How Both a Little and Big Hello Matter

One of the greatest gifts my mom gave me was her ability to be fully present. She had a way of actively listening and engaging in conversation that always made the time with her go too fast. I think this was only magnified when she was forced to move into hospital. Though hindered by fatigue, mom wanted to maximize her time with people. I know it was difficult when her health issues prevented her from visiting. Though she had a large capacity to manage a lot of alone time, mom thrived when with family and friends.

I miss my mom. I live around the corner from the hospital she called home. Every single time I go by it I look up at the window that was hers. Part of the beauty of living in such close proximity was that it was easy to pop over for a long OR short visit. We sometimes joked that a side benefit of her situation was that I always knew where she was. I often replay the journey to her room in my head: through the front doors, straight to the back elevators, up to the fifth floor and room 516, where I would announce my arrival in the doorway with a “hello, it’s me!” to which she would always say, “hello my sweetie”.

My mom loved to ask questions about everything that was going on in my life. I know that she kept a running note of things to pray about on her iPad. We laughed a lot. I would listen to all of her news (she was a great storyteller), sometimes as she directed me to do things around her room: dust, reposition a painting, open mail, tidy up one of her ‘meaningful piles’. I routinely cut her bangs, and with much trepidation occasionally gave her a full haircut.

My mom was gracious even when I failed to visit because life got too busy. I was never made to feel guilty. Instead, she would gently issue another invitation to come and explain that she missed me. I also knew that if mom was feeling especially lonely and willing to articulate it, I needed to take notice and get to her side, which in truth, I always wished I would have done before she even had to say it.

For my mom it was important that I show up even for just five minutes to have, as my nephew Harrison likes to call it, a “little hello”. No matter what length of time we had my mom would say she felt energized and I would leave feeling filled up. It was a great reminder to me that making time, even by setting aside little bits of it, contributed to both of us feeling valued and loved.

As I grieve and celebrate my mom, I want to remember the many lessons she taught me: lessons about the gift of presence, active listening, good storytelling, being honest about your needs, and how to infuse it all with grace.

Cate with my mom, her Gran. They loved being together.

The Challenge of Exercising Gratitude

I think about gratitude a lot. I recently read an article that highlighted the importance of distinguishing it from the act of appreciation. Intrigued, I did a little research and came to better understand that appreciation is what you feel for the good in people or things, whereas gratitude is experienced when you realize good is experienced beyond the obvious. I was delighted to discover that the latin root of gratitude is sometimes translated “grace”. If there is an ‘awe’ to grace, then it would follow that the same would accompany gratitude.

I don’t recall feeling very appreciative when The Dale became homeless. I did however feel a deep gratitude for so many things about it: the community that was willing to teach me about transience; the hospitality we experienced from others; the freedom from belongings; the discovery that we were a living, breathing “church” without four walls. During those early days I regularly found myself in awe and wonder that I was witness to a phoenix rising from the ashes.

These truths are knocking around my heart as I think about The Dale today. We’ve been looking for a new location to house our Wednesday morning breakfast and art-making Drop-In. It isn’t easy to re-locate and we’ve been feeling admittedly anxious about it. The good news is that Parkdale Community Health Centre has opened its doors to us, eager to deepen the partnership we’ve been developing for years. I got this news the same day First Baptist Church agreed to let us use their building for administrative work and meetings. I am appreciative AND grateful.

As is so often the case, good is accompanied by difficult. During the same phone call with the Health Centre about space, we needed to discuss the death of another community member, Andrew Kri. As hard as his death is, I love that we knew Andrew and can now remember his life in all of its complexity. At the same time I am aware that as our losses accumulate it is difficult to process them, especially when there is so little space between each. As I was recently discussing with a friend, it does seem that we can only truly grieve when we have also delighted in life. Gratitude is somehow suspended in the tension of joy and sorrow.

I suspect that as we learn to appreciate the many pleasing things around us, a sense of gratitude will be cultivated, one that says, in all things, I will give thanks. Looking past the obvious, sifting through our pain and acknowledging that life remains a gift is not easy. Gratitude, as Martin Luther argued, is a “disposition of the soul”, a virtue that can be exercised and strengthened. Gratitude reminds us that grace is real and invites us to stand in awe.



A Life That Was Good

My mom died on Monday night. This is the first time since then that I’ve been compelled to write something here. I know that many of you met my mom Elaine on the pages of this blog. She has always, and will continue to be, one of my primary sources of inspiration. She was an incredible woman.

Last Friday night (technically very early Saturday morning), I was woken by a call from my brother Logan. The hospital needed us to know that mom had taken a sudden turn for the worse and we should come. I got dressed and walked to meet Logan, because we amazingly live just one block away from each other on the same street, and just minutes from the hospital. Having received calls such as this before, we could imagine what to expect, and that proved true again: mom had an infection that was causing a high fever, her blood pressure was dangerously low, and she was non-responsive.

