On Friday, February 3 a beautiful five-year-old girl named Madeline (Maddie) was diagnosed with an untreatable tumor in her brainstem. This past Wednesday morning, five short days later, she passed away.
While I have friends who knew Maddie and are close to her family, I myself never had the privilege of meeting her. Nevertheless, the lack of a formal introduction didn’t keep this little girl from touching my heart and influencing my life.
Maybe it’s because I am a mother now and have my own little girl, but Maddie’s story has occupied my mind ever since I first heard of her sad diagnosis. It’s the kind of heartbreaking news that just leaves one absolutely confounded. Why? Why such tragedy and sadness, especially so sudden and so unexpected, for one so young and innocent?
On Wednesday morning I visited a nearby church and sat before Our Lord, thinking about Maddie. I had just learned of her passing before I left the house.
As I knelt there, I prayed for her and for her family and friends. And I reflected about what this little girl reminded me..
Her life reminded me that I need to always keep a broad perspective, to have an eternal view. It’s so easy for me to forget that I wasn’t made for this world; I was made for a heavenly world. This earth is just a passageway, not a final destination. There is so much more beyond what we can see and experience here. What comes next is unexperienced and foreign and so it slips out of our minds. But it’s real–more real than this world even–and every day we should keep this eternal perspective.
Maddie’s story is scary in many ways. It scared me at least. As a mother, I have experienced a whole new kind of love. The way I love our daughter is unlike any other love I have known. The thing with love, however, is that it makes you very perceptible to suffering. Should your loved one experience pain, you feel it, too. Love makes us vulnerable. I sat with our daughter, watching her sleep and thinking of Maddie. What if something happened to our daughter? What if she were diagnosed with a terminal, untreatable illness?
Maddie helped me remember: our children are not our own. My daughter doesn’t really belong to me; she belongs to God. Just as I do, as we all do. In a way, we can think of our children as precious gifts, on loan to us from God. He bestows them upon us and, while we are on this temporary place called earth, we have the job of helping each other grow in virtue to become the men and women we are supposed to be, the kind of people who, through God’s grace, could one day inhabit a heavenly homeland. ”Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21).
If you saw a picture of Maddie, such as the one on her website, you see a broad-smiling, beautiful girl. I am sure her parents were struggling with seeing her in pain. I thought to myself how tragic that she should know such sadness in her young life. And that’s certainly true–it is so sad. But, as I prayed this morning, I thought there is something more than happiness. I want our daughter to be happy, but I should want something more for her than this.
I want a happy daughter, but even more, I want a holy daughter. I want a daughter who lives her life in communion with God, who loves Him who is Love itself and who reflects this Truth and Life in her words and deeds. This is what Maddie’s parents, God bless them, did. This past weekend, by special permission from the bishop, Maddie celebrated her First Holy Communion and was Confirmed. She was, and is, a holy girl. These parents did their best to make her days, even those when she was so ill, happy. But they didn’t neglect the greater responsibility–to help her be holy, to prepare her soul for her Father in heaven.
This five-year-old girl, weak and frail from an untreatable condition, demonstrated to me something else of immense power: the mobilization of the Body of Christ, the Church. There is a passage in the Acts of the Apostles that says the early Church “held all things in common.” This refers to sharing earthly goods, such as food and shelter. But I think it applied to spiritual goods, too.
The Church today held in common the pain and suffering of Maddie and her family. Now, perhaps I spend too much time on Facebook and that’s why I witnessed this, but the outpouring of love, prayer, concern, and support for little Maddie was overwhelming. There was a part of the Body of Christ suffering and hurt; we all felt it as though it were our own family and we all reached out because it was the most natural, instinctive thing to do. Perhaps because, in a very real way, Maddie’s family is our family.
We are not alone. Do you know what the shortest verse in the Bible is? John 11:35. ”And Jesus wept.” Maybe it’s so short to make a point, to make us realize the significance of this brief passage. Jesus wept at the death of His dear friend, Lazarus. He knows our sadness and heartache. He walks side-by-side with those experiencing loss…because He knows it, too. He is close to us who suffer…because He suffered, more than anyone ever could.
And herein lies the greatest lesson Maddie helped me remember. It all comes back to this–it has to. There is always hope. Death is never the final answer, but merely a transition. From death, God brings life. St. Francis referred to “Sister Death” because, for the one with faith, it isn’t the termination of everything. There is a line during the Mass for the Dead that says “life is changed, not ended.”
For Maddie, life is changed. While I have no ecclesiastical authority to definitively affirm this, I can say that dear Maddie, as one under the age of reason and having just received Holy Communion and Confirmation, was free of all original and personal sin. So, I feel quite confident to believe her life has changed in a way more beautiful, profound, and incredibly blissful than we could even imagine.
The hope that belongs to those with faith is a priceless treasure.
Dear Maddie, I’m sorry that we never met. But thank you for all that you reminded me and taught me of throughout these past few days. I pray for your friends and family who mourn your passing. May they know the consoling, healing, loving touch of God, who is with them in this time of sadness. I hope, one day, we may all join you in our true homeland.