A Beauty That Hurts

Have you ever witnessed something so profoundly beautiful that it actually wounds you? A holy moment so breathtaking that you want to simultaneously pause it forever, as well as fast forward through it, because it’s just simply too much to take in? These are the times where the boundary between Heaven and Earth seems to momentarily shatter, overwhelming our broken souls with the glory of God. 

I first experienced this shortly after we had moved to Colorado. Often I would scramble along the hidden trails of Cheyenne Canyon past the hordes of people, into the untamed corners of the Pike National Forest. One fall afternoon, I found myself alone and miles from anywhere. The dimensions of reality seemed to shift, and the Golden Hour sun brought the landscape into sharp luminosity. The peaks, creeks, and pinyons seemed to emit their own radiance, as if Aslan just sang them into being on Narnia’s First Day. All I could do in that moment was to fall to my knees and scream.

I remember sitting with a sage seeking wisdom on the episode; the intensity of it all. He referenced a brilliant sermon from CS Lewis, entitled “The Weight of Glory”. I recommend folks read the entire essay, but this segment was especially poignant (my emphasis added):

“In one way, of course, God has given us the Morning Star already: you can go and enjoy the gift on many fine mornings if you get up early enough. What more, you may ask, do we want? Ah, but we want so much more—something the books on aesthetics take little notice of. But the poets and the mythologies know all about it. We do not want merely to see beauty, though, God knows, even that is bounty enough. We want something else which can hardly be put into words—to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it.”

On that autumn Colorado day, I wanted to tear my heart open and somehow swallow the landscape, become a part of the peaks and gravel slides, and breathe in the wilderness. All of this occurred in a matter of seconds. So all I could do was scream in pain and worship.

Nearly 10 years later, I experienced another occasion of aching beauty. My wife and I are the proud parents of three adventurous, rambunctious, challenging boys. Our days are complete with padawan battles, war scenes, and pirate attacks. For years our home has been filled with the sights, sounds, and smells (so many smells) of little boys. And it has been a joy. With raising boys, I am in my element. I can build the LEGOs. I can lightsaber fight with the best of the Jedi. You want weird noises? I’ve got you covered. And then, in August of 2019, everything changed.

“You’re having a girl!”, said the ultrasound technician. “Are you sure?”, I asked. What about farts, wrestling, and cowboy shoot outs? A girl? And on January 2, 2020 we had our baby girl, Maggie Grace. How precious she was in our eyes. Perfectly made, a full head of hair, such a beautiful face. Ruffly onesies, frills, and princess pink and purple showered our home. We finally had our girl, and we loved it. 

Then, in March, something changed. “She’s not smiling as much anymore”, my wife would say. I would blow it off, saying she’s just gassy, or, it’s the change in her formula. Baby stuff– nothing to worry about, you know? But one morning at 5AM my wife just knew, as only mothers can know. “I’m taking her to the Urgent Care”.

By 9AM, the Urgent Care said something did not look right, and they were ordering an ambulance to transfer Maggie two hours away to Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston. At noon, Maggie and her mom raced to a team of doctors and nurses, as Maggie slipped into unconsciousness. Maggie had to be resuscitated, but she miraculously pulled through and was moved into the Pediatric ICU. And then I got the call. 

Four doctors, a nurse, and my wife were on the line. Speaking in that steady, calculated voice they’ve practiced to try and keep families calm, the doctors said, “Maggie is very, very sick. She has leukemia, and we think you need to come down here as soon as possible. We’re not sure she’ll make it through the night.” My knees buckled; I nearly threw up. Tears came, and my heart rate doubled. How could this be? Only yesterday we were all sitting on the back patio, holding Maggie, laughing and dreaming as a family.

