Who Am I?

This question makes me think of the character Jean Valjean in my favorite musical of all time, Les Miserables. Prisoner 24601. That’s how he was known for years and years. And I think up until his dying day, it’s an identity forced on him that he carried to his grave.

We all have identities that are either chosen or forced upon us. Up until I was about 30, there was always an epithet after my name… Elizabeth the oldest daughter of Jon and Melissa. Elizabeth, Eileen’s granddaughter. Elizabeth the honors student (again and again and again). Elizabeth the piano teacher. Elizabeth the college student. Elizabeth the wife, and then Army wife.

Alternate identities can be a welcome invisible shield from who we really are, especially if the underlying being is of an unsure form. Like me. I grasped onto any positive or powerful or proud name I could through my childhood and early adulthood. I really wanted to please people, anyone: my parents, my grandparents, my sisters, my teachers, and then my boyfriend now-husband.

I wanted to look good on social media, on Christmas cards. I wanted to convey a sense that I had my life together because it was much easier than being honest with not only myself but everyone. It hurt to be honest, to myself especially because you have to live with yourself.

So for years I hid behind my shield, and I had an acute awareness that hiding was exactly what I was doing. But I didn’t know how to put that cloak on the floor. I’d be naked. I’d be seen for who I really am. (FWIW I know this all sounds cliche but guess what? I don’t care. It’s honest.)

I remember a distinct moment when all my alternate identities no longer were serving me. I was “home” in Illinois visiting for Christmas. Earlier that year I’d just graduated with a Master’s degree (a welcome accomplishment and identity to add to the list) and I’d landed a job as a professor.

I made sure that everyone knew I was a professor and not “just” a teacher, like I’d started my career years before that. I felt I had really made in the world. Even if during my ridiculously short tenure as a professor I felt like an imposter the whole time. I didn’t even had a PhD. I wasn’t “Doctor”. Hell, I’d barely even studied much of the subject of the department I was a part of. But I was all of a sudden an expert in my area. No pressure, right? But I clung to that identity as Professor as tightly as I could.

The tidy list of accomplishments that I thought made up who I was began to really unravel for me when we were trying to get pregnant and couldn’t. If I’m honest, my whole life all of my identities were just placeholders for when I’d be a wife. And then they still stayed tight in their places until I would become a mother. But in the same time of about six months, I lost my title of Professor due to moving and having to resign from the job, and then I really lost the possibility of being a Mother when we decided to not pursue treatment and live without children.

That moment during a winter break, I was just Elizabeth, Elizabeth who was loved and who loved her family. Elizabeth who barely wore makeup except mascara or changed her earrings or went on runs before Christmas dinner or watched silly movies with the kids while the adults played games. Elizabeth who likes to read and play music and drink wine and talk about deep things. Elizabeth who’s been in love with the same man for almost half her life. Elizabeth who loves deeply and a little recklessly and takes almost everything personally. Elizabeth who is generally anxious and has a penchant for situational depression. Elizabeth who has big opinions about a few things and doesn’t care much about the rest.

When I realized all the other identities, or rather, qualities that made me up as a whole person, it began a search for truth about who I am, what’s important, and why I’m on the earth. And the answers to any of those big questions really don’t have much to do with my alter egos, my other identities I hide behind in order to not face the fact that most days I am confused about my purpose on the earth. And least of all it doesn’t have much to do with whether my uterus will sustain a child or not.

At first taking off the cloak of epithets was difficult. Painful. Soul-wrenching. I grieved. And then after awhile it was freeing, and now I’d never dream of putting the cloak(s) back on.

 

“Good with children”

I’ve always been this way, good with children. If there’s such a thing as a maternal instinct, I have it. As much as I’d like to say I always played with Legos and didn’t prefer my Cabbage Patch Kids and doll house and play kitchen, I’d be lying if I did.

Not that having a maternal instinct and being domestic, as it were, go hand-in-hand, but for me they do.

So when I was first in the throes of infertility after its discovery, I for awhile believed that my being good with children was a farce, and something forced on me. But truly, it’s not.

