My Sibling I Never Acknowledged, by Stephanie Gray

mary and me.jpg

For as long as I can remember, when I met people who would ask, “How many siblings do you have?” my answer was always “one.”  But I recently had an epiphany: That answer isn’t true.

I don’t have just one sibling; I have two.  So why wasn’t my eldest sibling in the count? 

I never met Paul Francis.  He lived—and died—before I ever came to be.  Why should my sister be acknowledged because she has lived 40 years (and counting), but my brother not because he lived only 6 weeks?

  That I never had the chance to play Hide & Seek with him doesn’t mean he shouldn’t be acknowledged. 

That I never rode my bike to piano lessons with him doesn’t mean he shouldn’t be remembered. 

That he never got to experience family trips to Scotland and Nova Scotia, road trip adventures, and lots of singing and silliness, doesn’t mean he shouldn’t be counted.

I don’t know why Paul Francis died, but I do know how he died (miscarriage), and more importantly, I know that he lived (albeit briefly).  So why do the early miscarried get swept aside?  “It’s common to miscarry, especially your first child,” people will say.  So what?  Why should the fact that the loss is common make us act as though the individual never existed?

  “It hurts to bring it up,” others might suggest.  That reminds me of a Facebook post by a friend of mine whose child died several days after birth.  She shared this quote by Elizabeth Edwards: “If you know someone who has lost a child, and you’re afraid to mention them because you think you might make them sad by reminding them that they died—you’re not reminding them. They didn’t forget they died. What you’re reminding them of is that you remembered that they lived, and…that is a great gift.”

  Paul Francis lived, and he deserves to have that acknowledged.  If mere mention of a miscarried child’s short life brings indescribable pain and one runs from referencing him or her as a result, burying the reminders not only doesn’t serve those little lives, but it doesn’t serve the grieving heart, whose incapacity to acknowledge is evidence of a need for healing.  And we don’t find healing by stuffing—we find healing by releasing, wrestling, grappling, and honoring. 

  Those who have lost a child to stillbirth or to miscarriage late in pregnancy often—and rightly—memorialize their children with hand and footprints, even photos.  But such tangible memories can’t be made with children like Paul Francis, who die as young as 6 weeks post-fertilization; so what can be done?

  One website about miscarriage shared this quote from a grieving heart:  “The mention of my child's name may bring tears to my eyes, but it never fails to bring music to my ears. If you are really my friend, let me hear the beautiful music of his name. It soothes my broken heart and sings to my soul.”

  My sibling can have a name.  My parents never knew if Paul Francis was a boy or girl, but if they’d had a son, that would have been his name.  Incidentally, Paul means “small; humble” and Francis means “free.”

  My sibling can be continually referenced in my life.  Now, when asked how many siblings I have, my response is matter-of-fact: “two.”  And I leave it at that.  If asked, “Brothers or sisters?” and “Are you the oldest?”  I casually reply, “My brother is the oldest, and he’s in Heaven; then there’s my sister, then me.” Sometimes there are no further questions.  Other times, there are, and I treat the conversation about the life, and loss, of Paul Francis before birth, as I would if any other sibling of mine lived and died after birth.

  My sibling can touch lives.  As someone who spends her life advocating for the rights of pre-born humans, I realized my lack of reference to Paul Francis was a betrayal of my beliefs—for if the pre-born are as valuable as the born, if I would reference a sibling who only lived until the age of 2, 10, or even 20 years, why not acknowledge this sibling?  Do I really believe Paul Francis was just as human, just as precious, just as unrepeatable as a late-term fetus, infant, toddler, or teen?  Would I hide the death of an older sibling?  Then why hide the death of a younger sibling?

