What Flannery O'Connor Taught Me About Raising Boys...and Life, and Grace

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This post has been brewing for a very long time.  It is very personal.  In fact I considered not even publishing it because I wasn't sure I wanted to go into it on the blog.  After all, this is a homeschool blog, right?  But when I started blogging, one of the things that was important to me was honesty, and if I didn't write this post, I wouldn't be telling you the whole truth about why I blog and what motivates us to live life the way we do.  So...I knew I had to write it, but it hasn't been easy.  I have struggled to find the right words to say.  I have written, deleted, and rewritten over and over.  This post is the reason the blog has been so quiet lately; I didn't feel free to move on to other things until I wrote it, but it has taken a tremendous effort of my will to make it happen.  After this I will get back to "normal" posts about things that apply more directly to your life as a homeschool mom.  In the meantime, I'd like to share this story with you.  My prayer is that it might be encouraging in some way - maybe even in a very specific way - to someone out there.

I thought about calling this post "Cancer, Dead Goats, and Flannery O'Connor", but I didn't think very many people would be interested in reading an article with that title.  Consider yourselves warned: we'll be talking at some length about all three things here.  These are thoughts that have been brewing for a long time; issues that, until now, I have not been able to put into words or really even understand myself.  But over the past months, I have begun to find some clarity from a most unexpected source: the short stories of Flannery O'Connor.

Now, if you have not read anything by Flannery, let me just say two things:

1.  Read Flannery O'Connor.

2.  Don't read Flannery O'Connor alone.  Find a "guide" to help you navigate her stories the first time.

I am deeply indebted to my "friends" at the Close Reads Podcast from the CiRCE Institute.  Angelina, Tim, and David were my "guides" through Flannery's collection of short stories, Everything That Rises Must Converge several months ago.  Without them, especially at the beginning, I probably would have read the first story and stopped right there.  (I vaguely remember reading O'Connor in high school...pretty sure that's what I did then!)  Through the conversation on the podcast (and the amazing discussions on the podcast facebook page!) I have come to have an appreciation - dare I say even love? - for the message Flannery has for us.

So, how exactly did these stories impact me?  Well...it's sort of a long story.  It starts with a recurring theme in the first several stories of the collection: the relationship of single/widowed mothers with their grown sons.  It's really not even the main theme of any one of the stories; never is the "point" of an O'Connor story a lesson in child-raising.  But, as a mom of five boys, it caught my attention.  Let me briefly summarize the pattern that appears over and over again: Father of the family dies or is absent, hard-working mother raises her sons the best she knows how, sons come of age and go off to college, sons are incompetent in some way and come back home, sons think mother is ignorant and small-minded, all manner of relational strife ensues.

This left me wondering: what did these mothers do (or not do) to make their sons feel such hatred toward them?  To scorn their upbringing and despise their hard-working mothers?  We are told very little about the fathers in any of the stories, except a vague sense that perhaps they were controlling or even abusive, and then they were gone.  But what does this matter to me, happily married to my high school sweetheart?  Well...in September of 2015, my husband, Dan, was diagnosed with stage 3b colon cancer.  My stomach still turns even to type the words.  Even though he still felt perfectly healthy, my mind raced to the inevitable question: what would I ever do if I lost my husband?  How would I raise five boys on my own?  In hindsight, I realize that my fear was that my boys would grow up with the same bitterness as the sons of absent fathers in Flannery's stories.

The autumn of 2015 went by in a blur of work, homeschooling, and healthy-food-prepping.  We had decided to tackle the cancer using a natural approach rather than the conventional chemo and radiation, so most of my spare time during that fall was spent juicing acres of vegetables and fruits and learning to prepare raw, vegan meals.  Our family also runs a deer processing business in the fall, which, for that season, keeps us really busy even without the added stress of a chronic illness to contend with.

I say "illness," but the truth is, Dan never felt "sick" for a moment.  In fact, as he launched into his healthy diet and cancer-fighting protocols, he became the picture of vibrant health.  He had what seemed to be boundless energy, lost weight, and had a measure of mental and spiritual clarity that he had never experienced before.  He was ever-hopeful; he saw cancer as an opportunity to learn about his own body and how to become the healthiest version of himself.  From the beginning he was compiling books and information so that later on he could help others facing difficult health problems.  And most of all, he had a deep sense of reassurance from God that he was doing the right thing; that he was going to be okay.

I, on the other hand, was pretty much a hot mess.  The fear of the unknown future was almost unbearable.  I felt like I was surviving on "borrowed" faith.  We had a whole army of family and friends praying for Dan, and more than one person shared with us that they believed he was going to be fully restored.  Perhaps I was held too tightly in the grip of fear and anxiety, or perhaps God knew I needed, for whatever reason, to walk through a season of uncertainty.  I still don't know.  So when Flannery told story after story of mothers raising sons without their father, the message hit home...even though that theme is not exactly at the forefront of what she's getting at in her short stories.  Reading them brought back all the things that had been going through my head and my heart back in the fall of 2015.

