On Advent, Suffering, and Sandy Hook

On my daughter’s birthday, it is always dark when I wake up.

I hear her feet, tiny and soft, outside the bedroom door. I know it is she, and not our son, because I can tell her footsteps from his, even through the walls, and even through the clinging weariness. The pull to rest is strong. The pull of motherhood is stronger.

Before I have shaken off the dreams, I find myself standing. I move slowly, tiptoeing as the doorknob turns. She peeks in and beams, her eyes gleaming, as she whispers, “Mama, Mama!” When she raises her arms, I lift her up, my heart thudding — I exhale fast, and I try to slow my breathing, so not to worry her. I carry her back to her own bed, tuck her into a sea of pink, among flowered pillows and plush dolls. How many times did they do this, for her?  

Pray with us, I implore her. Pray for us, from your place in Paradise.

“Happy birthday, my darling little girl. I love you.”

* * *

On my daughter’s birthday, we hang rose-colored streamers around the dining room windows. And we all wear black to church. I weave the little mauve veil through my fingertips, absently wonder if I should buy her a darker one for this day next year. Kneeling down to meet her wide eyes, I remind her, “Remember, my sweetheart, we want to be a little quieter after Mass today.”

She nods solemnly. She is only five, but she knows. On her birthday, everyone at Mass is always much quieter.

* * *

The four of us gather in front of His castle, the shining tabernacle, before walking out as silently as we can. We’re nearly at the door when we are approached by a beautiful, smiling woman whose eyes I can hardly meet. “Oh, my,” she says kindly, carefully, to my daughter. “Look how big you are.”

Look how many years it has been, already.

* * *

When our daughter was born, she was our sixth baby. Her two-year-old brother was our only living child. For years, her name had been chosen, so that with every pregnancy, we told one another, “If this baby is a girl…”

Then the loss would come. And I would crumple to the floor, gasping and slain, staring dazedly into all the long years ahead without our child — again, and again, and again, and again.

It is not until the calendar reads 2012 that I find myself crawling past the twenty-week mark for only the second time, whispering, Stay with me, my baby. Stay with me. Please, please don’t leave me. 

We hear the words spoken.

She is a girl. And…she is due on Christmas Day.

A girl…

Christmas Day?

The name — her name — sounds and sings in my mind like a bell, ringing and pealing and joyfully unstoppable.

* * *

On what will become the day before my daughter’s birthday, we visit the specialist at the hospital for a routine appointment. We laugh with one nurse after another as I settle in for the ultrasound. So many of these women have stumbled down this road with us. Now, surely, everything is fine. There are only two weeks to go. My husband holds our son up to say hello to his sister on the screen. We laugh again.

Almost midsentence, the nurse abruptly stands and hurries from the room. In the months to come, I will try to remember what she was saying the second before she left. I never can.

Moments later, the doctor strides in. Without so much as a greeting, she sits hastily at the monitor. It is unlike her — so unlike her. I look to her blank face, and back to the ultrasound. Our daughter appears to be waving at us. Hi Mama! Hi Papa!

The doctor turns to us and says, far too calmly, “Have you noticed that you have been losing amniotic fluid?”


It is Thursday, December 13, 2012.

* * *

My labor pains are forced upon me, unnatural and tearing. I grasp my husband’s hands as we race throughout the night, past the dawn, and into the day. My eyes are sealed closed against the final push, until a downy blanket is spread over me and I know that it is almost over. A nurse sings sweetly, “Happy birthday!”

My daughter is delivered safely, brought forth from the darkness into the light. I cannot stop shuddering, the tears slipping and scalding my face, because in that moment, I finally understand how close we came.

She is eased into my arms. The touch of her little body drains every fear and all the anguish from mine. For the first time, I can sense how the woman who grasped the hem of Christ’s garment must have felt. I know what happened to her, in the sacred moment her fingertips brushed against the robe turned relic, after she reached out a faltering hand toward Him in her wild, desperate act of faith.

I see my daughter. My eyes behold her face. I know this will forever be one of the most beautiful, glorious days of my life.

Mere miles away, in a peaceful, small town, the earth trembles and splinters, and cracks open. The skies blacken, and shatter, and fall.

* * *

On my daughter’s birthday, the nurses begin to come in with red, swollen eyes. We begin to wonder. We ask, and no one answers. Jessica, I am going to help you sit up. Not too fast, you’re still very weak. How are you feeling now? She’s nursing so well. I want you to try to drink more, all right?

My husband’s cell phone rings, and he answers — “Father Paul! Father, you won’t believe it, but we’re at the hospital. Jessica had to have an emergency induction yesterday, but the baby is fine, she’s —”

I smile sleepily at him, although he is no longer speaking. He is only listening. As I watch him, on our daughter’s birthday, I come to fully believe in the expression his face turned white.

* * *

A gentle and good man — a husband, father, and doctor — will stand at the pulpit of our country parish the next day, after a vigil Mass. And he will say quietly, “Please join me in praying the Hail Mary. My daughter was killed yesterday.”

His daughter had been called to a sacred vocation. She loved and was beloved of her students. Even facing death, she sought to protect them. On my daughter’s birthday, when I think of Christ, she is how I see Him — flung over us, His only dying thought to save us.

I wonder how we will face them. I wonder how you tell someone that every day of your daughter’s life will mark another day since his own daughter died. I weep with uncontrollable grief over my newborn child, wondering how I can feel any happiness when so many around us are suffering the worst kind of hell that is possible in this life. I wonder at my little girl’s fingers and toes while I wonder at to everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under the heavens. I wonder at her fluttering, feathery lashes while I wonder at He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. I wonder at her tulip mouth while I wonder at in all circumstances, give thanks. I wonder at the unfathomable, unparalleled mysteries of the One Who is our King — the Lord giveth, and the Lord hath taken away — though before we see Eternity, we will not know why.

I wonder at words that were spoken before the raging fires of certain death. I wonder at the ancient, impossible cry of faith, etched there in holiness. Our God is able to save us, but even if He will not…

I wonder all these things even today, on my daughter’s birthday, six years later. I will wonder for the rest of my life.

I pray. I stagger and land on my knees at the foot of the cross; I stand, breathless and awed, before the steadfast belief of these parents, mothers and fathers who love the Lord still, even as the hands of true evil wrought agony on them, and tore apart their lives.

Our dream name for our daughter had always been Emmanuelle. But after so many losses across the years, we had all but given up on her.

When she was born, having been known and cherished by the Lord since time began, our child received her name on a day turned endlessly dark for our nation, for our world. Emmanuelle, God with us.

We light the candles, bright and burning deeply, and they cast their shadows.

We walk through Advent, toward the celebration of the birth of the Savior, Him who is our only hope. The One, who will cut through every despair, and through the dark.

Editor’s note: This article first appeared in Dappled Things (issue titled “Mary, Queen of the Angels”). It is republished here with the author’s permission.

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