Thursday, December 24, 2009
This essay by the late Madeleine L'Engle appeared in Guideposts magazine.
A little girl, a piano, a Christmas tree. What could be more ordinary, more normal, more safe? But it wasn't safe that Christmas. It might have been ordinary and normal, because what happened to us happens to many people, but it wasn't safe.
This little girl, our first child, was looking wistfully at the tree, and her usual expression was vital, mischievous, full of life. But that Christmas she was wilted, like a flower left too long without water. She sat with her toy telephone and had long conversations with her lion ("You can never talk while the lion is busy," she would explain). She didn't run when we took her to the park. She was not hungry. I bathed her and felt her body, and there were swollen glands in her groin, her armpits.
We took her to the doctor. He looked over our heads and used big medical words. I stopped him. "What you are saying is that you think she has leukemia, isn't it?" Suddenly he looked us in the eye. When he knew that we knew what he feared, he treated us with compassion and concern. We knew the symptoms because the child of a friend of ours had died of leukemia. We knew.
We took our girl to the hospital for tests, and she was so brave that her gallantry brought tears to my eyes. We went home to our small apartment and sat and told stories. We knew that we would have several days' wait for the test results because of the holidays.
My husband was an actor. I am a writer. Like most artists, we had vivid imaginations. We tried hard not to project into the unknown future, to live right where we were, in a small apartment on Tenth Street in New York City. We loved our apartment, where we slept on a couch in the living room. To get to the bedroom we had to walk through the kitchen and then the bathroom. We were happy. My husband was playing on Broadway. I had had two books published and was working on a third. We had a beautiful child.
And suddenly the foundation rocked beneath us. We understood tragedy and that no one is immune. We remembered a church in New England where, carved in the wood of the lintel, were the words: REMEMBER, NO IS AN ANSWER.
My mother grew up in a world of Bible stories, and I thought of the marvelous story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. Those three young men refused to bow down to an idol, and King Nebuchadnezzar was so furious that he ordered them to be thrown into a furnace so hot that the soldiers who threw them in were killed by the heat.
But Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego stood there in the flames, unhurt, and sang a song of praise of all creation.
King Nebuchadnezzar was astonished and asked, "Did we not cast three men bound into the fire?" They answered, "True, O King." He replied, "But I see four men loose, walking in the midst of the fire, and they are not hurt, and the appearance of the fourth is like the Son of God."
And that, perhaps, is the most astounding part of the whole story. God did not take Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego out of the fiery furnace. God was in the flames with them.
Yes, it is a marvelous story, but I thought, I am not Shadrach, Meshach or Abednego, and the flames burn.
I rocked my child and told her stories and prayed incoherent prayers. We turned on the lights of the Christmas tree, lit a fire in our fireplace, turned out all the other lights, and I managed to sing lullabies without letting my tears flow. When my husband got home we put our daughter to bed, and we held each other. We knew that the promise has never been safety, or that bad things would not happen if we were good and virtuous. The promise is only that God is in it with us, no matter what it is.
Even before the test results came from the hospital our little girl began to revive, to laugh, to wriggle as we sat together on the piano bench to sing carols. Our hearts began to lift as we saw life returning to her, and the tests when they were returned indicated that she had had an infection. It was not leukemia. She was going to be all right.
She is a beautiful woman with children of her own, and she has gone through her own terror when her eldest child was almost killed. I suspect most parents know these times. I know the outcome is not always the one we pray for.
In my own life there have been times when the answer has indeed been no. My husband died, and I will miss him forever. When a car I was in was hit by a truck, I was almost killed. I still wonder by what miracle my life was saved, and for what purpose. Certainly everything became more poignant. Were the autumn leaves that year more radiant than usual? What about the tiny new moon I saw one night? And my family and my friends: Have I ever loved them as much as I love them now?
I think back to that Christmas when my husband and I did not know whether our little girl would live to grow up. Between that Christmas and this there have been many times when I have been in the fiery furnace, but I am beginning to understand who is in there with me. It is then, when I need it, that I am given courage I never knew I could have. Every day is a miracle, and I hope that is something I will never forget.