My parents are the reason why I was able to go to Mass this past Tuesday. Their steadfast support of me, especially during these past eleven months, and their unwavering faith in the face of excruciating personal pain and devastating loss are examples I take to heart and the type of example I hope to be for others one day. On Tuesday, almost eleven months to the day of Ella’s death, we attended the funeral Mass of a sweet baby girl named Lucy, who, at almost seven months old, died of health complications she had battled since birth. Her parents are friends of my parents and are their fellow parishioners.
Up until the moment we got into the car, I waffled internally about whether I would even go to the funeral. My own grief is still so fresh, so raw. In the grand scheme of things, eleven months is not so much time, but when that is the time you’ve counted since your own baby girl died, then it really is no more than a flash, a momentary blink of the eye, even as it seems an eternity.
I waffled, but I then decided that I must go. I had to be there to unite my prayers with the community that would mourn Lucy’s death with her parents, the same community that prayed with my parents for my sweet Ella. I wanted to express how very sorry I was for their loss and to say that even though I don’t know exactly what they’re feeling, I sort of do. I had to be there to cry once again for my own sweet saint, for my own loss that I still feel so keenly, for my Ella whom I mourn and miss every day. And I wanted to hug this newest, heartbroken mother of a saint.
There is an undeniable truth that all moms know. Whether their children grew under their hearts or in them, upon being placed in their mother’s arms for the first time, they forever take a piece of their mom’s hearts with them. That is why we moms feel everything so deeply when it comes to our kids - why we feel their joys so intensely, their pains so sharply, their disappointments so profoundly. When our children took a piece of our hearts, we moms lost the right to feel selfishly. We lost the right to withhold our own hearts from another person. They took a piece of our hearts, while at the same time, we gladly handed our hearts to them. There is nothing on this earth quite like a mother’s love, but that also means that there is nothing on this earth quite like a mother’s loss.
Too often I think that our society views pain - or the prospect of pain – as something to be avoided at all cost. We view suffering as meritless, as though there can be nothing redemptive about it. We don’t give ourselves enough credit for the capacity with which we can give and receive love or the compassion we can freely and wholeheartedly offer to those who suffer or to those with whom we share suffering.
When push comes to shove and we are forced by circumstances beyond our control – storms, floods, etc. – to accept suffering, to deal with it head on, we do so with gusto and a level of commitment that staggers the mind. Just look at the can-do attitudes of those devastated by recent epic storms. An act of God wreaked havoc on their lives, but “by God!” they are going to carry on. They are going to get up, move forward, and do what has to be done.
Why not then for these greatest acts of God among us? Why not for our unborn children? Our unborn kids already have targets on their backs and are offered all too frequently on the altars of convenience and “it’s just too hard.” Those targets only get bigger when those children come with difficult prenatal diagnoses of physical or mental imperfections.
Why can we not extend that same compassion and can-do spirit to their lives, however short those lives may be? Do they not deserve the best we have to offer, and shouldn’t our best include all the love we can give and any sacrifice we may be required to make? Don’t these kids deserve every ounce of compassion we have and then some? Why do so many rush to solve inconvenient “problems” by ending lives instead of saying, “Yes, I will fight. I will try. Even in the face of terrible, incredible odds, I will give you my all because you are a person. You are a worthwhile and precious act of God.”
One of the cheesiest movies I’ve seen in the last decade is “A Walk to Remember.” That it stars a pop star from the early 2000s should tell you that it weighs heavy on the cheese scale. That said, it contains one of my favorite lines: “Without suffering, there would be no compassion.” Think about that for a minute. Whose suffering? Mine? I’m a miserable hag when it comes to suffering! I might offer it up, but I’ll likely do it a bit grudgingly, and even then, you’ll hear about it! No, my suffering doesn’t elicit my compassion. The suffering that draws compassion is that of others. Please don’t get me wrong; I wouldn’t wish another to suffer simply so I could put on a great display of compassion! But we live in a fallen world corrupted by original sin. We exist this side of Heaven; therefore, we exist in a world full of suffering. We are surrounded by it. How frequently do we turn a blind eye toward suffering when it is neither in our face nor on our TVs but is instead in the womb?
When we adopted Ella, we had no idea that she had multiple congenital heart defects (CHD). All we knew was that we loved her before we knew her. We loved the idea of her, and when she was placed in our arms, we loved her forever and unconditionally. That we did that much in light of her seriously complicated medical condition and that we eagerly finalized her adoption astounded some people. I distinctly remember one man’s reaction upon learning Ella’s story.
