A few years ago, after living our entire lives in southwestern Michigan, I accepted a job that took our family to a small town in Washington State, on the eastern side of the Cascade Mountains. It was shortly after we arrived there, on a Tuesday after work, that my husband, Jim, went out to get the mail. When he came back in, he handed me a letter from the Indiana Department of Health.
I couldn’t imagine what I could be getting from them. I remember looking at the letter, reading it, and it taking a moment to sink in before I finally understood. The letter inside said that I now had the right to know information on the child that I had given up for adoption when I was a teenager. Thank God I was sitting down, or I would have keeled over. The first page listed my son’s name and phone number. The following pages contained a copy of his birth certificate and identified the couple who had adopted him. I sat in shock. I couldn’t believe that after 23 years, I finally had this information.
I had spent the last 23 years thinking about this son. For starters, giving him away was an incredibly difficult, scarring decision that I struggled with seriously for several years after the event, then to a lesser degree as time and activity brought about a numbness, if not a level of comfort. As the years continued, I would find myself looking at toddlers or kids in the mall, looking for someone who looked like me, looking for my boy.
I remember about the time he would have been graduating from high school, I looked through the papers to see if any of the graduates looked like my old boyfriend. Once he hit 18, I daydreamed that he would find me. I imagined that one morning there would be a knock on my door. I would be in my pajamas, looking disheveled but not too scary, and I would wonder, who could be calling on a Saturday morning. And when I opened the door, there would be a young, lanky guy standing there, who would say, “Mom?” and we would hug and I would invite him in and make him a sandwich. I spent years dreaming of this. Years.
So imagine me now, having his name and phone number in my hands. All I can remember is jumping up and grabbing the phone. My husband said to me, “Hold on! Are you sure you’re ready for this? Do you know what you are going to say?” But I was unstoppable: “I have waited 23 years and I am not going to wait a moment longer.” I dialed the number and got a voicemail. I thought, “I don’t think this is something I should leave a message about,” so I hung up. Then I thought, “I have his name — I’ll google him!”
So I got on my laptop, typed in his name, and a Facebook link popped up. Following the link, there was a picture on his home page of a few guys, but I couldn’t see any detail in the faces. He had posted something about leaving Facebook and left an email address where friends could contact him. Now I had an email address! So I sat down and wrote out an email: “Are you the Stephen who was adopted by Sean and Tanya? If so, I am your birth mom and I have been waiting 23 years and 8 days to talk to you.” (The names of Stephen’s adoptive parents have been changed to protect their privacy.)
I sent out the email, and in the morning I had a response waiting: “Yes, I am the Stephen adopted by Sean and Tanya, and I have thought about you for 23 years and 9 days! You are a most wonderful belated birthday gift to me!” (He had just had a birthday.) You can’t imagine my joy! Through email we made a date to talk for the first time that evening.
I went to work that day feeling like I should hand out cigars. “Hey did you hear about my new kid?” I had to call family — I was so excited! I called my sister Maria, and we spoke briefly. She was super excited. After we hung up, she started googling Stephen’s name, and in a minute or two, she called me back. She said, “Laura, I found a picture of him, and I’m going to email you a link to it. You have to see this!”
We hung up, and when I received her email and clicked on the link, there was a picture of a handsome young man that looked a lot like my old boyfriend and similar to my oldest son. He was wearing a black shirt and a priest’s collar. Stephen was in the seminary. I remember my first response was, “Oh bummer, he’s going to be a priest!” (I’m not sure why I thought that.) Then my next thought was, “Wow, he’s going to be a priest! That’s kind of cool! Doesn’t that give me a free pass into heaven or something — being the mom of a priest?”
I’m not sure how I made it through the rest of the day at work. I couldn’t possibly have been very productive. At 5:01, I raced home from work, grabbed the phone, and sat on my bed to wait for his call. I remember sitting there, staring at the phone, wondering how many times I should let it ring before I picked it up. The answer was obvious — one ring would be plenty, and I would be surprised if I could even let the ring conclude before I answered.
