I knew it would be sad.
How could it be anything else, this annual tribute service at our local children’s hospital? Mamas and daddies and siblings and nurses and doctors would gather together in one room, and we’d call out the names of the ones who had died, the children, the ones whom the experts weren’t able to save, no matter how hard they tried.
I knew it would be sad.
I was quick to sign up to stand at the podium and read names, maybe because as a mama and a new grandma, I know how lucky I am. I haven’t had to face anything even 1000 miles away from this kind of devastation, this kind of terror.
Maybe I was quick to sign up because deep down in the weakest part of me, the most fearful part, the most desperate part, maybe I thought I could bribe God.
Please, I’ll read the names, God. Just keep Your hands off my babies.
But I know God doesn’t work like that. God doesn’t choose to take some and not others. He doesn’t pluck children as flowers for his garden or angels for his clouds-or any such silly, painful nonsense people say.
Terrible things happen. God grieves.
I signed up and the evening came.
The Child Life Specialist was in charge of the names. The Child LIFE Specialist -the one who works with kids and families to help them cope with life in the hospital, with illness and disability. She also works with families when children die.
“You’re the first one here to read names, so you get to pick when you go.”
“When I go?”
“Yes, you can go first- or you don’t have to. There are four other readers.”
Four other readers? How many children were there?
She handed me my paper and there were eight names on it. Eight families torpedoed, wrecked, ravished.
“Let me know if there are any names you’re not sure of. I know them all so I can help you with pronunciation.
“You know them all?”
She nodded and then turned to a colleague to answer a question about candles.
She knew them all.
I stood off to the side to read over the names. The least I could do for these eight families was to pronounce their children’s names correctly, with the cadence they had chosen when the babies were only joy to them, swimming in swelling bellies, before their worlds fell. I studied the names and called them out to myself, and then checked with her three times, to make sure I was saying the names perfectly, accenting the proper syllable, getting the vowels right. I practiced pausing between names, wanting to give each family time, to reflect, to remember, to treasure.
When the service was about to start, families filed into the small auditorium, most looking down, some grabbing hands of others they knew, giving nods and slight smiles of recognition. Young women stood at the door, offering notes of remembrance tied with ribbons and little ceramic hearts, as well as electronic candles for each person to hold and switch on when their child’s name was called.
As the readers and I took our seats near the front, a quartet from the symphony played, and soon, a screen was lowered in front of the musicians. A slide show began, and one by one, the names on my paper and the four other lists became people.
I knew it would be sad. But I hadn’t expected that as the photos of the children with their names filed by on the screen, that I would be surprised by how typical most of them looked, smiling for the camera. There was a little boy, barefoot on a dock, proudly looking up into the sun, showing off a dragonfly carefully cupped in his outstretched hands. A boy on a soccer field. A redheaded girl in a purple dress sitting for her class picture. A toddler playing with his truck. A girl with a sweet smile, a little wave to the person behind the camera, and no hair. A baby hooked up to a machine, with so many wires and tubes it was hard to find the baby in the photo. Another baby swaddled, in her mother’s arms. A teenage boy grinning in his suit. A set of twin boys, maybe middle school age. A little girl in a fancy dress, first or second grade, her hands clasped, head tilted. A teen ager, with long brown hair and a pretty smile, looking like any other seventeen-year-old with places to go and things to do.
We watched the slide show three times. Three times these children passed by, allowing us to look upon them and read their names and treasure them. And then the adults stood to speak, first the chaplain, then the medical director. A neonatologist shared that he wasn’t on anybody’s birth plan. “They didn’t want me, and I didn’t want that for their child. But there we were.”
After a poem, it was time for the names.
I was up first, concentrating on getting them right, staring at the back of the room at each pause. I didn’t want the family lighting their candles to feel intruded upon by my eyes. I prayed that I had said the names in the way that they said them to their child, that hearing their children’s names said in the quiet of the room would be a holy signpost that would say, “Your child mattered. You matter. To us and to God.”
When my names were done I moved aside and allowed myself to look upon the families in the seats before us. Some held their candles high, their faces puckering with pain. Others held them to their chest, leaning themselves against each other for strength against the rushing tide of emotion.
I knew it would be sad, but I didn’t know it would be so holy and exquisitely beautiful.
Like the little blond headed boy on the dock holding the dragonfly, our circle of mamas and daddies and siblings, caregivers, volunteers, and friends held these children up into the light, admiring their beauty as precious treasures of God’s creation. We held them up, knowing that though we stand together on the dock, the waves move under our feet, changing the earth below.