Sunday, February 26, 2006

A Peculiar Form of Serenity

I don't have a problem experiencing serenity when things are going my way. When my children respond positively (or as positively as they can, given their disability or their emotional state at the moment) to my input I find it easy to be calm. When my spouse and I are in agreement over a particular family guideline or philosophy I am subject to little anxiety. When I am in control my world seems at peace.

But when my children do not respond favorably, or my spouse is not in agreement with me, or when I am sensing a loss of control, there is little peace to be found. I am discovering what those in the recovery community have known for a long time, that serenity (the kind emulated in the prayer of the same name) is what we discover in the midst of crisis, disagreement or loss of control. This is a peculiar form of serenity, because it is an internal quality, a spiritual practice which is not dependent upon the external happenings in one's life.

Tonight, for example. Claudia left earlier this afternoon on a whirlwind tour of El Paso and Houston, Texas, to talk with social workers about older child adoption and the process of matching waiting children. These kinds of transitions in our family are almost always problematic, for whatever the etiology might be, our children have exceptionally well developed stress detectors. When the collective family emotional barometer begins to shift or, God forbid, fall, the results can be catastrophic. Already at lunchtime there was an emotional outburst complete with filthy language and specific threats of bodily harm from an older sibling to a younger one. Today I was able to respond with a peculiar form of serenity and simply said, "That's really not appropriate or necessary. You don't need to act that way." It's not always that way. Like any other normal human adult, when I sense the threat of physical harm toward any of my children I typically find myself drenched in a cortisol haze that propels me to say more than I intend.

It is now 8:15 p.m., and two of our older boys (the ones who have best most troubled and troubling over the past two years) are AWOL. They informed siblings that they would be "walking around with friends," a practice I have always detested and one that I earlier swore I would never allow my children to engage in. But at the ages of nearly 17 and 15, I have come to discover that I am not able to force teenagers of this age to comply with my every request. We tried that years ago and only found ourselves embroiled in a social services system unable to provide much assistance to us. I am discovering a peculiar form of serenity in repeating to myself over and over again, "They're going to have to make their own choices and receive their own consequences if it comes to that."

Don't get me wrong. I will never be a parent who says, "Sure, go on out and do whatever you please, just lock the door when you come home." I will always want my kids to let me know in advance where they are going to be, who they will be with, what they will be doing, and when they will be home. I will always ask my kids when they return home after having been absent where they've been and what they've been doing. I will always remind myself that I am most likely not getting a full, nor a complete story of their whereabouts. I will continue to tell myself that the best and perhaps only thing I can provide at this time in their lives is a loving home, a caring father and an open door to return to after hours of "walking around with friends."

The whole situation still causes me great internal angst. And you can be sure that if things deteriorate -- if they're gone for days at a time, if they're missing school, if there's reason to believe they are engaging in illegal or immoral activities -- there will have to be some sort of intervention. But until that time I hope to practice this peculiar form of serenity, a sense of peaceful wellbeing that acknowledges what I can and cannot control.

In the words of Reinhold Niebuhr ...

God, grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.

Living one day at a time;
Enjoying one moment at a time;
Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace;
Taking, as He did, this sinful world
as it is, not as I would have it;
Trusting that He will make all things right
if I surrender to His Will;
That I may be reasonably happy in this life
and supremely happy with Him
Forever in the next.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

My New Constant Companion

I have been on an interesting journey for nearly the past four weeks. It was a journey I did not intend to initiate, nor a journey I would have chosen for myself, and like so many voyages has provided a wellspring of experiential knowledge to me.

About four weeks ago while in the kitchen preparing a meal of some sort our fifteen-year-old son and I were wrestling around with each other when he challenged, "Dad, I'll bet you can't pick me up." In a moment of paternal carelessness, I accepted the challenge, only to discover that he was right, and that I was wrong. Perhaps it was an historic thing. When we first met John and his sisters years ago he was a slight, short eight-year-old who was lighter than a feather. Upon our first face-to-face meeting he literally stood up on the chair he was in and jumped into my arms. Maybe it was reaching into the emotive shadows of yesterday or the simple jubilation of the moment that caused me to respond as I did, but in any case it was a foolish choice. John is no longer a slight eight-year-old. He is now a stocky, still short, well over 200 pound fifteen-year-old. And so I accepted the challenge, wrapped my arms under his arms and lifted. Or something like that.

Because in that moment, without even accomplishing my goal of lifting him from the floor, I felt something in the lower left side of my back telling me I should let go quickly. Which I did. But not quickly enough.

It was at that moment that my new constant companion, pain, greeted me. In truth, this companion is something of an old acquaintance, because we have had similar interactions in the past. About once a year, it seems, some inane or innocuous action on my part welcomes this visitor back into my life for several weeks, although each time it seems to linger a little longer and become a bit more debilitating.

In the beginning days I had hoped this friend would spend only a few days with me and depart, but a constant companion is a better way to describe the relationship after these three plus weeks. Somewhere along the way I have decided that I would do better to name this presence "companion" rather than "intruder." And so in the moments of sleepless restlessness and appendage-numbing discomfort, I have been learning a few things.

