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Photo: Felix Carroll

The Boy I Never Knew

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Even in winter, when the snow stacks up in hard, mulish mounds, I can see the footprints heading to that one particular gravesite.

I walk this route regularly — this route around the graveyard in the small village where I live. In winter, it's a desolate place. Only a few lone souls visit, taking gingerly steps in the wicked wind. It's a far cry from fair-weather days when — by virtue of the fact this graveyard comprises the rare piece of flat land in a hilly region — the graveyard becomes the de facto village park.

In fair weather, this is where seniors walk laps around the perimeter for exercise; local history buffs come to rub gravestones and search out old family names; and parents engage in that seminal activity of teaching their children to ride bicycles.

One local boy never got the chance to ride a bicycle. His name was Eric. He died on Nov. 28, 2004, before his fourth birthday. He had cancer, I believe, maybe leukemia. I didn't know him. I don't know his parents. Nearly everything I know of him — and them — I've learned through observing his gravesite during my walks.

It's been nearly two-and-a-half years since the boy's death, and his parents still visit his grave, I know. On my walks, I see their footprints. At Christmas, they placed a small evergreen by his grave, propped up on a stand. They carefully tied red ribbons and ornaments to its branches. On Easter, they left a stuffed bunny and some decorated eggs.

I'm sure it's because I'm a father now, but I haven't been able to walk by this boy's grave without it wrecking me — without it cutting me to the bone.

It would wreck you, too.

After Eric's death, his family built a two-foot-by-one-foot wooden box with Plexiglas windows at his grave. It serves as a shrine. They painted it white. They stenciled lettering inside that reads, "Eric, Play Nice With Jesus." It's built upon piers to keep it off the ground, to protect it from the rain. They couldn't protect their boy from an illness, but they're making darn sure they protect their memory of him, the traces of his short life on earth, the evidence of their love.

In it, they placed what must have been his favorite toys, including Play Doh, a little Sponge Bob Square Pants doll, some Hot Wheels, a Scooby Doo sticker. New toys and other objects are occasionally added.

Long ago, they placed a battery-operated candle inside. At night, you can see the glow if you look for it.

The box includes a framed photo, too — of Eric, in diapers, a twinkle in his eye, with that lopsided toddler grin that's looking for laughs and mischief. The photo seems so stunningly out of place here, in March, in this desolate graveyard of memorials whose edges have been smoothed by the healing balm of time. At his gravesite, though, the hard edges remain, less a memorial of a life lived than a marker of the raw emotion left behind.

Children shouldn't die. It makes no sense. This photo should be in a family album at home, on a coffee table, in a warm den. You should be able to turn the page and see another photo of Eric, slightly older, blowing out four candles on a birthday cake with his buddies looking on, followed by another photo of him learning to ride a bicycle in this de facto village park, pedaling out of reach from his parents' outstretched arms, breaking free with his lopsided grin.

He has certainly broken free, free from the bounds of earth, free from his diseased body. Still, I envision his parents running after him, with outstretched arms, desperately reaching for him, to no avail.

I was thinking of all this last weekend. I was in the graveyard with my son, Henry, who's only a few months older than Eric was when he died. Henry and I were throwing snowballs. We were being goofy. There's a crypt in the graveyard that he calls a castle. He was telling me all about the knight that lives inside it. We went to our favorite boulder in a stand of trees. It's our rock. We scramble on top of it and pretend we're riding a Brontosaurus.

As we headed back home, we passed Eric's grave. It's on the way, and it's hard to miss. Plus, I'm drawn to it. I cannot completely explain why. It floods my mind with thoughts. I think of my own son. I think of how I wouldn't want to live in a world without him. I mourn for Eric's parents. I think of my very own brother and the silent suffering he still endures after the death of his two-year-old boy a few years ago. Can there be worse suffering here on earth than that?

I'm drawn to this grave because of the loving upkeep always apparent there. He was a boy clearly born of love and received in joy and pain — the joy in the sacrament of life and in the gift of children, and the pain in wondering how such innocence will fare in a wounded world. I'm drawn to it because it's like standing at some precipice. It marks the end of something and the beginning of something else. But of what? The end of suffering for a sick boy? The beginning of his life in heaven? I hope, I pray.

His grave is a reality check in many ways — that life is fragile, that these days are a gift, that in a world dizzy with ambition, materialism, and pride, love is the only thing worth anything. And once you experience this love — whether it be of a child, a spouse, or of God — you realize you cannot live without it.

Anyway, on this day last weekend, my son and I stepped up to the grave. Henry looked through the glass and pointed to some toys. I crouched down to take a closer look, too, which I hadn't done in awhile. And there in the center of this box was something that startled me. It was a statue of The Divine Mercy — a little eight-inch replica of our Lord as He appeared to St. Faustina. I couldn't believe it!

Tears ran down my cheek as I gazed at the statue, there amidst the Hot Wheels, the Scooby Doo, the comforting assemblage of childhood. Jesus was there in the middle. How could I ever even doubt it? And the fact that this little boy's parents placed that statue there tells me something profound: that they are OK, that they are smiling amidst the tears because they know their little boy is being cherished and protected by our Lord.

My friend and fellow writer for this website, Jay Hastings, reminded me recently of a section of the Diary of St. Faustina in which she implores Jesus to look upon the tears of suffering little children. She writes: "At that moment, I saw the Lord Jesus, His eyes filled with tears, and He said to me, You see, My daughter, what great compassion I have for them. Know that it is they who uphold the world (286).

This little boy's grave contains a key to wisdom. I don't completely comprehend it. But I know this: a little boy I never met broke my heart — then, he placed it back together again better than it was before.

Felix Carroll is the editor of thedivinemercy.org.

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Jerry - Mar 28, 2007

Thank you, Felix, for sharing such a beautiful story on my Birthday. My young son has autism, and through the pain and tears of a parent, Jesus has given me Hope. The kind of hope that I never knew existed before. There is no doubt that these special children hold the world up on their shoulders. They touch our lives and bring us closer to God.

Kathy - Mar 26, 2007

Yep. "Jesus is in the middle..." indeed. Thanks Felix for sharing another piece of your life with us.

Nof - Mar 26, 2007

This magnificent piece of writing shows how we are called to God by the things and events that we come by in our everyday lives. We only need to be alert to them. It's all about being awake and aware. Felix, great job!

Lisa L - Mar 25, 2007

The whole article, but especially the final paragraph was so moving! When visiting the graves of my relatives, I, too, am drawn to the "angel garden" which is the plot for children. Like you I don't fully understand why. Being a parent is only part of it. There is something in all of us that cries out for a life cut short (at least to our way of understanding). We must believe that God will balance all this out in the end. In the meantime, tears will be shed and hearts will break, but the Merciful Jesus is THE source of comfort and strength. Thank you for sharing your beautiful article! - Lisa