Since today is Holy Friday, Kh. Krista takes a departure from her usual topics of vestments and beauty in the Church and gives a meditation on motherhood and death.
Hello and welcome to The Opinionated Tailor Talks Shop. Since today is Great and Holy Friday, I am going to depart from my usual topic of vestments and beauty in the Church and share with you some thoughts on death and motherhood that were prompted by a tragedy in my own parish. A number of years ago, a family in our parish lost their baby to a rare heart condition. The death was sudden and unexpected, taking all of us by surprise. After funeral I wrote the following thoughts. The names have been changed to protect the privacy of the family.
Today I went to a funeral. I go to a lot of funerals. I’m not morbid, just an Orthodox “presbytera” or priest’s wife and it’s part of my duty as the symbolic mother of a parish community. But today I went to a funeral that I will never forget. Today, we buried a baby.
Friday morning, my husband was unexpectedly called away. I didn’t think much of it because my husband’s vocation is dealing with crises. Births, deaths, divorce, family emergencies—the river of our life flows peacefully and somewhat normally around other people’s rocks. Several hours later, my husband called. “Hi, dear”, I said cheerfully, “What’s up?” He didn’t answer for a moment and then when he did, he sounded quiet and tired. “Mirna and George’s baby died this morning.” “Oh my God”, I responded, in the truest sense of the phrase, calling upon God for His help in this unexpected and terrifying event.
After I became a mother, all detachment about any harm to a child, any child, evaporated as quickly as sleeping in and time to myself. But nobody warned me about this side effect of motherhood. Shortly after the birth of my first child, I was reading the paper and saw an article about an abused child. I instantly started weeping. It was as if there was now a highway to my heart where once had been a winding country road. Now, I tread warily around newspaper articles and anti-child abuse billboards, wanting to keep that semi-truck of pain from coming down the highway at breakneck speed.
But here was the semi-truck and the driver was my husband. “What?… Why?”, I finally stammered. “We’re not sure, she had a fever yesterday and they were able to get it down before she went to bed. Mirna checked on her at 2am and she was fine. She checked again at 4am and…” he leaves the sentence hanging. I can fill it in only too well. “They want to have the funeral tomorrow.” “OK”, I say, hanging up. I explain to my 4-year-old daughter that baby Rose has gone to be with Jesus and Panagia in heaven and that we need to say the Memorial Prayers. I start to sing the first verse of the prayers and am struck silent with emotion. I feel my daughter tense up at her mother’s pain and I realize that I must be strong so that I don’t scare her.
I usually take my two small daughters to funerals. After all, it’s a part of their father’s life and I want them to feel connected to what he does as well as not fear death. I know that from a developmental point of view, children don’t comprehend that they themselves can die until they reach their pre-adolescent years. And I want my girls to see the complete journey of life—they go to the hospital when a baby is born, they go to baptisms and weddings, why shouldn’t they be able to go to a funeral? But today, I send them to my mother-in-law’s while I go the funeral. This child’s funeral is not for children.
I walk into the mostly full church and go to my pew. I feel eerily still, not sure what to do with my hands after four years of taking care of busy children in church. I look to the center aisle and there I see it—an open coffin, not even 3 feet long. My breath is taken away and I start crying—I didn’t know coffins came that small. With frustration, I realize I don’t have any Kleenex (what sort of priest’s wife forgets Kleenex at a funeral?) and it’s actually this frustration that keeps me from completely breaking down during the service—I can’t because I don’t have a Kleenex. I see the mother sitting just steps away from the coffin and I imagine myself sitting there with my two-year-old in the coffin, inches and yet worlds away from me. I’ve always held my babies, eschewing infant carriers for slings and front packs, wanting them near me, wanting them close. And I can’t fathom being that close to my baby and not being able to touch or hold her.
