Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Crumbs on the Floor

A few years ago, on Holy Thursday we gathered to celebrate the Mass of the Lord’s Supper.

I processed forward to receive Holy Communion. I didn’t look ahead of me. I walked slowly with my eyes lowered, and then it was my turn to receive Our Lord.

As usual, I looked up at the priest and opened my mouth. The priest looked a little confused and he hesitated and I wondered what was wrong. And then I understood: a small piece of bread was thrust awkwardly into my mouth, a small piece of leavened scone-like bread. Crumbs broke off and my eyes followed their descent to the floor. My heart skipped a beat as I saw the carpet covered with bread. Our Lord was there all over the floor.

I returned to the pew and knelt down, but I couldn’t pray properly. How I wished I’d never gone up to receive Communion. If only I’d looked ahead and realised what type of bread had been used for the consecration.

Mass came to an end. We stood for the last blessing and then everyone processed out, following the Blessed Sacrament on Its way to the chapel of repose. I stayed where I was. I didn’t leave with everyone else. Instead, I sank to my knees and prayed. Tears filled my eyes and I felt sick inside. Why follow Our Lord to the chapel of repose when He was still there, still there all over the floor?

I wonder what happened to Our Lord. Did someone walk carefully around the room on his knees, picking up every crumb of bread and disposing of it in a right and holy manner? Or was Jesus vacuumed up and added to the garbage?

How could this happen? How could we treat Our Lord in such a way? Have we forgotten about the Real Presence? Perhaps we no longer believe. Or is it me? Maybe I am making a fuss about nothing. If it were important wouldn't everyone have had tears in their eyes?

I was telling this story to a friend the other day and she questioned whether the consecration was actually valid. The priest seemed to have the intention to consecrate the bread. I don’t know what other conditions have to be fulfilled in order for transubstantiation to occur. But I really hope we all returned home without having received Our Lord that Holy Thursday.

And I hope that the carpet was covered with crumbs of bread, only bread…. crumbs that could be safely vacuumed up and disposed of. Because when I think of the alternative I still feel like crying.

Sunday, 28 August 2011

Two Girls and Cinderella

Or how Sophie and Gemma-Rose made an animated movie.

We gave Andy his birthday presents but before we could clear away all the wrappings, Sophie shouted, “We have something else, Dad!” She was bubbling with excitement.

“We’ve been working on it for a long time,” added Gemma-Rose. “Duncan helped us.”

We were all very curious. We’d noticed the younger girls disappearing into Duncan’s bedroom on numerous occasions during the previous weeks. What had they been doing behind closed doors?

Duncan carried out his laptop and set it up on the coffee table in front of Andy. Everyone gathered around. A few clicks of the mouse and the words, “Introducing a Solo Produced Film, in Association with Short People: Cinderella”, appeared on the screen. Duncan had helped Sophie and Gemma-Rose produce an animated movie of Cinderella. We sat enthralled for the full 5 minutes and 57 seconds.

I guess the movie could be called an extremely low budget production. It certainly is very simple. But it is also extremely effective and laced with a good dollop of Elvis humour. Andy loved it. We all did.

And this is how they did it:

Duncan asked Sophie and Gemma-Rose to draw all the characters of the Cinderella story. He used these for the animation, which he put together using a simple software program on his computer. (I will have to ask him how he did it.) The next step was to record the voices. The girls read out Duncan’s amusing script. Then the two parts were put together, some music and special effects added and voila! One animated movie, a surprise birthday present for Andy.

Duncan’s interest in film making began some years ago when we bought our first camcorder. He hovered around as I took the new equipment out of its box. Together we read the instructions and worked out how to use it. It wasn’t long before: “Mum, can I please borrow your movie camera?”

I never did make it past the basics of camcorder movie making. I learnt how to record action and review it but little else. I didn’t even learn how to render the film, transferring it to the computer for editing and burning onto a disc. All my film cassettes are still sitting in a box waiting to be viewed. I am reminded of the undeveloped photo films of times gone by.

But Duncan was different. He read all the manuals, he experimented and he made movies.

Last year, we discovered Flip video cameras. They are not much bigger than a standard digital camera and simple to use. Once a recording has been made, it can be transferred to the computer via a USB connector.

Then at Christmas, I saw a Kodak version of the Flip camera at an Aldi store at a much cheaper price (about $80). I bought a couple for the older kids as Christmas gifts, thinking that they’d provide loads of fun.

