Friday 8th January 2010
Gestation: 15 weeks
One year ago.
Terry walks down the aisle.
Under one arm, he holds a coffin. It is white, and about twice the size of a shoebox. It has polished silver handles, but there is little need for them. It fits snugly into the crook of his armpit, wrapped in place by his massive forearm.
He is dressed in a red shirt with gold stitching; celebration colours. For here, today, we are celebrating the life – the very short life – of Val.
Val is short for Valiant.
* * * * *
Val was born at twenty-three weeks gestation. He had a brief, but courageous life, lasting two hours in his parent’s arms. He should never have been born this early. And having been dealt this hand, should never have lived even more than a few minutes. At twenty-three weeks, a baby’s lungs are so underdeveloped that usually there is very little ability to breathe. There is just not enough lung tissue to stay alive.
Five days ago, I missed a call.
“Hello, Mark,” Terry whispered into my voicemail, his voice beginning to crack. “Kim went into labour, and… and they couldn’t stop it. Our little boy was born just now, and they said he is…” There is a pause. “But he’s still breathing, you know? Fighting. And… and… I just don’t know what to do.”
Terry took a big breath, a long silence ensuing.
“I just thought…” Another long pause. “I don’t know what I thought. I just… I don’t know what to do,” he repeats. “And I thought… that you… might be able… to do something,” he finished, his voice fading as he hung up.
I rang back as soon as I heard the message. It was nearly fifteen minutes later.
“Hey, Terry,” I said.
“Hello, mate,” he replied, his voice empty. “I don’t know why I called you.”
“I do, Terry. And I’m glad you did.”
Through the end of the phone, I heard Terry begin to cry. This 220-pound Goliath, an ex-Novocastrian, broke down. I sat there listening, my own lip beginning to quiver.
“I just… I don’t know what to do.”
“I know mate,” I said. “Well, not like this, I don’t,” I continued softly. “But I know what it is to feel helpless.”
* * * * *
Terry continues to walk down the aisle, the coffin tucked under his left arm. Kim walks just behind, her hand lightly touching the lid as they go. There is barely a bump to be seen in her belly, her other hand resting lightly over it; as if to ease the ache.
Her eyes are vacant. She’s retreated some place. To a place of strength and reserve; to make it through the service. But it is a place of separation, too. She is with us in body, but even now, she is in shadow.
Just minutes ago, Kim spoke with amazing courage and beauty, about her little boy who had left. As did Terry.
In this: undoubtedly, unequivocally, the most painfully moving funeral that I have ever attended.
I look across at Suse. Her eyes are fixed on the couple. On all three of them, really, as they continue their slow funeral procession. Tears stream freely down her cheeks, unnoticed.
I grip her hand tight, but she does not avert her gaze.
I turn back, and I take it in. With Terry in red, and the coffin in white, the scene merges from rich colour, to shade, and then into Kim’s translucent complexion. Almost invisible.
And then it happens.
Terry stops, and his face screws up in agony. His entire body bobs, his eyes clenching tight. He brings his free hand to his face. Kim stands there, her mask remaining flat, still, watching. Silently, this huge man begins to walk once again. In his celebration shirt, his face crumpled like paper, his own tears now spilling like everyone else in the chapel.
All the while, continuing to hold an impossibly beautiful coffin under his left arm.
I’ve never seen anything like it.
Nothing ever quite like it.
And I hope to never again.
* * * * *