From the time our children were small, we have made reading aloud to them from good literature an important part of family life. We’ve always believed that children learn valuable moral lessons when exposed to stories in which good conquers evil and living a life of courage and heroic virtue is honored above vice and self-interest. When Micaiah was four, we read through the Chronicles of Narnia and again when the girls were old enough to enjoy them as well. We’ve read countless picture books, chapter books, and short stories. My husband’s favorite stories to read to our girls were the fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm. You could often find all of them curled up by the fire on a cold winter day listening to a tale from one of these collections. Since Evie died, though we continue to make an effort to read aloud, it has been a difficult and often painful practice to revive in our home.
The other day, Cecilia brought me a book, snuggled up beside me, and asked me to read it to her. It was the story of St. George and the Dragon. This particular picture book is one of my favorites. It begins with St. George journeying through the forest on horseback alongside the princess of a kingdom in dire straits. The princess is veiled and wears a black robe of mourning. Her heart is heavy with the burden she must carry. You see, her kingdom is being terrorized by a fierce, colossal, fire-breathing dragon. The dragon serves as a grotesque and immovable barrier to anyone who wishes to enter or exit the poor kingdom. Nobody has been able to fight him off and the princess has commissioned this brave knight, St. George, to conquer the beast.
Just before entering the valley, St. George and the princess find refuge at the home of a hermit living at the foot of a mountain. While the princess rests, St. George and the hermit climb to the peak, and survey the valley where the princess’ kingdom lies and the mountains beyond. In the distance, perched atop a different mountain peak, rests a beautiful, sparkling castle the likes of which St. George has never seen. It glows with pure beauty and beckons him to enter its magnificent gates. He questions why he and the princess cannot simply travel to that eternal city and forget the dragon and the kingdom that awaits its redemption below. He soon realizes, however, that the only way to reach the shining castle in the sky is to travel through the valley and face the dragon.
So with downtrodden spirits but firm resolve, St. George and the princess trudge through the ominous forest to reach the dreaded enemy. A glow up ahead and a beastly groan indicate that they have reached the barrier that no man has dared to cross. The dragon rears his ugly head and flames of fire begin to pour forth from his nostrils. St. George brandishes his sword and begins to strike at the dragon’s impenetrable scales to no avail. The dragon thrashes his tail and propels St. George to the hard earth below. George continues to fight off the dragon with all his might, but it seems he is no match for the furious enemy that threatens to destroy him. Again, the dragon knocks him to the ground but this time, it appears George is defeated. He lies still and motionless, completely flattened without recourse to fight.
As the courageous knight rests unconscious on the earth, a healing dew begins to fall from an ancient apple tree. Life begins to course again in the knight’s veins and he rises to his feet. The startled dragon, thinking the knight dead, whips his head around with a vengeance and a roar. Fire again spews from his nostrils and he opens his mouth to swallow the knight whole. But with strength and quick thinking the knight runs his sword through the dragon’s jaw and the beast falls dead to the ground with a deafening thud.
In great relief, the princess runs to the knight and embraces him. All the people of the kingdom tentatively trickle out of their hiding places to congratulate St. George and celebrate this legendary victory. The kingdom has been saved from destruction and despair. St. George and the princess are married, vows to protect his maiden and her people all the rest of his days, and eventually is crowned king.
As with most fairy tales, there seems to always be a way in which we relate to the characters, either in their struggles or their victories. As I try to process my feelings about entering year 2 of grieving the loss of my precious daughter and struggle to convey the myriad of emotions within my heart, I realize that the age-old tale of this brave knight and his battle with the dragon resonates with me in more ways than one.
The first year after Evie’s death was about survival. I was simply trying to breathe. Like the princess and the knight, I was trudging through the foggy forest of blinding grief, wearing a cloak of mourning, not fully cognizant of the battle yet to be waged. I had survived the worst day of my life and braced myself to face all of the dreaded firsts… the first holidays, her first birthday, the first anniversary of her death. I had given myself permission to simply put one foot in front of the other. As my wise spiritual director put it, I was “on the operating table” waiting for God to put me back together.
On November 1, 2016 I woke to Year Two. I don’t know how I expected to feel. I knew that I had managed to survive the most excruciating pain of my life. Surely things would be easier from here on out. The sun was shining and I was feeling hopeful.
A couple of weeks later, we got a call that Evie’s headstone had been placed. Somehow that seemed appropriate.
Because I soon realized that there is no magic in year two. I miss Evie more than ever. I still find her death shocking and horrific…only now the anesthesia hasworn off. Although the waves of pain and sorrow don’t pummel me with such intense frequency, when they do hit, I feel them more acutely. Yet even with the pain still so fresh, year two brings with it a certain amount of duty and expectation that you must pick yourself up now and begin to live again.
