Monday, 31 January 2011


A few days before Thomas was born, I visited the needlework shop. I wanted something to keep me busy during a prolonged stay in hospital. Well, I hoped I was going to have a prolonged stay. If Thomas’ diaphragmatic hernia wasn’t healed miraculously then I hoped the doctors would be able to save him through their expertise. And I knew they would need time, time when I would sit in the hospital praying and waiting for him to get well enough to come home.

I chose a Noah’s Ark cross stitch and at once started work on it while I waited to go into labour. Just before we rushed out the door to go to the hospital, I shoved the kit into my bag.

But I didn’t think of the cross stitch again until we’d returned home after the birth and death of our baby. The kit remained in my bag forgotten as we spent hours keeping vigil by Thomas’ side as he struggled to live. I didn’t end up having a prolonged stay in the hospital. Thomas died at 3 pm on the second day of my stay and we were home again that evening.

The first day after Thomas’ death, Andy and I were so busy. We had phone calls to make, the priest to visit, a funeral to arrange… The next few days were equally busy. A constant stream of friends visited, we had to shop for funeral clothes… Finally we had the funeral itself to attend.

And then we stopped. There was nothing left to do but grieve. I started a journal and began writing about Thomas, the pregnancy, his birth and his death. And as I was writing I came to the decision that I wanted to do something for Thomas. I wanted to make him something that would be a visible reminder of his presence here on earth.

I remembered the Noah’s Ark cross stitch. That seemed to belong to a different world, a time when I’d had hope. I no longer wanted to finish it. I rolled it up and put it away. But it gave me a new idea. I decided to cross stitch a picture with Thomas’ name and birth and death dates. I returned to the needlework shop and chose a piece of beige linen and a pattern of an old fashioned house flanked by fruit bearing trees. There was room in the centre for a verse, a name and a date. I drew a pattern for the words:

To You O Lord we humbly entrust
Thomas Augustine Elvis
So precious in Your sight

And then I got to work. For weeks I sat on my bed and stitched and thought of Thomas and his death. I pondered such questions as: Why didn’t God heal Thomas? Why do we suffer? What does it all mean? My fingers worked while I had an unending conversation with God.

Gradually I began to take interest in other things but each day I still found some time to work on Thomas’ embroidery. I had a reputation for starting a creative project but never finishing. This time it was going to be different. I had to finish because this was for our son. And, despite the pattern having some complicated stitches needing a high level of skill, I was determined the piece of needlework would be perfect.

I started to get excited when I began work on the outside border. I was on the home stretch. I picked up the pace as I imagined taking my piece of needlework down to the shop to be framed. And then I discovered a mistake. It wasn’t a major mistake. Probably no one would have spotted it. But I had decided that only perfection was acceptable. I undid a large amount of work and patiently redid it correctly.

Finally the embroidery was ready for framing. I flew down to the shop with it to choose a frame. Two weeks later we were hanging Thomas’ cross stitch on the wall where it could be seen by everyone who came to visit. I thought, “Now everyone will know Thomas existed. There on the wall is his story.” I imagined someone seeing my cross stitch in many years to come. They would know that a baby called Thomas was born who lived for one day and his mother loved him so very much she embroidered a beautiful cross stitch for him.

The year after Thomas died my friend Amanda’s baby was stillborn. Remembering how much comfort my cross stitch had brought to me, I decided to embroider one for her baby. The baby was called Faith and I used a verse about faith from the Bible as the central words. By this time I was pregnant with Sophie and I spent long periods of time resting and stitching and thinking and praying about babies.

Amanda lived a couple of hours’ drive away. My husband, Andy offered to deliver the finished cross stitch to her.

When Andy returned home he was carrying a large frame. For a moment I thought it was Faith’s cross stitch. But it wasn’t. It was a large picture of our Lady of Guadalupe. Amanda had given it to Andy saying, “This picture was on my wall but I had a feeling that it wasn’t mine. God intended it for someone else. Only I didn’t know who was supposed to have it. I thought at first it was meant for Joan. I invited her to afternoon tea but Joan didn’t pay any attention to the picture at all. She didn’t even notice it hanging on the wall. I decided it wasn’t meant for her after all. And then today when you arrived with the cross stitch from Sue, I was absolutely sure Our Lady of Guadalupe is for her.”

Amanda’s story and her gift touched my heart so deeply. I felt we were bonded together by our exchange, just as we are bonded together by the deaths of our children. I can imagine Thomas and Faith together in heaven and Amanda and I are united here on earth by our grief.

I haven’t seen Amanda for some years now. But I will never forget her. Every time I look at Our Lady of Guadalupe I think of her and am grateful for her gift which I feel has helped me to heal.

Our Lady of Guadalupe is hanging on the lounge room wall right next to Thomas’ cross stitch, Thomas’ perfect cross stitch. Or is it perfect? One day, I was standing looking at the embroidery and I noticed the bottom line of words is slightly out of line. One word looks like it is sagging. My first thought was, “The framer didn’t do a very good job. He didn’t stretch the linen tight enough.” And then I realised I had no one to blame for the imperfection except myself. Despite my efforts to be very careful, I had sewn the middle letters of one word slightly lower than I should have done.

I smile now when I look at the mistake. It is a reminder to me that I am not perfect. I strove for perfection, thought I’d achieved it but in reality I had failed. It’s funny isn’t it, how we often don’t see our own flaws? We think we are pretty good. But then one day God opens our eyes a little wider…

Thomas, together with all the other lost babies, is perfect. He is so very perfect in Heaven. And here I am on earth, still striving away, still working towards that goal. One day with the help of Thomas’ prayers and those of Our Lady of Guadalupe I will get there. One day…

Friday, 28 January 2011

Good Morning Mr Elvis!