By referencing my deceased sibling, some people inevitably ask what happened, and when you explain miscarriage, that individual is challenged to look at miscarriage in a different light—to look at it as a great loss, as losing a born child is a great loss.  As a result, my deceased pre-born sibling becomes the impetus for a discussion about how we view the pre-born, and an opportunity to normalize treating the pre-born like the born.  By not dismissing his death as “oh, well, it was just a miscarriage” but treating it seriously, my example invites others to share their stories of loss, revealing even their own miscarriages.  At which point I can ask questions to further healing such as, “Have you named your children?  Have you thought about planting a plant in memory of your children to have an object of life to remember them by?”  When we do this, we often validate the feelings many women and men have silently felt, but never viewed as legitimate.

  In response to this new approach of my sibling count, a friend responded, “If I were to do that, when people ask how many siblings I have, I’d have to say 17 because my mom had 7 miscarriages.”

  Well what an opportunity!  You can be guaranteed my friend will get some kind of reaction to an answer of “17,” and it will open doors to talk about how we view the pre-born and how we work through the heartbreak of losing children.  It will also acknowledge each and every one of her siblings as valuable enough to warrant attention.

  Had Paul Francis not died, he’d be celebrating his 41st birthday right about now.   And as I think about it, I’m a lifetime overdue on writing him a poem (something I like to do for loved ones) to honor his life:

I do not know what it is like,

To live with an older brother.

But one thing that I do know,

Is that you made our mom a mother.


You were first to grow in her womb,

And in that way we’re connected.

We both spent time beneath her heart,

And with love we were infected.


Would you have written poems like Dad?

Or, like mom, sing me to sleep?

Maybe like our sister you’d have been a peacemaker,

Or an avid reader of all things deep?


I tell others about you now;

I didn’t do that before.

I pledge to remember your existence.

Telling of you opens a door.


Why, Paul Francis, was your life so short?

Do you have the answer now?
For us we stay in mystery,

Trusting God, to whom we bow.

A similar version of this blog first appeared at


Present at a Birth, by Stephanie Gray


     I couldn’t have known when I said yes to a speaking commitment 8 months ago, that it would allow for a Divine Appointment that would make one of my dreams come true—a dream I had been waiting for since 2006.  On April 28, 2018, twelve years after writing my dream list in which number 37 was “be present at a birth,” I was the unexpected support person for my friend’s out-of-town—and emergency—caesarean section.  As a quote attributed to Paul Carvel says, “To witness the birth of a child is our best opportunity to experience the meaning of the word miracle.”

     Last August, I agreed to speak in Michigan this past April 24.  Being so close to Windsor, after the event I drove across the border to visit some of my Ontario friends.  As it should happen, my friend’s cousin, also a friend of mine, planned to join us for my last weekend there.  Angie came with her 4 born daughters and her 37-week baby girl in-utero.  She brought her family’s only vehicle, leaving behind in her small town her husband and 4 sons.  The plan was to go to a banquet dinner Friday night and have a girls shopping day Saturday.  But when Angie started having contractions soon after arriving, it seemed like the weekend was not going to go exactly as planned.

     First there was the hospital visit to be checked out.  Then there was the hospital admission.  Then there was the 4am assessment from the doctor that that baby needed to come out, that morning, and by C-section. 

“This is my body given for you” -Luke 22:19

     Journeying with Angie through the process reminded me of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemani.  Hers was a real suffering: She was in pain; her husband was not there; she wasn’t where she lived; her own doctor was not present; she didn’t want to be cut open; she wanted to try a VBAC.   It wasn’t supposed to happen at this time, in this way.  The prayer of Jesus became her lived experience: “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will” (Matthew 26:39).  So surgery would happen.  After Angie was prepped, I was brought into the operating room to sit next to her, and for those unaware of how a C-section works, the mother’s arms are stretched out like she’s on a cross.  As she lay there, riddled with anxiety about being aware while being cut open, her experience was once again like Christ’s: “This is my body given for you.”  Angie would do what motherhood has continually called her to do—to be other-focused, to lay down her life.  In short, to love.  But with the impending arrival of her baby, soon a resurrection would follow this type of crucifixion.

