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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Ladders

the ladder upSome years ago, when riding home in the family car from her grandmother’s house, my little girl sat up front, making the most of time alone with me her Mom, as that noisy baby slept in the back. She looked at the sky.  “If I could make a big enough ladder,” she said pensively, “I could climb there.”

Time keeps slipping for me this week. I think of the cold night earlier this month when I found myself in a florist’s greenhouse. It was near suppertime, but the shoppers there seemed reluctant to depart this damp Eden with its glass walls and ceilings all misted over with moisture.

Then time slips again to a long-ago night: Our then six-year-old had gone to bed. Downstairs, his father was playing his weekly bridge game with his pals. Elsewhere in the house, our other kids attended to the night’s homework. Then here came suddenly a sound of weeping, faint at first, but building in despair as it built in duration.

Our six-year-old appeared suddenly at my bedroom door. It was he who wept so. What was it?, I asked rushing toward him. A bad dream? He shook his head no. A pain? No again.

He sat on the edge of our bed and, after a long time, did his best to convey it: “I was thinking about death,” he finally whispered. “How when you die  you just have to lie there. Forever.”

“Ah but most people don’t believe that. None of us has been there of course, but most people picture Heaven.”

“I don’t want to go to Heaven!” he burst out. What would I do there? What do people do when they’re  there?”

I remembered an image that had comforted me once. “Well, they say it’s like a big party and everyone you ever loved is right there in the room with you –  and your old pets, and the toys you lost and thought you’d never see again…”

“But even a party can go on too long.” He shook his head sadly. “And what if there is no Heaven and you just…..end?”

“I don’t think it’s like that,” I said, hugging him now and swallowing back my own tears. “Why don’t you stretch out here a while?”

And so he did, as I busied myself nearby. Thirty minutes later, he was still curled in a tense ball.  I went over and lay down beside him; buried my face in his little-boy neck. “Listen!” I said at last. “Can you hear all those sounds? Daddy downstairs with his pals? Two kinds of music? Your brothers and sisters all talking and moving around?”

He nodded his head without opening his eyes.” Always you will have that: other people all around you. No one is alone, you know.”

“I know,” he whispered, and gave a final shuddering sigh.

He had looked over the edge into that terror. Most people look there exactly once, then get to work building a structure against it, whether you call it belief in the hereafter or faith in one’s fellow men or That Which Does Not Die.

I can’t say if  that youngest child of mine began building his then and there. I can tell you that as far as I know he never wept like that again.

In that wintry greenhouse, I watched the clerk wrapping a plant against the cold with all the care of one easing a baby into a snowsuit. So. I told myself, there is this care, then.

There are the long bars of sunlight, winter or summer.

There are the voices of others as you slip into sleep.

And then there’s that ladder, which, built of strong enough stuff and fastened with Belief, may let us climb it upward after all.

 

As the Funerals Continue

Today, as the funerals continue, I think of the first time I heard the song Suo Gan, sung by a very young Christian Bale in Spielberg’s heart-rending 1987 film Empire of the Sun.

It’s an Old Welsh lullaby, always sung in Welsh and the translation of one verse goes like this:

To my lullaby surrender, Warm and tender is my breast
Mother’s arms with love caressing Lay their blessing on your rest
Nothing shall tonight alarm you, None shall harm you, have no fear
Lie contented, calmly slumber On your mother’s breast…

I won’t say more now but only offer for us all imperishable music,  the lullaby itself,  from the throats of these youth: