He will come like last leaf’s fall. One night when the November wind has flayed the trees to the bone, and earth wakes choking on the mould, the soft shroud’s folding.
He will come like frost. One morning when the shrinking earth opens on mist, to find itself arrested in the net of alien, sword-set beauty.
He will come like dark. One evening when the bursting red December sun draws up the sheet and penny-masks its eye to yield the star-snowed fields of sky.
He will come, will come, will come like crying in the night, like blood, like breaking, as the earth writhes to toss him free. He will come like child. ~Rowan Williams “Advent Calendar”
How have we diminished the worth of a child?
More and more we resist humanity’s mandate to ensure a future for those who come after us.
Our excuse: the world is dying, the climate an emergency, how do we dare expose future generations to desolation and destruction?
Better to have no children at all. So many choose childlessness, doing whatever it takes to remain childless.
Yet all feel outrage at the images of children suffering and dying trying to escape poverty, homelessness, war and evil:
A toddler lying face down in the water on a Turkish beach, at first glance almost as if napping, but this sleep is forever. A father drowned in the Rio Grande protecting his daughter, also drowned, trying to bring her to a safe future in the States.
This is nothing new in the history of humanity. We kill unborn children every day in our own private wars that we justify without guilt or regret.
When confronted by images of dead children while eating breakfast, when millions cry out with the shame of it, so many tears falling like raindrops soaking deep on holy ground, ground we share with the poor and oppressed and homeless, ground we no longer can hoard.
These images change from one day to the next, birthing life, taking life, a child in the womb becomes ghost in the tomb, so we come undone, forced to unbuild walls we hide behind.
God Himself came like a child – bloody, broken, crying. The earth writhes in the reality that if conceived today, Jesus would likely be washed away before His birth, considered inconvenient and so unfortunate to be born to an impoverished refugee family. The world was much too harsh for Him to thrive.
So we would toss away the Son, the Light, the Hope and cling to our darkness.
What is the worth of such a Child? He answers clearly: He came because we are worthy of both His birth and His death.
As the house of a person in age sometimes grows cluttered with what is too loved or too heavy to part with, the heart may grow cluttered. And still the house will be emptied, and still the heart.
Empty and filled, like the curling half-light of morning, in which everything is still possible and so why not.
Filled and empty, like the curling half-light of evening, in which everything now is finished and so why not.
Beloved, what can be, what was, will be taken from us. I have disappointed. I am sorry. I knew no better.
A root seeks water. Tenderness only breaks open the earth. This morning, out the window, the deer stood like a blessing, then vanished. ~Jane Hirschfield from “The Standing Deer”
My first time ever seated next to my mother in a movie theater, just a skinny four year old girl practically folded up in half by a large padded chair whose seat won’t stay down, bursting with anticipation to see Disney’s Bambi.
Enthralled with so much color, motion, music, songs and fun characters, I am wholly lost in a new world of animated reality when suddenly Bambi’s mother looks up, alarmed, from eating a clump of grass growing in the snow.
My heart leaps with worry. She tells him to run for the thicket, to seek safety where she has always kept him warm next to her.
She follows behind, tells him to run faster, not to look back, don’t ever look back.
The gun shot hits my belly too.
My stomach twists as he cries out for his mother, pleading for her. I know in my heart she is lost forever, sacrificed for him.
I sob as my mother reaches out to me, telling me not to look. I bury my face inside her hug, knowing Bambi is cold and alone with no mother at all.
She took me home before the end. I could not bear to watch the rest of the movie for years. His cries still echo in my ears.
Now, my children are grown and have children of their own to protect. My mother is gone from this earth, my thicket emptying, my heart full, my stomach stronger, I even keep the seat from folding me up in a movie theater.
I now can look back and weep inconsolably once more.
Your days are short here; this is the last of your springs. And now in the serenity and quiet of this lovely place, touch the depths of truth, feel the hem of Heaven. You will go away with old, good friends. And don’t forget when you leave why you came. ~Adlai Stevenson, to the Class of ’54 Princeton University
I was eight years old in June 1963 when the Readers’ Digest arrived in the mail inside its little brown paper wrapper. As usual, I sat down in my favorite overstuffed chair with my skinny legs dangling over the side arm and started at the beginning, reading the jokes, the short articles and stories on harrowing adventures and rescues, pets that had been lost and found their way home, and then toward the back came to the book excerpt: “The Triumph of Janis Babson” by Lawrence Elliott.
