The Heart that Can’t Stop Loving
Strength and dignity are her clothing, and she laughs at the time to come.
She opens her mouth with wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue.
“No woman can call herself free until she can choose consciously whether she will or will not be a mother.”
― Margaret Sanger
I measure the progress of a community by the degree of progress which women have achieved.
- R. Ambedkar
There are so many mothers in my life. There is my biological mother, there are figurative mothers (too many of you to count), there is a step-mother and former mothers-in-law types that I still love to this day. Both of my sisters are mothers and many of my friends are mothers. Motherhood obviously surrounds us and it is good and right that we should think on this today.
But not just motherhood, I want us to think on women and femininity in all of its forms today. Now I’m sure you’re sitting there going, what on earth does a white man with a beard have to tell us about women? Well, that’s a fair question—but I’ve had plenty of experience dealing with this extremely large subset of humanity that I feel comfortable sharing a few things with you. First, guys did you know that when a woman asks you how she looks and you answer with the word, fine, that you’re in big trouble? Did you know also that women always want dessert? They always want the man to order dessert. What they never want is for us to ask us if they want dessert. It’s redundant. And did you know that women remember every detail about a relationship. Every. Single. One. You’ve been warned, folks.
So, back to motherhood for a little while. I’m not going to be sentimental and provide a hallmark card moment here. I want to tell you about a friend of mine that I’ve known for years. We’re still good friends and we keep in touch regularly. I asked her if she was okay with me sharing her story today and she said it was okay, as long as I let her read it first. So, here goes…
I met my friend Debra long before I actually met her. When I was a young man I worked in the Emergency Room at St. Francis Hospital as a clerk/orderly. We did all kinds of things, but mostly I checked people into the ER and I assisted the nurses when they needed things done. One of my duties was to take expectant mothers, if they were in labor, up to the delivery room, quickly. The rule was basically, if the baby wasn’t crowning then you could make it up to the obstetric unit. A nurse always checked them. I was just the transporter. Well, one evening this young woman and her mother came in and told me that her labor had started and I got the wheelchair and I began helping them up to the OB floor.
Now, I know you are going to find this hard to believe, but I can be a bit glib. And back then, I often spoke first before thinking about what I was going to say. I’ve gotten a bit better at this as I’ve aged, but it still needs some work. Anyway, the three of us are on the elevator and instead of just doing my job; I had to ask…”do you want me to send the father up when he gets here”. Well, the chill in the air was palpable. And I was perceptive enough to drop the subject. It was obvious that there was to be no father present at this birth.
It wouldn’t be until a few years later, after my friend Debra got a job at St. Francis as well, that we would discover (early in our friendship) that she was the woman that day. She had gotten pregnant by her boyfriend and her very Catholic family insisted that she carry the baby to term and she gave the child up for adoption. Now, this was a terrible situation for Debra. There was no good outcome for what had happened to her and there was no way to know what was going to happen…so bear with me here.
The years went by and Debra and I ended up in Lawrence attending KU together as students. It was during this time that I found out how awful giving up her child had been for her. On the birthday of her baby, Debra would become inconsolable. She was horribly sad. It was always a bleak day in early fall and I would let her be as miserable as she needed to be and we’d get on to the next thing once her soul had repaired itself.
Debra went on to marry a fine man and they had a child together, Ian, and this child has grown into a fine young man who lives here in town and I see him on occasion. I’m still Uncle Paul to him and it always nice when we run into each other.
A number of years ago, Debra received a phone call a little after midnight on September 29th, the birthday of her daughter. Debra’s daughter’s adoptive parents had always known about Debra, who she was, who her parents were, and they would not give any information to Andie, whom they had named Debra’s daughter, until Andie turned 18. Well, you guessed it. It was the early morning of Andie’s 18th birthday and Debra’s mom was calling to sort through what she knew was going to be a dramatic and possibly traumatic day for Debra in many ways. It seems the very first things that Andie said to her adoptive parents on her 18th birthday was “You know what I want”. And so they set in motion the communication that would put Andie in touch with her birth mother for the first time.