Mid-morning Saturday Logan and I spoke with a doctor who advised us that mom had pneumonia and likely an empyema, a serious accumulation of infection that would require more than antibiotics to deal with. Mom however was too weak to manage any invasive procedure, and so we were gently, and very compassionately advised to call together family and close friends.

What ensued over the course of the weekend was what I would describe as beautiful, precious, and deeply sacred. Mom’s grandchildren Cate, Oliver, Harrison and Teagan came, along with Dion and Amanda. My mom’s sisters, brothers-in-law, many nieces and nephews and long-time friends joined us so that we could all be together. We filled mom’s room, flowed out into the hall, and spilled into the nearby sitting room. Hospital staff commented repeatedly at our presence, moved that mom had so many people who loved her. The doctor came to me later saying, “you were right when you said people would come. This is amazing”.

Cate brought her ukulele and sang song after song for her Gran. My cousin Kate sang A Life That’s Good…”at the end of the day, Lord I pray I have a life that’s good. Two arms around me, heaven to ground me. And a family that always calls me home”. Teagan and Roy, the two babies of the family got passed from person to person, offering sweet distraction from the sadness. Joanna was always nearby. We held times of prayer around mom’s bedside, including a late night vigil where we sang songs and hymns. We told stories, laughed, and wept, sometimes all at the same time.

I slept beside my mom on Sunday night. Though she lived in a hospital room, mom managed to make it a home, something I was again struck by as I lay there looking at pictures and her collection of sentimental things. When I woke up in the morning I decided to play mom’s playlist of favourite songs from her iPad. As I listened to the words of the top song, “Hold on, if you need to hold on, you can hold on to me. What ever road you’ve chosen shouldn’t be walked alone. Hold on”, I thought about how she had done just that for so many years. Mom clung to Christ though the road was hard.

Monday evening I decided to go home for a brief break. I ate a bit of food that a friend had generously dropped off and got changed. As I was finishing up, my phone rang. It was my aunt saying death was suddenly close. I ran all the way to the hospital, praying that I would make it. As I got closer, Victoria Day fire works started to shoot off in front of me, and I became even more overwhelmed. I did make it. At approximately 10:25 pm, surrounded by family, mom breathed her last breath. We remained with her for a while, even toasting her with wine served in styrofoam cups (all we had) and eating chips, two things that she loved, and always together.

We had a funeral and burial yesterday. As a group we hovered around her grave for a significant amount of time, her grandchildren and grand-nieces and nephews playing with each other. I kept imagining her sitting there, happily tucked in to her wheelchair with a huge smile on her face. She loved being with her family and so this felt like an appropriate book-end to the last week, one that started and ended together.

Mom, I know you are no longer bound to a bed or wheelchair, a truth that makes me smile. And I can’t believe you are gone. I began to miss you the moment you left. I took the photo below of the view outside your window on Monday. You would have loved the sunset. I know life was hard, but at the end of the day you always thought it was good. I love you, always.



The Mash-Up of Life

For a whole host of reasons these last few weeks have been challenging. We are experiencing what I can only describe as a wave of illness and death in our community. People are worried, mad and sad. Some, in an effort to numb the pain, are being self-destructive. It is difficult.

After a particularly troubling pastoral visit to the hospital, I found myself at a loss for what to say, do or even think. The awareness that there was nothing I could do to fix anything was palpable. Just that morning I had been in a church surrounded by people singing about God’s grace being enough. I confess that it was hard for me to sing the happy tune. My longing for grace was real, but welling up from a deep, deep place, one marked with despair. I desperately wanted God to show up.

Since then I have been aware that God is indeed showing up. For months we have been praying that one person’s estranged family would take time to visit. They finally did. A friend who has long desired to contribute financially to The Dale (though they already give in many other ways) proudly handed me three dollars in change, everything that was in their pocket. On a Wednesday when I had to be at the hospital leaving Joanna at the drop-in, a community member showed up with breakfast food they had already prepared for everyone. The nurses and doctors caring for our loved ones are kind and compassionate.

I am coming to understand that hard times always intermingle with good times. Our lives are a mash-up of good and bad, challenging and easy, grief and celebration, sorrow and joy. The most brutal things can also expose the most beauty. I still don’t understand the last few weeks. I do see though that grace is weaving its way through it.

War Resister

Kimberly Rivera is my friend and one who came to refer to me as sister (and I her). She fled to Canada as a War Resister, or “Conscientious Objector” five years ago. Today she was separated from her husband and four children having been ordered deported. She will more than likely spend time in jail.

Tonight the tears are flowing.

My plan this afternoon was to attend the peaceful demonstration in support of Kim in downtown Toronto. Instead I found myself gathered with a small group in the yard of a school where Kim said goodbye. I crawled under a play structure where her eldest was hiding to tell him I loved him. He had on a home-made cape and looked every bit a 10-year-old. One sad, amazingly stoic boy.

Tonight I want to set aside the politics of this.

Instead I want to re-imagine the day when all will be made right in this world. The day when people will “hammer their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will no longer fight against nation, nor train for war anymore.” (Isaiah). I want to cling to my faith that God’s kingdom is going to be fully ushered in and every tear will be dried.