     I don’t know what was going through the mind of the Ob/Gyn and his resident as they performed surgery, but if I could have selected a “soundtrack” for them as they cut into the person of Angie to retrieve the person of Mackenzie, it would be these words of Joseph Cardinal Mindszenty:

     “The most important person on earth is a mother.  She cannot claim the honor of having built Notre Dame Cathedral.  She need not.  She has built something more magnificent than any cathedral—a dwelling for an immortal soul, the tiny perfection of her baby's body.  The Angels have not been blessed with such a grace.  They cannot share in God's Creative miracle to bring new Saints to Heaven.  Only a human mother can.  Mothers are closer to God the Creator than any other creatures.  God joins forces with mothers in performing this act of creation.  What on God's good earth is more glorious than this: To be a mother?”

“It’s like watching fire.”

     After I got to cut the cord, I held 6 pounds and 3 ounces of pure goodness up to Angie so she could see her little one.  While the doctors were still working on Angie’s abdomen, she did what she could from her awkward angle to plant tender kisses on Mackenzie and we both just stared in awe.  Then Angie said, “It’s like watching fire.”  Having just come out of a long winter where I had sat in the presence of more fires than usual, I thought about how fire draws one in.  Fire captivates.  It hushes people to silence.  It comforts.  It leaves you in wonder.  On a cold winter evening, in the presence of a fireplace, you’re drawn into the present moment, into what is in front of you, and everything else fades away.  That’s what this silent, tiny, vulnerable little baby did for us.

Reverent Silence

     As the doctors were finishing sewing Angie up, a nurse asked me to bring baby Mackenzie and follow her to the recovery room.  After she helped me get the surgical gown off, she walked away, leaving sweet one and me alone for about 15 minutes.  Blown away with incredulity of all that had just happened, I was tempted to immediately text my 3 best friends from childhood, all of whom are doctors and have regularly experienced what was a first time for me.  But then I thought, “No, the time for communicating with others is for later.  Now is the time to just be with Mackenzie and revel in the gift of her life, in the gift of her presence.”  And so together we simply were.  Me cradling innocence and beauty.  Someone who was unrepeatable and irreplaceable.  Never was before.  Never would be again.  Perfectly unique. 

     Robert Cardinal Sarah once wrote, “Through silence, we return to our heavenly origin, where there is nothing but calm, peace, repose, silent contemplation, and adoration of the radiant face of God.”

     Was this what it was like for Mary cradling baby Jesus?


     Mackenzie breathed gently.  Her one eye opened while the other was sealed shut by the vernix yet to be cleaned off.  At one point she rooted (“Sorry, baby girl, on that front I can’t help you!  Momma’s coming soon!”). 

     As we waited, I prayed. Tracing the sign of the cross on her forehead, praying over her future… that she would always love the Lord… that she would resist temptation to sin… that she would run to the mercy of Christ when she failed…that her earthly journey would ultimately take her to her Heavenly home.

     And then music came to my heart, and so I sang: “Oh Lord my God, when I in awesome wonder, consider all the works Thy hands have made…Then sings my soul, my Savior God to Thee, how great Thou art, how great Thou art.”

Love Doesn’t Divide.  It Multiplies.

     My flight to Vancouver was scheduled for that afternoon, and so a few hours later I found myself on a plane home.  Mackenzie’s birth was to finish my two week work trip which began with debating an abortionist at the University of California, Berkeley, in front of 200 of his students.  As I thought about how my trip began—and how it ended—I wished that those students could experience what I just had, that they could know intimately, personally, the pure gift of life, that they could experience the awe and wonder that comes with pregnancy and birth—if we allow ourselves to see it.  That they could understand that new life isn’t to be feared but instead to be revered.  That they could believe that when a woman becomes a mother she isn’t reduced to the status of slave but is instead lifted to new heights of love. 

     My wish for the students is that they could come to know what Angie texted me today: “Being open to life and being gifted all these babies, I believe is a testament to how God’s love multiplies. When you have one kid, you can’t fathom having enough love for another one—but you do.  And so it is with each subsequent child.  It makes it easy to understand how much God loves me!!! (And you) :).”