I’ll read to you from Debra’s own recollection of that day: I was preparing to go on a hike with David (my BF), Ian, and some friends. I always tried to keep my mind occupied on her birthday. I was making pancakes and sausage when my mother called and said, “You’ll never guess who called.” I walked with the phone into the living room, fell down on the floor, and cried. It took me an hour or so to pull myself together before I could call Andie back.
Before I called her, I talked privately with Ian so I could tell him she had called. I had told him about her when she was 9, old enough, I thought, to handle the information. I felt he was more than entitled to know he had a sister. Then I went into my room and called her. When I heard her voice, I was so stunned: It sounded so much like mine. We met in person a few weeks later and have been building a close relationship through the years.
Debra was able to reunite with this child, now woman, and to become a part of this woman’s life and is now grandmother to two wonderful other little girls and is an important part of their lives. Debra’s heart could never give up. Regardless of what her head told her about her choice, her heart never once stopped loving that child. And in this situation, it paid off, in a manner of speaking. Even though they were separated by 18 years, Debra was lucky enough to be able to fuse her family back together. I’m no idealist; I know that this doesn’t happen that often. I know that there are too many of these stories that do not end satisfactorily or at all, for that matter. And I know that I’m not being fair to all of those other women in parts of this story. But I suspect in most of those cases that their hearts could never stop loving either.
And this brings me to the idea of intention and our futures. How many times do all of us look back on our lives and wonder “what would have happened if…”? Or what would my live be like if I had never done…? In my mind, the choices we make are not unlike children…bear with me…we give birth to them and we send them out into the world. Hopefully they are good choices and they help lead us into lives that are kinder and more loving. But once that choice is made, there’s no undoing it. There’s no time machine that allows us to go back and correct those past choices that were not loving and good and kind. This is part of why we come to church, by the way—to remind ourselves of these things—we’re human; we don’t always do the kind, loving and good thing naturally. We’re more wired to do the selfish and pleasurable thing. Church can help hold us accountable to the ideal that we would like to be. It’s a safe place, UCC is at least, where we can expose ourselves to ideas about life and living that might help us make slightly better choices in those crucial moments in life when it really counts.
There is an important part of Debra’s story that comes into play right now though. And that is the idea of choice itself. Had Debra been given an actual choice in what was done with her child all those many years ago, who knows what might have happened. And it is this lack of agency, of Debra’s control over her own future, that changes the outcome of the choices made FOR her. Choice matters and the ability for us to forge our own lives is one of the most important rights any of us can have. To try and take choice away from people without careful examination of the consequences and without knowledge of each individual situation is akin to changing the future. It’s is wrong for us to remove opportunity from anyone’s life.
Let me read you a bit more of Debra’s response to me: Paul, this was the happiest ending I could have hoped for. I know it hasn’t ended–we’re all alive and thriving mostly. It has been hard to have a secondary role in her life and that of my granddaughters and in some ways, the 19-year-old that was shamed and guilty still thinks I deserve that. I know better. I grieve when I hear stories about her growing up and then remind myself to be grateful and to make every single day a first day. And when I hear those little girls say, “I love you, Nana!” and Andie says, “I love you!” before we hang up, and I talk about her and them and feel that fierce mama love, I do feel like it all worked out the way it needed to. Why on earth would life be easy? 🙂 It’s true that suffering makes you grateful for even–or especially–the tiny blessings.
I am also profoundly grateful that you shared this experience with me in so many ways I hadn’t even thought about until I read your sermon. That is love, too, my lifelong friend.
Debra is a mother and a friend with a heart that cannot stop loving her children, her decisions, her friends, and all of the threads of her life that have come together so far and that reach into the future. May we all be blessed with hearts that love like this, that don’t give up and that point us to a more whole, kind and loving and blessed future. May we think on Debra’s unconventional journey of motherhood as a celebration of joy on this day and always.