Magazine of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford Connecticut
Wednesday, May 24, 2017

M. Regina Cram

cram column US Navy 050314 N 6665R 022 A Project HOPE(U.S. Navy photo by Photographer's Mate 2nd Class Jeffery Russell/Wikimedia Commons Public domain)They had been married for 21 years and were the parents of four boys. Their marriage had had its ups and downs, but doesn't every marriage? From the outside looking in, the marriage looked pretty good.

Unbeknownst to friends and colleagues, the husband — I’ll call him Bob — had become a heavy drinker in recent years. He traveled a lot for work, and the wife — I’ll call her Sally — was not entirely sure of his faithfulness. Still, Bob was a good provider and she had been crazy about him since the day they’d met at a college mixer. His gentle way calmed her hyperactivity. Her extroversion drew him out of his shell.

Over the years, the marriage quietly unraveled until conflict erupted on a blustery night in October. Awkward and uneasy at the dinner table, Bob finally cleared his throat, announced that he was leaving Sally and headed upstairs to pack. An hour later, he was gone.

Sally was stunned. He wasn’t serious, was he? Surely they could repair their problems. How could she manage? They had a mortgage and two kids in college.

A month later, Bob filed for divorce. Sally was a devout Catholic and wanted no part of divorce. She fought him about it and begged him to join her in marriage counseling, but Bob would not be dissuaded. A few months after he left, Bob moved in with his girlfriend. Bob and Sally’s youngest son started to act out in school. Creditors began calling.

The early months of the separation were a nightmare, as Sally grappled with her new reality. In a million years, she’d never pictured herself as a divorcee. She’d envisioned being married to the same man for 60 years. Instead, she was a 47-year-old woman with no husband and virtually no work experience.

About six months into the separation, Sally enrolled in a program for displaced women who were returning to the workforce. Many of the women were dealing with the same mix of anger, confusion and fear that blanketed Sally. Alongside these hurting women, Sally learned business skills and she began planning a future. After multiple internships, Sally settled into a job that she enjoyed. Her income was modest, but it covered the mortgage, if just barely.

Two years after the ordeal began, Sally officially became a divorced woman. She had a hard time saying the word.

Over the years, Sally had become friendly with numerous political and religious refugees. Most knew little about navigating American life. All were lonely and had minimal contact outside their immigrant communities. After the divorce, Sally poured herself into these people in need. She began lunchtime prayer with a Muslim woman. She assisted a Russian Jew in obtaining a driver’s license. She cared for the small daughter of a Syrian physician who was trying, unsuccessfully, to obtain a license to practice medicine in America. She housed a South American child and his mother who were in this country so he could undergo life-saving heart surgery.

Sunday dinner became Sally’s favorite time of the week. A typical gathering around her dining room table included a quirky assortment of lonely people who reveled in home-cooked food, lively discussion and the offer of friendship.

Many years later, after an annulment had been granted, Sally married a wonderful Catholic widower, and they enjoyed nearly 10 years together before his death. Sally later observed that becoming divorced was far more painful than becoming widowed. In the aftermath of each, however, Sally soothed her pain by reaching out to others.

M. Regina Cram is a writer, speaker and author. She and her husband live in Glastonbury and have four children and seven grandchildren.

 

cram parent child beach web

The call came years ago on a raw afternoon in early spring.

The woman on the other end of the phone introduced herself as a writer. She explained that Parenting magazine had hired her to write a story about how to prevent spoiled children, and she wanted to interview me on the topic. She’d been given my name through a convoluted series of contacts, none of whom had ever met me or my children. How did she know my kids weren’t spoiled?

The interview was fascinating. The writer presented me with eight specific scenarios involving children who were not getting what they wanted. I had to describe how I would handle each situation. The writer planned to conduct similar interviews with parents and experts around the country.

Months later, the November issue of Parenting landed in my mailbox. Turning quickly to page 78, I discovered that the entire article revolved around six people who were listed as national experts on how to avoid spoiled children. I was one of the six.

Seriously? A national expert? My professional background was with IBM. In college, I was a cafeteria ticket puncher; in the summer, I stuffed mail-order steak knives into envelopes. In what universe did this qualify me as an expert?