The Joy and Pain of Love, by Stephanie Gray


     The other evening I babysat my nieces and nephews while my sister and her husband had a date night.  Their littlest guy, who is 17 months old, took their departure remarkably well (it helped that he didn’t notice they left).  But when I was getting him ready for bed a couple hours later, he was captivated by the picture of his parents that hangs above his change table: “Mommy,” he said, “Daddy.”  “Yes,” I responded, “They’re at Costco,” knowing he was familiar with adventures there (and yes, my sister and her husband consider that a date night; go, Costco!). 

     But as Carl kept repeating “Mommy” and “Daddy” and reaching up to the photo, his eyes began to fill with tears.  You could see that his little one-year-old heart felt the special connection any child should feel to his parents.  He felt desire for the presence of the two people he has the deepest bond with.  Because of that, he also felt the profound ache of separation.  As I reflected on this, I thought about both the joy and pain of love.

     That concept is brought to light in the 1993 film Shadowlands, the real-life story of author C.S. Lewis finding love.  Upon a friend’s recommendation I watched it last year and was profoundly moved by its message.

     Lewis, played by Anthony Hopkins, didn’t marry until his fifties.  At that time, an American woman came into his life and initially their relationship was a non-romantic friendship based on shared intellectual interests.  In fact, although Lewis civilly married Joy Davidman Gresham it was simply so she could legally remain in Great Britain.  At that time they did not live as husband and wife.  When Joy was diagnosed with cancer, however, Lewis realized how he truly loved her and, in the presence of a minister, they married around her hospital bed.  In a mercy, Joy recovered—unfortunately, though, for only a few short years before cancer would take her from this earth. 

     In one poignant scene where Lewis and Joy travel around the scenic countryside of England, they discuss what inevitably will come:

Joy: “I’m going to die.  And I want to be with you then too.  The only way I can do that is if I’m able to talk to you about it now.”

Lewis: “I’ll manage somehow; don’t worry about me.”

Joy: “No.  I think it can be better than that.  I think it can be better than just managing.  What I’m trying to say is that the pain then is part of the happiness now.  That’s the deal.”

     The pain then is part of the happiness now. 

      There is a trade-off inherent to love—to truly embrace it means to also embrace loss.  One can only avoid the suffering of loss by refusing to enter into love—but the experience of not loving is much worse than the experience of loving and losing.  Lewis explains this in his book The Four Loves, which was published just months before Joy died:

     “To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket—safe, dark, motionless, airless—it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable.”

     To be deeply happy with Joy while she was alive, Lewis had to let his heart deeply love.  Yes, what would await him at her death was the tragic loss that only a heart that loved would feel.  Certainly, no love would mean no loss.  But no love would also mean no life.

     I have written before about John Paul II’s statement that “Suffering unleashes love” (here and here).  And when someone is loved, it unleashes life, whether literally or figuratively.  But in our imperfect world, life will also end, which will lead to loss, which will lead to suffering, which can lead to unleashing more love and life if we let it.  Perhaps that’s what the person who penned these words had in mind: “I have found the paradox, that if you love until it hurts, there can be no more hurt, only more love.”

     Could a situation be created where my nephew Carl would not have felt the (temporary) loss of his parents?  Yes—but that would mean ensuring he didn't bond, ensuring he was not loved.  And we know where a story like that leads: the orphans from Ceausescu’s Romania say it all.

     Does separation from those our hearts have loved, whether through death or life circumstances, result in anguish?  Yes, but as Joy wisely observed, “The pain then is part of the happiness now.  That’s the deal.”




