Mothers often recall even the ordeal of childbirth joyfully. They hold their beautiful, healthy, living babies and chuckle to their friends, “Omigosh, my sweet little Mary! The surgeon cut me vertically right over my horizontal old C-section scar. So now it looks like a cross scar on my abdomen.” “Adam was my worst. Fifty hour labor. No epidural. I tore so badly! Look at his big, old, adorable head!”
Returning English warriors chanting No Nobis and Te Deum in a Shakespearean imagining of the return from Agincourt, could not have more beautiful pride in their victory and even the pain with which they fought.
The mother who gives birth to a stillborn, however bravely she endures it, however she trusts in God and unites her suffering to Christ on the Cross, she doesn’t and can’t find pleasure in that suffering, no matter how many years pass.
The Funeral of a Little Saint
Years ago, I went to the funeral of a little saint. She was the daughter of a friend of mine. I never had the honor of meeting her alive because she went to God the instant after she was baptized in dread haste. I remember seeing her lily and rose laden casket, so much smaller than it ever feels right for a coffin to be.
Her mother, my friend, stood calmly beside her husband, smiling graciously to guests. Her radiant smile didn’t even falter when she had to explain to one guest that newly postpartum bellies normally looked like blooming, pregnant ones.
I remember the soprano, a mutual dear friend of ours, rising and chanting the traditional hymn. It was not the Dies Irae, as is customary for baptized adults, but In Paradisum, sung for the heralding into Heaven of the innocent and stainless soul of a baptized baby. The chant trebles poignant hope to sweeten its tender melancholy. As she sung, solo and sotto voce, the chant reverberated in the bright, gilded sanctuary, bathed in the morning light, stilling us all.
For as long as I live, I will never forget that first wail from that poor mother, piercing that music. She bent over as if the floor was collapsing beneath her. Her silently weeping husband caught her and held her as she shook violently with sobs. The silence broken, their grief released ours and we all freely wept with them until the final notes of the hymn rose to the trembling flame of the red candle.
Wakes and funerals for infants are more subdued than other wakes. Even under usual circumstances of death, I am rendered quite dumb and witless. I remember uselessly stammering to my friend, “You are so, so very brave.” She smiled through her tears and said, “I know that she is with God, and eternally happy, but God knows I don’t feel brave. I don’t feel anything but glad that she’s at peace, and wishing that I could hold her once more.”
A Fearful Powerlessness
The mother may heal enough to recall with bitter-sweetness the brief moment she held her dead child that she carried so long within her and labored to bring into the world. But that kind of suffering doesn’t and isn’t supposed to bring pleasure. There is no battle scar sharing, no gallows humor in the story-telling, if she ever can come to speak of it at all. Some endurance never feels brave or glorious no matter how much time passes.
There is a fearful powerlessness in this suffering. There is no weapon to brandish, nothing with which to arm the hero. There is no visible adversary that you can blame, hurl flytings at or defeat. There is only the invisible, sometimes emotionally comfortless hope that steadies itself with faith.
The courage that is wrought from this pain often looks and feels more like weakness and helplessness. As weak and as helpless one might say, as a naked, lacerated corpse taken down from a gibbet and placed into the arms of His weeping mother.