The call came at the end of breakfast. Lisa was gone on a two-week adventure to Scandinavia , and I was at home with all four kids, trying to manage. It was bad news—the worst. My sister Margaret had lost her baby. It was only a routine checkup, five months into the pregnancy, but there was no heartbeat.
After I hung up the phone, I put my head on the kitchen table and cried in gasping convulsions. Two little girl s c ame in to see what was wrong. They looked at me for a moment with fascination. Kirsten, age 8, put her arm around me with womanly consolation. Kathryn, who is only 2, said what people are always saying to her: “Don’t cry, Daddy; it’s okay.”
“But I need to cry,” I sobbed. “It’s not okay! Margaret lost her baby!”
Soon I started making more phone calls. To Margaret and her husband Jeff, to offer whatever small sympathy can be offered from a thousand miles away. To my parents, who were in England at the time, to start discussing what they should do. To other friends and family members, who would join us in prayer.
Then it was time to decide what to do. Should we get in the car and drive from Philadelphia to Wheaton? Now that I was a single parent—even if only for two weeks—it seemed like a daunting prospect. Besides, what would we do when we got there? With four young children to look after, what could I do to help? And what can anyone do to help, anyway, when your baby is dead?
I decided to see what the older children would say. I told them what had happened, and said that there might be for some way for us to help. I told them that if we went, it wouldn’t be for us, it would only be for others, and God would bless us for going. And I told them there were sacrifices they would have to make, like missing the Little League all-star game and the pool party for memorizing all the hymns—small sacrifices in the grand scheme of things, but ones that can seem pretty big when you’re only a kid.
Kirsten’s response was instantaneous and profound: “If you want someone to know that you love them,” she said, “you need to go and be with them.”
And so we went. A friend from church came right over to help us pack. “We need a mom,” I explained, “to help us remember what we’re forgetting.” The next morning we were on our way: fifteen hours of story tapes, car games, naps, snacks, and rest stops, but (almost) no whining or arguing. People must have been praying back at church.
Then all we could do was wait. It took days and days for Margaret to deliver—almost a full week of labor, which my sister faced with extraordinary courage. We watched and waited through grueling nights of sorrow. And then the baby came—Emilie Rose—with the cord wrapped around her neck. There was nothing anyone could have done to save her, but it seemed so unnecessary. All we could do was leave it in the hands of our sovereign God, praising him for the gift of the child’s life, and mourning her passing. We read Scripture; we prayed; we sang hymns; and we laid yellow rose petals on the little casket at the front of the chapel.
There are two things I will never forget, as long as I live. One is the look on Margaret’s face when she first saw her little girl. At first she was almost afraid to look, I think. “What does she look like?” Margaret wanted to know. “It’s okay,” her husband said. “Go ahead and look.” And as she looked, her face assumed an aspect of maternal pity. “Oh, you poor thing!” she said, her mother’s heart drawn in love’ s compassion to the weakness of her only daughter. Even if Margaret only carried Emilie Rose for a few short months, she was all the mother to her that any woman could be.
And I remember this: the holy presence of the child during the few short hours that she was with us. The sense of absence and incompletion was palpable. No sharp cry breathed life into the child’s lungs, and no life animated her tiny limbs. She had been delivered untimely, and she was not ready for life outside her mother’s womb. Yet her Maker’s handiwork was unmistakable. We sensed that we were in the presence of a person made in the image and likeness of God. We could see the face that God was forming, down to her little blonde eyebrows. We could see the slender hands and feet, the little toes and the delicate fingers. She too was fearfully and wonderfully made (Ps. 139:14)—like an unfinished symphony, or an almost masterpiece left behind on an artist’s canvas.
Margaret held Emilie Rose in her arms, but eventually she had to give her back to the nurses, and after a little while one of them asked if I would come over and help. I was reluctant, even fearful, to come close to the child now lying on the examining table. What did the nurse want me to do? She gave me a little card and asked me to hold it over the baby. Then she took one tiny hand, dipped it in ink, and pressed it gently but firmly against the card. When she pulled the hand away, there was a complete palm print on the card, with five perfect little fingers.
Emilie Rose has left her mark on the world—the gift of her life imprinted on our hearts. We rejoice that she has gone ahead to be with Jesus. And we live in hope that her little hands will be raised at the resurrection, with the rest of her body, and that she will lift them in praise to her Maker, her Savior, and her God.
© 2022 Tenth Presbyterian Church.
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Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: By Phil Ryken. © 2022 Tenth Presbyterian Church. Website: tenth.org