As Andy was going out the door this morning, I shouted after him, “Have a good day at work!” He turned and gave me a big grin. “Work: that’s sounds so good.”

It has been nearly two years since Andy last went to work. He was made redundant early in March 2009. I’d been praying to St Joseph for some time for more satisfying and rewarding employment for Andy, knowing he hated the job he had. Instead of Andy being offered a fantastic new job, he suddenly found himself unemployed. Initially, we were a bit shocked but our sense of humour soon came to the rescue. We realised we should have been more careful how we worded our prayer to St Joseph. We’d prayed to him before. We remembered St Joseph works in strange ways, not always in the manner we expect. So although it looked like we’d been granted the exact opposite of our prayers, we decided that God, through St Joseph, had a wonderful new plan for Andy’s life.

And He did. Andy has had the chance for a complete career change despite thinking he was too old for something new. Two years have passed. Andy has completed his Masters of Teaching (primary) and he is no longer a sales and marketing manager but a qualified teacher. And a qualified teacher with a job!.

This morning Andy walked out the door dressed casually but smartly, he had a heavy bag stuffed with books, a million sharpened pencils, his lunch and a ton of enthusiasm.

Today will be an easy day. It is a staff development day with no students. They will descend upon the school, and Andy, next Monday. Andy is already familiar with the school and the staff. He did his last university practical there.

I can just imagine what Andy is doing today. He’ll be busy talking maths programs or accelerated literacy. He’ll have put his million sharpened pencils in his very own store room. He’ll be thinking, “What can I put up on these bare walls,” as he strolls proudly around his very own classroom. All he needs now are some students. Monday will be the red letter day as his pupils come pouring through the classroom door ready, or perhaps reluctant, to start the new school year. Andy will write “Mr Elvis” on the whiteboard and then he will greet them confidently with the words, “Good morning, girls and boys”, and they will all, with one sing-song voice, reply, “Good morning Mr Elvis!”

It’s going to be a very interesting and challenging year for Andy with his new rewarding and satisfying job, close to home. Thank you St Joseph!

Thursday, 27 January 2011

To Thomas

To Thomas was written by Felicity, two days after her brother's death. She was 12 years old at the time.

You lived for a day, Thomas, my brother,
Till God who knew best,
Took you away.

For a diaphragmatic hernia,
God caused in your body to be.

And it is better that it is so.

But we still prayed and mourned for you,
My family, mother and me.

“Take him to Westmead,” the doctors said,
We did as the doctors always say.
But not one doctor, except God, could save you
From the Dead, that tragic day.

Machines buzzed and hummed all around you,
The best doctors in Australia by your side.
You fought to live, my darling baby brother,
And this fact will always be my pride.

For, you never gave up, till God called you,
And I will never forget that last day,
3 o’clock on a grey Wednesday,
When God came and took you away.

This poem can be found in my book, Grief, Love and Hope

Monday, 24 January 2011

The Offering

“Wow!” Imogen’s eyes shone as she opened the Christmas gift. There under the bright wrappings was Felicity’s complete jewellery collection in a huge wooden box. And then the smile on Imogen’s face disappeared. “I wish Felicity were here with us. I’d rather have Felicity than have her jewellery.”

Eight weeks earlier, Felicity had left home to enter an enclosed monastery as an aspirant. It was our first Christmas without her.

Before she’d left for the convent, Felicity sorted through all her possessions. She found something very special to give each of her brothers and sisters. “I’ll wrap them up and you can give them to everyone on Christmas Day,” she’d said. All Felicity’s treasures were given away. She kept nothing for herself. She kept nothing back just in case.

Felicity didn’t think about ‘just in case’: just in case it doesn’t work out, just in case I change my mind, just in case I come home. All these were, of course, possibilities but Felicity didn’t think about possibilities. She went away intending to become a nun. She wouldn’t be coming home again unless God decided differently.

Felicity was 18 when she decided to join an enclosed order of nuns. She’d done a lot of soul searching during the previous months. It wasn’t an easy decision to come to. It was a decision which would involve much sacrifice. But eventually Felicity knew she had to answer the tug that was pulling her towards religious life.

How does a mother feel when her daughter announces she is leaving home to become a nun in an enclosed order? Overjoyed? She is giving a child to God. Shouldn’t she be happy that her child is willing to answer the call? Everyone congratulated us; everyone was thrilled for us; it was an occasion for celebration. But that was only half the story. I was willing to let Felicity go. I was happy. But I still grieved.

Felicity told us she was leaving for the convent. I hugged her, I was proud of her and I was happy for her. But I cried. The thought of saying goodbye made my heart ache. I knew we’d be allowed to see Felicity now and then. We could visit as a family and spend a couple of hours with her every so often. But Felicity would never be allowed to come home. She’d never sit in the armchair across from me as we chatted, wrinkling up her nose in her characteristic way as she laughed. We’d never share another coffee while out shopping. We'd never even be allowed to share another meal. She’d never joke and act the fool while doing the dishes with her siblings. She’d never teach them another song or share another movie. She’d never again share our pew at Mass. She’d never again come along to me and say, “Hey Mum, what do you think about…?” So many things we would never do again.