Thankful for Fertility? by Stephanie Gray


     It was shortly after 10pm on a summer night and I was texting with my sister.  As a mother of 5 under 11, her days are long and full.  And in our brief exchange she conveyed that she was so very tired.  Having visited her earlier in the day I saw that her house was a total disaster.  When I walked in she announced, “This is what a house with 5 children looks like.”  It made sense that she’d be exhausted.  At one point in our text exchange I messaged her, “5 things you’re grateful for?  First 5 that come to your mind.”  When she responded I was struck by the final item on her list:

     5. Fertility

     Her answer provoked me to pause because amidst challenge she could see gift, and because we are living in a culture where the default is not my sister’s answer; instead, it is to suppress fertility.  Actually, our culture’s default is more than to suppress fertility, it is to be downright hostile toward it.  I have spoken to so many abortion supporters who hate that fertility is a part of sexuality.  But what could be more incredible than being so intimate with one human soul that in doing so you produce another human soul who had never before existed?  One plus one equaling three in a way that defies math.

     It doesn’t mean fertility is always easy.  I lived with my sister and her family for a season and I saw the toll that pregnancy takes on the body, let alone the challenges of forming and rearing (several!) little human beings.  But I think it’s helpful to step back and think about what the word “toll” means.  It’s a charge for use or access to something (think bridge toll).  We pay the toll because the benefits outweigh the cost.  And we recognize the greater the value of something, the greater the price. 

     The same day I visited my sister, I drove out to see my parents and to help my dad weed his magnificent garden.  In reflecting on my time rummaging through dirt and in-between flowers and bushes, I was reminded again of the gift of fertility—the fertility of the soil, of the flowers that bloom each year—of new life, which brings an array of colors, types, sizes, and smells.  And it’s the beauty and diversity of fertility that makes the garden so awe-inspiring.

     But the oasis of my Dad’s garden did not happen overnight.  It took years of careful cultivation.  It took work.  It took weeding, watering, digging, and pruning.  It still does.  It took, and takes, a toll.  But it’s more than worth it.

     Mother Teresa once declared, “How can there be too many children?  That is like saying there are too many flowers.”

     So should we be thankful for fertility?  It is fertility that resulted in a sweet 1-year-old nephew nuzzling into my shoulder as I lifted his sleepy body out of the van.  It is fertility that resulted in my delightful 4-year-old niece giving me a long hug before saying goodbye.  It is fertility that has given me a 6-year-old nephew whose sensitive spirit teaches me to go gently with people.  It is fertility that has given me an 8-year-old nephew who loves to challenge my competitive spirit with his own over a game of checkers.  It is fertility that has given me an 11-year-old niece who is learning to play the ukulele with me.  It is fertility that has given me a sister I cherish as a best friend.  It is fertility that has given me my parents and their combined 17 siblings.  It is fertility that has given me a brother-in-law, cousins, and friends around the world. 

     When I logged onto Facebook recently I noticed a friend made this post: “I have made a million mistakes in 14 years of parenting... but one thing I know for sure we did right was being open to life and giving our children siblings. That in itself has not been easy, but we are blessed by it every day.”

     Thankful for fertility?  Yes.





What Question Have You Asked Lately? by Stephanie Gray

     Recently a friend gifted me a new book, and as I’ve poured over its pages I’ve found myself experiencing the fruits of a book well-written:

  • I feel inspired and energized.
  • I share details of what I’ve read with others.
  • I act on what I read by contemplating its content, applying it to my life, and looking further into details it references.

     The book?  It’s written by Warren Berger and is called, “A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas.”

     One of its questions, which struck me as I read more yesterday, is particularly helpful when a person is at a crossroads, deciding one thing over another: “When I look back in five years, which of these options will make the better story?”

     How great is that?

     As I sat contemplating the various ideas swirling in my mind, one thought led to another, which led to another, and prompted me to text this to my sister: 

     “Reading a great book on the power of questions.  My wandering mind led me to the revelation that Monica [my sister’s eldest] will be going to university in 8 years.  Francis [my sister’s second oldest] is 8 years old and look how quickly that has passed.  Only 8 more years with Monica under your care.  What do you want those 8 years to look like?  No need to answer me.  I’m just sharing the concept of the book.”

     Or consider this question documentary filmmaker Roko Belic once asked,

     “Why is it that people who have so little and have suffered so much seem to be happier than other people who are more fortunate?”

