It happened again: the death of a child. The death of a son. Little Christopher, the boy I've written about this past week, was removed from life support this afternoon and passed away. Tears flow. Sorrow overflows. Words seem trite, contrived, false. Silent anguish, moans of agony, shouts of horror are the only appropriate responses - if that.
Fortunately, Laurie was accompanied by her sister, her closest friends who happen to be the godparents of her two children, her late husband's brother who'd flown in from England last night, doctors, nurses, and the angelic spirit of her dearly beloved husband himself as little Christopher made the transition from this life to the next. I imagine that Laurie is back at home right now, having returned there for the first time in nine days. The last time she was there, she stood outside on the driveway waiting for the ambulance with the body of her gasping son in her arms. I imagine she is lying down in her bed weeping. Or perhaps she's lying in his bed. Maybe she's outside in her backyard shouting up to the clouds, asking "Why me, Lord? Why me again?" While I don't know what she's doing, this one thing I do know, whatever she is doing, thinking, or saying right now, she is being prayed for, watched over, and loved beyond all she can ever imagine.
Last Tuesday, when I heard the tragic news about Christopher being in a coma, my first thought was this: He is in heaven playing catch with his dad. At peace. At home. Father and son together at last. That was my hope then; that is my certainty now. Christopher is walking, laughing, and holding hands with his father. They are swimming, climbing trees, and singing songs. The father he never knew, the father he heard a lot about, saw pictures of, and asked copious questions about. The father he resembled here on earth is the father he gets to embrace and enjoy in heaven. Forever.
My prayers for Laurie continue. In fact, they are more fervent than before. Right now she has to plan his homegoing celebration service: pick out a funeral home, a suit for him to wear, music to play, a place to lay his body to rest. In a couple of weeks, though, most if not all of the visitors from out-of-town will head back home and move on in their own lives. It is then that she will need the loving tender care of those who live alongside her. My hope and prayer is that we will all stand close beside her when the meals aren't coming as frequently, the flowers have faded, and the fruitbaskets have begun to lose their luster.
Death sucks. The death of a child goes beyond what we are able to comprehend or explain. But back in January of 2005, I wrote a blog for my friend, Suzanne, who'd lost her son, John, to death when he was only nineteen years of age. I wrote about life, about death, and about a mother's sorrow in particular - and after rereading that blog a few minutes ago, I have decided to post it again. If you've read it before, forgive me for plagiarizing myself. If you haven't, here it is. And when you are done reading, please join me in praying for Laurie and Charlotte as they join hands and march on into a life that is now void of their beloved brother and son. And while you are at it, lift a quick prayer for Suzanne also.
Lord, have mercy.
Last night I was reminded that there is another language that I am not fluent in, that none of us are fluent in: the language of grief, of death, of sorrow. Words like “bury her son,” “courageous teenager who battled disease all his life,” and “leaves behind his parents and teenage sister” – those kinds of phrases ought to be used only in the movies. But this is no fictional account.
Last night my dear friend, Suzanne, lost her son to complications from devastating, inexplicable, unnecessary, juvenile rheumatoid arthritis and diabetes. He was only nineteen years old, but he had fought a long, brave, and painful fight for ten years. Suzanne had taken him to countless doctors’ appointments, kept him home from school for countless days to give him priceless and boundless love over these long years. I cannot imagine how difficult it was for her to watch her son suffer for so long. I cannot imagine how much she prayed for his pain to be taken away and for him to be able to get up and walk, run, play, even slam the door and drive away to nurse his teenage angst and wounds in the arms of gentle and caring friends. But far more than that, I cannot imagine how horrific, deep, and inexpressibly acute her pain was last night when she felt his spirit get up, walk away, run, play with the angels, and close the door quietly, but firmly behind him, leaving the angst, wounds, pain, and crippling effects of disease forever.
When I read the email last night announcing his passing, I wanted to believe it was written in Swahili, and my brain’s translation into my native English was amiss. But no one could possibly be that bad at translating; not even my tired, weak, tear-filled eyes could misread such bad news. I immediately cried out: "Lord, have mercy on Suzanne, on Carolyn and David, John’s sister and father as well. Give them the courage and the room and the support they need to grieve openly, fully, and unapologetically. Give them comfort, peace, and the presence of dear friends bearing gifts of food, tea, and quietness of spirit so that they will not be hungry, thirsty, or alone at this unspeakably difficult time. Kyrie Eleison."
When the first wave of sorrow receded and I was able to dry that first outpouring of tears, I remembered something I’d read last month on the perpetual calendar above my kitchen sink. “The twists and turns of life have a way of reminding us – we aren’t home here. This is not our homeland. We aren’t fluent in the languages of death and disease. The culture confuses the heart, the noise disrupts our sleep, and we feel far from home. And you know what? That’s okay.” The word that best describes my darkest, saddest, most disquieting moments is “homesickness.” I find myself longing for a home I’ve not yet been to, but I feel certain that it’s gotta be better than this one where I must watch a dear friend mourn the loss of her son.
It’s gotta be better than this one where I must watch, love, and support two families that are in a pitched battle against the very aggressive enemy known as childhood cancer. It's gotta be better than this one where I am watching helplessly as a local homeschooling family of five nurse their mother back to health after she underwent surgery to remove stomach cancer earlier this week. There’s gotta be something better than watching crowds of tsunami victims wrestling for food and water that is tossed from helicopters. There must be a place where there are no words for “tidal wave, famine, earthquake, transplant surgery, suicide, and alcoholism.” There must be a country where translators shrug their shoulders and shake their heads in obvious confusion when words like “abuse, suicide, cancer, and roadside bomb” come up in conversation. There must be a country where flags will never fly at half mast and mothers do nothing but dance with their children. That’s the homeland I want to call my own and long to inhabit.
During the Christmas holidays, Steve and I attended a rather large and festive benefit dinner at a local hotel. There were several bands performing that night, none of which I was familiar with before that night. One group called NewSong performed a song entitled, “Arise, My Love” that had the following words as its chorus: “Arise, my love. Arise my love. The grave no longer has a hold on you. No more death’s sting, no more suffering. Arise, arise, my love.” As the lyrics of the song drew the word picture of God the Father looking down at His son who had died and was in the tomb for three days after the crucifixion, I recalled the scene from “The Passion of the Christ” when the enormous tear fell from heaven and the earth split open because of God’s sorrow.
Although that song was conceived as an Easter hymn, it seems equally fitting now as I think of the death of Suzanne's son. As I allowed my mind to wander heavenward and waxed poetic in my thinking, I saw God looking down into a quiet and darkened room as John lay in bed last night at the Westchester Medical Center in New York State. As he struggled to breathe and Suzanne listened alertly for each rattly inhale, I heard God speak out of the silence into the ears of that long-suffering, lion-hearted, exhausted, hungry, and homesick teenager, “Arise, my love. Arise, my love. Disease no longer has a hold on you. No more pain’s sting. No more suffering. Arise, arise, my love.” Those are words we can all understand.
Bye for now, John. Save a dance for me.
Suzanne, I love you.