Stella, age 4, can hardly wait until Christmas. She is hoping that Santa will bring her a “My Little Pony,” preferably blue.
Her older sisters, age six, are hoping for new cowboy boots–the kind with lots of glitz and glitter that girls their age love to wear.
I bet most of us remember the longing we experienced as children, waiting what seemed like an eternity for that special day to arrive when we would receive the much anticipated gift we felt certain would be under the Christmas tree. In those days, most of us waited with some kind of certainty our wishes would be fulfilled. It just might take longer than we would like.
When we grow up, we still long for things but often with less certainty. Some of us long for a life partner; others for a child of their own. Some folks yearn for healing in a relationship, or for the return of a rebellious child, or even an end to chronic pain and suffering. When we wait for these kinds of things our waiting is much less certain. We’re not at all certain our marriage will be healed, our child will return from his or her rebellious ways, or our family member will be reconciled. We don’t know if we’ll ever marry, we’ll have a baby of our own, or the pain we’re enduring will loosen its icy grip on our lives. When we wait for things like this, it’s much harder to be hopeful. In fact, in the dark days of December when other people seem to be so “merry and bright,” it can be even more difficult to experience the hopeful waiting that seems to be such a part of this season.
So what can be done? How can one wait hopefully and avoid a dreary descent into anger, bitterness and despair? When it comes to answering questions like these, I turn to people who seem to have done a much better job than I have . . . people who teach me what it means to wait with peace, patience and perspective. One such person is Cathy Tijerina.
Cathy writes the following:
In September of 1991, I was twenty-four years old when I found myself trying to explain to my two and four year old sons why Daddy didn’t come home that day. “Prison” was a new word to define for my sons – a word that toddlers should not even know – yet here I was trying desperately to provide an explanation to them that would make sense without completely robbing them of their innocence. We were so sure that Ron was not going to be convicted of a crime he did not commit we had not even thought about telling our sons anything. Now, as I sat alone on the floor of our house, holding my sobbing, frightened children, I wondered how on earth our young family was going to make it through that night—let alone the next 14-25 years my husband was just sentenced.
Little did I know that the devastation I felt as I walked out of the court house alone that day was just the beginning of a journey of pain, shame, disappointment and social shunning that my husband’s incarceration had created for my children and me.
Ron was released from prison after 15 years. He missed most of the growing up years for his sons–the birthdays, Christmases and graduations. While he was gone, Cathy functioned as a single parent, helping her children stay connected with their father through regular visits to the prison, keeping the faith that someday Ron would be released and they all would be together as a family. That time finally came in 2006, but in the interim both Ron and Cathy had to wait with a lot of uncertainty about the future.
I thought of Cathy when I was driving to work one day week, wallowing in a bit of “December dreariness.” I reflected on all the Decembers she must have spent loading kids in and out of the car by herself, putting up a tree and holiday decorations by herself, shoveling snow and managing wintry weather conditions by herself while she waited for one day, some day, when she wouldn’t have to do it all alone.
I know Ron and Cathy, have heard them speak on a number of occasions and talked with them in person. When I’m tempted to feel discouraged or sorry for myself, reflecting on their story gives me a great deal of hope. Here are some things I think they might tell you.
Faith makes a difference. Early in their experience of incarceration, Ron and Cathy became part of a faith community–Ron behind the walls, Cathy on the outside. They would tell you that their faith in God was transformative. They would also emphasize the importance of being associated with like-minded people. If one must persist and endure, waiting with the encouragement of others can be very helpful.
Look beyond yourself. In the first year or two of Ron’s incarceration, Cathy began to look for meaningful support for someone like herself–a committed wife and mother who wanted to wait for her husband’s release with patience and courage. She writes:
Ron continually inspired me and encouraged me that we COULD make a difference for all those who came behind us. I believed him, and we took on a new mission beyond just our own family. In 1993, we began with a program we developed called Keeping FAITH (now the Keeping Families And Inmates Together in Harmony program.) In this program, Ron mentored other men in prison, while I would meet with and encourage their families on the outside. This was the beginning of the Ridge Project. In 2000, while Ron was still incarcerated, we officially founded the Ridge Project. Ron continued to mentor incarcerated men, while I worked with their families, and I also began an after-school program to help at-risk or struggling youth.
People forced to wait by a serious illness, marital discord, rebellious children and a host of other problems often report finding great meaning in looking beyond themselves to comfort and encourage others who are experiencing similar difficulties. This doesn’t necessarily change the circumstances (Ron was still incarcerated for 15 years), but it brings meaning to suffering.
Enjoy the little things. Although I haven’t heard Cathy or Ron say this specifically, I know from my contact with them that they are two of the most joyful people I know. They embrace life and enjoy each other. Their enthusiasm is infectious. One cannot help but be impacted by their presence. There’s so much about which they might be bitter and angry, but they have chosen to focus on the good. I want to be more like them.
I confess to being a prone-to-impatience kind of person. Waiting is rarely easy for me. At the same time, I can see that watchful waiting, done in the right way, can soften us into more peaceable persons who bring joy and hope to others. Maybe that’s what I’m waiting for this Christmas and I do think it’s the kind of thing that’s worth the wait.
Waiting with you,
Dr. Jennifer Baker