to have and have not

We sleep eight hours straight. No one wakes us.

I rise on my own to soft sunlight, hearing birdsong. No hungry cries.

I drink a glass of wine with dinner. I eat whatever I want.

I never throw up. Spicy food makes no baby fussy.

We didn’t have to buy a new car. Or rearrange the boys’ bedrooms.

I spend Saturday at the coffee shop, evenings at yoga. I never have to time my plans to nurse a newborn.

I get to spend a week writing at one of my favorite places on the planet. I am diving deep into a book project I have long wanted to finish. I have all the hours I need, the company of colleagues, the prayer of monks, delicious meals, long walks in summer woods, peace and quiet.

I have all these things that at some point I desperately wanted. 

. . .

Ever since I read my friend Christie’s wise, rich words on grief and loss, I have been turning her phrases over and over in my head:

Once, I was confident that our good God never causes the bad thing that is pain. But I have lost that easy answer and gained a much more mysterious question: how sure can I be calling one thing good, another thing bad?

What is good now?

A month ago I started teaching our two older boys how to play the piano. They had been begging for a while; I was too sick while pregnant, too grief-stricken while not.

But now became a good time to learn.

We pulled out my old Alfred Lesson 1 Book. They dove in with gusto, learning middle C position, quarter notes, time signatures, seconds, thirds, fourths. The plodding work of practice. The shared delight of a duet.

One or the other is always plunking on the piano now. They jostle each other on the bench, sneak down in the mornings to start playing, fight for a chance to learn a new song.

The house is full of music. They are thrilled to learn. I love to hear it.

I cannot stand the thought that if Maggie and Abby had lived, none of it would have happened. I cannot bear the ache of wanting both possible worlds to fold into each other: the world where our babies are here and the world where their brothers learn to make music.

I do not get to choose. I cannot have and have not.

Sometimes, in the staggeringly privileged world of highly educated Americans with vast resources at our disposal, we like to think you can have it all! just not all at once! 

Sometimes you cannot. Maybe most of the time you cannot. We delude ourselves when we think we are in control of our lives, confident behind the wheel, cruising strong in the driver’s seat, steering everything in the direction we want to go.

Right now I have almost everything I ever wanted.

What I have not makes everything harder.

. . .

Whatever comes next will one day be added as the coda to Abby and Maggie’s story. Neat and tidy. Pleasing to the ear.

See, people will say. See the good that came from their deaths? Well, not good, exactly, but you know what I mean. See how you turned that tragedy into something better? See how beauty came from ashes? 

I am not sure anymore how to call one thing good and another not.

All I know is that when black and white answers disappear, I see so much more of God.

This is not some prettied-up silver lining. This is the whole messy, bleeding, swirling palette of life: dark, bright, dazzling, harsh, soft, exploding.

This is good. And this is also the farthest thing from good. But I am no longer sure that the opposite of good is bad. I do not know what I would call it.

But it might sound something like this. Our house empty of babies, but full of beauty and life. 

. . .

Seven years ago in June, I first came to the Collegeville Institute for a writing workshop with a teacher who taught me more about writing than I ever expected and who eventually became my editor on Everyday Sacrament.

I was six months pregnant with our first baby. I had just graduated from the School of Theology. I was trying to figure out what I was doing with the rest of my life.

And I sat at the table (uncomfortably, with a giant basketball of a belly), listening to Mary teach about different kinds of sentences.

Here is a serial sentence, she said. It has parallel parts, a pleasing rhythm to the ear. Here is the secret of how you use it. If you want to convey something good and balanced, use three parts. If you want to convey something excessive, use four.

Then she gave this example.

Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. (Philippians 4:8)

Paul can’t stop stringing together phrases, an overabundance of truth and beauty. We catch this as listeners and readers, swimming in wave after wave of whatever is good.

Think about these things.

The words echo in my head in this place. An overabundance of good.

How do I let my words sing after all this sorrow? How can I write about the overwhelming waves of goodness that have carried us even as we flounder?

How do I let the way-too-much of death and loss and grief and darkness (see what I did there?) be woven into the life and beauty and hope and love (there, too) that has arisen, stubborn and unwavering, right alongside it all?

To have and to have not. Perhaps we are always caught between.

Think about these things.


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  1. Ann on 6 June 2016 at 9:57 pm

    I adopted my daughter, then 9 from foster care, now 28. And she told me once that she was happy, and she wondered if that meant she was glad her birth parents’ rights were terminated. And we just had to agree that for her, being happy was good, and we’d never ever figure out what life would have been like if her birth parents had been different. I wish you the peace that my daughter searches for or has, depending on the day.

  2. Kate on 6 June 2016 at 9:14 pm


    Such wisdom. Such truth. Thank you.

  3. Kathleen Kelly on 6 June 2016 at 8:24 pm

    I understood for the first time, twenty five years ago, what the word “yearn’ meant.
    I knew it meant I could not have what I wanted most, not for a long long while..
    So, now, I have hope.and still know faith and lots of love…

  4. Abbey on 6 June 2016 at 2:54 pm

    At Mass on Sunday, I sat next to my 15 year old son, my heart full of thanks for who he has become: I think due, in a large part, to the intercession of his twin brother who died 2 1/2 years ago. I want both boys here, alive, on earth, but then I wouldn’t have this special saint who prays for us in heaven. And I think much of my exceedingly great joy since Sam’s death is thanks to his prayers for us…would we be as joyful if he had lived? There would have been the great joy of having him here, but I don’t know if it would be as unshakeable as the joy I have now.

    • Claire on 7 June 2016 at 8:51 am

      Abbey, I am blown away by what you’ve been through and how you’re able to rejoice after such a horrific loss. You are an inspiration.

  5. Katie on 6 June 2016 at 1:42 pm

    For me, pregnant again after a miscarriage, it is that I have to make room for both the grief and the joy. Grief that there is no toddling 1 year old in our home and all the reminders that he isn’t here with us. But joy in every kick and thought of the new baby. I am still learning to let myself hold room for both of them at the same time. Your writing has helped me do this, so thank you.

  6. Sarah on 6 June 2016 at 12:51 pm

    Your writing is beautiful. Thank you for sharing.

  7. Claire on 6 June 2016 at 9:35 am

    Precisely. It is impossible ot have it all, and we have very little control over how much “all” we have and when we have it (some people more than others, obviously). For a control freak like me, this can be very unsettling. I grieve my twins, but if they had lived I would not have adopted my son. I mourn that my son is an only child, yet I love the one-on-one time I have with him. It’s really hard to know how to handle these conflicting emotions.

  8. Christie Purifoy on 6 June 2016 at 9:31 am

    Your words – they are so beautiful and perfect and heartbreaking. Thank you for giving them to us.

  9. Angela on 6 June 2016 at 8:35 am

    We will always have this paradox too. After our daughter died at birth we got pregnant six months later with our second daughter (now four). But my husband always says if we hadn’t lost the first, we wouldn’t have the second (since it’s highly unlikely I would have gotten pregnant so soon with breastfeeding). It’s good, and not good and just so strange, the ways of God.

  10. I am thinking about these things.

    And. I want to say this.

    I went to see the National Parks film at the Omni Theater on Friday. There, against this visual backdrop of glacial lakes and red and yellow canyons, followed by rivers and rocky mountains; against this instrumental soundtrack of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”, came this fact shared in the voice over narration by Robert Redford: That for pine forests to re-populate, their sap-covered cones must burn to release the seeds. It’s from forest fires that new life emerges.

    I am praying with this detail from our natural world this day.

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