When a daughter enters religious life in an enclosed order, it is necessary to let go completely. When Felicity became a novice six months after leaving home, I asked Mother Prioress what my role now was in Felicity’s life. “You will always be her parent and Felicity has an obligation to pray for you but from now on, I am her mother. I am responsible for her physical and spiritual well being.”

It is very difficult for a mother to hand over a daughter so completely. A big hole was left in my life. I was no longer needed by Felicity. I no longer had a say in anything to do with her. I worried. Was she eating properly? Was she working too hard? Was she getting enough exercise? How was her life really? Was she coping? Was she happy? I could not ask about such things. They weren’t my concern. My daughter was no longer my daughter. And although I sometimes didn’t feel I could admit it, I felt sorrowful. I felt like a bereaved parent.

Felicity spent 2 years in the convent. Eventually she came home. Although she wanted to give her life to God in this way, it wasn’t meant to be. She came back and tried to pick up the threads of her old life in the world.

But you can never pick up where you leave off. The world had moved on while Felicity had been away. Friends had gone along different pathways. They’d changed. We had become different people too. Our mother-daughter relationship would never be the same again.

Sometimes I want to go back a few years. I want to avoid all the heart ache. I want to say, “Felicity you are too young to give your life to God. Wait until you are older. I don’t want you to go.” But I could never have done that. Why not? Other people were saying such things. Because Felicity had begged me, “Mum, you won’t stop me doing what I feel God is calling me to do, will you?”

And that is the problem. Don’t we all have to try to go where God is leading us even if the pathway ahead looks difficult? Even if sacrifice is being asked of us? Even if we’d really prefer to do something different? So it didn’t matter what I wanted or what Felicity wanted. She had to leave. 

Felicity wanted to do God's will and make an offering of her life. Things didn't turn out as she'd hoped. But I don't think that really matters. Success was always in God's hands, not hers. It was the offering that was important, not the outcome. I know Felicity was willing to give up everything for God. I know she was willing to make the offering with all her heart. And this is why I am so very proud of my daughter.

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Kings and Queens and Baggy Shorts

I am sitting, staring at the blank computer screen on my lap. I have an idea for a story. I am going to write about my husband Andy, and I am sipping my cup of coffee while I decide how to begin.

Charlotte, my fit and healthy teenager, appears in the doorway. “I think I’ll go for a walk down the bush tracks,” she announces.

I glance up. A walk? That sounds energetic. It’s a hot day, a very hot day. I think of my Andy story that is about to spring into being, and I think of the track just metres down the road, the track which winds its way silently through the tall gums, wild flowers, sandstone... I take another sip of my coffee and then I look at my daughter. I am struggling …struggling… and then I win, “I’ll get my shorts and shoes on. I’ll meet you outside in five minutes.”

The sun is blazing down and there’s not a cloud in the sky. It is quiet and peaceful and the bush beckons. Soon we are striding down the main track, our arms swinging, our lungs filling with the clean air, our eyes drinking in nature, and we begin to chat.

Charlotte asks me how long it is until the beginning of the school term. She is looking forward to getting back to work and she wants to know what we’ll be doing. “Can we continue learning about the Kings and Queens of England?”

Soon we are discussing the various interesting monarchs we read about last term and I am amazed by how much Charlotte recalls. It is quite pleasant walking along discussing haemophilia, insanity, lost heads, protectors, unreliable sons, abdication, murder plots and alliances. We compare the present-day monarchy with the all-powerful kings and queens of times past. And we decide we wouldn’t like to be royalty ourselves.

It is an easy walk as the track is wide and flat, and in a short time we have walked a fair way. Now we start to skip along even more quickly as the path falls away from under our feet. We are descending. We feel we could walk and walk and walk…There is a great temptation to do this but we are wary. We have experienced this track numerous times in the past. I glance back over my shoulder and look up the steep hill. It is an easy walk down but will we be able to struggle back up again? Already we are far from home.

“How about we walk as far as the donuts,” I suggest to Charlotte. “It’s a hot day and it’s going to be a hard struggle back up to the top of the hill.” Charlotte agrees and we watch out for the donuts – a wide sandy clearing where the trail bike riders like to spin around and around.

I am feeling the heat. Charlotte and I haven’t been very good Bush Boys. Father Jim would be dismayed by our lack of forethought. We’ve forgotten our water bottles. My mouth is dry and my skin is starting to glisten with sweat. Finally I say, “I don’t think I am going to make it even as far as the donuts. Do you mind if we turn back now? You don’t want to have to carry me all the way home!”

Charlotte smiles at the thought of having to rescue me. I am a small person but she is even smaller. Not only have we forgotten the water, we didn’t think to bring the phone in case of emergency. Very sensibly, Charlotte decides we’ve walked far enough for one hot day and we swing around and begin the ascent.

It is hard going. The sun has moved higher into the sky and is burning into our backs. Every now and then I insist we rest for a few seconds in the shade of a tree before battling back up the next slope. And as we climb we continue our conversation.

“Hey Mum, do you remember that queen who liked to go on pilgrimages, the one who returned to her castle every evening?”

The story sounds vaguely familiar and I ask Charlotte to tell me more.

“She’d walk all day and then when she was tired she’d shout, ‘Bring the carriage!’ Her servants would transport her back to the castle so she could sleep in her own comfortable bed. The next day, the queen would get back into her carriage and the servants would return her to the exact spot where she’d finished walking the day before.”

“Did she ever finish the pilgrimage?”

