Keep Pile: 1 Garbage Pile: 0

 

My breathing quickens. I look around at the mess we’ve created on the ground. Boxes, plastic bags, storage bins, shoes, books, coats, hangers, toys, home décor, craft supplies, old appliances, CDs, blankets, sleeping bags, photo albums, backpacks… the pathway we created to the door was now non-existent. I had to balance on one foot to try to make my way back into the storage room.

This is going to be impossible, I thought. It will take hours to complete.

“Just keep doing your thing,” my husband breaks into my thoughts. “You know, keep on organizing and I’ll work on breaking down the trash.”

This weekend, my husband and I cleaned out our storage room. Well, it is more like a storage closet. It is in the garage of our apartment complex, and it is tiny, and yet we had managed to cram our entire lives into it. It’s the kind of closet that after you shut the door, you pray nothing jumps out and attacks you the next time you have to open it. I mean it was floor to ceiling, wall-to-wall, jam packed. And had been this way, literally, since the day we moved here, just over a year ago. Whatever we couldn’t fit into our one-bedroom apartment went in this storage space.

It was the perfect fall weekend for a project like this, foggy and rainy; and we had put it off long enough! I dreamed about what it would look like in the end. Massive amounts of space, clearly labeled containers, each item we owned would have its own space. No more trying to balance miscellaneous pieces on top of each other.

I sigh and lift another heavy box. The muscles in my arms tighten and quickly become sore. I set the box down and begin to rummage through its contents. An old teddy bear, articles I wrote for the newspaper in College, a necklace I wore at a wedding, three huge photo albums, a scrapbook of baby stuff my mom made me…

I create two piles: keep and garbage. I begin to sort. Jeff grabs the garbage and breaks it down or stuffs it into an overflowing garbage bag. I toss the keep items into a new storage bin.

Fortunately, I do not like to keep a lot of “stuff” – now that may sound contradictory to everything I just explained, but truly, I enjoy throwing things away that I know I will never look at or use again. For example, things that have been sitting in this storage room for an entire year that we never once missed or thought about.

Of course, there are always those few pieces of sentimental value that I just can’t part with, but oftentimes, my garbage pile is much bigger than my keep pile. It is easy to distinguish between the two.

So why is that so difficult to do with my Christ walk?

I have a lot of garbage in my life. There are things that I waste too much time on, there are sins that I cling to from my past that God has washed away and forgotten. There are thoughts that tear me down, battles I have yet to win, and places that I have failed… and then all this garbage – this “waste of worthless, nonsensical matter” – sort of just creeps into my keep pile. My heart. The same place I store my favorite memories, my joys, my strengths, my peace, and my faith. The pieces of my life worth keeping.

When I was younger, I made a lot of poor choices and decisions. Big ones. I know I have been forgiven of these things, and yet when I have a bad day or doubt myself, those tiny flecks of garbage stink up my keep pile. I don’t want them to, but they do. I’ve told myself that they no longer define who I am, but somehow, when I am feeling really low… they. do.

Does this ever happen to you?

The garbage in my keep pile takes over. Suddenly, I can’t see the pieces I want to keep; the ones I want to cling to… those pieces are fading, and all I see is the mess I’ve created. The pain I have caused people. The disappointments and hurts. The useless stuff that invades my time. Hatred. Anger. Failures. My past. It effects how I think. It cripples me so I cannot move forward. Confidence is replaced with fear. Future joy with past tears.

I am not good enough.

I am sinking.

But, once again, I am reminded. It is not about me. NOT about me.

“The moment the focus of your life shifts from your badness to His goodness and the question becomes not, “What I have done?” but “What can He do?” release from remorse can happen; miracle of miracles, you can forgive yourself because you are forgiven, accept yourself because you are accepted, and begin to start building up the very places you once tore down. There is grace to help in every time of trouble. That grace is the secret to being able to forgive ourselves. Trust it.” – Brennan Manning, The Ragamuffin Gospel

When I’m having difficulty sorting my garbage pile from my keep pile, I am reminded that it is already finished. That means my past does not define me, my failures and shortcomings do not paint the full picture of who I am. Christ has come. I am set free. The answer is grace. It is a completely foreign concept for the human brain to understand. Grace is a free gift – we did nothing to deserve it.

Nothing that I can do or say will change the fact that Christ died for me and loves me and has already settled the score.

Keep Pile: 1 Garbage Pile: 0

Of course, there are times where we have to battle the garbage. We do this by resting in God’s word and reminding ourselves of the truths and promises God tells us.

God heals the brokenhearted. + Psalm 147:3

We will be persecuted, but not destroyed. + 2 Corinthians 4:8-9 

Nothing in creation will separate us from God’s love. + Romans 8:35-39

God will give us rest. + Matthew 11:28-29

His favor is for a lifetime. + Psalm 30:5

We are no longer slaves to sin, but God’s children. + Galatians 4:7

God has the ability to do all that He has promised. + Romans 4:20-21

Perhaps the most effective way to restore our keep piles, at least for me, is to have fellowship with believers and rid the garbage of our lives together. When we serve together, pray together, and study God’s word together, our keep piles are stronger. I think this is the way God intended it. He did not want us to battle the garbage alone.

I look at Jeff who is cutting down boxes in the garbage pile. How would I have ever completed this project without him? Together we were able to conquer the storage room in three hours. If I were alone, this would have easily taken double that amount of time. I am grateful to have him in this physical sense, as he is helping me clean out our storage room, but even more importantly, I am grateful to have him every day, to help me battle the garbage in my heart; to help me sort my piles, so the important stuff I want to keep is stable and strong; and so that the garbage is destroyed.