Entering into year two was like rounding the corner to the sounds of a beastly groan and the sensation of heat on my neck. Only, my dragon is manifest in a slab of granite with my daughter’s name carved on the face.
It’s immovable. She’s not coming back. The fog has cleared and reality has firmly set in.
The infamous first year has passed and the rest of my life without my beautiful daughter relentlessly stretches out before me like an endless sea of years.
Each day I must face the dragon.
But the battle is not against death itself. That battle was won long ago by a man who is not merely a knight but Prophet, Priest, and King.
This is a battle against bitterness, despair, isolation, and apathy.
In my weakness, I am blinded by the glowing fire of the dragon’s breath. I wonder why most of the people around me seem to have healthy, living children. Why did my daughter have to die? Haven’t I had enough sorrow in this lifetime? All other problems often seem minuscule to me in light of what I have faced. Sometimes it seems everybody else has moved on while my family and I are stuck on our own island of grief. How can the world continue to spin without Evie in it?
Fear creeps in and I begin to believe that joy will never be my lot in life. Awful things are bound to happen again. Surely there is another tragedy waiting just around the bend for me.
Sometimes I feel alone and forgotten…like not a person in the world could ever understand how deeply my heart aches. Our loss feels so devastating and catastrophic that it sometimes seems like the world should still be knocking down our door to offer help and sympathy. I convince myself that nobody really cares. At times, I want to retreat to my little cave and disengage from society at large.
Each and every day I must make a choice to live and raise my feeble arms, sword in hand. I know that the grief will surely rain down and I must submit to it and allow it to wash over me. It is simply the natural consequence of being physically separated from my own flesh and blood…a little girl whom I love and miss deeply. But I must fight against the destructive thoughts and actions that threaten to undo me and stand as a barrier to being fully alive.
I’m learning that spending time each morning praying for others is one way to fight against the temptation to wallow in comparison and self-pity. Reaching out to a friend in need guards my heart against the temptation to become swallowed up in my own sorrow. When I feel like I’m the only one with a major problem I try to offer up a portion of my suffering for those around the world whose circumstances are much more desperate than mine.
Instead of yielding to fear and despair, I can recognize that although life has dished out a fair amount of sorrow and likely will continue to do so, it is also breathtakingly beautiful and holds tremendous blessing. A dimpled, toothy smile from my miracle baby, a solid and loving marriage, an unseasonably warm January day and the beauty and blessing of our farm are all reasons to offer up a prayer of gratitude to God. Time spent with the Scriptures reminds me that no matter what the future holds, God has promised to be with me. He is good and faithful all the time.
When I feel alone, I read some of the many cards, e-mails, and texts I have received over the past year and am reminded of the many people who have prayed and offered help and sacrifices. And I thank God for those few special friends that He has placed in my life as my constant companions. They are my listening ear and a safe place for me to honestly pour out my heart. Although I am a long way from unearthing the part of me that once enjoyed social gatherings, I’m beginning to make baby steps toward coming out of hibernation a little to share a meal with a close friend or another bereaved mother who understands just how much my heart is hurting. My own loneliness is a reminder to reach out to others and recognize that apart from action, my good intentions fail to bring consolation to the suffering, poor, and marginalized all around me.
Sometimes, I can do these things. I can make steps toward living again. But even though they may seem insignificant to some, these baby steps can be extraordinarily difficult. I begin many days with a tear trickling down my cheeks. Like the brave knight, I look up to the heavens and wish that I could fly away. I don’t want to face the battle again. I’m tired and weary. I just want my daughter back. I want the pain to go away. I don’t want to move forward without her.
But God has me here for a reason and He has a purpose for me here on earth. I may not always know exactly why, but I can trust that He does. He calls me to walk faithfully with Him even when the path is unclear and the way is difficult. When I am living out my vocation as a wife and mother I know that I am walking in His will. When I am loving others, I am right where He wants me. And when, like the knight, I lie bruised and broken with no recourse to fight, His grace in the sacraments is the healing dew that revives me.
I’m not sure how long I’ll be fighting this dragon. The grief of losing a child never really goes away but maybe some day I will have built a new life in which there is less battling and more feasting. Perhaps, someday I will feel lighter and simply living won’t be such hard work. I don’t know what other dragons might be lurking around the corner. But I do know that if I continue to fight, I will someday find rest in the Eternal City…that shining castle in the sky. The battle will have been won, the dragon defeated, and I will be whole once again.