For technical reasons, there is no reflection on the lectionary readings this week. Instead, we offer “The Cradle and the Coffin”, by Gayle Somers, a version of which appeared in the Wall Street Journal on December 23rd, 2018.
During my pregnancy with our first child, my husband decided to build a cradle. It was the old-fashioned kind; it looked like a long box set on rockers. It was simple and cozy. When our daughter was born, we tucked her into it and kept it in motion with the tip of a foot. She outgrew it within three months, but it was her first place of the sweet, innocent sleep of infancy. We stored it away for future use.
That future use arrived on the day we placed our son in it, a little over four years later. His was a considerable presence within its narrow walls, because he weighed nine and a half pounds at birth and measured twenty-three inches long. He was beautiful, a dumpling of a baby, and a very good sleeper. It had taken me longer than I’d hoped to get pregnant again, so I loved to watch him lie there, drinking in his little body from head to toe, so thankful to have given birth to him.
Flash forward thirty-three years. Another day arrived when I stood next to a long box, another resting place for my son. This time, however, it was his coffin. And this time, as I drank in the visage of his body from head to toe, grown now to over six feet, his was the sleep of death. I had never realized how similar the body positions are between a swaddled, sleeping baby and a suited, arms-folded-across-the-chest dead man. Not many parents, thank God, have seen a child lie in both his cradle at birth and his coffin at death. I have. What have I learned?
When, this spring, I stood next to our beautiful son in his cradle-like coffin, I felt I was in the presence of all that had taken him from his first wooden box to his last. He died of an accidental drug overdose—cocaine that was laced, unbeknownst to him, with deadly fentanyl. That dumpling baby grew into the dearest of boys—sweet, tenderhearted, with a gifted intellect. We were beyond thankful to have a son like him, in addition to our two daughters, one older, one younger than he. In his teen years, he got entangled in drugs, and for 14 years, he fought, often valiantly, to be free of his demons. Those years were full of pain and suffering for him and for us—unimaginable, frightening pain. And just when we thought he had broken through to true sobriety, after years of rehabs and relapses, enabling him to enter family life wholeheartedly, redeeming his relationship with his sisters and their families, darkness closed in again on him. Fentanyl blew out his insides; he was dead on the spot.
As I had gazed on him years ago, my baby boy, safe in his cradle, I remember being full of the joy and dreams for a newborn that seem to instantly fill a mother’s head and heart. Could I have possibly imagined what lay ahead for him, for us? Was it a mercy that I couldn’t? Sometimes I have been thankful there isn’t the equivalent of genetic testing for seeing what a child’s future life holds. All parents instinctively shrink from the excruciating expectation of a child’s suffering and, inevitably, their own as they watch it. Genetic testing can only see into a narrow part of a child’s medical health; if its results point toward such a fate, some parents are so frightened they decide to spare the child and themselves by ending his life in the womb. I truly understand this temptation, yet, because of having lived the length of my son’s life, I still consider that a tragic way to think.
I know my husband and I, as parents of a newborn, had no expectation of the suffering we and our whole family would experience through my son’s addiction nightmare. We had nothing but delight in his appearance on earth, in our family, in our arms. Our home is full of photos of him growing up. They recall happy memories of laughter, adventure, pride. Love came easily for a boy like him.
When his troubles began, we felt like the walking dead; actually, we had been enrolled in the school of unconditional, self-sacrificing love. Had anyone asked me if I had that kind of love when I tipped that cradle with my foot to keep him asleep, I would not have hesitated to answer, “Of course!” By the time I stroked his hair and face for the last time, half-hoping that somehow my touch would awaken, not keep him asleep in that last cradle, I knew I had learned about real love, through learning to love him during all his troubles. I finally understood that the unbounded love parents experience for their newborns is meant as a beginning, not an end. Sometimes our children, either in childhood or as adults, will undergo extreme suffering, perhaps from disease, disability, their own choices, the consequences of the actions of others, etc. I have known parents who gave birth to apparently healthy, robust babies and have watched them, in the course of things, suffer. They developed muscular dystrophy, autism, leukemia, a life-ending brain infection, schizophrenia, committed suicide, or suffered drug addiction. Interestingly, none have ever regretted giving birth to them. All of us would say that, even had we known what lay ahead for our children and ourselves, a greater tragedy than giving birth would have been if we’d never allowed them to see the light of day. Instead, we welcomed them, naively, into our families, the human family. We gave them names, and then, one day, we began to learn how to do what parents will always need to be able to do—love without limits, comfort during the pain, not shrink from the suffering, give thanks for the gifts our children are to us.
For me, the coffin was the touchstone of what began at the cradle—a parent’s love that grows to become stronger than death.
Copyright Gayle Somers 2018. All Rights Reserved.
May not be reproduced or distributed in any form without the express written consent of the author.