The final label is made. I press the sticky tape onto the smooth surface of the storage container. Jeff grabs the final box and takes one last trip to the garbage dump. It is finished, but not exactly how I imagined it would look. Since it is a small space, we really had to think about what was most important to keep. Even though we got rid of lots of garbage, the closet still feels tight.  There isn’t massive amounts of space like I dreamed, but we made a huge improvement.

My keep pile has improved, too. I took out the garbage this morning in prayer. I am not the same person I was ten years ago, or even last week. But I am improving. I am taking steps. God is still working in me, helping me sort through the garbage, and He will continue to work in me every day. He doesn’t stop working and He doesn’t stop loving.

I can’t help but going back down to our storage room and peeking in every now and then. I can sigh with contentment that 1. This project is completed, 2. I feel just a bit more organized, and 3. Although it’s not exactly how I pictured it, I know that I worked hard at it, and it is in a much better place than it was yesterday.

storage room

“God replaced my fear of failure with His assurance when I discovered that His love won’t fail, even when I do.” – Renee Swope, A Confident Heart

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Ti Amo: A Short Story

Many people around me are suffering. I don’t know this type of suffering that they face; death, illness, addictions, cancer. It breaks my heart when people who are close to me have to deal with such pain.

While I was reflecting recently on why we suffer, I was reminded of this story I originally wrote in college, but have revisited/edited a few times since then. I decided to share it with you all today as a reminder to be in prayer for those around you who are in need; those who suffer the great pains of illness. Those who are stricken with cancer or addictions. Those who might be facing death…

***

Ti Amo

Shivering from the cold, I buried my head deeper into the scarf that was much too big for my small face. The loose brown curls escaped from underneath the hood of my bright pink winter jacket that I had managed to squeeze myself into for yet another year. Mama promised to buy me a new one next winter.

Mama and Daddy were in the front of the van, singing a Christmas carol as Dad, squinting through accumulated snow, concentrated on driving. I tried to sing along, but forgot most of the words. I should’ve made them sing Jingle Bells.

My hands found one of the tiny, bear-shaped buttons on my coat and I began to twist one around and around until I thought it would break. My sister sat next to me, her mass of dark curls identical to mine, bounced up and down in rhythm with the bumps on the road, as she flipped through the winter edition of Highlights for Children magazine. I looked out the window as we drove past kids catching tiny sparkles of snowflakes on their steaming tongues. Then they raced up hills only to come sledding down again.

It was Christmas Eve, 1984, and I was on my way to Nonna’s, just like every year, for dinner and presents.

“Becca,” Daddy said and I looked up, “Did you know that when I was your age we had to drive ten hours to my Nonna’s house for Christmas Eve dinner?”

I smiled. My parents meant everything to me back then. They were in a word: perfect.

“Dad, it was not ten hours,” Mallory groaned, looking up from her magazine.

Daddy winked at me in the mirror before he went back to singing “Silent Night” with Mama in two-part harmony.

My sister always had to be right. Didn’t she know that Mama and Daddy knew everything? Please, she was what? Ten? What did she know?

Letting my pink boots tap against the seat, I slowly closed my eyes to nap the rest of the way to Nonna’s. I dreamt about all the things my parents had taught me since I was a baby. I could count now, and I knew the alphabet. I could ride a bike without training wheels, jump rope, draw, write my full name, and almost rollerblade. My swing in T-Ball was improving, and I knew first, second, and third position in ballet class. I could tie my shoes by myself, brush my teeth and floss. I shared most of my toys at school and stopped bothering Mallory when I was told. I helped Mama set the dinner table and make brownies and I rode on Daddy’s lawn mower with him in the summer. Mama and Daddy taught me everything I needed to know for life. They were flawless.

The van came to a sudden stop and disrupted my simple childhood dreams. My scarf was on the floor and my sister’s magazine that was once so interesting, was now slightly wet and crumpled underneath her boots.

Daddy opened the door for me and I jumped into his strong, loving arms. He carried me all the way to Nonna’s front door. I watched my short puffs of breath next to his long, bold ones. He even let me ring the doorbell.

“Ciao! Come Stai? Ciao! Ciao!” Nonna kissed us all as we stepped inside the warm home that was buzzing with relatives’ chatter. The smells of homemade pasta sauce and garlic bread drifted into my nose.

“Ah, Mal, you are so big!” Nonna said to my sister as she squeezed her cheeks. Then she took me from Daddy and cried, “Becca!”

“Buon Natalié, Nonna!” I said in my mousy voice. She squeezed me tight and helped me take off my winter gear. As soon as I was free, Mal and I ran off to play with our cousins.

About an hour later, I got bored with playing Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles because, since I was the youngest, my cousins always made me be Raphael. I wanted to be April, but Janie always got that part. She was twelve.

I left the room as Mal, who was Michelangelo, was fighting Shredder, my cousin Evan, and went to the Christmas tree. I loved looking at all of Nonna’s ornaments. Her favorite one was the two turtledoves, so she placed it close to the top of the tree. Every year I tried to reach for it and every year I was a little bit closer. It was Mama’s favorite, too.

Wandering down the stairs I noticed Mama was sitting on the couch looking at some sort of book. I ran over to her and watched her for a moment. She was crying.

“Mama,” I whispered. She jumped at the sound of my voice and motioned for me to sit next to her on the couch. I climbed up and snuggled into her arm. She was looking at a photo album of my Nonna’s. “Who’s that?” I asked pointing to a little boy.

“That’s your dad,” Mama smiled down at me.

“He looks so little!” I pressed my face against the glossy photograph.

Mama turned the page. “And that’s Nonno and Nonna with Daddy and Zio John,” she said, pointing. One of her tears hit my Nonno’s face.

“Why are you crying, Mama?” I sat up straight now.

