First Communion Trauma

communionWhen we got to church this morning, we found the entire middle section of pews cordoned off for first graders and their families. I thought that once I left the Catholic Church and became an Episcopalian, I would no longer be subjected to the fluffy white dresses and veils worn when receiving one’s “first” eucharist. But, it seemed that over the years Episcopalians embraced this rite of passage more and more including the white dresses, but, in lieu of veils, there were mostly fancy white bows atop the tow headed little girls.

When I found an empty pew and realized that this was the day for first communion I felt this churning in my stomach and wondered why. As I watched each family walk up the aisle to the altar with their child, I remembered why I ached still after all these many years.

When I received my first communion in St. Gabriel’s RC Church in Brooklyn, the wearing of a veil, the buying of new white Mary Jane’s, the carrying a bouquet of white carnations and the receiving of a white plastic rosary were as much the focus as the memorization of the catechism. My mostly Jewish friends were in complete awe of the idea of me being a midget bride. Shopping for the perfect white dress was also an event. In those days, department stores like A&S and Macy’s geared up for the event and had entire sections of “white communion dresses” to choose from.  Crinolines and hoop skirts were the fashion rage for girls, but my mother of course, chose a higher road or at the very least, the opposite road from everyone else. So, the dress I got was white dotted Swiss nylon and had a saggy, gathered skirt without so much as even a petticoat underneath.  It was actually a rather sad looking dress when I stood next to the huge skirts of the other girls who resembled victims of “My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding.”

A new church was being built to replace the old one on Linwood Street and in the interim, mass was held in the auditorium of the school, full of metal folding chairs.  I could hardly sleep the night before that warm day in May and was filled with a mixture of excitement, nervousness and fear of making one wrong move that a nun might punish me for.  St. Joseph’s nuns in their long, restrictive black habits of the sixties were anything but forgiving.

Every child was to walk up the aisle with their parents. Except for the few who had lost a parent, every single kid had two parents walk with them altar and kneel on either side of them.  It was my turn to go up for communion and I was shaking nervously.  I got up from my seat and fighting back tears, I walked with my head down on my chest, white gloved hands folded in prayer, clutching my bouquet and my rosary and headed up the aisle.  I could think of only two things.  The first was, “How can I be all alone with everyone staring at me?”  The second was “Remember not to bite Jesus.”

My atheist mother hated church so much that when she would come to church with us, she would spend much of her time feigning gagging to show her disdain.  It was disconcerting and completely humiliating. So, needless to say, she was not about to escort me up the aisle to have a host placed on my tongue, all in the name of Jesus!  My father on the other hand, would probably have taken huge pride in escorting me, but, alas, he had been excommunicated by the ever so kind, loving and tolerant Catholic church in the sixties. Thus, he could not come to the altar. So, there I was and it was completely dreadful in every way.

Watching all those families today and all those children, so loved and respected by their parents who proudly walked them to the altar to receive the symbolic ritual of the body of Christ was heartwarming but it made me cry and made me feel so very heartbroken for the sweet little girl still inside of me, wondering why I had to go alone.  As I have so many times in my life, I realize that there are events and traumas that remain and never get filled up by other better things.  I love my life and I love how much I love my family and feel loved back. But, that does not take away the longing I will take to my dying day of what was missed and the feelings that stayed with me for these years.  The gifts of God for the people of God. The immeasurable grace that fills my soul each time I partake and healing continues over a lifetime.

By the way, these are stock photos, none of me.  When I find some, I will replace with authentic images!

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Jello

The minute that the remembrances of the Oklahoma City bombing begin, my legs turn to Jello and I arrive in that place of vulnerability and extreme sensitivity that I am both familiar with and surprised by.

The photo of the white child-sized coffin for one of the small bombing victims appeared on the cover of Newsday and stays with me still.  It was chilling and incomprehensible, except that a mere 16 days later, I was faced with choosing a casket for my two year old son. Meeting with the director of the local Hampton Bays Funeral Home, Ronald Scott (why do I remember his name?) might have been one of the creepier moments of my life. But, I do remember that the first thing I said was, “I don’t want that white coffin that was on the cover of Newsday. I just want a plain pine box.”  

