I haven’t known Gini long. She came to me when her son died. Gini’s brother is a longtime friend of mine and he sent her my book, The Messenger. She read it and emailed me. She wanted to drive down to Maryland (Gini lives in Pennsylvania) to meet me.
Gini’s son Andy had died about three months before. Raw and in fresh pain, Gini sat across from me at my kitchen table. We talked for almost four hours without stopping. Gini spent the night and drove home the next day. What we talked about wasn’t especially illuminating or comforting. We just talked about our children, Andy and Eddie.
What an unwanted sisterhood is ours! We would give anything not to have this in common. I have other friends like Gini and me. They also have survived. For one long, hard day after another, we wake to find ourselves still here, still breathing, still putting one foot in front of the other. In spite of ourselves. Even when it is not what we want. It’s a long, hard climb, and some of us don’t make it. Ever so often I think of my aunt Brydie and her son Woody, who was injured in a horrible car accident. She sat by his hospital bed for two days as he hung onto life. When he died, she saw the family through the funeral, and a few days later she died. Her heart broke and then it stopped. She had been a healthy person, never sick. There are people who can’t understand that, perhaps, but Gini and I can. My friends Brigitte and Sybil can.
Every species on earth is committed to the survival of the young. Birds, tigers, wolves, living things of the sea, air, and land are engaged in it as a primal, instinctive response to life. The death of a child is unnatural. Out of the order of things. Parents who suffer through this are not only consumed by unspeakable grief, they are also confused, disoriented, and guilty. If you’ve ever seen an animal in the presence of its dead young, you have seen that pain and confusion. This isn’t right, they are saying. Some howl. Some wail and cry. Others pace back and forth in sad bewilderment.
Instinctive behavior can be defined as follows: A relatively complex response pattern which is usually present in one or both sexes of a given species. These responses have a genetic basis, are essentially unlearned, and are generally adaptive. The instinct to preserve the child is in our genes. We are hard wired for the survival of our young, and those of us who survive the death of the young know the failure of that one, primal duty. We have borne the child in our body and have dedicated ourselves unwaveringly to its survival and to its thriving. And in that process, we come to know love like no other love. It is the love that is greater than ourselves, the love that would gladly place us in the path of death so that the child might live. The grief that comes from that loss is what we have left – that and the sad, awful bewilderment of Nature gone horribly wrong.
I believe we must turn to something greater, something infinitely wiser than ourselves, if we are to withstand this earthly pain. I believe now that there is no wrong in Nature, and that the soul chooses its coming and its going. We cannot alter that timing, even for our child, for it is his and his alone. I have also come to understand that death is not what it seems to be. Like the trees and flowers that sleep in the winter and come to life in the spring, so do our children sleep and come to life in the place of Spirit, as shall we.
Gini invited me to come to Pennsylvania to visit Longwood Gardens with her, and last weekend, I went. There in all its springtime glory, was life surrounding us, life and beauty and the irrefutable evidence that death is not concrete, nor is it solid or permanent. There was peace there, where life was beginning again. And Eddie and Andy were there with us.