I just got back from a journey. It was actually a short trip to Kansas City, MO, where I had the great honor of hooding a dear young friend of mine, Laura, as she graduated from medical school. Laura used to work with Peter during her high school and college years, and we spent so much time together that she is like another daughter to me. So it was with great joy that I got to spend some time with her and her beautiful family.
But the trip turned out to be so much more. It awakened an old grief, and touched me with new insight, making it a kind of mini-spiritual journey.
During most of the commencement exercise, the physicians hooding the graduates were backstage, chatting and waiting for our brief moment to hood our young colleagues, and then exit backstage again. So for hours I got to enjoy the company and conversation of dozens of physicians, which I have not done since leaving my practice 12 years ago upon Peter’s diagnosis of severe autism. I got to hear all the exciting things other doctors were doing, the joys and challenges of assisting one’s fellow man through the some of life’s most harrowing crises.
Then came the feelings of mourning. Long suppressed, busy as I’ve been with raising Peter and his six siblings, I experienced a sense of loss for those years of not practicing the craft which I had worked hard to learn. I offered up a prayer of faith to the Lord to give me peace and direction.
Then the Holy Spirit went to work.
It started with Laura’s little sister, still in college. As we waited for Laura, I said, “You must be so proud of your sister!” She said, “Yes, I am, but such great things are not for me. I just want to get married and be a mom.” I affirmed that that is a great vocation, too, but exhorted her to still consider gaining the skills to become self supportive as a kind of insurance policy. But did I really believe that staying at home is a great vocation, that it’s an equal vocation to becoming a physician?
On the plane back home, I sat next to a young man. Suddenly a harried looking young woman came by, passing a most adorable and beautiful little baby girl to her husband so she could use the restroom. Understanding the situation, I did the obvious and switched sits with the mom so they could be together. That provided the opportunity for the Holy Spirit to teach me a lesson I needed to learn.
The lady, Liz, sitting next to me in my new seat was so grateful for the change in the seating arrangement that she struck up a conversation with me. She had been visiting her only son John and daughter-in-law Ann, who had just bought a house for her, hoping she’d retire in Kansas City to be with them in a year. As Ann had put it, “If we have a son like John, we’re going to need your help!” Turned out John had been a very difficult child, having dyslexia and severe ADHD with not only hyperactivity and impulsivity in capital letters, but also an explosive temperament. That was in the days when few people understood severe ADHD, and such children were labeled as “born bad” or “incorrigible,” and were generally shunned, shamed, and/or ostracized. Yet now John had a very long fuse, was low keyed, dearly beloved for his terrific people skills, and studying to become a nurse.
Not only that, but Liz had managed to raise John single-handedly. What a life she’d had! Her mother developed polio when Liz was two, so she became her mother’s arms and legs. Her father had been so harsh and severe, “he squelched my personality.” Her husband walked out on her after she put him through school when John was only three years old. Later, Liz developed a severe spinal condition that required a fusion, and has to live with chronic pain and a rod stuck in her back. But she was determined that no one hurt her child the way she had been hurt, and that her son John develop into the person he was meant to be. So she read to him, taught him patiently, and just loved him through everything. Apparently, her hard years growing up had trained her in selfless patience and perseverance. And compassion. She loved Ann too, and was there for her at a critical moment in her life. I was so impressed. I told her she had now received the greatest compliment any mother could receive- that her daughter-in-law would so recognize what she’d done for her son, and so love the result that she would want her right beside her to guide her in doing the same. Beautiful! Ah, the transforming and redeeming power of love that had made her their guiding angel.
Then came the zinger- Liz told me it had always been her dream to become a physician. That really humbled and convicted me. Because the Lord had even blessed me with the opportunity to become a physician. But it was very clear to me how much more important her life’s work has been as a mother than a physician. There is no way as a busy physician she could have poured the number of hours required into her son to help him overcome his disabilities. One father of a child with autism once told me that it is a saying in his country that “It is easier to move a mountain than to change another’s personality.” I would modify that quote to say “overcome a developmental disability.” It takes hours and hours to build that relationship, teach and practice self-awareness, self-advocacy, remediation and accommodation skills, and perhaps most importantly model serenity and acceptance while walking the hard road together. No number of armies of well-trained doctors, nor teachers, nor social workers could have done what this loving woman had done for her child, forming a beautiful, balanced person, capable of managing all his challenges with confidence and joy. That is a glorious and inspiring achievement. That is the power of a loving mother. There is no more important nor fundamental a vocation.
And so the Lord quietly convicted me in my heart. I was seeing my life the way the “world” does through the lenses of fame and fortune. It was as if He was nudging me to lift up my head and open my eyes to His way of seeing things. “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.” (Mt 19:14) “See that you do not despise one of these little ones; for I tell you that in heaven their angels always behold the face of my Father.” (Mt 18:10) “And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them, and said, “… Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me” (Mt 18:2, 5) Society and culture would go on without physicians, but not mothers. Society would certainly not miss one more physician, but what would have happened to her child? To my child? All of life’s vocations are important, but the Lord gives the great privilege to parents to co-create and form a human person, a soul meant for eternal and immortal glory, deeply beloved by God. That gift of crazy, insane love He gives us mothers for our children is a spark of His. And if it consumes our lives, thanks be to God, we shall only be more like Him.
The month of May is traditionally the month we Catholics devote to remembering and honoring our Blessed Mother Mary in a special way. After all, if we are indeed spiritually the body of Christ, if He is her son, we are also her spiritual children. Of course, Jesus truly is Mary’s son, that is part of the great mystery of the Incarnation. Jesus’ humanity! An amazing truth! The great vocation of Mary- to raise the Son of God! And our vocation, to be raising more adopted children of God- also amazing! Mothers are not just generic, replaceable instruments God uses. No- our children often look like us, talk like us, get all kinds of mannerisms from us, and mothers integrally form part of the identity of the entire family. So it was with Mary and Jesus and the Holy Family, and so it is with us. A very great vocation, foundational to building up this kingdom on earth as well as the kingdom of heaven.
So I am completing my spiritual journey for this month of Mary by going on a Rosary pilgrimage with Peter. We will commit ourselves ever more to the prayers and protection of our loving spiritual Mother. As Davidic royal tradition established the king’s mother as the queen of the kingdom of Israel, so we honor Mary as Queen of Heaven, reigning with her Son. I will be praying for the grace she was filled with, to fulfill my vocation with love, joy, and confident trust in the Lord, as she did.
Hail, Holy Queen,
mother of mercy,
hail our life, our sweetness, and our hope!
To you do we cry, poor banished children of Eve!
in this vale of tears.
Turn then, most gracious advocate, your eyes of mercy toward us,
and after this, our exile, show us the blessed fruit of your womb, Jesus.
O clement, o loving, o sweet Virgin Mary!
Pray for us, O holy Mother of God, that we may be worthy of the promises of Christ.
Addendum: I would like to clarify that I in no way mean to imply that working parents cannot adequately raise a child. How much time and effort is required totally depends upon the both the needs of the individual child and what other resources are available.