“I wish I had met my big sister.”
I was standing in the cemetery behind Salem Church in Lena, with my 12-year old son, Joshua. Salem Church is where I was serving as pastor 13 years ago yesterday, when my wife Christy gave birth to our first child. Caitlyn Marie Woosley was stillborn, in the 26th week of pregnancy. Katie isn’t a morbid or overbearing presence in our lives, but neither is she forgotten. So it is that Joshua is aware that there was a child before him; so it is that we return to Salem periodically, most years as close to her birthday as possible, to remember, and to look ahead.
This year Katie’s birthday was on a Sunday, and we were able to join our friends at Salem for worship. Going to worship isn’t easy for our nine-year old, Zach. He’s not great at sitting in one place for an hour; he’s not great at staying quiet for the liturgy and preaching; he doesn’t exactly love unfamiliar places, especially when he has to do things like sit still and stay quiet. So, eventually, Zach and I found ourselves outside, as worship continued inside the stone walls of Salem’s sanctuary.
I was only at Salem for six years (I’ve been gone nine years now), but as we walked out of the front of the building, onto the snowy steps, the sense of familiarity seeped warmly into me. Zach turned left, headed for the lawn between the sanctuary and the parsonage (and even more for the play structure at the back of the parsonage). As always, the snow formed a drifted ledge between the two buildings, but what stopped me cold was not the wind. The large lilac bush that had long stood at the corner of the yard – a personal favorite, spreading gentle fragrance across the property – was gone. And as I looked through the space where the lilac used to be, I could see that also gone was the cherry tree in the middle of the yard.
After Caitlyn died, the other members of my clergy group had given us a certificate for a tree – we were free to pick the tree of our choice, and to plant it in memory of Katie. When spring arrived, we selected a Montmorency Cherry tree. I liked the idea that it would flower in April, when Katie had been due, and that it would be fragrant and fruitful. When springtime came, we planted the tree together.
Now, where the Cherry tree used to be, there was a young evergreen, with a stake next to it for support. My initial shock quickly shifted into the realization that the cherry tree had been there for more than 12 years, which is not an unusual life span. It would seem the tree had died out, and the current Pastor (who has always been exceptionally sensitive to our history there) had planted a new tree, perhaps even as an intentional replacement.
Nothing in this life lasts. Certainly not a Cherry tree. This was no revelation, but a melancholy reminder on this birthday. I don’t have a teenaged daughter. I have a son who I would not have if she had survived to full term. This year has brought reminders that I have no more control over keeping and protecting him than I had over that pre-born daughter. I don’t enjoy those reminders, the realization that we are so limited, so powerless, so dependent upon the provision of God.
This is, in my bones, what I believe. We are in the hands of the one who made us. And we are living in a broken world. Which means that God holds us, but we are not always free from the pain of the brokenness. My daughter died during the season of Christmas, when we celebrate the birth of God in the world. Jesus of Nazareth changed the world, and will one day further change the world. What is broken will be no more. No more pain, no more tears, no more death. No more separation. At the second Advent.
“I wish I had met my big sister.”
“You believe that in heaven, we’ll get to meet her, right?”
“Yes, I do.”
On other days, this has led to blizzards of questions I have no answer for: what age will we be in heaven? Will everyone be (or appear to be) the same age? Will we get older? How will we recognize each other? But not today.
“Katie, I’m sorry we were late getting over here. I, uh, got lost looking for your headstone, and then I was stuck waiting for dad to get the snow out of my shoes.”
“I hope everything’s good there in heaven. I mean, it is, right, Dad?”
“That’s what I believe.”
“I look forward to meeting you someday, Katie.”