More often than one might imagine, I find myself in a conversation with someone who has also experienced the death of a child. The conversation always includes this grief-centered comment: "There is something wrong when the generations are reversed like that. I was supposed to die before my child. I just don’t understand it.” I’m sure that when my son John died at the age of twenty-five, that same notion went through my mind. But that logical question was smothered in the brutal painful grief I could not escape — sleeping or waking.
It was weeks following John’s death that the dam was broken in a dream. Wendy and I were attending some unclear function in the auditorium of our local high school. In the midst of whatever was going on, John appeared on the stage looking very uncomfortable. Our church choir was there and had prepared a song for the occasion. It was called, “John is back.” As they sang, John, still on the stage, said with his body, “I’m not back. I am gone for good. I don’t want to be back.” Whatever that dream may have meant, the sharp grief I was experiencing eased.
I still mourn for little John Mark. He had a thirst for life that in me seems hidden. He was free in a way that I am not. I still live with a grief that may not be as biting, but has not gone away and lives silently just behind my right shoulder. But every so often it emerges and confronts me face to face. And I cannot hide from it.
"The Ocean" by Nathaniel Hawthorne
"The Ocean has its silent caves,
Deep, quiet, and alone;
Though there be fury on the waves,
Beneath them there is none.
The awful spirits of the deep
Hold their communion there;
And there are those for whom we weep,
The young, the bright, the fair."
My daughter, Carol, died of lung cancer in February 2017. She had recently retired from a marvelous medical career. Her death was painfully gradual, and after struggling with a variety of treatments, she finally said, ”That’s enough.” I hope I can face my own death with the same courage.
Will I see my children again in some heavenly world? I think not. The gift of God is the few years of this life. I have come to believe that just as we did not physically exist in all the eons before we were born, I doubt that there is a conscious personal existence after we die. So making the most of the flash in between birth and death is God’s gift and our precious opportunity.
There remains the last residue of a guilt I have had in taking these three little children from a safe world to the south side of Chicago. When I have expressed it to Beth, my living daughter who recently retired from a nursing career in New Orleans, she replied:
"One time, a long time ago, you said something in a quiet moment to me and Carol that a huge regret in your life was moving us out of Alexandria into the chaos of Chicago. Carol, I remember well, told you very strictly and firmly, that she would not have become anything of what she is had she spent more years raised in an upper-class lily-white suburb. I totally agreed. What if we had ended up being raised in Alexandria? John would never have cut up enough to end up on a sailing ship high school, and never would have become the lighthearted free spirit that traveled all over the world in his short life.
"And then Carol would never have been a high school dropout, and therefore would have never walked into Wheaton College demanding they let her be a token dropout. Therefore, she probably would never have become a physician. She certainly would not have become the first psychiatrist, the youngest person, and the only woman to have been elected a delegate from Louisiana for the AMA. She would have never birthed the father of your great-grand twins."
So that matter is settled. Now it is left for me to spend the gift of every day thankful for my children, supported by Beth, Wendy, and friends here and far, as I seek to make the most of my remaining days — grateful for every minute.