“Be merciful to me , O Lord, For I am in distress; My eyes grow weak with sorrow, my soul and my body with grief.” Psalm 31:9
I was actually sitting here, at her funeral and able to somewhat contain myself. The pastor was talking, but I couldn’t make out what he was saying. I think he was praying. Everyone had their heads bowed. I tried to listen, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want….” Then he says, “…even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death….” That is all folks. I did not need to be reminded that I was walking in the valley of the shadow of death. I did not need to hear anything else this man had to say.
I put my imaginary ear plugs back in and looked for my buzzing bee, but I couldn’t find it. I fixed my eyes back on the tiny coffin, searing every detail into my brain. I pictured her lying in there, just like I had seen her the day before at the viewing. It must be stifling hot in that box. It’s funny that a few days before I was worried about her being cold and now I was worried about her being hot. I had covered her with the silk blanket at her viewing and now I feel guilty about that. I imagined sweat running off her head, finding it hard to breathe in that scary dark contraption. Can’t breathe. Throat is closed. I need to run. I need air. Can’t breathe. Then reality kicked in. She wasn’t sweating in there, nor was she breathing. She was dead. I CAN breathe, she can’t. Remember to breathe. It didn’t matter how hot it got in that tiny, suffocating box. She was dead.
I thought about the little pink ruffled sock I had put inside the casket. When I purchased them, I imagined she’d have her first pictures wearing these with a matching pink ruffled dress. But, nope. There wouldn’t be any first pictures. The only pictures I had of her were when she was already dead. Yet, another sadistic moment. Never did I imagine I’d be putting the frilly sock into her coffin. She was so tiny that they didn’t fit her. I kept one sock for myself so I could remember exactly what I gave her. My mom and Kim each gave me a gift for her to place inside. My little 5 year old niece, Kaitlyn, drew a picture of an angel for Machaela. I put it in the coffin under Machaela’s feet. I placed a sterling silver baby rattle alongside her and a tiny teddy bear next to her head. That was all that would fit into the tiny coffin. The only presents I’d ever give her.
People began moving around me. The service must be over. I tried to stand up but I couldn’t. My legs were so weak I felt like they were going to buckle. I sat back down and started to cry. I just couldn’t hold it in anymore. Jim draped his arms around my shoulders, crying consumed him too. Again, his tears mixed with mine, dancing the familiar dance.
My mom stood next to me with her arm around my shoulders. What do I do now that it’s over? What exactly was funeral etiquette anyway? Do I just leave the cemetery and resume life like this never happened? I don’t want to go back to the house and eat cold cuts and crackers. I don’t want to eat at all. The nausea in my stomach has become somewhat of a comfort. It’s a constant reminder that I’m not normal anymore.
I looked up from the coffin and saw the saddest thing ever. My dad stood off to the side speaking with the pastor. His hands were tucked in his pockets as tears trickled down his cheeks. I’ve only seen my dad cry one time in my whole life; he never wore his “heart on his sleeve”. He was always very stoic, strong and able. When something broke, he fixed it. When we needed to figure out car insurance issues, we called dad. He taught me how to drive a 4×4 truck before I was tall enough to see over the steering wheel. I knew how to tow a boat, launch a jet ski, drive with a clutch and out run a park ranger on my quad all before I was 12. This was an accomplishment because I wasn’t even tall enough to reach the clutch. But, where there’s a will, there is a way. He’d prop pillows behind my back, put them under my butt and give me command of a thousand pound vehicle that had the potential to easily reach speeds of 80 mph. In my eyes, there wasn’t anything that he couldn’t do. My dad had served for the US Army and spent time in Vietnam. He was the same age then that I was now. He watched his friends die in horrible ways. He came home with a Purple Heart, Bronze Star with a “V” device, an Infantryman’s Badge and emotional scars. He’d been to war and seen all of the evil on the planet. How does one recover from that?
But on this day my dad was crying. I heard him say to the pastor, “You know, when your kids are little you do everything in your power to protect them and keep them safe. When they’re hurt you put a band aid on them. This is the first time, as a parent, that I can’t do anything about my daughter’s pain…”
I had an epiphany. Hearing my dad speak those words caused me to realize that he knew exactly how I was feeling. My dad has been in my shoes. He hadn’t seen his two oldest children in nearly twenty five years. He had no idea where they were. Around the same time his kids vanished, his father passed away. I was just a few weeks old. The pain and torment he must’ve lived through had to have been tortuous, and that would be putting it mildly. For once, I saw my dad as a human with feelings, with a boat load of experience in sadness. It broke my heart to think that his children were living and he didn’t have them. It’s one thing if they’re dead. That’s permanent. But we could change things if they were still alive.
