For Lena, Five Years Later

For Lena, Five Years Later June 16, 2019

 

Tilley's Dana Point
A sunset at Dana Point, California, taken by Mike Tilley
(Wikimedia Commons public domain photo)

 

I maintain a blog for many reasons.

 

One of them is purely personal:  It’s a kind of journal for me, and, even more particularly, it’s a way of remembering things, and especially of remembering people, whose memory I refuse to allow to be wholly lost.

 

So, for instance, I’m afraid that readers of this blog will have to put up with my regular yearly memorials to my brother and my parents.

 

Today marks the fifth anniversary of the death of our first granddaughter.  She lived only four days.  She spent her entire brief mortal life in a hospital in Orlando, Florida.

 

We knew her so very briefly that, to my shame and horror, I sometimes find myself forgetting to mention her when people ask about my grandchildren.

 

I’m determined that I will not forget her.

 

Hence, among other things, this blog entry.

 

When we knew that Lena would die, being in the maternity ward of that hospital was agonizing.  All around us were sounds of joy.  Happy grandparents.  Happy aunts and uncles.  And we had . . . nothing.

 

But there was something that we could do.  At my son’s apartment, a room had been brightly decorated for Lena’s arrival.  Bright colors.  Animals.  A mobile.  We hurried home and stripped the room down, returning the toys and the crib and everything else to the stores from which they had come — and which, in sympathy and kindness, were remarkably helpful.  We didn’t want that room to mock our son and our daughter-in-law when they came bleakly home.

 

We had come to Florida to help when the baby arrived.  It had been a very difficult pregnancy, but the baby seemed healthy.  I had no sense, departing on the flight, that I would soon be presiding and speaking  at a small graveside funeral.

 

Here are the comments that I read at Lena’s funeral service in Miami.  I almost never read talks, but at the funerals of my father, my mother, my brother, and my granddaughter, I saw no practical way to do anything else.

 

These are remarks that no father or grandfather, no parent, should ever need to give. It’s wrong, unfair, for a member of an older generation to be required to speak at a funeral for someone of the younger generation. Still, I’m grateful that Jeff and Ceci have asked me to speak. I hope that I can be a voice here for all of us, and that I can do it without breaking down.

 

Jeff and Ceci’s experience over the past week has been as bitter as this life offers. And it pains us to see our children—for we still think of them as our children—go through anything like this.

 

I’m so sorry for what has happened; as I’ve told both Jeff and Ceci several times, I would have done virtually anything to have spared them this experience. I’m sure that’s true for others here, as well.

 

We also lament the things that we will not have. I had not realized, until I knew that I wouldn’t have the opportunity, how much I was looking forward to taking Lena to Disneyworld and to hearing her squeal with delight as she discovered Disney cartoons. There in Orlando, though, in the hospital’s Walt Disney Pavilion, surrounded by Disney cartoon characters in the lobby, it hit me hard. Now, too, she’ll never be able to dance with her grandfather, Andres. Her great grandmother and great aunt and grandmother won’t be able to introduce her to Cuban cooking.

 

We can’t begin to calculate our loss.

 

Still, there are things to be thankful for. I’m grateful for Ceci’s remarkable extended family—for the astonishing way they’ve supported her and Jeff, and not merely over these past two terrible weeks. A German friend sent us a very kind note the other day, and shared a German saying with us: “Geteilte Freude ist doppelte Freude,” she wrote, and “geteilter Schmerz halber Schmerz.” “Shared joy is double joy; shared pain is half pain.”

 

There is much truth in this, and Debbie and I both feel that we’ve come to know and love Ceci’s family—and even, in a way, to know and love Jeff and Ceci themselves—much better through this horrible shared experience.

 

We didn’t have the opportunity to get to know little Lena Alaia, but she’s had a large and, we hope, a permanent effect on us. I happened across this saying last night: “There is no foot too small that it cannot leave an imprint on the world.”

 

Lena certainly has.

 

We’re also so very proud of Jeff and Ceci. We live in a world that seems increasingly self-centered, but they were willing to bring a child into their home, and to care and sacrifice and, yes, run risks for that child. We hope and pray that they won’t become discouraged.

 

So very many things have gone wrong in this story. They’ve hurt, and sometimes, honestly, they’ve made us angry. But, in the end, only a few things really matter. Only a few things need to be clearly remembered.

 

The first, of course, is Lena Alaia herself. She was only briefly here, but she will always be a member of the family.

 

Latter-day Saints believe this to be literally true. When Jeff and Ceci went to the Orlando Temple three years ago, their marriage was sealed in that sacred building, by special priesthood authority, for time and all eternity, so that it will continue beyond death. But not only that: Because of the ordinance performed in that temple, any children who come into their family—even, as in Lena’s case, if it’s only for a few hours or days—will continue to be their sons or daughters forever.

