My daughter Nichole phoned me last week to tell me the bare bones details of a story that defied belief. The past 24 hours, I talked to several people about the concept of having basic premises about Life, and what happens when Life shatters our beliefs.
“So often I hear people say, ‘ I was in an accident and could have been killed. But I walked away in perfect condition’ followed by a pause, then a statement similar to one of these,” I told the last woman I discussed this with: ‘God must really love me because I survived.’”
A wind passes through my home. I didn’t know what my e-mail inbox had waiting for me.
There’s this tunnel many of us walk through whether we want to or not. Life shoves us into it. We don’t get a choice. We enter the tunnel with our basic beliefs about Life intact: If we do good things, good things happen to us. What comes around goes around. God really loves me, so I won’t be put in harm’s way. My loved ones and I will be protected by God. We’re Safe.
Having faith came easy before the tunnel. Until that moment that irrevocably changes our life. The moment that thing happens we know only one thing: The person who comes out of the tunnel won’t be the same person who entered it. Life will never be the same again.
Neither will we.
We no longer know what we believe. Who can say this: My child died in my arms so God must really love me? The words don’t fit. Yet they describe what we’re learning, at our own pace – and what we’ll come to not just believe but know as truth.
It’s only part of the new set of beliefs that call us to radical faith, not nearly as easy or natural as the faith we had before, before that thing happened. Before the tunnel appeared and Someone pushed us into it.
We emerge knowing what we do doesn’t really affect what happens to us. We can do as much good as we possibly can and still sometimes tragically bad — horrible — things happen to us, seemingly in return.
It may take decades to understand that Grief isn’t wasted time or life. It’s not the same as depression, either. It hurts like hell, feels like it won’t ever end, and we can’t make it go away. We can’t therapize grief. It’s all we can do to get out of bed each day.
When it happened to me, I felt like a deboned fish fillet – no spine, no structure. Just skin holding Jell-O.
“I learned to stop living a day at a time. Too often I used that phrase to hide behind waiting for tomorrow to come. I began to practice surrendering to and being fully present for each moment instead as a means to survive.
I didn’t know this would become my new way of life. I stopped trusting what I knew and began trusting what I hadn’t learned yet. Living in the Mystery started as a survival tool when I didn’t want to survive. Then it became a Way of Life.
Two paradoxes emerged. “It’s what you do with it, not what happens to you, that counts,” emerged as a guiding light instead of a platitude. I had to learn to let the realization that I could pretend I had some control over my life, but in the end what I got to choose was whether I wanted pancakes or eggs for breakfast, and did I want my eggs poached, hard-boiled, or fried.
“You can love someone so deeply, with all your heart, but that doesn’t mean you’ll get to keep him or her by your side,” a friend taught me. What a mean and brutal truth to digest.
I really didn’t have a choice about the things that matter most.
I came out of the tunnel transformed.
After I finished talked to my daughter on the phone, I filed our conversation under “Things I Want to Forget.” This morning, I found the details of our conversation in my e-mail inbox in the form of a blog. No matter how alone, hurt, forgotten, or abandoned you feel, I challenge you to read this story and not be changed.
Thank you, Nichole. You share so much and for so many continue to be a guiding warm light. Thank you, Madonna and Matt. We’ve never met, but the generosity you’ve shown by sharing your story with the world makes the word gift sound trite.
You don’t know all the people who won’t ever forget you and the tunnel you entered Christmas Day.
The story that follows is from the Art, Meet Commerce – Blog. Share it freely. Be of service. Let Madonna and Matt’s experience count for good in this often cold, dark, and brutal world.
Friday, January 6, 2012 at 9:45AM
You should not be reading this.
And I should not have written it.
Because we should not be here.
In fact, we should not exist.
And the odds that we do exist are so impossibly small that we can not conceive of a number that finite.
Smaller than a step in a walk to the far side of the universe. Smaller than a single grain in a world full of sand.
It would take the change of but one mundane act since the beginning of time for either you or I to have never been born. Any one. A chance introduction. A door left open. A letter lost in the mail. A train that left on time. Or didn’t. A sliding door. A moment’s hesitation. A glance, a nod, a wink.
But we are here. And by any definition, mathematical or mystical, that makes us miracles. Whether we exist for a day, or a hundred years, or less than ten, we are miracles.
Which suddenly makes what we do today a decision of some consequence.
I have known Madonna Badger since 2008. First as a client, and then as a friend. And I have met her husband Matt briefly a few times.
