Ten years ago today, March 8th, Bernadette burst into this world at 2:25am with such vigor and enthusiasm that none of us were quite ready, not even the doctor. That evening, I was home in time to tuck Catherine into bed. The next day, Sunday, we were at Mass and a nurse friend tells us that she was working the night before and heard about a woman who came in and had her baby within fifteen minutes. Yeah, I told her, that was us. Bernadette was in a big hurry.
After spending the day taking a walk down memory lane, Marc, Catherine, Zoe, and I met with Joseph at PJ’s where Johanna was working, along with Estelle who was at Bernadette’s side when she died and we celebrated the almost seven years she was in our lives. Of course Zoe didn’t understand. As we were leaving for town, she was annoyed that we were interrupting her Barbie move to celebrate Bernadette’s birthday and not hers which is coming up soon and she said, “It’s not like Bernadette can get undead to have a birthday party.” What a precious goof.
Anyways, I just finished reading Fr. Ron Rolheiser’s short book Prayer Our Deepest Longing. It’s a very easy read with wonderful little gold nuggets on prayer. It’s not a book on how to prayer but why to pray and some advice on obstacles and unrealistic expectations that can discourage us and bring our efforts to pray to a screeching halt.
At the end of the book though, I found another gold nugget, a section on grief that I think I’d heard in a talk by him that we listened to with Bob and Joan last year. He surprised me with his insight and understanding of a mother’s grief as he put into words those thoughts and feelings that I’ve struggled with since the day Bernadette died. Images of Bernadette looking for me, needing me, too shy to be in heaven without me and my being powerless to be there for her! This shy little girl who still clung to my leg everywhere we went and who burst into tears when I wasn’t by her side when she woke up after surgery – because I was waiting at the wrong place. It was truly amazing to feel understood, especially coming from a priest. And Fr. Rolheiser was right in that when the grief is still so raw, any words of wisdom and consolation tend to fall on deaf ears, but I was more ready to listen to them this time. I won’t say that they filled me with hope and peace and totally wiped away my pain because they didn’t, but they gave me something to contemplate with the hope that one day they will be words of consolation.
On that note, today as we remember the day the Lord blessed us with Bernadette’s presence in our lives, I find it only fitting to remind myself that on this the 10th anniversary of her birth into this world it is also 161 weeks (three years and five weeks) ago today that she again seemed to be in a big hurry, only this time to be birthed into heaven. Fr. Rolheiser’s words seem so appropriate and even though he was writing about a young family member of his who had passed away, I’ve just changed the pronouns to fit our young family member who passed away.
When someone close to us dies, especially a young person, we experience more than simple shock and hurt. We are left with feelings of guilt. At one level, we feel guilty because we go on living while someone else dies. At another level, a more painful one, we feel guilty about the incompleteness of our relationship with the person who has died, even if that relationship was essentially a good one.
Coupled with this, especially if the one who died is young, there are feelings of fear and anxiety. We sense an unfinishedness, an unreadiness, and even a certain brutality: “She is so young, so fragile still, so unprepared to give up life and to be so finally separated from home and friends.” Like a mother who worries about her child when she or he first leaves home, we worry about the young who die. They are too tender still to be subjected to death, to irrevocable separation, to a terrifying newness, to a final judgment.
As we search among the strands of hope and grasp for something to hang onto in the face of such a death, perhaps we can do no better than to seize onto the words: She is in better hands than ours. Those are words of faith and they assure us that the God who gave this young child life – who gave her a gentle mother, a loving family and friends, who gave her exuberance and the lively life of the young – can be further trusted to bring that life to completeness and to bring her gently into life everlasting.
In understanding death, it is useful to look at birth. When a child is born, she or he is born into the arms and care of a mother. Save for the tremendous care, gentleness, and attention of a mother, a child is radically unready to live in this world. Given a mother, though everything changes. There is some trauma in being born, but it is brief. Very quickly, the gentleness, patience, and tenderness of a mother erase the trauma of birth. In the case of a loving mother, the passage from birth to adulthood is not ungentle and traumatic, but a delightful adventure in awakening.
God is our real mother – more tender, more loving, and more understanding than any earthly mother. Our birth into eternal life through the birth canal of death must be seen just as our birth into this life. Just as here, in infancy, our mother was ever so tender and patient with us; in death, even more so, is God. The hands that receive us at death are not the rough hands of our world. The heart that embraces us there will not let anything be too much for us. We will, children that we are, be gently, understandingly, and tenderly guided and coaxed into eternal life. Being born into God’s arms surely will be as gentle and tender an experience as was the experience of being born into our mother’s arms.