Valley’s Light

This morning I drove past the house where she died. The light today is the way it was then, a light that doesn’t warn you how peace comes at a cost this day, how once she’s sleeping she won’t wake again, no matter that she is stronger than little girls are supposed to be, no matter that she will try mightily, at the very end, until breath won’t come.

I saw the awning over the window I would look out for hours each day, holding her in my lap, feeding her a sip at a time through her tumor-clenched teeth, because we couldn’t let her starve the way they said we should. Maybe we should have. When I die, I want it to be the same way, the tumor pushing its tendrils through my brainstem, so I can know what she knew, know whether she could hear us in the end, could feel love pressed into her skin, or only pain.

I drove past that house and I imagined it was twelve years ago, and that she was in that bedroom sleeping, and her mother and I relaxed, God forgive us, grateful for a respite after weeks of her pain.

I wondered what would happen if I knocked on the door and a younger me answered. Would I listen to these words, that it will be worse than you imagine, that it will be nothing like you imagine, that you can burn down your marriage and your friendships and set your very soul aflame in fury, and none of it will heal you, because while the rest of your life is tinder, that hole shot straight through the center of you can never be burned away?

This is what I’ve learned: suffering doesn’t make you noble. Suffering is a burden and a wound and a gift, even, but what you do with it, well, that’s on you, no matter how you rage at the sky. This is what I’ve learned, and maybe I haven’t learned it too late. Maybe it’s not too late.

This is what I would tell me, if I could knock on the door and get me to listen, if I didn’t know that the me twelve years ago was even more stubborn than the man writing to you, and all lit up with the self-righteousness of the afflicted.

I can’t go back there and make that man listen, can’t yank him back from the precipice. So I’ll whisper it to this man who is whispering to you, as he climbs up from the cavern, hands bloodied and slipping, straining to see just a crack of light above, to know this is not his tomb. I’ll whisper to him — and to you, those of you who need to hear it — that it’s not too late. I’ll remind him of that girl, eyes fluttering open even as death crushed her, eyes opening out of stubbornness and love, faith-filled that there is light even in the valley of death’s shadow.

Especially in that valley. For if there is no light there, where will it be found?


  1. Susie

    I don’t know how it is with others who have lost sons and daughters, but it is always a gift to me when someone says they remember our little girl. I want her to be remembered. When I read your blog and read about your boys and your family I always see your family as the Woodlief family with 4 sons and 1 daughter. I picture you all as a family of 7. I don’t even know you all and only know Caroline through this blog but I remember your brave girl, especially today. I am praying for you and for Caroline’s mommy.

  2. A Circle of Quiet

    “I’ll whisper to him — and to you, those of you who need to hear it — that it’s not too late.”

    You have no idea how much I needed to hear those words today.

    Thank you,

  3. kingfisher

    Suffering in itself may not be noble. But wow, Tony, “what you have done with it” is precious! You write with a poignant clarity that touches the heart.

    I’ve never lost to death someone who impacted my life as seriously as your daughter’s death affected yours. My parents lived to the ripe old age of 96, and had led fruitful lives until their later years. when their minds had left home before their bodies did. Truly, it was a relief to me, as their care-giver, when their bodies “let go”. No more confusion, no more trying to figure out who people were that once were dear to them. No more tears or sorrow or having to face (when they were still able) that there would be no release at all except by death. They are “safe in the arms of Jesus” forever.

    I have, however, had close friends whose love and appreciation I valued, disappear from my life without my finding replacements. And I’ve sometimes had to disappear from the lives of people who (I, at least) perceived as needing my caring.

    I do often mourn the loss of my own abilities, trying to cope with long years of chronic pain, and the shattering of what I had believed were God-given dreams, because of long-term serious chronic health problems. A number of close calls with my health could have ended in death or extreme debility had a doctor already familiar with my case been unavailable immediately, or the right medicines had not been on hand.

    We don’t like suffering, we don’t like pain. But if we allow God to touch our lives, then he is free to give us, as he has you, the right words or attitude or “noticing” to touch the lives or hearts of others who need comforting or the affirmation that they’re not alone in their conditions.

    Thank you very, very much for sharing the deeps of your heart.

  4. Marsha

    Please…never stop writing. For those of us who suffer, you speak in our language. Our native tongue…

    Yes, today we needed to hear this…

    Thank you…

  5. Jonny

    As always, you and yours–all of yours– are in our prayers daily. God be with you all and enable you to bear the pain.

  6. Pingback: “There is light even in the valley of death’s shadow” | Wizbang

  7. eli

    Is it wrong to long for sleep so I can see my loved ones almost as real in dreams as they were in real life? To feel their hugs, hear their voice, see their face?