“I guess so,” Charlotte replies. “She must have walked less and less each day. It would have taken her longer and longer to get from the castle to the point where she’d finished the evening before. But I suppose she must have got there in the end. Apparently, the queen was known for her love of pilgrimages.”

“And her dislike of sleeping out in the open,” I added. “She wouldn’t have made a Bush Girl.” Secretly, I think the queen was rather a sensible woman.

We come to a clearing and suddenly I exclaim, “Look! The donuts! We walked right through them without even seeing them!” We’ve walked much further than we intended. We must have been so deep in conversation we weren’t paying attention. My heart sinks. It’s still a long way home.

My thoughts have returned to Bush Girls. I glance at Charlotte’s new loose, baggy shorts. “I bet you are comfortable in your Bush Girls shorts,” I remark.

“They’re great. Do you remember Dad’s Bush Boy shorts... and how he and the boys went on that camping trip... and the wombat ran right through the tent?"

I start thinking of Andy and his yet to be started story. I think: “I could be safely at home, sitting under the cool breeze of the overhead revolving fan. I could be sipping my coffee and smiling to myself as I tell Andy’s story. But instead I am hot and tired and I have to climb right back up to the top of this hill…

And then I stop frowning at the rugged rise ahead of me, and I look at Charlotte who is once again patiently waiting for me to catch my breath. My beautiful Charlotte, one of my middle children, my happy teenager who doesn’t demand much attention. I think about how much I have enjoyed talking to her, what a pleasant companion she is, and how much I love her. I am glad I decided to accompany her on the walk despite the heat and the hill... I resolve to spend more time with her, one on one.

The house is in sight. I have made it back. My shirt clings to my back, my lips are dry and my legs feel heavy. I am anticipating a huge glass of cold water and a long cool shower.

“Next time we should walk at a cooler time of day,” suggests Charlotte. “How about first thing in the morning before breakfast?”

Before breakfast? Before my first cup of tea of the day? I think about getting out of bed earlier than usual. Then I remember how beautiful the bush is just after the sun has risen. The air is cool and refreshing, the kookaburras are laughing, and we’d be the first ones up to taste the new day. I think about how I have enjoyed Charlotte’s company. I think about the one-on-one time I have promised to give to my daughter. I am struggling …struggling… and this time I lose.

“A walk before breakfast? Dad wants to get fit. He could walk at 6 am before he leaves for school. You should ask Dad. Just tell him to have his shorts and shoes ready.”

Fathers need one-on-one time with their daughters too, I justify to myself. And one-on-one time can be spent anywhere, doing anything. Perhaps Charlotte and I can go together to a coffee shop. We can chat over freshly brewed coffee, a frothy milkshake and gooey cakes…yes, that sounds good!

I stagger through the front door and I see my computer lying on the sofa where I abandoned it hours and hours before. I think about my Andy story. Will it get written? Of course. I have it all planned out. Maybe tomorrow…

Find out more about Father James Tierney's Bush Boys and Bush Girls: Bush Boys Online

Friday, 14 January 2011

The Empty Table

We are standing on the footpath waving goodbye to the big kids. They look excited. They are driving to Wagga to stay with friends for a few days. The station wagon is piled high with clothes, mattresses, sleeping bags, toiletries … and sandwiches, muesli bars, apples, water bottles, nuts…It will be a long trip.

“Have you got…?” I begin.

“We’ve got everything,” reassures Imogen quickly. But then Callum heads back into the house to get his pillow. And suddenly Imogen remembers she didn’t pick up her sunglasses.

“We’ll see you in a few days.” I hug everyone tight. “Drive carefully and let us know when you get there.”

Callum puts the car into reverse, Duncan gives us a cheeky grin and Immy waves frantically and then they are gone.

Andy, Charlotte, Sophie, Gemma-Rose and I troop back into the house. The older children have only been gone a minute but immediately we are missing them: who is going to do their morning jobs? Could the younger girls do everything? No. Perhaps not. I grab a broom and start sweeping. Andy hunts out a cloth and begins wiping down benches. We’re not used to doing all these chores. It’s going to be a very long few days…

With the house clean and tidy, we decide to go shopping. We head out to the car. No need for the van. Soon we are pushing the trolley up and down the aisles of the supermarket. And then we realise there is an advantage in being a tiny family.

“Let’s get a tray of yogurts. One tray’s enough for all of us. And how about calamari for dinner? That’ll make a good meal for just five of us.” Soon we are filling the trolley with treats that normally we can’t afford to have.

“We’d better not tell the others,” grins Gemma-Rose. “They’d be jealous.”

“They’re having enough treats of their own,” reasons Charlotte. “They can’t complain.”

So we arrive home with all sorts of delicious odds and ends designed for smaller more affluent families than ours.

The morning seems very long. Occasionally my phone beeps: “We’re almost at Yass”… “Just outside Gundegai”… “Just about there.” We follow the big kids’ progress and we are quite relieved when they arrive at their destination, over five hours after we waved them goodbye.

I think about them on the road. I think about all the dangers they could meet. Before they’d left I’d said, “If you come to a flooded road, you will stop, won’t you?” And Callum had reassured me that he’d take care. I mentally entrust my precious young people to Divine Providence and decide not to worry about them. Well, not too much…

We have a table for ten. Two chairs are usually empty: Felicity’s chair and Thomas’ chair. Felicity uses her chair when she comes home for a holiday. Thomas has never sat in his chair. He never came home. It may seem strange for him to have his own chair. ”But that is the chair he would have had if he’d lived,” explains one of the children. Tonight there will be an extra three chairs empty. Half the table will be bare.