So, when the memories of Oklahoma City begin, this is my cue to head out onto the stage to stand in the middle of the spotlight. And then I begin the terrifying countdown of days to the fateful May 3 drowning day and the May 4 ending of life day.  And, each year, I am convinced I am fine and strong and can withstand this one. But, the body knows even when the mind forgets or deludes. And so, everything in church this morning made me cry. Music is making me cry.  I am anxious and edgy and forgetting the simplest things I need to do. I am not hungry, but I want sweets. I am tired but cannot sleep. I see mouths moving, yet often do not hear the words said. Here it comes again. The train’s on the tracks heading towards me albeit slowly, and it will take another six days to arrive at the crossroads where the gate will neglect to descend and I will be hit full force once again, knocked over by the force and the fury.  And then, once again, I will rise and begin again.  Hold on tight.  

Boston on the Edge 2013 vs Brooklyn Projects 1960’s

 

It is a tense and scary morning.  One of the suspects in the Boston Marathon Massacre has been found and in a shootout with police, he has been killed in the middle of the night.  The other, his brother is on the loose and is armed and dangerous.  The entire city of Watertown, along with much of Boston and other nearby cities are shut down. There is no transportation and all citizens are on lockdown, told to not open their doors for anyone.  This is a first for an entire American city and it sounds like what life was like on various days of blitzkrieg terror in Germany when Nazis would come through a town.  It sounds like what life must be like on certain days in war torn areas now in Afghanistan or Iraq.  It is reminiscent of how I imagined the Vietnamese on the worst Napalm days in war torn Vietnam.  It is the frantic terror of saving one’s life and protecting one’s family from the unknown.  It is the not knowing of who will be in the nearest proximity of harm’s way and begging God for safekeeping. The families of the law enforcement officers must be in the deepest places of terror as well.  They get to watch their beloved husbands, sons, and brothers on rooftops taking aim, not knowing what will happen next.  Their anxiety is palpable.

 

The sad part is, that in a way, this is not an unusual day in the world. In recent times, we seem to live on high alert on more days than not.  The tragedies and massacres of innocent school children and teens, the families of runners in races, the workers in office buildings and in factories met their violent destinies on what seemed like just another day. Add to those, the weather events of insane proportions that arrive announced but uncontrollable. It is that randomness and unknowing that keeps me the most on edge.  It is as if we live in a constant state of PTSD for those we care for and love and for ourselves, wondering each day if we get to continue to live our lives another day.

The thing for me is this.  I grew up in the Boulevard projects of East New York in Brooklyn from the 1950’s through the late 1960’s. By the time we moved away in a rush of “white flight” it was a full-blown ghetto and had been for some time.  There were wild gangs. There were racial animosities that were glowing like stage four malignancies. There were mafia-style shootings.  There were muggings on a regular basis.  One of my best friends was raped in her early teens in a vacant and isolated lot.  The subways became meccas for vigilante groups and crime. We all used public transportation to get around and although the city bus stop was right outside my building, the subway stop was four long and scary blocks away.  It was under an “El” on New Lots Avenue and it was the first and last stop of the Number 2 New Lots Line of the IRT.  I walked very quickly to the station from my building to the “El.”  But, when I came home and there was even a hint of dusk falling, I literally ran the entire four blocks.  Making it to the A&P that was across the street from my building evoked a sigh of relief.  It was scary and fairly unsafe. 

 

In order to walk to church, which for a time was the hub of my teenage social life, I could walk the long way or I could take a short cut under the “viaduct” on Linden Boulevard.  Sometimes, the short cut proved too tempting and I would enter that dark path with my heart pounding and run for my life until I got through and was on Linwood Street, where except for angry looking barking dogs, I felt safe and made it to St. Gabriel’s Church. 

 

My school friends and I hung out nightly at “The Circle” in Linden Houses.  This was the other city project that was considered “high middle income” whereas, Boulevard Houses was simply middle income.  I loved hanging out with my friends in The Circle, sneaking cigarettes, using profanity, comparing new Go-Go boots and mini skirts, and making plans of who was going to date whom and which college we wanted to go to.  It was several blocks to get from the far end of Boulevard Houses to the far end of Linden Houses, but I made it there and yes, once dark, I did run all the way home to safety. 

 

You knew that Pink Houses was the low-income project and so this was considered unsafe (yet, now I am unsure how this rule was decided).  Times Square Stores was within walking distance, but best to get to bus for safety reasons.  Riding the subway at night was a no-no.  Of course, no one ventured into Central Park or any other park after dark, because these had already been deemed as unsafe by some murders that took place in them.  Walking by the empty lots was not such a good idea so it was better to cross the street and walk next to the projects.  When changing classes in Thomas Jefferson High School one needed to be awake and aware to avoid being stuck with a large and painful hatpin by some of the meaner kids.  Standing waiting for the bus home in the afternoon was a place to look tough, make no eye contact and hope that the bus came quickly.  I started smoking waiting for that bus, just so I could look tougher.  It was a hard and deadly habit to break so perhaps I should have taken to wearing brass knuckles instead!

