It is no mistake that we honor the life of the unborn especially in this month woven with the childhood of Jesus.
By Denise Trull
Thus begins the quiet time. January. The unsung month. God’s gracious gift. An unhurried, undistracted space reserved for traveling inward to unpack the abundant graces of Advent and Christmas; graces that tumbled forth in such God given abundance we hardly had time to capture the glorious goodness of it all. We may have found ourselves, like our Lady, tucking those graces away for later pondering. We turn them over in our minds, now, like treasures to warm our memories and release within our hearts a ready praise.
January is the time when shepherds have turned back to the hills with their flocks. A cave, once lit by the light of a fantastical new star, is dulled back to stone now and looks like all the other caves. In it a mother suckles her Son, not so newborn as He was before, a father tends a fire and builds a proper cradle from the shards of a broken trough with the creative skill of a carpenter’s hands. The Child laughs easily. His grasp on the finger is strong. The mother is enchanted by His smile. Bread is made. Simple food is eaten. And all is as plain as poverty. And yet, there is peace here. We linger long in this place where Joseph and Mary have made a home - for a time. A home that cradles a Child whom they would wonder at daily.
Holy Mother Church gives us thirty-three days to linger at the mouth of that cave to watch a Holy Family live their lives. Jesus is a Child in January, as He awaits His presentation in the Temple on February 2. It is a time set aside for us to ponder the beauty of children and our dignity as parents. It is no mistake that we honor the life of the unborn especially in this month woven with the childhood of Jesus.
This year, all my Christmas graces seemed centered on that theme - as though God were calling me to see with new eyes the beauty of children: fully grown, or unborn, or with us perhaps just a short time. These graces came from his hand as pure gift to deepen a gratitude that had perhaps grown a bit too shallow.
My first grace came one evening in early December when I was invited to an old childhood friend’s house for dinner. She and her husband had just moved back to the area after many years. They knew no one. They had both endured long and exhausting bouts of serious and depleting illness. They were bone tired and perhaps heartsore. They missed their farm back east and the old, easy friendships they had quietly grown there over time. Most of their children, at this time, were quite overwhelmed with new babies, and time consuming jobs in different states from which, most regrettably, they could not get away. The older children they had come to rely on were untimely scattered to the four winds. But they needed to move, to find and fix up a house. They felt utterly at sea. As she recounted all this, my friend’s face went suddenly soft, gentled by some treasured memory floating to the surface.
As it turns out, up stepped her child number five out of ten. She confessed quite humbly to me, that in her busy life of motherhood and farming and carting children to practices and choir and the like, she had not paid much attention to this quiet and affable child number five - she had not ever had time to wonder in those busy, thick-of-things days what made him tick. He had just scrambled happily along with the rest of the clan in tow. She confessed that she had never quite seen him, there he was so quiet and good, though of course she loved him.
Well, this fifth child, without being asked, quietly put his engineering aspirations on hold, went to make arrangements for a moving van, did most of the heavy lifting, and capably put his parent’s worldly possessions inside of it. He crossed half the country twice to get it all done and never said a word about the sacrifice. He helped them unpack and set up the house.
When the house needed desperate repairs and renovations, there he was again tearing down walls and laying dry wall with his bemused yet grateful father looking on. He painted walls, put in wainscoting. He followed his parents to a Church they had found and gladly joined his beautiful voice, trained long ago in choir classes, to the fledgling choir starting there. He helped his parents settle into the community.
At last, he went back to school and quietly resumed his engineering dreams as though no time had passed.
My friend recounted all this in a kind of regretful awe. She kept saying, “How did I not see how amazing he was all these years?” Her son was a revelation as bright as a new star to her.
This was a child who had grown up surrounded by brothers and sisters. Who had watched his father closely when he built things - though perhaps his father had never noticed. A child who had faithfully practiced singing. Who had actually done his math when asked. Who took a shine to the architecture books on the living room shelves. Who had learned all the games and prayed quietly with his family as they managed to get in a rosary on the way to soccer practice. He was hidden and quiet, yet he was to be one of their greatest blessings - and they knew it not.
All his life he was growing in wisdom and knowledge, gathering up all the tools that were to bring his mother and father such comfort in this specific time of need. He wasn’t just any child - he was their child, chosen from all eternity for their arms and their care and they for his.
All unaware, and feeling perhaps as though they had failed him, they discovered they had not. This fifth child’s ready love was a gift even in their regretted mistakes and trials and busyness. It was as if they were seeing him fresh and newborn again.
His mother recounted how she went back and looked at pictures of him as a boy and tried to piece together his quiet life. Her joy increased anew. She had found her child again, and a deep felt gratitude along with him.
I left her house quietly bemused and with a greater gratitude for my own children. I resolved to look closer and more carefully at each of them and to write down memories of their goodness.
