Life is hard.
That’s an intrinsic part of its breathless beauty. What joy would there be in a rollercoaster with no steep climb? What triumph in a race with no competition? What accomplishment in an endeavor with no risk? What motivation in a life with no death? I don’t speak lightly of hardship. Hardship involves suffering, and I have suffered more than I am willing to share. But I choose to embrace the beauty, to rise to the challenge, to submit to the fire…because that is where life in all of its rich, messy, glorious fullness is found.
I really believed those words when I wrote them once upon a lifetime ago, when the hurts from dark days in my childhood had been sorted and catalogued and filed away under ‘life lessons: forgiven, though never forgotten’ and I was ready to move on.
Then came loss. One miscarriage after another, each knocking the wind out of me, shaking my faith, draining a bit of life with all its zest and hope and glory from me. One, two, three…nine miscarriages, the last with triplets, three precious babies lost at once. I was crushed. But I survived, bruised and bloody and scarred, yes, but not broken.
And then came my Sammy. I lost his twin at nine weeks, but Sammy lived on, waving and bouncing around at every ultrasound as if to say, “I’m here, mama! I’m still here!” What a tough little guy.
A tough little guy with a death sentence. A random mutation, incompatible with life. But he did live. With my body playing a most willing host, my little invited guest grew and thrived, kicking and rolling and living. I enjoyed every moment of his life, treasured every movement, stored up every memory. It was all I would ever have of him, so I drank deeply of the days and saved my tears for the nights when all was still and the knowledge of death pressed too hard to ignore.
And then one day my Sammy unexpectedly slipped into and out of the world, still and silent and beautiful, bearing the imprint of his siblings on his tiny features. It was an unexpected home birth. I was alone. I can still remember the feeling of stunned disbelief as I realized he was coming now. I had no time to call anyone or prepare anything. He was just suddenly there, in my arms.
I’d known that he couldn’t survive outside of my womb from the minute the words ‘incompatible with life’ had entered my world. But I had chosen to give him every moment of life within me that I could, to savor every kick and tumble, to share my life and body with him until it was time for him to leave me. The movements had stilled, though, some hours before he came into and out of the world, an emergency ultrasound had confirmed that he was gone, and hushed voices had spoken of inductions and deliveries and funerals and burials and other words that should have been separated by a lifetime. I went home in a stunned fog to prepare for checking into the hospital the next morning to be induced, labor, and deliver my lost son, but the last cruel card had yet to be played. In the early hours of the morning, a sudden rush of blood and pain caught me alone and unprepared. I’d known that he would be leaving, but this, this unexpected, solitary moment of birth and death, this silent entry into heaven, this unutterable aloneness, this I could not have anticipated.
I remember the soft warmth of his body as I held him, waiting for help to arrive. I remember staring at his tiny profile and being scared to turn his face fully to mine, afraid of seeing my other children’s features reflected in his still, small face. I remember my husband finally coming and the look of shock and grief on his face as he realized what had happened. I remember the gush of blood, the tiny box, the rush to the hospital, the emergency surgery. I remember the surreal feeling of returning home, to the place of family, of ordinary days, of life and love, and feeling both wrapped in the warm comfort of familiarity and struck by the stark reality of loss.
And I was broken.
And I remained broken. Someone once asked me how I ever got over losing my son. My answer, “I didn’t.” There is no getting over the loss of a child. There is moving on. There is healing. And there is living. But I am forever changed. A part of me will always be broken while I live on the underside of Heaven and my son awaits me topside. That is a fact of life and loss. I have moved on. And I have healed.
But living is another matter altogether. Living, really living, is embracing life in all its fullness, laughing and loving, twirling in dizzying abandon in the rain with my little girls, and playing a sorry game of basketball with my boys while they alternately chuckle at my crazy aim and earnestly try to help a lost cause. Living is cuddling on the sofa with my hubby watching midnight movies while he snores in my ear. Living is feeling and hoping and stretching and experiencing. It is breathing in all the joy and breathing through all the hurts. It is planning for the future, the great unknown, brilliant with possibility and studded with thorns.
Living is not hiding. It is not stale and distant and cold. Living doesn’t cower under covers or behind locked doors, or in front of computer screens.
