It’s the 12th April. Does a date really make much difference? I find anniversaries funny things – on the one hand, rationally you know that it is just a day. The thing that you remember with joy or sadness is still as sweet or painful as it is on any other day. Yet you are more focussed, and everywhere there are small triggers. The type of weather. Writing the date. Looking back and counting the years, wondering, ‘What if?’, yet at the same time, realising that isn’t really a question, as all things are in the hands of a sovereign God who ordains times with perfection.
Five years ago today, we were just any other family with a nine week old baby. We got up and headed to the market, as we would on a Saturday morning. And whilst we were there, her heart stopped, and the rest of the day passed in a blur. Well, I say that, but perhaps that isn’t true. I could tell you in great detail exactly what happened during those minutes, those hours, the days and weeks that followed. I could tell you who was around, what people said, what I saw, how we felt, how we communicated with home, but would you really want to know that amount of detail? The fact is, five years on, there are probably very few people who realise that today was a day that changed our lives entirely. People may remember the day that she actually died (six weeks later, in a South African hospital, far from either of our homes, but surrounded by incredible love and support of Christians who drew alongside us). But today, for most people, is just a day like any other.
On 12th April we knew that even if our daughter survived, she would be likely to have major and long-lasting complications. We didn’t know exactly what had happened or why (we still don’t really) but we saw something more of just how fragile lifeis, for all of us. Although we had often considered the words of Psalm 139, of how we are ‘fearfully and wonderfully made’, we recognised anew just what a miracle it is for any child to be born healthy, to grow, to develop, to become a well-rounded person. We planned for life with a disabled child, for terminal illness, and finally for her death. There isn’t really a word for that. When a husband or wife dies, one becomes a ‘widow’. When both parents die, one becomes an ‘orphan’. When a child dies, perhaps particularly if it is the only child, what does one become then?
Why am I posting this on a blog which focuses on the holistic education of our children? Firstly, because it was an event which not only changed us, but which helped crystallize our priorities and perhaps give us the confidence to stick to our convictions even if this might be unpopular among our friends and relatives. When I was pregnant, we had already decided that both of us would work part time, and that one parent would always be home with our expected child, and any other children who came along. I remember at the time feeling that I got a lot of raised eyebrows at this point; I was an up-and-coming medical academic on a ‘prestigious’ research fellowship, and a full year of maternity leave followed by part-time working was not the ‘done’ thing. After she became ill, I laughed at my superficiality. Could I have really questioned that the privilege and responsibility of raising a family meant more than academic success, or not even success, but simply the approval of the senior academics in my university? My husband and I often talked about how children are viewed cheaply in today’s society; anybody can do your childcare for you, and a well educated professional can surely find many things of far more worth to do than to look after their own children.... You will know some of those arguments.
We came to recognise more than ever that one day we will stand and give an account before God on how we have administered the various gifts He has given us – our talents – and these will most certainly include the family for which he has given us responsibility. Does it matter what the world thinks? Jesus asked, ‘What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his own soul?’
Educating your children in the way you believe to be right is of greater importance than what the world may think. It is more important than career success. Popularity. The approval of those around you. Material wealth and prosperity. Leisure time. Having a neat and ordered house where you can cook gourmet meals for your friends. It is far greater. When you are standing next on an intensive care unit counting the number of tubes coming out of your child, you see some of these things more clearly than before.
At one point, either during her illness or after her death, I felt a clear decision to make. I could choose to let myself fall apart, to descend back into old habits of darkness, to turn away from the Lord of light. I could shut myself off from those around me, and allow bitter, self-pitying thoughts to fill my mind. Or, I could choose to embrace the life I have been given as a gift of God and use each and every day to serve Him. I remember thinking about what I would want for my own loved ones should I die unexpectedly, and although you cannot project sentiment onto a tiny baby, I wondered how my daughter would want us to live. There was a choice to make.
So five years later, how did I spend today? Rushing around, going to a hospital appointment, disciplining my three year olds (who seem to have got into some difficulties in going to bed well when my husband is working away), stopping the baby climbing into disasters, making meals, cleaning up mess, driving between two cities, reading stories, singing songs with actions, and perhaps occasionally wishing for a moment or two in which to be more reflective. The boys don’t know. They are quite happy to talk about the fact their sister lived and died, is now in heaven with God, that we often go to visit her grave, that it says on it, ‘All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be’, but that is pretty much it. They don’t see it as a particularly sad or tragic thing, and often will ask questions about her and then talk about something as random as trains, tractors or potatoes. That we know other friends who have had children die, and have worked in a couple of African countries where they know many young children would die just makes it seem a ‘normal’ thing to them. And that is great. I pray that as they grow, they will see heaven as being a very real place, with a real God, and the fact that their sister is already there ahead of them will be a tangible concept.
Life does move on, and things change. I would never have imagined, five years ago, that I would have three lively sons to keep me on my toes. I certainly would not have imagined I would have only sons, and no daughters. I would have perhaps liked a little time today, to visit her grave, to reflect a bit on her life – but at the same time, God has given me responsibilities and challenges today. I can’t bring my daughter back, but I can make a difference to how I raise the boys today. I can’t change what I feel I have lost, but I can endeavour not to throw away that which I have been given.
So as I reflect, at the end of a somewhat frustrating, exhausting day with the boys, I can remember what really matters in life. I can stand firm in the face of temptation and discouragement, remembering that one day I too will stand before the Lord and give an account for my life.