To Lose a Child

We are programmed to think that our children will always outlive us, aren’t we? It is in the natural order of things to believe that our children will be around to bury us. In the white, upper middle class or middle class suburbs of Chicago, we can’t conceive of any other way–even though thoughtless and random violence claims the innocent lives of children in the inner city every day.

It just doesn’t happen to us.

But, let me tell you the story of a mother who lost her young son, not to violence, but to complications arising from the treatment of cancer. It is as equally a tragic story as if her child was taken from her by violent means, which, in a way, he was.

There was a woman that I worked with at the accounting firm that employed me, who I collaborated with in tallying up the votes for election to the National Radio Hall of Fame, a project which I led each year at the firm. That is basically the only time that I talked with her–several times during the course of this project once a year–to see that it got correctly done. She was an extremely competent accountant, who served as the project manager for this assignment.  She is a very quiet and private person–so, we didn’t “chit-chat” very much, other to say hello, as we passed each other in the corridors of the firm. Oh, we had a few conversations about “what’s the meaning of life”, and, “what’s going on at the firm”, as we’d walk to and from the Radio Hall of Fame site location–but, nothing out of the ordinary.

We weren’t particularly close. She left the firm a couple of years before I did to take another job in accounting that was closer to her home.  She had three young boys–and, her husband was leaving an engineering job to take a position teaching math in an elementary school–something, I understand, that he always wanted to do.

About a month after I left the firm, I was sitting a table in the library of the real estate consulting firm, where I have my office.  (It’s a firm that I helped to found some years ago–but, that’s another story). The library served as my temporary office, until they could move me into one of their more permanent offices. I had my computer on, and–lo and behold–an email pops up from this woman. That’s the interesting thing about email, you know. A message all of a sudden can pop up ( You’ve got mail!) that you never expected.

She politely asked me how my new consulting firm was doing (not very well at that point, thank you), and then told me that she had severe rheumatoid arthritis. But, but, then she dropped the bomb. She told me that her son, who was eleven years old, and an avid swimmer, had cancer, and asked me to pray for him.

It took me about five seconds after reading this to pick up the phone and call her at her office. (She laughed and said, “You don’t waste any time, do you)? I asked her all kinds of questions about her son. And, then, knowing that she was a devout Catholic, we talked a lot about the roll of faith in the face of crisis.

We talked quite frequently, sometimes daily, after that. I never saw her. But, as the days and weeks rolled by, our phone conversations became more deeply spiritual, even though, at times, I succeeded in making her laugh. We talked about the mystery of life, God’s plan for us, and how we were made to know, love, and serve God in this life, and be happy with Him in the next.  We talked an awful lot about God’s will, and how we, with our finite minds, can’t fathom why God, in His infinite wisdom,  would allow this terrible affliction to occur in an innocent child.

The Jesuitical theology and philosphy that I learned from those brilliant teachers and priests on the heights of the east side of Cleveland so many years ago was really flowing in me now. I could hear the terror in this woman’s voice. And, I was doing all that I could to conquer that terror with the comfort and wisdom of God’s words, as best as I could recall them.

Those of you who know me will laugh at this next statement. But, it was slowly dawning on me, as our conversations continued on, that I was, day-by-day, becoming this woman’s priest–a woman that I had not seen since she left the firm, and that I hardly knew.

The months came and went, and our conversations continued. And, then, one day, I got an early morning email from her personal email address (not her office, which seemed strange), saying that she couldn’t find my phone number, and to call her at home.

Fearing the worst, I called her, when I got into the office. Her mother answered the phone, and said that she was out for a bit, and that she would call me, when she returned.  Now, I knew that something was wrong. I left my cell phone number, saying that I was going to be out of the office at an appointment, but that she could call anytime. I said a silent prayer, and left for my appointment.

As I was coming back to the office after my appointment, my cell phone rang. I was on LaSalle St. but ducked into an office building lobby, so that I could hear better.  As I feared, it was her–sobbing. Her son had a heart attack while undergoing chemotherapy at the hospital, and died instantly. While it was difficult to talk (it was still noisy in the lobby), I told her that this was the ultimate test of her faith, and to put herself in God’s hands.  I tried to remind her that it is God’s will that’s important, not ours.

The words did not come easily. I felt very inadequate. I struggled that maybe I didn’t say the right words to comfort her. But, I tried my best–at least at that moment.

I went to the funeral, which, as you might guess, was a catastrophically sad event.  I sat in the back of the church, so that I could observe what was happening. It also seemed to be the beat place for quiet contemplation and prayer.

Soon, the procession arrived from the funeral home–family, friends, and the young man’s classmates. The woman who lost her son could not even walk up the church isle on her own. She had to lean on her mother, who propped her up, much as if a branch had tumbled from a tree, and was leaning against the trunk for support. Her husband followed behind, carrying their youngest son, while holding the hand of their middle son, who seemed perplexed by what was going on.

Mass started–and, the priest, who seemed like a kind and gentle man, tried to give the best homily (sermon) that he could, I supposed, but said basically the same things that I had been saying to this woman for months. I must admit that I was pleased about this. I had gotten my theology right–or, at lest according to this priest, I did.

At the conclusion of the service, the pall bearers escorted the casket from the church, followed by this woman, who, being totally grief stricken by this time, was literally being dragged by her mother back down the isle of the church. When she came to me, standing in the pew at the rear of the church, she lifted her head for what could have not been more than a second, and looked at me. In that instant, that second, I peered into her eyes, and saw something that I had never seen before–the untold, devastating sorrow of a mother who had lost her child.  That vision haunts me to this day.

I went out to the cemetery. I walked over to the casket, suspended above the grave, and stood opposite this woman and her family. I looked this woman in the eyes, again, as if to say, “Be strong. You can do this now.”  The priest said some final prayers, with each family member placing a rose on top of the casket. The priest blessed the casket one final time–and, then it was over.

On the way back to my car, this woman’s husband came up to me. I said to him, “I’m so sorry.” And, he replied, “You know that she couldn’t have gone through this without you, don’t you? You got her through this. I’m so glad that you’re here.”

I was stunned by his comment, and said nothing.

As I approached my car, I saw this woman getting into her family’s van. I walked over to her–and, she held out her arms to embrace me. I gave her a hug and a kiss on the cheek. I whispered in her ear, “I’m so sorry.” She replied softly, “I know.” And, then I said, “We can talk, if you want.” She simply replied, “OK.”

But, we never did. I have neither spoken with her, nor seen her, since.

“The human heart is not always capable of regeneration after it has been torn apart by the loss of a loved one.”

–From a recent book review in The Wall Street Journal

“What made us dream that he could comb grey hair?”

–A quote from that great Irish poet, W. B. Yeats, in his poem, In Memory of Major Robert Gregory. (A paraphrase of this quote has been used recently in eulogies for Senator Edward Kennedy, who, alone among his brothers, “lived to comb grey hair.”

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