Listen closely. What I have to say is just as important – if not more – than this story. The one that started it all. And brought so many of you here.
Every single story has a dark side. And the dark side of the unexpected joy we found during Abby’s death – it matters just as much as the light.
Remember that father who came up to us in the parking lot after Mass? The one who teared up when he shared his own loss of a daughter to stillbirth?
Right before he turned to go, he added one last thing. Perhaps the most important thing. He said, “After I heard your story, I turned to my wife and asked, ‘What did we miss? Why didn’t we feel like that when we lost our daughter?'”
Standing in the freezing cold parking lot, March wind whipping around my hair, tired kids pulling on my arms to hurry up and get in the car, I saw that this stranger had shown me the dark side of the light.
Why didn’t we feel like that?
. . .
Grammar can help to clarify. We did nothing to “earn” the grace of joy when our babies died, any more than another family “deserved” the miracle of having twins survive from the same complications. Such verbs do not apply.
Furthermore, we were not given this joy “at” you. (Any more than people are now having healthy babies “at” us, despite my dark moments of suspecting otherwise.)
What happened simply happened. And it stunned us so much that we had to share the story.
But if you have had to sit in the dark and the worst and the terrible depths, and you wonder why it didn’t happen to you? I want to tell you that we know the anger of emptiness, too. We have been on the dark side of light.
When Maggie died, we did not experience light and joy. We were shattered. I felt like my heart had been physically ripped out of my chest and left to bleed.
When we lost a baby to miscarriage three years ago, there was no peace. No heaven. It was pure hell. Desolation without consolation.
So while some people have reached out to us and said that they have experienced something similar – a strange joy in a time of deep sorrow at a child’s death – I am still standing with the ones on the dark side, too.
The ones who wonder why them, not us? The ones who ask why didn’t we feel like that?
So to that father in the parking lot – and to all of you who might have read these words and wondered why us and not you?
You did not miss anything. You did not do anything wrong. I do not know why there are unexpected glimpses of grace in certain places, not others. What happened to us was strange and shocking and unbidden. We still talk about it every day because it made no sense to us. It still wakes me up at night, and I do not understand what it means.
But believe me. I would not have picked this prize if given the choice. I would have snatched the miracle where our babies were saved and we brought them home. I would have chosen a thousand times to have them now in my arms and not hold this strange taste of heaven instead. I would not care if no one ever read another single word I wrote, if I could only have those babies back.
I did not get to choose. Part of me will always be angry that we did not get what we hoped for.
But we got a strange something else. And now we have to make sense of our lives around it.
. . .
In the weeks after Maggie and Abby died, I started reading all those Death and Dying memoirs that I had shelved on Amazon (mentally bookmarked over the years as Too Depressing To Read Right Now, But Supposed To Be Great – So Someday!).
In two days I poured through Richard Lischer’s memoir of losing his son Adam to cancer, Stations of the Heart: Parting With A Son.
I have been thinking about this passage ever since:
When we talked about sickness, death, and eternal life, Adam approached those topics both with the confidence of a believer and the wrinkled brow of a seeker. He was like a man driving in the fog: he is certain there is a road out there and a way forward, but his headlights will only go so far. He complained to Tom Colley, our Lutheran pastor at St. Paul’s, that he never heard a preacher who was willing to admit, “I don’t know.” When he finally find one, it was only his dad.
“So, why did Jesus heal so many people in Galilee, and why so few in North Carolina?”
I said, “In my opinion, the healings weren’t intended as medical cures for us to duplicate. Think of all the lepers who just missed him when he passed through Capernaum, or the mothers in all the villages around Nain who had to bury their children. The miracles are like flares calling attention to the glory of God. They’re signs of the great redemption to come. I’m like you. I still find the meaning of God in the cross and not the miracles.”
“Maybe so,” he said, touching his own cross, but like a patient who is contemplating a second opinion.
This is what we saw. A brief, bursting flare of something we had never seen before. It shot up in the most unlikeliest of places: a NICU room where we held our dying daughter. And when the sparks ceased, we were left wondering what on earth we saw.
My brow is still wrinkled like Adam’s. I am not sure what to make of any of this.
But I find the meaning in the cross, too. Redemption came through the suffering, not through the miracles.
So with every story of light that I tell, I have to remember the dark side, too. Because we have all been there, in the shadows. And I want whatever story I share about Maggie and Abby to be a story that sees both sides.
The light side of dark and the dark side of light.
. . .
Think about your own stories. The light and the dark. The ones you tell and the ones you never share.
I used to believe that certain stories told about God and others did not. Now I see how God appears in light and in shadows.
God holds all things together: the life and the death and the tensions between that we cannot resolve.
This is not to say that the good-that-comes-from-bad justifies the tragedy or explains the evil. Neither does this mean that every joy must be tinged with sadness.
But it means that we cannot expect to find God only in one place or another. There is holy bursting with light and there is holy cursing the darkness.
And our stories can carry both.
Photo credit above goes to the amazing Jennifer Liv Photography (a Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep volunteer).
If you couldn’t guess, I am holding Maggie. And my heart is breaking.