I took the stairs down to the hospital mortuary feeling slightly nauseous. It was probably not so much the dread of seeing Sara (not her real name) as fear of facing the grief of her family.
When a child dies, nobody "comes to terms" with it. None of the soothing platitudes make a good fit. "It was her time." "She led a full life." "At least she went peacefully." I've never heard somebody try to put a positive spin on things. Nobody's okay with it.
+ + +
When I saw her lying there, the breath went out of me like I'd been sucker punched.
She was so small, and still.
Not too long before, we had been exchanging slightly wary nods on the ward. I find it hard to establish a rapport with the girls in the peds ward, at least the older ones. I never know what to say. No more than I did when I was a teenager.
Plus, most of the time the girls stay behind their pink curtains, which might as well be as thick as castle stones. Their own worlds. I can never think up a good excuse to intrude.
So whenever I do get the chance, I make eye contact and nod and smile, and keep waiting for God to create opportunities to be helpful, if I can. Meanwhile I pray, every day, from the sidelines.
+ + +
The blown-up picture showed Sara with Luke, her beagle. (Her mother said it was "coincidence" that she happened to choose to give her dog the name of the hospital where she would spend the last years of her life. Yeah, right.)
In the photo she was maybe eleven or twelve. Sitting on grass, a park somewhere. Smiling unself-consciously, just because she was with Luke, and it was a good day.
In the photo, there was not even the hint of a shadow of cancer in her eyes.
+ + +
At the wake, I was looking out at all of Sara's schoolfriends who came. Pretty much all of her classmates from middleschool, I learned later. All the way from out in West Tokyo, more than an hour away by train.
Now, except for Sara, they had all gone off to various highschools, as freshmen, so they were wearing different school uniforms. But they all looked pretty much the same. Most of the girls' skirts were too short. Most of the boys' hair was too long and scruffy. Typical high school kids, in other words.
As each one came up to lay a flower in front of Sara's picture, pretty much all the girls were crying. Some were in bad shape. All the boys looked uncomfortable. A few of them had "deer in the headlights" expressions.
As I watched them, I felt a kind of anger welling up inside. Or maybe it was sadness, or frustration. I don't know, really. A tightening in the pit of the stomach.
"These kids' shouldn't have to be here," I thought. "They shouldn't have to be here, and Sara shouldn't have to be in this pine box up here. She should be out there, with them. They should all be hanging out in a park somewhere, or at MacDonald's. Copying each others' homework. Girls talking about boys. Boys talking about sports. Nobody should be here."
+ + +
The funeral was quieter. Most of Sara's friends were back in school.
I nearly lost it halfway through the sermon. I was talking about Sara's courage, and the courage of her family. And suddenly I was struck by the sheer unfairness of what each of them had been called to deal with. And for what end? All that sacrifice and determination and and love-in-action--and still she died.
Tears sprang into my eyes. I couldn't see my sermon text. My nose started running. I felt like an idiot. Somehow I pushed on and got through.
+ + +
Sara's father and little brother rode in the Hearse to the crematorium. Her mother drove herself. Somehow, that struck me as strange. So quotidien.
+ + +
While waiting at the crematorium, the girl's mother told me she found out from the Chapel website that she (the mother) and I were the same age. We both smiled at that. But under the surface of that smile, feelings so shadowy and complex that I couldn't begin to sort through them.
Two forty-somethings, sitting down having tea. Her oldest child in a furnace downstairs.
+ + +
As I watched them put Sara's bones into the white ceramic urn, I thought: Well, we finally managed to destroy this particular batch of cancer cells. And all it cost was...
+ + +
Blessed Mary, you know the pain of losing a child. Yea, the sword of grief has pierced through thine own soul also. Pray for the family of Sara, and for us all. Pray for your Son to come again, and soon.