I think about the future when the older children have not just gone on holiday, but have actually left home. I think about always having five empty chairs around the table … and then six, seven, eight…until Andy and I are the only ones left. Will we sit one at each end and shout down the table at each other? Or will we sit huddled at one end? Or will we buy a smaller table?

For a moment I feel sad. And then I remember how many nights of the week, Felicity’s chair is not actually empty even though she is still far away in Perth. Callum’s girlfriend often comes to dinner. Perhaps soon Thomas’ chair will be needed. I think about our family growing again as each child finds someone special. And perhaps there will be grandchildren. I look around the kitchen. Will there be room for a bigger table? I smile.

So our reduced family sits down to a table with five empty places, ready to enjoy a delicious dinner. But it doesn’t feel right.

Duncan, Callum and Imogen have only been gone less than a day and already we are missing them. I wonder if they are missing us. They are probably having such a fantastic time they haven’t got time to think of home.

My thoughts move on a few days. Our young people are coming through the door. They hug me tight. “We’re glad to be home, Mum." We sit down to a meal and everyone talks at once.

“We went swimming…”

“You should have seen…”

“We had all kind of treats while you were away…”

“We missed you...”

But I am silent. I am too busy looking around the table. With my family gathered around me once more, I whisper, “Thank you God for bringing them all back safely. And for filling up my kitchen table once again.”

Friday, 7 January 2011

Tooth Fairy Troubles

Duncan is engrossed in a book. Callum is bored. He wanders around the room looking for trouble and then he sees it. A toy trumpet lying in the corner of the room. He snatches it up and pops it in his mouth and blows hard. A loud honk disturbs the peace. Callum smiles and honks again. Duncan looks up, irritation written right across his face. Callum sees this look and deliberately honks again and again and again…

“Stop making that awful noise,” Duncan demands as he puts his hands over his ears. But Callum doesn’t listen. He marches around the room making as much noise as he possibly can.

Finally, Duncan can stand it no longer. “If you don’t stop blowing, I’ll take that trumpet off you!” he threatens.

“Just you try,” dares Callum as he hops over to the opposite side of the room.

But Duncan has long legs. In two strides he reaches his pesky brother and grabs hold of the offending instrument. Callum squirms and wriggles and keeps his teeth tightly clenched around the mouth of the trumpet. A battle is on. Duncan pulls and twists and all of a sudden he falls backwards, trumpet in hand. He has won and a look of triumph spreads across his face.

But only for a moment.

Callum’s face has crumpled. Tears come to his eyes and he cries, “My tooth! My tooth! You knocked out my tooth. My first loose tooth!” He opens his mouth wide and, sure enough, there is a gap in his lower jaw.

“It was going to come out anyway,” reasons Duncan.

“But I swallowed it! It’s gone. What will I give the tooth fairy?”

Triumph quickly turns into contrition. In an instant, Duncan has forgotten how Callum provoked him. All he can think about is the distraught and disappointed look on his little brother’s face. ”I’m really sorry, Callum. I didn’t mean to knock out your tooth.”

 And then Callum replies, “That’s OK. It was my fault. I shouldn’t have continued blowing. I shouldn’t have been such a nuisance.”

The brothers hug and make peace and all is forgiven.

But there still remains one problem. What is Callum going to give the tooth fairy? He’d been looking forward to putting his tooth under his pillow. He would have woken up the next morning to a shiny dollar coin. Now he has no tooth.

“How about you draw a picture of a tooth,” I suggest. “You could write a letter to the tooth fairy and explain where the real tooth went.”

A smile appears on Callum’s face. He wipes away his tears and runs off for some paper and coloured pencils. Soon the two boys are sitting with their heads close together, at the kitchen table, working on the best-ever drawing of a tooth.

Unfortunately, we saw nothing of Callum’s second tooth either. We were travelling on holiday in the van at the exact moment it decided to come out.

“My tooth has come out! Oh no! I’ve dropped it. It’s somewhere on the floor.”

We stopped the car and took out all the bags that had been stowed in the back of the vehicle under the boys’ feet. It was all to no avail. The tooth had vanished. It had gone forever. Another drawing for the tooth fairy.

There was still one more problem to overcome. Would the tooth fairy remember to come and exchange the drawing for a coin? The tooth fairy had a reputation of being very unreliable. How many times would a child whisk back his pillow with anticipation and excitement, only to find his tooth still lying there in the bed. No coin anywhere in sight.

I have to say, modern tooth fairies aren’t as good as the ones I knew when I was a child. No, my childhood tooth fairy never failed to do her duty. She was a first class expert in her field.

Not like my children’s. Their fairy sometimes went to bed without completing her work. She’d awake in the middle of the night remembering with horror, a job not yet done. And then she would have to creep about the house trying to put things right. Other times she forgot completely and the result was a very disappointed child the next morning. “Perhaps the tooth fairy had too many teeth to collect last night,” I’d suggest. “I’m sure she’ll get here tonight.” (I hope.)

After a number of disappointments, my children were getting discouraged and the tooth fairy was becoming stressed out. Something had to be done.

“How much does the tooth fairy leave you every time she collects a tooth?” I asked, a plan forming in my mind.

“A dollar.”

“Well, if you sold me your teeth, I’ll pay you two dollars,” I said, hoping the offer sounded attractive. I really wanted to dismiss the tooth fairy. Tell her she was out of a job. We’d had enough of her unreliable service. “Please don’t stop by anymore, tooth fairy. My children no longer want to leave their teeth under their pillows. They’re selling them to me.”

