Our house, now to look at it, is filled with icons of the Nativity. Everywhere there are images of the Holy Family: Joseph and Mary looking over the incarnate one, their child in the wonder and mystery of his first night.
Julia has always given them to me as gifts. One oil painting from years ago, most recently a carved statue, in between, the painting of the Holy Family together we hung in our daughter’s nursery in preparation for her birth. In all, there is a quiet awe, a beaming sense of the holiness of these three people, together at last, often stretched together to become one form, in all the possibility of new life… It is a little like we dreamed for our family when Julia got pregnant.
There is, of course, another icon of our faith that has been with us through the centuries, a picture that has always been holy to us: the Pietà. Mary, the Mother of God, holds the broken body of her son after his death. Sometimes, her head is bowed, tears flowing to him as the more direct sign of her emotion. In others, she gazes out at you, the observer, directly as if to say, “look what the world has wrought of my love.”
Julia, a daughter of Mary, I had always supposed was strong beyond the lightness and compassion and humor with which she engages the world. I had no idea, really. Which is not to fault us for some lack of preparation for marriage… just that marriage and other promises are ones that rely on a deep well of faith, and hope, and love… that you will rise to meet moments together and discover more in each other as you live.
Our daughter, Ivy Miriam Helen Parker, was born into this world on March 2, 2021 by the love and strength of her mother, five days before we were expecting her. The awe and wonder of that moment was only eclipsed by the earthquake of grief that Ivy had died maybe 24 hours before. She was 5lbs and 11 oz. She was beautiful and formed of both of her parents, their immeasurable love for her, and mystery made flesh. She was borne by—and born of—a woman who could love her into being knowing full well the sadness and pain that were part of the story to come, and yet did it anyway.
You see these things, and know that they are holy.
In the time after her delivery, there were too many feelings, too much grief. It was hard to walk around in them. We endlessly questioned every part of the pregnancy, the tests and ultrasounds, the kicks and movements that she had made every day so regularly until the day that she didn’t. We slept and failed to sleep, and took turns watching each other breathe because now we lived in a strange new world where people that you loved more than breath could suddenly disappear, and so you had to watch them, lest they vanish. We jokingly, because we still joke, dubbed our room in the hospital “The Crying Room,” inducting each new nurse into our club, since all of them shared some of our pain, tore through tissues with us, and bore witness to the awful beauty that was there to see.
What they saw was Julia, so lovingly holding our daughter. O God! To see her love! From the moment Ivy arrived fully, still warm from her mother, her body still rising and falling with her heartbeat and her breath… to the later times when her body had to be cooled so that we could stay just a bit longer with her, wrapped in a blanket, to know the beauty of her face, her nose, the wonders of her fingers and her ears… the softness of her skin… To behold them—mother and daughter—wrapped around one another was to know Ivy was loved so fiercely that you would be sure… as Mary must have been, that this loss would crack the very heart of God in two.
In the past, I think I meditated on the Pietà and I focused on the violence and injustice visited on Jesus’s body, the strength of the love that Mary has in the face of it. We can’t look away from that. Too many daughters of Mary hold the bodies of their children broken by systems and structures of violence, war, racism, and injustice. In the stark holding of her son before us as evidence of these wrongs, Mary invites us to imagine a world transformed one day to one where no mother will know that pain. That transformation is in the song she sang before she had ever even held her son at his birth.
But now we know more clearly the look beneath that… the second look: the pain, the wrong that lies beneath all others… the simple fact of Mary bearing her son again, as she bore him in life, into death. It is a wrong that no one should know: your child, this gift of your own life and love, before you in death and heartbreak. And yet a love you cannot imagine calls you to hold them as long as you can… this child who we loved into being and has somehow fallen through a hole in the universe (or did we?) and ceased to be… because in that moment holding them you are still complete, the whole picture: the silent, broken, reverence of the Pietà… before you have to let them go.
You see these things, and know that they are holy.
We were, and are, and always will be Ivy’s parents since that night, but now we are evidence of a thing not seen… we are parents, and yet we cannot show you our child. But still, we are… since that “twinkling of an eye” March 2nd, we have been changed.
Ivy had a birth, and a death. That she did those two things in a more unique order than most changes none of the weight—the matter—of it. It was a whole life. One that is real for us, as she was and is and will be. It is touched by pain and loss, but by divine mystery and wonder as well. A life that breaks hearts but also rends them open. One that dwells in us and still says, “Love is stronger than death and fiercer than the grave.” We do not see her, hear her, hold her as we want to, but she is not gone from us, and is and will be a resurrection of our own love and life, somehow, in the fullness of all time… though we do not know how… We know it, and we cling to it as our family heals.