As it turns out, this connection to the stories was just the beginning.  I felt drawn to the characters in the stories through those mother-son relationships, but for me that was just the "bait" that got me hooked.  You see, there is a much deeper, soul-touching theme that carries through all of the stories: the idea of dark grace.  The notion that, more often than not in this broken world, God works through tragedy, through suffering, ugliness; even violence.  (If you haven't read any of her stories before, I'll just say that many of them are...alarming).  Dan's cancer diagnosis wasn't the end of my personal struggle either.  2016 is the year that I consider to be my "year of dark grace".

It was just several days after New Year's.  The previous Advent and Christmas had flown by in a blur of all the usual holiday activity, as well as managing our deer processing business, juicing acres of fruits and vegetables, and preparing healthy alternatives to the typical holiday celebration fare.  By January 2016, I was burned out.  The kids and I went to karate - our first class back after taking the previous 4 months off.  As I was driving home, Dan called me.  "I'm having some pain and bleeding.  I'm not sure, but I think I might need to go to the hospital."  When I got home, I found him lying in bed trying to relax, but I could tell it wasn't working.  This was the first time since his cancer diagnosis that I had seen him look...worried.  After a short time, we decided it would be best to take him to the hospital.  Before we left we sat down on the couch with our kids to pray.  I will never forget the looks on my boys' faces.  I could tell they were afraid.  We didn't know what was wrong, and when your parents don't know, it can be pretty scary for a child.  And then, the grandparents came over, and we left for the hospital.

The next 48 hours went by in a long, slow haze of waiting rooms, tests, more waiting, and a major surgery to remove the tumor and an 18 inch long section of Dan's colon.  As it turned out, his tumor was almost completely dead, but as it was trying to pull away from the colon wall, it was causing an intussusception - where the colon begins to fold over on itself like a telescope.  If left unattended, the doctor explained, the colon wall would actually tear, causing the contents of the bowel to leak into the gut cavity, causing infection, sepsis, and death.  We were right to come in right away, he said.  They had caught it early enough.  

Now, let me pause right here for a moment.  Being told that your beloved husband would have died within a few days had we come to the hospital much later is jarring, to say the least.  But there was nothing to do in that moment but to press on.  I was exhausted, afraid, and disappointed.  We had worked so hard at a natural approach to Dan's cancer, and here we were, having major surgery anyway.  I didn't understand, nor did I really want to at the time.  I really just wanted it to all be done.  I didn't want to read about cancer, or talk about cancer, or think about cancer.  In the 36 hours from the point we left for the hospital until the morning after the surgery, I had only slept a total of about 30 minutes.  The past four months of anxiety and stress all seemed to be coming to a head on that one day, and I was barely holding it together.  This was my husband, my high school sweetheart, the only man I had ever kissed - or even dated, for that matter.  Strong, athletic, honest, hard-working, intelligent...all of this wasn't supposed to happen.  Not to us.  At least that's what I felt.

After a few painful complications after the surgery getting Dan's digestive system up and running again, his recovery went remarkably well.  So well, in fact, that when he went in for his 6 week checkup with the surgeon, she took one look at him and immediately called in her whole team to see how healthy and strong he was.  He got to share with the whole team about the power of God as the great Healer, as well as the amazing benefits of a healthy diet and lifestyle during recovery. 

Now if you have read this far, you might be wondering, "Didn't she say something about dead goats?"  Why, yes.  I did.  Now this is really starting to sound like a Flannery O'Connor story!   Fast forward now to the end of 2016: the end of my "year of dark grace".  We had had a wonderful summer.  We bought a vintage windsurfing setup for our family to play around with all summer.  In September we took an epic family vacation in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, filled with things like cliff diving, beach exploring, and fabulous treat-baking Byzantine monks.  

Cliff jumping in Michigan's Upper Peninsula

Cliff jumping in Michigan's Upper Peninsula

We had a prosperous deer processing season too - we did over 850 deer, a new record by a long shot!  And...I launched my blog that fall, too.  We were both learning all kinds of new things by leaps and bounds: Dan in the area of health and fitness, and myself in classical education and liturgical living.  Things were going great; I felt we had turned a corner, started a new chapter.  