We haven’t actually used the cameras for some time. Like most things, they got put away and forgotten. But now is the right time for a new learning experience. We are buzzing with ideas. Everyone wants to explore the possibilities of the cameras.

“I can film you playing your exam piano pieces,” says Charlotte to Imogen.

“You could sing something together and I’ll film it," I suggest.

“We could make another animated movie,” says Sophie.

“Or record some Shakespeare… or a puppet show… or…”

“And when the videos are ready, we can put them on our blogs and share them with everyone.”

We are thinking about video software programs, uploading movies to Youtube and displaying the link on a blog. We don’t know how to do all that yet. We have lots to learn.  But we’ll get there. I can see another family passion developing. It’s going to be lots of fun.

Please share Duncan, Sophie and Gemma-Rose’s Cinderella movie. There are a few seconds near the beginning where there is no speech or sound of any kind. Don’t adjust your controls! Oh and one more thing: unschoolers are good spellers but sometimes a mistake does slip past unnoticed!

If anyone is interested, I could ask Duncan for more detailed instructions on how he made his movie. You could soon be making your own extremely low budget but highly entertaining family video.

Friday, 26 August 2011

Drawing, Geometry and a Happy Girl

Or how I solved a maths problem.

Sophie is happy. She grins from ear to ear. “I’m off to do some maths, Mum!”

What a change from a couple of weeks ago. Not long ago, she was battling her way through an online maths course. But no more. After some thought and reflection, and talking to myself sternly about what feels right and what makes sense, I have given Sophie permission to turn off the computer and ignore the ‘perfect’ and structured maths course we have subscribed to.

For a few days, maths was ignored. I sat quietly thinking about the whole problem. Then I remembered a book that has been lying idle on our bookshelves for a long time. I grabbed it and waved it under Sophie’s nose.

“What’s that about, Mum?”

“Shapes and patterns. How would you like to draw some beautiful tessellating patterns to colour in?”  I quickly opened the book at a page of impressive star shapes. Draw? I’d said the right word. Sophie is addicted to drawing.

“Do you think I could draw those?”

“Of course,” I encouraged. “Easy! You’ll just need to borrow Dad’s tin of drawing instruments.”

Sophie disappeared with the book. She hunted out all the right equipment and for the past few days, she has been creating. And while she’s been drawing, she’s been learning about 2D shapes, angles and degrees, the different types of triangles, the parts of a circle, how to use a compass, a protractor…

“When you get to the section on 3D shapes, you could construct some out of card and then thread them into a mobile. Perhaps you could use the scrapbooking cardboard - all those beautiful colours and the glitter card too - and beads…” Sophie’s face lights up. Her mind is turning over all the possibilities. She looks at the pictures in the book. She decides she loves geometry.

But what is this wonderful book?

Many years ago, I found a copy of Geometrical Patterns by Richard Slade in our local library. I borrowed it and Felicity, like Sophie, loved getting out her instruments to construct the different shapes. I borrowed the book again and again. Then one day, I stumbled over a second-hand copy in a St Vincent de Paul shop.  I quickly handed over a dollar before any other maths loving mothers saw it, and returned home with my treasure. I found a space on the shelf…. And there my book has languished for a long, long time. Do you ever do that? Buy something spectacular, something you feel will change your homeschooling life and then never use it?

But the book has been rediscovered and Sophie loves it.

The book was printed in 1970 and has no impressive colour photos. Everything is in black and white, but that doesn't matter. I don’t know if it is still in print but I have found a site which is advertising lots of second-hand copies for very little money. Please follow the link if you are interested.

And what happens when Sophie’s interest in geometry comes to an end? I am hoping to track down some more books that use mathematical concepts in useful and interesting ways. Any suggestions will be gratefully received!

How Many Children Do You Have? (Part 1)

I have rewritten part of this story I wrote in 2000. It's funny how a story is never really finished. There are always additional thoughts to add. All those years ago, I often pondered the question "How many children do we have?" It felt like six but...

One question I always have trouble answering is “How many children do you have?” My tongue stumbles over the words as I try to decide whether to reply “five” or “six”. Do I just count the children everyone can see or do I also include Thomas who died last year?