She ran a hand through my thick curls and kissed the top of my head, “Oh Baby, it’s not your fault,” she whispered into my hair. “I’m scared.”

“Why are you scared? Were you a bad girl this year? Don’t worry Mama, Santa will still bring you presents,” I comforted her.

She laughed a little and held my chin in her hand, “Becca, if I ever leave you, know that I still love you.”

That was a strange thing to say. “Where are you going?”

“I might have to go away for a little bit,” she licked her lips, “Io sono a malatta.” Mama sometimes spoke Italian when she got nervous.

“Sick? Do you have a tummy ache, Mama?”

“No, it’s a little more serious than that.”

“What?”

“Baby, do you know what cancer is?”

I shook my head. Daddy and Mal walked in just then and sat next to Mama and me on the couch.

“What’s cancer?” I asked

“I never wanted to be the kind of parents to my kids that my parents were to me,” Mama said. “I don’t even know where they are right now and I promised myself that I would always be there for my children. I would never, ever leave their sides for a second.”

“What’s cancer?”

Mal looked down at her feet at my question and Daddy put an arm around her. “Ti amo Mama,” she said and gave Mama a hug. “You’ll get better soon.”

“What’s cancer?!” I was getting impatient and kind of annoyed that Mal already knew about this.

Mama swallowed, “Sometimes our bodies make bad cells that make us very, very sick,” she explained, “and sometimes our bodies become so weak, that our good cells can’t fight the bad ones.”

“That’s cancer? Bad cells?” I asked.

“Yes. And I have lots and lots of bad cells,” Mama held my hand. “So I might have to go away for a little bit and let the doctors try to fix it.”

Daddy was crying now and Mama turned to hug him. I hugged Mama and Mal hugged Daddy and together we sat on the couch for several minutes crying and hugging.

“Pranzo!” Nonna called from the kitchen to let us know dinner was ready, but none of us moved.

It was that winter, the winter after I turned seven years old, that I realized my parents weren’t perfect.

***

I closed the photo album from Christmas Eve 1984 that I found in my attic several years later and fought back the tears. A piece of paper fluttered to the ground and kissed my feet. I knew instantly what it was.

I picked up the paper and opened it. “1 Peter 4:12-13,” it read, “Don’t be surprised at the suffering you face, as if something strange is happening to you. Instead, be very glad – for these trials make you partners with Christ in his suffering, so you will have the wonderful joy of seeing His glory when it is revealed.”

Mama had written this out for me on one of the last days she was alive. Although the verse was talking about suffering for being a Christian, it spoke volumes to me today with what I had to face.

The verse was one Mama had memorized and recited to my sister and me often. We usually rolled our eyes when she said it because we didn’t understand. After Mama passed, I was so angry at God for taking her away from me as a child. For so many years I felt alone and deserted. I wanted nothing to do with a God who allowed such a painful death. I didn’t understand why she had to suffer the pain of cancer, and why the rest of us had to suffer the pain of life without her.

Mama was gone 21 years this August, and I could still hear her whispering “Ti Amo” as she tucked me into bed each night. It was difficult now, with kids of my own -Lucas in fourth grade and Deanna just over her seventh birthday, around the same ages Mal and I were when we found out – when we’d go to Daddy’s for Christmas because for some reason I still expected to see Mama. In fact, I wanted to see her there greeting us at the door with kisses, just like Nonna did for me.

I was expecting Mal any minute, so I put the album away, tucked the slip of paper into my pocket, and grabbed my old Raphael outfit for Lucas. He had been asking me for it for a couple weeks now – suddenly the turtles in a half-shell were back and more popular than ever. Lucas thought it would be so cool to have a “real Ninja Turtle costume from the 80s” to show off to his friends.

When I got downstairs, Mal was already making herself comfortable on my living room sofa, talking on her cell, but she smiled when I entered the room.

“Okay Dad, I’ll let Michael know…” Mal was saying.  “Yeah. No. Dad, I know! Yes, Becca is here. You wanna talk to her? Okay….Okay. Yeah. Okay, ti amo. Okay, Dad. Ciao!”

I looked at Mal with sympathetic eyes as she hung up the phone, “What did Daddy want?”

“He and Michael are having some problems with the painters or something? I dunno, he said Michael will know when I tell him,” she waved her hand as if pushing the problem aside.

“Oh yeah, Michael hired some painters for Daddy’s shed,” I explained, handing my sister the latest edition of In Style. I was always prepared when she came over, I knew what she liked.

Mal grabbed the issue out of my hands and eagerly began flipping through the shiny print.

“Ok, I have to go pick up Lucas from soccer,” I told Mal, grabbing my keys. “There’s leftover Chinese food in the fridge, help yourself, and Deanna gets off the bus at 4:00, so watch for her,” I looked over my shoulder at Mal, content in the pages of her new magazine. “Oh and Michael should be home soon anyway, so you don’t have to stay long if you have anything you need to get to and…”

“Take it easy, Principessa,” Mal soothed in a motherly tone. I smiled at her old nickname for me, “I can handle it, I’ve been doing this for how long now?” she asked me, eyebrows lifted.

“I know, I know,” I said, shaking my head, “Ok, see ya in a bit! Grazie!”

“Ciao, ciao!” Mal called after me.

Stepping outside, I let the sun soak my face and took a deep breath, inhaling the sweet blossoms that were just beginning to bloom. Small white birds flew from branch to branch, across yards and streets. Spring was finally here, Mama’s favorite season.

When I reached the school, I waited outside the car for Lucas. Soon enough, he came running up to me, his backpack bouncing behind him.

“Mama!! Mama!!” He called, his cleats clicking on the cement sidewalk as he ran.

“Lucas! Come estai?” I hugged him tightly and helped him get into the car.

