The past few months brought on a surge of memories from my childhood as my maternal grandmother suffered her first stroke. Memories with Grandma remain in the most preserved part of my brain, which I reflect on frequently. Days with her always began in church where she would make me lead the Rosary or help her water the flowers and refresh the candles. “St. Grandma” (as some of my cousins refer to her) is a woman of deep faith and conviction, a woman whose early years living in a large farm family during the aftermath of the Great Depression cultivated her resourcefulness and grit.
As Grandma began to recover from her stroke last year, her first act of speech and memory was to recite the Rosary. The words of the Rosary came back to her even before she was able to recall the names of her six children. As a young girl, my faith had the fortune of taking root in this fertile soil through the witness of my grandmother.
Whether the Lord calls her home in a year or in 20 years, acknowledging Grandma’s imminent death has led my mind to ponder the reality of my own fleeting existence and what meaning God is intending for my life. I had forever imagined that my life would be a reflection of my grandmother’s. I was married in the same small country church that generations of my ancestors had wed, where they were buried, and where Grandma will be buried next to Grandpa.
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But as news of Grandma’s stroke spread throughout our large family, I felt as if the mirror that I have stared into my whole life reflected back an image that was drastically different than what I anticipated. What I expected — what everyone expected — was for my marriage to produce offspring as my mother, grandmother and great grandmother had before me. Yet nearly six years into my marriage, I have been unable to introduce any children to the woman that we lovingly refer to as “the baby whisperer.”
As I trek through the desert of infertility, rare are the days that I am not in some way confronted with the grief of this cross. However, even on the most emotionally or physically painful days, I feel that the Lord is calling me to new life in him. This is well expressed by Pope St. John Paul II in the phrase, “we are an Easter people and Alleluia is our song.” We were made for the Resurrection, for new life in Christ.
Those who know what it means to be an “Easter people” are often ones who bear the grief of suffering. Consider Pope St. John Paul II, for example. The young Karol Wojtyła lost his entire family through the course of his adolescence. Orphaned, he lived through great tragedy during the Holocaust, where he narrowly escaped death as many friends were murdered at the hands of the Nazis. As pope, an attempt was made on his life, and the bullet intended to kill him came within millimeters of vital organs. His final years were marked with pain as he struggled with Parkinsons and hip problems. Through all the suffering, Pope John Paul II proclaimed the good news of the Gospel of life. Hope and faith flooded the lives of people across the globe as he witnessed what it meant to live life in the Resurrection. Certainly, Pope St. John Paul II knew well St. Paul’s letter to the Galatians where he writes, “I have been crucified with Christ; yet I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me” (Gal 2:19-20). For, as both saints knew, when we suffer with Christ in his crucifixion and allow him to suffer with us in our trials, Christ lives within us. And since Christ resides in heaven, so too does heaven reside within us when we give our “yes” to Christ.
My grandma also knows death and loss well. As a teenager, she lost her father. Later in life, she accompanied her husband of 49 years through a long battle with Alzheimer’s, and a few years after, she lost my great Aunt Betty, her closest sister and best friend. Many of her siblings and friends with whom she was very close have left this earth. Her heart carries a longing for her loved ones in heaven. On top of the spiritual sorrow, she also lives in chronic pain. The knuckles in her hands bear the signs of arthritis that have crept gradually into her bones, and there are days that she suffers such severe migraine headaches that she must lay in a dark room. Yet, however heavy the grief or pain, she always returns daily to the Rosary, the Eucharist and service to others. Through the carrying of her suffering with Christ, Grandma also becomes another Christ, allowing heaven to reside within her. The distance between her and those who have passed into eternity becomes surmountable.
Through our suffering with Christ, we are each invited to live today in light of the Resurrection. We become “Easter people,” bearers of heaven here on earth when we say “yes” to an intimate relationship with Christ. The Lord longs for this intimacy with each of us. He longs for me to cry out to him in my pain. He wants me to ask him for healing and to invite him to walk beside me through it. Through opening my suffering heart up in prayer, I can become an image of Christ, just as St. Paul, St. Pope John Paul II and “St. Grandma” have done. After encountering the reality of this invitation to new life in the Resurrection, when I look in the mirror again, I see an image that is familiar. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives within me.