Perhaps it is easiest to say “five”. I remember this was the answer I gave someone shortly after Thomas’ death and I also remember how I felt that I had betrayed him. Didn’t I consider him important enough to mention? God had given us the gift of Thomas and I wasn’t acknowledging this gift.

But then again, a simple “six” gets me into trouble too. If I am questioned further about such things as the ages of our children, I sometimes get the feeling the enquirer thinks I have misled her. Only children that can be seen and have need of our mothering skills seem to count.

Earlier this year, I visited a local shop that I hadn’t been into for quite some time. The owner remarked how much Charlotte had grown and asked me how old she was. After I had replied that she was a bit over two, the woman said wasn’t it wonderful when babyhood was over – all those sleepless nights, nappies…She then said, “You have five children, don’t you?” I could hardly tell her that I’d been hoping for lots of sleepless nights but instead, our baby had died. She would have been so embarrassed. So I smiled and agreed, “Yes, I have five children.”

“Five on earth, one in heaven”, works well with some people but is not the right response for everyone. “Five living, one dead” is just too blunt. You can see people want to know how our child died but no one talks about death so the conversation comes abruptly to an end.

It is very interesting to listen to our children’s explanations of our family size. They definitely think there are six of them. On Mother’s Day this year, I was very surprised to receive a gift from Thomas. The children had decided that Thomas would have liked to have given me a present too so they arranged one on his behalf. Whenever there is a greeting card to be signed, someone always remembers to add Thomas’ name. ”Well, he is part of the family, Mum.”

Our eldest daughter, Felicity, once said, “There are six children in our family but Mum only has to feed five of us.”

We have a special family friend who regularly corresponds with Felicity. At the end of each of his letters, Father J always asks for his regards to be passed on to, “Mum, Dad, Duncan, Callum, Imogen and Charlotte and praying for the intercession of Thomas.” It gives me such pleasure to see all our names together.

Of course, numbers aren’t important. I don’t need my children to total a big number to increase my status as a mother. It’s the children represented by those numbers that are important. Each child, whether living or dead, is such a great gift from God. 

I used to think my children were mine by right, that I was entitled to each and every one of them. How clever I felt whenever we conceived another child. How proud we were of our ability to produce a growing family. The reality is that if we'd been given children in proportion to our merits, I wouldn't have any children at all. 

I ponder sometimes why some people have many children without a problem and others have great difficulty even conceiving one. Why would God bless me with children and not send another woman a child of her own? It is a great mystery. So much sorrow for those who never know the joys of parenthood. 

And so I am grateful. I thank God every day for each of my beautiful blessings including Thomas, on earth for such a short time but my son forever.

Thursday, 25 August 2011

Thank you, My Friends

On Sunday afternoon everyone went out and I was left alone with my computer. It was the ideal opportunity to convert my book Grief, love and Hope into an ebook. I had my Word file, my Open Office software and most importantly, an email from Victor with instructions on how to make a PDF ebook.
Several hours later everyone came home.
“I’ve done it! I’ve made a proper ebook!” I was jumping up and down with excitement. “It even has links from the contents page to each chapter!”
“I’m so proud of you,” said Andy. “You know so many things I don’t know. I admire how you’ve taught yourself so many skills.”
Although it was very pleasant soaking up Andy’s praise, I had to admit I would never have managed without Victor’s how-to-do-it email. I couldn’t have made the ebook on my own.
Half an hour later, I had the file uploaded on Boxnet. I copied the link and pasted it on my blog, Stories of Grief, Love and Hope. I added a picture and voila! One ebook ready for downloading.
So now I have my Thomas book, Grief, Love and Hope available for free download as a PDF ebook, complete with links to each chapter. And before I invite you to share my book, I must thank a few people who have helped me so much with this project.
First, a big thank you to Victor. Your instructions were invaluable. They were so clear and easy to follow. Thank you also for advertising my new blog on your blog Time for Reflections.
Thank you Mary of The Beautiful Gate and Colleen of Inadequate Disciple for placing a button of Thomas’ book on your blogs. Colleen also ‘paid forward’ my blog Stories of Grief, Love and Hope in order to let more readers know of its existence.
Thank you Victor, Mary and Vicky for your suggestions on how to make my new blog known to the blogging world.

Thank you to Monica of Be Not Afraid ministry for posting about my blog and book on the Be Not Afraid Facebook page.

