What I remember most about that day was the cold. It was the kind of cold that seeps into the bones and settles as though it has found a permanent home. It seemed fitting for the day, as though the cold death of that little body had infected everything around it. I remember thinking, “It’s not supposed to be this cold in the south.” But neither is death supposed to come to little children. My sister couldn’t let him go. “It’s too cold, how can we bury him when it’s so cold?” It didn’t make sense, but neither did his death.
Thirty years later, the memories of that day are etched on my mind’s eye. I can still feel the cold as I hear my sister ask at the graveside for the casket to be opened so she could kiss her son one last time. I remember the song played on the guitar — “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound.” There didn’t seem to be much grace present that day, amazing or otherwise. We’d prayed, begged, for grace over the previous six weeks. I couldn’t imagine being any more wretched. God had not saved this beautiful infant from the wretchedness of death or us from the wretchedness of the great gaping black hole that lay in front of us.
Sometimes those memories surface as I receive word of the premature death of a friend, as I listen to the devastating news of another mass shooting. The death of another can always leave the survivors with such a terrible emptiness.
I remember clearly my search for answers, my demands that God render a good and reasonable account for the death of innocence; for life ended before it even had a chance to bear the fruit of its promise. I was so angry with God. How could he have refused to answer our prayers? Perhaps God was powerless to effect change?
In the end, I came to realize that memory is one weapon in the fight against death. As painful as it can be to remember, not to remember is to let death have its triumph. If his brief life was to have any meaning at all, we must remember Donnie and recount and celebrate whatever we could about his life. It’s not so easy in the early days, because of the pain that remembering brings with it. But if you refuse to remember in the early days, eventually there won’t be any remembering at all.
The pieces still won’t fit together. There are no theodicies that are convincing enough to make sense of death. But I cannot believe that God is indifferent. I did want God to reach down and snatch life from the jaws of death, but since he didn’t, to have God present on the mourning bench with us brought some level of comfort.
Like Job, in the end we find that God’s willing presence with us in our suffering is grace sufficient.
The Rev. Camille Josey is the pastor at Silver Creek Presbyterian Church.