Tonight I want to ask for peace. And mercy.

We are invited to be a people of forgiveness. The plank in my own eye is far bigger than the speck in yours. I want us to dare to choose a way that doesn’t involve picking up arms (using rifles or harsh words) to settle our disputes. I inwardly groan for something different.

Tonight I pray:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love. Where there is injury, pardon. Where there is doubt, faith. Where there is despair, hope. Where there is darkness, light. Where there is sadness, joy. (St. Francis)

Oh, my friends, pray for Kim and everyone close to her. And if you don’t pray, send healing thoughts. I know this situation incites strong feelings on all sides and is deeply complicated. Tonight though think of the woman whose longing is for peace, her husband, and the community she leaves behind.

Tonight think of the boy in the cape and his three siblings.

Cultivating Gratitude

I sometimes moan that God (who I do believe in) is not giving me what I want, dare I say it, what I need. Bluntly put, I sometimes think he is not giving me enough. I question whether or not He loves me. I live in a sense of rejection, of less than, of pain. What about being happy? Don’t I get to be happy? Don’t we get to be happy? Certainly a God of grace would want that for us. I am coming to realize that God does want that. God longs to draw us into His presence so that we might be filled up with perfect, redemptive love. It seems that to experience this I need to say “yes” to all that He freely gives and choose to live my life full of Him.

I recognize that this may be easier said than done.

In an effort to do this I began to pay attention to things that often wash over me; things I take for granted; things that I don’t always think of as special and maybe a few that I do. As my list grew longer I began to see how this might be a first step toward believing that a life full of the knowledge of grace might be possible.

My List:

  1. The warmth of the sunlight through a window, falling on my shoulders as I write.
  2. Tulips.
  3. A sound of a child playing the piano with one finger.
  4. Mail that isn’t bills.
  5. The smell of beeswax candles.
  6. Wind in my hair.
  7. A freshly painted room.
  8. Catching a streetcar before it rolls away.
  9. Colourful graffiti that catches my eye in a lane-way.
  10. A record spinning on a turntable.
  11. Seeing my mom in her wheelchair instead of her bed.
  12. The forgiveness of a friend.
  13. Having someone see me in my brokenness and loving me anyway.
  14. A new pencil.
  15. The click a camera makes when I take a picture.
  16. The smell of BBQ.
  17. Spring in the air.
  18. Suds in a bath.
  19. The gurgle of coffee perking on the stove.
  20. A touch.

This list has helped me to see that these 20 things are very real gifts from God, and in the action of writing them down I am actually receiving them as such. The list is my attempt to seek joy and to find God in the process. I believe we are invited to let God change us- maybe not our circumstances, but how we manage them. God can change your state of mind and how you perceive His good gifts. God makes it possible to live a life FULL of grace.

“Grace” has a number of different meanings: it is seemingly effortless beauty or charm or movement (she moves with such grace); it is a short prayer before a meal; it is mercy; it is favour rendered by one who need not do so; it is indulgent. God’s grace is just that: indulgent. On the surface of our lives, it might not feel that this is true. We live in a world marred by debt and despair and death. Imagine though being able to cultivate gratitude DESPITE this. A man named Paul wrote about this in the book of Philippians 4:11-12, “I have learned how to be content with whatever I have. I know how to live on almost nothing or with everything. I have learned the secret of living in every situation, whether it is with a full stomach or empty, with plenty or with little.”

Judy Collins (yes, the singer) wrote a book about what she calls the 7 T’s: Truth, Trust, Therapy, Treasure, Thrive, Treat, and Transcend. Judy decided to write about these T’s after her son committed suicide and she began a journey of grief and mourning. While this is not the context of each of our lives, we can relate because of our own experiences of pain, sadness, addiction and remorse.

If the challenge for us is to choose to live a life of joy, abundance, forgiveness and grace, than the 7 T’s provide a framework to do this.

Truth: Tell it. Tell it like it is, even if it is painful. Don’t ignore those wounded places in your life.

Trust: Allow it. Don’t allow the pain to prevent you from talking. Talk with friends. Talk with your community.

Therapy: Get it. Seek help.

Treasure: Hold on. Find things that you treasure. Remember those things that are good in your life- however big or small you perceive these things to be.

Thrive: Look up. Keep living with your eyes wide open. Try to not blunt or blur your sadness with unhealthy things.

Treat: Nurture yourself. Discover the things that fill up your soul.

Transcend: Choose to live a certain kind of life- a life of gratitude- a life of grace.

When I chose to make Jesus central to all that I do, life began to look different. Mother Teresa once said “The work we do is only our love for Jesus in action. If we pray the work…if we do it to Jesus, if we do it for Jesus, if we do it with Jesus…that’s what makes us content”. When I am blue or frustrated or angry or…whatever…I now try to pause, think about Jesus and consider what I am grateful for.

Joy will come from the touching of Christ. I am confident that God is healing the places in my heart that are deep holes. And in those deep places is a new sense of gratitude.