Thank you to anyone else that may have spread the word without me realising. I am always so overwhelmed when I discover someone has reached out and helped me without me asking.
And thank you to Victor, Mary, Colleen, Colleen, Dana, Noreen, Vicky, Susan, Leanne, Suzie and Kim for your encouragement and kind words.
Grief, Love and Hope is a collection of stories like the ones I write for this blog, interspersed with excerpts from a diary I kept during the first year after Thomas died. It isn’t a great work of literature but it was written from my heart. I would be like to share Thomas’ story with you. Please feel welcome to download a copy.
And one last thank you. Noreen has kindly agreed to read and review my book. I know she will do this in her usual gentle, tactful and encouraging manner so I have no need to fear any harsh criticism! 

PS I just heard Victor's book Golden Drops is now available as a Kindle ebook. Please follow the link!

PPS Mary: How's that for linky love? 

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Suffering with Love

I wanted to give my life to God but I didn’t want to suffer. No, I knew what suffering felt like and it was painful and I was too afraid to ask for more.

But God sent* me suffering despite my fears. He sent suffering like nothing I’d ever experienced before. A new depth of suffering that I thought I’d never survive.

My life was turned upside down when our baby Thomas was diagnosed with a life threatening abnormality during his 18 week ultrasound. I left the ultrasound crying and the tears continued for months as I contemplated the future death of our child.

Thomas was born. He was placed on life support equipment while his condition was stabilised and assessed. I watched his little body hooked up to tubes and wires and I cried and I prayed and I hoped. His condition changed from stable to unstable and back again, a dozen times an hour, and I felt I was riding an emotional roller coaster. One moment there was hope, the next moment there was despair. One moment I thought it would be easier to let him die, but the next minute I wanted to suffer any anguish if only he lived.

Thomas died. I looked at his tiny body marked by needles and thought, “Your suffering is over Thomas, but mine is just beginning.” Yes, the suffering that was to come was of a totally different degree to that I had already experienced.

I came home from the hospital with this huge pain within my chest. Something inside me had knotted up tight and was throbbing away, throbbing away constantly, never letting me forget my grief.

I was in anguish. I was in mental pain. I couldn’t forget. I couldn’t stop thinking. I couldn’t prevent the constant questioning. Why? Why had God let Thomas die? Why was I in so much pain? Was there any value in suffering and what did it all mean? Would the sorrow ever disappear?

God felt so very far away in those early grief-filled months. At first I was angry with God. I felt He’d abandoned me. I felt unworthy of God’s attention. I had begged Him to come to my aid but all was silent. How could I continue to trust Him?

But soon the anger dissipated and I began to accept that God knew what was best for me. I accepted the fact that He didn’t save Thomas’ life and then I expected the pain to lift. I thought God would rush in and save me as soon as I’d embraced my situation. But He didn’t. He still seemed so very far away and the pain persisted.

One day I discovered the book, Self-Abandonment to Divine Providence by Fr de Caussade. As I read and prayed, I slowly began to understand the value of accepting what God sends me at any moment, regardless of my feelings and my desires. I learnt to say, “God, if You want me to feel this pain, I will accept it. I trust that You know what is best for me. I would like to be happy but You have chosen to send me sorrow instead. In some way that must be good because You love me so very much…”

And so life continued although it was entirely devoid of joy. I no longer belonged to the normal world. I felt so alone.

Every day I’d drag myself from my bed. I’d check: yes, the pain was still intense. Accept it. God has allowed it. Keep going…one foot in front of the other…just get through this one day…don’t think of tomorrow or the next day…

I prayed constantly. Sometimes I was unaware I was doing this because to me, I was just thinking about Thomas. But in reality, I was pondering everything in my heart, trying to make sense of it all and talking to God all the time. Sometimes I deliberately prayed certain prayers: the prayer to St Michael the Archangel and “Jesus I trust in Thee”. I imagined Satan trying to pull me down into that pit of despair and I tried to fight back, “No, I trust! I am not going to despair!” Perhaps by saying I trusted, I could actually make trust a reality.

But there were times when it all seemed too much. I just wanted to give in. I wanted to lie down and never get up again. I was tired of everyone saying, “Sue, you have so much courage.” I didn’t want to be strong. I didn’t want to fight. I wanted to surrender to self pity.

