One of the hardest things to bear is the illness or loss of a child. I brushed up against this terrifying possibility briefly last December, when my five year old daughter with Down syndrome, normally so healthy, was suddenly stricken with double pneumonia.
For six days, we dwelt in the valley of the shadow of death with her, holding an oxygen tube in front of her mouth day and night, our eyes fixed upon the monitor who measured her blood oxygenation, thumping her back and chest with our cupped hands, the simple treatment which saved her life. There was never a more joyful Christmas Eve procession as that of our family bearing her out of the hospital past the hospital chapel overflowing with worshippers who turned as I prayed aloud, "Praise to You, Lord Jesus Christ, King of endless glory!"
But for Liz and Kent Gilges the dark night of sorrow didn't end. Life saving surgery on their firstborn infant girl, Elizabeth Nyanga Gilges, whom they called "Elie" caused brain damage from which she would never recover. They lovingly nursed her, unresponsive in a persistent vegetative state, for ten years before Jesus took Elie home.
Liz, a devout Catholic, had her faith to sustain her, but her husband, Kent was raised without any religious faith. His deep love for Elie, however, brought him down a path he never expected to travel, one towards faith in God. Just before the crisis with Elie began, he had asked Jesus for a sign that He was real, and, paradoxically, Elie's suffering and death was His answer. It was the same response Jesus gave in the Gospel, "If you wish to be my disciples, you must take up your cross and follow me", St. Matt 16:23.
A Severe Mercy, the classic by Sheldon Vanauken, speaks of his beloved wife Davy's death as God's way — His severe mercy — of calling him home to faith in Christ. Kent, whose heart, still raw with his daughter's loss, admits that her suffering is God's megaphone, which got his attention. However, he is still stumbling over the cross he experienced in his daughter's suffering. "Why did Elie have to die?" her brother Alexander asks, and Kent has no answer. Yet. But he does know why she lived. "Elie is the greatest gift we as a family could have received. She made — and still makes — our lives far richer, more contemplative, and full of joy than they ever would have been without her. She was a beloved and essential part of our family and would have been as long as she was with us. Elie has given us an awareness of suffering's noble beauty."
A Grace Given is a beautifully written treatise on love. It is one of the most pro-life books I have ever read. The love of a father for a child that can give him almost nothing in the traditional sense, no open arms, no endearing words, no loving glances, no soft caresses, is so complete, that we are transformed and ennobled merely by witnessing it. The story, even though we are told of its heartbreaking ending near the book's beginning, is so engrossing, I read the entire 260 pages in only two sittings.
Kent Gilges' gifted use of language transports the reader with him around the globe, to the various places he's traveled, from Africa, to Rome, Oxford, Manhattan and to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. His precise use of detail and ability to build the drama of a scene, powerfully evokes the intensity of the emotions which he and Liz were going through in their ten year odyssey with Elie. Kent Gilges draws you into the sea of love that is his family, and helps you understand the depth of their devotion to their beautiful, helpless little girl. A little girl whose intercessory prayers he suggests may already be working miracles in the lives of others, and will certainly work a miracle in your heart. Read A Grace Given and you will be renewed in your hope in the power of a father's love, and the gift which the disabled child is for a family who knows God.