Then the phone rang, and we talked for three hours! We got on each other’s Facebook pages and looked at all the photos. I remember him showing me one photo in particular, in which I would have sworn it was my old boyfriend standing there and not Stephen. It was an incredible feeling, somehow knowing someone without knowing him. A feeling that is hard to describe.
We spent the next month and a half in close, almost daily, contact. During that time, I connected him with his biological father, which was also a wonderful thing for both of them. And we made plans to meet in person for the first time at Thanksgiving. He was in Maryland in the seminary, and I was in Washington, and we both made plans to fly home (I to Michigan and he to Indiana), then meet each other halfway between his parents’ house and my parents’ house. Unbelievably, he had grown up about 40 minutes away from where I lived in Michigan. Stephen chose the meeting place: the Grotto on the campus of the University of Notre Dame.
The morning we were to meet, I was understandably nervous. When I arrived on Notre Dame’s campus, it took me some time to find the Grotto, so I was a few minutes late. I remember turning a corner and seeing the Grotto, then seeing a slender guy kneeling in front of it. Stephen heard me approach; he stood up and turned around. I couldn’t believe he was standing right in front of me, and I was ecstatic and shocked at the same time. The long dream was over; it was finally reality!
I got to put my arms around him for the second time in his life. We hopped into his car and spent an unbelievable day together. We had difficulty driving, because all we wanted to do was look at each other. He showed me around town and took me to the home he grew up in and the schools he went to. For lunch he took me to meet his parents at their home. His mom called me her “soul sister,” and we hugged and cried. There are no words to describe that meeting.
As Stephen and I spent time together, he started saying to me, “You know, mom, God loves you so much.” At first, I would respond passively, “Yeah, I know.” Sure I knew. I was born and raised Catholic, I’d attended Catholic elementary and high school, I’d gone to Catechism classes, I’d attended a Catholic college. Of course I knew that, what did he think? No, I didn’t really go to church much these days. Only when the spirit moved me and conditions were just right — when I knew what time Mass was, when I was up early enough, when the kids didn’t need me for anything, when I wasn’t too tired that morning, when the stars were all aligned correctly. Yep, I went to Mass periodically.
Yet Stephen continued to tell me, “God loves you so much, Mom. You can’t even imagine how much.” “Yep, I know, thanks!” It took a while, but Stephen was diligent and at some point, when he repeated his mantra, I remember pausing a moment and thinking, “Huh, really? Is that really possible? The guy who is the Creator of the whole universe, the guy who created the stars, actually cares about me? How is that possible? I am a dust mite in the vast scheme of things. I am nothing, or so close to it, that I shouldn’t matter to the Creator. How is that possible?”
The following spring, Stephen invited me to come out to the seminary and spend a week with him, just hanging out together. I was excited to go, though I do remember asking my husband, “What if we don’t have enough to talk about? What if we get bored with each other?” In retrospect, those were really dumb questions. We had so much fun together! We found so much joy in finding ways we were alike: our favorite color (blue), most desired place to travel to (Greece). We even thought we had the same gait, the same stride. There was a real joy and contentment in finding a connection in shared similarities.
One evening while I was visiting, Stephen and I went out to dinner with a friend of his who was also in the seminary. His friend told us his conversion story. He had been working as an IT guy, and at one point he felt that God was calling him to have a relationship with him. He thought, “If I want to get to know my Creator, if I want to find out what he is calling me to do, I need to spend time with him. I need to go to church more than once a week, every day if I can.”
When I returned home, I kept thinking about that story. It made sense to me. If the Creator of the universe loves me (still hard to believe he even knows my name among the billions of other dust mites), he probably wants to get to know me. And he probably wants me to get to know him. I felt kind of lost, like there was a lot I didn’t understand, so I thought of the things I did know: First, there is a Creator; second, he loves me (how could he not? — I absolutely adore the kids I helped create); and third, he must want to have a relationship with the one he loves. The first point I’d known my whole life — of course there’s a Creator.
