Stumbling Toward the Light

"We are closest to God in the darkness, stumbling along blindly" -- Madeleine L'Engle

A collection of thoughts and messages I wrote after my daughter died May 17, 2000. Primarily this blog is concerned with grief, bereavement, the death of a child, hope, courage and a tough faith journey.

Location: Kansas, United States

Husband, father of four, friend, dog owner, owned by a cat, Episcopalian, last liberal Republican left in the U.S.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Holy Innocents

[Transcribed from a message sent to the DayByDay email list, December 27, 2007]

"A voice was heard in Ramah, lamentation, weeping and great
mourning, Rachel weeping for her children; she wouldn't be
comforted, because they are no more."
--Matthew 2:18

Tomorrow, December 28th, is "Holy Innocents Day" within some
Christian churches. The day commerorates the slaughter of baby boys in Bethlehem at the order of King Herod who was seeking the young Messiah he believed to have been born in that town.

The past six years I've been struck by the verse above from the
Christian part of the Bible. It echoes the sorrow of Rachel of the
Old Testament/Tanakh who died in great pain giving birth to her son,
Benjamin and of course it is also the name of my daughter, Rachel.

My Rachel was often an observer and pithy commentator on life. She
espcially had an uncanny knack for a seven year old of seeing into
the bologna that some adults like to spread thick over difficult
issues in life in order to "protect" children. Rachel didn't like
bologna... the meat or the talk.

Leukemia made Rachel even more observant and within the limited
confines of the hospital "world" she would ask difficult questions
and comment on things said and done that caused some well meaning
adults to falter at times.

Death came to the oncology ward now and then. Most of the time the
staff would wisk a child and her/his family down to the ICU away
from all of us for the final days. But sometimes there was no time
or the staff saw no need to move the child.

One day Rachel and I were walking the ward as we often did. We came
to a room at the end of the hallway and discovered it was empty.
There was a boy a bit older than Rachel who'd been in that room.
Rachel had worked on art projects with him. She asked a passing
nurse where the boy was.

"He's left," was her only response as she moved on down the hall.

The room looked like no other "He's left" room we normally saw...
where the child had gone home. It was totally cleared out and was
being cleaned from top to bottom. Yellow caution tape crossed over
the doorway warning people to say out. Rachel stared inside and we
moved back down the hall to her room.

We sat there for quite a while in silence, some TV show on that we
weren't watching.

"He died, didn't he?"

Dang! I knew it was coming... but like an idiot I tried to dodge
the question....


I could sense the irritation of her response, "The boy at the end of
the hall who sat next to me at the Halloween art project... He's
dead, isn't he?"


There were two levels to Rachel's anger... VERY LOUD and very
quiet. Very quiet was much worse than VERY LOUD. She sat there for
the longest time, deep in quiet anger... thinking, thinking,

I did not sugar coat things. I couldn't. She would have seen that
I was laying it on and scraped the frosting off with a sharp
tongue. I also knew that if she wanted to talk about it she would
do so in her own good time... the hardest thing for me to do... shut
the heck up and wait.

Finally she said, "I am no going to die."

She didn't say it in a whiney voice. She said it with the stubborn
will of a soldier going off to battle. When I look back on it I
would say that she said it out of Love... quiet, angry Love. And I
don't think she was speaking just to me either (or expecting a
response from me)... She was facing Leukemia and God and the doctors and the whole freaking World and stating the power of who she was. Moments later she had a smile on her face and we were laughing our way through a game as though the heaviness of the day had melted away.

I read the Bible text at the beginning of this message this morning and
thought of my Rachel. She was a different Rachel from the one in
the Bible. There wasn't a lot of "lamentation, weeping and great
mourning" in her. There was a great force... a will that children
like her should not die. My Rachel wouldn't lament as much as vent.

I would see her now at the Gates of Heaven, a force to be reckoned
with, greeting other children like herself... other Holy Innocents
arriving there... with the same stubborn power of Love that kept her
going right up to the day she died from this plain of existence.

My thoughts for Holy Innocents Day

Bill Sowers
Father of Rachel of the quiet, angry Love

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

This Little Light of Mine

[ORIGINALLY WRITTEN December 22, 2002, for the DayByDay email group]

Dear Friends,

"This little light of mine
I'm gonna make it shine
This little light of mine
I'm gonna make it shine
Let it shine, make it shine, make it shine."

This is one of the hardest songs for me to listen to. Rachel learned it at school and liked to sing it. It's funny that I like to describe her as a "star" and this song reflects that thought... letting light shine forth.

We've just passed the winter solstice. The days are beginning to lengthen. Most religions, especially those originating in the Northern Hemisphere, have holy days or festivals at this time of year celebrating light. Bonfires are lit. Lights decorate buildings. Processions wind their way through towns and cities with people holding candles and torches. Humans celebrate the return of light into the world.

We have a three foot high candle decoration up about 20 feet in our sycamore tree in our front yard... our light in the darkness. We got it this year to replace Rachel's reindeer light decoration which had finally broken after many Decembers of service. We've been plugging in the candle light decoration each evening and it shines out over our street and into the world.

This past week has been a hard one for Diana and me. We'd made it through our first two Christmases after Rachel's death rather well. We planned "events" to memoralize her which the older kids wanted to participate in. I went out each Christmas and bought a stone rabbit statue for our yard (Rachel's favorite animal). We used ritual and symbols to remind ourselves that, though she was gone, she was still an integral part of us.

But we didn't have anything like that ready this year. We didn't *do* anything. We didn't know what to do! I didn't see any stone rabbits I liked. We couldn't think of anything special to do at the cemetery other than change the silk flowers. The loss had truely hit, strangely three Christmasses later. We got really down. Was she fading from our lives? What a dark place to be.

Last night I was going to bed. It was late. I had on a Christmas CD I espcially like and was sitting in the dark listening to it.... all the lights out. On this CD is a beautiful version of "This Litgle Light of Mine." I almost always skip it though... don't want to listen to it. As I was sitting there in the dark I realized that there was a bright light shining in through the front window. I went to the window, opening the blinds and it dawned on me that I hadn't gone out and unplugged Rachel's candle decoration. It was 1 a.m., cold as blue blazes and I was in no mood to go out and unplug anything. I stood there glaring at that light up in the sycamore tree.

I'd forgotten the CD... and just then I heard a clear baritone voice begin to sing....

"This little light of mine
I'm gonna let it shine
This little light of mine
I'm gonna let it shine
Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.

All through the night
I'm gonna let it shine
All through the night
I'm gonna let it shine
Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine....

I got down on the floor in front of the CD player, which sits in front of the front window... and listened... and once again... I "got it." We *did* have something this year. It had been sitting up in a tree looking down on us every dark night.

There is a light shining down on us, leading us on. I've written before that my faith teaches me to imitate the actions of my God as he has revealed them to me. I believe that other lives around me also reflect my God as examples of goodness, courage, love. These are my guides... lights that lead me through a dark journey.

My child is a light. I will sing of Light this Christmas Eve Night and remember a light over a stable, a light over our front yard.. and the light who leads me home, skipping along a nature trail, putting sticks and rocks into her pockets, pausing to watch a cardinal flying overhead, stopping in awe to see how the setting sun turns the clouds pink and purple.

Our wish and prayer for you all at this holy time of the year is the memory of your Lights, your Stars... burning through the black pain that also comes with what sometimes seems like a year-long dark winter... and a little peace that come with that light.

Bill and Diana Sowers