Our family has been making an effort to spend less time online these days, but the other morning – right before a full day of dropping two daughters at gymnastics, running errands, picking up a daughter’s friend, and taking five girls to the lake – I decided to take a quick peek at Facebook.
When I first saw the news headline that had been posted by three friends, my first thought was: That HAS to be a mistake. Or some kind of sick joke.
The news was that Ryan and Lora Smith, dear friends from our Berkeley days, had been killed along with their 4-year-old son, Caleb, in Georgia (the country, not the state.)
To say that they were dear friends may seem strange, since we hadn’t seen them in person since 2011 (aside from a Skype session I did with Lora back in 2014.) We’d met them in 2009 at our church in Berkeley and for a couple of years our worlds collided. Lora volunteered with Project Peace, the nonprofit I was working for at the time, and Ryan and my husband met several times to discuss both the business and spiritual aspects of Ryan’s future plans. Then they moved to Georgia in order to start ReWoven, and we moved to Vermont. Their family was out West, so whenever they returned to the States they flew right over us.
But there are some people with whom you continue to feel connected despite time and distance; the Smiths were like that. We kept up with them through their regular email updates: they were building relationships within their community and with Azeri rug weavers, they were so committed to Georgia that they became dual citizens, and just this past fall they finally moved into the house that they’d built in Marneuli.
Aside from these updates, Lora and I kept up an irregular email correspondence, mostly about things like childbirth and childrearing (since she seemed to assume I knew anything about either!)
If you’re getting the impression that Ryan and Lora were filled with light and life and love, you’d be correct. But they were also shadowed by death. Their first daughter, Shannon, died in 2012 at just nine days old. When Caleb was born in 2014, we all rejoiced. But then Lora suffered through several miscarriages – the most recent one this past September. I marveled at the strength and faith with which Lora handled these losses; despite her pain – or perhaps because of it – she poured herself into caring for other mothers and children. Still, I always hoped that she’d have some great, joyful miracle in her life – maybe another child, maybe something else – just anything to counter-balance the suffering. Because, you know, she deserved it.
Wouldn’t it be nice if life’s mathematics worked out so neatly?
What happened instead does not compute. It is senseless, violent, horrific, brutal. After I read the news, I took my daughters to gymnastics, ran errands, picked up friends, and went to the lake feeling like someone had punched me in the gut; I couldn’t breathe right. The lake was so lovely, with swallowtail butterflies flitting around and laying their eggs on the sand, and I couldn’t understand why the world wasn’t howling with anguish. Why didn’t the sky rain down fire at the moment of their deaths?
I still don’t understand. Just like I don’t understand why Lora lost her babies when so many of us were praying for them. And the only way I know how to process my lack of understanding is to sit in the discomfort of knowing that life’s mathematics are much more than what we can see or imagine.
Lora knew this, so I leave you with the words that she wrote to me after Shannon’s death:
I don’t know why, I guess it’s just a way I’ve looked at the world in a broad scope for so long. But I guess I’m an optomist at heart and have always looked at the ‘bright side’ of things. And never reaized until I’m writing this to you, that even in this, I am seeing the best part… Shannon in heaven, by-passing this life of ups and downs and getting to live and dwell in perfect love and peace forever. She’s lucky. I still want her here and to be her parent, but that’s not happening, and I’m having my own roller coaster of emotions with that fact.
I think these words express how so many of us are feeling about losing the Smiths. Below, I’ve also reposted something I wrote after Shannon’s death, which seems to still apply as we wrestle with “the best part” of this latest loss.
THOUGHTS AFTER A FIGHT
Some weeks, faith feels like the middle miles of a marathon, or the transition stage of childbirth, or 4:30 PM everyday in our house: when you say to yourself, “I just don’t think I’m going to make it.” This has been one of those weeks.
A beautiful baby’s fight ended this morning. We met her parents several years ago at our church in California. Around the same time we moved to Vermont, they moved overseas to work as missionaries — missionaries with a deep respect for their host culture, who wanted to know their community and be helpful in meaningful ways. Her mama started work as an English teacher at a local school, and her papa was researching various business ventures. Shortly after they moved, they sent out an email announcing the happy news that they were expecting their first child. And shortly after that, the trouble started: about halfway through the pregnancy, her mama started leaking amniotic fluid. She was put on bed rest and received various treatments, but things didn’t improve. Miraculously, despite low fluid levels, the baby continued to thrive. And then, about a week ago, their baby girl was delivered two months early. She was born with a systemic infection that affected her vital organs, and a lung condition that prevented oxygen from being absorbed into her bloodstream. This sweet newborn was put on a ventilator in intensive care, where she fought for her life. Hundreds of people all over the world were praying for her by this point. Her life ended today, at 9 days old.
