cancer (she never smoked!) which had metastasized to her brain. She didn’t tell them – only those who needed to know, knew her full diagnosis.  She had hope in God and lived her life in joy – laughing often with her husband, children and grandchildren.

I’ll close with one of the many quotes that mom and I shared over the years. We would text each other in the morning – just a little something to support and inspire each other for the day.  I sent this to her on January 21, 2016 shortly after she began a new chemo treatment.  She was concerned about the change but remained dignified and graceful.  I was always so impressed with how she handled the painful challenges of the treatments. I guess I shouldn’t have been – it is grace…it is God…it is love in the soul of his beloved daughter.

“If you are aware of God’s presence, high above the deafening storm, the sun will always be shining on you; and deep below the roaring and destructive waves, peace and calm will reign in your soul.” St. Josemaria

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