The other two points I felt like I had just realized for the first time on a personal level. If someone had asked me before if I thought God loved us, I would have said, “Sure, he does.” But I had always thought he loves us like you would love a big honkin’ crowd at a concert — some of them are cute, and at times they are super fun to watch. It was a distant, out-of-touch kind of generalized love.
What I didn’t even think of until recently was that God might actually know me, individually and personally, and consider me worth something. That was quite a new concept to me. Was it even possible? I suddenly realized that I might be more than a dust mite.
So I did what Stephen’s friend did: I started going to Mass as often as possible. I asked my boss if I could come in to work early, then step out to go to 8 o’clock Mass. I remember him making a sarcastic comment, something about him not wanting to be the reason I go to hell, then saying that I could.
One day at Sunday Mass, the priest stood up to deliver the homily and read this:
It is true. I stand at the door of your heart, day and night. Even when you are not listening, even when you doubt it could be me, I am there. I await even the smallest sign of your response, even the least whispered invitation that will allow me to enter.
And I want you to know that whenever you invite me, I do come — always, without fail. Silent and unseen I come, but with infinite power and love, and bringing the many gifts of my Spirit. I come with my mercy, with my desire to forgive and heal you, and with a love for you beyond your comprehension — a love every bit as great as the love I have received from the Father. “As much as the Father has loved me, I have loved you …” (John 15:9).
I come — longing to console you and give you strength, to lift you up and bind all your wounds. I bring you my light, to dispel your darkness and all your doubts. I come with my power, that I might carry you and all your burdens; with my grace, to touch your heart and transform your life; and my peace I give to still your soul.
I know you through and through. I know everything about you. The very hairs of your head I have numbered. Nothing in your life is unimportant to me. I have followed you through the years, and I have always loved you — even in your wanderings. I know every one of your problems. I know your needs and your worries. And yes, I know all your sins. But I tell you again that I love you — not for what you have or haven’t done — I love you for you, for the beauty and dignity my Father gave you by creating you in his own image.
It is a dignity you have often forgotten, a beauty you have tarnished by sin. But I love you as you are, and I have shed my blood to win you back. If you only ask me with faith, my grace will touch all that needs changing in your life, and I will give you the strength to free yourself from sin and all its destructive power.
I know what is in your heart. I know your loneliness and all your hurts — the rejections, the judgments, the humiliations; I carried it all before you. And I carried it all for you, so you might share my strength and victory. I know especially your need for love, how you are thirsting to be loved and cherished. But how often have you thirsted in vain, by seeking that love selfishly, striving to fill the emptiness inside you with passing pleasures — with the even greater emptiness of sin! Do you thirst for love? “Come to me all you who thirst …” (John 7:37). I will satisfy you and fill you. Do you thirst to be cherished? I cherish you more than you can imagine, to the point of dying on a cross for you.
I thirst for you. Yes, that is the only way to even begin to describe my love for you. I thirst for you. I thirst to love you and to be loved by you. That is how precious you are to me. I thirst for you. Come to me, and I will fill your heart and heal your wounds. I will make you a new creation and give you peace, even in all your trials. I thirst for you.
Don’t you realize that my Father already has a perfect plan to transform your life, beginning from this moment? Trust in me. Ask me every day to enter and take charge of your life — and I will. I promise you before my Father in heaven that I will work miracles in your life. Why would I do this? Because I thirst for you. All I ask of you is that you entrust yourself to me completely. I will do all the rest.
It blew me away. I felt like Father was speaking directly to me. Except it wasn’t the priest speaking to me, it was Jesus himself. He had been with me my whole life. He knew everything about me — all the bad things I had done — and yet he has loved me my whole life. What a joy there is in knowing that! What a consolation! What a stability in knowing that your Creator loves you solely because he created you. It has nothing to do with what you’ve done or not done. He loves you because you are you. And there is nothing you can do about it.
