The other night I heard perhaps the most moving programme I’ve ever listened to. It was on BBC Radio 4 (yes, I’ve got to that time of life) and it was called ‘It’s My Story: Remembering Millie’. You should still be able to catch it here for the time being, and I wholeheartedly recommend it. However, it comes with a health warning: you’re likely to weep quite a lot, and you may have your cynicism shaken, if not completely shattered.
It’s a half-hour real-life story about a couple Martin and Frances who, 20 weeks into their third pregnancy, discovered that their daughter had a rare brain abnormality which meant that she might be born without a face and would probably only have days to live. They decided to go ahead with the birth, and in the event Millie lived for 22 months, though she remained the size of a newborn. But rather than being some kind of oddity or burden, she was to the couple and their other children – and to all who met her – a gift and a delight who transformed their lives.
Her untimely death, at less than 2 years old, was of course inevitable from the start. The couple’s memories of Millie’s last hours, and the recordings from her funeral, were for me the most moving parts of the programme. It was heart-rendingly, gut-wrenchingly sad. I’m fairly easily moved to tears, but I’m not aware of having cried like this many other times in my life.
Yet at the same time, the loss and grief were completely intermingled with joy and hope, with faith and love. The sadness was not in any way lessened by these elements, as though everyone should be happy because Millie was going to a better place, but it was somehow transformed and transfigured. The family’s Christian faith was quiet and understated, but profoundly present. They knew that Millie was a precious gift and were unutterably grateful for her life. In the funeral they were, in love and gratitude as well as grief, committing her back to the one who had given her to them for a short time. Their faith was deep and very real; it was not some kind of desperate clinging to a false hope in the face of unacceptable facts.
In death, Millie’s face was radiant, as though she were already in the presence of indescribable joy. I’ve just been reading Paula Gooder’s excellent Heaven, much of which is very relevant to this story. In the final chapter she talks of the possibility that those who have died ahead of us are already partaking in the end-times resurrection. She doesn’t press the point, but it’s worth considering. Either way, there was no doubt in her parents’ minds – or in mine – that Millie was already experiencing the unutterable joys of God’s unmediated presence.
The death of a young and deeply disabled child who was probably never capable of ‘receiving the gospel’ intellectually in the standard evangelical way challenges our preconceptions. Listening to the programme it seems clear to me that Millie had not only received Christ’s gospel in a far deeper way than mere intellectual assent, but that she was an embodiment and incarnation of that gospel. The intermingled tragedy and joy, loss and hope brought home to me the realities and meanings of Christ’s death and resurrection far more than a thousand songs, sermons or Bible readings – or blog posts. The programme is so rich in incarnated theology that to try and explain it here loses most of the impact; it’s the difference between describing a piece of music and hearing it for yourself.
Most of us struggle with the idea of suffering and tragedy, of pain and loss. We ask why God allows these terrible things; how can we even believe in an all-powerful God of love in the face of such events and such a world? Millie’s story seems to me to profoundly re-frame these questions, to place them in a whole different perspective and light. We can’t know why it happened; we don’t know whether there was a divine plan behind it. But we can see in this very human story the redeeming power of hope, of innocence, of deep and unconditional love.
In merely utilitarian terms, Millie’s life could easily be written off as futile, worthless. She could never be a fully-functioning ‘normal’ person; she died before she could contribute in any tangible way to society. But the testimony of all those who knew her at all was that she had infinite value in herself, and also added immeasurably to their lives.
As a parent, I pray almost daily that I will not have to go through the death of either of my own children. I can’t imagine anything worse, and I can’t be sure if my faith could survive it. But in hearing this story, I can at least start to see that God really could still be lovingly present and active in that most heart-breaking of tragedies, the loss of a beloved child.
Now I encourage – no, challenge – you to listen to the programme, and I defy you to remain a dry-eyed cynic if you do. My own scepticism and cynicism are still in pieces, and I think I’m starting to like them better that way.