Yesterday, Chris and I attended the funeral of their three daughters: Lily, Sarah and Grace.
For those of you who haven’t heard this unspeakably tragic story, Madonna lost her daughters and her parents in a house fire on Christmas morning. As the fire fighters pulled her away she said to them, “my whole life is in there.”
I can say I have never heard anything of which I was more certain that that. Those five people were her life. She was limitlessly committed to them, her life revolved around them. She would have died for them. For any one of them.
We went to the funeral yesterday, pre-judging her by the expectations we would have of ourselves in those same circumstances. That simply to breathe would no longer be possible. That existence itself would be more than we could bear. We expected to find a broken woman.
Instead we found a woman whose strength filled a church of well over a thousand people, and who left me with a personal reference point that is unshakeable.
That life is an opportunity. A chance. An unimaginable gift.
And we should treat it that way. Every day.
In the way that little girls do. Exploring, trying, learning, loving, playing, living.
Because when the last of these is suddenly taken from us, what will be left is what we did.
Not what we meant to do. Not what we intended to do. Not what we thought about doing.
But what we did.
Lily, Sarah and Grace were prevented from doing more.
But what they did was life-changing.
For their mother, who will be their mother forever, and will use their power to change the world.
And for any of us who use their memory as fuel to fight against assumption.
That tomorrow is the same as today.
That we are in control.
That it will work out in the end.
We should not be here. We should not exist. It is impossible that we do.
After all that, living life with the wonder of a little girl should be a piece of cake
I have included the text of Madonna’s eulogy below. That she was able to give it in person, is the bravest act I have ever seen.
January 5th, 2012
Thank you all for being here today.
I want talk to you about my girls, my three little girls Lily, Sarah, and Grace Badger, and this is going to be really hard.
Lily Grace and Sarah are not here with us today and they won’t be here tomorrow and I am trying to come to terms with this and I know that Matthew is and I know that all of us are. But I feel very strongly and the reason why I wanted to speak to you today is to let you know who my girls were and that our girls, my little girls are not gone from us entirely because my girls are in my heart they’re right here and this is where they live now and they live in Matthew’s heart and they live in the heart’s of all of you who knew them and even those who didn’t know them.
And I want you to remember my girls out loud to fight for them to never be forgotten. This is why I can stand before you today because they were my little girls and they were my little girl tribe and I want you to hear about them from me.
So I’m going to tell you just the tiniest of snippets, little stories that are the smallest of drops in a ocean of memories, because there were Christmases and Easters and Thanksgivings and so many days of just being a girl tribe together, and dancing and singing and playing and loving one another.
My Lily. Lily was my angel and my life and she was my first baby, and when Lily was first born I would put her in my baby Bjorn and we would walk around New York City for hours, with diapers in my pocket and my breasts full of milk and it was all we needed. And we’d walk the city.
Lily sang before she spoke and she made-up songs constantly. She made-up elaborate games with her Nana and all of the little animals that she loved to play with, and these animals all had names, and they all lived in very special kingdoms. Lily loved her Ricky and her Mister Wiggles and Lily loved her Jessica so very much.
And most of all Lily loved her sisters. They were her best friends and she celebrated all of their unique qualities, and she never changed them and she never harmed them and she always gave them love. Lily was naturally shy and her smile was sometimes hidden, but when she let her smile show it glowed completely.
And Lily was a dancer, a natural born dancer and when Lily danced it was with moves that far outdid Michael Jackson. Lily was calm and confident and full of who Lily was. When she was first met you she wasn’t sure about you, but once she determined that you were okay, you were one hundred percent in with Lily forever.
When Lily and I went to the Met and we saw all the Pietàs because apparently I had made a wrong turn and all the Pietàs were right there, but anyway when she saw the Pietàs at the Met when she was only 5, Lily broke down on the floor and she begged me to tell her when she was going to die. And I told her after a lot of not knowing what to say, that life is a mystery, it’s a total mystery, and we will never know when we will die. And she accepted that. And I did too.
My darling, Sarah. Sarah is spirited love and her greatest joy in this life was to make you feel good and at ease and loved. As many of you know, my parents – their Nana and Papa – were true givers. And one Christmas my dad as his alter-ego Santa, in full regalia, went to the village nursing home, and my mother had made sugar cookies and put them in little bags and everybody walked into the nursing home and it was scary.
And Lily was there, and Sarah and Gracie and Matthew, and it was Sarah who grabbed the little cookies and started handing them out to the very sick and very old people, and the entire room changed and it was full of ease and full of light. Sarah later said to my mom, “Nana, now somebody better tell the tooth fairy that this is where she needs to bring all the teeth, cause these people really need them.”
