She Never Saw Her 22nd Birthday
It's January again. Ironic isn't it? I mark the years and memories her not by the date of her birth, but by the date of her death.
It was 1981, I was not yet 23, married and fairly comfortable in our middle class existence. We were living in our first home in Melbourne, Florida. It was a rental, but still our first home because it was no longer a cramped apartment. Karen, my younger sister, was six and a half months into her first pregnancy. She and her husband, John, were destined to present our family with the first grandchild. I was content that this should be. I had married Suzanne, who brought two boys into the marriage, two years earlier. In my mind that was enough, at that time I had no intentions of adding to the family, the boys were my contribution. Not everyone feels the same about step-children. No sibling rivalry here, at least on my part. Life was good, then came the knock at the door.
My mother and Ernie, my stepfather, were at the door. They had been to the hospital with Karen and John. Karen had been sick with the flu, grew concerned that she had not felt any activity from the baby. She and John went to her doctor, who sent them immediately to the hospital. Karen had dilated 4cm by the time she arrived at the hospital, with no fetal heartbeat detected. Karen's little girl was stillborn. This was the first Suzanne and I had heard of the emergency. I wanted to respond, but was told it was late, Karen was sedated and sleeping and there was nothing we could do. "Just go to bed and visit her in the morning," we were told, 'there is really nothing you can do." We did as we were told, tears in our eyes and prayers on our lips. Just three hours later the phone rang, awakening us.
My mother was on the phone, "Rick, Karen is dying! Get to the hospital now!" By the time dawn broke my heart was broken. In just twelve short hours I had lost a niece and a sister, my only sibling. Karen never saw her 22nd birthday. Her daughter's birthday served a dual purpose, it also marked the date of her death.
Losing someone at such a tender age comes into conflict with our sensibilities. We would rather bury our Karens at the ripe old age of 96, surrounded by a large crowd of mourning children, grandchildren, their children and everyone's associated spouses. I said this comes into conflict with our sensibilities, the truth is, our sensibilities come too often into conflict with reality.
It is true that a pastor's week is filled with hours of study, reading, counseling and coffee breaks with contemporaries. Interspersed into this routine is the occassional wedding, birth, hospital visitation and funeral. I have performed far more funerals than weddings in my ministry career. It may surprise you that a funeral for a young person has not been in the extreme minority. For nearly every aged death, there has been the 50 year old taken by cancer, For nearly every 80 year old saint buried there has been someone in their teens taken by a car accident - or by their own hand. Drug addiction has stolen years and life, someone loses someone else because of alcohol, meth, or opiates. Guns, poisons, ropes and countless ingenius means have allowed the hurting to end their pain and begin new pain in the lives of their survivors. Karen's death, and countless others have shaped my interpretation of my world and how to apply biblical wisdom to my world. As I sit this January and reminisce about Karen, my thoughts also turn to biblical application. Before her loss I seldom thought about anyone losing someone too early in life. Karen's death caught my attention. Every loss too soon has reinforced that reality is that death is almost always a surprise. I've even met a family who believed Grandma's death at 96 was too soon. Such reality does come into conflict with sensibilities, and I have come to the conclusion that are sensibilities often need correction. Given the reality that human life is fleeting, and our departure from this life not on a calendar of our making, it seems incomprehensible that so many of us spend any amount of time in broken relationships, hurting, sorrowful, but doing nothing to repair the damage. The greatest harm coming in the form of loved ones refusing to speak with one another out of harm. That a father should go to his grave with a son not having spoken to him in years is greater than a tragedy...it is a crime. That siblings should gamble with fate and refuse to speak to one another is made of the same cloth. God's holy word instructs us to make peace with one another. Strangely enough, the burden to make peace is on both the offender and the offended. It is as if God knows us better than we know ourselves, for He appeals to whoever decides to be mature and make the first move. At times it is the offended, and at times it is the offender.
I was the last loved one in Karen's room. The machines keeping her body alive were turned off as I held her hand. There was no break, no hurt, no pain between us. Our last words to one another had been, "I love you, Merry Christmas." The pain that I held on to for years later was not that we needed to make peace, but that I had opportunities to speak with her between Christmas and her death. I cannot, I repeat - cannot, comprehend the pain of losing someone and bearing the extra burden of a broken relationship.