  8. Jess

    your words are beautiful and powerful and leave me weeping for you and for the great cry of suffering in the world. Come quickly Lord Jesus.

  9. Sulizano

    Tony, sometimes, suffering makes you a poet. Your words have help me through some very painful times. I totally understand.


  10. Trish

    Not only is there light in that valley, but, as that Psalm continues, we need not fear because He is with us. We lost our 16 year old son last year, and I am so very familiar with that valley. I don’t know what I would have done without that reality of Him being with us. And to know that He can take it when we throw all our hurts and pains right on Him because we can’t bear them anymore. His grace is SO amazing.

    Thank you for your honesty in sharing your grief. It means a lot to me.

  11. Jonny B

    Somehow this makes my little girl’s smile more important and rare. Curse you for so easily bringing us into your suffering. Bless you for helping us find our own salvation.

  12. martha allender

    Just wanted you to know that i am a mom who has buried three children one at birth one at sixteen and one at twenty eight. I am so blessed to have been their mom. I will miss them to the day I see them as I know where they are. I feel God calls some of us to suffer as He trusts us to still chose HIm. It is a hard road to travel. I find myself reaching out to help others who walk down this same road. Blessings on you.

  13. Patrice Brink

    Haven’t read your blog in some little while; just caught up a bit here and at Image. You and your family are in my prayers. I don’t say that lightly.

  14. Linda

    Your words are an ache and a burn.

    Aunt to Maggie, almost 6
    A child who died of diffuse intrinsic pontine Glioma, 07/15/2009

  15. Jeremy Hornik

    Hi Tony,

    I came to your page via Andrew Sullivan’s page. Like you, I have a daughter who died of a brain tumor. She was likewise treated at Children’s Memorial in Chicago (although eight years later; our experience was much more supportive and beneficial than yours.) She also died at home, on October 19, two years ago this year.

    I am not a religious person. But the lessons we’ve drawn are similar.

    Today, walking with my son, I saw a family in the park pushing a girl in a stroller. Hanging off the stroller was a toy shopping cart with “4 West” written on it, the location of the oncology unit at Children’s. We talked briefly. Their girl was also in treatment. I wished them well.

    You learn a pair of hard lessons with a child in cancer treatment… the first is that everyone is going to die, and the second is that life goes on anyway. The second half is sometimes a curse, and sometimes a balm. Even for those of us who don’t have religious faith, there is light in death, and hope that lifts up directly from the hopelessness.

    Thank you for writing.

  16. Lisa

    Thank you for sharing your journey through the darkness. I am going through a similar time now. And, yes, I do not feel as if this experience has made me noble.
    Take care.

  17. james akers

    We lost our 18-yr old son to an avalanche in 2007. What surprises me most is that despite the miraculous outpouring of initial support, families such as yours and ours are essentially left to grieve alone–and that is OK. You can’t really expect anyone else to help you carry your loss forever. Even your spouse and surviving children will want to protect their grief as their own unique gift from their son and brother, making it challenging to share grief even among the closest of kin. And another surprise: the guilt you think you will feel when your son is someday no longer in the forefront of every thought and every experience…is forgiven; forgiven because you know where and when to go when you need to “go back to that place” and be with him. And we were some of the “lucky” ones. My jaw dropped when I read of Martha A’s three children above. And I love Susie’s comment about it being a gift when someone does overcome the societal fear of broaching the subject to ask you about your child. Thank you, Tony, for somehow finding a public voice to honor this most private form of loss.

  18. Fr. Bill

    This is the second time in a few years that I’ve stumbled across your ruminations on your daughter’s death. Like another commenter above, I too had a daughter who died from a brain tumor (pontine glioma), at the ripe old age of nine.

    Each time I’ve come across these, I’ve wondered what it would be like to compare notes with you. But after wondering for a bit I think I’d really like not to do that, for the peace I had after her death, and the peace I’ve nurtured in the 14 years since her departure … well, I’m not eager to have that peace disturbed. Not that you would attempt such, of course; but too close a comparing of notes might raise issues, old ones and new, which I’d just as soon leave lying back there, until the time when we no longer see through a glass darkly.

    Meanwhile, the next hardest thing for me is to meet those parents escorting their child through that dark valley. I embarrass or threaten them, since my child didn’t make it. And I know what they will learn, but how can I share that with them? I know they don’t want to hear it.

    But, the hardest of all is to try to explain to those whose children have never faced such an end, to explain what I think about the grace given to my daughter, to me and to my wife, to our other children. “It’s so hard to explain,” my wife said six months after Cheska’s death. “God did something so wonderful with Cheska. But, if I say that people think I’m insane.”

    Fourteen years later that is still true.

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