Tuesdays With Laura
by Roxane B. Salonen

A special thank you to Roxane for sharing these words to inspire each of us.   

Roxane B. SalonenWhen God granted my request to be an at-home mother, it didn’t take long for me to seek out a church group with which to connect. For years I’d wanted to engage in a Bible study, and here was my first plausible opportunity to pursue that desire.

About the time I began my search for a fitting group, I bumped into a fellow parishioner at the library. The first time we met was several months before at the welcome dinner for new parishioners. Now she was welcoming me again into a Tuesday afternoon faith-sharing group at our parish. It was the first such group that seemed workable for me, since it included an onsite babysitter. The timeframe would interrupt naps, but I decided to try it a few times anyway -- just to see.

The first session I came without my kids and sat next to a beautiful woman wearing dark, long braids and bib overalls. Although I hadn’t met her before, I felt as if I had. She’d been featured in a parish newsletter for having been chosen as “Mother of the Year.” I was in awe, wondering what kind of mother it takes to deserve this distinction. I’d also heard her name – Laura Christenson Espejo – mentioned a few weeks prior during petitions at Mass, and wondered why our parish was praying for someone who seemed so young and energetic. I soon found out she’d experienced a relapse of cancer that had been in remission several years. It was disconcerting news to learn about a peer and fellow mother, but with all of the advancements in cancer treatment I felt hopeful hers would be a story of triumph.

My second attempt to join in, kids in tow this time, proved to be the “reality run.” My then 10-month-old was busy trying to escape our circle most of the duration while my 2 ½-year-old refused to go to the babysitter. I spent half the session in the halls chasing down one or the other of my children, and wasn’t able to take my turn reading Scripture or sharing. By then I’d gotten a taste of the group and felt sure it was what I needed in my life, but how could I endure the distractions and come away with anything at all?

It was Laura who pulled me aside and encouraged me to stay. “If you want to be here, please stay. We’ve all been where you are now, and we don’t mind,” she said. Then, smiling at me with her bright eyes and dimpled cheeks, she added, “We hope you’ll come back.” And so I did.

If I could foresee then the details of the journey I was to take with Laura and the other women over the course of the next two years, I might have thought to run like crazy. Being willing to know and possibly even love someone with a life-threatening disease means risking potential heartache. But I felt called to the group and, wooed by the open arms of Laura and the others, I embraced it.

Very early on I found myself eagerly anticipating Tuesdays, and my kids quickly became accustomed to our weekly routine and looked forward to getting out of the house to play with their smaller buddies. I was so energized by these faith-filled women that a year into it, I extended an invite to a new friend who was similarly searching for a place in which to enliven her faith. Her acceptance added yet another dimension to the “we” we were becoming.

And so it was that I came to know and be part of the beautiful women who inhabit the “fireside room” at our church on Tuesdays. Ours is a mixed batch colored with all kinds of different histories and experience. Although we do not have set conditions for who can be part of our bunch, those currently involved all have shared motherhood, and from that, we have learned about our faith in the context of who we are as women, as parents, and inevitably, as friends.

One of the many wonderful things Laura taught me is that no mother, not even one who has won “Mother of the Year,” is perfect, but all are called to a deeper relationship with God. We still bring up the story she shared about the year she tossed the Advent wreath out the sliding-glass door because her children would not cooperate with her plans to bring the light of Christ into their home! When the snow cleared in the spring, an exposed wreath peeked out as a reminder of a well-intended but imperfect moment of wanting to better know God. Even exceptional mothers have their bad days! And of course even Christ had some “bad” days. How refreshing to know we don’t have to be perfect: only to yearn for perfection and to seek it through Christ’s love, guidance and example, which had become Laura’s quest.

Laura broke the news to our group that her cancer was terminal the day before her 39th birthday, the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday. A birthday party and toast to her life ensued amidst tears. It was the beginning of a Lenten walk that would be painfully real, and an Easter trek that would instill hope of total healing of body and spirit.

When it became apparent Laura was not going to beat her foe, we grieved with her, loved her even more, and continued to learn from her to the very end. We all faced our own mortality through her, and she taught us well how to die – not without pain, but certainly with grace and love. That time walking with a very profound woman (as she had been pegged) was an immeasurable gift of a lifetime. It would have been so easy for her to exit our circle and grapple with dying on her own. But being a person who believed deeply in the power of community, she instead drew even closer. We were humbled to discover she needed us as much as we needed her.

I can’t even being to attempt to touch on what Laura gave us in her final months of life. The numerous times our Scripture readings and reflections paralleled our journey with her caused tears to flow on many occasions. What Christ’s disciples felt as they watched him face death, we too were feeling. It was almost too much to bear at times, and yet we kept coming, as did Laura every Tuesday until she physically could not walk through the door anymore – just weeks before her death. She shared her incredible insights and emptied herself through that sharing in a most inspiring and grace-filled manner.

And when, towards the end, she asked us to be her pallbearers, “to carry me in death because you have carried me in life,” we were moved to our very core to know she thought that much of us.

It was an honor we accepted with a bittersweet “yes.” How could we carry this woman who had, in fact, carried us? How could we do it? How could we not?

We could, and we would, and we did. We did because we knew that it really was still Laura who would be carrying us, and we could because we had each other for strength.

It’s been said many at the funeral found the sight of our group of women carrying Laura’s body to be a powerful visual statement of spiritual love and friendship, but at the time I wasn’t aware how we looked to everyone else. I could only feel the heaviness of the cross and the comforting reality of friendships to which I now clung, helping me to put one foot in front of the other.

Less than a week prior, we had gathered around our dying friend. It was Tuesday, and because she could not come to us, we came to her in her home, meeting with her one last time in physical form. It was our turn to give, and we opened our hearts by sharing prayer and song with each other and with our dear Laura. We said goodbye – we’ll see you soon.

It seemed somehow fitting that Laura left us and entered into Christ’s embrace on a Tuesday – our day of coming together to learn about the God who loves us, and to whom we all will return someday. I won’t be surprised if, when it is our turn to meet Him, Laura will help welcome us home, give us a grand tour of heaven and share with us all that we have missed crawling around while she was busy soaring.

Laura offered us a final earthly gift a couple weeks after her death when her sister and daughter brought to our Tuesday group a collection of earrings she had worn and wanted us to have. As Mona and Natalia passed around mirrors so we could try on earrings and find the perfect fit, I believe we all felt Laura’s undeniable spirit and knew she remained near in a very real way. It is nice to know she is still with us and that our journey with her continues. The pain of missing her physical presence remains, but because of our deep spiritual bond to her, we are assured that some day, in another time and place, we will once again be toasting with her to life.

In the meantime, we continue to work through our grieving. But as one of the gals reminded us recently, only those who love deeply experience loss deeply. Those who do not love similarly do not feel the pain of loss. And in that way, we are privileged and blessed even in our sorrow.

I share these reflections not only to offer a glimpse into our walk with an incredible person, but to exemplify how God works within us when we welcome others or accept an invitation to be welcomed. Both involve risk, but who knows how our lives might be enriched if we only take the chance.

 

Roxane has shared an additional story entitled Placing Empty Arms in God’s Hands: A Spiritual Response to Miscarriage