A Startling Empathy

When I was a little girl I learned to be careful when my mom had migraine headaches. If I thought too much about her pounding head I would soon have a headache of my own, so I trained myself to pretend to listen whenever I was informed she had a migraine and would ask her how she felt while purposefully ignoring her answer. I had an empathy problem and it wasn’t that I needed to cultivate more. Rather, I had too much and couldn’t manage it.


Belén and Susanna preparing a winter solstice breakfast.


The “sunny” menu: egg yolks, pinapple, mandarin oranges, and yellow yoghurt


Even now, when I think about Ruth or Lucy my psyche starts to reel under a weight I cannot bear. Ruth, a beautiful new bride, is expecting her first child. She also has an untreatable brain tumor and is undergoing radiation to buy her enough time so she can deliver her baby… and see the face of the child that will most likely never know her mother. Sometimes, when I picture my sister-in-law, Anne, holding Lucy’s fevered body and and wiping her kissable cheeks after she throws up, I want to curl up into a ball–as if rolling into the fetal position will dismiss the reality of chemotherapy and pain.


A special solstice treat: candles in the snow fort. Can you see their frosty hair? It was a chilly evening at -26 but they stayed outside for about an hour and a half


A few years ago I visited a friend who was admitted to the psychiatric ward of our hospital, known as the Pine Unit to locals. Hospitals freak me out at the best of times (one reason I opted for a home-birth) but this visit really threw me for a loop. I held tightly to Susanna as we wound our way through halls reverberating with moans and incoherent shouts. By the time we got to Carol’s* room I felt nauseated and busied myself by taping Susanna’s artwork to her wall. When I sat down beside Carol’s bed and grabbed her hand it was as much for my comfort as it was hers. Carol tried to carry on a conversation but her words came out in gibberish and we soon lapsed into silence while I stroked her arm and tried to make some up-beat comments for Susanna’s sake.

Now I wish I’d never gone to the Pine Unit at all. Since then I’ve had a few run-ins with my own mental fragility and despite realizing anxiety is as a prevalent as the common cold, in my more pessimistic moments I’m sure I’m destined for long-term psychiatric care. As you might guess, picturing myself mute and vegetal in the Pine Unit doesn’t do much for my sense of well-being. Like I said, the psychiatric ward is definitely off-limits; I’m not willing to sacrifice my health to offer my company to it’s occupants no matter how sympathetic I feel.

And this is where God and I part ways. Because while I set boundaries to protect myself from unwieldy compassion; God is pouring herself into someone else’s darkest hour. Though I sputter and nearly drown in my own empathy; God burrowed himself into the womb of a teenage girl 2000 years ago so he could drink our pain with us. And whether you think the whole Christmas story is legend or historical fact, the narrative is startling. That the fearsome life-force of creation chose to marinate in amniotic fluid, feel disappointment, get dirty feet, and bleed, is crazy…and it also befits his name, “Emmanuel” or God with us.

The phrase God with us sounds a lot like God is for us and reminds me of a battle cry to rally the troops. But given the circumstances of Jesus’ birth…. the hay, the manure, his unprepared parents; and life… rooting for the underdog, his unexpected agenda of dying instead of taking political power; any jubilant military associations are misplaced. I don’t think the phrase is meant to imply victory but to speak to those who suffer in some way. And though I stumble awkwardly with my own empathy, the Christmas story climaxes with God not only feeling for us, but actually becoming one of us. Unlike me, He commits to and embodies his empathy, as deliberate as a uterine contraction, and as real as a mother’s urge to push.


How can that be anything but startling? Especially for someone like me, who, if I can help it, won’t be going back to the Pine Unit…

Thankful for Christmas,


*name changed

Wasn’t surviving junior high once, enough?

“She’s not invited??”
Kelly shakes her head, and I can almost see her wince.
“And all the other girls can go?” I say, trying not to sound like a whiny teenager.
“I know. It sucks,” Kelly replies.
I laugh it off lightly and say something like that’s life or it happens to all of us, but I can feel my insides start to curdle.

As soon as I get the chance, I tell Stan the bad news: there’s a party and it’s going to be great and all my daughter’s friends are going… but she’s not invited. I’m grateful another mom gave me the heads-up before my daughter comes home with the news. Days before she finds out, I start planning something extra special to make up for her disappointment: a family sleepover.

For the rest of  the week the girls excitedly discuss the sleepover, which basically boils down to our family sleeping in our house–the way we’ve done for the past eight years or so– with a few twists. There will be a supper out, a movie with popcorn, and the girls can sleep in the guest bed and stay up talking as late as they want. Originally, I was planning to spend the evening with some other women, but I call to cancel. If this sounds to you like a lame attempt by a desperate mother to fix things, you’re absolutely right.

One of the craziest parts of this little drama is not my daughter’s reaction, but the reminder that I have to grow up all over again. Honestly, wasn’t surviving junior high once, bad enough?

I tend to be overly optimistic about the future, and having children has proved to be no exception. Somehow, in an idealistic corner of my mind, I imagine my girls will breeze through life unscathed. Not only will they be the prettiest, most popular, smartest, most athletic, most musical, kindest, and wisest of all girls everywhere, but everyone will be in unanimous agreement with this. Somehow, I secretly hope they will escape the life the rest of the world gets trapped into. A life including pimples, stringy hair, lost games, bombed performances, crumpled tests, and lonely nights. A life that cultivates empathy.

I know, I know. Empathy is right up there with poetry, as far as evidence for a Master Designer. (Really, what is the evolutionary advantage of feeling deep down in your gut for someone else, especially strangers that don’t carry your genetic material?) But sometimes I feel like empathy is over-rated. It stinkin’ hurts.

I remember my dad’s eyes when I suffered my first heartbreak. He looked so sympathetic I almost forgot my own thwarted romance and started to feel sorry for him instead. It struck me that my story pained him just as much, possibly even more, than it pained me. An unfathomable idea for an 18-year-old daughter; clear as an absent invitation for a 35-year-old mother.

But our week wasn’t just about being left out. Hardly. In fact, it culminated with a birthday of our own…

Susanna helping prepare the birthday lunch

Susanna helping prepare the birthday lunch

These strawberries were thrown into a backpack and jostled around for a few kilometres, at -20C, before they made their debut.

These strawberries were thrown into a backpack and jostled around for a few kilometres, at -20C, before they made their debut.

There’s something about arriving at an empty shack in the woods with an open door and a crackling fire that makes you feel lucky, even if you knew it was going to be there all along.

There's something about arriving at an empty shack in the woods, with and open door and a crackling fire that makes you feel lucky, even if you knew it was going to be there all along. Here Susann is signing the guest book beside our friend, William.

Susanna is signing the guest book beside our friend, William.

Happy Birthday dear Daddy... (In case you were concerned, the strawberries made it just fine.)

Happy Birthday dear Daddy… (In case you were concerned, the strawberries made it just fine.)

This puppy followed us all afternoon, making Belén very happy.

This puppy followed us all afternoon, making Belén very happy.

Our friend Shanon, heading for home, with two of the kids in front.

Our friend Shanon, heading for home, with all three kids in front.

William and Susanna

William and Susanna

Have a great week. I hope it doesn’t hurt too much,