A Grace Given: A Father’s Love for a Dying Child
A Book Review by Kristine Cranley
“In the years that we have lived with Elie’s terminal illness, I have often sensed in other people the belief that it would be better if Elie were to die sooner rather than later. It always remains unspoken, but the way they frame their thoughts or prognosticate our future, I feel certain that they assume God’s blessing to us would be for Elie to die soon and without pain. For whatever reason, these people feel she is a hardship, that it would make our lives easier or steadier if she were gone, that it would strengthen our marriage by giving us more time together, less stress. … but these people are fools …My children are the greatest gifts I have known but Elie is particularly special. She makes my life far richer, more contemplative and more full of joy than it ever would have been without her." A Grace Given p. 41, 45
This week I had the great joy of reading A Grace Given, the testimony of a father’s love for his dying daughter. It is a privileged look into the soul of a father and his journey toward self-discovery through relation to his firstborn daughter, rendered handicapped in her battle with a brain tumor. It is a love story.
In the wee hours, when she has lain stiff in the nurse’s arms since midnight and even Liz cannot put her to sleep, I will take her in my lap, hold her hand in mine, wrap the blanket around her and she will soften slowly, then bat her eyelids heavily, and within moments drift off into a deep sleep. She is waiting for me to come to her, but had no way of telling the nurse or Liz other than by stiffening out. (p. 47)
Elie’s illness sets her father on a journey of faith. While his wife Liz leans on her Catholic faith to carry her through their crises, Kent Gilges speaks honestly of his own struggles and questions regarding faith and meaning and suffering. In the end it is Elie herself, in her utter vulnerability and neediness, who unlocks the door to communion with God for her father.
The truth is that God brings suffering into our lives because suffering brings us closer to Him. This is the beauty hidden in a brain tumor. It is a key that unlocks the box filled with love, hope, generosity, beauty, care, gentleness… Why did God give my daughter a brain tumor? I do not know. I cannot hope to know. But He did, and it has brought a blessedness to our home and our lives that never would have entered there otherwise. (p. 107, 109)
John Paul II, in his play The Radiation of Fatherhoodspeaks about how God the Father desires His Fatherly love to radiate out through human fatherhood. A Grace Given is a word picture of this radiation. It is the story of how the vulnerability of a daughter gives birth to a father’s heart. Through his decision to stand the entire six hours of his daughter’s surgery in solidarity with her, his turmoil over how best to love and provide for his daughter, his grief at being separated from her, and most of all his utter delight in her, he gives us a tiny glimpse of God the Father’s solicitude for us. This is poignantly portrayed in a passage in which Gilges speculates on his daughters thoughts as he bathes her.
You might wonder what I think about when I’m floating in the bathtub with my eyes closed. That’s the best part of the story. I think about God. I try to imagine what it will be like when God holds me … They say that when I visit God, I will sit on His lap and talk to Him for a long time, and when I fall asleep, He’s going to give me to the angels to hold while I wait for Mommy and Daddy. I like to think about that in the bathtub because I think being held by God is a lot like being held by Daddy, except better. (p. 72)
Through revealing his own ‘father’s heart’, Gilges gives us a telling glimpse into the heart of God which theological speculation can never achieve. I am grateful for his vulnerability in this and I am delighted to recommend his book.