Something about the little girl’s picture at the start of the story captured me right away–she had such friendly eyes with a sunny smile that partially hid buck teeth. This Canadian child, Janis Babson, was diagnosed with leukemia when she was only ten, and despite all efforts to stop the illness, she died in 1961. The story was written about her determination to donate her eyes after her death, and her courage facing death was astounding. Being nearly the same age, I was captivated and petrified at the story, amazed at Janis’ straight forward approach to her death, her family’s incredible support of her wishes, and especially her final moments, when (as I recall 54 years later) Janis looked as if she were beholding some splendor, her smile radiant.
”Is this Heaven?” she asked. She looked directly at her father and mother and called to them: “Mommy… Daddy !… come… quick !”
And then she was gone. I cried buckets of tears, reading and rereading that death scene. My mom finally had to take the magazine away from me and shooed me outside to go run off my grief. How could I run and play when Janis no longer could? It was a devastating realization that a child my age could get sick and die, and that God allowed it to happen.
Yet this story was more than just a tear-jerker for the readers. Janis’ final wish was granted –those eyes that had seen the angels were donated after her death so that they would help another person see. Janis had hoped never to be forgotten. Amazingly, she influenced thousands of people who read her story to consider and commit to organ donation, most of whom remember her vividly through that book excerpt in Readers’ Digest. I know I could not sleep the night after I read her story and determined to do something significant with my life, no matter how long or short it was. Her story influenced my eventual decision to become a physician. She made me think about death at a very young age as that little girl’s tragic story could have been mine and I was certain I could never have been so brave and so confident in my dying moments.
Janis persevered with a unique sense of purpose and mission for one so young. As a ten year old, she developed character that some people never develop in a much longer lifetime. Her faith and her deep respect for the gift she was capable of giving through her death brought hope and light to scores of people who still remember her to this day.
Out of the recesses of my memory, I recalled Janis’ story a few years ago when I learned of a local child who had been diagnosed with a serious cancer. I could not recall Janis’ name, but in googling “Readers’ Digest girl cancer story”, by the miracle of the internet I rediscovered her name, the name of the book and a discussion forum that included posts of people who were children in the sixties, like me, who had been incredibly touched by Janis when they read this same story as a child. Many were inspired to become health care providers like myself and some became professionals working with organ donation.
Janis and family, may you know the gift you gave so many people through your courage in the midst of suffering, and the resulting hope in the glory of the Lord. Your days were short here, but you touched the depth of truth and touched the hem of heaven. ~~the angels are coming indeed.
We who have been your old good friends, because of your story, have not forgotten how you left us and why you came in the first place.
For excerpts from “The Triumph of Janis Babson”, click here
Sundays too my father got up early And put his clothes on in the blueback cold, then with cracked hands that ached from labor in the weekday weather made banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.
I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking. When the rooms were warm, he’d call, and slowly I would rise and dress, fearing the chronic angers of that house,
Speaking indifferently to him, who had driven out the cold and polished my good shoes as well. What did I know, what did I know of love’s austere and lonely offices? – Robert Hayden, Those Winter Sundays
We cannot know nor comprehend the sacrifices made for us, so much hidden away and inscrutable.
We who feel so entitled to comfort and pleasure and attention will find that none of it is deserved yet still freely given. May we ourselves someday feel such love for another – if we are so blessed to give of ourselves so deeply.
Our shoes shined, our hearts brimming with gratitude on a cold Sunday morning – we go to thank God for His ultimate sacrifice and His grace in loving us as we are: deserving nothing, filled with everything from Him.
My first time ever
seated next to my mother
in a movie theater, just
a skinny four year old girl
practically folded up in half
by a large padded chair
whose seat won’t stay down,
bursting with anticipation
to see Disney’s Bambi.
Enthralled with so much color,
motion, music, songs and fun
characters, I am wholly lost
in a new world of animated
reality when suddenly
Bambi’s mother looks up,
alarmed, from eating
a new clump of spring grass
growing in the snow.
My heart leaps
She tells him
for the thicket,
the safest place where
she has always
kept him warm
next to her.
She follows behind,
tells him to run faster,
not to look back,
don’t ever look back.
Then the gun shot
hits my belly too.
My stomach twists
as he cries out
for his mother,
pleading for her.
I know in my heart
she is lost forever,
sacrificed for his sake.
I sob as my mother
reaches out to me,
telling me not to look.
I bury my face
inside her hug,
is cold and alone
with no mother
My mama took me home
before the end.
I could not bear to watch
the rest of the movie for years.
in my ears
every time someone hunts and shoots
to kill the innocent.
Now, my own children are grown,
my mom is gone from this earth,
I can even keep the seat from folding
me up in a movie theater.
