In Heavenly Peace


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The look in the mother’s eyes turned from desperation to gratitude as I leaned over the back of my pew, offering to take the eighteen-month-old. He almost leapt to me, ready to get away from the failing limbs of his older siblings. I lifted him and his stuffed dog over the pew and onto my lap.
At first we played games—crunch the printed bulletin, turn the pages of the hymnal, poke my sister in the shoulder. We even managed a silent version of the Eensy-Weensy Spider. He let himself be distracted by each new thing, but only for a bit. He was restless—the overtired sort of restlessness.
I knew that if I could keep him distracted and not mad for the next couple of minutes, he would fall asleep. I started to rub his back with one hand while I gently played with his fingers with the other. He was already starting to feel heavier. He moved without his usual toddler intensity, and his eye blinks became more labored.
It took some nesting. First, he tried leaning back with his head against my left shoulder and his legs hanging off the right of my lap. Then he switched shoulders. And then he tried leaning his head against my neck with his legs out in front. He kicked the pew in front of us as if he were in a trance. His leg swinging became slower and slower until finally, his foot came to a rest just below my knee. His eyes slid close, his hands went limp around his doggy, and his head fell to the side.
I supported his head as best I could without disturbing him and then finally turned my attention back to the sermon.
About ten minutes later, he sat up with a jerk, threw his legs to the right side of my lap, leaned forward, and grabbed my right arm and his dog in a tight embrace. He nestled his head into the hollow created in between my upper arm and his dog. I clasped my hands, encircling his little body in my arms.
As his breathing settled, I could tell that he wouldn’t be moving for the rest of the meeting. He was in a deep sleep against another warm body on a cold winter afternoon. Why would anyone wake up or even stir from that?
I rocked him back and forth as I rubbed my thumb up and down his back. With each breath he seemed to sink deeper into my lap and arms. The repetitive motion and the warm heaviness against my chest lulled me into a place somewhere between sleep and consciousness. I teetered on the edge not really knowing what I wanted. I could drift lazily into sleep or haul myself out of the fog back to the sermon. Everything seemed so warm and every thought so fuzzy. I could feel my rocking getting slower and the body against mine settling in deeper and the sound of the preacher in my ears becoming duller. And then I let myself fall.
. . .
The congregation was singing as I lifted my head and then my gaze. I looked over at my sister as I blinked the sleep out my eye. She smiled as she pointed at the bundle in my arms, and mouthed, “Adorable.” I tried to crane my neck around to see his face, but I didn’t try too hard, not wanting to disturb him.
His breath had become even slower and softer. His heartbeat, though still faster than mine, was slower than it had been twenty minutes ago—he was at perfect rest. I listened to and felt the life within my arms.
The meeting drew to a close. People began to stand up. They stretched, they yawned, they shrugged on their coats, they spread the neighborhood gossip. In the commotion, I lost the connection with the child’s vital signs. I could hear his mother behind me gathering up her family’s belongings and scolding her other children for stepping on the spilled Cheerios.
I began to move just a bit, wanting to wake up the child gently. By he lay heavy against me like a warm piece of lead. His grip around my arm wasn’t uncomfortable, but it was solid, heavy. I increased my movement until it was almost a shake. And that’s when I realized it. The flesh and blood I had taken into my arms was no longer breathing. Yet he hadn’t simply died. The body so active and alive minutes before was now stone—the finest marble I’d ever touched or seen.
I yanked my neck to the side to see his face, knowing now that I wouldn’t, couldn’t, wake him. His cheeks and lips were painted a healthy shade of pink. His brown hair, now each strand a sliver of stone, was curled just a touch at the ends. And his mouth would forever be slightly agape. I ran my left hand over his shoulders—each thread of his sweater vest was memorialized. His stuffed dog hadn’t escaped either.
I turned frantically to look at his mother, and as I did, I wrenched my shoulder. My right arm was trapped in the quickly cooling stone.
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