O quam tristis et afflicta
Fuit illa benedicta.
-- Stabat Mater
There was something familiar about the picture. The mother, holding the child at knees and shoulders, in what would be her lap if the child were smaller. And the child a zigzag from dangling feet up to her knees and down to hips and up again to shoulders, the head falling back. "Mami," she said. "Mami aqui," said the mother. Mami. Aqui.
This went on. "I'm here, silly girl. Don't you know I'm here?" Then with an eye toward me: "I don't think she knows what's happening."
That's the hardest thing, to be there for someone who doesn't know you're there.
"Do you get any sleep?" I asked.
"Not much. She wakes up at two or three, and I'm the one she asks for."
The next day I remembered the thing I could not place, the familiar form of the picture. This was a Pietà.
Congratulations to those who mourn, for they may be comforted.
Where is her comfort?
She said that members of her prayer group tell her to accept the will of God. They say she should not complain, but be of good cheer and grateful. They say there's some purpose in this, and she must pray for it to be revealed to her.
They are like Job's friends, those archetypes of bad counsel, who come to tell him there must be some good reason, you must deserve it somehow, God won't tolerate your anger -- or worst of all but true to the book, it's a test of your character, an ethical teaching.
"I don't see it," she said. There's a Mary on the stage now in New York,* who refuses her testament to those who request it because she knows "what they want me to say." This Mary bore the child and watched him die, and now she sees what others wish to make of it. She doubts it was worth it.
This mother before me -- her name is not Maria, but she is a mater dolorosa, and her pose a Pietà. Shocking in their actuality, not mere ideas or images, songs or sculptures, but an incarnation. She holds the child, who calls for her and does not know she is there. She speaks short sentences to the child and longer ones to me. She says, I don't see any purpose in this. I'm a good mother. I stopped working so I could take care of this baby. I have money problems. Her father is nowhere. I'm tired.
She doesn't have to mention the injustice to the child, or the despair of watching this part of her body suffer. She says she knows women who gave up their children so they could be with a man. She knows women who have sent their children to relatives, women who leave their children alone at night. I'm not one of them she says. I'm here for her in the morning, here in the middle of the night.
All this time she caresses the child, rocks her, cajoles her, tells little jokes in her ear.
I am not here to correct her mood, to say suck it up and be of good cheer. I am not here to say that this burden is fair, or that it's part of a divine plan. If this were part of a plan, I would vote no confidence in the planner. Unlike Abraham, if the plan requires the death of my child I'm not signing on. It's one thing to sacrifice oneself, quite another to sacrifice the innocent for faith.
No meaning adheres to these events, no meaning at least that I would bet life on. If it doesn't kill you it makes you stronger, they say; but there's nothing good to say about what fails to kill you. The thing that doesn't kill you is the enemy. You get through it as you can, and you remember. Perhaps you remember how you got through it, that you did the best you could, and it made a difference for those who went through it with you, which means that it changes your life as well. Perhaps it occurs to you that you were the one to do these things, that you were needed there and then. And so you come to own your past pain, knowing it is unalienable because it makes your present life possible. In this way, retrospectively, reaching back into history, we make the meaning of our suffering. But the meaning is not there until we make it. There's nothing good to say about suffering, but good things can happen in the face of it. Some day this will be over, and Mami will go on to other tasks, other loves, other stories. When she looks back on this time, I hope she remembers that she stood fast.
So this is what I told her. I've never had such experience thank god, and I hope I never will; neither I nor anyone else should tell you how to feel about it. This is a hard thing that has fallen on you, the worst of curses. You and your child don't deserve it. There is no lesson to learn. But you are the one who gets up at two and three in the morning, you are the one who holds the child who does not know you are there. Your patience, compassion and humor do not run out. The light that shines in this darkness is you.
*Colm Tóibín, The Testament of Mary, dir. Deborah Warner, performed by Fiona Shaw