I have heard people refer to the death of “a mother of four children” with the assumption that the number “four” makes the whole thing worse.
For Beth’s own loss, I think that was true. Only those who knew her can understand how fiercely (as my friend Iris Welch put it, perhaps best of anyone) Beth loved––God, and friends, and birds, and reading to our kids, and running, and Aristotelian metaphysics, and politics, and beluga whales, and the Catholic Church, and anything else she found beautiful. In just under two years with cancer, Beth had to lose all those things but God, and it was awful. And most of all, she had to lose a home full of four children that she loved so fiercely. She didn’t just lose being with them, but she lost their entire futures: who they were in potency, a word Beth could have written a treatise about. If anyone alive could recognize the weight of that loss, it was Beth.
But for the kids, “four” is a matter of grace, not hardship. However they may miss their mom, and however crazy the house may be these days, they have each other, all four of them. When we decided to have a houseful of kids close in age, we hoped the timing would allow Beth to resume a career someday when they were grown. But her death at 35 didn’t turn that plan into a failure, because the real goal was to fill the house full of life, as an expression of a gift from God. And with Beth gone, that is exactly what she has left me: a home full of life, and a gift from God.
As I take on full-time homeschooling, I am not sacrificing my life or career to fulfill a dream of Beth’s, though it was her passionate dream and maybe the loss she grieved most. For my part, I have always followed whatever good path was before me: college, grad school, marriage to Beth, teaching college part-time, having kids, hospital chaplaincy, homemaker. The world is so full of good things that there are countless paths worth taking. Right now I am embracing the unique gift Beth left to me, a chance to teach my kids how to love the beauty that surrounds them.
We are an unusual family, as I am Protestant and Beth was Roman Catholic. Our kids were baptized Catholic, and Beth and I agreed from the beginning that we would raise them with the Catholic sacraments and religious ed, even if they also attended a protestant church with me. That is still my promise to Beth.
Our beliefs were quite distinct but surprisingly connected. Beth was a hard-core Thomist but also loved John Calvin and Karl Barth–who is part of my nightly read. I was raised in a Bible-centered conservative church, but I was drawn to aspects of virtue ethics (without knowing it was called that) before I ever met Beth. And since we were both trained in theology, we were attuned to which issues are really worth fighting over, and which doctrines are better to hold lightly.
The purpose of this site is not to bare my soul to a public audience. What I wrote above may be the most personal piece I write. I don’t want to violate my kids’ privacy, or Beth’s for that matter. My goal is to aim toward what is universal––let’s call it small-c catholic––and hope that others can relate.