Two years ago this July I received an unexpected phone call from one of my very dear friends who was in somewhat of a panic. A panic only someone in my position could fully understand. Her daughter was turning sixteen and she needed a favor for her birthday. There was no party planned, no driver’s license test to be taken, or presents waiting to be opened. There was only the grave of a little girl who had died when she was just five years old.
“It doesn’t hit me like this every year,” she said. “It’s just that it’s her sixteenth birthday and I can’t be there to be with her. I’d ask my sister but she’s gone too.” My friend lives far away from where her daughter was buried, here in Seattle, all those years ago and even though her sister, usually able to be there, happened to be out of town as well.
“Would you mind taking some flowers to her?” she asked me.
She asked because she knew I’d understand. Not because I could logically comprehend what that must feel like, but I would understand because I was in the same position. Even though I had never met her daughter, she had died of Tay-Sachs disease just like my Miss Elliott had and we had been brought together in recent years in our shared losses. My own daughter was buried at such a tender age and I too would one day be missing those parties, presents, and milestones. I would be suffering the same heartache she was.
It was a Saturday when she called. Part of her panic was that time was ticking away. Her daughter’s birthday would be here the very next day and she just needed someone to be with her. She couldn’t stand the thought of her daughter being alone on such a special day. At this point, my Miss Elliott had been gone for just five months, and I had yet to have to celebrate one of her birthday’s posthumously, but I knew what she meant about not all birthdays hitting her like this. I knew that her grief comes and goes in waves, but always lingers under the surface of the veil of functionality. Today, it was ripping right through it. Today, it was breaking her down.
Of course I would go. We would leave in the morning, drive into the city, and navigate our way through the maze of the cemetery to her grave.
I heard a parable once that went like this: A boy and his mother were on their way to church. They stopped because they saw a motorist out of gas on the side of the road. When the mother pulled the car over the boy questioned her, asking “Mother, if we stop to help, won’t we be late for church?” “Son, if we don’t stop to help, there’s no point in going to church at all,” his mother replied.
What’s the point of a relentless and intensive study of life’s guidebook if you forget to look up and put it into practice once in a while?
That Sunday we did not go to church. We picked up the flowers from the florist and drove to the cemetery. We walked as a family to her grave and carefully placed the flowers on her bench. We did our best to honor this so-loved child. We wept for her, for her mother, for her brother and father. We wept for Miss Elliott, and for ourselves.
I knew I would call someone in a panic myself one day. I will need someone to bring flowers to my Miss Elliott at some point too. We will all be in the position of needing help from others to some extent at some point in our lives. Thank goodness for the kindness of the motorist who notices you standing on the side of the road and slows down to help.
This year her daughter would have been attending her senior prom. She would be graduating right now. She would be turning eighteen next month. Soon she would be off to college to start a new chapter in her life. Glowing with the excitement of young adulthood. Buzzing with the energy to make her way in the world. Unfortunately for her, it was a life that never was to be. In the hearts the mind’s eye of her family, those who love her, and all who were here for her as she left this world behind, she will forever be that five year old little girl.
That Sunday we didn’t go to church, but we put into action the sentiment behind the words in The Good Book, nonetheless.