My friend, John Byron Kuhner recently wrote a most moving and reflective piece in his blog about an Amish funeral that he attended while visiting with his wife in Ohio as they await the birth of their twin babies any day now. The funeral was for a baby. My first thought was: how do you go to a baby’s funeral just as your own are about to be born, but before I could complete the thought, I knew my own answer. What follows is what I wrote to him.
“I read your blog post last night about the Amish funeral and found it deeply touching and thoughtful. I can imagine how an event like that touches close to your own heart as you wait the arrival of your babies.
“Your post took me back to a couple of places. First was the phone call I received 27 years ago on a Sunday night just as we were going to bed. I was the Methodist minister in this small Alabama town. A young couple (19 and 20 years old) had an 11 month old son, the same age as our only child at the time, Miriam. His cold had become something worse, and that Sunday we knew that he was in the hospital in a nearby town. They asked me to come right away–he had taken a turn for the worse.
“When I arrived, the young mom and dad were in a grieving room, holding their baby for the last time. He had died just minutes before I arrived.
“The next few days were filled with walking through death with them. It changed my life forever, and 27 years later, I still try to qualify in words what those changes were. Your post did some of that. I think I was already a pretty tender-hearted soul at 29, but that event (can you call something like this an event?) tenderized me in ways I could never imagine. I would come home from their house, or the church, or the day of the funeral, and my baby was still there. Theirs was not. Guilt wasn’t the feeling. Clinging was tempting. Mostly, there was the deep widening in me for experiences like this, and that was sort of terrifying and sort of comforting.
“One of the other things your blog and my own experience reminds me of is how going through the birth of a child is such a near death experience. No one says that, and I would not say it now very publicly. But, it’s true. The day of birthing is so intense in all its forms. I have stories of all three of ours which I won’t burden you with, but each of them took us (Lydia and me, very differently of course) to some veiled space that can only be near death and then, new life emerges. At least, it did for us, and I know that it does not always. It’s almost, for me, like diving too deep in water, having to hold your breath and swim like mad for the surface knowing that you will never make it before you pass out and then breaking through the water surface. Air never tasted so good.”
My friend’s blogging reminds me of the sacred in its most ordinary appearances. He calls it “the touching of other people” and he notes how “honesty tends to find companions.” I agree. Touching each other with and through our stories makes what I am going to call sacred companions along the way. We are passing through days of “great joy, lights and happiness,” and they are also days of darkness, sadness and grief. These really are not separate experiences. They are our stories that make of us sacred companions–when we share them.