I have learned the value of a restful, pain-free night. Lack seems to be an excellent instructor in the school of gratitude. And without flouting my piety too much, in those moments I have been able to pray with greater alacrity for many I meet in my pastoral life who suffer constant pain.

I have learned the blessing that good health is. It's not as if my whole body was involved in my foolish choice to attempt lifting a large amount of unexpected weight. And yet my whole body has been involved. It makes me much more sensitive to the expressed concerns of others who speak of pain as wearisome, tiresome, and affecting all of the body and mind, even if it is focused in only one part of the physical body.

I am learning to slow down and feel every move. This is not a volitional act, mind you; it is a pragmatic and necessary one. Simple tasks like putting on shoes, bending over the pick up a paperclip, or picking up clothes from the floor now require an intentional plan, and a plan that will not avoid a painful response of some sort.

I am learning the value of pushing through the discomfort and doing what will be ultimately healthy, though it does not seem like it at the time. I have always enjoyed walking for the pleasure of it, but now I walk because it makes my back feel better, even though it's an effort to put on my walking shoes, leash the dog and actually initiate the walk process. Once I have endured the first few minutes of discomfort, the pain dissipates and I feel the welcome relief of loosening muscles and ligaments.

I have learned, in humility, to be more receptive to those who express pain to me. When I hear, "Oh, my aching back" or "I moved the wrong way and something snapped" or "My arthritis feels especially bad today" I can now say, with words or simply within my own consciousness, "I understand."

And I am continuing to learn that sometimes our more important companions in life are those who cause us enough pain to listen more intently, feel more deeply, and identify more wholly.

Don't get me wrong. I will not be disappointed when my new constant companion becomes a fair-weather friend again. But until then I will seek the learning this life partner is bringing my way.

Monday, February 13, 2006

A Very Nice Start to the Day

This morning I received a very nice start to my day. Often I am up and out of the house before everyone else awakens. I have found that if I can get to my office by 6:30 or 7:00 I have the opportunity to focus in the quiet morning hours before emails arrive and telephone calls come and people stop by. So, my best mornings usually begin in the dark quietness with the only interaction necessary involving letting our famiy dog, Gizmo, out for this morning routine. Today, however, I decided to go to work a little later than usual.

After awakening two of our older boys, I started a load of laundry, returned back upstairs to administer Dominyk's morning medications, and to awaken the four boys who share that room. By this time the girls were already up and about, getting ready for school, and Claudia was in the shower awaiting her day. Dominyk is always next in the shower, and for once he shampooed his hair as requsted and spent only minimal time in the shower. John is the first to go to school, then follow a couple more waves. I heard the girls say, "Bye, dad. Have a good day." Tony and Dominyk, typically crabby and slow, were actually well focused and off to school before I knew it. I spent a few quiet moments catching up on the morning news and prepared to leave our house.

Stepping outside into the frosty morning I walked to our car. As always on winter mornings, I started the car and prepared to de-frost the windows. As I walked to the east side of the car my eyes caught cryptic scribblings in the frost. In order to understand my emotions at this time, you also need to know some history. Our car is now almost seven years old, but when we first purchased it back in 2000, one of our children (everyone has consistently blamed Dominyk, the youngest, but never with sufficient proof to substantiate the claim) decided to carve the "F" word in the back of our then-new car. It was carved, with a sharp object, deep into the paint, and as a matter of principle, I have never chosen to have it re-painted. So now, any time I see words on or near the car, my heartbeat begins to thud and my pulse begins to race as adrenalin courses through my angry veins.

As my cortisol levels began to rise, I took closer note. In the early morning frost were two words and a symbol: "I {heart} you." I smiled. Broadly. Unkowingly. Blessedly. Gratefully. With regret I scraped the frost from the windows and watched the words fade into my memory.

Moving toward the back of the car, continuing to scrape frost, I discovered yet another love note. "Super Dad" was the trunk's affirmation. I smiled again. More broadly. More unknowingly. More blessedly. More gratefully. Fortunately, I didn't have to scrape the trunk, so I looked at the child-like etchings a couple of more times before getting into the car and heading off to the office.

After school I began the inquisition as each child arrived home. "So, are you the one who wrote on my windshields this morning?" "No, dad. I promise it wasn't me. What did it say, anyway?" "I'll tell you when I'm ready," was my standard reply. "Do you know who did it?" "No, dad, I don't have any idea who did it. Was it really bad?" "I'll tell you when I'm ready."

Child after child was questioned with no success. No success, that is, until Dominyk arrived home with his PCA. (He usually is the last one home with his PCA, and tonight it was at about dinner time). As he walked into the kitchen where I was preparing dinner, I said, "Dominyk, did you write on my windows this morning?" "Yep," was his monosyllabic response. I bent down, looked into his fawn-brown eyes, took his cheeks in my hands and asked, "What did you write?" "I love you and super dad," he responded. "Dominyk, I can't remember the last time I have had such a nice start to my day. Thank you. That was very special." He smiled and said, "Hey, dad, I'm hungry. Can I have a banana?"

Very special indeed, especially if it was he who seven years ago carved the "F" word into the back of my car. And maybe now everytime I see that word which is permanently etched into the paint, I will remember the other two phrases, vanished as they now are, but deeply etched into my heart.

PS: The photo above is circa 2000, about the time the dreaded word in question first appeared on my new car.