“Benissimo, Mama!!!” Lucas was always in an energized mood after soccer practice. I envied his liveliness.

“How was soccer, did you score any goals?” I looked at him in the rearview mirror.

Lucas began to chat excitedly about his soccer team, saying that they were the best ever, and that he scored more goals than anyone else.

“Even Stephen couldn’t score as many goals as me, and Stephen’s been playing soccer since he was five!” Lucas went on.

I listened to him talk about soccer the entire way home, but my mind was elsewhere. I had Mal coming to stay with Michael and me a couple days during the week to help with the kids. Sometimes I couldn’t wake myself up in time to get them ready for school, so I was thankful for Mal’s help.

When we got home, Lucas ran inside while I checked the mail. There was a check from Daddy from the last paint job I did on his new shed. The shed was for the red ‘76 Chevy Camaro he bought to remind him of “the good ole days” and I was helping him paint it until just last week. Physically, I couldn’t handle my normal load of painting anymore, so Michael suggested I hire some people to help Daddy. I had to cancel several painting jobs in the last month with my interior-decorating business and I could tell that things were going to get worse.

I also hadn’t been cooking like I used to because I was just too exhausted. A lot of the time, I stopped to get take-out on my way home from picking up Lucas or running other errands, but now with Mal to help with the cooking, I didn’t need to, and when I walked in the door, the warm smells of fried calamari embraced me. What would I do without Mal?

These days I just didn’t have the energy anymore and now I feared the worst.

Sighing, I dropped the keys in their spot by the front door and fell onto the couch. Mal was right there with two Advil and a glass of water.

“Thanks Mal,” I smiled and took the medicine.

She shrugged and walked away like what she was doing for me wasn’t anything out of the ordinary.

“Mama!” I heard Deanna’s mousy squeal coming from the hallway, “Spin me around Mama!” She plopped her little body right on my lap with her arms outstretched.

“Hi Baby,” I squeezed her tight.

“Spin me! C’mon! Spin meeeeee!” Deanna pleaded. She loved this game. I would spin her around and around, and then drop her onto the couch. She would get up a second later and cry, “Again, Mama, again!”

I took her by the waist and spun her around a few times. She pretended like she was flying with her eyes closed, arms out to her sides as far as they could go and as straight as a line, and her messy brown curls waving behind her. Then I dropped her on the couch as she laughed hysterically. I loved to hear her laughter fill the room; it made me forget about…everything.

Her voice, buried in the couch cushions, came out muffled now, “Again!”

Michael came home just then and without a moment’s hesitation Deanna jumped from the couch and into her Daddy’s arms. Mal smiled from the kitchen. She never married, although she came close, so I think she enjoyed being around us as much as we enjoyed having her.

By the time dinner was ready, all I wanted to do was nap. I didn’t have much of an appetite, so I told Michael I was going to lie down.

“Are you okay?” Michael took me into his arms.

I forced a smile and nodded, “Everything will be fine.” I looked at the kids who were busy helping Mal set the table.

He kissed my forehead. “Why don’t you try to eat something, Becca?”

My lip began to quiver. He knew I was losing weight, but there wasn’t anything I could do to prevent it. “I’m scared, Michael. What will happen to the kids?” I rested my head on his chest and he rubbed my back.

“We don’t know anything for sure–” Michael began.

“C’mon Mama! I’m hungry!” I looked at Lucas who was already sitting down and ready to eat. Deanna flashed a smile at Michael and I and my heart sunk at the thought of leaving her.

I tried to eat that night, if anything, for the sake of my family. The last thing I wanted to do was let them down. I remembered what it was like for me, holding my parents on such a high pedestal. Mama and Daddy were my idols; they were everything I wanted to be. And then in a seven-year-old’s heart, to see the imperfections of whom she held most high…well, she is never quite the same.

After dinner I helped Lucas with his homework and then took a shower. Letting the hot pellets of water soak my face, I inhaled deeply and the problems that flooded my mind evaporated with the steam.

Rubbing away the condensation on the mirror with my arm, I squinted at my reflection. Tomorrow, I thought, I would know for sure. What I know now, I am only concluding from my own diagnosis. The Doctor will tell me everything is fine because surely a sister, a wife, and a mother of two couldn’t possibly have breast cancer. It had to be a mistake. I wasn’t ready to leave my family. Not yet.

***

I nervously tapped the sides of my legs as I waited for Dr. Haman the next morning.

“Rebecca Costa?” He called from his office.

I followed the sound of his voice and closed the door behind me.

“Have a seat.”

I sat down slowly, biting the insides of my mouth in fear of what the next few minutes would bring.

He scanned several papers and made a couple of marks on the top of each one while saying “mmhmm…” and sighing as he flipped through the packet.

I looked around the office until my gaze landed on a picture of Dr. Haman and his three adorable children. They all had glittering blue eyes and wavy auburn hair. Dr. Haman was grinning from ear to ear, on his hands and knees, gazing at his daughter. The only girl in the photograph was stunning, her smile bright and passionate as she looked up at her father. The two boys hung on Dr. Haman’s back, their heads tilted to either side in mid-laughter.

“Mrs. Costa,” Dr. Haman said, leaning back against the cushiony, wheeling chair. “Last time you came in, you said you noticed some discharge coming out of your left breast, is this still the case?”

I nodded, nervously grabbing the sides of my pants.

“And are you sleeping well?”

I bit my lip. “Actually, I’m more tired during the day. It seems like everything I do is too much for me. And then when night comes, I can barely sleep at all.”

“And eating…?”

“I’m always tired, but I’m never hungry. I’ve lost over ten pounds this past month alone.”

He smiled then and nodded. “My sister-in-law was diagnosed with breast cancer last year.”