Thankfully my children knew a good deal when they saw one. They were convinced and soon everyone was happy especially the very relieved mother.

I sometimes wonder if I have deprived my children of some happy, magical childhood memories by sacking the tooth fairy. Think of all those cute little fairy dolls and pixies, the ones with the special pockets just the right size to slip a tooth or a coin into. My children never owned one of those. They had no need of a little tooth guardian. My children never went to sleep dreaming of a beautiful, fluttering, tiny fairy. They didn’t imagine her flying into their bedroom, in the quiet of the night. They never mused over such mystifying questions such as, “How does a fairy get into a locked house?” Or, “How can she carry such a heavy coin?” They never laid snuggled under their quilts anticipating that exciting moment, when night would be over, and they could reach under their pillows and draw out the prize.

Those milestone moments, when little teeth come loose and depart little mouths, could have been accompanied by magical memories. But they were not. They are remembered associated with a down-to-earth monetary transaction: one tooth exchanged for one coin.

A week or so ago, Gemma-Rose’s first tooth came out. She was watching a movie, not even thinking about teeth. One moment it was attached to her jaw, the next it was loose in her mouth. So easy. She was delighted. She hurried to find me and then stretched out her hand to reveal the tiny little pearl of a tooth. Her smile stretched from ear to ear.

“Do you want to sell it to me for $2?”

“Will you keep it…or throw it away?” Gemma-Rose asked.

I thought about this. I had intended to keep all the teeth I bought from my children. But of all those teeth traded for $2 each, not one of them remains. I put them in various places, ‘safe’ places but I can’t find a single one. Where did they go?

And then I have an idea. A wild and magical idea. Perhaps the tooth fairy came after all. Perhaps she ignored her dismissal notice. Perhaps she found all those little white, baby, milk teeth, all the teeth my children have been losing over the years. Perhaps she whisked them all away.

“Get a zip lock bag,” I say to Gemma-Rose. “And a small scrap of paper.”

The tooth goes into the bag, together with a note: “Gemma-Rose’s first tooth, 31st December 2010”. And then I hand over the payment.

This is one tooth the tooth fairy is not going to get. I am going to keep this one, keep it forever. I really am. The first loose tooth of my last born child. My very last opportunity to save a first tooth.

And just to make sure it doesn’t disappear, I am going to put that tooth, in its zip lock bag, in my memory box. Perhaps I shall tape it to the bottom so it can’t fall out. If the tooth fairy wants this precious little tooth, she will have to fly away with the whole heavy box. And she could never do that, could she? That thought is just too ridiculous.

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Pigs, Tears and Friends

I set out on an adventure across the vast blogosphere. I click on link after link as I hop from blog to blog. And then I stop. I forget I am on a journey and I settle down for a good read. Soon I am engrossed in a story. I laugh. I feel sad. I enjoy. I read another post. I am captivated. Soon I have devoured everything on the page.

Slowly I hop back to my own blog. I look around sadly. I am discouraged. Oh to be able to write like that blog author! All my words seem like straw. My finger hovers over the delete button. Perhaps I should set all my posts free. I could let them fly away out there into the blogosphere and beyond…

I think about the blog I have just left. I remember the warm and interesting characters sketched with a few clever words. And as I am thinking this, an idea is taking shape. Maybe all I need to make my writing more involving is the addition of an interesting character. My mind is racing with ideas. I forget all about the delete button. Already a story is forming in my mind. An interesting character! My friend Sarah! Will she mind if I share her with you? I hesitate for just a second. I think, “Sarah will never know.” She rarely turns on her computer. No, I am free to tell her story.

I have already mentioned Sarah several times before, in previous posts. But only in passing. This story is going to be all Sarah.

I have known Sarah for years. She lives on a farm not too far away from us. Often we visit on a Sunday.

We bump along the long driveway and draw up alongside Sarah’s prize roses. We all tumble out of the van, hot and sticky and there waiting for us, taped to the old battered screen door, is a note:

Elvises. We’ll be back from Mass soon. Go in and make yourselves at home.

We all troop through the door into the refreshing coolness of the house and head towards the kitchen to put on the kettle. And there on the kitchen bench is an enormous blood stained knife, a huge chopping board and a pig’s head. We don’t bat an eye lid. “Oh it must be pork for lunch,” someone remarks. “The boys must have slaughtered a pig.” Our mouths water in anticipation. We are used to unexpected sights in Sarah’s house. We can cope with a dead eyed pig without his body, lying on the kitchen bench. We’re Sarah’s friends.

Let me tell you more about the pigs. Sarah's husband, Shaun wasn’t at all sure he wanted pigs but Sarah had other ideas. One day she drove into town to meet a man at the park. Soon she was returning with the family van full of snuffling, snorting little piglets, all running about in panic as they headed off to their new home. Sarah’s pig adventure had begun. So had Shaun’s. He came home from work. It was too late. He was a pig farmer.

Nowadays there are no pigs. Perhaps we ate them all. But there is always something tasty on offer when we drop in for a meal.

One Sunday we were gathered around the table devouring a particularly delicious and tender casserole.

“What sort of meat is this, Sarah?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” was the reply. “Something I found in the freezer.”

After a few minutes thought Sarah suddenly exclaimed, “I know what it is! It must be the goat. She died last week!” We laughed and kept on eating. Goat is delectable. Sarah is delightful. And nothing surprises us about her anymore.

