Monday, July 13, 2009

Nikolina Update

This will be a brief post because there really is not much to tell. Nikolina came through the surgery just fine. It turned out that of the prolapsed intestine, the doctors only had to remove 2 cm.

The surprising main difficulty was finding an intensive care unit for her post-surgery. Because OEIS Complex is so rare and so complicated, none of the pediatric intensive care units felt comfortable taking her. That was a bit unnerving -- if nurses are afraid of her being too complicated to care for, what does that mean for us, her parents and grandparents? I suppose that the saying, "ignorance is bliss," is rather pertinent here. If one doesn't know enough to be afraid, then one ends up treating her just like any other baby--and enjoying her, leaving the harder stuff to God.

Nikolina did find a post-operative home. The NICU (newborn intensive care unit) is not supposed to re-admit babies who have been discharged (germs from the outside world and all that), but since no other unit would take her and the nurses in the NICU have two months of experience in taking care of her, there is where she is. God willing, she will be back home with her parents soon.

Thanks to those who have told me that you are praying for her! She is also back on the prayer list at our Old Mission Church.

Good night to all! I am looking forward to a positive update in the morning.

Friday, July 10, 2009

God Has Filled My Life with Priests

As promised yesterday, here is the post about priests. It seems to be an appropriate topic, given that this is the Year of the Priest.

This week I received (1) an enote from Fr. E, our parish priest, who is currently on the East Coast, substituting for a parish priest there who is out of town, (2) a Skype message from Padre (Fr.) Julio, a priest in Colombia who substituted at one point in our parish (followed by a voice conversation with him in English and then his mother in Spanish), and (3) a phone call from Fr. B, the director of our local Franciscan retreat center (and monastery). That concatenation of interactions reminded me that it is indeed the Year of the Priest. Thank God for priests! God has filled my life with them, and they in turn have filled my life with blessings.

I realize what a special gift God has given me when I look around and see that many parishes have no priest or borrowed priests and when I see that many of my friends' interactions with priests are only for significant life events (weddings, funerals, emergencies), during confession, and after mass. The extreme irony of this gift is that until three years ago, I had only ever met three priests (all of them Orthodox) and then only once each for a solitary greeting and mass, as a result of catering to the spiritual needs of Shura, the Russian Orthodox Siberian child artist dying from spina bifida whom I took into my home years ago.

I often wonder why God feels that I deserve this amount of interaction. Perhaps it is more that I need a greater depth of instruction, being a person that He pulled from the wayside and plunked down, totally bewildered, in the middle of His flock. Maybe, too, He was worried that I would stray away from the flock and begin happily cavorting in the bramble bushes again. No fear of that! He has filled my life with priests!

First and foremost there is 80-year-old Fr. B, whom I dearly love. He seems to have seen everything there is to see. He has traveled the world, studied a variety of religions, spent time in the Holy Land (where I lived for an awesome two years), holds several degrees, including one in psychology, and made a film on the significance of each part of the liturgy. A Franciscan and a deeply spiritual and knowledgeable mystic, he was the perfect RCIA instructor for me. He has since left our parish--he was an interim priest here--but has remained in our town as director of our local retreat center & monastery. Since leaving our parish, he has become my de facto spiritual advisor. When I have received "messages" that have totally startled me and point me in directions where I am certain I am not capable of going, I have run to Fr. B for guidance. He accepts these spiritual experiences and helps me sort through what seems to be authentic and what may not be authentic -- and he convinces me that if I am pointed in a direction, I should go where it leads, trusting God to provide me with the wherewithall to follow (and, of course, God always does -- which, on a very deep level, I do fully trust will happen).

The second priest in my life is Fr. E. An Irishman by birth and rearing, he is a down-to-earth 50-year-old with an immense sense of humor and adventure. He has held mass on a local mountain top, serves as chaplain for the fire department (and rides along), and can be found jogging around town mornings, often underdressed for the weather, or participating in marathons to raise money for a good cause. Being a catechist, I have come to know him pretty well, and he has been very supportive in the matter of our granddaughter's health. A very important thing for our parish (and me) is that Fr. E is a wonderful confessor. He sees very clearly to the heart of nearly any matter. And, if he is jovial in his homilies, he is engaged and spiritual in the confessional.