I drew in a deep breath. “It actually runs in my family. My mother died of it when I was very young.”

Dr. Haman’s face grew serious. “Well from what you’ve been telling me for several weeks now, and the way your behavior has been changing…” Dr. Haman looked out the window for a long moment. There were lush green hills peeking over the horizon, but his focus was on a small white bird sitting on top of a mailbox.

I licked my lips. I knew what was coming.

“Mrs. Costa, all of your tests came back positive for Stage 2 – breast cancer.”

I looked at Dr. Haman’s picture again and imaged Michael, Lucas, and Deanna in their places. Without me.

***

When I pulled in my driveway later that afternoon, Mal’s car was already there.

“Mal,” I called, walking in the door and tossing my keys on the table.

“In here, Becca!” She called from the playroom.

Mal was tidying up a bit before the kids came home. I watched her from the doorway without saying a word. I could not imagine what life would be like without her. All the time she dedicated to my family was more than I could have ever asked for.

She caught me watching her and jumped up. “How’d it go?”

I nodded, fighting back tears.

That was all she needed to know.

Mal came over to me and embraced me in a long, tight hug. “Ti amo,” she whispered, sounding very much like Mama. I buried my face into her neck and let the tears spill ceaselessly.

“What’s going to happen?” I barely made the words out through my sobbing.

Mal swallowed and I felt a bead of moisture hit my forehead and roll down my cheek. It wasn’t mine.

“You’ll make it. I know you will,” she whispered.

Together we heard the garage door opening and pulled away, drying our faces with the backs of our hands.

“Michael offered to pick up the kids today. Dee hates taking that bus,” Mal said.

I laughed a little. “I know it, Lucas too.”

“Mama!” I heard Lucas call.

Mal and I walked into the living room and I gave Lucas and big hug. Deanna hopped up behind him, waiting to be hugged. I lifted her up and squeezed her tight. I was still holding her when Michael came to give me a kiss.

“Mama! Today at school there was a FIRE! Allllll the kids had to go outside!” Deanna began excitedly when I put her down.

“It was a fire drill. There was no fire,” Lucas explained.

“Yeah there was! Sydney Kramer said she saw one!” Deanna argued.

“Oh sure. Where?” Lucas grabbed his Game Boy from the kitchen counter.

“She diiiiiiiiid! In the cafeteria!” Deanna’s eyes were wide.

“Well she lied,” Lucas sprawled on the couch.

Deanna came running up to him and took his face into her hands, “Sydney Kramer doesn’t lie. There was a real fire,” she said slowly, looking at her brother in the eye.

Lucas shook his head and Deanna left him alone.

“It’s unbelievable, isn’t it?” Michael whispered in my ear.

I looked at him questioningly.

“Lucas and Dee,” he explained. “One minute they’re arguing, the next they’re playing.”

I watched my children sitting side-by-side on the couch now. Lucas had his Game Boy in hand, and Deanna had her head on his shoulder watching the screen.

“So, what did Dr. Haman have to say?” Michael took my hand and we sat with Mal at the kitchen table.

I looked at Mal for support. She smiled and took my other hand.

“It’s breast cancer,” I said, “Stage 2, which means it’s growing, but hasn’t spread…yet. He wants to start chemo on Monday before I have surgery.”

Michael’s grip on my hand was weaker now and I glanced up at him.

“It’s ok,” I said. “The doctor says it’s very treatable.”

Michael nodded and without a word got up from the table and started preparing dinner.

Mal and I looked at each other, frowning.

“It’s ok, I can do that,” Mal offered getting up from the table.

Michael didn’t say anything as he grabbed different foods out of the fridge, but Mal went to the kitchen anyway and helped him.

“Michael,” I began, but he dropped the bowl he was mixing salad in and walked into the bedroom. I followed him.

He sat on the edge of the bed, his face buried behind his hands. “I can’t do this,” he said when I sat next to him.

“Do what? What’s wrong?”

He looked up now. White birds were singing to each other on the branches of a huge willow tree in our back yard. “I can’t be strong for you anymore. It’s too hard. Watching the kids earlier…I just can’t.”

“You don’t need to be,” I told him, putting a hand on his back.

“I do. What about the kids?”

“It’s going to be fine. I’ll tell them, you don’t have to worry about it.”

The birds flew away.

“What if I can’t help them by myself?” Michael’s eyes searched mine for the answer.

“Stop talking like that.”

Michael was quiet, but then he nodded slowly, “You’re right, I’m sorry. I’m just…I’m scared. Aren’t you scared?”

I didn’t answer him. I couldn’t.

Michael looked away just as the birds began a new chorus.

“Come on, Michael. Everything will be fine, you’ll see.”

***

After dinner that night, Mal helped with the dishes before going home.

“Mal,” I whispered to her as she was grabbing her purse to leave.

She turned. “What is it?”

I brushed tears from my cheeks before taking her hand and pressing a slip of paper into her palm. She gave me a questioning look.

“Mama,” I began but tears choked back my words.

Mal opened the paper and read. Her fingers traced my mother’s delicate script. Closing her eyes she sighed and hugged me.

“Mama wrote that out for me before she passed away,” I explained in her embrace.

“Sshh,” she whispered into my hair.

We stood like that for a moment, a bond between us that could never be broken.

When we separated, Mal smiled at me. “Mama always knew what to say to make it better, didn’t she? Even when we didn’t know it at the time.”

I nodded. I missed Mama so much, even now. Especially now.

 

Mal pushed the paper to her heart, then slipped it into her purse, hugged the children goodbye and left.

Quietness surrounded me for a second before I called Dee and Lucas to the living room.

Deanna sat on my lap and Lucas sat in between Michael and me.