My second treasure came in the form of what might be termed sweet smelling myrrh. A child’s death. The wonderful cantor at my Church lost his little boy of eight quite suddenly in mid December. I only knew this family slightly, but loved to watch them at Mass. Sometimes his wife would come with the children and sit quietly in the pew by the organ - sometimes I caught her looking at him with love as he played and sang and she sometimes smiled as she spied his shoeless feet manning the peddles. She would join her beautiful soprano lilt to his deep baritone as she casually hugged her little red headed boy to herself in that easy, effortless multi-tasking way mothers have who know the feel of children pressing in close seeking an embrace while they are busy doing something else. She hugged him often, this little red headed boy.
At the funeral, many would come away saying that although it was utterly sad, there was a quiet joy and beauty to it that was hard to explain. This little boy, who only lived on the earth for eight short years, had prayed earnestly for many people. He had special devotions. He had learned them from his mother. His life had been offered for the Church in all his childlike prayers - in a true and vibrant way. His prayers had helped others - had been necessary. He was needed and counted on by God to build up the Body of Christ in the tasks Jesus gave him to do, young as he was.
His mother posted picture after picture of him to her friends on Facebook. She mentioned that he loved her squash soup as his smeared but giggling face attested. She laughed about his larger than life personality. His laugh. His love of cozying up to his older brother and sister. She admitted to us all with an open and humbly aching heart that she wished she could crawl into the pictures and feel his little warm embrace once again. I openly wept for her, but it was not in morbid despair. This was a mother delighting in the midst of her sorrow at the life of her child. A mother who was filled with gratitude and joy that such a life had been lived so fully and been given to her and her husband if only for that short time. She did not bar the memories - trying to avoid the pain of them - but let them flow freely. She was experiencing that strange mix of deep anguish mingling with exquisite joy that is the portion of the Christian soul when facing death’s sting but the light beyond. She had consented to letting it wash over her like a warm rain coaxing shoots of gratitude from hard sorrow. She was large hearted and lovely in her sorrowing motherhood. I watched with awe.
I found myself hugging my own children many times over at odd times during Christmas - grown though they be. Suddenly each was more gift than I ever had imagined before. Gratitude seeped through my heart for the years I had been gifted with them. These lovelies God had given to me gratis without me earning any of them. It took the beautiful death of an eight year old boy to fill me with the wonder that is children given so freely to us by God for no other reason than love.
My third treasure came in the form of a memory. It is a memory that has come and gone at odd times over the decades. I felt it most keenly on the feast of the Holy Innocents this year.
In this vivid memory I am sitting in stunned silence as a kind, soft voiced ultrasound technician tells me she cannot hear a heart beat, but that she COULD possibly be wrong. I knew she wasn't wrong. I don't suppose there is a harder thing to hear when you are a mom. She just looked at me and squeezed my shoulder. What else could she do? Some sorrows need silence. She was wise in this. I went home, told my husband, and we put the rest of the kids to bed. Sadness descended with the darkness.
The psalmist expressed this kind of sorrow so perfectly when he cried out:
"My dwelling like a shepherd's tent,
is struck down and borne away from me;
you have folded up my life…."
It feels just like that, losing a baby. An empty tent, that is borne away. A womb that is "folded up." But the beautiful thing is, that the next morning as light was streaming in the windows of a new day, my husband and I, with all the desire in our hearts, asked God to bring this little baby to Heaven. We lay in the blessed quiet of that morning and prayed. I think God heard that prayer, because never was there such a Baptism of desire as we desired for that little soul, who could not speak for himself/ herself.
I am, even after all these years, sweetly haunted by that little life I never saw. Was he a Peter or she a Phoebe? Did he share my son David's humor, Thomas's kindness, did she have Madeleine's curls and joie de vivre? Would he be creative and passionate like little Ben? What did Phoebe look like? Was Peter a variation on the family theme? Did this mysterious baby watch us as we lived our family life and smile upon us all?
I was filled with a great gratitude this year that this child is in Heaven. The initial pain of this exquisite kind of loss has kept my eyes longingly on someone beyond this present life who shares my flesh and blood. For I have a child there in eternity who is calling me to come home. It is a wonderful thought, now that I have many long years of hindsight. That there is a mysterious and beautiful 8th Trull Child, at this very moment in time, gazing on the face of God.
These are the treasures given for me to ponder this January. In this month when we prepare to March in defense of the unborn, it is my conviction that the best way to honor the unborn is to be openly grateful for our children and to speak of that gratitude to others often. To rejoice in our families, large or small, and to encourage others to rejoice in their own. To welcome children into our lives no matter the sacrifices we see looming. To be enchanted by each face looking up at ours. To actually SEE their beauty even after they are grown. To wonder anew that we have been given this quiver full of arrows and have been called blessed thereby.