Death in December (Lighting Their Way)

parents cradling their newbornOn this one-week anniversary of the killings in Newtown comes this  last meditation, which appeared all  around the country as my column for the week. Peace of mind and rest to us all on this day of Solstice. From here on, more and more light, we pray…

The weather has been warm for December, though the lilacs are huddled down in my yard as if bracing themselves for what New England has taught them to expect of winter.

At this time of year, all growing things bow earthward, their heads tucked under their wings, so to speak, in preparation for the assault of killing cold.

Yet still the assault has held off. The other day the air felt so moist and forgiving the branches of the forsythia began swelling into life.

It reminded me of a winter day like this when our friends welcomed a baby into the world.

The delivery had been normal, and the child was a beauty. All seemed well – until his color changed a few hours after the birth.

He was X-rayed and CAT-scanned, hurriedly placed beneath the microscope of modern medicine. It turned out his heart had not developed properly—not in the early months when Nature means for a heart to grow whole—and not later either.

He could not live, our friends were told. He might not last the night. His small pump of a heart could not sustain the effort necessary to keep him alive, the doctors said.

But this is not just a story of loss.

It is a story of love, and what love can do.

The baby lived four days. His mother kept him in her room at the hospital. Grandparents arrived from out of state, and his two-year-old brother was brought in to meet him.

They rocked and talked to their child. They greeted him like any family would greet it new­est member.  They said,  “Here you are, finally!” They said, “It’s us: the ones you have been given to!”

They held him and said their hellos. They held him and said their good-byes.

They took the short time given them to love this child, and  put it to good use.

Without ac­knowledging the darkness ahead, they sunned him in the light of their love and it was easy for them to do so.

Why?

Because he was here today. Because that’s the most any of us can be sure of: that we’re here now, for a while, to carve out a bright place in the surrounding darkness. To connect with one another, just as these grieving families in Newtown are doing now.

Like that doomed newborn, their children surely had felt love in their time here. And I don’t doubt that in the place where they now reside, they hold in their immortal souls the memory of how rich a thing it is to dwell upon this earth.

It is a memory given them by their families and their community,  families and a community dissolved now in grief.

To bury a child is a crime against nature, they say, a cruel twisting of the natural order.

It can only feel strange and unnatural, like warmth of days on winter’s threshold.

But winter is winter and death is death. Children do die, and the earth dies too and the grass turns to brown. The book of our lives is shot through with sad chap­ters such as these.

Yet death is not the story’s title. And death is not the chapter’s close.

It’s what is done in the face of death that makes the tale worth reading. It’s forsythia buds swelling in December. Or people like the parents we grieve with this week, lighting their children’s way, with their candles and their prayers.

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