“What would God want with a twenty-four-year old? A young man that has—had—his whole life in front of him?” A man sitting next to me at a committee meeting posed the question to the woman in front of me.
The boy he referred to recently died in an accident that involved a recreational vehicle. Preliminary police reports purport that alcohol might have played a part in the fatal event. I have overhead numerous individuals, even asked the question, myself, was the boy who died drinking, as well? But as those words entered my mind, the prevailing thought surfaced: alcohol or not, a person has died in a tragic accident. And a family grieves. The driver lost a friend, and possibly his future freedom. Two families grieve. Friends grieve. A fiancé grieves. The young man’s unborn child will grieve in years to come.
Sadly, this type of event is not uncommon. Last year, in my small town, another unborn child lost his father to an accident, one that had nothing to do with alcohol, but yet, another careless mistake that intersected with an arbitrary incident. My daughter came upon the scene as emergency workers arrived to reroute traffic. Around that same time, a father and his unborn daughter died in a motorcycle accident. In a matter of minutes, one woman lost her husband and child.
On that day, as with the recent event in my area, countless others worldwide experienced similar fates, their stories unfolding in nearly identical ways. Happy, sad, indifferent, it matters not. No matter where one is in this world, any moment he or she experiences is mirrored by the happenings of innumerable others.
“I don’t believe God chose for that boy to die that way. I believe the death was the result of our free will, a freak accident, perhaps, but not God’s choosing or direction. I believe God was there with the young man, and he is crying with the families, now. God doesn’t choose or create such heartbreak.” I said those things to the man sitting at a desk next to me. He listened to what I had to say, without comment or visible reaction. Almost on cue, our business meeting began.
This morning, I read a clip about a graduating Valedictorian, whose father died in the recent Ohio tornadoes. At least six others perished in that storm. This afternoon, I happened upon Oprah’s interview with the parents and eldest sibling of Amanda Knox, the girl tried and convicted of brutally murdering her friend in Italy. Within the last week, I’ve seen many headlines pertaining to loss: the man who one millions for a wrongful conviction after serving eighteen years in prison; the employees who’ve recently lost their jobs as result of the ongoing oil spill; celebrity “splitzvilles,” as the tabloids call well-publicized breakups. (Would more media please share the relationship successes, like the marriage of Will and Jada Pinkett Smith, Julia Roberts, and others like them?) Individuals and communities grieve, often separately, yet in unison.
And, again, countless others are entering the journey of loss and healing, a route that will stretch and compress, surge up and down, wind back and forth. At times the motion feels as if it is wringing us out, depleting us of life. At times the movement is a mere swell in our lives, and, yet, at other moments, an inner stillness will prevail.
Eight-and-a-half years ago, my daughter’s kitten died, suddenly. One minute he was in the yard playing, and the next, I heard a sharp cry. When I located him beneath the bush in our front yard, drool dribbled from between his lips. Within minutes he could barely support his weight. Weeks prior, someone had thrown a bag of three kittens, over a bridge near our home. We rescued the roughly six-weeks-old Oliver, an orange stripe. One of only two to survive the fall. My daughter named him. The two became inseparable. He, her pet, and, she, his human. They played, watched TV, and slept together. She wanted to make a place for him at the dinner table. I drew the line: No Fancy Feast cats in my house.
That evening is forever etched in my memory. Our son’s class was presenting their fourth grade play less than an hour from the onset of whatever struck the cat. I saw no signs of injury, though a car had passed moments before I heard the howl. I called a veterinarian friend, but the kitten’s condition deteriorated, literally before my eyes. I set up a cozy bed of towels in our bathroom and placed the kitten in the quiet room, hoping against hope that he would somehow recover, yet recognizing he would likely be dead upon our return.
My wise, eight-years-old daughter, screamed to the heavens when I told her he had passed. “Why!? Why would he survive being thrown over a bridge and then die like this?! It’s not fair.”
That is the first time I felt my heart break for one of my children. She wailed as we walked toward the tree at the field’s edge, a magnificent oak where we have laid to rest our deceased pets. How could I help her understand? How could I explain death when I, myself, continued to grapple with it? Wracking sobs filled her young body. I sat down in the middle of the meadow, drew my daughter’s back to me, and rocked her as I beckoned my soul to produce words of comfort.
A gust of warm wind kicked up, swirled around us, and delivered this message through me: “Did you feel that? I think that breeze was Oliver’s spirit going up to heaven.”
She had felt the same gentle wind, and seemed to find some reassurance in its gentleness. She spent the next two years indiscriminately drawing pictures of two crying creatures. She created story book after story book of a happy beginning and a heartrending ending. She colored them orange and blue. She stapled the pages. She bound them. An eight-year-olds memoir. And she continued to sob as she asked that eternal, oft unanswered “Why?”
“Oliver knows how much he was loved. He had such a happy life with you here on earth. How blessed he was that we were here to provide and care for him, to have a little girl who showered him with so much affection. I believe those are the things he remembers. You gave him a very special love, and he loved you back.” I tried to help her return to the joys they had shared, without minimizing her pain. As the two-year mark approached, I spoke with her doctor, fearing her expression of sorrow had gone on a bit long.
The doctor asked a few questions and assured me my daughter was working through her grief. She felt I simply needed to continue to be observant and supportive.
My daughter had begun to incorporate fewer teardrops and more smiles on hers and the cat’s faces. Little by little, she added more color to the flowers, the sun-filled sky. I plodded along with her as she toddled through her first intimate experience with death.
From time to time, Oliver will insert himself into some story being retold, some joy we are reminiscing. The bodies of two other beloved animals have since joined him at the base of the tree. The spirits, however, continue to dance as zephyrs across our land. Nature’s elegant, poignant grace.