I wondered if God had sent this great suffering to me as a lesson. Was I so worthless and such a great sinner that I needed to be taught in such a painful manner? And then I thought about St Teresa of Avila who’d said, “God, if this is how You treat Your friends, it’s no wonder You have so few.” What if suffering could be looked upon as a gift from God? Could it be that God gives suffering to those He loves? What if suffering has great value and does God use our sufferings? I thought about how closely we must be united to Jesus through our suffering. Could He use my suffering and could I actually be happy to suffer for Him?

Not many people would ask for suffering. I didn’t. It came to me unbidden. But could I still accept this cross and offer it back to God? Once I started thinking about suffering in this way, my sorrow didn’t seem so pointless. There was a reason to keep struggling along. My long painful days could be used. They were difficult to endure but some good was coming out of them. It helped enormously.

After understanding the value of suffering, I wondered, “If suffering is so good won’t God keep sending me more?” And although I was prepared to keep suffering, I also longed to feel joy again and to see my children smile and for us to be happy. I talked to a priest about this and he replied that God does want us to taste heaven while still on earth. There would be joy ahead again. I just had to keep plodding along.

I kept moving one step at a time, one day at a time, praying and hoping and offering up my sorrow. Gradually things got better. I’d look back and think, “Today was a good day…I haven’t had a bad day this week…this fortnight…this month.” Eventually I realised I’d come through the other side. I’d survived.

Some years later, a priest referred to those black months of my life as a dark night of the soul. I knew all about such nights from reading the works of St Teresa of Avila and St John of the Cross. But I had never applied the term to my own experience. Weren’t dark nights for saints? And I am far from saintly.

I am sure God was there beside me every step of the way through the suffering of that dark time. No, I couldn’t feel His presence. But I know He didn’t abandon me. Didn’t I learn to accept, to keep going despite the sorrow? And every time I tumbled down into that deep pit of despair, didn’t He send someone along to help drag me out and set me on my feet again? When I fell to the floor and wanted to give in, didn’t I always eventually struggle up again? Didn’t He bring me to the point where I could give myself completely to Him, accepting everything and trusting Him regardless of the pain? I could never have got there without God. Of course He hadn’t abandoned me.

I have had other sufferings since Thomas’ death and there will be more ahead. I still do not want to suffer. I am still afraid of the pain. But God helped me through the darkest experience of my life. Why should He abandon me in the future? I need to keep praying that I will always trust God whatever happens.

I still want to give my life to God. I still want to love Him above everything. I know now that this cannot be achieved without suffering. Today I can say, “I love you God!” It is easy. But will I still be able to utter these words in my darkest hour, when suffering has descended once again? If I can…  then, I will know that I truly love Him with all my heart.

* Whether God actually sends suffering or whether He just permits suffering, I do not really understand. The end result however is the same.

I am a Pirate King...!

Or the delights of Gilbert and Sullivan.

A few years ago, the Dominican nuns from Ganmain came to our homeschooling camp. They swept in, resplendent and imposing in their spotless habits with plans, not only to teach our children the catechism, but also help our teenagers stage a production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore.

Sister Augustine had the scripts and music all arranged. She’d trimmed down the original production to a manageable level: the children had only four days to learn all the words. Speeches were modified, less important scenes and songs omitted, and a narrator was added so that the action could move from scene to scene without effort.

The sisters listened to all the children singing and, based on their ability and confidence, parts were assigned. Felicity who is a drama queen was ideally suited to one of the major comic roles.  Duncan who couldn’t sing a tuneful note was assigned to the chorus where he could mumble away with the other sailors, without anyone noticing.

After a few days of practice, it was time to perform HMS Pinafore Sister Augustine style. On the last evening of camp, we gathered in front of the stage and took our seats. The lights were lowered, the camcorders whirred into action and the operetta began.

Sister Augustine was rather stressed out by the time of the performance. Teaching a group of teenagers all the songs and words, actions and dances to a performable level, in only four days was a tall order. Many times Sister must have wondered if her little theatre group would be ready to perform anything worthy of an audience. But she did a marvellous job.

The next year the children demanded another Gilbert and Sullivan operetta. This time Sister Augustine swept into camp with an adapted version of The Gondoliers. Again parts were assigned. But this time something different happened. Someone discovered that, although Duncan doesn’t have a singing voice, he is a fabulous actor. So instead of languishing hidden in the chorus, Duncan was given one of the main roles, the Duke of Plaza Toro. Sister Augustine very cleverly turned his singing role in a speaking part.