My dad was right. For the first time he couldn’t heal my wound. He knew from his own personal torment that nothing could fix this. This wasn’t a flat tire or a skinned knee. This was a shot through the heart and my heart was in need of God’s surgical repair. I couldn’t imagine a day when I wouldn’t feel this sadness. I never knew a person’s heart could ache the way mine did.
Parents always want to protect their young. I gave my parents “a run for their money” at the Colorado River. My parents have a home there; it was our home away from home. We spent the majority of the holidays there and most of my cherished childhood memories happened there.
When I was ten, I climbed to the top of the bridge that was in camp and jumped off. Free falling, arms stretched out and legs tucked under. I screamed at the top of my lungs. I loved it! I loved the feeling of my heart skipping a beat the second my feet left the bridge. I loved the sudden halt when my body made contact with the water, the weightlessness as my body submersed itself and the float back to the top with the bubbles surrounding me. I had zero fear, and as far as I was concerned, the higher I was, the better the rush.
The bridge was high and the water was shallow. I thought if I put my life jacket on upside down and wore it like a diaper, it would break my fall. It worked! I jumped about thirty times before an adult caught me and told my dad. My parents flipped out on me! “What was I thinking? Did I wanna break my neck?” They were doing what parents do. They were protecting me. When I came home in 9th grade in tears because people were making fun of my height, my mom hugged me and told me to say, “Are you jealous or complaining?” She was comforting me and giving me some ammunition to use against the stupid kids.
But today, there didn’t seem to be any words that could comfort me. There wasn’t anything on this planet that could bring me to a smile simply because I felt like I failed to protect my Machaela.
My mom and Kim began collecting the cards from the flower arrangements. Vicki and Bebe were picking up the flowers to load them in the car. A few people were taking pictures. I thought it was kind of morbid. Do people really take pictures at funerals? Really? Who takes photos of a little dead baby’s coffin? I had very little funeral experience, but this still seemed creepy to me. I didn’t object, mostly because I couldn’t muster enough energy.
I would be grateful for these pictures later.
Jim and I finally stood up. The next thing I knew was there was an assembly line of people waiting to give each Jim and me, along with our immediate family members, a hug. I am not a big hugger. Anyone who knows me knows that I like my space and that’s just how I am. I am not from a family of huggers. We’d hug our grandparents upon arrival and when they were leaving and maybe one of us would spit out an awkward ‘I love you’ but that was it. It’s not that we do not love each other, because we do. We all knew we loved each other but we never felt the need to say it.
This part of the service was particularly awkward for me. I know the gesture is meant to show love and support, but what in the world am I supposed to say back to them when they whisper into my ear, “It’s going to be okay” as they hug me. It’s not okay! I don’t feel okay and doubted I ever would. The one thing that would make me feel okay, I knew I could never have.
The grounds crews arrived with their noisy bull dozers, and were lined up against the back gate. They were back to bury my baby. My throat suddenly swelled shut and snot started to run down my face. My Kleenex was crumbled in my hand and in shreds from the combination of tears and sweat. I didn’t even bother to try to wipe the snot off my chin. They really were here to bury my baby, the baby I was supposed to be carrying in the Snuggli I had bought. The thought of them smothering her in dirt made me want to vomit. Without a second look, I turned back and headed for the car.
Jim drove us in Vicki’s car that day. I’m not sure why and I didn’t really care why. Jim had just said we’d be taking her car and he never gave me an explanation. I stood next to the door and before I could even get in, I could feel the vibration of the men pounding the dirt with their bulldozer. It was pulsating through the souls of my feet, ricocheting off every fiber of my being. My heart sped up a little, and then it sank into the very feet that held this broken body up. It sounded like a magnified jackhammer and it was pounding to the beat of my pulse throbbing in my head. Couldn’t they have waited for us to leave?
I sat in the passenger seat and looked down at the curb. There was that word Compassion again, spray-painted with black paint. It even looked morbid. I found it ironic that the area we buried our precious baby in was named Compassion. Was that some kind of crazy joke? Who gives a name like Compassion to a graveyard for babies? Was a name like that supposed to make parents feel better? Was that supposed to be comforting? I’d like to meet that jokester and tell them what I think.
Jim started the car. I could not believe that I was leaving my baby all alone in a cemetery with strangers burying her. I didn’t want to look back. I told myself not to. I didn’t want to see them toppling dirt onto my hopes and dreams. But I had to look. I had to know that she was being taken care of. My chest was caving in on me and I could barely see through my cloudy eyes. Men with shovels in their hands methodically took turns throwing dirt on top of her; one, right after the other, one scoop at a time. The loud noise of the bulldozer, scooping the last of the dirt and pounding until the ground was firm caused vibrations through the car and I started to sob. Lord, please have mercy on my soul.
“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, So that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God.”
2 Corinthians 1:3-4