Chocolate Ice Cream – with intention

When I learned that my friend’s husband had taken a turn for the worse, I couldn’t think of anything but chocolate ice cream.

I had been buried in my own pain for several months. I was still recovering from a surgery that was meant to bring me relief, but it was too soon to say if it had done its job. The pain I was in now might be different, but it was more intense than what had gone before. There is little that turns me inward on myself quite so thoroughly as pain. I had not had any energy to carry anyone else’s needs for a long time.

But now I had learned that, after years of having their lives turned upside down: after a diagnosis of lymphoma, after chemo, after a bone marrow transplant, after complete remission, after a return of the cancer with a vengeance, after hopeful results from a new experimental treatment – after thousands of prayers and a publicly lived faithful witness – this family was almost certain to be torn apart by this young father’s death. Months were possible, if unlikely. A year was flatly out of the question. That a miracle was called for was understood. A miracle on top of the miracles of provision that had sustained this family for years, and most especially in recent months. Perhaps that miracle would be yet another remission. Perhaps that miracle would be my friend’s ability to tend to the grief of herself, her husband, and her three young children (each one very different from the other) as he slipped into death.

I didn’t know if I believed in miracles in that moment. I was tired and grieved and in pain. I believed in chocolate ice cream. So I went to the kitchen to get some.

Standing in front of the freezer, I began berating myself. Chocolate ice cream wasn’t going to accomplish anything. It wasn’t even going to make me feel better except for the brief time when I was actually in the process of eating it, if then. I should pray.

Except I couldn’t pray. I didn’t really know what to ask for. Was it right to ask for this young man not to die? It was, of course it was, and yet – I had all too much experience in not getting what I had prayed for – of learning that my ways were not God’s ways, and my thoughts were not God’s thoughts. I just didn’t have the energy to ask for something that I didn’t believe God was going to grant.

I thought about asking that the children be ok, but how can anyone be ok when they lose their parent? The loss of my father remains a defining gap, a significant wound, and I was in my late 30s when he died. How old was their oldest child? Not yet 10? I didn’t know if they would even have a memory of what their father had been like before he first became ill. There were so many things that I couldn’t bring myself to pray for.

Paul’s teaching that the Holy Spirit intercedes for us when we don’t know how to pray or what to pray for has been a great gift to me, one of my go to lessons in the spiritual life. But I do worry sometimes – I don’t want to use that as a cop out, as an excuse for not talking to God at all, or for not making an effort to lay my feelings before God.

But then I remembered a workshop I had attended in seminary about praying the rosary. As a Protestant, I had no real knowledge of the rosary – only some vague misconceptions. Of the many revelations I received that day, this one sprang to mind: the idea of saying the prayers of the rosary “with intention.” As a person prayed the prayers over and over again, they were likely also holding another thought in their head – a person for whom they were concerned, their desire for world peace, their grief over a particular sin.

I did not have a rosary, and was anyway, not entirely comfortable with the idea of a traditional prayer in that moment. But as long as I had some chocolate ice cream, I could eat that with intention, couldn’t I?

I remembered my father the Thanksgiving after his diagnosis, watching his children and their spouses all together in his front yard clearing leaves and joking with one another. He teared up. “I’m not ready to leave all of this,” he told me. He grieved the idea of us going on without his being there with us and for us.

And so I took out a spoon, and walked with my bowl of ice cream to the large sliding glass door overlooking my back yard. “If he makes it, this will be his last Christmas,” I thought, “and his children’s last Christmas with him. He has already seen his last summer.”

Before digging in, I said, “I am eating this ice cream for my friend’s husband, who is dying.” And with the shock of the first spoonful of sweet cold fragrance, I asked, “How many more bowls of ice cream will he eat before he dies? When he is eating his last bowl of ice cream, will he know it is the last one?”

And I remembered the words: “Taste and see that the Lord is good,” and I thought of communion, and of the heavenly banquet that we remember when we share in it, and of the promise that God gives us far more than all that we can ask or imagine. And I thought, it is hard to imagine much better than a beautiful sunshiny day and chocolate ice cream, but life in God’s kingdom must be even better than that. And I prayed that my friend’s husband and everyone in his family could truly believe that, and I prayed that it really was true that God was that good, and I thanked God for chocolate ice cream, for these scraps of creaturely goodness on days when God’s goodness was hard to believe in, and I asked God’s forgiveness for me not believing, and I asked for God’s love to break in on my friend as bright and unignorable as a spoonful of chocolate ice cream…

And I looked down and my bowl was empty.

