Above all other points on the calendar, I love the sparkling wonder and tradition of Christmas, and the hot golden haze of summer. And in the past year I have awaited them both with dread.

I found ways to occupy my mind and my hands while my heart was shrinking back from the coming blow—the deeper knife-wrench where blood already welled. I worked on making Christmas for my children:gifts stashed in secret, and wrapping paper crinkling late at night, and stockings over the fireplace. I planned and packed and enjoyed our week of family summer vacation: tapping sand out of shoes, slathering sunscreen, tossing rocks into the small surf. I took a lot of pictures.

The days I dreaded came, and they were both better than I expected, and worse. Better because the second hand marched on at the usual pace, and I found myself smiling sometimes. And worse because the creeping desolation, like waves licking torturously at the same line of shore, is colder than I imagined and just as painful as I feared it would be.

I was driving our laden minivan home through heavy traffic yesterday afternoon, in the center of three lanes twisting and weaving through Milwaukee, when I realized where I should have been that day. I should have been nestled in a hospital bed with my baby in the crook of my arm. My fourth baby, whose heart stopped one day last year, just before December. Just short of my 11-week appointment, no heartbeat. Yesterday was my due date. We should have been there, my baby and I. And we weren’t.

In the dark exam room, after my doctor had ended the spreading and terrifying silence with the words I had been begging the universe not to allow—”I’m sorry”—I thought it was the worst. For two years my heart had moaned for a struggling child; ached with the fear that our family would never have the life I dreamed for us; shrieked at the setbacks that came every time I felt on the cusp of getting a better handle on my life; and folded with grief when I compared us to the families all around.

In the latter of those two years my sorrow plunged me into a crisis of faith that I never saw coming: did God really love us? Was he really good? For a long time, I didn’t know. Then slowly, bit by bit, I inched back, drawn closer to faith and hope and surrender and peace. And now this. We had waited and dreamed and prayed for this fourth child. We rejoiced in it. I sensed, at last, the warmth of blessing: God was again showing his kindness. And then this.

 No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief,

More pangs will, schooled at forepangs, wilder wring.

Comforter, where is your comforting? 

  O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall

Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap

May who ne’er hung there. Nor does long our small

Durance deal with that steep or deep. [1]

But there was worse. In that dark, sorrowful December, I held a flickering hope: surely, when my dearly desired baby’s due date rolled around, I would at least be pregnant again. I would not have to face the day empty. I could be planning rooms and choosing names. I could know that there would be another little person in my arms—not a replacement for the loved one lost, but a gift that could not have come had that other baby been granted to us.

In February, I lost our fifth child. After all the careful treatment and blood draws and medication and ultrasound, the nightmare unfolded at my 8-week appointment: all that I had thought, surely, could not happen again. I keep an image printed in my mind of the view from the parking garage afterwards, as the snow paraded and eddied methodically, relentlessly before me—the flakes tiny and dry and remorseless. And I sat in the silent, empty van and screamed at God.

For years I have been told that we should speak to ourselves rather than listening to ourselves. I’ve heard it so often that I cringe when I sense it’s coming. I know it is usually kindly meant. But I have found that strapping down my emotions with what the Bible says is true, strangling the squirming feelings beneath, makes for unhealthy roots. When I hear that advice, I think instead of Edgar’s words at the desolate conclusion of King Lear:

The weight of this sad time we must obey,

Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.[2]

In some ways, I wish I could echo what I hear others say: that they feel God carry them through their valleys of sorrow, that Jesus is enough, that underneath are the everlasting arms. But I have not found it to be so for me. I never expected that life would be rosy; I knew sorrow would come. But I always told myself, “There will be grace for that day. Tomorrow has enough troubles of its own.” And now I have come to that tomorrow, and I can’t discern the grace.

I think of all the exuberant, determined hymns of my childhood, and I wonder if the believers who wrote them were deluded, or inexperienced, or browbeaten, or just desperately saying what they thought they ought to—in hopes that it would change what they truly felt. Because I am not happy all the day, and a little talk with Jesus doesn’t make it right, and, as a matter of fact, you don’t necessarily get gumdrop holidays when you give Christ your life. (Yes, like the others, that last line is an actual quote from a song we really sang, and yes, it was probably the all-time worst and no, I don’t think we were meant to take it literally. But I have noticed that a preponderance of songs sung in church attempt to carry the weight of otherworldly happiness and inhumanly complete contentment. In my experience, when you are generally happy, you love songs like that. And when you are suffering, they make you want to run screaming from your seat.)

I think I have heard the wrong tone for the Christian life: the one we would probably all prefer to hear. But maybe that’s not the real story. Maybe the martyrs didn’t all go confidently to their deaths; maybe some went quaking and doubting. Maybe the Bible verses we quote so blithely were not originally shouted in triumph but whispered through tears, prayers from hearts burdened by years of disappointment and promises long unfulfilled.

What I feel is broken: washed up bleakly on the shore of my life. I know we are not the first family to suffer such losses, and more. I know that unspeakable things happen to people. But for me, in the context of our lives, these feel like crippling blows—and their echoes reverberate in emptiness, on and on.

…Wert thou my enemy, O thou my friend,

How wouldst thou worse, I wonder, than thou dost

Defeat, thwart me?

Mine, O thou lord of life, send my roots rain.[3]

I don’t know what will send these roots rain. For seven months now, I have waited, without strength to pray, to see if it would come. I am still waiting.

It is frightening to be so honest—to say that I believe Jesus is the only hope for salvation in our broken world, but I don’t think that makes up for all the horrors that people endure, or renders all pain worthwhile. I have never heard anyone say what I feel: to whom shall we go, for he has the words of eternal life—it’s just that I am no longer confident that he will be nice, or safe, or good in any fashion that I can understand. I hesitate to say these things. But I feel that there is nothing left but to speak words that have meaning, because they are genuine. Life is too cold to be warmed by platitudes.

A week ago I finished Bittersweet by Shauna Niequist, one of the few authors I have read of late who speaks words my heart can hear. I drew a dark bracket around this:

“If you’ve been sitting quietly, year after year, hoping that someone will finally start speaking a language that makes sense to you, may I suggest that you are that person? … If you want your community to be marked by radical honesty, by risky, terrifying, ultimately redemptive truth-telling, you must start telling your truth first.” —Bittersweet, p. 240

The summer days stretch closer, one by one, to an October that I dread in its turn. Tonight, this is the truth I have to tell.


[1] Gerard Manley Hopkins, 42

[2] King Lear V. iii. 324-325

[3] Gerard Manley Hopkins, 51