Her parents’ faith, as expressed in their email updates, appears to be Teflon-strong. But then, they’ve been in the middle of a fight. I know from experience that, faith-wise, it’s often harder to watch a fight from the sidelines than to be one of the participants — at least while the fight’s going on. When you’re dodging blows and trying to land punches, you don’t have time to think about whether it’s fair.
Here’s what I think, though (not that anybody’s asking): What’s up with THIS, God?!? Here’s a faithful couple that’s just trying to do everything you told them to do — to love and serve others — and what did it get them? Stranded in a faraway country with a high risk pregnancy and a premature baby, THAT’S what it got them. This was your chance to pull out all the stops, move some mountains. Miracle Time! WHERE WERE YOU?!?
This type of situation is where my faith starts to fray. And I know I’m not alone. Of course, there’s lots of suffering in the world, and all of it is tragic. But when it’s a baby or young child who is sick, suffering, dying — someone who’s barely had the chance to live — what’s the point? I can’t think of anything more unjust. As a mother, I can barely process these stories, because they’re the worst of my worst-case scenarios. Then I look at my three healthy daughters, and it’s an embarrassment of riches. It’s. Just. Not. Fair.
Frankly, God doesn’t give me a whole lot of help here. One example of many, which we tend to gloss over in the joy of Christmas, is that a direct consequence of Jesus’s birth was the Slaughter of the Innocents: King Herod ordering that all babies under age two be killed. What’s up with THAT, God?!?
I have no good answers. I have nothing helpful to say to our friends, these mourning parents, other than: “I’m so sorry. We’re still praying for you.”
But it’s not all radio silence from God, either. Because, the same week that this baby girl was born, I happened to be reading Annie Dillard’s essay, “Teaching a Stone to Talk,” in which she writes:
It is difficult to undo our own damage, and to recall to our presence that which we have asked to leave….What have we been doing all these centuries but trying to call God back to the mountain, or, failing that, raise a peep out of anything that isn’t us?…At a certain point you say to the woods, to the sea, to the mountains, the world, Now I am ready. Now I will stop and be wholly attentive. You empty yourself and wait, listening. After a time you hear it: there is nothing there….There is a vibrancy to the silence, a suppression, as if someone were gagging the world.
Oddly, reading this passage started to reweave my fraying faith. Annie Dillard reminded me that when we wait for answers that don’t come, it’s not because that’s just how things are; it’s because things are wrong. People end up in trouble far from home, babies get sick and die, and nature itself is gagging.
Wait a minute, you may be thinking, that’s the GOOD news? Well, yes. That things are horribly wrong at this moment in history doesn’t disprove the existence of God, or his ultimate goodness. Because the wrong-ness of a baby having to fight for life, and of nature’s silence as recorded by Annie Dillard, IS answered, almost directly, by Isaiah 55:8-13 (This is for my mom: See, Mom, I’m listening!) I’m going to quote the entire passage, because it’s good stuff:
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. As the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it. You will go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and hills will burst into song before you, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands. Instead of the thornbush will grow the pine tree, and instead of briers the myrtle will grow. This will be for the Lord’s renown, for an everlasting sign, which will not be destroyed.”
I’ve mentioned before that Erick and I help our daughters — and ourselves — grapple with the unanswerable questions of sadness and fear by paraphrasing from The Return of the King: One day everything sad will come untrue. Praying for this baby, and then reading Annie Dillard and Isaiah, I realized that I often dwell in the everything sad, but I have so little vision for the will come untrue. Isaiah 55 helped me color in that vision a bit. Mountains and hills bursting into song? Trees clapping their hands? I tend to read that as poetic hyperbole, but what if it’s literal? I can hardly imagine singing mountains or clapping trees that don’t look like some corny CGI effect, and every day I see mountains and trees when I look out my window. What if that’s what actually happens when nature regains its voice?
And if mountains are singing and trees are clapping, what might this baby girl be doing on that day? You will go out in joy and be led forth in peace.
I usually forget to remember that when we pray, we’re praying for eternity. Not just for what will happen tomorrow, or next week, or next year. Our prayers stretch out of time through forever. My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways. God has all the time in the world to make wrong things right, sad things untrue. And when that’s what we’re praying for, I have to believe that the answer will always, eventually, be YES.
I took all the photos in this post during a 2007 trip down the California coast (I was pregnant with Fiona but didn’t know it yet). They seemed strangely to fit.