Stairway to Heaven


I do not gaze much at the sky although I do enjoy looking at it whenever my eyes end up there. I remember one happy backyard Fourth of July when a friend’s daughter confidently unlocked the mysteries of the starry night before a group of rapt adults.  Her teenage friends — our children — could not be bothered with such punditry on a holiday evening.  With zero attention on herself or her snickering, clueless colleagues, she rattled off a long list of Greek gods and goddesses whose exploits are forever chronicled in the heavens.  I was so impressed.  “Eliza, I would LOVE to forget one smidge of what you have learned about the stars.”  She laughed.  I laughed.  The stars twinkled on and on and on.

Given the fact I have admitted to NO predilection to ponder the sky, it was surprising to me that Saturday I took a bold action in pursuit of a better look at the horizon — I pulled over to take a picture of some clouds.

I was on my way back from the memorial service for Mike Bauer, the beloved brother of two best friends, Nancy and Linda.  His service was at a lovely inn in a picturesque Maryland bayside town.  For the second time that day, I was traveling the unfamiliar byways of my neighboring state.  “How I can know so little about a state that borders my own?” I thought.  My mind wandered . . . “Had I become one of those die-hard Virginians who know zilch and care even less about Maryland?”  As these thoughts crisscrossed my mind, I awoke from my cruise-control-induced reverie with a jolt.  I noticed something in the windswept gray sky blue that took my breath away.  What was “it”? I wondered, as a copse of trees and some miscellaneous silos blocked my view.  I’ll have to wait for the next bend I thought.  As I rounded a broad arch in the highway, the entire expanse of the horizon was before me and I saw “it” again.  The “it” I saw was a spectacular cloud that my heart had seen even if my brain was slow to name it.

What caught my eye was a very distinct cirrus cloud that stretched from the lower right side of the horizon to the upper left before it disappeared in a mammoth billowy cloud that IMG_0245was lit by the sun.  “Wow,” I mused, “this is really something!”  The longer I looked at the cloud the more distinct its features became.  In addition to the strong, but wispy sides, there appeared to be lateral struts reaching from one edge to the other.  “It’s a ladder!” I exclaimed, catching myself by surprise with my utterance.

Then, I slowly pulled my truck to the side of this unknown Maryland road and I cried.

I cried until I had no more tears to unleash.  I cried for my friends’ loss, I cried for Pat who had lost her “younger” man after 45 years of togetherness, I cried for the grandsons Mike would never hold, but mostly I cried for me.  I cried because Mike made me a better me.  Every time he wrapped me in those mammoth arms of his, I knew I was loved.  It was his gift, a gift he never talked about and one he certainly never used to his own advantage.  Simply put, it was who he was.

And then the significance of my late-afternoon pitstop became clear.  I had stopped to watch Mike make his final journey into heaven.  I had watched as he carefully placed one foot and then the other on rung after rung.  About halfway up, I swear I saw him turn, half smile, and blow a kiss to his beloved Pat.  As he reached the top, the cloud staircase started to melt into the rest of the sunset as Mike pulled the ladder up behind him, not one to leave a required task to someone else, always leaving the room in better shape than when he entered it.

The sky grew dark and I realized I’d been staring at the horizon for a long time.  I gradually nudged the suburban back into the steady stream of traffic headed west.  One loving mile after another I made my way back to my side of the river . . .  just this side of Heaven.

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Confession of an AFS Mother: The First Shall Be Last and The Last Shall Be First


In Matthew 20:16, the apostle writes that Jesus said, “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”  I am confident that when Jesus said this, he had neither the American Field Service (AFS) nor a white middle-aged woman crying her eyes out in a parking lot in mind.  In my pea-sized Catholic-trained, Baptist-leaning brain, I believe he was talking about important VIPs and little people . . .  you know,  Democrats and Republicans, the Yankees and the Red Sox.  (Sorry, couldn’t help myself — it is September and it is convention time you know.)  Further, it sounds like he was talking about who would get into Heaven and who wouldn’t — humble shepherds, peasants, and modest folks would earn entry and those of us who are prideful, accomplished, with way too many possessions just might not score a ticket to the biggest show above earth.  Now, this is a really great thought and one of those go-to passages that stops me dead in my tracks.  Today it came to mind for a completely different reason.

