The silence of the doctor matched the darkness on the screen. He kept moving the wand around but darkness looks the same from every angle.
“I’m sorry. It looks like you lost him about three weeks ago.”
Keldy’s eyes started to well up. We held it together through all the formalities of getting the hell out of there, but the moment we stepped outside Keldy burst into tears, soaking my shoulder with her grief. We stood in a stale breezeway and fell into each others’ arms, trying to embrace the black hole between us but only ever arriving at infinite distances. No breeze ever came.
For Keldy, it was a moment filled with the pain I suppose only a mother can ever know. For me, it was a moment filled with emptiness. I was hollow. My soul was unmoved, absolute zero. I didn’t cry. I didn’t feel. I inhabited a matter-of-fact nothingness that I’ve not known since before I was born. And it wasn’t that I was trying “to be strong for her” or anything noble like that. There was just nothing. It just felt the way that ultrasound looked.
Until I called my mother. She answered the phone the way she always does.
I typically retort, “Hi Janice”, to reassure both of us that I’m not really a “baby” anymore. But I didn’t respond. I couldn’t. The moment I heard the weight of sincerity in her voice—“Baby!”—a wave crashed down my throat and into my lungs. The end of my sentence cracked into silence as an invisible hand wrapped around my neck, hot: “…a miscarriage.”
I couldn’t speak. It was as if up to that point my eyes had been inhaling the world of that lightless void and only now found a suitable place to exhale. It didn’t come out as a matching silence but a wordless groan. It no longer felt like non-life. It now felt like death. It felt like all of life rushing into a single moment, the moment it all went rushing out. And that was a fullness too great to bear. Out came a river, like the big one with the dark red plague.
I think there are certain tears that can only come out in the presence of select people. Maybe they’re even directed toward those people. Perhaps there are levels of pain so great they don’t even register if the right person isn’t available to help carry it. I wonder how much pain in this world flies under the radar carried by people who feel it precisely as nothingness.
I wonder if such people, those who seem most immune to pain, are those whose pain has found no one outside with open arms, no chest on which to lay its prickly head. I wonder if their mother still calls them “Baby,” or if she ever did. I wonder if they have dark rivers coiling up inside them, like a serpent under threat, with no one willing to share their pain, no one willing to be their Dead Sea. But pain, like water, is always pressing against the edges to find a way out. Pain that is not shared by others is likely to be projected onto others, pain with fangs. As Richard Rohr has said, “if you don’t transform your pain, you will transmit it in some form.” Or, if you like, Robert Plant: “If it keeps on rainin’ the levee’s going to break; when the levee breaks I’ll have no place to stay” (Led Zeppelin).
Human life is too big for its britches, a pinpoint in time with the capacity to take in “all the fullness of God” (Eph. 3:19) but also to dish out “all evil continually” (Gen. 6:5). Humans, as God’s image-bearers, are created in the overflow, so we can hardly help but splash around in the weeping and rejoicing and good and evil of others. But there are some who have yet to find anyone to share their puddle with them. Some men are islands.
With all exits dammed, death works it way upstream, sealing up any expression of sorrow and turning lifeblood into poison. If you can’t wet someone else’s shoulder with your grief, you will surely wet someone else’s bloodstream with your venom. Life becomes death and death needs motherly love to be brought back to life, a womb to receive it in order to bring light to its darkness and give form to its void. Alone, death begets death.
There is a kind of pain that, like love, has to be shared to be felt deeply, to be known for what it truly is. The pain of a child dying is just such a pain. And this happens to be the pain God shared with this world when he shared his love with this world. “For God has proven his love for us, in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.” (Rom. 5:8). Bitter is the sharing of God’s life with our particular brand of pain, of God’s love with those who invariably reject it and only thereby receive it for what it truly is—for heavy lies the crown of thorns.
“Father, if possible, let this cup pass from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but your will be done” (Mt. 26:39).
The closest red-mud image we have to this kind of bipolar, self-denying love is the love of a mother. It is a love that must live for two at the expense of the one so willing to live. It is a love that knows pain personally, deep in the gut, and yet refuses to run from it, even when it has left the gut. It is a love that knows pain must be shared if life is to be shared—for life is wrought through pain (Gen. 3:16). A mother suffers, a child is born. Jesus suffers, a child is born again.
It is no surprise, then, that the pain of my grief only found its exit at the sound of my own mother’s voice. She spoke—“Baby!”-–and commanded forth the death in me. She commanded to share in its pain. It only recently occurred to me that the strained sound of “concern” I could always detect in her voice toward me was actually only the sound of my pain. A mother’s voice is the sound of a life thrust into someone else’s future, someone with a life and will and death of his own. “If anything were to ever happen to you…” she would always say with a wince. Hypothetical scenarios in my mother’s mind produce unhypothetical agony in her heart, soul, mind, and strength. She was better prepared to feel this new pain than I was, because it wasn’t new to her. She had never lost any of her babies, but she had agonized over the thought, especially during that extended period of time I gave her plenty to think about.