And then, Flannery's dark grace struck again, on December 23rd.  My nine year old son went out to feed his three goats in the morning and came back inside with a worried, sad look on his face.  "Mom, something's wrong with Samantha, she's not breathing."  I went out with him, and there she was, lying dead in the corner of the goat house floor, her lifeless eyes staring back at us.  She was my favorite.  She had been outgoing and mischievous, always the one to figure out how to escape (and teach her tricks to her friends too, of course).  The day before, she had seemed perfectly healthy.  This morning she was dead.  We cleaned out the pen the best we could in an attempt to avoid any spread of illness or parasites.  The ground was too frozen to bury her, so we wrapped her up in a big black garbage bag and added her to our walk-in freezer, next to the shelves full of frozen deer heads and hides.  (I told you this was Flannery-worthy.)  And we moved on with our Christmas preparations and celebrations.  

On Christmas Eve, we went to our church's evening candlelight service, and then to our big annual Christmas party for Dan's side of the family.  We got home late, tired and stuffed full of food and Christmas treats.  Levi went out to close up his goat house before heading to bed, and then came his report: "Now Dumbo isn't doing good either..."  So, back to the goat house we all went.  Sure enough, his new little buck was lying on the floor, just like Samantha had the night before.  His breathing was heavy and labored, and every now and then he let out the saddest, most pitiful moaning bleat.  We called our more experienced farmer friends for advice, gave him a dose of antibiotics, tried to get him to drink...but we already knew.  It was too late.  Sometime during the night of Christmas Eve, sweet little Dumbo, named for his adorable giant floppy ears, died exactly as Samantha had the night before.  

Come Christmas morning, we once again set about taking care of the goat situation, adding Dumbo to the collection of dead animals in the walk in freezer.  We were hosting Christmas breakfast at our house with my side of the family.  I couldn't focus; I burned the sausage pinwheels (everybody graciously ate them anyways and said they were't so bad), and barely had things ready in time.  I just felt such a heaviness.  I didn't want to think about anything else dying.

There I was, just having written a series of Advent devotionals for my blog titled O Gladsome Light, centered around the glorious light and life of the birth of Christ...and my life felt so dark.  I had looked forward to Advent so much all year, anticipating a season of new beginnings and turning corners.  Instead, I discovered that I was still much more raw and vulnerable than I had realized.  I still had not recovered from or really dealt with Dan's encounter with cancer.  In hindsight, the busy-ness of that season was probably a little bit much for me still.  During deer season (October through early January) there are constantly other people around, customers to attend to, extra meals to be prepared, late nights and early mornings...and our family had not had a moment to catch our breath together, with just "us".  

Finally, that moment came on Christmas night.  I had planned a fancy meal: Beef Wellington made with our own grass-fed tenderloins, topped with a flambe sauce, table set with white linens and our "good" china.  And we sat down, together, with just us.  Dan was still there, healthier and fitter than ever.  The candles on our table and the fire in the stove reminded me of the warmth and light that still surrounded our family.  Hodie Christus natus est.  Christ is born today.  No matter the darkness we feel, no matter how cold life may seem, Christ is born today.  

Soul-restoring Christmas dinner.

Soul-restoring Christmas dinner.

So, when I started reading Everything That Rises Must Converge a few months later, I was in a much better place to begin to grasp the meaning of that previous year, that "year of dark grace."  2016 was bookended by two emotional cataclysms, seemingly unrelated but ripe for being put into their proper order in my soul.  Flannery helped me to see that the darkness can give birth to light, and that grace often comes violently and unexpectedly.  I still don't know how I would feel if Dan's cancer returned or some other cataclysmic event struck our family, but at least I know this: that our experience of life is never meaningless.  Christ is born today, and every day; and, like Parker in O'Connor's story "Parker's Back", when we encounter the gaze of Christ into our souls, we are confronted and arrested by it.  Only Jesus, living within us, can bring light into our dark places and order the disarray of our lives.  May we learn to accept the long, dark night of this world, as we eagerly await the light of day that surely is to come.

Epilogue

(or...what happened next...)

The 2 goats, Samantha and Dumbo, got an unceremonious burial on an unseasonably warm afternoon in mid February.  Our third goat, Sandy, is still alive and well.

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Our year so far has continued without major incident, and God has brought some interesting new opportunities into our homeschool life.

Dan continues to learn about health, fitness, and nutrition and is considering ways he can share his knowledge and experience with others.  He took our second son on his 12-year-old, father/son "coming of age" adventure.  They flew to California, where they climbed the mountains of Yosemite National Park and went skydiving.

Dan and Ezra hiking in Yosemite National Park.

Dan and Ezra hiking in Yosemite National Park.

Interested in checking out some Flannery O'Connor stories for yourself?  I highly recommend the Close Reads Podcast conversations from the CiRCE Institute.  You can find the first episode in the series HERE.   My favorite episode in the series is the one in which they discuss "Parker's Back", HERE.  

And...pick up a copy of the book too!