Many years ago, I found myself driving a long distance with a woman from my office. I didn’t know her well—she worked in another department—but I liked her. I knew that she was pregnant and that there was something tragic about the pregnancy, but I didn’t know what. We had just come from a two-day office retreat; both of us were tired and eager to get home.
We spoke of this and that, and then she began telling me about the pregnancy. She said that she and her husband were excited to learn early on that they were expecting twins. Around the third month, they went to get their first sonogram. But she said that as she lay there, the technician began waving the scanner up and down her belly, up and down, up and down, and adjusting the machine. Then he excused himself to go get the doctor. They sat, waiting for him, holding hands, uncertain. It was the longest wait, she said. The doctor came in and moved the scanner up and down, up and down. Finally he said that he was sorry, but one of the babies had spina bifida. He showed them the image, tracing the baby’s spine, and explained that it was doubtful the child would ever walk.
The couple went home, looked around, and decided to sell their townhouse because, she said, they didn’t want the child to ever feel excluded by the stairs. And then they broke open and wept.
They called their family members to share the news, and the family reached out with love. Some put the baby on their church’s prayer list. Others started researching spina bifida, wheelchairs and equipment. The whole family pitched in to support them.
The couple kept up with the medical visits. Each time, the news seemed to be worse. One baby was thriving normally, but the other wasn’t. Finally, when the woman was about seven months pregnant, the baby died.
And now, we were driving together on unfamiliar roads in the dark, going home—she carrying one dead child and one live one, and me with a head and heart full of sorrow and confusion. I opened my mouth to say something to her, but what?
I could say I was sorry, and I was sorry. My heart was full of sorrow for this family. But that sorrow seemed to be all about me, not her. How could my sorrow possibly be comforting to her?
I could tell her some platitudes about how this was for the best because of all the developmental issues. But that seemed so arrogant to me. How could I really know that this was best? And why would I tell a mother who had just lost her child that death was the best option? That answer seemed both wrong and cruel.
I could tell her that with time—a lot, a lot, a lot of time—she might not feel quite as awful as she felt right now. That might even be the truth. But it also seemed like the kind of thing I would say to comfort myself rather than her. I hated to think of the pain she must have been in, and wanted instead to imagine a point at which it all eased.
So I opened my mouth with no good words to say. Then I heard myself telling her that I didn’t really understand the nature of God, but that it seemed to me that God wasn’t much interested in time. Whether a person was here for an hour or 100 years didn’t seem important to God. What was important, it seemed, had something to do with love. And I told her what was quite clear from her story—that this child had evoked a great deal of love in his short life, had become a gathering place and a focus for the family’s love. And that struck me as a very holy place.
These words, which did not seem to originate with me, felt very true, and I have clung to them.
Later, I worked for a hospice for the homeless in Washington, D.C. My first day on the job, a woman who we’ll call “Shelly” came to us. Shelly was 23 years old, a mother of two children. She’d been infected with AIDS as a child. I learned that she’d been at the hospice before and had responded beautifully to the tender mercies of that community, so much so that she’d become well enough to go home and try to resume her life. Now, many months later, someone called from the hospital’s emergency room to say that Shelly was sick and there was nothing more that could be done for her. She was dying. Could we pick her up?
The staff leaned into this call, swinging by a grocery store to pick up a big box of Captain Crunch (Shelly’s favorite), and raced to be at her side. They carried her upstairs to a private room and covered her tiny body with soft blankets. They called her children’s father and arranged for their care. They found a lawyer who could come and legalize her wishes for the children.
The staff did a 24-hour vigil, staying by Shelly’s side, offering ice chips and hot rice socks, rubbing her feet. They watched Shelly struggle to ensure a future for her kids, to say goodbye to the family members who came, to hunker down and prepare for death. They were with her the afternoon she entered that space between life and death, matching their breathing with hers until the last one came. Then they washed her body and put a candle in her window. They told me what a good teacher she had been to them. They spoke about her courage and determination. And they wept.
It was the same as my friend’s child, I realized—a life cut mysteriously short, yet serving as the target of love.
I don’t know if God can tell time, but I have come to believe that time doesn’t much matter to God. I believe the love of God pours down on us, and that we can open to it. The place where that happens—where we break open and love—is a holy place. It can happen over many years, or months, or days. It can happen now.