     He sought the answer to that question and shared it with others in his inspiring documentary, “Happy.”  I never heard of the film until it was mentioned on page 191 of Berger’s book.  But I was so intrigued by the reference that I went home and asked my roommate a question: “Want to watch the documentary ‘Happy’ tonight?”  She said yes and we both were hugely inspired. 

     “Happy” was the second movie we watched as a result of this book.  The first film we watched a couple weeks prior.  It was a small reference on page 35.  The question this time was, “What if a car windshield could blink?”  Berger answered that question by telling about Bob Kearns, the inventor of intermittent windshield wipers.  His story was featured in a 2008 film called “Flash of Genius,” about how the Big Three car companies infringed on Kearns’ patent.  Watching that film caused my roommate and me to ask, “Did the real story really happen that way?  What happened to his family?  Does there come a point where prudence should compel us to stop fighting injustice?”  These questions, provoked as a result of the film (and the subsequent Google search we did at the end to learn more), led to a very thoughtful conversation about life.

     Berger’s book is great because not only does it ask the reader questions, it inspires the reader to ask their own questions.  These questions will lead us on a journey to answers that will enrich our life—if we are willing to step into the adventure of the unknown.  So what question will you ask yourself today?



A Birthday and Suicide, by Stephanie Gray

     Facebook reminded me that today is the birthday of a friend from my UBC days.  But there will be no party because he committed suicide several years ago.

     He didn’t choose to kill himself, though.  The demons in his mind drove him to such despair.  I remember when his mental illness first came out.  We were in second year university.  We lived in the same dorm—he on the fourth floor and me on the third.  Before the sudden change, we had been “partners in crime,” working together in the lab for the one science course I was forced to take thanks to the requirement that Arts majors have a science class.  I chose biology and found myself growing mosquitoes.  There was way too much larvae for my liking and I don’t think I would have survived that course if it wasn’t for his camaraderie.

     He was part of the group of my friends who would walk to Vancouver’s best beach of Spanish Banks and watch the most stunning sunsets while singing songs in harmony.  I remember he had an amazing voice.  As the sky went from blue to purples, pinks, yellows, and oranges, we would raise our voices with “How Great Thou Art” and other such hymns.

     Then one day he wasn’t around.  One day turned into several.  And then our circle of friends got word: he was in the hospital—on a mental health ward.  I remember the day I went to visit: it was gorgeously sunny and he sat by a window with earbuds in.  He had a peaceful smile on his face but he was not the same person.  When he saw me, he pulled them out and told me to place them in my ears.  “You have to listen to this song,” he said.

     And so I was introduced to Robin Mark’s Revival in Belfast song, “Jesus, All for Jesus.”  I fell in love with that song then and have listened to it many times in the two decades since.  It has been a source of inspiration for me in prayer as well as in preparation for giving presentations.  When I hear that song, I think of him. 

     When I think of him, I think of his love for Jesus; I think of his defence of pre-born children who he was a strong voice for on our campus; I think of his joy; I think of skipping along the street, speaking in fake accents, singing, and laughing.  Yes, he got sick with an illness that tormented him and led to a tragically short life.  But he also forever touched my life, and others', in a positive way.

     On this, what should have been your 37th birthday, my dear UBC buddy, may you be resting in peace, raising your voice in song with a chorus of angels.

The Circle of Life, by Stephanie Gray


     As my family gathered to celebrate my mom’s 75th birthday, I sat at the table cuddling the latest addition to our family: my 3-month old nephew.  As I cradled Carl, my mind wandered, prompted by the increasing temperature of the blanket on my lap that swaddled his body: “Did he pee through his diaper?” I wondered, “Or is that just warmth from body heat?”  Thankfully it was the latter, but it caused my mind to reflect on the total dependency of Carl on other people.  And then my mind wandered to the elderly, some of whom are just as dependent on others as babies are.  And with society’s increasing acceptance of euthanasia, a topic of late that I have been giving presentations about, a thought came to mind:

     “What if the world treated Carl like it sometimes treats the elderly?”

