We sat in complete darkness listening to the Old Testament readings, one after another revealing the prophecy of the Messiah. My husband stood, flashlight in hand, and walked up to the ambo to speak of Moses and the Pharaoh, the chariots and the charioteers. It is his favorite reading in the Old Testament and he read it at every Easter Vigil Mass for the past several years without exception.
All dressed in our Easter finery, I held Jerry’s hand as I thought of all those years preceding. As my mind wandered in the dark, I thought of the many traditions our little family had created surrounding this most holy of days: The egg dyeing on Good Friday, the Food Basket Blessing on Holy Saturday, followed by the making of my Grandmother Stuecken’s German donuts, all ready for the next morning. There was the sewing of fancy dresses and Easter bonnets for our daughter, Courtney, and the search for the most handsome suit we could afford for our son, Jonathan. There was also the hiding of the chocolate bunnies so a certain son with a wicked sweet tooth would not find them before the Easter Bunny arrived.
A tear slipped down my face as the readings continued and the memories rolled through my mind’s eye. In that moment, I was so grateful for the dark, for it mirrored my heart. There would be no Easter Bunny this year. There were no new clothes. There were no donuts waiting for the next morning. Nothing was the same in that moment, because our lives were not the same.
Our Courtney, our beautiful 22-year-old special needs daughter, our shining star, the heart of our little family, was dead. Celebrating was not something any of us were prepared to do this very first Easter without her.
Jerry, Jonathan, and I sat in the same dress clothes we’d worn for her funeral four months earlier. Our hearts were hurting and we were all struggling to find a smile in those early days. Yet here we sat, on this most holy of nights, waiting to celebrate the Resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ.
I didn’t feel holy. I didn’t feel joy. I felt cheated by a God who said that He loved me more than anything else, yet took my only daughter from me. I felt like the sun would never rise again, and that the veil of tears that threatened to fall any second would be my undoing.
Courtney loved church. She loved to hear the choir singing. Our happy princess loved all the hugs and kisses everyone would bestow upon her. She loved to wait until it was silent before calling loudly, sounding like Chewbacca from Star Wars, just to make sure God and all His Angels and Saints knew she was there singing and praising in the only way she knew how. Most of all, Courtney loved to hear the bells, especially when rung at consecration. She would lean forward in her wheelchair, smile and laugh, knowing that the King of Kings had arrived. Her glee could not be contained in that moment. I imagine that if she could have spoken, she would have cried out, “Jesus was in the building, people! Praise Him now and forever!”
In the darkness, the tears continued to fall. Everything was so different now. I felt naked without my daughter beside me. We had been the best of friends and partners in crime for 22 years. Her care required great physical and emotional sacrifice from me as well as Jerry and Jonathan, and none of us knew what to do without her. Who was I without her?
This night, this most holy night, I felt bereft without her. How was I going to get through the rest of the Mass? I felt the need to run. To just get up and leave. My hands were shaking, and everything in me was screaming: “Just go. Just go. Just go.”
The last thing I wanted to do was stumble and fall in the dark, thereby making a bigger fool of myself than I was just by sitting there crying quietly. I knew I would not run, and I hated that. I hated knowing I had no choice but to remain seated and continue to listen. I placed my head upon my husband’s shoulder and closed my eyes.
I began to silently pour out my heart to my daughter. In my mind’s eye, we were sitting on a park bench and the sun was shining. I knew she was sitting next to me but I couldn’t see her face. I just knew she was there. I told her how much I missed her and how mad I was at God for taking her from me. I told her everything that had happened with me, her big brother, and her daddy since she left us. I told her I wanted her back and asked, “Why can’t you come back?”
I told her all this while sitting in the dark at Easter Vigil Mass. It felt like I had spent hours talking to her, but in reality it was only a few minutes. I asked her to tell me she was OK. “Give me a sign, Courtney. Anything, Sweetie. Just let me know you are OK.” I took a deep breath, opened my eyes, and wiped my tears away, knowing that no sign was coming.
I looked up at my husband’s face and thanked him in a whisper for never leaving my side. He squeezed my hand and smiled. I took another deep breath and waited for the readings to be over.
I opened my ears again, listening to the ache of the Jewish people calling out for their Messiah in one reading after another. I understood that ache. I felt the same way about the loss of my child. How much longer, Lord, do I have to wait to be with her again? How much longer?
In voicing that lament, I felt the strangest thing happen. I was overcome by a calm I had not felt in months. In the next few moments, I felt like I stepped outside my body and was watching someone else.
And then I realized there were bells ringing. So many bells. The lights came up, the congregation was standing, and the Gloria was being sung for the first time in 40 days. Jerry had tears streaming down his face and he gripped my hand, leaning in to say above the din, “Remember the bells, Mary. Courtney loved the bells. She is here, right now, with us. She’s probably ringing the things herself. Listen to the bells, Babe.” He sang the Gloria, in his beautiful baritone, and I just wept.
The bells. How could I forget the bells, Courtney? I lifted my hands in praise. I praised Him for the gift of knowing that my girl was OK and dancing at the foot of the throne, right then at that very moment. I sang the Gloria through my tears and felt joy for the first time since my daughter took her last breath in my arms.
After Mass, we were greeted by many parishioners who shared how they felt Courtney’s presence so strongly that night during the Gloria and again at the consecration. “Remember how she would sing with joy or laugh whenever the bells rang?” they said over and over.
I smile every time I think of that Easter. It was the hardest one of my life and yet the most joy filled in memory.
We are approaching our third Easter without our beautiful Courtney. The family traditions have been simplified to meet our family’s changing needs. Instead of a purchasing a fancy dress or a new suit, we buy and bring a beautiful bouquet of flowers to our daughter’s grave. If the weather cooperates we sit, have coffee while enjoying Grandma Stuecken’s German donuts, and tell stories of our girl and enjoy being a family of four again for the briefest of moments. I am no longer mad at God for I see the beauty of His plan revealed to me a little more every day. I am forever grateful for His faithfulness to our family during our struggle.
Courtney’s story continues to be shared far and wide. I feel her presence during every Mass I attend as she praises God just beyond the veil. Our daughter may have left our arms, but she is still with us, residing always in our hearts.
If you find yourself grieving for a loved one this Easter, know that you are not alone. Grief has a funny way of showing up during the most solemn of days. Know that I am praying for you and your wounded heart. May you hear God’s love song in the beauty of the bells.
Written by Mary Lenaburg. Find out more about her here.