The last evening of camp arrived all too quickly. Sister Augustine had worked her cast extremely hard. Would they put on another stunning performance? Of course! And the star of the show that year was the Duke of Plaza Toro.

I listened to members of the audience: “Who is that playing the Duke? He is so good!” And he was! With a wig on his head and a cane in his hand, he took control of the stage. He wasn’t Duncan. He was the Duke. He was so good no one recognised him as the usually very quiet teenager who never drew attention to himself.

After the performance, Duncan was given many congratulations and he received them all in a manner worthy of a Duke. Later at supper, with his costume removed, Duncan returned to his normal quiet self. You would never have guessed that he’d just been the star of the show.

By this time, we were hooked on Gilbert and Sullivan. It had become a family passion. We came home from camp and we all wanted to see an unabridged version of the operetta. We bought DVDs, and CDs of the music from The Gondoliers and HMS Pinafore. I borrowed a library book with the libretto.
Soon the children wanted to try a new Gilbert and Sullivan. We watched The Mikado and then Pirates of Penzance. Again we bought CDs of the music. We started looking out for different productions of the same operetta. We couldn’t get enough Gilbert and Sullivan.

Everyone started to talk Gilbert and Sullivan: favourite lines were repeated, stories were retold,  the funny bits laughed over again, songs were sung… 

Last term we decided to expand our Gilbert and Sullivan repertoire even further. I ordered a copy of Iolanthe and we impatiently awaited its arrival. The DVD dropped into our mailbox, Gemma-Rose fished it out and came running in excited. “Can we watch Iolanthe please, Mum?”  We slipped the disc into the DVD player and took our seats, ready to be entertained.

Gemma-Rose at first was a little frustrated. She couldn’t work out what was going on. And I must admit Gilbert and Sullivan can be a bit confusing to start with. We helped Gemma-Rose out by telling her the story line and explaining the action of different scenes. I found a complete libretto online which I downloaded to help us. Sometimes the words of the songs are sung so quickly we can’t always understand them either. But with repeated listenings and a look at the words, they soon become familiar and enjoyable and everyone is eager to sing along.

“I am a pirate king…I am a pirate king… I am a pirate king…” sings Gemma-Rose loudly in the garden as she plays.

“Please someone, teach Gemma-Rose some more of the words to that song! She’s driving me crazy!”

The other day I bought something absolutely wonderful: an 11 DVD set of Gilbert and Sullivan’s operettas. Everyone oohed and ahhed most appreciatively when they saw the boxed set. They gathered around as we tried to decide which operetta to sample next. Sophie’s choice won out: Princess Ida.

Already Imogen, Charlotte and I have been on the Internet doing some research.

Princess Ida is based on an earlier operetta called The Princess. Gilbert used Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem The Princess for inspiration.”

Of course, we had to look up Tennyson’s poem which we discovered is very looooong! But interesting too.

“What shall we do today?”

“Can we watch Princess Ida?”

Imogen slips the DVD into the player as we settle ourselves on the sofa. We await the opening music.

Guess what we’ll be singing for the next month!

Gilbert and Sullivan Resources:

Gilbert and Sullivan operettas - synopses, words, music 

Monday, 22 August 2011

Fulfilling Little Girl Promises

I washed Gemma-Rose’s favourite cardigan and her face lit up. She’d placed it in the hand washing pile a few days ago and I guess she expected it to remain there a little longer. You see, I’m not always good at getting around to doing things.

I knitted that particular cardigan a couple of winters ago. It was my second cardigan of the season. First, I made a Sophie a pale pink creation with a shawl collar and pockets. I asked Sophie, “What size do you want me to knit?”

She thought for a moment and then said, “You’d better make it a size ten. You don’t always finish things quickly.” For an eight year old girl, she was very wise.

But I surprised myself and Sophie, and a few weeks later, well before the end of winter, I’d completed the cardigan. It was all sewn up, buttons had been added and it was ready to wear.

“It’s a little bit big, Mum,” observed my number 4 daughter.

“Well that’s because you had no faith in me. You thought I'd take forever finishing it.”

Encouraged by my success, I bought more wool and cast on stitches for a cardigan for Gemma-Rose, and she in turn was very surprised when a month later she was trying on her pink blanket-stitch edged, zip-up-the-front garment. Perhaps I was acquiring a new image. Maybe I was gaining a reputation for being a reliable and persistent worker and a fulfiller of promises.