I sped to Houston and met my wife in the ICU. Maggie, my beautifully-made 3 month old baby, was now unconscious and hooked to ventilators, medicine drips, and monitors. The sound of beeps and whirrs filled the room along with the clamor of concerned nurses. The doctors came to talk. But honestly, I only remember a few words. Diagnosis. Leukemia. Long road. Two years of treatment, we hope. Choose only one caregiver. You see, to further complicate the situation, COVID-19 restrictions allowed for only one designated caregiver to be with Maggie, with no interchanging. We decided my wife would be best suited, so I could try and continue working and keep our insurance. I wouldn’t be allowed to see Maggie again for 6 weeks.  

In that time, we prayed like Elijah on the mountain. Our community stormed the heavens with vigils and fasting, agonizing with us in our Gethsemane. And Maggie started to get better. The prayers seemed to be working. Her cancer cells reduced. Maggie was taken off the ventilator, and brought out of her coma. She started physical therapy. She even smiled and giggled. 

Then something happened. “She’s developed an infection”, they said. She had contracted rhinovirus, the common cold. Slowly Maggie started to drift away from us again. Back on the ventilator. No more physical therapy, smiles or giggles. Her life was supported once again entirely by the machines of intensive care. 

“You’ve always wanted us to be honest with you, and tell you when we don’t think there’s anything else we can do”, the medical team shared with us one horrible day. “We think we’re there, and we are so sorry.” The room spun and I started to sob uncontrollably. Complications from the common cold. Are you f—-ing kidding me? How could this be? She was doing so well…

For 42 days, Maggie Grace fought for her life until she died in her mother’s arms, the very same arms that welcomed her into this world just four months earlier. While Maggie was slowly slipping away, we wept and prayed and sang. We sang worship and we sang Yellow Submarine, the song her brothers used to sing to her. As the room became still and the machines were finally silenced, I could once again sense the veil between worlds tearing. We passed Maggie off to Jesus, and I could feel Him weeping alongside us. I was comforted knowing Maggie was fully restored in the Kingdom of God, finally relieved of leukemia, swelling, and death. But I was crushed at the loss of our daughter in the here and now. It was the holiest, most horrific few moments of my life. I wanted it to last forever, and I couldn’t wait for it to be over.

Alongside a nurse, my wife and I prepared Maggie’s now empty body for burial. In one final act of mercy, we changed her, washed her, and lathered her in her favorite lavender lotion. We said our goodbyes, and walked out of the room to a gathering of medical workers. Doctors and nurses were standing at the door, sullen faces reflecting a universal belief: a baby should never have to die. “I’m so sorry” is all they could muster, and is really all that could be said. 

Maggie’s life was far too short, but it was intensely meaningful. For weeks after Maggie died, we received messages from the doctors and nurses that had walked with us through the Dark Valley, trying to express just exactly what Maggie’s battle had meant to them. They called her Maggie the Warrior, for she had fought so valiantly. And Maggie the Graceful, as she handled such immense discomfort so sweetly. For me, I’m left with someone else’s words to summarize what Maggie’s life, fight, and her memory means. It comes from Tolkein’s The Return of the King:

“And all the host laughed and wept, and in the midst of their merriment and tears the clear voice of the minstrel rose like silver and gold, and all men were hushed. And he sang to them, now in the Elven-tongue, now in the speech of the West, until their hearts, wounded with sweet words, overflowed, and their joy was like swords, and they passed in thought out to regions where pain and delight flow together and tears are the very wine of blessedness.”

Maggie’s memory remains a joy like swords. Searing pain and delight come at her thought, along with the blessed tears of a wounded heart. I’ll never know what it feels like to hold Maggie again in this world. I won’t know what it will be like to see her spin and twirl her dress, hoping to catch my eye with her beauty. I won’t be able to take her on lunch dates, or be a guest at her tea table. I won’t walk her down the aisle, or hold her first baby remembering what it was like to hold Maggie as an infant. Not on this side of  Eden. And yet I remain grateful. Because amidst all our boys, monster trucks, and wrestling matches, we finally had our girl, and it was beautiful. A beauty that hurts.

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