This week we remembered the anniversaries of Maggie and Abby’s births and deaths.
As I journeyed through the three days, a brutal triduum, I began to see how deepest grief can take the shape of the paschal mystery. Dying and rising.
As the first year after loss ends, I find myself turning toward new directions. I will not be writing only honest grief in this space; there are new callings. So as Lent begins, this feels a fitting end to what the last year has been.
Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday.
. . .
It is the beginning of the scar, the longest on my body. The scalpel that sliced through stomach, layers of skin and muscle, to pull two tiny babies into the world.
They are too small to cry. But I do, quiet tears streaming down my face. My arms cannot wipe them away, strapped down and stretched out to both sides. This surgery is cruciform; nurses do not tell you that in pre-op. Then again, how could they possibly prepare you?
Did anyone believe these too-small babies had a shadow of a hope to survive?
Of course. Because hope is not the flighty thing with feathers. It is the flesh and blood that lunges for any fleeting chance of breath.
Hope does not hesitate when the doctor looks up from the ultrasound screen and pushes back his glasses and sighs and says, “I think we need to take these babies out.”
Hope responds with a pounce: of course.
This is what birth means. (Also love.) I am willing to be broken in two.
This is my body, given up for you.
Every story begins with a birth. Maybe his was cosmic, stardust and light. In the beginning. Maybe it was ordinary, barndust and sweat. In the manger.
Either way – or both – he birthed something that night, too. All of them gathered at table for supper like normal, yet his words were anything but. Strange, startling, speaking of death in the midst of life, a new covenant when the old was already hard enough.
But he was birthing a new kind of love, bigger and beyond our understanding, painful and blood-soaked. Body broken, like every birth, every push and scream, every scalpel’s slash. Blood poured, like every birth, flowing for weeks afterward, rivers of red you would fear as death if you did not know they brought life.
Bread, wine, table-passed with eyes searching to make them understand. He was trying to tell them, us, every one that Everything was about to change. The fabric of the universe to be shoved inside out and all the seams shown to be the opposite of what we expected.
Love kneels down to wash feet, it does not lord over from on high. Love breaks bread to be shared, it multiplies as it divides. Love takes a cross on beaten shoulders, it say yes even as the body screams no.
Birth aches for all of this, too.
Let there be light. Let it be done to me according to your word. Let your will be done.
Three fiats. All of them birth, all of them death. All part of the same story.
This is what love looks like: broken in two.
. . .
But the next day brings numbness, like falling asleep in a cold night garden when fear creeps in. Dread, like the agony of alone when the worst is coming.
Even when we theorized what might happen, even when experts tried to prepare us, even when the neonatologist handed us a pamphlet (a pamphlet!) with statistics about survival rates – and a cautious caveat that your babies are much sicker than these, too – even then we could not have been prepared for the weight of death.
Not so soon after birth. Not like this. Not out of order. Not now, not ever.
There are no parenting books that tell you how to hold a child as she dies in your arms. (You wouldn’t read them if there were.)
And yet the call still comes.
That cursed hospital phone, shrill and shrieking after your sleepless night, no good news curling up the spirals of its twisted cords, only the low dread of death on its way.
Some calls you never want to answer.
Some cups you cannot shove aside.
There is only the longest, loneliest walk, pushing uphill, knowing exactly what awaits you at the end.
Darkness, like a sky turned evil-black, an afternoon of sudden storm where once there was sun (long ago and distant). Despair, like watching the broken body of one you love but cannot save.
The heart slows over hours, but when it stops, the suddenness of silence is sickening. It carves you out from the inside, cold and empty, when you watch and know there is nothing more.
And now the ones who are left, the grief-wrenched weary, have nothing but another awful night to wait. To dread what comes with dawn. Which will bring no good, only reminders of what is gone.
Which was hope. Which was everything.
. . .
Another tomorrow. Dear God, we cannot be asked to face another dawn this daunting.
Is this not beyond the limits of what you ask the human heart to do? Watch two babies die, two days in a row? Can you not spare us some pain, give us some space to breathe, grant us some mercy of sleep?
The call comes again.
I start to sob as soon as the phone rings; I want to tear it from the hospital wall, slam it against the thick-paned window till everything smashes. This cannot be my life. This cannot be another death.
We walk slowly, the same hallways, again. Can it be that we have a routine for this now?
He pushes my wheelchair up to the door of her room, and already it feels like a tomb.
Long ago (also today) women rose early, his friends, his beloved ones. They brought the only things they could: oil, spices, love, grief. Perhaps they kept silent as they walked through the cold morning, fresh sorrow still too thick to cut through with conversation.
Because they knew the facts. If birth begins, death ends. Logic, nature, mortality spit out stark truth in plain terms: it is finished.
Just when everyone assumes what to expect, just when hope’s last breath starts to deflate into despair, just when the walls feel hard and cold as a cave closing in on you – then suddenly, stunningly, Everything can change. Again.
He was not there. And then he was. And then he wasn’t.
And he kept appearing to them, disarming, undoing their expectations over and over. He cooked breakfast on the beach, broke bread after a winding walk, held out his still-bleeding hands to hold their doubts, but then he vanished from their sight, walked through walls, disappeared into clouds before their eyes.
Bodies aren’t supposed to do this, especially dead ones.
But resurrection keeps going, un-ending. It bursts the confines of abstract noun and pours over the edges of theological doctrine. It is the mystery that messes up every tidy category.
What I learned on a morning of grief-turned-joy was this.
Inside the flesh of God’s heart, what looked like death brought a new kind of life. From the soil of sorrow, strange shoots of joy pushed through and grew stronger, winding tendrils over rocky ground, proving that yes, it really happened, and no, it is not over yet.
At the end of the afternoon we had to leave her body. We must have kissed our last goodbyes to her rose-petal cheeks, looked through the NICU room window one more time as he pushed my wheelchair away.
But I do not remember the journey back. It is not what matters.
She still died. She is still dead. But something real was raised up that day, brought to new life within us.
I remain certain that if you slid my cells under a microscope’s peering lens and compared Before to After, I would show up as a different person. The transformation was total.
I am absolutely convinced of God.
That is mystery enough for a lifetime. Or two.