I didn’t make it to Mass last year on Ash Wednesday. I remember seeing a Mass schedule on the door to the chapel at St. David’s as I rushed past. I had just been to visit my daughter Samantha in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. She was 17 days old. She and her twin sister Hannah were born 8 weeks early. She had surgery 2 weeks ago and was in an isolet recovering well. I had to hurry to Round Rock Medical Center, at least half an hour away, to see Hannah during her feeding time. Then I’d rush home to see my 2 year old daughter at home and hopefully put her to bed. I went to bed as soon as possible because the next day it started all over again. As you may imagine, Lenten observance was not exactly on my radar at the time.
Five days into lent, at 22 days old they moved Samantha to RRMC and both girls were together. Ten days into lent, at 27 days old, Hannah came home. 23 days into Lent, at 40 days old, Samantha contracted NEC and passed away within 10 hours.
You can see how last lent was different. When holy week came around Father Danny asked us to carry the oils up to the altar. They had a special significance to us now, since Father Danny had given Samantha her last rites just hours after I baptized her. I didn’t know if I planned to go to Mass at all that week. I didn’t think I could handle being at the church so much. Mass was so painful.
As you can imagine, it was very difficult to relate to God at that time. All I could think about were those hours we waited during Samantha’s surgery to find out if she would survive. I desperately called out to God in my fear. I cried out to my Mother to beseech her son to heal my baby. I cried out and begged my loving and merciful God to spare my little girl. I never really considered that He might say no.
Now, every time I saw Him at mass I felt abandoned and alone. The security I knew before in my almighty God disappeared into a fear I had never known. This was a new world where my children could die. Where was God? “Where you there when they nailed him to the tree?” I saw myself holding my dying baby… were you there? The more I tried to consider Jesus’ sacrifice the more I wondered where his triumph was. My baby was dead! He let her die. Did Mary know my pain? Her son was God. Did God know my pain? His son was coming home to Him, not away from Him. I knew in my intellect that God allowed His son to die so my daughter could be in heaven with Him. All my heart could feel was her absence.
All I could do was get my body there to the church and receive Him. Sometimes I could sing or pray, but mostly not. I could not feel compassion for my savior, only the pain of my loss. I could not feel the joy of Easter. Only the futility of my prayer.
It has been a long journey from that place. Writing about it now, the pain rushes back and I remember how God felt suddenly like a stranger. When Ash Wednesday came around this year it was a very different story.
A few weeks before Ash Wednesday, I heard a talk by Father Michael (a Legionnaire) at a Regnum Christi event, about many subjects, including hope. As he spoke about the power we have in our hope in Christ, I began to understand the implications of what he was saying. No one can ever take that from us. Not pain, not suffering, not death. I imagined myself again reaching out to God, and this time praying for my daughter’s soul instead of her body. He knew what she really needed. He knows what I really need.
On Ash Wednesday, I was really too busy keeping my children quiet to enter into the mystery of Ash Wednesday but I still thought back to last year when I was in such a difficult place. As I got out the coloring book and a snack for Hannah, I turned to God again in vulnerable desperation, but my prayer had changed.
During one of our encounters with Christ at Regnum Christi, we discussed a story about gratefulness and learned that some Jewish people thank God 1,000 times a day. We resolved to do the same for a week. As I started thanking God for the AC, my dishwasher, hot water, a breath, a snack, a cool glass of water; I began to see each moment I spent with Samantha as a gift. It was as if I had been looking at a negative of a photograph and it was finally in correct perspective.
One day last year on Relevant Radio I heard a priest try to describe our transition to heaven. He compared it to twins in the womb. They are so happy and comfortable in their home, and so content with each other. They play and swim and kick and love each other. But one day one of them is born. All the unborn twin knows is that her playmate is gone. She can’t understand what awaits her: a loving family and a life she couldn’t imagine. I felt like the twin left behind. Samantha was on the other side in God’s loving arms waiting to welcome me one day.
Later during lent I heard a beautiful talk by Father Jonathan about confession and about uniting our suffering with Christ. With each suffering we lift up to Him in reparation, we are spared some time in purgatory. I wanted to take advantage of every single chance Samantha had given me to draw closer to Christ. God didn’t allow her to die so that I could come closer to Him. I believe that whatever the reason He decided not to heal her, He is using this suffering for my good. I have given up soda for lent, and every time I want that soda, I practice relying on God for the strength, so that the next time I feel that agony of losing Samantha, I can turn to God instead of into myself.
With Holy Week approaching, I am now looking towards the cross. I heard a story of a woman who prayed the Stations of the Cross backwards. She said it was because someone had to walk Jesus’ mother home. Just as I had to go on with my life after my world seemed to end, so did she. Now every time I feel the agony of my loss, I am not alone. My Blessed Mother is there beside me crying with me. Jesus is there suffering with me so that Samantha could be in heaven and so that one day I could join Him and her.
I hope that God will continue to speak to me throughout Holy Week and Easter. I look forward to truly celebrating His victory over death which is the source of my hope that can never be taken from me. Hope through gratitude, healing though Reconciliation, Redemption though suffering learned through fasting. Easter holds a new richness for me now. It’s easy to praise God when you are spared suffering. Now that I have walked the way of the cross I can truly celebrate the resurrection.