The saddest thing I've ever witnessed is the funeral of a boy named Sam. The firstborn of his parents, he died the day after he was born. I walked into that sanctuary the day of his funeral with nothing to say, no words of encouragement or consolation to offer his parents. His father was pastor of the church, and a little part of me considered that this funeral might mark the end of his faith, and perhaps the end of that little church.
A few months passed and we went to Sam's parents' house for dinner. They showed us a sonogram photo, which we assumed to be their son, and we were sad until they told us that this was their new baby, due to be born in a matter of months.
Several months later a little girl was born and named Hannah--"my favorite palindrome," I liked to say. She was followed by two sisters and carried the weight of miracle: a symbol to her parents and their friends and family that every once in a while God turns mourning into dancing.
Some five years later, last Friday morning I came to my office to find an e-mail from my wife and a frantic message from a coworker that Hannah and her grandfather had gone missing Wednesday night in a boating accident. By this time the rescue teams had switched to searching by sonar--underwater technology that foreshadowed a death announcement. My mind went back to the funeral of Hannah's brother, and a little part of me thought that this might mark the end of her parents' faith, and perhaps mine as well.
Some four hours later, the body of Hannah's grandfather was found. Shortly after that, Hannah wandered out of the woods bordering the river, stumbling onto the search party that had been looking for her for two days. She was a revelation--an unmitigated marvel for national news outlets and local friends and neighbors to wonder over. I saw some other friends later and we looked in awe at their own five year old, trying in vain to imagine her living in the woods for two days with nothing but a swimsuit and water wings to protect her. Hannah's father, meanwhile, told reporters that Hannah took the experience in stride. "She was eating her banana looking at us. We were jumping around like maniacs."
Two miracles in one lifetime is something, and to be blissfully unaware of your own miraculousness is something even more. Hannah didn't know when she was born that she was in a small way redeeming the ache her parents had felt at the death of her brother. She didn't know that the pain still lingered, either; Sam's name is tattooed on the skin of his mother as a testament to the role he has played in the life of their family. Hannah was blissfully unaware of all of it; she began her life as anyone else would, accepting the reality she was presented with, and seeking to make her way meaningfully through it.
Hannah didn't know that her grandfather had died, either--probably saving her life, as it turns out. She wandered through the woods thinking that grandpa had gone swimming, and that she ought to get herself back to his cottage. Meanwhile her family and friends panicked, unable to imagine the miraculous because miracles are by definition unimaginable.
Hannah's miraculous birth and miraculous deliverance from death are both tethered to tragedies that no one has forgotten: even as we celebrate Hannah's life, we mourn her grandfather and remember her brother. But we remember as well that Hannah's story is unfinished, and as such we're reminded that our story is unfinished as well. And from now on when I look at Hannah I'll be reminded that amidst all the tragedy that marks every story there's a God working quietly, sometimes unimaginably, to redeem our aches and to turn our mourning into dancing.