I internally cringed when my therapist told me that I’d find ways to ‘mother’ others. I did not want to mother other people’s children, you know. I had wanted to mother my own, dammit.

But here I am to say that she was right, and I have known that this thing about myself is real and true and I can’t divorce it from my empty womb and healing heart.

I act on it all day long in my job with elementary aged students, attending to their sad faces and knee scrapes and tattling about their classmates. I act on it when I ask the youth if they need a ride home. I act on it with my many nieces and nephews, even from afar. I act on it when I run with a friend’s daughter during a 5K.

It’s just manifesting itself much differently than I thought it would, but I’m so grateful for those opportunities that other afford me with their children because infertility or not, it’s who I am.

A Little Bit (of) Sad

Today during a lesson with a newcomer student, she and I were chatting in Spanish and she said that I seemed a little sad to her. I told her, I was a little tired actually. And in her sweet Honduran Spanish, looking down at the letters she was tracing with her adorable dark pigtail braids, she told me that in her heart and mind she knows I’m a little sad.

She’s right.

In addition to being a little sad, I’m also so touched by the perception of a seven year old child who for all intents and purposes acts like a drunk adult, hiding under the table, jumping out from behind the door, skipping in the hallway. But still she (and I’m convinced all children everywhere) has an innate and intrinsic knowing about humans. They see straight to the truth.

How presumptuous we adults are, thinking that kids aren’t listening, or that they’re too young to understand. But their amusing and sometimes downright frustrating behavior belies the knowing in their hearts.

I have no idea the trauma or struggles this student of mine has gone through to now be here, on the East Coast of the United States, immersed in a language and culture she hasn’t fully grasped yet. But she knows what sad or hurt people look like. And she calls it out.

I think I’ll always carry this little bit of sad with me. I think everyone has a little bit of sad they carry with them as well. Some are just better at hiding it than others, stuffing it deep into lined pockets. Concealing it in between the couch cushions.

But unlike adults having to dig to find the little bit of sad, children can see exactly where it is and hold it gingerly for us to look at and ponder.

How interesting and providential that the absence of children broke me and now their presence has been aiding in my healing.

Catalyst

I went through a few years playing faith and going through the motions. I felt I really had no viable option otherwise. I hadn’t lost my faith but I didn’t feel connected either. The time after my first grandma died was also the time I was initially grieving children we would never have, and for its entirety I felt like I was watching faith and religion be played on the big screen after I had given away my ticket to the show.

I prayed, most definitely I prayed. I felt God’s presence, but more as an obvious thing, like the fact that on a sunny day the sky will also show itself to be blue. I believed, but believing in Jesus was believing the sky is blue.. an obvious fact without depth.

About these references to the blue sky. I spent, and do spend, a lot of time viewing, admiring, and analyzing the sky – particularly sunrises and sunsets. On summer days I was convinced that the sky was just not as poignantly blue as it was in El Paso.

And then I’d start to reminisce about El Paso and begin to miss it. But not the physical city itself.. the feeling of belonging and home. In a city where I was the minority for once, I still made sure to make it my home. Inevitably in my mind I’d get off on a tangent about what am I doing in Maryland anyway. What is my life amounting to. What’s the purpose of my life anyway.

That thought of purpose brought me back to sitting on Mimi’s deathbed with a fuzzy blanket. A literal bed where her death occurred. There have been very few times in my life where God has revealed himself to me. But in those last hours before we left her, God was there. Just as He was there when she came into the world as she left it: alone. He was orchestrating the entire event. And before my heart had broken with the finality of her loss he’d already begun to mend it.

To be completely honest I had no other option, and He knew that I think. It was all or nothing at that point for me, and I needed a catalyst to not be a wallflower to my faith, or my life, anymore.

She waited.

