‘A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.’
One year ago was when everything started to go wrong with our twins. When the worst-case scenario became the present-day reality. When the odds were no longer in our favor. When our lives flipped a switch and began to revolve around the next week’s appointment, the next day’s ultrasound, the next morning’s consultation. When we could do nothing.
As in one cold burst of bitter winter wind stealing breath the second you step out the door, everything was Hard. Everything was Wrong. Everything was Not Looking Good.
And the camels galled, sorefooted, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Just days before, we had spent Christmas in Hawaii with my family. To call paradise idyllic is redundant, but it was perfect. Rainbows and warm waves, sweet drinks and soft sand. A whole clan together, happy, laughing. Each dinner more delicious than the last.
“Let’s move here,” we schemed with each sunset. “Let’s stay forever.”
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
and running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.
And then everything went south, terribly south. We found ourselves lost in the world of hospitals and tests and worried expressions and puzzled doctors and long consultations and shaky sighs and acronyms for diseases that spelled out one truth clearly: our babies were sick. They would need a miracle to survive.
But only a year ago, in biting January wind tinged with the bright edge of sun, we still believed it could be possible.
Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arriving at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you might say) satisfactory.
You know the rest of the story, how it all unraveled by February’s end. There was surgery to save the babies; it was unsuccessful. There was a c-section to bring them into the world; they died in our arms. There was strange joy of heaven in the sorrow of death, and we spent the rest of the year trying to keep going.
For months, the only stories I read were Scripture. And Narnia with the children. The barest bones of what I could still believe: a God of strange stories, stories so true that a brilliant mind could translate them into talking animals and you still knew they were True.
I learned to adjust my eyes to new dawn breaking onto a new world. Same stories, same symbols, same people, same struggles. But the landscape so stark and barren I felt strange shock each morning. This is the harsh now we feared. How do we live in it?
All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
One year ago I did not know Birth and Death.
I did not know half the truth about love and grief and hope and marriage and community and survival and brokenness that I know now.
I cannot give any of this wisdom back. I can only carry it forward. It is all evidence of God. Evidence I never wanted.
One year ago is a blink and a decade. For all the bleeding ways my heart has been torn into halves of Before and After, I would do it again. I would do it again. There is no explanation for this besides love.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.
We do not fit in anymore. Small talk and social niceties are beyond bores; they are meaningless. I want to be with the broken ones, the ones willing to talk soul and suffering. Compassion compels me to quieter ways, but inside I simmer that I cannot waste any more of my time on things that do not Matter. Time here is too short; questions are too big and weighty; the world is imploding from its own fears and folly. If I do not give my life to what and Whom I know to be ultimate, I have squandered the divine breath within me.
Now the calendar turns to a fresh page, unblemished by the pain and problems we will soon scribble on its surface, too. January means we still sing Christmas at church; the celebration is not yet ended; here come those marvelous magi, bringing strange and suffering gifts.
I watch the children sing in the pew, Away in The Manger warbled from the mouths of the small. Already I am reaching toward Easter. If we slipped in a synonym or two, we would hear its echoes returning. “She wrapped him in funeral clothes and laid him in the food trough.” He came to die and become life for us. We cannot rip death out of this baby’s story. But it is not the end. That lies beyond.
We should be glad of another death.
With all gratitude to T.S. Eliot, who reads “The Journey of the Magi” here