But I remember when I surprised Sarah. I guess it wasn’t a pleasant surprise at all. Many friends would have drawn back and not wanted to be involved. They would have run away. But not Sarah. She embraces readily what comes her way. Especially when it is a friend in need.

One morning Sarah opened her front door to find a crying pregnant woman with five sad looking children huddled behind her. It was me. “Sarah, there is something wrong with our baby,” I howled. “He’s going to die.”

Now Sarah isn’t the type of woman to panic. I was ushered into the house, given a box of tissues together with a cup of tea. Sarah gave me her full attention and soon I was sharing my heart breaking story.

Between the tears, I managed to tell Sarah how I’d been for an ultrasound the previous day. “The baby has a diaphragmatic hernia. All the baby’s internal organs have moved through the hole. There won’t be room for his lungs to grow.” No lungs, no ability to breathe independently. He would die. A huge sob arose from the depths of my being at the thought.

Soon I had a lap full of sodden tissues and soon the tissue box was empty. I followed Sarah into the kitchen to deposit the soggy lumps in the garbage bin and then I noticed it. I noticed the table carefully set with the best crockery and glassware and cutlery. Sarah was expecting guests for lunch.

“I’d better be going,” I said to Sarah. “You’re having visitors.”

But Sarah wouldn’t hear of me leaving. She couldn’t bear the thought of me being on my own while I came to terms with my sorrowful news. She invited us to stay and join her for lunch. Now Sarah didn’t rush out the door for more supplies. She didn’t start frantically searching the cupboards for more food. She didn’t panic as I would have done if I suddenly had six unexpected extra guests to feed. She remained calm.

Soon the doorbell rang. Sarah went to the door and greeted her parents.

We all sat around the table. Like the loaves and fishes, the food must have multiplied itself because there was plenty for everyone. Not that I had much appetite. I was doing more crying than eating. Sarah’s mum and dad were marvellous. They showed no surprise that their intimate family lunch had been hijacked by a red eyed crying woman and her five children. They chatted away to me, ignoring the tears and the tissues and the gulps I made as I tried to keep the crying under control. They looked like they were used to dining with grief stricken mothers. Years later, I wonder what they could have been thinking but their faces, at the time, betrayed nothing. They were very gracious.

Sarah was a life line through the next 5 months of pregnancy. We spent hours on the phone while she listened and I cried and I poured out my heart.

Thomas was born and yes, he didn’t have much lung tissue. He lived 28 hours on life support equipment before dying gently and quietly in our arms.

Sarah and Shaun and their family came to the funeral together with all our other friends and their children. I was overwhelmed to see the church packed as we farewelled our little son.

Later at the wake, as we were preparing to go home, I thought about Andy returning to work in a few days time. I thought about being at home alone with my sorrow and I said, “Sarah, can I come and visit you sometime?”

For months I journeyed down to the farm, to the safe haven of my dear friend’s home where I knew I’d be enfolded with love and understanding and compassion.

On one of these early visits I remember saying, “It’s been three weeks, Sarah. It’s not getting any better. In fact it is getting worse!”

“But Sue, three weeks is such a short time.” And instead of feeling a nuisance for constantly wanting to visit and talk, I felt I could keep coming and I could keep talking for as long as I needed…even if that time stretched out into months and the months turned into years.

I remember when we went to the viewing at the funeral home to say goodbye to Thomas. Sarah wanted to come along too. She and Shaun and all their younger children arrived to meet our little son. She wanted to share Thomas, to see his beautiful little face, to cry with us as we had our last cuddle and gave him a last kiss.

I wrote the following in The Viewing which can be found in my book, Grief, Love and Hope:

One of the families, who came with us to see Thomas, had older children who weren’t present at the viewing. When the family returned home, these children asked their younger siblings, “What did Thomas look like?”

The answer: “Well… like a baby… of course!”

Yes, Sarah didn’t retreat from death. Our dead baby wasn’t frightening to her. She loved him too.

Sarah has been a good friend to me over the years. It is not only sorrow we have shared. So many Sundays have been spent sitting around her table, sipping red wine and mulling over the meaning of life. We have shared so many joyful celebrations as well as the grief filled days. Sarah was there with us last Sunday as Gemma-Rose, her Goddaughter received First Holy Communion.

But Sarah never forgets the sorrowful times we have shared. There is always a card in the post on Thomas’ birthday. She always takes the time to write something from the heart, something that brings tears to my eyes. This year Sarah wrote:

Dear Thomas,
Happy birthday! ... You are such a big boy now, almost a young man, yet already far beyond us in wisdom and love. Pray for us and watch over your family with a son’s love. Keep little G out of mischief! Love from…

My eyes sweep back up to the top of this page and I read what I have written so far. And I realise this story has turned into my story when it was supposed to have been Sarah’s. But somehow I know that can’t be helped. Our lives are so intimately entwined.

I imagine where Sarah is at the moment. What could she be doing while I am tapping away on my computer? I can see her sitting on a Lego covered floor building a castle and making frightening dragon noises as she plays with her young son. Or maybe she is at the sewing machine feeding fabric under its foot as she creates yet another gorgeous dress for one of her daughters. Or she could be outside pruning those beautiful prize roses. Whatever she is doing, she is far too busy living life to have time for internet adventures like me.

So Sarah will never read this. She’ll won’t know how much I love her and value her friendship.