She was waiting for me, and that was the realization I had when my mom let me know that Mimi was declining fast and now receiving hospice care. When we got there, she was in her bed and though I’d never seen someone dying in person before, it was evident that this is what was happening to Mimi. She hadn’t eaten or drank anything since Monday, and by this point it was Friday. I expected her to have a breathing mask and/or IV, but she didn’t. She was shaking a little back and forth, and her eyes were slightly open but cloudy. Her mouth was devoid of her dentures, and her breathing was labored. My sister and I sat on opposite sides of her bed and told her close to her ear, “Hi Mimi, it’s Elizabeth.” “Hi Mimi, it’s Emily.” When she heard Emily, she tried to say her name and a tear fell from her right eye.

Since my other grandmother passed in 2016, I had grieved partially by reading every book I could get my hands on about death, dying, and what happens to our bodies in the process. I felt more prepared to be with Mimi. It wasn’t creepy or weird or anything… it was just.. her. I also knew that even though she couldn’t respond, she knew we were there, and she knew who we were. This was a huge blessing since she’d been suffering with dementia for years, and really declined in the last few.

Emily and I spent some time talking to her, recounting memories amidst big heavy tears and sobs. We both spent some time by ourselves with her. I thanked Mimi for taking me on my first trip out of state to Arizona on a plane, because it ended up changing my life and gave me a heart for travel. I thanked her for paying for my piano lessons, and I told her I recently got my piano tuned, finally.

I told her about the three big lessons she taught me: 1) you have to like what you see in the mirror; 2) there’s something good in everybody; and 3) everything happens for a reason. In going through infertility, I really hated remembering that last one. I refused to believe in my darkest days that God not giving me a baby was for a reason. I’ve since healed enough to come around. Lastly, I told her that if she needed to go, it was okay. I felt a release and an acceptance that she was going to die soon.

After releasing some emotion and having separate time with her, Emily and I washed her face with a washcloth, put on some night cream (even though she had lost so much weight, she had almost no wrinkles! we told her she’d be happy about that), and put on some lip balm. Out of muscle memory, she puckered her lips as if she were putting on her rose gold Mary Kay lipstick she always carried in her purse. We also used a swab to moisten her mouth and she seemed to appreciate that. We held her hands, and when she got too warm we put her arms outside of her blanket. We made sure to monitor her because if she got too agitated we could call the nurse to administer medication.

Eventually we left, and it was hard. It was actually Emily who encouraged me to stay longer. But I was glad in the end to have taken care of her, though it would never be equal to all the times she took care of me. Emily and I told her that we’d gotten her ready for bed, and that for her to get some rest and we’d see her in the morning.

As we were leaving, the hospice volunteer came and for the few minutes we spoke with her, I sensed she had such a deeply compassionate and sweet spirit. She said she just loved Eileen, and couldn’t wait to get off work to come see her. She said she was going to play her some gospel and praise & worship music, and I was grateful that she’d have a companion for the next few hours.

At around 3 in the morning, my mom came into the room where Emily and I were sleeping and told us that Mimi had passed away around 2:30. Did we want to go see her one more time before they took her away? She wanted to make sure to ask us just in case. We said that we were okay and that we didn’t need to go.

And then we wept, for Mimi’s passing, and for the realization that she waited for us. And for that I am so grateful.

Word

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being.

In Him was life, and the life was the Light of men. The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.

There came a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to testify about the Light, so that all might believe through him. He was not the Light, but he came to testify about the Light.

There was the true Light which, coming into the world, enlightens every man. He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, and the world did not know Him.

He came to His own, and those who were His own did not receive Him. But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.

And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth.

John 1:1‭-‬14 NASB

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Genesis 9:8-17

Psalm 25:1-10

1 Peter 3:18-22

Mark 1:9-15

All the paths of the Lord are lovingkindness and truth To those who keep His covenant and His testimonies.
Psalms 25:10 NASB

This verse from the week’s readings are a good reminder to me. I have followed virtually my whole life and sometimes I wonder if I’ve been led off the path, or of the Person leading has let go and has let me wander. However, this verse shows me that the path will lead to kindness and truth.

I’ve been on a quest for truth, of myself and of God. In general it’s been a tough experience, annoying and frustrating and saddening at times. But in the journey I am finding truth and it is as it’s said… The truth will set you free.