Had things worked or happened differently, I would be celebrating the eleventh birthday of my daughter, Cecilia Rose Birzer, today. I can visualize exactly what it might be like. A cake, eleven candles, hats, cheers, goofiness, photos, and, of course, ice cream. I imagine that she would love chocolate cake–maybe a brownie cake—and strawberry ice cream. Her many, many siblings cheer here, celebrating the innumerable smiles she has brought the family. As I see her at the table now, I see instantly that her deep blue eyes are mischievous to be sure, but hilarious and joyous as well. Her eyes are gateways to her soul, equally mischievous, hilarious, and joyous. She’s tall and thin, a Birzer. She also has an over abundance of dark brown curls, that match her darker skin just perfectly. She loves archery, and we just bought her first serious bow and arrow. No matter how wonderful the cake, the ice cream, and the company, she’s eager to shoot at a real target.
She’s at that perfect age, still a little girl with little girl wants and happinesses, but on the verge of discovering the larger mysteries of the teenage and adult world. She cares what her friends think of her, but not to the exclusion of what her family thinks of her. She loves to dance to the family’s favorite music, and she knows every Rush, Marillion, and Big Big Train lyric by heart. She’s just discovering the joys of Glass Hammer. As an eleven-year old, she loves princesses, too, and her favorite is Merida, especially given the Scot’s talents and hair and confidence. She has just read The Fellowship of the Ring, and she’s anguished over the fate of Boromir. Aragorn, though—there’s something about him that seems right to her.
If any of this is actually happening, it’s not happening here. At least not in this time and not on this earth. Here and now? Only in my dreams, my hopes, and my broken aspirations.
Eleven years ago today, my daughter, Cecilia Rose Birzer, strangled on her own umbilical cord. That which had nourished her for nine months killed her just two days past her due date.
On August 6, 2007, she came to term. Very early on August 8, my wife felt a terrible jolt in her belly and then nothing. Surely this, we hoped, was Cecilia telling us she was ready. We threw Dedra’s hospital bag into the car as we had done four times before, and we drove the 1.5 miles to the hospital. We knew something was wrong minutes after we checked in, though we weren’t sure what was happening. Nurses, doctors, and technicians were coming in and out of the room. The medical personnel were whispering, looking confused, and offering each other dark looks. Finally, after what seemed an hour or more, our beloved doctor told us that our child—a girl, it turned out—was dead and that my wife would have to deliver a dead child.
We had waited to know the sex of the baby, but we had picked out names for either possibility. We had chosen Cecilia Rose for a girl, naming her after my great aunt Cecelia as well as St. Cecilia, the patron saint of music, and Rose because of St. Rose of Lima being the preferred saint for the women in my family and because Sam Gamgee’s wife was named Rosie.
I had never met my Aunt Cecelia as she had died at age 21, way back in 1927. But, she had always been a presence in my family, the oldest sister of my maternal grandfather. She had contracted tetanus, and the entire town of Pfeifer, Kansas, had raised the $200 and sent someone to Kansas City to retrieve the medicine. The medicine returned safely to Pfeifer and was administered to my great aunt, but it was too late, and she died an hour or two later. Her grave rests rather beautifully, just to the west of Holy Cross Church in Pfeifer valley, and a ceramic picture of her sits on her tombstone. Her face as well as her story have intrigued me as far back as I can remember. Like my Cecilia Rose, she too had brown curly hair and, I suspect, blue eyes. She’s truly beautiful, and her death convinced her boyfriend to become a priest.
The day of Cecilia Rose’s death was nothing but an emotional roller coaster. A favorite priest, Father Brian Stanley, immediately drove to Hillsdale to be with us, and my closest friends in town spent the day, huddled around Dedra. We cried, we laughed, and we cried some more–every emotion was just at the surface. I’m more than certain the nurses thought we were insane. Who were these Catholics who could say a “Hail Mary” one moment, cry the next, and laugh uproariously a few minutes later? Of course, the nurses also saw just how incredibly tight and meaningful the Catholic community at Hillsdale is. And, not just the Catholics—one of the most faithful with us that day was a very tall Lutheran.
