Heaven presses in

I was asked to speak to some graduates last week, and so I spoke to them about finding their place in the world and about endurance in the face of suffering and about decisions that once we make them can never, ever be undone. I don’t know how to talk about these things any more without telling what few meager stories I have about running from God, and about being swept up by the sense of a presence so good and true and faithful that I only know to name it God. I only know my own stories any more, and I think maybe that is something precious, if each of us can finish life knowing his own story, the truth and beauty and pity of it.

I didn’t say much about my daughter except to say that she got sick and nobody could help her and so she died. I don’t think I even said her name, because this is something you must learn, how to forestall an ache that wants to come thundering into your hollowed out heart all these years later. I don’t think I said her name, but of course the pain of her absence is etched into my face, and it leaks into my quivering voice sometimes, and though the point was not that my child is gone, I am afraid this is all some of them will remember.

Afterward, one of them told me about her own cancer, and asked how to cope with the anger and the hurt of it, the sense that maybe God or the universe or fate has betrayed you, has singled you out for this burden while your friends have their flesh unscarred, their hearts free of fear.

I recalled for her a time towards the end of Caroline’s illness, when every day was consumed with just feeding her and managing her pain. I didn’t tell her all of it, how I would start the morning with my daughter in my lap, a roll of paper towels and cans of a nutritional drink beside the bed, how I would dribble sips between her tumor-clenched teeth, and catch most of each dribble with a paper towel, and how filling her little belly usually took five or six hours, and how in between we had to give her morphine and sometimes we had to just stop trying for a while because she would begin to cry and not stop crying until she passed out.

I told this young woman, though, about coming downstairs one afternoon, my body and heart empty, with time only for a short respite before going up to begin administering medicines and painkillers. I sat at our kitchen table, and the afternoon sun was flooding in through a window, and every wooden surface was golden with it. I cut an apple with a paring knife, and listened to the whispered separation of flesh from flesh. I put a slice of apple in my mouth, and I bit into it, and the sweetness of it and of this moment were so overpowering that I couldn’t even weep, I could only taste and breathe and give thanks to God for all the wonder of creation cradled here in this wedge of apple.

I ate, and I let the sun warm my skin, and I have never, ever tasted anything so sweet and life-giving in all my days since, and I suspect I never will on this broken earth.

I trudged back up those stairs and with my wife nursed that dying girl to heaven, and when she died things came apart in me that can never be remade, but in the midst of those evil days I entered heaven through an apple wedge.

This is what I tried to tell the young woman scarred by cancer, that heaven is here, that when we are taught how the gates of hell cannot prevail against it, this is not because hell presses against heaven, but because heaven pressed into hell.

Heaven presses into hell, and this is why you get up and breathe again when you’d rather not, because even when you are in hell, grace comes to you. Especially in hell.


  1. susan

    I have had to choose to live through the loss of my child as well. Your second paragraph is worded perfectly.
    This is a beautiful piece.
    I am sorry for our losses.

  2. Spud

    Sometimes I’ll answer folks who wonder “Why does God allow bad things happen to good people, vice versa, etc?” with “If you want perfection you’ll have to get to heaven”. We had heaven on earth, but Adam and Eve chose the apple – funny how your holy moment involved an apple (yes, I know the Bible does not specifically say apple).

    It’s also “funny” how our highs and lows in life usually center around our children. From the tears at night in bed when you wonder if you’re the world’s worst parent, to the surprise hug around the neck, you get the ride of your life.

  3. Christine

    Your story touched my heart. I don’t know how you would get through the loss of your daughter and see her suffer each day without the grace of God each day. Thank you for sharing your story. I’m so glad God showered you with sunshine and the sweetness of His love through an apple. God Bless.

  4. Lauren

    Providentially, I stumbled across this post as a link from Voskamp’s blog and am so glad that I did. My 4-month old daughter was diagnosed just one month ago with a brain tumor as well. We were released from the hospital into hospice. I read and wept through your post on Caroline’s story – she is beautiful! I can relate to much of your story and am so sorry for your loss. But I thank you for these words – they have undone me.

  5. Karen

    I haven’t said my daughter’s name, ever, in my own speaking engagements or writing. What is it about the name that pushes me near the edge, chin quivering? Sometimes, it seems like the name is all I have left, and it’s just off limits. My husband seems to be the only one who understands, and together, we grieve and love, hold close to life as heaven pushes against hell, maybe say her name openly.

    Thank you for being more courageous than I am! You inspire me to take the risk, enjoy the apple-slice-moments as God whispers (or shouts) His grace, and maybe speak of those hellish moments from the lens of grace.

    Resting in Him,

  6. Angela

    I hope you don’t mind me saying, “Beautiful.” You wrote that so beautiful and vivid.

    I must admit I was surprised by your candor. I have a habit of being very candid myself. I loved your imagery and was right there with you in the feeding and the eating of the apple.

    Kindest regards

  7. Susan

    Thank you for sharing such an intimate moment of grace…and such a life-giver also. When God’s presence comes into our grief like that…we KNOW He is real, loving us in our grief, and knowing we can’t figure it out, but He is real and He cares for us….He has not left us alone…

  8. Misty Krasawski

    Thank you. Thank you so much for letting us into your pain and the beauty that is still there in the midst of it. It was an honor to read this story. Bless you.

  9. Miriam

    Thank you for writing this. If I can return any thanks, perhaps “The Faithful Gardener” by Dr. Clarissa Pinkhola Estes may bless your heart. How God gardens beauty in the soil of our heart’s pains is still a mystery. And thank you for the reminder that He always succeeds. May your daughter and heaven send you warm healing rain this summer.

  10. Cara

    Tony – this was a remarkable post. I felt very privileged to have you speak at our graduation. Would you be able to pass on the reading you included in your speech?

  11. Kelli

    Tony – thanks so much. I got some more bad news today and in trying to make my peace with it, I remembered to go read your blog. Every time I do, I find some piece of faith or guidance or laughter that stops me in my tracks and makes me push that chin up and start going again.

    It was a hard day and pushing my own chin up wasn’t coming easily. Then, I read this and while I struggle with my own faith sometimes, the idea of heaven pushing against hell restored it for me. Maybe I don’t have to always push my own chin up if heaven is pushing against hell for me.

    Beautifully written, poured out and shared with all of us. Thank you. I want to be Tony Woodlief when I grow up as a blogger.

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