“Ti amo Deanna.” I kissed the top of her head.

She grinned up at me, “Ti amo Mama.”

“Ok, what did you guys have to tell us?” Lucas asked impatiently.

Michael and I looked at each other. Suddenly, I was at a loss for words. Gazing out the window I saw the fresh greens and browns against the sky. Outside was beautiful, but on the inside it was dark and glum. Here I was sitting with my two children who were about to hear something no child should ever have to hear.

The soft white birds’ songs were barely starting up again, and my heart was all but slowing down. I controlled my breathing so much that it was soundless. The birds, my heart, and each long puff of air…it was like my personal symphony, striking the chords for only me.

“Lucas, Dee,” I began. “There’s something wrong with Mama.”

They looked up at me at the same moment Michael looked away.

“What’s wrong, Mama? Are you sick?” Lucas asked.

“Do you have a tummy ache? I can make you some soup!” Deanna offered.

I smiled at each of them. “Yes, I’m sick. Very, very sick. The kind of sick that only a doctor can fix.”

They said nothing, but continued to watch me.

“I have a little lump in my chest,” I tried to explain as best as I could. I struggled to think of how Mama told us about her cancer. The image of bad cells eating good cells flickered into my mind and a second later it was gone. Thanks Mama.

I watched Lucas and Deanna’s expressions change from confused to pained as I used Mama’s story about the cells. Their poignant faces were enough to send Michael into a muddle of tears.

But Lucas wasn’t crying and neither was Deanna. Instead, each crawled into my lap and wrapped their arms around my neck. “Ti amo, Mama,” they whispered. “Ti amo moltó.”

The sweet white birds seemed to be watching us embrace from the window, and as they sang, I noticed something more about these birds that I hadn’t before. They were nonna’s birds – tiny white turtledoves from the Christmas tree that she placed so high; as they meant so much to her. Mama’s favorite ornament. And also mine.

And somehow I knew then what I didn’t know when I was seven. Everything was going to be fine. We were going to get through this. My children and my husband were not going to lose me like I lost Mama.

And over and over again, I heard my children whisper into my neck, “Ti amo, ti amo, ti amo…”

Lies & Deception

Stop comparing yourself to others; you have your own race to run. Finish well. (Lecrae)

Do you feel the same way I do? Do you feel like God teaches you the same lessons over and over again? There are a few constant lessons I’m learning, and have been learning for years. One of them is, God always knows the bigger picture. Another is, never judge someone because you never know what is truly going on in their lives. And another, learning to be content with every area of my life.

I like to think I am a fairly positive and happy person. Most days it’s easy for me to smile at you and carry on a conversation. And if you know me in any way, you know I enjoy laughing.

Being content, though, now that’s something else. It’s one thing to be happy with life; to wake up with breath in my lungs and an able body, to be able to work, and think, and sing, and laugh. But how can I stay content in a world of comparison?

Some days it’s hard for me to focus on the blessings instead of looking to what others have and wishing I had the same. It looks different for everyone… some people want relationships, others want knowledge/power, some want to get into the best college, they want control, they want to be physically fit, they want “stuff,” they want to get married and have a pinterest-dream wedding, they want to be debt-free, they want to be the perfect husband/wife, they want a house or a better house (with the best home décor), they want a new wardrobe, they want kids, the best car, the best job … etc.

1 Timothy 6:6-7 – But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it.

In reality, your average person cannot have all these things or be all these things. Even the things that sound really great and aren’t necessarily “bad” to want. And yet, we hate ourselves for that. We hate ourselves if all of these things cannot be done within a specific timeline. You’re 16 and don’t have a boyfriend? You’re 30 and unmarried? You’re 30 and married without children? You don’t own a house yet? You don’t know what you want to do with your life?!

Satan tells us we’re worthless if certain things don’t happen. God tells us we’re worth it no matter WHAT happens. What Satan tells you is true, doesn’t compare to what God tells you is truth.

Do not be caught in the deception of this world.

[A lie] = something that is not true. [Deception] = true, but not truth.

“Satan will tell us what’s true, but he never tells us truth.” – Michael Wells.

It might be true that there are “better” worship leaders than me. It might be true that there are people “more” passionate about High School ministry than I am. But it is not truth that I cannot sing or lead and that God will not use my abilities, or the talents HE has given me, to advance His Kingdom. It might be true that I don’t have enough money to pay my bills, but the truth is God will take care of my every need. (Matthew 6:25-30) It’s about Him, it’s not about me. He knows better than I do, and there is a definite reason behind why God made me this way.

So, will I be content with being single, when all of my friends are with someone? Will I be content with my second-choice college, when my friends are going to their first picks? Will I be content with not having my dream job/having a job that I didn’t go to college for? Will I be content living somewhere I don’t like? Will I be content with living in an apartment so I can pay off my student loans, while all my friends are buying houses? Will I be content with waiting to have children when all my friends have kids?

I have failed the contentment test time and time again. I like to think I’m content, but when I truly seek God’s wisdom in this area, I realize, in a lot of ways… I’m not. For example, when my husband and I lived in Rockford, I wanted nothing more than to move. I loved our church, I loved being part of the ministries there, and I was content in certain ways, but the truth was I wanted out of that city. I just didn’t like it. I wonder how many things I missed out on while living there just because I wasn’t content with where God had me for that time. I made some lasting relationships there for sure, but what bothers me is that just because I couldn’t see the next step, the next place where God would lead us, that meant I couldn’t be satisfied with the blessings around me.

I wonder if the same goes for you. Are you just dying to get out of this stage in your life, so much so, that you are missing out on the ways God is blessing you, right here in this moment?