Late that night, Dedra revealed her true self. She is—spiritually and intellectually—the strongest person I know. She gave birth with the strength of a Norse goddess. Or maybe it was just the grace of Mary working through her. Whatever it was, she was brilliant. Any man who believes males superior to females has never seen a woman give birth. And, most certainly, has never seen his wife give birth to a dead child. Cecilia Rose was long gone by the time she emerged in the world, but we held her and held her and held her for as long as we could. With the birth of our other six children, I have seen in each of them that unique spark of grace, given to them alone. Cecilia Rose was a beautiful baby, but that spark, of course, was absent, having already departed to be with her Heavenly Father.
For a variety of reasons, we were not able to bury her until August 14. For those of you reading this who are Catholic, these dates are pretty important. August 8 is the Feast of St. Dominic, and August 14 is the Feast of St. Maximilian Kolbe.
Regardless, those days between August 8 and August 14 were wretched. We were in despair and depression. I have never been as angry and confused as I was during those days. Every hour seemed a week, and the week itself, seemed a year. I had nothing but love for my family, but I have never been that angry with God as I was then and, really, for the following year, and, frankly, for the next nine after that. We had Cecilia Rose buried in the 19th-century park-like cemetery directly across the street from our house. For the first three years after her death, I walked to her grave daily. Even to this day, I visit her grave at least once a week when in Hillsdale. In the first year after her death, I was on sabbatical, writing a biography of Charles Carroll of Carrollton. Every early afternoon, I would walk over to her grave, lay down across it, and listen to Marillion’s Afraid of Sunlight. Sometime in the hour or so visit, I would just raise my fist to the sky and scream at God. “You gave me one job, God, to be a father to this little girl, and you took it all away.” In my fury, I called Him the greatest murderer in history, a bastard, an abortionist, and other horrible things. I never doubted His existence, but I very much questioned His love for us.
Several things got me through that first year: most especially my wife and my children as well as my friends. There’s nothing like tragedy to reveal the true faces of those you know. Thank God, those I knew were as true in their honor and goodness as I had hoped they would be. A few others things helped me as well. I reread Tolkien, and I read, almost nonstop, Eliot’s collected poetry, but especially “The Hollow Men,” “Ash Wednesday,” and the “Four Quartets.” I also, as noted above, listened to Marillion. As strange as it might seem, my family, my friends, Tolkien, Eliot, and Marillion saved my life that year. I have no doubt about that. And, nothing gave me as much hope as Sam Gamgee in Mordor. “Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty forever beyond its reach.” As unorthodox as this might be, we included Tolkien’s quote in the funeral Mass.
A year ago, my oldest daughter—the single nicest person I have ever met—and I were hiking in central Colorado. We were remembering Cecilia Rose and her death. Being both kind and wise, my daughter finally said to me, “You know, dad, it’s okay that you’ve been mad at God. But, don’t you think that 10 years is long enough?” For whatever reason—and for a million reasons—my daughter’s words hit me at a profound level, and I’m more at peace over the last year than I’ve been since Cecilia Rose died. I miss my little one like mad, and tears still spring almost immediately to my eyes when I think of her. I don’t think any parent will ever get over the loss of a child, and I don’t think we’re meant to. But, I do know this: my Cecilia Rose is safely with her Heavenly Father, and, her Heavenly Mother, and almost certainly celebrating her birthday in ways beyond our imagination and even our hope. I have no doubt that my maternal grandmother and grandfather look after her, and that maybe even Tolkien and Eliot look in on her from time to time. And, maybe even St. Cecilia herself has taught my Cecilia Rose all about the music of the spheres. Indeed, maybe she sees the White Star. Let me re-write that: I know that Cecilia Rose sees the White Star. She is the White Star.
Happy birthday, Cecilia Rose. Your daddy misses you like crazy, but he does everything he can to make sure that he makes it to Heaven–if for no other reason than to hug you and hug you and hug you.
Bradley J. Birzer is The American Conservative’s scholar-at-large. He also holds the Russell Amos Kirk Chair in History at Hillsdale College and is the author, most recently, of Russell Kirk: American Conservative.