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.

A Blast from the Past

Last month, to celebrate her wedding anniversary, my mom looked through her wedding album. As my own 15th wedding anniversary approaches, I was reminded that my wedding photos are still in a cardboard box in the attic. I can’t remember when I last looked through them. My seven year old daughter has never seen them.

When I was a child, looking at old photos was an exciting event – whether looking through the two photo albums that spanned my preschool years, or munching on popcorn while looking at the many slides that my father took – especially of my parents’ cross country honeymoon roadtrip! Each photo was sorted into its proper place in its albums or carousel, and together they formed a comfortingly familiar narrative.

And so, on a mission to create this narrative for my daughter, I braved the wilds of the attic. Unfortunately, I did not remember that I had long ago put the wedding photos in their own box within a box, helpfully labelled “wedding photos.” So I sorted through envelope after random envelope of photos. And along the way, I found plenty of photos that were decidedly not from the era I was looking for.

I have deactivated my Facebook account, but nonetheless, I set aside a few photos that might be fun for “Throwback Thursday” – some friends at a college Christmas party, my sister preparing stuffed tomatoes in the sweltering railroad kitchen of one of my many not!air-conditioned college apartments, a friend in the prom dress she had made herself… and I stuffed a few photos back in the box, sorry I had seen them: an ex-boyfriend playing guitar while my kitten batted at the guitar strings, myself looking longingly over the edge of a cliff as my first husband smiled widely at the camera on our wedding day, my father looking angrily away from my thoughtfully teary eyed mother sitting beside him at my grandmother’s dining room table… Why did I keep those?

I used to feel like I had the obligation to keep every photo – that the mere fact of me having documented an event bestowed historical significance, and I had the archivist’s duty to maintain this tangible imprint of memory. Now I’m not so sure. Maybe “Throwback Thursday” is a Facebook holiday for people who don’t have an entire decade of their life that was chewed up by mental illness and bad decision making. Maybe us folks who have been tormented by demons of depression or anxiety or bipolar disorder or addiction etc etc should be allowed, on reflection, to toss away those old photographs without guilt feelings.

Naturally I want to toss every photo of me holding a cigarette before my daughter finds them. But mostly I am wanting to get rid of photos for myself. The people in the photos might look happy or hopeful, but each one carries a narrative that only I (and a handful of others) know – not just of my own failed first marriage, but the failed marriages of friends, of abuse and betrayal, of desperate self-deception, of fear and poverty, of broken confidences, of unrequited romantic obsession… all hidden behind those hopeful smiles. These photos lie to everyone but me – and perhaps to me as well.  And then there are the other photos that seem to speak the truth all too clearly, in the emotional dissonance between people made plain on their faces or in their postures. This hindsight is painful – what is plain to me now was not plain enough to me then to save myself and others from participating in their own emotional dismembering.

Re-membering – I don’t simply want to stitch together old memories haphazardly, leaving me with rotting bits reanimated – I do not want to let my fear of death (or forgetting) motivate me as it did Shelley’s Frankenstein. I crave resurrection – a new body, redeemed from sin for new life in Christ. Only God can re-member me correctly. Only God knows who I was and who I am, and only God knows the hearts of those I traveled with.

Even as my chronic anxiety has drawn my focus to a future of worst case scenarios, my depression has trapped me in a false past – a past of exaggerated wrongs and slights and failures, relived like a bad dream that I cannot wake from. Now, after fifteen years of increasing mental health and increasingly happy marriage, these old photos seem like demonic messengers, “assisting” me in returning to my mindset at the time I snapped each photograph. Next time I go into those old photo boxes, I am taking a trash bin with me – and a good friend.