You can do some really bad and dumb things, and at the end of the day, Jesus will be waiting at the door of your heart, knocking, waiting for you to open it to let him in. It’s a great feeling, knowing that I cannot get rid of him. In my youth group we call him Jesus the Stalker; He is always with us. He has always been with us. It gives me the feeling that I have the power to do anything!
I can accomplish anything because, even in failure, he will love me. And it’s not just a passive love, but an active one that I can feel as long as I search for him in prayer and at Mass. But that is the key. He is waiting for you. He has always been waiting for you to make a move. He has been knocking at your door your whole life, and if you want to have a relationship with him, you have to open the door. You have to talk to him.
I thought back to when I was a teenager and found myself pregnant. I remember going to get “the free pregnancy test,” and how I felt when I was told the results. I remember feeling the fear of telling my parents and telling my boyfriend and the shame of facing his parents. I remember the difficulties surrounding the pregnancy. I remembered the birth, holding him, then handing him over. I recalled the feelings of pain and loss over our 23 years apart, and I thought of the overwhelming joy at our reunion.
I looked back over my life to see where God was. As a child, I remembered being so faithful and having no doubts. I remember sitting in church with my parents, siblings, and grandparents. I remember seeing the light from the window shining just on me and feeling like God was looking directly at me. I remember growing up and growing out of it, away from him and not seeing him anywhere. I focused on my family and my career and felt contentment in my husband and kids, but I didn’t encounter God there.
Then, finally, someone told me that Jesus has loved me my whole life, and I came to believe it. I wondered, why hadn’t anyone told me this before? I am in my 40s, for heaven’s sake; it would have been nice to have known this before now. Surely at some point in Mass, or in school, or at home someone could have made me aware of this before now. When I asked my pastor about this, he said that I have been told this before now, and probably many times.
Then an old saying came to mind: “When the student is ready, the teacher arrives.” I hadn’t been ready, not until now. God has a plan; he has had one all along. Suddenly I looked back at the path of my life, the one that was fraught with crazy hills and very low points, with random turns and stops, and I saw it for the first time through God’s eyes: It was a straight line. He had had a plan all along. He was there when I was pregnant and gave my child away. And this child, whom I saved, came back and saved me — that was all in his plan.
I have had moments, several of them in recent years, when I’ve pleaded with God, “Why did you do this to me? Why would a good and kind God, who loves me as much as you do, put me through so much pain and suffering for so long?” I remember a specific instance, a few years ago, being in church, praying fervently with all my heart, praying through my pain and asking God, “Why did you do this to me?” And asking it again and again and waiting in pain for an answer. Finally came his answer, like a breath or a sigh: “I’ve done this, not to you, but for you. Look at you! Look how strong you are. Look at the person you have become. I have done this for you.”
A lady in my church recently said to me, “I don’t like to see the cross without Christ on it, it doesn’t seem right.” I replied, “One thing that I learned as a Carmelite is this: We have the cross without the figure of Christ on it so that we can put ourselves up there. If we want to share in the joy that only he can give us, we also have to share in his cross.”
My life has been a cross that has brought me to where I am today. Exactly where he wanted me to be. Where he planned me to be. Now I have the joy of leading a youth group. I have had the joy of getting my children baptized. I have the joy of being a Third Order Carmelite. I have the joy of telling this story to others, in hopes of helping them to see their path. And when people thank me for teaching kids about Jesus or embracing the Carmelite way or taking care of his children, I feel silly. It’s not me. All I am doing now is living the plan he has set for me. I get it now.
If you don’t know yet, if no one’s told you this, I’m here to tell you: Jesus is a stalker. He has watched you your whole life. He knows everything about you, and he loves you, and he has a plan for you. One day you, too, will look back on your life, and if “the student is ready,” you will then see a straight line in front of you, too.