I had a fever once and Sarah came and she sprayed my face with magic mist and she put a toy dog in my hand and she said, “don’t worry Mama these things are going to help you sleep and make you well.”
Sarah had a very, very fragile heart and it was hidden behind a lot of love and lot of smiles and the smallest slight would cost such deep deep damage that I swear you could see the tear right there in her heart.
Sarah liked to lie with me at bed time and hold my hand and tell me how much she loved me. And she was my whipper snapper. One night I asked Sarah to do something, and it was silly – I can’t remember what it was – and she put her hands firmly on her hips and she said, “no can do, Mommy.”
Once her Nana said, “Sarah Badgers can you hear me?” And Sarah said “Nana I can hear you. I’m just not listening to you.”
And Doctor Solar said that Sarah was the mayor of Windward, their school. And she knew the names of all of their brothers and all of their sisters, and recently they had to call a special meeting at Windward, Dr. Schwab had to call a meeting with the second grade girls so they could figure out a way of how they were going to take turns being close to Sarah. This was my Sarah, my little Sarah, my little whipper snapper, love and lovable and totally loved.
My Gracie. My best friend Jenny once said that Grace was light in a previous life and I think she was right. Grace was fearless, she was the first one to pick up the most creepiest most grossest bug you could possible find and try to give it to me because I hate creepy crawly things. Gracie was fearless.
She was the first one on the trapeze in our last spring vacation and she begged and begged to go on it again and again. Gracie was in love with her sisters and in awe of Lily. And Gracie always used to say, “right Lily, right, isn’t that right?”
Sarah and Grace had a special language and a special bond. For instance they called one another ‘RaRa’ when they were little toddlers and it was the name that they had given one another because it was the ‘Ra’ in both of their names that was only thing that was the same. And it took us a long time to really know if they knew the difference between which one was Grace and which was Sarah.
Grace loved math and she would do problems that were like 10 numbers long and she would add them and subtract them. And then she would make us all check her work, and she was so proud of what she could accomplish with her numbers.
Grace was a fisherman, an adventure and an inventor and her imagination was boundless. And there was nothing Grace Badger couldn’t make with a Band Aid. Band Aids were balls and they were wrapping paper and they were everything. Nobody loved Band Aids more than Grace Badger.
And Gracie wanted to know everything. She wanted a microscope and a telescope and I think she wanted to see the seen and the unseen. And she could have cared less if you liked her or approved of her, she found her own way always and when she loved you she loved you completely. And Grace’s tender kisses were always given when she wanted to give them and her hugs were so full and so loving.
Grace asked me a thousand times, if she was going to die before me and I said, “No Gracie, no, that is never going to happen.”
But it happened. And people, everyone, including me, wonder ”Why? Why did this happen, and why my children, and why my parents and why now?”
But nothing will bring my babies back, or my parents, or the life I had or Matthew’s. And here’s the one thing that I know is not a mystery. That there is no power greater on this Earth than love. And that is what is going to keep Lily and Sarah and Grace with us forever.
In this, in all this incomprehensible loss and chaos, all I can hang on to is that love is everything. And God, as I choose to call my higher power, is love. And so, God is love and God is everything.
I have been asked a million times, ”how can you do this, how are you talking, how are you surviving?” Because when I used to hear about people losing a child, or if a child got very, very sick, I would say, “I could never survive that. I could never live through that, I could never, ever, ever live through losing my babies.”
But here I am. Here all of us are. Because Lily and Sarah and Grace live in my heart now, as do my parents, Lomer and Pauline. I was a daughter and a mother, and I still intend to be both, so I can make my girls proud and carry them forward in love. This love, I am realizing, is to be my children’s legacies because they left the world at such tender ages that all they left behind was love.
And I think and I pray and I hope that it is all of our great responsibility to spread that love. And for me, God does not call on us just to love because that is too easy. He also calls on us to be of service. Service to our friends, our families to those we know and those we don’t.
So the message I want to share today, on behalf of Lily and Sarah and Grace, is that we can talk all day long about love, but love without service is not enough.
Please keep our little girls in your hearts by showing your love with acts of pure kindness, by loving each other and finding a way to help each other every day for Lily, for Sarah, and for Grace. This is what will keep them alive forever.
Thank you all for coming today and for all of your words and prayers and support. They have meant the world to me, they have meant the world to my family and to Matthew.
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