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Starting Point

Precious days in the pasture


My work is to prepare liturgy and I find myself immersed in the scriptures of this long Easter season: stories of the incredulous disciples, the struggles within the infant church and -- a favorite -- the Good Shepherd texts from the Gospel of John. On the home front I’m preparing for Mother’s Day, which, as a daughter, involves standing in front of the card rack for hours, trying to find a card that doesn’t tell any lies and eventually settling for a blank card with a floral print where I can write my own truthful message. Or as truthful as one should be on such a day. As a mother it involves making not-too-obvious preparations to receive the rough, but genuine ministrations of my sons.

Shepherding and mothering are similar. Most of us mothers lay down our lives for our children in some fashion every day. I can just barely remember mothering one child, then I was the mother of two for only six months when we adopted our third and oldest boy, so most of my mothering experience has been as “out-numbered.” The three of them conspire to take turns on the edge of the cliff while the other two are biding their time safely in the pasture, waiting their turn for crisis or adventure, whichever comes first. Being the Good Shepherd mother, I perpetually go after the one and leave the other two (99 in the gospel) to graze. The problem is that I don’t much like heights and would enjoy a little time amongst the grazers. I have suggested that it would be simply splendid if they all wanted to be happy and safe at the same time, but on the rare occasions when they are, I just wait around for the other shoe to fall. They all seem pretty fine. Just you wait.

I was thinking this week about ritual lies. At the airport I’m asked, “Has a stranger touched your bags today since you packed?” The ritual answer is, of course, a firm, “No!” Do not tell the truth: “Well, no one except for the bell captain at the hotel who picked them up from my room, the porter who just carried them to this point, and you, for that matter, whom I’ve never seen before in my life.”

Or at the doctor’s office where the nurse, the 14-year-old medical student, and eventually the doctor ask me, “How are you?” to which I invariably respond, “Fine!” -- which is patently nonsense or I wouldn’t have just spent two hours in a small white room the temperature of my vegetable storage bin to see a doc for seven minutes who informs me that I have a sinus infection. Of course, I already know I have a sinus infection, having lived with these sinuses for 48 years. I told them when I called for a prescription.

One of my favorite ritual lies is part of the liturgy of Baptism. The parents of the little one are asked if they indeed want their child baptized and intend to raise this child as a Christian. Then they are asked this question: “Do you clearly understand what you are undertaking?” The parents always respond, “Yes” or “We do” or some such ridiculous answer and experienced parents who are paying attention roll their eyes and snicker behind their hands.

My youngest grazer is, as I write, pleasantly sick. Just sick enough to be swaddled on the couch and need hot tea and sympathy and read his book for English and doze a little, but not sick enough to be scary. Is it awful to enjoy your children when they’re a little bit sick? I’m not one of those mothers with Munchausen syndrome by proxy -- the ones who push their children down the stairs so that they can take care of them -- but I do enjoy them biddable and cuddly and looking to me for whatever mom wisdom I have. Those moments are rare in life with a shaving, weight-lifting, mumbling adolescent.

Motherhood is essentially a life of the humblest kind of servitude, which goes on anywhere between 18 and 30 years, depending on how many kiddos you have and how much space between them, followed by another 30 or more years of waking suddenly in the night worrying about one of them -- the length of those years depending on how long you actually live.

Would I choose it again? Of course. Those precious days in the pasture make it all worthwhile.

Paige Byrne Shortal is a pastoral associate in a parish in rural Missouri. Her e-mail address is pbs@fidnet.com

National Catholic Reporter, May 11, 2001