If you drove through my neighborhood this weekend, you would undoubtedly notice that every tree and pole has a purple ribbon wrapped around it. On a weekend when it would be seem more obvious to be flying red, white and blue, my suburb is coming together in solidarity to support a family dealing with unimaginable tragedy: a 7-year-old girl attending a cheerleading camp at the local high school unexpectedly collapsed and died last week. There were no mitigating factors and no good explanation…it just happened.
One of the side effects of being an expectant father of a daughter whose expected arrival is about five weeks away is noticing examples of fatherhood anywhere you go. Every baby or little girl I see suddenly becomes my own daughter in my mind’s eye. I’m riding my bike with her. I’m comforting her when she cries. I’m carrying her on my shoulders. I’m making her laugh.
Playing this mental game isn’t exclusive to happy daddy-daughter playground moments however, so I couldn’t help but put myself in the shoes of the parents who are now living their worst nightmare.
Last week’s news comes on the heels of the one-year anniversary of another devastating parental loss suffered by my wife’s cousins, whose young daughter got suddenly sick and passed away without warning and beyond logic. Her family has worked hard to turn this tragedy into an inspiration–focusing on the power of prayer and kindness, while also supporting other families in similar situations. Julie’s blog is a testament to how they are finding the beauty in life that was borne out of this tragedy.
But regardless of the support or the purple ribbons or the blessings that eventually come from the situation, the death of a child never seems fair, especially when it comes without warning or reason.
Our journey of pregnancy has shown me both the fragility and resilience of human life. How is our baby surviving in my wife’s womb and developing all the complex structures and systems it takes to exist as a human being? Surely the progression of creation and the trauma of birth are some of the most grueling parts of the process. If babies go full term and survive life in the real world for a year or two, they’ve made it through the wilderness and are fairly indestructible, right?
That’s the way I’ve always thought about it, but unexpected situations like this reveal the truth–youth does not guarantee vitality or invincibility. Ask anyone whose child has cancer or some other life-threatening disease. Talk to someone whose child was gunned down in Chicago as collateral damage in gang warfare. Everyone–regardless of age–is on borrowed time, and we do not know the hour.
As my baby prepares to enter the world, this is not a fact that I enjoy considering, but it is nevertheless a fact. I haven’t even met my daughter face-to-face yet, but I can already imagine the dark despair that would threaten to overwhelm me if we lost her. In a way, parenthood is always designed to evolve such that your services to your child diminish over time. Parenthood is a divine contract stating that you will love, teach, protect and form this precious human being that you helped create until such time as they can take care of themselves and embark on their own independent life–moving out, getting a job, getting married, having children of their own. It’s the beautiful plight of parenthood: if you’ve done your job properly, your children will no longer need you in the ways they once did. And that’s a good thing. That Independence Day for your children is a day to be celebrated, even if it’s a bit bittersweet.
But being unable to reach that Independence Day and having your child forever frozen in your mind at a particular age and life circumstance is like having the projector break near the beginning of a particularly compelling film. You’re sure the rest of the movie was going to continue to astound you, but you’re left to imagine the details, highlights and plot twists that you’ll never get to experience.
It’s beyond heartbreaking. It’s beyond unfair. It seems downright cruel. And it begs that gnawing question that only surfaces in times of inconceivable heartache–“Why would God let this happen?”
This is where the consolation of faith becomes essential even as it becomes slippery. A personal tragedy of this proportion is the ultimate test of faith. You wanted your children to end up in Heaven, right? Now this one made it. Aren’t you happy?
Unfortunately, our mortal schedule doesn’t consider God’s timing and plan. Every child is a gift from God, created for a very specific reason that is beyond our imagination. If that purpose requires us to sacrifice one of the people that we love most in the entire world, the very faith that seemed so reasonable when we were blessed with the child can lose all its sanity when that child is taken away. This quote from C.S. Lewis in A Grief Observed seems to sum up that enormous test of faith.
“Bridge-players tell me that there must be some money on the game ‘or else people won’t take it seriously.’ Apparently it’s like that. Your bid–for God or no God, for a good God or the Cosmic Sadist, for eternal life or nonentity–will not be serious if nothing much is staked on it. And you will never discover how serious it was until the stakes are raised horribly high, until you find that you are playing not for counters or for sixpences but for every penny you have in the world.”
I don’t have an answer for any of this. I can simply hang a purple ribbon on our tree and offer my prayers for strength and courage to those who are going through this. But it’s also a moment for me to realize anew that my daughter is a gift who ultimately belongs to God, and that I am blessed to have her in my life…for however long that might be.