If we’re honest with ourselves, Facebook is nothing but one huge comparison game. Who got married? Who just had a baby? Who bought a house? Yep, they broke up again, so glad that’s not MY life. Oh look, they’re dating. So cute. Why can’t I have a boyfriend? Look at her profile picture, my mom would KILL me if I posted a picture that revealing!! But, I wish I looked that good.

You get the idea, and it goes on and on…. Facebook will make it nearly impossible to be content with your own life if you let it. If you use the app on your phone, try taking it off your phone for a while. Does anyone want instant access to see what the media tells us we should be? Where we fail in our friends lives, or even, how much better we are/or feel than certain people? Do you use it to build yourself up by noticing how much better your life is compared to someone else’s? Do you use it to brag? Do you use it to tear others down? Do you use it to see where you fail or where you think you need to be?

You are probably thinking, no! I just use it to stay in touch with people, to post pictures, etc. The truth is, sometimes we do this stuff without thinking. At least, I know I do. I innocently log on to Facebook to reach out to a friend, and yet 30 minutes later, I’m scrolling through someone’s wedding pictures wishing I had made different choices about my own.

Look at your timeline. Do you encourage and celebrate more or complain, argue, and gossip more? (Lecrae)

The key to being content, I’m learning, is to stop complaining and stop the comparison game. Focus on where God has you so you don’t miss something. Focus on what God has blessed you with. And most important, just focus on GOD.

There is only one you. God made it that way because He knew there were specific things you would be GREAT at, and He wants you to use those gifts well. Not everyone is an athlete, so if you are, be athletic. Not everyone sings, so if you do, be a singer. Not everyone can lead, so if you can, be a leader.  (Romans 12:6-8)

Don’t look at what others have in material things. Don’t look at the talents they have that you don’t, look at what you have and learn to not only be content with it, but how to use it for good and for God. It’s time to be content with who we are, who God made you and I to be.

“And you were made for more than what this world sells. All that this world has to offer -no matter how appealing at the time- is temporary. It leaves us still hungry, wanting more, because we were made for something greater. We were created to shine the spotlight on God -to spread the fame of God everywhere we go… you have been created for a great life -a life that tells the story of God.” (Chris Tomlin)

Bacon and Eggs and Orange Juice

“I always thought it would be wonderful to be a writer,” she says. “To know just like that, how to put the right words together.”

The truth is, if I do miraculously manage to put the right words together, it is by default, because I’ve already used up all the wrong ones. And when you get right down to it, what I don’t say is probably more important than what I do. – Vanishing Acts, by Jodi Picoult

There are so many things that I want to write about here. I start entries, delete them, start over again, and then copy and paste them into word documents so my desktop is covered with unfinished thoughts.

That’s kind of how we go through life: thinking about the things we should have said or should have done, leaving thoughts unsaid, conversations unfinished, refusing to say things we know we should, and saying things we know we shouldn’t. I don’t want to live like that; regretting what I should have said or done. I want to live a life where every step I take is glorifying to God, and every thought and word is beneficial. How is that possible? I feel like I can rarely get this right.

Months ago, I was driving around Madison running errands when I saw a man with a cardboard sign: “Please Help.” I pulled into the stores’ parking lot and thought, If he is there when I get out, I should give him something. However, I spent so much time in that store that when left, I had less than 5 minutes to get back to work. This man was too inconvenient for my schedule. I ended up driving through another exit where I knew I wouldn’t have to see him; wouldn’t have to feel the guilt of looking him in the eye, knowing I had at least $10 in my wallet I could I have spared.

Weeks after this, I saw the same man, with the same sign, wearing the same clothes, but in a different place. Please Help. This time, I vowed, I will give him something. I had $5 in my wallet, so I rolled down the window, gave it to him, and he smiled a genuine smile. “God bless you,” he said. I smiled in return. God bless me? I have abundantly more than I could ever ask for. This man had nothing, yet He asked God to bless me.

A while after this, I was in line buying groceries. Now, my husband and I don’t go overboard when it comes to groceries. We buy the essentials to last us through the week. Our budget for groceries isn’t huge. It’s not even that big. I consider this as I scan the groceries in my cart, mentally checking off in my head what we really didn’t need to purchase that week. I wait for the man in front of me to pay.

Suddenly, there is a hold up. The man at the register explains that they don’t accept credit cards. I glance down at the items waiting to be paid for. 1 gallon of orange juice. 1 container of eggs. 1 package of bacon. I look up at the man who is at a loss for words. He is older, and looks poor, dirty even. He clearly has no other form of payment, so he sighs, returns the credit card to his wallet, and walks out.

Please Help.

It was mere seconds, but it wasn’t until that man was out the door that I realized something. I could have paid for him. My heart sinks as I unload my cart. Why didn’t I do something?  I watch each item of mine being scanned and when the man behind the register asks me how my day is going, I smile politely and say, “Good.” But in that moment, I didn’t feel “good.” I felt awful. What was the cost of a carton of eggs, a package of bacon, some juice? Nothing. Yet, it would have meant everything to that man. I was entirely too slow to respond.

I drive home, again wishing I had acted differently. And I pray, God, show me how to respond in these situations. Don’t let me be slow in thinking what I can do. May my actions glorify you in every situation. Be the forefront of my mind, the cornerstone of my life.