And finally, there is 30-something Padre Julio from Colombia. Padre (Father) Julio used to substitute at our parish's Spanish-language masses. Over time, he became an integral part of our family. It started with my family volunteering to create a website for his project to bring hope to seven rural towns in Colombia through building a school and self-supporting farm, for which he had formed an organization, Por Amor a Los Ninos de Colombia (For the Love of the Children of Colombia). I translated the original documents from Spanish into English for the website text. My husband, Donnie, designed the graphics. Our son, Shane, did the basic programming, and when we ran into difficulties with more complex programming, our son, Blaine, a professional web designer, flew home from Illinois, to put on the difficult finishes. During that time, our younger daughter, Noelle, who has spina bifida, experienced failure of the shunt that controls her hydrocephalus and ended up emergencied to Stanford University Hospital quite some distance away. Padre Julio drove the distance (even more since he got lost for over an hour, trying to navigate strange terrain in a strange country in a strange language) to visit her and pray for her with all of us together right before her surgery, which did, indeed, turn out fine. At that point, it became clear that Padre needed to learn some English if he were going to be living in this country, and I began to teach him since foreign languages are one of my specialties. The timing was fortuitous because the bishop about then decided that Padre had been here long enough to start offering the English masses. Immediately, our "textbooks" for English classes became the English-language Bible and online audio homilies (for developing listening skills). Padre learned to speak English, and eventually I met his mother who claims I am the daughter she never had (she had 7 sons, three of whom became priests). Indeed, we became family. Moreover, all those English classes? I believe that they benefited me more than Padre for I had a private 3-hour tutorial on Catholicism three nights a week as I helped Padre put into English the various thoughts he wanted to express in his homilies. In practicing English, we would get into extended discussions of concepts, and because Padre Julio is as spiritually oriented as Fr. B, I was able to share my spiritual experiences very deeply with him, especially those that contained the grammar and vocabulary components of the topic if the day. While others worried about our granddaughter's disassembled condition and expressed sympathy, Padre Julio's immediate response was very different: "You are blessed!" He definitely understands our family and God's role in our lives!

There have been other priests, of course, along my so-far rather short journey of faith. I assume those relationships are more typical although, not being a cradle Catholic, I have no idea what a typical relationship with a priest is supposed to be. I just know that I deeply love Fr. B, Fr. E, and Padre Julio, and I cannot imagine my life without them. They have so thoroughly enriched my life that I don't know what to say other than "Thank you, God, for spoiling me!"

Please tell me, especially those of you who are long-term Catholics, what role priests have played in your life. How important have they been to you in decision-making, spiritual development, and maintaining sanity in a crazy world? How often do you end up thanking God that they are in your life?

Thursday, July 2, 2009

All God's Children

My last post got me to thinking about God's children. I am referring not to mankind as God's children, but to the little ones in our lives and our second generation regardless of age, the ones who call us Mom and Dad (or Ma and Pa, or Omy and Baba, etc.).

In this, I cannot imagine anyone with a greater sense of humor than God. I see that humor unfold in my life time and again. For example, I never particularly wanted children; I had a career lined up for myself (in my mind). Well, had that career happened as planned, it would not have been one iota as interesting as the career that unrolled, in zigs and zags, before me. And had that career not had to zig and zag around child after child, I would have missed the richest moments of my life.

In a display of great irony, the children that came into my life were not your everyday variety. Well, actually, those, too, ended up in my life, but as adults. My birth children, as well as those who came to live with Donnie and me as children and teenagers, were different: highly gifted, mentally and physically challenged, medically needy, discarded, bereft, foreign. First came my own birth children, one after the other, in spite of my best efforts not to get pregnant. (I hated being pregnant -- if I had a half hour of not being sick throughout all four pregnancies, I do not recall it. As best as I can figure, between all the kids, I have spent 26,298 hours vomiting or trying not to vomit.) On the other hand, once the children were born, all those maternal instincts took over and ran way ahead of me.

After my birth children along came Shura (a Siberian teenager with spina bifida),

All of these children I have talked about in various posts and books. The ones I have not mentioned are the ones that came later. They are the ones who need my help (and your prayers) today. Please meet Lana, Ibrahim, and Maha.

Leyla and Shem (not related to each other) are from Iraq. I met them in Jordan, where they worked for me as work-study students at the university where I was the chief academic officer.

Leyla would periodically come into my office and say, "Mum, may I cry in here?" It was usually because she had heard of a new bombing along Airport Road in Baghdad, where her family lived, or an attack on Baghdad University, where her father taught. Her family could not leave Iraq. She could not return, and communications, especially in 2003-2006 were very poor and, at times, totally lacking. Given a tendency to assume the worst, when she did not hear that her family was okay, she assumed that something bad had happened. And so, she started calling me "Mum" and looking to me for advice and moral support. I took to keeping an Islamic prayer rug in my office for her use, as needed, as well as provided guidance and hugs, as needed. Leyla recently ran into legal problems with an expired passport and the inability to return to Iraq to take care of that issue. I was in Jordan earlier this month for business purposes and called Leyla, worried because she has not responded to email for several weeks. Someone else answered her phone, and if my understanding of the Arabic conversation we had was accurate, that phone number no longer belongs to Leyla. I worry about her. She is as much my child now as my own children. I know that God will watch over her and take care of her until I find her again, but nonetheless I would welcome prayers from readers on her behalf.

Shem was my student as well as work-study assistant. An Iraqi Christian (a small and persecuted group), he thrived in school in spite of being separated from his family, graduating with a 4.0. He has done well also in graduate studies and in subsequent jobs. He, too, called me "Mom," although it did not seem like he needed another mother. Still, he was alone in Jordan and lonely. He emails and Skypes me regularly, and his first words are always, "I miss you sooooo much!" Seeing him in Jordan two weeks ago reminded me how families are families, whether blood or not and whether separated by physical distance or not. We spent hours together. It did not matter what we talked about. I do not even remember half of what we said and did. Rather, I savored the blessing of being able to be together, if only for one day and one night, in spite of living half a world apart in cultures that are rather alien to each other.

