"O, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God...Who has known the mind of the Lord?" Romans 11:33-34
Almost four weeks ago, our family shifted for the most beautiful of reasons: Grace Maureen Malone entered the world on June 24, 2021 at 6:53 a.m., the already-much-loved daughter of our daughter, Meaghan, and her husband, Evan. Let the grand-parenting begin.
Meaghan is the oldest of the “Gonoodle” Clan. When the Leon and Good families first merged in 2013, we had a lively discussion of what new name could incorporate all the letters from both of our surnames and Gonoodle was born, to the dismay of all but the youngest two Gonoodle children. There are many interesting dynamics you notice when blending families. One thing that stood out to me was that the OG Leon family was a merger of two first-borns: Ralph, the oldest son in his family, and his first wife, Maureen, the oldest in hers. As a result, it is my observation that the world orbited around their own first-born, Meaghan, even more than for most new babies. (Meaghan is no worse-the-wear for this attention, however! She is one of the most loving, kind, warm, and compassionate people I know.) So, coming into the Leon family many years later, as a youngest child, I had great compassion for the other Leon children – equally brilliant and beautiful as Meaghan, but knowing their pedestals might always be a notch or two shorter than hers.
In my own family of origin, my older brother was also the first-born of two first-borns AND the first grandchild. While my parents tried to avoid any clear preference for him, my maternal grandmother made it very clear that every subsequent grandchild (i.e. my 17 younger cousins and I) would have a hard time measuring up. As a result, in the OG Good family, I worked carefully to balance sibling privilege and attention, but birth order is a powerful tide. When Ralph and I got married, it was an extra adjustment for my oldest daughter Maggie to be demoted from her place at the top to Daughter #4. There was some consolation that she was older than Ralph’s youngest child, Andrew, by 5 months and, since the oldest three daughters were already in college at the time of our wedding, she remained the oldest of the six children that lived at home together for the first years of our marriage. But as the oldest, you just assume, right or wrong, that you will be the first to get married, the first to have children. You assume that when your mom becomes a grandmother, she will be holding your baby. This kind of adjustment is one of the many large and small challenges that come with being a blended family.
Since November of 2020, the whole clan of us have waited for the arrival of Baby Malone, whose gender was unknown, with great excitement, but not without the occasional sting to remind us that we are also a family that has been through significant loss. Sweet Meaghan, along with her siblings, lost her mom in 2010. Ralph and I knew Meaghan's pregnancy and the arrival of her baby would bring renewed grief that her mother was not here to share in every precious moment. I am confident there is not a day that goes by when Meaghan does not miss her mom, but my heart aches for how that loss must shine more brightly during this miraculous season of new life. This is also one of those messy places where it is hard to be a second wife. I anticipated that Ralph might also feel Maureen’s absence more significantly when the baby was born; that made perfect sense to me. But, because of my own wounds, it also made me feel like I needed to “get smaller” because I wasn’t the real grandmother. No one said this out loud, nor do I believe anyone thinks it even – but it is still true; Sweet baby Grace and I will only ever be bound by love, not blood.
And finally, the terrible agony of welcoming a baby when your own desperately-loved baby is forever gone. I wrote previously about my post-loss experience opening my heart to babies when my cousin Celia Margaret Lowry was born in October, 2018. It was a beautiful but tender and agonizing process to allow the burning emptiness of John Paul Raphael’s absence to meet the glorious presence of a new and loved baby. In order to fully open my heart to Celia, I had to fully experience the darkness of my howling, rage-filled grief. After navigating that intense season, I have been fragile and nervous about welcoming another baby so deeply into my heart; and not just a much-loved cousin from another state who we will visit several times a year, but an already-adored granddaughter who lives 12 minutes away and who we anticipate will become a central part of our lives. How will it feel to learn to love her while loving our own lost baby, her youngest uncle?
The wisdom of being three and a half years into grief is that I knew there was no way to know how I would feel. I knew the answer would be radical acceptance: so this is what grief feels like today. I must let myself love and let myself feel. I must be brave and afraid. I must courageously fall in love with Grace even though all her baby-ness will make me ache and mourn for John Paul Raphael. I suspect that Meaghan is doing the same thing in her own way. She and I both want to live a bold and full life and love with hearts wide-open. We both feel all the feels and cry all the tears. We don’t say all our things to each other, but I think empathically share an understanding that we are both learning to grieve and love and love and grieve, even if the contours of our love and grief take a different shape in our hearts.
Grace’s birth and her first few weeks flooded us all with joy. She is a tiny, perfect bundle of baby who looks just like her daddy. Since she is our first grandchild, Ralph and I have marveled at the miracle of a whole new person showing up to be in our family. It sounds so silly to write it like that, but pregnancy is abstract until a tiny human is there in front of you. I will shamelessly claim the cliché that we all fell in love. Even birthing six of my own babies didn’t prepare me for welcoming a grandchild and the rightness of seeing a new family taking shape before our eyes as Meaghan and Evan expanded to become Mommy and Daddy.
And as I expected, my grief expanded too. It took about ten days of baby-love before the edges of my heart felt frayed and brittle. A low rumble hummed in the back of my mind and I felt sharp and edgy. I cried a little here and there over the last week, but managed to hold both joy and sorrow together, until now. I have no comparison for the onset of a grief storm. Perhaps it is like the slow and steady loss of blood-sugar in a diabetic? Or the fading of awareness that precedes blacking out? For me, grief is an ache that stretches both my heart and my body. It demands attention and will force itself out if not given time, care, and love. My body began to insist she was at capacity and needed me to release her.
It began with a nightmare. In the dream, I was angry at Ralph, furious. I screamed and raged, beating him and kicking him with hands and feet – clawing, wild madness coursed through me as I tried in vain to release my grief on him as fury, horror, anguish, and violence. It is a failure of language that there is not the right word. Ask anyone who has lost a child and they will tell you that words fail to capture the beast of grief. The nightmare was my mind’s attempt to unleash the embodied lament of missing my son onto the safest target I had: his steadfast father. When I woke that morning, my seams ripped open and my love and loss spilled onto my dearest husband who held me while I cried and cried. Who let me be unreasonable multiple times that day. Who drank a bottle of wine with me and let me stumble through opening my messy, holy, hurting heart.
This is the place we find ourselves – at the brilliantly beautiful and brutal intersection of grief, gratitude, and grace. The beautiful agony of a heart wide-open to all the feels. Bittersweet beginnings and an emptiness that takes up so much space. Joy and disappointment, glory and mystery.
The Sunday after Grace Maureen was born, Evan went to mass at St. John’s in Leesburg. Meaghan had hopes to go, but just a few days after giving birth, she and Grace were not going to make it out the door in time. About twenty minutes later, Evan face-timed Meaghan while she sat on the couch nursing the baby. Surprised because he was supposed to be at church, she answered the call and saw his face with a finger over his lips telling her to be quiet. And then she heard the music of the hymn from mass coming through the phone – Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me… She could see the tears on Evan’s face while the tears rolled down her own. Amazing Grace for their amazing Grace.
It is all amazing, glorious grace. Who can know the mind of God? Why am I here and Maureen is not? Why is Grace here and John Paul Raphael is not? How can our messy blended family be love and sorrow and joy and grief and hope and ache and wonder all at the same time? In the same breath?
In faith, I rest in the peace of unknowing, except to know the glorious truth that I am known and seen and held in my wild, crazy love and loss. And each of my beloved children, my beloved husband, our beloved granddaughter, and all of us in this beloved world, are held in that same glorious love, the same amazing grace. Let yourself be loved.