     Would we leave him in his crib alone all day, turn the TV on for distraction but otherwise have minimal interaction with him?  Would we scurry about to do lots of things but never take time to simply be with him? Would we possibly consider ending his life because, “What’s the point anyways?  He can’t do much.”

     Now some might say that Carl, as opposed to an individual at the end of her life, will one day be a “contributing” member to society, and his is a life we shouldn’t end.  In other words, we would preserve Carl’s life for what might be, but we would end a dying person’s life for what is no more.  But what if Carl never matured enough to do what most adults do?  What if he only lived for the next 6 months—knowing that, would we kill him now or would we savor and celebrate the little time we have left?

     And so, as I thought further, it occurred to me that our world would be a better place if we asked a different question: “What if we treated the elderly the way we treat Carl?”

     If that were the case, we would sing and play music.  We would smile, laugh, and engage.  We would soothe during seasons of sadness.  We would hug.  We would look at the other and simply delight in them.

     As I have watched my four other nieces and nephews interact with their littlest brother, I’ve noticed something: When vulnerable, needy people are in our midst, it can bring out the softer, gentler, more caring sides of us.

     I think about my 7-year-old strong-willed nephew who demonstrates such reverence for his little brother, delighting in holding him and sweetly kissing his cheeks.  I think about my 5-year-old nephew, a very sensitive child, who held his crying baby brother and repeatedly said “shh-shh-shh” until he had shh-ed him to sleep just like he observed his mom has done.

     I think of my 3-year-old niece who loves to sing, dance, and be loud but who, when I arrived one day, crawled out from under the kitchen table and said “Boo” in the quietest of whispers because Carl was nearby sleeping.  I think of my 9-year-old niece who’s like a second mother, carrying her baby brother around like a doll and who is so good at comforting him.

     Far from being a burden, the presence of Carl draws virtue out of us.  His need becomes an opportunity for our kindness.  The same is true of the elderly—if we let that be the case.

     A couple years ago my sister texted me a story from her evening: She was trying to put her then-youngest baby, my niece Cecilia, to sleep and promised her oldest daughter, Monica, that she would come to her room later and read to her.  But it took so long to put Cecilia down that by the time she got to Monica’s room my eldest niece had fallen asleep—with the unread book in hand.  My sister texted me a photo explaining what happened with the caption, “MOM GUILT!”  So I texted back, “You’ve given Monica something better than a bedtime story—you’ve given her a sister.”   She excitedly responded, “RIGHT! Perspective! Perspective! It’s all about perspective!”

     I realize not everyone can give their child a sibling, but everyone can give their child, and themselves, encounters with those who are needy and vulnerable, be it the elderly or someone else.  Perspective teaches that far from such encounters being burdensome, they can become moments to make life richer by being opportunities to enter into the human experience of love.



Beauty from Ashes, by Stephanie Gray

     “Although the world is full of suffering, it is also full of the overcoming of it.” –Helen Keller

     Two and a half years ago, back when I lived in Brampton, Ontario, I watched my then-parish burn to the ground.  Having since moved home to Vancouver, the last time I “saw” St. Elias it was ashes scattered upon sacred ground.  But last week, 31 months later, I visited Ontario and became witness to charred remains replaced by a new—and dare I say even better—towering place of worship, with copper domes reflecting the afternoon sunlight, set amidst a soft blue sky, standing majestic and tall.  Beauty from ashes. 

     I remember the sobs and devastation produced as the fiery inferno took over the building and crushed spirits, but I also saw a community rise from this loss with a conviction that it would overcome and rebuild—and it did.  This trial, and ultimate triumph, has become a metaphor for my own times of difficulty, remembering, as blind and deaf woman Helen Keller once remarked, “Although the world is full of suffering, it is also full of the overcoming of it.”  Beauty from ashes.

