“What extraordinary love can emerge from so much death? And yet, Noah, at this moment, knows, as no one has before him, that he is made in the divine image. Heir to the stumbling generations, he becomes conscious of a mystery within himself. Uncannily, he becomes conscious of being loved, and commits himself to releasing the secret meanings of his state.” (Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, The Murmuring Deep)
Peter was born with cancer. At two years of age, he began suffering unexplained fevers. Testing began, only to reveal that invasive cancers were present in his young body. Nearly two years of intensive, high-risk cancer treatments began and, later on, at the apex of an optimistic moment, while praying and hoping for good news, his mom and dad heard instead the irrefutable evidence of the failure of chemo, radiation, and immunotherapy to defeat the cancers in Peter’s body.
He came home. Treatment was never resumed. He was palliative as he began the fourth and final year of his life.
He died in his bed, snuggled up between his mom and dad. They told him that he didn’t need to fight anymore; that it was okay to leave. As he quietly slipped away, the flame of his baptismal candle in his room fluttered out.
At the funeral his mom and dad spoke as I have never before heard parents speak. The dad detailed the journey—how he had first feared the hospital and had found instead a loving, warm, courageous family of clinicians and other families in distress. The bond between them all became a wellspring of extraordinary love. As an atheist, he prayed Reinhold Niebuhr’s prayer: “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.” It kept him going, even if he left out the word “God.”
On the last trip to the Lego shop, Peter’s dad realized that it was Peter who was taking him to the shop—not the usual way around. Peter was giving his dad a breather, caring for him as only a young child could do.
Peter’s mother, a passionate seeker after God, spoke through the fiery, prophetic whirlwind that lived in her grief, her undying love. The authors she loved seemed present in the small Anglican church that held us all together. Emily Dickinson, Tony Morrison, Isaiah, Jeremiah, St. John of the Cross, St. Francis, Julian of Norwich … all speaking to us through the emotional crisis of praying goodbye, letting go, holding on—facing the wilderness, gasping for the ministrations of angels in the exhaustion of unconditional and limitless self-giving.
The parish priest censed the small, white coffin covered with the flowers and Peter’s favourite books. The slow, walking liturgy three times around the coffin brought us all to stillness. The lights in the building flickered out as a scheduled “load shedding” of power for that part of Cape Town was carried out. We were in candlelight, held by the solemnity of this abyss of mercy.
“For we have died, and our life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is our life is revealed, then we also will be revealed with him in glory.” (Col. 3:3–4)
Only three days later, many of the same people, including Peter’s dad, mom, and 6-year-old brother, gathered in another church for the baptism of our grandson. We had all been together for Peter’s baptism four years earlier in St. George’s Cathedral, Cape Town. In life and in death, we journey together—faithful to one another, as Christ, in life and death and Life, is faithful to us. All of us.
Another baptismal candle has been lit; another child has been baptised. The Light of Christ shines upon us all.
In these life-changing moments, we can know as we have never known before that we are made in the Divine Image.
“Beloved is the human being, since he was created in God’s image. Extraordinary is this love when it was made known to [Noah] that he was created in God’s image, as it is said: ‘In the image of God did God make humankind.” (The Murmuring Deep)