Actually, I think she probably does know. But just to make sure, perhaps you could give her a message next time you see her. Tell her how much she livened up a dull post. Tell her you wish you had a friend like her to write about. Tell her I love her.

Monday, 3 January 2011

Searching for Treasure

I spent five years, as a new Catholic, looking for a friendly welcome. I wanted coffee and smiling faces and a place in the Church community. I went to Mass and no one spoke to me and I returned home feeling discouraged.

I would stand on the footpath and watch the parishioners of the local Protestant Church sipping coffee under the trees in their church grounds, after their service. I looked at their notice boards and read about mothers’ groups and play groups and Bible study groups. I had yearned to belong to the Catholic family but maybe there was no place for me there. The Protestant church was beckoning me. It now looked so very attractive.

I complained to Father P.

“Sue, the Church is more than friendly faces and conversation. It shouldn’t matter whether anyone greets you at the door, whether anyone invites you for coffee, whether anyone is glad to see you.”

For a long time I just didn’t understand. I didn’t know enough. I didn’t love enough. I was looking for something. But was it the Right Thing? I hadn’t yet discovered the Catholic Church’s greatest treasure: the Eucharist. Oh yes, I knew of its existence but I failed to appreciate it. I never thought about Jesus waiting patiently in the tabernacles of the Catholic Church, waiting for me to come and adore and receive.

I now understand what Fr P meant. Would I swap the Eucharist for friendly smiles and coffee and a welcoming community?

But in a way, Father P was also wrong. I eventually found a dear Catholic friend who welcomed me with friendly smiles, and it was only through her encouragement that I was able to stay around long enough to learn and to grow in love and to discover and appreciate the greatest Miracle on Earth.

For a long time I browsed the bookshelves of this Catholic friend, who also answered my questions and helped where she could. Taking home a towering pile of borrowed books I read and I pondered and I prayed and I learnt. Gradually I began to understand what a great gift we have in the Church, the source of grace, Jesus Himself.

Yesterday,  Gemma-Rose received Jesus for the first time. She didn’t have to go searching like me. She has grown up in front of the tabernacle. She has always known about Jesus. He has always been part of her life. Gemma-Rose was welcomed into our parish church despite her baby noises. She threw toys and half chewed rusks over our fellow parishioners and I had to accept them back, embarrassed but pleased that no one minded the soggy missiles being launched over the back of our pew. Perhaps Gemma-Rose remembers our walks around the church as we prayed at each statue, and the baby kisses she gave to the Sacred Heart of Jesus every Sunday.

Gemma-Rose had her bad days when she’d cry loudly or whine and refuse to settle or sit still, and we would end up outside the church. But we could always listen to the sounds of Mass drifting through the doorway. And she soon recognised that important moment when I regained enough courage to join the congregation again in time for Communion. A moment I never missed.

Then there are the words, “I love you Jesus!” she has whispered countless times as Jesus has come down from heaven to our altar. And the kisses she has blown to Jesus as Father has elevated the Host. Gemma-Rose has watched as we’ve genuflected and received Jesus reverently.

Yes, Gemma-Rose has grown up knowing that Jesus is truly present on our altars and in our tabernacles. And she knows what a gift it is that Jesus offers Himself to the Father for our sins and then gives Himself to us to make us holy. She has absorbed naturally what it took me years to learn.

Yesterday on the Feast of the Epiphany, Gemma-Rose, looking so pure and innocent, approached the altar to receive Our Lord for the first time. It truly was a special moment.

Gemma-Rose is our youngest child. All our children have now received First Holy Communion. All except Thomas. But he has no need of Holy Communion. He is already there in Heaven praising and adoring God with all the saints in an unending liturgy. How closely we are united to Thomas as Mass is celebrated and our liturgy is joined with that heavenly song of unending praise.

Gemma-Rose once said to me, “Mum, I know where Thomas is.”

“Where?" I asked, expecting her to answer, “The cemetery.”

"He’s in the tabernacle.”

“In the tabernacle?” I was bemused.

“Yes, Thomas is with God and God is in the tabernacle so that is where Thomas is.”

It is amazing how young minds work. I mentioned this story to a friend and he said that theologically, in some mysterious way, Gemma-Rose was correct.

I like to think that yesterday when Gemma-Rose received Jesus for the first time, her big brother Thomas was so very close to her sharing in this very special moment.

In yesterday’s Epiphany homily, Father asked us to reflect on three things we can learn from the Wise Men: We must remember to search, to give and to change. Gemma-Rose’s First Holy Communion was only the beginning. Perhaps the Magi could give the gift of these lessons to Gemma-Rose as she travels on her way: She must continue her search to know God and to love Him. She must always want to receive Him, and in her turn she must give her life to God. She must want the Eucharist to change her so that she becomes perfectly holy and pleasing to God.

Gemma-Rose has many special memories of her First Holy Communion Day. She will remember how beautiful and pure she looked in her exquisite white dress with the six layered skirt and how a bejewelled ring sat upon her braided hair with a veil floating down her back. She will remember how all her family and her Godparents were with her and how proud and happy we were. She will not forget that special breakfast by the lake after Mass where we enjoyed the freshness of the day before the summer heat descended. And then there was the arrival of dear friends for a celebratory lunch and all the gifts and all the cards… But above all, there will always be the memory of the moment she received Jesus and the knowledge that He was entering her soul in a way she’d never experienced before.

May these happy memories remain with her always and may they draw her back to the Catholic Church and the great treasure of the Eucharist if ever she is tempted to stray.