And so another winter came along and again I brought smiles to young faces with my woollen creations. Just before the season came to an end, with my confidence overflowing, I purchased some extra soft white wool and a pattern for a ¾ sleeved cardigan edged with knitted lace. Gemma-Rose looked longingly at the picture. Yes, she could see herself in such a cardigan. It would be perfect to wear over her spring dresses. She’d feel like a princess. I had time to make it. Spring was still a little way off.

Back, fronts, sleeves – all were completed. Just the lace to go.

Then I made a fatal mistake: I created a blog. I stopped knitting and I started writing. Instead of getting out my needles whenever I had a spare moment, I’d head to the computer to write or read or (I will admit it) waste time.

So spring came and went and Gemma-Rose didn’t receive her new fairy-tale cardigan. Summer arrived and everyone knows cardigans aren’t needed over the warmer months. I promised myself that I’d finish the cardigan before the cooler temperatures of autumn appeared. But I didn’t.

Several weeks ago, I gave myself a stern talking to. I closed the computer and hunted out my needles and started knitting and purling.

“You’re knitting my cardigan.” Gemma-Rose looked delighted.

I worked hard. The lace grew into a long, long strip. I sewed it to the edges of the cardigan. Gemma-Rose was getting excited. Just the sleeve edging to do. And then I had a thought: perhaps Gemma-Rose should try it on.

She slipped her arms into the sleeves and wrapped it over her chest. No problem. But then I noticed her exposed tummy. The cardigan is much too short. It is a size too small. I looked at Gemma-Rose. How would she react?

“Oh well, never mind, Mum. You can give it to Emma.” (A younger friend.) She accepted the situation easily. She should have had a huge disappointed look on her face. But she didn’t. I don’t think she really expected the cardigan to fit. She’d probably given up on me months ago. My youngest daughter had stopped believing she was ever going to wear that pretty lacy cardigan. I have regained my reputation for never finishing things, never fulfilling little girl promises.

How sad.

I say, “Yes, I’ll do that for you,” and smiles appear on young faces. And I think, “I’ll do that later when I have finished this or that… “ I never get around to it. And the girls give up on me.

It’s not about lack of time. I just choose to spend time on my own projects instead of investing it in my daughters.  But time moves so quickly. One day very soon I won’t have girls to knit cardigans for.  Maybe I should close the computer more often and spend time stitching buttons back onto favourite dresses or sewing summer skirts for them or I could begin some new knitting projects…

My computer will be here forever.

The big question is: will I finish knitting the lace to edge the sleeves of the too small cardigan? Will Emma get to wear it?

Sunday, 21 August 2011

Whispers of Love

My baby lived for one day and then he died. Say it quickly. Don’t think too much. It doesn’t sound so bad.

Someone said, “Pull yourself together. Stop feeling sorry for yourself. Cheer up and get on with life.”

But imagine…

I am lying in bed. I feel butterflies darting inside me as my baby turns over. And joy bubbles up within me. I think about names. What will my baby look like? I  picture a downy little head tucked under my chin and little fingers grasping me tight, baby breath sighs and rosebud lips searching...  I place my hands on my stomach and I whisper, “I love you.”


 I lie on a couch, my eyes fixed on an ultrasound screen. I see my baby for the first time: his little hand outstretched waving towards me, a foot pressed against me, a small dot of a nose. My heart overflows with love and I whisper, “I love you.”

And then…

A doctor with compassionate eyes tells me about a diaphragmatic hernia I cannot see. I look at the tiny bundle of life who will continue to grow…  until he is born and then he will die. I cry.

Five months of pain and prayer and tears...

My baby is born but I cannot hold him. Doctors rush to the NICU with my unseen child. Later: tubes, wires, monitors and equipment invade my son's body. I stand back. I am not allowed to touch. I watch him struggle to live, but eventually he dies in my arms. And the room fills with grief filled sobs.

Someone nails my child into a coffin.  We gather around his grave. The sun disappears behind a cloud and we shiver. My baby is lowered into the cold dark ground, leaving me behind with my whisper of, “I love you.”

I am home. Life is back to normal. Everything is the same as before. Except me. I am changed forever.

My heart is tied up into a huge knot of pain. I will learn to hide the sorrow deep within me, in a secret place. But it will still be there...