Friends and family had a good laugh about the magazine article. Then we returned to everyday life.

One morning a year or two later, the magazine article came to mind as I picked up my easygoing 4-year-old from nursery school. Victoria greeted me with her sweet hug and kiss, then ran off to play. I asked her to get her jacket.

She looked up with those soft brown eyes and declared, “No.”

I know this sounds crazy, but this had never happened. Victoria was always so compliant. I called to her again, and again she said no. I was stunned. I’d dealt with plenty of defiance from my other children, but this was new territory for Victoria.

I walked over to her, picked her up, carried her to the coat hooks, plopped her down and instructed her to grab her jacket. She refused. I insisted. She refused. And then, to my astonishment, she hurled herself to the floor, kicked her little hands and feet and began wailing. I couldn’t believe my eyes.

By this time, a small crowd had gathered. Normally, when a recalcitrant child throws a public tantrum, other parents offer sympathy. Not this time. The parents who gathered were actually cheering — enthusiastically. “I’m so glad your child isn’t perfect!” one mother laughed. “It makes me feel so much better!”

In the end, a teacher “helped” Victoria get her coat.

Victoria did not have another tantrum for five years.

Her tantrum reminded me of another story. Years ago, there was an elementary school in California located on a busy street. For safety, the playground was surrounded by a tall fence. A group of parents petitioned the school board to remove the fence, however, claiming that it limited their children’s freedom and creativity. Astoundingly, the board complied.

An immediate change occurred at recess: the children began huddling in the center of the playground because they were frightened by the traffic. The fence hadn’t shackled their freedom; it had given them the freedom to play.

The fence was reinstalled and the children again played freely.

And thus it is with discipline. Boundaries and discipline do not limit a child; they keep the child safe and give tangible evidence of how deeply the child is loved.

The day will come when I must give an account for my life. I hope I can say that I loved my children unconditionally, trained them in holiness and led them into a relationship with God. If I can say these things, perhaps I will have become an expert.

M. REGINA CRAM is a writer, speaker and author. She and her husband live in Glastonbury and have four children and seven grandchildren.

cram angel statueYOUR LIFE, PARENTING

Childish prayers

A child’s prayer is the ultimate in sweetness, isn’t it? Yeah, right. Like the time my 3-year-old prayed for her baby sister to move in with the neighbors, preferably for a very long time. Years ago when I misplaced my wedding ring, my young son confidently prayed to find it, then whispered his back-up plan. “That’s OK, Mama. You get married again, get another ring.”

Our children have asked God to make the tooth fairy less forgetful, turn the green beans into chocolate and send all mosquitoes to Rhode Island. Five-year-old Meredith once thanked God for the baby’s slimy belly button, and asked him to make sure there are no frogs in heaven. Skip prayed for quadruplet brothers. We drew the line when one nameless child asked God if he could please make the teacher sick for the rest of the school year.

Children’s prayers are not always sweet, or even kind, but they are genuine pleas from kids who understand that God cares about the details of their lives.

Let me tell you about one such plea.

As a young mom, I had a pen pal named Rosemary in Philadelphia. Rosemary wrote hilarious letters about her family’s escapades, giving me much-needed respite from my daily routine.

Shortly before we began corresponding, Rosemary and her husband John applied to adopt a baby from Peru. They had recently visited that country, where they’d fallen in love with a 5-month-old baby boy. Returning to Philadelphia, they completed the necessary paperwork to adopt him — or so they thought. Months later, they returned to South America to bring the baby home, but the Peruvian government refused to release the child. Heartbroken, John and Rosemary again returned to the States, leaving the baby in a Peruvian orphanage. In their hearts, this child was already their son. They had named him Anthony.

Our children prayed fervently for Anthony, and each update from Rosemary propelled them to pray still more. “Please, God,” the children would plead, “please bring Baby Anthony home so he can be with his family.”

We began praying in March. April came and went, then May. Around the first of June, John and Rosemary were told to expect Anthony by midsummer, but June and July passed and Anthony was still in Peru. In August, they marked Anthony’s first birthday from thousands of miles away.