 

And now I want to briefly mention some other comforting truths that need to be understood and remembered:

 

The Book of Mormon prophet Alma learned by revelation, and taught, that, when they die, “the spirits of those who are righteous are received into a state of happiness, which is called paradise, a state of rest, a state of peace, where they shall rest from all their troubles and from all care, and sorrow.” (Alma 40:12)

 

That is where Lena now is. In the most important sense, she is not dead, though her earthly body is. She is not asleep. She is fully awake and alive. She is a conscious person. Yet her troubles and pains, if in fact she ever felt any, are now forever past. She has triumphed. In a very real sense, we here, in our pains and sorrows, have reason to envy her.

 

Her name is so very perfect: Lena Alaia. A ray of light. A torch in the darkness. Joyous. Sublime.

 

But those righteous spirits in paradise will someday receive their bodies back again, in the resurrection. As Alma put it, “The soul shall be restored to the body, and the body to the soul; yea, and every limb and joint shall be restored to its body; yea, even a hair of the head shall not be lost; but all things shall be restored to their proper and perfect frame. . . . And then shall the righteous shine forth in the kingdom of God.” (Alma 40:23, 25)

 

And body and spirit, “inseparably connected, receive a fullness of joy.” (Doctrine and Covenants 93:33)

 

But what of a little child? What of a newborn like Lena?

 

We lament what we’ve lost. But perhaps we’re focused too much on our own pain. Perhaps, if the words of prophets and apostles and of those who have glimpsed the next world are true, we’re like people living in a slum, sad that one of our friends has been taken away. We think of all the experiences that our friend won’t have with us—but our friend has been invited to live in the palace of the king. Our friend is living a life far better, in a place far more beautiful, than we can even begin to comprehend.

 

The Prophet Joseph Smith taught that “The Lord takes many away, even in infancy, that they may escape the envy of man, and the sorrows and evils of this present world; they were too pure, too lovely, to live on earth.”

 

Still, the prophet Mormon wrote, “little children are alive in Christ, even from the foundation of the world.” (Moroni 8:12)

 

Joseph Smith was given a powerful vision in January 1836 of the world of spirits. He learned a great deal from what he saw. Here is one of the things that he learned: “I . . . beheld that all children who die before they arrive at the years of accountability are saved in the celestial kingdom of heaven.” (Doctrine and Covenants 137:10)

 

He also taught that infants who die will rise in the resurrection as children. On one occasion, he pointed to the mother of such a child who had died and said to her, “You will have the joy, the pleasure, and satisfaction of nurturing this child, after its resurrection, until it reaches the full [adult] stature of its spirit.”

 

Lena’s defective and injured little earthly body will be perfect.

 

We love and miss Lena Alaia. We wish that she could have stayed with us. But she is safe now, beyond pain. And, if we live our lives as we should, we will see her again. We will come to know her as the wonderful person she is.

 

In that day, as John the Revelator testifies at the very end of the Bible, “God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.” (Revelation 21:4)

 

In the meantime, we can know something with certainty. Something that should be of enormous comfort: Lena didn’t die alone. Not on this side. And not on the other side. Nobody ever dies alone. She was welcomed there, as a “newborn,” by loving, caring relatives. I suspect that my father, mother, and brother were among them. And, there too, I believe, she has brought two families closer together.

 

These things are true. And they’re wonderful. They don’t remove the pain, or dull the ache of loss. They’re not supposed to do that. But they give us hope.

 

As I say, I expect that few will have any desire to read through this entry.  And that’s fine.  They don’t need to care.  We all have our own lives, our own pressing obligations and interests and, yes, griefs.

 

I post this, as much as anything, for myself.

 

And, in doing it, I’m reminded of a story from the life of Muhammad, the founder of Islam, that has touched me since I first encountered it:

 

When, sometime between late 630 AD and early 632 AD, Muhammad realized that his infant son, Ibrahim — the only son he would ever have — would probably not survive, he was so shocked that he needed help to walk.  (He himself would die on 8 June AD 632.)  His hands shaking, he placed the baby in his lap.  “O Ibrahim,” he said to his son, “we cannot do a thing for you against the judgment of God.”  And then he fell into silent sobbing.  As the child continued to sink, his mother and his aunt, who were watching, wailed in despair.  Some expected Muhammad to rebuke them, but he didn’t.

 

Finally, Ibrahim’s breathing stopped, and Muhammad knew that he was dead.  “O Ibrahim,” he said, addressing his son, “if it were not a certainty that the last of us will eventually join the first, we would have mourned you even more than we already do now.”  Then, trying to comfort the two women (and, probably, himself), Muhammad assured them that Ibrahim would have his own nurse in the gardens of Paradise.

 

Muhammad and others carried Ibrahim’s body to the nearby cemetery, where, after the Prophet had prayed, the tiny boy was lowered into a grave.  Muhammad himself filled the hole with sand, sprinkled some water upon his son’s burial place, and then marked the grave with a stone.  “Tombstones,” he remarked, half speaking to himself, “do neither good nor harm.  But they make the living feel a bit better.”

 

Posted from Iquitos, Peru

 

 

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