My baby lived for one day and then died. Say it slowly and think for a moment. My baby, your baby, your friend’s baby…. How can anyone say, “Pull yourself together. Stop feeling sorry for yourself. Cheer up and get on with life”?

I sit here remembering. My eyes fill with tears. I am still whispering, “I love you.”

Saturday, 20 August 2011

When Will I Use All This Maths, Mum?

My older children all learnt maths in a formal manner, using a text book course. All three started the advanced maths course and all three dropped out partway through, complaining they hated it and were no good at maths.

“When are we ever going to use all this maths, Mum?”

“But you have to do maths!” I insisted. Isn’t it an essential of education?

As a compromise, my children agreed to do the general maths or maths in society course instead. So they learnt all that useful stuff like how to work out interest on a home loan. But even though this kind of maths was more relevant to their everyday lives, not one of my older children finished the course.

Imogen was different. She decided for herself that she wanted to do the advanced maths course. “I want to go to university, Mum and I think I may need maths.” There was also another big incentive; “I’m going to be the first Elvis child to complete this course!” When you are 4th in line, there are not many things left that haven’t already been achieved by someone older.

Imogen started with a text book and then we discovered an online course, Maths Online. She liked the video lessons, the summaries of essential skills, the concise worksheets and the records that showed her at a glance how far she’d progressed through the course and what grades she was achieving. All went well for a time and then she came to a section that we felt wasn’t adequately explained by the video lessons. I could see Imogen’s confidence falling. Any time now I thought, she’s going to say, “I don’t want to do this anymore. When am I ever going to need all this maths?”

So for a few weeks I spent extra time searching the Internet for more information and trying to work through the examples with Imogen. It was all very time consuming and it meant taking time away from the activities I was doing with the other girls. There had to be a better way.

One day I discovered that a friend in our parish was a high school maths tutor. Instantly I could see the maths problem disappearing. Would John tutor Imogen? Yes. He was more than happy to give her a weekly 2 hour lesson, complete with practical and lunch thrown in by his dear wife for… free. John drove Imogen home again after the lesson too. He was a real answer to a prayer.

After three terms with John, Imogen completed the advanced maths course at the age of 16. John set the tone from day one.  Imogen appeared after the first class with a broad smile on her face.  “John said that if I were in school I’d be in the top few percent of my class. He thinks I am very capable.” Full of confidence she tackled the course her siblings had hated and failed to complete. John’s lessons ended up being one of the big highlights of her week.

So Imogen no longer learns maths. She has completed the course and moved onto other things. My only high school maths student at the moment is Charlotte, aged nearly 14.

Charlotte is also working through the Maths Online course. She starts the day with a lesson and is achieving at a high level. She never complains she hates maths. She does the work willingly. Imogen told John, “If you think I was capable at maths, wait until you see Charlotte!” And we are hoping that when Charlotte gets further along the course, John will be willing to tutor her for the final year. That is, if Charlotte wants to complete the advanced maths course.

I think children need to see a reason why they should learn something in order to be successful. They might simply enjoy what they are learning or they could decide the subject is worth learning: it may prove useful. I don’t feel that the higher levels of maths are necessarily essential for a chid to learn. I think back to my own maths days. I did advanced maths and I used some of it at university because I studied a Bachelor of Science. But most of it I have forgotten. I just don’t need that level of skill. Was it a waste of time learning so much maths? For me, I think the answer is no. I enjoyed learning maths. That reason alone justified me doing the course.

My three older children have not suffered because they dropped out of their maths courses. They all went on to study at university level and none of them are disadvantaged.

Imogen was successful in completing her goal because she wanted to do the course. She decided for herself she needed advanced maths, and she actually enjoyed working with John who made maths interesting for her.

I have been contemplating unschooling primary maths with my younger girls. Would we do the same with our high school student?

 It really depends on Charlotte. What if she comes to me and says, “Mum, I hate doing this!” I think I would ask a few questions. Does she just not understand what she is trying to learn? Is there a better way to approach the subject? Should I ask John to tutor her?

Or is it a question of “Mum, when will I ever use all this?” Perhaps I’d be willing to let her drop the subject. Her books or online course could sit there quietly awaiting a possible day when Charlotte might decide for herself that she needs to learn more. And if that day never appears, I will assume she knows adequate maths.

 I will trust she has learnt what she needs to know.

Thursday, 18 August 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…