I don’t really remember thinking any of this in that moment, so I can’t really explain the association between her voice and my pain. I just remember the moment I heard her voice, the dam began to leak and almost immediately burst wide open. “O Jeremy…”, she flinched, and up grief arose from the abyss and aimed itself squarely in the direction of my mother. For I had intuitively found a willing tributary deeper than the Nile is long—and I and my dead baby and my bleeding wife and our agony were all already there, where she would agonize over both the loss of our baby and her Baby’s agony. Our tears were hers; we wept, she wept. She wept, I wept more. I felt like a baby and a miscarriage all at once.
“When Jesus saw [Mary] weeping, and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled. And he said, ‘Where have you laid him?’ They said to him, ‘Lord, come and see.’ Jesus wept” (Jn. 11:33-35).
Until then I had been conceiving of this miscarriage simply in terms of absence. It didn’t feel so much like the loss of an otherwise presence beheld. It’s hard for a father to distinguish between the absence of an unborn baby and the loss of an unborn baby. Unborn babies are absent to fathers in that special way they are not absent to mothers, whatever that is. But the woman whose womb I had inhabited 30-some years ago as an unborn baby had just identified my own presence in a way that identified my baby’s absence, and I was at once struck with precisely what, precisely whom, I had lost: my Baby…
I had lost a name. I had lost the voice that would one day call me “Daddy,” and then another day call me “Jeremy” to reassure us both he was all grown up. I had lost the center of a shared universe, a life’s worth of an entire future, a spot at the table. I had lost the warmth on my chest in the rocking chair, the joy tackling my legs at the front door, the presence that is always present to me, even in its absence.
But my baby was no longer absent. He was dead. Kadence was dead, his presence now agonizing.
“I’m coming,” she demanded.
It’s the only thing she knew to say in response to my quaking silence. I suppose it’s the only thing worth saying in response to silence like that. It’s what God said to a nation of exiles breathing in the death of life and land and liberty, the death of their children’s future. Fathers say things to try to make sense of (or excuses for) this world’s misbegotten pasts, but mothers say things that create a future. “I’m coming for you.” They make the kind of words that can be made flesh. Out of the abundance of her womb a mother speaks.
And she came. She packed her bags and drove 500 miles into the night to come and stand in the middle of all its darkness, a single candle to two blackened wicks, sharing her light by sharing our darkness. It didn’t feel better when she arrived. It felt more. She wasn’t there to take away the pain. She was there to help us walk into it headlong. She came as a pallbearer and crawled underneath the crushing weight of a death too small for a casket. And there, in the middle of that godawful night, my wife descended into hell with a husband and mother flanking her sides, trying their best to shield her, to absorb as much of the fire as possible, as the misoprostol-induced labor sent high volts of dark energy convulsing through her body. Not long before dawn, she finally gave birth to a terrible stream of death.
Once we had received Kadence’s death into this world, the three of us sat together in the large wake of a little life and remained, weeping, passing around the bitter cup he delivered to us. We drank as much of the moment as we could before the swell moved out from beneath us toward a sinking horizon, opposite the one we had to continue to face. It was hard to leave that moment, watching an entire future swept into a faceless past, but the moment had to be buried in our memory so that Kadence could begin to live in our memory.
Many refuse to give life to the dead in their memory because they refuse to bury the moment of death in their memory. They live in the moment forever, forgetting life altogether, redefining the life they loved by the death they hate. Death haunts their memory, while the dead stand at the door and knock, carrying armfuls of shared stories in buckets of light, only wishing to be shared again, to shine again. But no son of mine is going to be left out for dead, homeless to my heart. His name is Kadence, not Miscarriage, and he will be remembered as he is, the image of God, the reflection of eternal life that continues to shine in the light of God’s love.
We cannot run from death when it arrives, but neither can we remain in death when it departs. We drink all the bitterness of death but only in the name of life, only because death is the sharp edge of life. But life in God’s good world is not defined by its edge. Indeed, it is defined by the One who stands staked at its edge, stretching rays of life out to both sides, holding together memory and hope in one new horizon of promise.
Kadence came into this world like a dying meteor tearing a wound in the night sky. But that wound has become sacred and the scar it left continues to glow in our memory. It is the memory of a misbegotten life that was never forsaken in death. It is the memory of a death that was cradled in a triune embrace of grieving love. It is the memory of a day that the God who hovers over the face of the deep descended into the abyss upon us and let there be light. It is the vision of this dying world as it truly is, groaning in the pains of childbirth, a tomb of history wrapped up in the womb of Triune Love.
And indeed, it is the memory of God’s motherly promise to us, to Kadence:
“I’m coming for you.”