I return Sunday after Sunday
to the killing fields of the church pew
knowing mothers and fathers
sons and daughters
grandmothers and grandfathers
sisters and brothers
and babies were hunted down
inside the supposed safety
of the sanctuary,
taken from the warmth of the human thicket
where we hold each other close.
Their cries echo in my ears
where there is no longer innocence.
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Near dusk, near a path, near a brook, we stopped, I in disquiet and dismay for the suffering of someone I loved, the doe in her always incipient alarm.
All that moved was her pivoting ear the reddening sun was shining through transformed to a color I’d only seen in a photo of a new child in a womb.
Nothing else stirred, not a leaf, not the air, but she startled and bolted away from me into the crackling brush.
The part of my pain which sometimes releases me from it fled with her, the rest, in the rake of the late light, stayed. ~C. K. Williams “The Doe”
Oh little one
to have been born
in June over three decades ago
but lost too soon
gone as swiftly
as a doe disappearing in a thicket,
a memory that makes me question
if you were real,
but you were
and you are
I’ll know you when I see you.
I stumbled in his hob-nailed wake, Fell sometimes on the polished sod; Sometimes he rode me on his back Dipping and rising to his plod.
I wanted to grow up and plough, To close one eye, stiffen my arm. All I ever did was follow In his broad shadow round the farm. ~Seamus Heaney from “Follower”
My father did grow up plowing with horses, and hated every minute of it. He was overjoyed to one day be able to afford a tractor, and although it was only a little Farmall Cub (in one of the photos below), it teamed up with my dad to do remarkable things.
I’m telling this story again as my Father’s Day tradition since it says a lot about who my dad was, but even more so, it explains much about who I have become having grown up in his shadow.
My father departed this soil twenty years ago, having completed umpteen “projects” in his spare time and leaving just a few unfinished. This was undoubtedly the most remarkable. He dove right in to whatever he decided to accomplish and his Farmall tractor was often part of the plan.
These photos chronicle my father’s 1968 backyard project. This was no ordinary project, but like every other project he took on, it was accomplished during the daylight hours after he got home from his desk job and then consumed most of his weekend waking hours. He had been dreaming it up for a number of years, and then one day, grabbed a shovel and simply got started and didn’t quit until it was finished.
He was determined to build a full size swimming pool, by himself, with his own two hands. He did use his little Farmall Cub tractor to blade away the first layer of topsoil, but the rest of the digging was by the shovel-full. He wanted a kidney shaped pool rather than a rectangular one, so he soaked the wooden forms in water to form the graceful curves. The cement was poured by a cement truck, but the sidewalks were all self-mixed in our own little cement mixer that ran off a small engine. The tile that lined the top of the pool was all hand grouted and placed, square by square. The pumphouse/changing room was built alongside.
I was 14 that summer, not truly understanding how extraordinary an effort this was, but simply accepting it as another “dad” project like any other he finished through sheer will, stubbornness and a desire to go on to the next challenge. Now, 46 years later, as an adult who is plum tired at the end of an office/clinic work day, I marvel at his energy putting in another four or five hours of physical labor when he came home at night. No wonder he never suffered from insomnia.
Once the pool was declared finished, a hose ran water for several days, and it took 2 more days to heat it up to a temperature that was survivable. Then my dad took the first dive in.
Once he had taken that first dive, he was happy. He swam every once in awhile, but was soon onto another project (reconstructing a steel walled gas station that arrived on our farm in piles of panels on the back of a flat bed truck, so that he could have a full size “shop” to work on indoor projects during the winter). It was sufficient for him to just to be able to say he had done it himself.
So as I study the look on my father’s face in these photos, I am startled to see my self looking back at me, like a reflection in the water. I now realize determination and utter stubbornness manifest in different ways. I have no mechanical skills whatsoever, but like my father, I always have a dream I’m pursuing, and I follow his broad shadow in that pursuit.
Thanks to my dad for showing me how to dive right into life and not waste a moment of it. The water’s still fine.
It was gray and drizzly the day you were born. November is too often like that–there are times during this darkening month when we’re never really certain we’ll see the sun again. The sky is gray, the mountain is all but invisible behind the clouds, the air hangs heavy with mist, woods and fields are all shadowy. The morning light starts late and the evening takes over early.
Yet you changed November for us that day. You brought sunshine to our lives. You smiled almost from the first day, always responding, always watching, ready to engage with your new family. You were a delight from that first moment we saw you and have been a light in our lives and so many other lives ever since.
I know this is your favorite kind of weather because you were born to it–you’ve always loved the misty fog, the drizzle, the chill winds, the hunkering down and waiting for brighter days to come.
November 15 was, and each year it still is, that brighter day.