When I was in college, I sometimes went to daily Mass. A lot of students went every day, but I couldn't find my way. Even though I knew Jesus was there, even though I loved him, at Mass there I always found myself distracted by the people around me. They were so quiet, somehow, so holy, heads always bowed at the right places.
We knelt on the floor there, no kneelers, and no one else ever seemed bothered by the hard floor against their knees. After Mass, instead of bolting, everyone would kneel again to pray, and I always wondered if I was the only one whose mind wandered, who felt like I was faking it. Wondered if I was the only one waiting until someone near me got up to leave, so I wouldn't draw attention by being the first one.
With my prayer journal in the Adoration chapel at our parish, I could always meet God. He waited for me. And at Sunday Mass at our parish, where things were busy and full, I found him again and again. But at school, with my classmates quiet and still around me, I felt the loud brokenness of my mind and heart standing out. I got distracted by how holy I wasn't. I still met Jesus there, but my own self was always in the way.
My sister got married. Life events like this are not easy to pull together, and it was a stressful week before her wedding, but the day itself was kind of perfect. Miriel was so real that day, and John too. Everything about the day, about their union, stood for love and for goodness.
Miriel is brave. For eight years - ever since our dad drove her to drop her off alone at college in a faraway state - she's been struggling along. Struggling seems like too dramatic a word, considering the way she's thrived: valedictorian of her class, a fellowship, a job at which she excelled, perfect grades in her Master's program. I doubt people who met her thought, here's a girl who could never make it on her own.
But Miriel is one of those people who isn't meant to be alone. It was never right; she could never settle, until she met John.
It was almost embarrassing, the way I sobbed watching their first dance at the wedding reception. People definitely noticed. My sister herself noticed, and blew me a kiss from the dance floor. (I think she knows the way she is in my heart.) But it was impossible for me not to cry, thinking of the way she's moved from place to place on her own all this time, fighting so hard to keep her head up. And now she'll never be alone again.
When I got married, I was a kid. Bryan and I both were. Almost literally, at twenty-one and nineteen years old. We knew, I now realize, almost nothing, but we wanted to find our way together. In the vestibule of the church after we came back down the aisle, we laughed and hugged and stared at our wedding rings, almost unable to believe we could actually be married to each other.
There have been a lot of hard times since then. Seeing Miriel and John, so very ready to join their lives, made me realize how very not ready Bryan and I were, in many ways. But I can't wish that it had been different, that we had been different, because there would be no now without then. And I can't wish for my sister and new brother-in-law anything other than exactly what they have right now. Even knowing how much work they have ahead of them, how much it takes to make a marriage good, I wouldn't wish for them anything other than every moment of it together.
Years ago, when Milla was a baby, I wrote a piece about love and sacrifice and the way married romance looks so much different than how I expected it to look. I meant every word, but now I read it and smile at the way we didn't imagine, back then, how much more we could be forced to give.
I feel silly talking about the past few years as if they were hard in a real way, the way tragedy and trauma are. We've had happy endings for our family. Don't think for a moment that I don't know that. But it turns out that "hard" doesn't have to mean tragic or traumatic. It can just mean "trying" and these last few years have definitely been that.
I imagine a break in the timeline of my marriage; it's split into "B.T." and "A.T." There's also "B.C." and "A.C." (before and after children) but honestly, I think that having twins made the most dramatic difference for Bryan and me. We've always been pretty good at loving each other, and we could be selfless when we wanted to be, but finding ourselves suddenly responsible for a four-year-old, a two-year-old, and two newborns was the fork in the road. We didn't realize it at the time, but looking back I can see so clearly. It forced us to choose whether we were fighting together, or against each other.
It's frighteningly easy to step across that line. To let all the little things become a big thing between you, trapping both of you, so you can't reach each other across the divide.
By the grace of God that didn't happen to us. Oh, sure, there were plenty of moments where we snapped at each other at 2am. But somehow through all those sleepless nights we kept fighting together, both giving everything we had, carrying each other when we fell. By the grace of God love grew through the trying times.
If my wedding-day self could see Bryan and me now I know she would be amazed. Because even though she was in love that day, she could not have imagined that love could be this. That we could go through things that would make us the worst, grumpiest, most selfish versions of ourselves, and somehow love each other more because we'd seen each other's dark sides. That being in those places would bring us back into each other's arms again and again, that love could burn brighter and hotter than it ever did a decade ago.
Despite how good it's been for our marriage, this A.T. time has been hard for me. I've struggled with the tasks of my daily life and with the voice in my own head. Therapy helped, and children growing helped, but I'm still overwhelmed often. I feel like I can't manage many extras because the work of daily life is so big.
Finally this spring, though, I decided to try taking my kids to Mass on my own. I wanted to go to the Tuesday noon Mass at our parish where they bless all the children afterward. I've always loved that Mass. So I took my boys (Camilla was at school) and they behaved predictably. Lots of climbing around the pew, a few spats, one time when I had to rush them out (why is it always during the consecration?) almost before someone started screaming. But I came back in for communion, dragged through the line with one toddler on each hip, and braved the pew again afterward. There was music, and people love children there, and I figured it would be all right.
It was more than all right, because we sang - I can't remember what, but it was about, you know, God's love and all that - and I knelt and prayed and joined in the song and lifted my eyes to the crucifix and knew, right then, something I never knew in all those moments of silent post-Mass prayer back in college.
I was such a good congregant then, like everyone around me, quiet and reverent and focused, at least on the outside. Inside, like I said, my own self was always in the way. But now, in this moment, I had one toddler trying to climb my back and one dropping cereal on the floor and a four-year-old lying on the pew poking me with his foot. We were not a quiet and reverent group, and I couldn't even pretend to be focused. There was no room for my own self to get in the way. My life was messy and loud in that pew. Honestly, I wanted to cry a little at how big the chaos felt, how there was no place for me to hide.
Back in college I was always trying to be better, to be holier, to be worthy of the savior on the cross. Now I saw, suddenly, in a way that was warm and big in my chest, the truth I could never find then. Here I was so worn out and overwhelmed and drowning in children and Jesus was there. Loving me exactly as I was. Loving me so constantly and more fervently than I can even imagine.
He always has, of course, but it took coming to him like this for me to see it.
I'm struggling to find the right words to tie all of this together, but maybe it's fitting that the perfect expression eludes me. Because for me, all of this stuff - my sister's marriage, the growth of my own, God's constancy in answer to my brokenness - turns out to be glimpses of a bigger truth that I can't describe, at least not wholly. I'm reaching for it, but it's a little out of my grasp.
It has to do with grace, and the way it's so big. The way love isn't a fairy tale that beautiful and well-behaved people get because they deserve it, but something else entirely, something deep and rich and true and so warm it almost burns you. Something that can see all the broken parts of me and want me anyway, and envelop me in a way that doesn't hide the ugliness, but heals it.
That love has a name, and I'm so grateful He lets me keep turning my face toward Him. Even (or maybe especially?) with toddlers hanging on my back.