By: Mary Farr
A Reason to Hope
I said to the night
that stood at the gate of the new year,
“Give me a light
that I might tread safely
into the dark and unknown.”
And a voice said in reply,
“Put your hand into the hand of the one who made you,
and your reward will be
blessed with more light
than the unknown.”
When I asked him the meaning of hope, a wise friend told me, “Most people tend to associate hope with optimism. I find it more helpful to define the optimist as someone who says everything is going to be fine. The pessimist says everything will be awful. The hopeful person says, ‘However things shall be, it will bring forth life.”
This must be true, for there are many situations in which we have no reason for optimism, but every reason for hope.
One of those occasions took place a couple of years ago in the month of January. The young parents in the emergency room where I worked watched without words as a team of physicians, pharmacists, respiratory therapists, nurses and more labored over their baby boy.
Hoping against hope the man and woman gripped each other’s hands and prayed together for a miracle that would revive their son.
Born just a few weeks earlier, Stephen had been diagnosed with hemophilia, though, by all accounts, he was doing very well. Surprised at their good fortune of an unplanned pregnancy, both Stephen’s parents and his older siblings were thrilled at the baby boy’s arrival. The instant he emerged from his mother’s womb, he became the cooing center of his family’s adoration. His ecstatic parents clucked attentively over his every move, keeping a watchful eye on all aspects of his care.
That morning, however, something had gone terribly wrong.
Somewhere between a family rejoicing at breakfast over their exquisite son and the father’s drive home from a visit with relatives, Stephen died. He produced not a sound, not a seizure, not a hint of warning. He simply stopped breathing. More shocking, his father did not discover the catastrophe until he parked the car in the garage and reached into the backseat to lift Stephen from his infant seat. In an instant, the mystery of love that created him and prepared a place for him was about to come to terms with letting go of him.
After what seemed an interminable hour, the emergency room physician in charge of resuscitation efforts stopped and looked helplessly into the parents’ faces.
It was hardly necessary for her to speak, as everyone had known or at least suspected the outcome before the painstaking attempt to revive Stephen even began. The rest of the trauma team backed away from the baby, paralyzed by agony and disbelief. It was sudden infant death syndrome. It was over.
What happened next, however, would transform this devastating loss into a life-altering experience of a very different nature.
Stephen’s parents, crushed beyond words, turned to the group and thanked each person in the room for her or his valiant effort to save Stephen’s life. The couple then thanked each other for the life they had shared for so many years. They thanked their family physician and the clinic nurses who had provided Stephen’s ongoing care. They expressed thanks to the paramedics who raced to their home and toiled in vain to breathe life back into Stephen.
Finally, though tearful and shaky, Stephen’s father gently wrapped his son in a clean receiving blanket, lifted the baby upward toward the blinding trauma room lights, thanked God for sharing Stephen with him and his family, and then baptized the lifeless child.
It was a gesture of gratitude that brought the normally bustling emergency department to a speechless standstill.
The tables had turned. A family who had lost more than words could say had extended a healing hand and heartfelt gratitude to the professional caregivers.
“There is no tragedy, nor is there any kind of loss, through which life cannot emerge,” said Stephen’s father several weeks later. “Sometimes we simply have no control, and all we can do is try to go on living our lives with integrity and light. Stephen’s death was outside of our control but we trust that life can come from it. We know that grace can be found within this experience.”
Several months later, Stephen’s physician offered the address at a hospital memorial service held for all the families whose children had died in the past year. Before an auditorium full of pensive faces, he spoke about mercy and gratitude and how important a role each played in the practice of medicine. He then expressed his appreciation for every parent and loved one who had allowed him to care for their child. He thanked them for sharing their wisdom about loss with him. He spoke with such authenticity about how it felt to have no cure to offer.
After witnessing both of those events, I realized that there are some things in life we can take into our hands and hold up to the light or put under a microscope for a clearer understanding.
We can sift through a handful of pebbles or inspect a beautiful piece of silk. We can perceive the beauty of a masterful painting; we can observe the petals of a rose. Then there are other experiences that we cannot grasp with our hands or eyes, but only with our hearts. These lie beyond our reach and our capacity to fix. They carry us past the conscious world of familiar scenery and sounds into the silent world of the unknown. Some would describe these experiences as encounters with mystery, or the discovery of something hidden.
A healing secret revealed.
For the family and the physician, this mystery appeared in their genuine appreciation for all of life, as a mix of celebration and sorrow. They also knew they had witnessed an unbroken circle of mercy and gratitude, a connection to the heart that begins in life and remains in death.
Stephen died in the month of January. January receives its name from Janus, the god of thresholds. Janus is often pictured with two faces. One face looks backward in memory, and the other face searches the horizon of the future. Janus is also the patron of doorways. The month that bears his name marks the season of endings and beginnings, as in the beginning of a new year. It is the time of inventories. January is the month of resuming old routines after the holidays and starting new ones that sustain us through the rest of the winter and beyond.
The ability to assume a posture of gratitude does not make crossing the January threshold and beginning anew any less difficult or painful.
Beginnings and endings never come easily. Adjusting life plans and reshaping lost dreams takes tremendous courage. To adapt to a new vision is a challenge that stood before Stephen’s family. It also stood before their physician, and before most of us at some point in time. These are the things that sometimes make us wonder if we should stretch out our hand to welcome another day, or turn over and pull the blanket over our heads. Shall we hide from life, or shall we embrace it?
Can we find a reason to hope?
Most of us experience growth and understanding of our journeys in fleeting glimpses rather than in dramatic turning points. Truth unfolds slowly more often than it appears in great flashes of light. Its pattern remains hidden beneath the routine events of the day. Even if hope tells us that life promises a new direction and destiny, it’s only in gifted moments that we gain enough perspective to see this mosaic of meaning.
An ancient Orphic hymn proclaims that the night is the birth of all things. January takes us out into the bitter cold, yet for Stephen’s parents and for his doctor, the darkness of January was not a night of despair only, but a night of watching for the light of January. They came to realize that in life as in death we are truly linked together by a fragile thread. Creation and compassion give birth to this delicate link. Gratitude and mercy sustain it.
Hope, in my experience is much larger than wishes.
Hope believes that life can emerge from even the most difficult circumstances. Hope defies all boundaries and refuses to accept misery as an option. As we stand on the threshold of a new year, what can we hope for today? Tomorrow? Next Year?
Mary is a longtime pediatric hospital chaplain and health care leader who speaks from years of experience fostering healing, hope, happiness and humor.
As a former director of chaplaincy at Children’s Hospital, Minnesota., she has authored five books, and been featured in radio programs, publications and blogs including the St. Paul Pioneer Press, Minnetonka Magazine, ZestNow.com, TheDailyBasics.com, Humoroutcasts.com, and The Erma Bombeck Writers Workshop. She has presented at women’s leadership groups, Befriender Ministry forums, Parish Nurse Association Minnesota, the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, Augsburg College Integrative Medicine Conference; United Hospital Grand Rounds, and numerous grief and loss conferences.
A graduate of the University of Wisconsin with a Bachelor of Arts Degree in English, Mary completed divinity studies in the Episcopal Diocese of Eau Claire where she was ordained to the permanent diaconate in 1983. She received a Master of Arts degree in Theology from St. Catherine University in Saint Paul, Minnesota.