     Those words would be brought to life again only a few days later when, after visiting the new St. Elias, I flew to Guatemala to speak at the World Pro-Life Congress.  In the course of my 5-day visit I continually encountered beauty from ashes in the lived experiences of the people I met.

     Within an hour of my plane landing, one of my new Guatemalan friends, Gabby, took me on an unexpected and amazing adventure.  When I happened to ask her if she heard of Fr. Michael who ran Valley of the Angels Orphanage, a ministry I had only been told about days before while speaking in Ontario, she excitedly responded that she knew him and would take me there.  Thirty minutes later she was driving me up a winding mountain to meet a joyful Franciscan priest who authentically lives spiritual fatherhood by feeding, housing, and educating poor children—over 200, in fact!  Yes, there is poverty in Guatemala, but I also saw the overcoming of it.

     Then there was Gabby, the woman who picked me up at the airport.  She spends her time helping women in crisis, not only through volunteering at a counselling center, but also connecting women to a home for pregnant girls should they need material support to carry through with their pregnancies.  Suffering yes—but again, the overcoming of it.

     The next day I gave a presentation to 75 young volunteers of the Congress alongside another woman, Lianna Rebolledo.  Unlike me, Lianna can speak Spanish so her presentation to the bilingual audience was not understood by me.  But that evening we shared dinner together in our hotel’s restaurant and I was profoundly touched as I learned this inspiring and resilient woman’s journey first-hand.  Lianna and I are one year apart in age but she already has a 25-year-old daughter.  How could this be if 25 years ago we were 12 and 11 years old, respectively?  I then learned Lianna’s story—she was kidnapped at age 12, raped, and became pregnant.  As it says on her website,

     “She never thought about aborting her daughter. Lianna is survivor of 3 suicide attempts and is now a Defender of Life, with a specific mission: to inspire the world…She not only shares a testimony, but also a message of hope for many people, especially women all over the world who are in high-risk situations to love life grounded in faith.  ‘After my pregnancy due to rape, two lives were saved; I saved my daughter’s life and she saved mine.’”

     Suffering.  And the overcoming of it.

     The next day I met another presenter who is exactly my age, Patricia Sandoval.  We quickly connected and excitedly talked about our lives of travelling and speaking.  She had just heard me present to a panel so she told me why she was there to present: She had 3 abortions, used to work at Planned Parenthood, and for 3 years became a drug addict living on the streets.  Now she travels the world to tell others of God’s mercy.  Particularly poignant was when she told me this (which is also posted on her website in more detail here):

     “One day, my drug-addicted boyfriend and I got into an argument, and he kicked me out. I was left completely alone and abandoned, without food, water, friends, family, or drugs. I sat for hours on the sidewalk, curled into a fetal position, sobbing. I had nothing. I had sunk to the lowest level of my life.

      “It was then that I experienced the presence of God watching me. I lifted up my head and crying, I said to Him: ‘You are all that I have. I don't know how I got to this point. I thank you for my beautiful childhood and family, which You gave to me. I'm so sorry!’ I had barely finished speaking when a young woman my age, twenty-two, named Bonnie, knelt down, embraced me from behind, and said, ‘Jesus loves you.’ I looked up at her confused, and she smiled back and said, ‘I am the waitress at the restaurant across the street. I was working when God said to me: 'Put down your notepad, look out that window, and tell that young lady who is sitting on the curb that even if her mother or father should abandon her, I will never abandon or forsake her. I will be with her until the end of time.’ I couldn't believe that God had responded to my prayer so immediately! Bonnie took me into her restaurant and with a sweet smile, asked me what I'd like to eat. Then she drove me home.”

     Suffering. And the overcoming of it.

     Over the past 9 days, the people I met and the encounters I experienced have been nothing short of inspiring.  As I reflect on it all, I am reminded of the words of Anne Frank, a girl whose young life would be extinguished by the horror of the Holocaust but whose legacy has survived for decades since:

     “How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.”  Indeed, Anne, we all can make beauty from ashes.