Cheerleading at a T. C. Williams Titans Football Game, September 2011.

Yesterday, we dropped our 16-year-old daughter, Megg, off in New York to join a crew of other teens from all over the US who will be studying in Europe next year with AFS.  Ours will be living with a family in Ponferrada, Spain in a family with a mom, a dad, a sister and two brothers plus a cat and a dog.  It sounds idyllic, doesn’t it?  She is very excited about this opportunity and we are, too.  For the past 11 years, she has been studying Spanish, starting with kindergarten at Mt. Vernon Community School.  She spent half her days in English and the other half in Spanish.  From about fourth grade on, she has wanted to study abroad during her junior year in high school.  This dream started to come into sharp focus about a year ago, well almost — about 290 days ago to be exact.  That’s the day that Megg submitted her application to AFS and the day she started counting down the days to today — the day she gets on a plane and flies to Spain.  Some of those 290 days have flown by and others have been excruciating like the days waiting for our official documents to come from the State Department or waiting for her visa application.  The rest has been a blur of parties, thank you notes, and blog posts.

Starting in about June, we all started realizing that we were about to embark on a series of last things — last time I’ll celebrate my birthday here, last time I’ll see this aunt/uncle, last time I’ll get dropped off at high school, last this, last that, etc.  Yesterday morning was a kaleidoscopic series of lasts — the last time I’ll hug my sister, have a bagel with my best friends, last time I’ll hold my new nephew, etc.  And, like every other time, I was just the chauffeur.  I watched every interaction and cried along with the best of them.  Every once in a while, Megg and I shared knowing glances, but most of the time, I kept my eyes on the road and just drove.  I drove to Zoe’s house.  I drove to the Bagel Bakery.  I drove to the gas station.  I drove to Alex and Shawn’s house.  I dropped by Erin and Jessica’s houses.  I drove to T. C. Williams High School.  I drove home.  Around 9am, we packed everything into the car and we drove to New York.

This would be the last time we would chauffeur her around for 10 months and it was like every other trip.  We chatted about politics and gossiped about our small-town lives.  Megg listened to music in the backseat and every once in a while told us who was where — Paige was on the Pennsylvania turnpike, Erinn was at the airport waiting for AFS to pick her up, Lauren was at exit 10 in a silver Honda – did we see her?  It was like every other trip except that it was the last one we would be making with Megg for a while.  It was hard not to attach meaning to everything, but we all kept it light.

After we parked the car, we opened the back of the suburban and she got her own luggage out of the car.  She didn’t ask for help, she just grabbed it, and started lugging it into the hotel.  Hmmm . . . that was the first time that had ever happened.  Every other time we’ve traveled, Megg was the first to moan and groan under the weight of all of her stuff.  She’d wheedle and cajole anyone and everyone into carrying just one thing for her.  Not yesterday.  She carried that luggage — all 88 pounds of it into the JFK Hilton by herself.  This was our last image of Megg  . . . and the first time we’d seen the person she is becoming — the self-confident, happy, excited 16 year-old heading off on the biggest and scariest adventure of her young life.  Wow!

I realized her life and ours will be a series of such firsts and lasts, hellos and goodbyes for the next 10 months.  Just when she is starting to get acclimated to Spain, she’ll be coming home again.  As soon as we’re used to living in a house with 4 bathrooms and 3 people, she’ll be back and taking over at least two of them again.  As soon as she becomes fluent in Spanish, she’ll be back in the United States rattling off an English rap for church camp.  The list goes on and on — firsts, lasts, hellos, goodbyes.  It wears me out thinking about it — but in a good way.  As I sit in this nondescript parking lot for the first time crying my eyes out wondering what she’s doing I realize this will be the last time I’ll be sitting here.  Although I’m sure there will be many more moments just like this one, I’m going to just keep repeating Matthew 20:16, “so the last shall be first and the first shall be last.”  I’m confident this is exactly where Jesus would want me to be.

Amen.

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