I remember Melisa’s mother grappling with her daughter’s death. There isn’t anyone who doesn’t try to make sense of death. We try to make sense of everything. We do not like not knowing, as if motivations, circumstances, some little sense of the casualties will help us scale the ever-elusive summit of “closure.” Some things make no sense and never will, not even after all the explanations have been made, as if anything in this life can close the gash of death.
In confronting death the temptation is to become an instant theologian, confidently explaining the ins and outs of God for this death. Instant theologians are almost always the worst theologians—not that all theology offered under the title Ph.D. is all that super either. But sloppy piety almost always mistakes God for the author of evil.
God is in charge of everything, and he has a plan. Doesn’t he? When inexplicable tragedy happens, it must be some part of God’s plan; it must be since he is in charge. He has reasons for permitting it to happen, and they are always good reasons even if we cannot grasp them. So it is said.
That’s why I remember Melisa’s mother and what she was told fifteen years ago when Melisa died. Melisa was an infant who died of an unsuspected heart ailment, living but twenty-two hours, almost to the minute. She was twin to Alicia, now a teenager clamoring for driving lessons. Melisa’s mother was told that God is a careful gardener. A crazed gardener is my characterization after hearing it.
If you have a flower garden, one of the nurses explained to Melisa’s mother, which blossoms would you take first? Would you choose the shriveled and twisted, or the brightest and best, the dullest or the most vibrant blossoms? Wouldn’t you select the blossoms that best reflect your deep love of color and beauty? Which blossoms would you want immediately from your garden? This is why God “plucked” your child, a perfect, unspoiled blossom.
The nurse’s message is touching, in a way, and altogether invidious otherwise. It casually dismisses the bleakness of death and the desiccations of grief. God becomes a creepy stalker, a child-killer in his pursuit of immediate gratification to satisfy his craving for visual beauty, as if in some way creation itself is insufficient. I found it more than a little sinister. Myself, I would rather God did a little weeding now and again, if God is in the habit of gardening.
Melisa’s mother repeated this to me. She liked it very much at first and thought it was fitting, her child as a blossom of God. But the implications went deeper as she thought more about it. Melisa, the perfect child snatched away by God, but her twin, Alicia, remains? What did this mean?
Most astonishingly, a member of the congregation speculated with me that it was just as well the baby died so soon and at the hospital. They otherwise might have become more “attached” to the baby if Melisa had been home for a time, making this whole thing even harder for them to handle.
In my life as a pastor I have seldom heard anything more trivializing of human loss and feeling. I have reflected on that for a long, long time. Finally, what we are talking about is the disposability of children in a manner of removal that creates the least regret. The earlier the better, if they die, and the sooner we can all move on. I know that is not what the man meant. He was thinking of the parents and what they were going through, hoping their grief might be lessened, given everything. That was his intention. But whatever he may have intended, it wasn’t what he said.
To treat the shooting at Newtown as “a national tragedy” likewise seems to trivialize the personal agony of each individual death. Death, even when it befalls many at once, is always inimitable and the death of one child, your child, is ever a calamity. A child’s death becomes a fixed moment. Time passes, of course, yet oddly it doesn’t. Melisa’s mother marks two birthdays every year on Facebook, for Alicia and Melisa.
Russell E. Saltzman is dean of the Great Plains Mission District of the North American Lutheran Church, an online homilist for the Christian Leadership Center at the University of Mary, and author of The Pastor’s Page and Other Small Essays. His previous On the Square articles can be found here.
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