Being a priest’s wife, I often know the people involved in a tragedy or crisis without being very emotionally involved with them. Usually one of the first to hear bad news, I approach a funeral service with a feeling of distance—what right have I to emotionally overact to someone else’s pain? But with each funeral I find myself sharing the family’s grief, crying not for the loss of the loved one (although sometimes that is so), but rather at the beauty and depth of the love evinced by the grief. My blood-ties are skimpy at best and I’m always just a little in awe of the enormity of love a family shares. But today it is different. Today this is my grief, too because it seems a universal injustice to lose a baby. During the sermon my husband comments that a baby’s death appears to be a complete reversal of the proper order of things. Children are supposed to bury their parents, not the other way around. This is wrong, really wrong, and I feel spiritually dizzy, desperately trying to find solid ground. But even the ground seems to cry out at the wrongness of this death, at the sheer backwardness of it, and I think of Great and Holy Friday and of the Lamentations, “How, O Life canst thou die? In a grave how canst dwell?”
About the middle of the service, I am struck by all of the mothers I see around me, ones that I would not label emotional—these are tough Middle Eastern women who don’t cry. And they are all crying with abandon, not caring about their makeup or their red eyes. It suddenly hits me—this is what we’re all afraid of, this is what every mother is afraid of. When our children take a tumble, when they’re sick, when we leave them with a grandparent or baby-sitter—this is our fear: that they will die. And here are all of us mothers in one church looking at our fear. We’re not taking a passing glance, either; we are standing in a church for over an hour with our fear. And we are weeping. We are like an echo of the Myrrhbearing Women, attendant at a death that should not be.
As the service comes to a close we are dismissed to view the casket and give our condolences to the family. The baby looks peaceful as if she’s just been laid down for her morning nap. She’s beautiful and perfect with her creamy cheeks, rosebud mouth, and dark curls peeking out from her pristine white bonnet. The mother and father are hollow, deep within themselves, most of their tears gone. The aunts and uncles are weeping unabashedly. Seeing grown men weep openly and honorably is one the most amazing sights I have ever seen—men use tears for the pure and practical purpose of expressing a grief that is too deep for words. As I pass through the line, I just look into their eyes, not even able to say, “I’m sorry”.
I walk to the back of the church and turn to wait for my husband. The mother is sitting in a pew with the family grouped around her and I suddenly realize that she is holding the baby. I am surprised, but grateful for the funeral director’s compassion (and understand it when I learn later that he has two small children). She looks like the Theotokos in the epitaphios (the embroidered icon of the burial shroud of Christ), her body curved around the baby as if she was a human couch. I notice that everyone has remained in the back, watching the mother and child sitting just below the icon of the Mother and Child. We are nailed into place, fastened to the ground through this grief. It is amazing and terrifying and we can’t take our eyes off it. The mother doesn’t want to give the baby up and my husband has to coax her to lay the baby in the coffin. He says the final prayers over the baby and I notice the mother’s hand on my husband’s back and how she is trying to touch the baby through him. The funeral director closes the coffin and we in the back suddenly seem able to move and breathe again. We walk sadly to the hall next door to partake of the Mercy meal. No one wants to eat, but we finally remember that it is our turn to show mercy by eating—if we eat, the family must eat. They probably haven’t eaten for at least 24 hours and they will need their strength to get through the days ahead.
After the meal, I go to pick up my daughters at my mother-in-law’s. As I walk in the door, they are happily playing with their dolls and hardly notice me. I want to hold them and not say anything. My sensitive four-year-old knows that something sad has happened and she stands by me, looking into my face to know that everything is all right. I tell her I love her and she hangs onto me for a few minutes and then runs off to play.
We ride home and I put the two-year-old down for her nap. I read for awhile with my older daughter, wanting to feel her close, wanting to know she’s alive. For the rest of the day, I have that worn-out feeling you get after a lot of crying. My eyes hurt and I seem to move slower than usual. I remember the prayer of Metropolitan Philaret of Moscow, “…teach me to treat all that comes to me throughout the day with peace of soul and with the firm conviction that Your Will governs all….”. I think of my husband’s sermon and his reminder of the Beatitudes: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” I think of baby Rose, seeing God.
On this Great and Holy Friday, I wish you all the grace and beauty of our Lord, praying that you may also see God.