And still we prayed. “Why doesn’t God bring Baby Anthony home so he can be with his family?” my 4-year-old asked often. I didn’t know. I could only assure her that God loved Baby Anthony even more than we did.

The weather turned cool. September passed, then October. “Don’t you think God will bring him home for Thanksgiving?” my 6-year-old asked.

But on Thanksgiving Day, we were still praying for Baby Anthony to come home.

The morning after Thanksgiving, I strolled to the mailbox, where I found a letter in Rosemary’s distinctive handwriting. I ripped open the envelope and read, “He’s home. Baby Anthony is home.”

I could not see the rest of the words through my tears. I flew into the house shouting, “He’s here! He’s here! He’s here!” The children dropped what they were doing and gathered around to read about John and Rosemary’s final trip to Peru. This time, they brought home their cherished little boy.

Our prayers that evening brimmed with joy. “Thank you for bringing Baby Anthony home to be with his family!” the children prayed. The 7-year-old blurted out, “Hey! Anthony was home for Thanksgiving! We just didn’t know it yet.”

Anthony’s story has a happy ending, but sometimes God’s plan does not match our own. Sometimes God tells us, “No, my child, I can’t give you what you want because I love you so much.” It’s not easy explaining this to a child. It’s not easy understanding it ourselves.

But prayer is so much more than asking for things; prayer fosters a relationship with God. And so, generation after generation, we bring our children to prayer, often assisted by grandparents, godparents and caregivers. Together, we teach our children to trust their Heavenly Father whose love is everlasting, whether he gives us what we want or not.

M. REGINA CRAM is a writer, speaker and author. She and her husband live in Glastonbury and have four children and seven grandchildren.

sad 1821412 640We gathered around the kitchen table for dinner, accompanied by the usual bickering, grumbling and hilarity. Our children ranged in age from 10-16 and they were really good kids. They just liked to argue. A lot.

My husband Peter did not not want to have the conversation I was about to begin. He feared that the children would blame themselves for my odd behavior. I insisted that they already blamed themselves, and besides, we're family. They deserved to know what was going on. If I was battling a physical illness, we wouldn't withhold the truth. Why should we withhold the truth in this case?

“This case” was my struggle with some amorphous mental illness. The previous year, I'd been incorrectly diagnosed with clinical depression after having suffered in silence for far too long. Unfortunately, I still didn't have a correct diagnosis. I was depressed, confused, irritable and ghastly thin. Most days, it was all I could do to get out of bed. Some days, I couldn't even do that.

As dinner drew to a close, I cleared my throat and began. I noted that I'd been crying a lot, listless, lying on the couch for days and not my normal self. The three older kids indicated that they had noticed. I filled them in on what I had done to seek treatment. I also told them honestly that, thus far, nothing had worked. I assured them that their dad and I would continue to seek an accurate diagnosis, then pursue effective treatment. In the meantime, we wanted them to know that none of this was their fault. We stressed that we loved them very much and that they were free to ask questions at any time.

The three older kids seemed somewhat familiar with mental illness. To my delight, they had none of the prejudices held by previous generations. To them, a mental illness was no different from diabetes — a medical condition that is serious but, in most cases, treatable. 

The youngest child, however, was combative. “How can you be sad if there's nothing to be sad about?” she charged in frustration. “Why can't you just be happy?”

The older kids jumped down her throat. “It's an illness! She can't control it!” hollered the 15-year-old. “Torrie, Mom is sick. It's a sickness. That's all,” added the 16-year-old gently.

But the 10-year-old continued her rant, so I intervened and wrapped up the conversation. Later, I spoke privately with the older kids. I explained that Torrie's frustration had nothing to do with insensitivity or prejudice; it had everything to do with the fact that she had not yet reached puberty. “Once a kid is an adolescent,” I said, “the brain is able to deal with abstractions. I'm sure that in 18 months, Torrie will totally get it.” The kids were skeptical, but agreed not to battle their youngest sibling. 

Six months later, I finally received a correct diagnosis. I was suffering from bipolar disorder, a mental  illness marked by uncontrolled mood swings thought to be caused by chemical fluctuations in the brain. Fortunately, bipolar disorder is usually treatable, so, with a lot of hard work and tremendous family support, I am fat and sassy again. 