Just a few days later, Jeff and I were driving through the mall parking lot, having just picked up a few things that were (probably not) in our budget, when we notice a family;  a father and three young boys. Those boys… my heart hurts thinking about them. There is something about a child in need that resonates with my soul. It almost makes me angry. A child shouldn’t have to suffer. It’s just not right. The dad held a sign that said, “I lost my job and need to support my children. Please Help.”  Jeff, the great husband that he is, doesn’t think twice. He reaches for his wallet, then asks me how much money I have on me. I roll down my window as one of the little boys approaches. I hand him some money. “God bless you,” he says in broken English, “Thank you! God bless you!” and he runs off to his brothers. There it is again, God bless you. Why me? But on the other hand, I am immediately satisfied. As if somehow, this one time erased all the times I didn’t act the way I wanted to. I wonder if I was alone, how I would have acted. If it wasn’t for my husband’s good heart, would I have driven past?  But it isn’t about me, is it?  God answered my prayer in a way; He was showing me how to respond, through my husband. Don’t hesitate. Just do. Verses suddenly pour into my head about giving to the poor and needy, about “the least of these,” about God blessing those who do what He asks.

I know that we can’t help every person in need that we see, even if we want to, and we shouldn’t feel guilty when we can’t. And, there are other things we can do besides handing over money to people living on the streets. Jeff and I, years ago, used to keep McDonald’s gift cards in our car to hand out whenever we saw someone in need because let’s face it; we live in a world of debit and credit and don’t always have cash on us. There are organizations we can serve in that partner with the homeless and hungry, to provide shelter, clean clothes, a good meal.

It comes down to this: I don’t want to live in way where I regret not helping someone, whether a child or an adult; from someone truly hungry, to my next-door neighbor, to my friend, to my family… Especially when I know that I can. I believe that God doesn’t want me to live that way either. I guess it just starts with allowing my eyes to be open to these opportunities, and acting first before saying/thinking otherwise. In some situations, of course I should think before I act, but when it comes to helping someone… shouldn’t it be second nature to me; a Christ-Follower?  I am sad when it isn’t.  Let my actions speak today instead of my words, after all, words are just words if there is no action behind them.

“The Lord has already told you what is good, and this is what he requires of you: to act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.” + Micah 6:8

My Ekklesia after 292 Days

I have now been a resident of the state of Wisconsin for 292 days… that’s over 9 months! When I created this blog, I meant to start it when I moved to Madison, but 292 days later, I finally found the time to begin. (check out the “about” section to see how/why this blog started!)

Life has a way of taking you by the hand and pressing fast forward, then spinning you around and around until you collapse in a heap of joy and laughter. That’s how I feel today. Overjoyed. Looking back at the path God has chosen for me, I am overwhelmed by how carefully every detail was set in place before I ever got there. Looking forward, I am curious and excited to see where He leads.

I lived in the same house, in the same town, northwest of Chicago, and went to the same church for 24 years. A tiny, family church that taught me God was real, initiated my journey to love Him, and ignited my passion to honor Him with my life.

I moved to Rockford 2 months before I got married, and 3 months before I turned 25. My new church was big. I met my husband at this church, got married in this church, began new ministries, developed new passions to serve, and it was here that my life as a Totten wife began.

Then, on September 22, 2012 we moved to Madison, WI. My new church… HUGE. Unlike any church I was used to. This transition wasn’t easy for me…

It is no coincidence, then, the first sermon of 2013 at our new church was called “Making a Big Church Small.” So perfect. ::high-fives God:: Someone like me, who had grown up in a church that saw 100 people tops on an Easter morning service, felt lost, swallowed, unnoticed at a church of this size.

This sermon has stuck with me. I remember it when I walk in to church on a Sunday morning now and don’t see those faces I recognized. You see, the word “church” in Greek (ekklesia) was not a religious term. It was a common term that referred to a movement of people following something, or loosely, a gathering/community of people, not a building.  Our Bibles have a bad translation of ekklesia, derived from a German word (kirsche) to an English word (church). A kirsche is a location; you can lock the doors of a kirche, not so with the ekklesia of Jesus. The word church is a substitution for the Greek, not a translation. Why am I explaining all this?  The truth is, each of us longs for community and connection, which is extremely biblical, but when we think of the church as a building, that does not help us become the kind of community God wants us to be. This struck a chord with me. How was I viewing “church?” Instead of feeling lost, suddenly I felt FOUND in this ekklesia. The church building was huge, but I am finding my place here by connecting with others. This new way of thinking has helped me take an overwhelming kirsche and form it into an ekklesia.

I am now an engaged member of a community of believers experiencing life together, not just on Sunday, but every day. “So in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.” + Romans 12:5

So. Rewind. If you know me, you know my heart is full for high school students. Leaving behind my ministry in Rockford meant leaving behind some of the best students I have ever met. I struggled with that. A lot. So. Many. Tears. Just ask Jeff.

Besides leaving those students, I was leaving my role as a worship leader, and also an ekklesia I called “home.” So many people who knew me, laughed with me, cried with me, and encouraged me, so many Christ followers I had yet to learn from. A family I loved LOVE so much. I never imagined it would be that hard.

But, I am blessed. I have family here, too. Since moving to Madison, I am encouraged daily by the ekklesia I have met, both young and young at heart…The high school students that share the same passions I have, yet have taken those passions to levels I never would have dreamed of at that age. I am amazed at that, God.

…The parents of these students who thrive on knowing a faithful God that I am only beginning to understand; who allow me (ME?!) to be part of their ekklesia by pouring into their children on a weekly basis, and trusting me with their care. God, I am so grateful for this opportunity.

…The couple who sat next to us during one of our first visits to our new ekklesia, introduced themselves out of the blue, and invited us to their home. Thank you, God for these new friends.

…My family. I mean my real, blood-family who is here, loving, supporting, caring;  my aunt and uncle and a boat-load of cousins who are literally minutes away and always leading me toward Christ. They are definitely part of my ekklesia. 

I am truly blessed, God. Truly blessed, and so joyful.

“You love him even though you have never seen him. Though you do not see him now,
you trust him; and you rejoice with a glorious, inexpressible joy.” + 1 Peter 1:8