I thought I was done, that I’d handled losing Sammy to the best of my ability and moved on and healed and started living again. But as I stopped to take stock of life recently, I was suddenly brought up short. The incredibly sharp rear-view-window vision of hindsight revealed a startling fact. I had moved on, yes, and I had healed, but I was in many ways functioning on auto-pilot, not fully living.
I loved and I laughed…but hope, that most basic of human needs, was transparently thin and unutterably fragile in a heart afraid to live like mine. The future brims with more pain than possibility when viewed through a veil of tears. Fear reigns, and life suffers under its dictatorship. Life abundant becomes life restrained.
And planning for the future was too breathtakingly daring to even consider, and not just because of my own losses.
You see, I have a list of people I pray for every day, children, adults, babies, all fighting for their lives. Some of them, a precious five-year-old little girl, a sweet mom with breast cancer, an infant with spinal cancer, and another baby with a rare brain disorder, have lost their fight for life, and my heart grieves with their grieving families. Others are just starting their fight, a little one waiting for a kidney transplant, a newborn baby boy born with half a heart, a one-year-old who recently had a liver transplant, a four-year-old boy whose body is riddled with tumors, and so, so many more. My thoughts, prayers, and hopes are never far from these small people and their heroic families. Their struggles and losses press themselves deeply into my soul.
My hindsight view revealed a constant battle with fear. I am all too familiar with how fragile life is and how suddenly life can change. I am filled with joy at the blessings God has given me, but my joy was often stolen by fear. My heart waited for the next bad thing to happen, always secretly wondering what would be taken from me next. I knew God didn’t want me to live that way. I knew that “Perfect love casts out all fear.” (1 John 4:18) I knew these things in my head, but it was my heart that kept me awake in the darkness, locked in a battle with fear. God gives, and God does take away. I needed to be at peace with that, trusting my Father’s perfect will. But I was afraid. I was so afraid.
I wish God never said ‘No’ when the whispered prayers of scared mamas and daddies reached his ears, when a child’s desperate prayers for a sick parent are sobbed in the night, when hearts and voices storm the gates of Heaven on behalf of a beloved friend. But he does say ‘No,’ and his ‘No’ is the right answer, even though I’ll never understand it this side of Heaven.
I wish I could understand, though. I wish I could sit and talk and reason with God…but that is prayer, and so I decided to sit, and to talk, and to reason…and to learn to trust. I decided to reject the fear and withstand the pain and cling to the Cross in the storm. And I discovered that trust isn’t a feeling or a destination. It is a process, a journey, a two-steps-forward-one-step-back dance, an intricate, intimate relationship between Creator and created. Maybe that is faith, though, not really trusting, not fully, because the heart is human, after all. Maybe faith is choosing to wait, to hold on, to struggle, never fully trusting, but always hoping, always believing.
I have felt the pull back into life in the tiny hands of my new miracle baby tugging me to follow toddling steps into adventures untold, in the never-give-up attention seeking of my curly-topped second grade dirt magnet, in the buddingwomanhood of my daydreamer-artist teenager, in the endearing, emerging solidness of a man of character in my young adult son, and in so many other ways that I can no longer hide from the message, “It is time to live freely again.”
And so I will live.
I will embrace the messy and the beautiful. And, just days from now, when Sammy’s birth-death day arrives and the memories crowd close, I will take my earthside children and run away. We will go somewhere that is not here and we will stand beside swaying reeds and feed toddling ducklings. We will ride our bikes under tall trees and marvel at the newly hatched turtles tumbling over each other on the banks of shining waters. We will stop at a little pizzeria and get a market street pepperoni pie and sit outdoors in the sunshine and eat and talk and laugh. We will celebrate each other and life and love, and then we’ll come home and it will be home again. And I’ll be okay, because…
Life is hard. That’s an intrinsic part of its breathless beauty. What joy would there be in a rollercoaster with no steep climb? What triumph in a race with no competition? What accomplishment in an endeavor with no risk? What motivation in a life with no death? I don’t speak lightly of hardship. Hardship involves suffering, and I have suffered more than I am willing to share. But I choose to embrace the beauty, to rise to the challenge, to submit to the fire…because that is where life in all of its rich, messy, glorious fullness is found.
Author: Francis Bowden