There was a television series titled “The Naked City” that ran from the late 1950s to the early 1960s that was based on a 1940s movie of that name. It followed the same semi-documentary format as the movie, including the refrain spoken at the end of each episode, “There are eight million stories in the naked city.”
The locale for the drama was New York City, and the eight million referenced the number of its citizens, the premise being that each life has a tale to tell.
I remember that television show and especially so the concluding phrase, and have often thought over the years when I have met a person or learned something about them, “there’s a story there.”
This happened recently when I read certain details in an obituary of a woman unknown to me. She was ninety-nine at the time of her death, and as is customary, there was a listing of her survivors, which included three children. Following this, the entry read, “She was predeceased by an infant daughter.”
Given the woman’s age, I immediately thought that the death of that infant daughter had to have occurred decades earlier, as many perhaps as seventy-something, and this suggested there must be a story there. Again given her age, her three living children could well be senior citizens themselves, with long life histories behind them. That an infant who may not have lived long enough to have created much identity or imprint was named and cited with essentially equally standing with her adult children implies that the decedent mother had preserved the spirit of that child within her being all the decades of her living.
The capacity of the human spirit to embrace and love can be fierce and enduring, as this instance reveals. At some point, this mother would have relinquished oversight of each of the three children who made it to adulthood, but a sense of care and custody for the memory of this one child who predeceased her as an infant, must have remained with her all the years of her living.
I experienced a sense of how enduring love can be while standing at my mother’s bedside close to her own time of death. Knowing what was at hand, she said, “I just remember how brave Kenny was,” Kenny being my brother who, at barely two years old, had succumbed to leukemia some forty-four years earlier.
I think in this regard of what I knew of my mother’s family history. She was born in 1910 in a rural community in far northern Maine. She was the last of twelve children, only seven of whom lived to adulthood. I wonder how it was that my grandmother was able to give life repeatedly and yet endure having so much of it being taken away without becoming dispirited, even fatalistic. Still I believe that when her call came at the last, she counted as her legacy twelve children, including seven who predeceased her, but whose memories never diminished within her.
When a person experiences the kind of loss referenced above, it is like being cast into the wilderness. It is a barren and dismal landscape that a parent looks upon when a child is taken from her or him. That experience can never be left behind, no matter how much time passes or what other circumstances intervene. Nor, as the above references demonstrate, would a parent voluntarily yield a memory of a lost child, even if it meant relief from all anguish.
This is the season of Lent. It is a wilderness time in the church year, marked by discipline, introspection, and deprivation, hence the practice of giving something up. It is a time for reflection about what we most value and a time to revisit the bedrock principles which we follow in life. It is a time to assess what we would preserve even at profound cost, and what we would throw off in exchange for some personal gain or benefit.
I expect the mothers whose stories I referenced above never wavered about what their fundamental values were in respect to their attachment to their children, no matter how deep into the wilderness the journey of abiding love took them.
And I expect that when Jesus emerged from his forty days in the wilderness, he too was steeled for whatever might lie before him, which we know became a journey of sacrifice given that others might have life.
A question for any of us who would purport to be a faithful person is how fully and how deeply we are willing to take on the burden of others who cannot bear their own burdens or seek to keep alive the spirit of those whose spirits, literally or figuratively, have been beaten down to the point they cannot restore themselves without a compassionate hand to help them.