I'm making it sound easy. It was not. Actually, it was horrible — and our youngest was still combative.

It took about two years for my condition to stabilize, by which point our youngest was in middle school. One day, I took her aside and asked if she was embarrassed that her mom had a mental illness. 

She didn't understand the question.

“Mom, you're sick. If you're sick, you're sick. Why would I be embarrassed?”

I wanted to kiss her, except that that would have embarrassed her far more than any mental illness.

Throughout my healing process, our parents and friends were incredible, bringing meals, touching base and reminding me how much I was loved.

The final step came when I began to feel God's gentle nudge to write about my struggle. “Are you out of your mind?” I asked God bluntly. “It was horrible enough to live through it. Why would I want to write about it?”

God sweetly persisted until I acknowledged that it was time for me to stop feeling ashamed. I didn't do anything wrong; I simply had an illness. And so, reluctantly, I wrote about it, and spoke about it, and owned it.

I hate having a mental illness; I think I'll always hate it. But in all things God works together for the good of those who love him and are called according to his purpose. I wish he'd picked a different purpose for me, but this is what I have. To God be the glory.

 

M. Regina Cram is a writer, speaker and author. She and her husband live in Glastonbury and have four children and seven grandchildren.

Everyday Holiness

by M. Regina Cram

For daybreak coffee roasters

Once every decade or so, New England gets clobbered by one of those wild storms that knocks out power for days. During such outages, what is it that you miss the most?

Correct. You miss coffee.

A few years ago, New England was pummeled by a freak October blizzard that erupted onto a Halloween landscape. Transformers exploded. Trees crashed. Electrical wires dangled precariously.

My husband Peter and I had just settled in for a quiet Saturday evening when the lights flickered. And then it was dark. One hundred percent of our town was without power. We had no Internet access, no electricity, no heat and no water. I don’t mean that we had no hot water. We have a well so we had no water at all. For a week.

Sunday and Monday, we worked to clear debris. By Tuesday, the inside of our house was so cold that we could see our breath. I did look rather fetching wearing a balaclava to bed.

By Wednesday, everything in the refrigerator and freezer had spoiled. FEMA was distributing MREs – military precooked rations that taste even worse than people say. The high school had been converted into an emergency shelter. Lines for gasoline stretched city blocks.

I functioned reasonably well with the cold, the grime and the darkness. What pushed me over the edge, however, was life without coffee.

So on Wednesday morning, I grabbed a backpack, tossed in money and water, strapped it on my back and walked two miles to the closest market. Fortunately, the store had a generator.

I strode to the back of the store, grabbed a pint of half and half, paid for it, placed it in my backpack, then hiked the two miles back to my home. By this point I had walked four miles with nothing to show for it but a small carton of half and half.

This is where I got creative. I retrieved charcoal from our garage and set up our dilapidated charcoal grill on the frigid back deck. When the coals were hot, I filled a small saucepan with water and placed it on the grate until it boiled. Then I poured the boiling water over coffee grounds and a filter, and into my waiting mug. After adding half and half, I found myself in possession of what was possibly the best cup of coffee ever brewed by humanity. If you have ever given up coffee for Lent, you understand what I mean. My coffee did taste vaguely smoky, but that added to its appeal.

Energized by my coffee, I was able to face the rest of the week. By Thursday, there was a party-like atmosphere wherever people gathered. Residents exchanged stories and offered advice. Neighbor pitched in to help neighbor, checking on the elderly and homebound.

It sounds more charming than it was. There is nothing romantic about being cold, or hungry, or afraid. Peter and I had it better than most because we had each other. And, unlike many in the world who lack food and water, we knew our hardship would end. We had hope.

When power was finally restored after a week, people felt a new appreciation for electricity and hot water. Not me. I appreciated having hope. No matter how cold I had been, I knew with certainty that clean water and a warm home would return. It was hope that carried me through the storm.

Hope, and one really good cup of coffee.

Regina Cram lives in Glastonbury and is a freelance writer. She is the author of Do Bad Guys Wear Socks? Living the Gospel in Everyday Life.