It has been more than a year since that day, and almost a year since he died. There are still days when I ignore God, feel distant from God, can’t bring myself to pray. But when I carry the intention to pray – even when I can’t stir up the desire to pray – when I carry the intention to pray, God meets me with abundantly far more than I could ever ask or imagine. I am grateful that God grasped ahold of me that day, and brought me into the community of love between God and my friend and her family and all those who surrounded them in prayer, if only for as long as it took for me to eat a bowl of chocolate ice cream.

Cleaning House

The Recipe

The Recipe

I found it under a pile of papers: an innocuous looking blank page from a hotel notepad. Surely I had saved it for a reason? Turning it over I saw the words, “Cook sweet potato in microwave.” My throat tightened. I remembered searching the kitchen for an odd scrap of unused paper, as Dad started telling me how to make sweet potato pie. The phone call was at least four years ago, but the immediacy of my quick pencil scrawl brought it into the present, along with the realization: no more conversations with Dad. I set the paper back down, and walked out of the room. Finishing cleaning the countertop would have to wait.

It’s not like I needed anything to make cleaning more difficult for me. When I was a child, the main obstacles were finding things I would rather be doing (usually a book to read), or finding things that I was required to do, and hadn’t gotten to yet (usually homework.) As I got older, half-finished craft projects became their own category – things that malignantly chided, “You and your big plans – you never follow through.” But those stumbling blocks were nothing compared to cleaning the house after my father died: Losing him has turned my house into a grief minefield.

If I clean for long enough, it is certain that I will find something that I associate with Dad. And thanks to my extra-feely-ness, loss sticks to everything once it is unearthed. If I keep cleaning past the initial shock of a “Dad find,” other items stimulate pre-emptive grief – reminding me of friends and family members who are not dead, but who I will miss one day when they are. Of course, maybe I will die first, and if I am feeling maudlin enough, this too will be considered: will this object cause my husband or daughter to burst into tears remembering me? Putting away the Christmas tree ornaments this year became a masochistic exercise: “How many losses can one person remember and/or anticipate, before she collapses into a pile of red and green tissue paper?”

I have finally learned to ignore the books and magazines I haven’t read, to breathe steadily even when confronted with forgotten would-be store returns and camp registration forms… I am beginning to talk back to the half-assembled projects, and am learning to figure out what ill-considered purchases need to simply be shared with others who are more likely to use them than I am. But more than three years after his death, I haven’t managed to get past finding something that reminds me of Dad without feeling achingly empty.

I hadn’t anticipated that. It isn’t like I had never lost anyone before: my grandparents, several aunts and uncles. But over time, those losses transformed, leaving only happy memories and gratitude – and sometimes a much needed assurance of forgiveness for myself in the relationship. But Dad’s death was different for me, and it has made me realize how little I really knew about grief. How little I know still.

Comfort food

Over the past seven days, my heart has grown increasingly heavy. As a North Carolinian and a United Methodist, I have been discouraged by the most recent actions in both NC and the UMC General Conference to exclude gays and lesbians. I have attended the funeral of an old friend. Two women close to my heart have both suffered pregnancy losses in the past seven days. My husband visited with a friend whose recovery from a severe head injury is achingly slow, and whose prognosis is uncertain.

And on and on the list goes. It does not help that the sky is gray, but the rain refuses to fall – the gray clouds just hover between myself and the light.

So today will not be the day for me to reflect, to examine a loss and find the way forward within it. Instead, I am retreating into the mundane. I will put one foot in front of the other because I must. I will begin to prepare dinner because I can.

There is a time to speak, and a time to refrain from speaking. But it is almost always a good time to cook – perhaps a good hearty beef stew in a beer broth?  If I have time, I’ll bake some zucchini bread. Somehow, it is easiest for me to feel God’s embrace when I am up to my elbows in flour!

May you, too, find ways to nurture yourself on gray days, in long weeks, and at times of great loss.