There were lots of ribbons and bows. But it wasn’t about the gifts. It was about the pure, untrammeled beauty of a little girl celebrating her first birthday, just waking up to the pleasures of pink party hats, presents to open, a spoonful of ice cream, a bite of cake. We gathered round the living room, cousins and aunts and uncles and grandparents, neighbors and friends, snapping photos and marveling: just a year ago, Angelique arrived in our midst; today she is an essential member of the family, this powerful pint-sized personality exquisitely packaged and growing up before our eyes. On the verge of walking, tossing her new red ball, laughing at her three-year-old big brother Gabriel, reveling in her moment. Brief as my tiny niece’s time on earth has been, it’s hard to even remember what the world was like before she was in it.
Then: my husband’s buzzing cell phone, a relentless caller, Steve finally giving in, disappearing down the hall, returning with news to whisper in my ear. A car crash, an eighteen-year-old girl dead.
Two weeks ago, Steve gave the graduation speech at High Mowing, Henry’s alma mater. Huddled under umbrellas, our family watched as the soaked, exuberant seniors tossed their caps in the air, whooped, and hugged one another before turning to receive congratulations from the crowd.
How quickly a moment turns upon itself, from joy to grief, from light to dark, from life to death. How to hold, on the bright summer afternoon of a child’s first birthday, the sudden, senseless death of another child, just coming into her young adulthood?
You put an arm around your own seventeen-year-old son, pull him close, and give silent thanks for his life. You say a private, wordless prayer for a family devastated by loss. You see in your mind’s eye a photograph of a lovely girl with long brown hair, laughing as she danced with her classmates around the May Pole. You try to understand how it is that such a girl, with all her life to live before her, could so suddenly be gone. You carry forks and plates out to the porch, hug your dad, and watch your kid brother, now a father of two, cook the burgers on the grill. You smile when your sister-in-law sweeps her beautiful children into her arms and kisses their round, fat cheeks, and you choose to spare her the day’s dose of grief.
All week, I’ve been wondering: how are we meant to do this? How can we learn to carry both the preciousness of life and the inevitability of death in our hearts at the same time? At the end of Thornton Wilder’s play “Our Town,” Emily, who has died in childbirth, is given the opportunity to return to earth and live one day of her life over again. She deliberately chooses an ordinary day, her twelfth birthday — a day of eggs and bacon cooking, sunflowers in the garden, a postcard album from the boy next door, something on the table wrapped in yellow paper that once belonged to her grandmother. To Emily, now an outsider looking in at the life she once took for granted, every minute detail of this long-since forgotten day is cause for delight and heartbreak. So clearly does she see the fleeting, ineffable beauty of what is. So urgent is her wish for connection, meaning, recognition. But her distracted mother — rushing around to get breakfast on the table and her children hustled off to school — is oblivious. Gently, appealing to her mother to wake up and really see her, Emily implores, “Just for a moment now we’re all together–Mama, just for a moment, let’s be happy. Let’s look at one another.”
I have read this soliloquy so many times over the years — never without tears in my eyes — that I pretty much know it by heart. And yet, again and again, I have to remind myself: Just for a moment now, we’re all here. Just for a moment, let’s be happy. Let’s look at each other.
And so on Sunday afternoon, with a heart full of sadness and confusion and gratitude all mixed up together, I did the best I could. I looked at our big extended family — my brother and sister-in-law and all her folks; my petite, feisty niece and my earnest, easy-going nephew, my own dear parents, my husband of twenty-two years, our six-foot-tall son. When Henry called in from his summer job in Maine, we passed the phone around. Three-year-old Gabriel ate the first hamburger of his life. Angelique tolerated her party hat. Plates were filled, food eaten, pink frosted cupcakes handed out to all takers.
“Oh earth,” Emily cries when she can bear the poignance of her visit no longer, “you’re too wonderful for anyone to realize you!” Turning to the wise, omniscient Stage Manager, she asks, “Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it–every, every minute?”
“No,” he says quietly. And then, “Saints and poets maybe–they do some.”
How I aspire to be one of those poets. To allow myself to know the ache of sadness, but to remember as well that life offers us good reason in each and every day to be lovestruck. To learn to see by learning to write. To “realize life,” as Emily would say, by truly inhabiting every moment that’s granted me, without ever holding on too tight to what’s already passing, changing, turning into some new, endlessly surprising present.
Mary Oliver is surely our patron saint and poet both. Reading her words, I get a sense of what it might mean to let experience flow freely through an open heart, suffused with the tenderness of true compassion.
To live in this world
you must be able
to do three things
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go
Happy first birthday dear Angelique. Peace be with you dear Abby. And the world spins on.