 

My point is this.  We knew what was safe and what was not.  We knew where to go and where to avoid and if we went to questionable places, we knew to move fast and look like a local, which of course, we were.  We knew we were completely safe at school, in church, running a race and that our parents were completely safe going to work.  We made choices and were guided towards the safest choices.  Thus, there was a sense of some control of one’s destiny.  Of course, we could have been run over by a bus, but by and large if you “looked both ways” that would not happen. But now, today, there is randomness and viciousness that has us all on high alert on most days.  Getting through the airport is an event on proving one’s honesty and good intentions.  Dropping my kids off at their sweet, middle school this morning caused a missed heartbeat for me where I thought, “what if?” We don’t know anymore what is safe and what is not.  Is living in North Carolina safer than living in New York?  Perhaps, but to me there is no guarantee because we do meet in masses at sporting events, concerts, parades and more. And anyway, New Town was a small town and there was no massive event, just a school day. 

 

It is all so unnerving.  It is a new day, a new world order, and a persistent search for the newest electronic or form of security that will trump all that came before and keep us safer.  I am not buying into that and I don’t feel safe at all, nor do I feel that my children are.  I pray yes, but I don’t see as these are God events in any way. There is evil at work here and there are motives that have nothing to do with believing or not believing – it is a search for brutal glory at all costs and annihilation of the spirit and safety of innocent human beings that include one’s own self.  It is the misinterpretation of religious writings and documents and misguided belief that killing others is what is being called for.  It is a profit seeking yet, violent group that feels that allowing anyone to own a lethal weapon and its ammunition is a right and a sport.  There is such misguidance here that the only thing God can do is weep and wonder – how did things go so wrong in a world created so intricately for beauty and wonder and good living?   

Written by my friend…

My dear friend and confidante, Lisa, claims not to be a writer. One of the things I love best about Lisa is her insight and her precise assessments of the sometimes very blurry life situations I find myself in.  It seems that Lisa can take the facts, organize them, name them, and then often, make just the right suggestion for solutions.  Often, I find myself responding to Lisa with, “Oh yeah! That’s it! Brilliant!  Now, I get it!”   It is amazing when I present her with some pretty gnarled and messy scenarios and without flinching she takes the rotting fruits and turns them into a smoothie!  The odd thing is, that Lisa denies she is a writer.  And yet, though she may not write things down, she scripts them in her head so that they can sometimes come out like well written prose. She IS a writer, just not on keyboard or pen and paper.

This is just what happened last week.  While I was frantically writing endless tomes of feelings, facts, observations, and solutions of the traumatic and heartbreaking death of our mutual friend, Sarah,  Lisa was being more concise.  She called me and said, I keep hearing these words over and over in my head, but they sound like prose.  “Oh, tell me, tell me” I said.  She hesitated and then just off the top of her head, she recited the following lines.  I cannot tell you how succinct this is and how, it really puts our whole relationship with our friend in the perfect perspective.  I strongly suspect, that these are indeed words directly from our friend, Sarah who died less than two weeks ago. This IS what she is saying to us. I am sure of it.  Lisa, be proud, you nailed it again! I am both grateful and blessed to call you my friend.

My thoughts from last Friday – Lisa Malmberg

Do you really know who I am?

Do you really know me, my life, my struggles?

If I tell you about it, will you still respect me, love me, be my friend?

Or will it be too hard for you to hear.

Maybe, it’s too hard for me to say.

 

Do I really know me?

What I need.

 

I can’t tell you.

I don’t know where to begin.

You have your own struggles.

Your life, your marriage, your children are so perfect.

You wouldn’t understand.

 

I don’t want pity.

I don’t know what I need from you, except your love, your friendship, your stories that help me forget mine.

 

The Last Texts

When I was sitting at my desk last Tuesday, March 26. 2013, Sarah’s texts popped up on my phone.  I was shocked to see them, because it seemed like a miracle had occurred and she was back with us.  I blogged about redemption and resurrection that day. Though I couldn’t wait to see her as soon as possible and had all these glorious, overzealous intentions of helping her to begin a new life, I controlled myself and my usual enthusiasm that could knock someone over.  We texted till night time and then, I did again, first thing in the morning.  That message never got answered. Sarah had coded that morning and three times after that.  She never regained consciousness and was disconnected from life support on Maundy Thursday at 4 pm.  How and why did this surge happen, just two days before the end?  Does this happen just before death? Will we know when it does?

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