We were at the Ronald McDonald House (RMH) for a dinner that had been provided by a local church’s adult Sunday school group. As was common practice, various church members spoke to the RMH residents to hear our stories about our children and then to ask if they could pray for us. As hard as it could be to talk about how sick Ella was, I was always glad to have more people praying for her. I explained that my daughter was waiting for a heart transplant, and as usual, I then explained that we hadn’t known about her CHD before her birth, we had adopted her, etc. During this conversation, a young man and his wife sitting at my table were listening. The wife was a believer, but the husband wasn’t and also seemed to be skeptically disdainful toward believers.
Later, the young man asked about Ella. He just couldn’t seem to wrap his brain around the fact that my husband and I proceeded with Ella’s adoption even after we found out how sick she was, that we chose to love her because of who she was and not because of what she had or didn’t have, that she was our child – our blessed act of God – in spite of her sick heart and including her sick heart, that we could not remember our lives before her or imagine our lives without her. It amazed me that a man whose own child was ill at the hospital would not be able to see past the circumstances of our daughter’s arrival to our family. Just as abortion would never have been a consideration had Ella been conceived in my womb, abandoning her to her CHD was never a consideration either. She was our daughter. She is our daughter.
Given the option, I never would have purposely chosen this hellish pain or endless suffering, but would I choose to live without it if so choosing meant that I would never have known Ella? If it meant that, while I would remain untouched by the pain of infant death, I’d also remain untouched by the love of the most awesome baby that ever lived? If so choosing would eliminate the impact that her sweet life has had on my life and on the lives of my family and friends? Of course not! I wouldn’t trade a second of my short time with Ella for anything, not even blissful, pain-free ignorance. I don’t think any of the mothers of saints that I know would trade this daily pain of loss for the time with which they were blessed with their children.
A while back, my mom heard a priest quote his mother, saying, “The Lord didn’t tell us to drag our cross and follow Him. He said to carry it.” When we choose to love our children unconditionally, as parents are called to do, we choose to bear the weight of a cross. Love isn’t just some feel good, mushy, fluffy emotion that we shrug off when it becomes hard. Love is choice. Love is sacrifice. Love is not focused on self but on other. And we don’t get to choose how much the cross of love – of parental love - weighs. Sometimes carrying that cross feels like more than we can bear, especially if we are also bearing the weight of our sick child’s cross. It is so heavy, so painful, so overwhelming. But who among us would walk away from that cross? Who would look her child in the eyes and say, “You’re on your own, kiddo. I am too tired and too weak. You’re just not worth it”?
Since Ella’s death, I have tried and failed and tried again to unite my suffering with that of Christ on the cross and to offer up this pain for my family, for my friends, for myself, for Him to do with as He wills. I try, but so many days I feel as though it’s enough that I’ve peeled myself up off the floor. I grew up hearing my mom say, “Offer it up!” so often when I was faced with pain and disappointment, but I never before felt that I had to “offer it up” so many times a day, so many days a week. But I continue to try, and every time I try and fail, I offer it all up again – the pain, the frustration, the anger, the loss. I offer it at the foot of His cross because how much more did He bear for me? He fell. He got back up. Can I do no less?
This Thanksgiving holiday, I went to a funeral. I went because I have to believe that there’s a reason bigger than I can see or understand for the cross that I’ve got to bear. I’ve got to believe that Lucy’s life, like Ella’s, wasn’t in vain, and that my suffering and the suffering Lucy’s parents must endure isn’t in vain. We chose our children’s lives, and in choosing, we chose to accept and to live with the inconvenience of their imperfections. We chose to love them, our sweet acts of God. We chose to see them as the whole of their parts, not just to dismiss the parts that were imperfect. I went to a funeral because this world is corrupt and quite obviously not Heaven, but being in the presence of Jesus Christ in the Holy Eucharist is as close to Heaven as I can get while on earth. I went to a funeral because we mothers of saints have to support each other. We have to be willing to offer the same compassion to each other that we offered to our children. We have to show this imperfect world that sometimes inconveniences are the greatest blessings one can ever experience.
I went to a funeral this Thanksgiving because I am thankful for the life of my daughter and for the life of Lucy and for the lives of all those wee saints who have gone before me. By the grace of God, I made it through, and for the glory of God, I would do it all again.
St. Ella, pray for us!