Shell of a girl

Tonight is the night she shuddered out her last breath and left us holding the shell of a girl. I thought for a time it was to make me better, consumed as I am with me, and I thought maybe it was because God leaves no joy unpunished, and I reasoned there must be some purpose deeper still than man can know, and I wondered if it was because God does not care, and then I decided that I don’t care, though the truth I am left with at the end of all this embittered ruminating, and at the end of myself, is that I do care.

I do care, and though I understand why the darkness hungers most for children I can’t understand why the light yields them up so easily.

Unless heaven resounds with weeping at what is wrought here on earth. Then I think it holds a place for me, for you, for all we weeping creatures and for the groaning, crying-out earth itself. But perhaps heaven is running over with laughter, even in the face of teeth-grinding despair, and it is the mirth heard in the cackle of a bleary-eyed prophet, seeing as he does the tragedy to come and the restoration to unfold after, all of it with the grand-sweeping vision of God.

I wonder what it would be like for these four boys, to have their older sister here. They miss her. They miss what they don’t know, and I guess I do too, because I miss having a teen-aged daughter, though I never had one and never will. I miss grumbling at outsized phone bills, and rendering awkward courting boys fearful, and the drama of a girl primping for her first dance.

Her mother and I used to take our surviving children to a pumpkin patch on this day. We’d drink cider and climb hay bales and maybe lose ourselves in a corn maze. The maze isn’t so bad when you’re all together. You just hold hands, especially as the treetops peering over the frayed tips of corn grow distant when they are supposed to be drawing closer, and you fear that you will never make your way through to the end.

You hold hands then especially, and when you do get through — because always you do, though sometimes it takes so much longer than you expected — you laugh because you have made it. You’ve made it, you have come through and finally you are where you have striven all this time to be. You laugh because your journey has ended, and because you are all here together.

We don’t go to the corn maze any more because we aren’t married any more, and besides, the boys are probably getting too old for corn mazes. Or maybe I’m just too tired to keep searching for a way out. They warn you about car accidents and they warn you about tornadoes but nobody tells you that what’s most likely to get you in the end is that you’re so goddamned tired.

But I’ve been thinking about that maze, and how maybe it’s a way to think of heaven, as gathering place and finishing place and laughing place, as a place where there’s work to do but not work that stoops you low. And maybe too it’s a forgetting place — not of everything, but of the broken things. Of her pain-twisted face, her muted tongue, the weak hopeless brush of her fingers. I work every day to forget these things, to remember instead her giggle and her unbrushed hair against my face and the wiggle of her toes when I would put on her shoes.

Daughter, I am thankful for all of it. Every lost hour of sleep, every unexpected belly laugh, every bit of stubbornness and mischief and sweetness, every day of health and of sickness unto death, singing child and crying child, talking child and mute child, running child and bedridden child, home-dwelling child and heaven-waiting child, I am thankful for all of you.

An earlier version of this essay appeared on my website,