Perhaps you’ve seen in the news the tragic story of a Massachusetts woman who died with her 4- and 5-year-old niece and nephew last week. The mother of her own two teenagers had picked up her niece and nephew, the children of her identical twin, at their home in New Hampshire and was driving them back to her house in southern Massachusetts for a sleepover weekend, a common event for them. At some point, according to police, she deliberately swerved across the highway median from the southbound onto the northbound side. She then parked on the far shoulder of the highway, got out of the car with the kids, undressed herself and them, and then carried them out onto the darkened road where they were hit and killed by two cars.
Everyone has struggled for a week to fathom this tragedy, and apart from a mention of a “brief mental illness” suffered by the woman in the past year, there is no ready explanation. No note, no clues revealed in retrospect, nothing. By all reports they were twin girls in a family of 11 children, a devout Catholic family. The deceased woman was a regular Mass attendee, a regular volunteer in her parish. Normal as any of us.
Boston Herald columnist Margery Eagan examines the story from the perspective of a mother and sister. When such tragedies happen, most of us frame it in our own minds in personal terms: What if it were my children and my sister? What if I were the one with a mental illness that so warped my reality I did the unthinkable? If it were my children would they be scared or just confused and which is the greater mercy?
Most of us are mothers or fathers, too. Some of us know more than we wish about what Middlesex District Attorney Gerald Leone called a “brief mental illness,” or even what psychiatrists this weekend called “psychotic episodes … when you are out of touch with reality, when you believe things that are bizarre.”[…]
Most of us have sisters, too. We shared a bed, a bathroom, combs, shirts, lipsticks. We adored and resented each other. We could be fiercely loyal and fiercely cruel. We knew all about each other’s third-grade and seventh-grade and high school heartbreaks. We followed each other down the aisle. We held each other’s newborns.
And if a sister suffered a “brief mental illness” we were sorry and sad and stunned, or maybe not so stunned. Honestly, once or twice since then we might hesitate about leaving the children with her again. Suppose she woke up crying or lost her patience or that awful, blank look came back into her eyes? Suppose she frightened the children?[…]
I remember so many times when my own children were small, giving them to my sister and mother for weekend overnights. I’d meet them halfway between my house and theirs, in the parking lot of a Hanover McDonald’s, off Route 3, carrying their stuffed bears and tiny backpacks and Happy Meal toys.
I remember that uneasy feeling in my stomach as my sister’s car tailights grew smaller. It was as if that physical connection between me and my children was being pulled out of me, stretched thinner and thinner until coming apart, like a strand of a spider’s web, when her car disappeared.
I knew I could not protect them then at all on the cold, dark highway. I wasn’t beside them.
But it was OK. I trusted my mother to keep them safe and my sister to bring them home to me.
There is the crux of it. We trust that all will be well, that such tragedies won’t visit us. But of course, we live in a fallen world where tragedies happen, if not to us, then someone everyday. How do we deal with such things? How do we live with suffering and the looming shadow of suffering? I don’t know how someone without faith in God can live with it. How can they not fall into despair? Christian faith and hope do not take away the sting of suffering nor does it turn us into pollyannas who ignore reality. Instead, they teach us that suffering is a moment in time; that death in this life is not the end; and that if we take a risk and trust in God and be patient, suffering and death will one day be replaced with eternal joy and life.
When contemplating the unfathomable, there is no alternative unless we fall into the abyss of despair, which is no alternative at all. Faith and hope are the only way through.