Maha's situation is much different. She lives in Bahrain, and she became my "daughter" when I was consulting extensively (over a period of 5 years) for the Ministry of Education there. Shia Muslims, her biological family became embroiled in political machinations over a year ago when her brother was arrested in the dead of the night on a trumped-up charge that has yet to have its day in court. The situation is personally emotionally difficult for me--and truly not understandable--for Donnie taught and I was academic dean for many university students from the ruling Sunni Muslim Al-Khalifa family. The Shia-Sunni hatred dates back to the struggle after the death of the Prophet Mohammed and the murder of Ali, a tragedy and travesty remembered to this day on the 10-day annual Ashara (the word ashara means ten) when Shias take leave from work and commemorate this piece of history, in part by flailing themselves with branches to the point of drawing blood. One would think that this hatred would have died out after 16 centuries, but emotions still run high. Emotions are part and parcel of the Arab world. And so, Maha's brother has been imprisoned for 14 months, during which time he has been beaten to the point of being almost blind. I tried my best to help, and a friend of a friend convinced a specialist in international human rights to go to Bahrain, but to no avail. The US Embassy did not want to get involved, nor did any other international body, and the Bahraini government repelled any appeal. So, we wait--and pray.

I am sure that I am not alone in having adult children who are experiencing difficulties that require assistance beyond what a normal parent like me can provide. If you are one of those "mothers" or "fathers", what have you done? How has God helped you out with these children?

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

More from the Land of Splat!

Most of my life I have lived with my family in the Land of Splat! One day we may be able to cross over the border to some other place, but for now, we have developed the survival skills that allow us to be almost comfortable here--and definitely happy.

How can one be happy when popping out from a childhood of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse into an adulthood rife with financial, medical, and career challenges? Easy! One looks for the blessings that are under one's nose. We all have them, no matter how difficult and dark life seems to be at times. Mainly we don't see them because we are covering God's light with our own gloom.

Examples, please? Certainly! I have filled one book (Blest Atheist) with them and am working on a second (Tending God's Sprinklers). Let's take just a couple here.

(1) A friend of mine told me when my daughter-in-law was pregnant with our first grandchild that there is great pleasure in being a grandparent, even more so than in being a parent, and that is because, unlike one's own small children, grandchildren can be sent home. They are not your responsibility, and so you can just have fun with them. That does resonate, but now that I have two grandchildren, I find that the greatest pleasure in being a grandparent lies somewhere else: in watching your own children be good parents (even improving on your parenting). Now the latter (improving) can be quite an achievement when the unthinkable happens, such as your children giving birth to their own handicapped children, as has happened with my son and daughter-in-law, whose son was born with hydronephrosis (eliminated by five surgeries at the University of San Francisco Medical Center) and daughter with a failure-to-close-at-midline defect that involved many of her organs, some aspects of which will be with her all her life. We call these our million-dollar babies because the son's surgery cost more than $1 million and the daughter's to date $3.2 million. Thank God for insurance, for ways in which hospitals and doctors are willing to reduce some costs and take long-term payments on others, and the fact that I earn a good income and can help out. And while we seem to be always scrambling for money to live on, there have been times that money to handle seemingly impossible situations has drifted down onto us like manna from heaven (yep, another possible topic for a post and certainly one covered in Blest Atheist, the book). Those are a few of the blessings: that we can manage these serious problems as a family. The trails through the Land of Splat! may be rocky, but together they are navigable--and God sheds light on our path all the time. Help comes frequently from the most unexpected sources (such as with Maury, the INS overseer who showed up unbidden just when we needed him). I expect that my granchildren, like their aunt and uncle before them, will turn out to be a blessing for other people, too. It has been amazing watching even the most crotchety people turn gentle in their presence, and they have, each according to his/her talents, been able to handle other people in concrete ways, serving as a model for their more physically and mentally capable peers. Good from bad, I think that must be one of God's mottos.

(2) The learning that comes from living in the Land of Splat! is tremendous. The latest proof of learning is my 7-year-old grandson who quizzed a new NICU (newborn intensive care unit) nurse, who was on duty when his sister was discharged after nearly three months at Stanford University Hospital, about an orange light on the monitor of another baby. "Why is the orange light on?" he asked. "The monitor lights tell us when babies need our help," she replied. "No, you don't understand," he answered patiently, "her sp02 level is not low enough to trigger an alarm, so why is the orange light on?" The nurse turned to my son and said, "He's a genius!" "No," answered Shane. "He has just been here too long." Like my grandson, I have learned a lot from being around challenging situations, and I have been able to use that knowledge to save my children's lives at times (yes, really) and to help many other people find the coping mechanisms and medical or educational treatments that they need. Once again, good from bad, the motto that floats around the Land of Splat!

Now, it is your turn. Have you ever spent time in the Land of Splat!? What are your examples?