That Smile

Wherever there is laughter, there is heaven.

(Madeleine L’Engle, A Ring of Endless Light)

My little cousin spends her first weeks in a NICU. Nobody knows why her body is malfunctioning. They understand what is happening—a build-up of certain minerals in her organs—but they never understand why.

At first, the what turns out to be enough, and with sufficient interventions, she gets to go home. We live in different states, so I don’t meet her until she’s three years old. On a Wednesday afternoon, we sit around at Grandma’s house, and I teach her and her two older sisters and assorted other family members how to play a semi-violent card game. Not violent in the sense of hitting people, nor violent in the sense of bloody images on the cards, but violent in the sense that the game involves fast movements and snatching of silverware (yes, silverware), and almost inevitably this leads to shrieking and falling out of chairs.

It wouldn’t be very much fun if it didn’t.

This littlest one, at the age of three, can’t tell the difference between a two and an eight and a queen and an ace, so she’s on my “team,” and her job is to hide our cards. She does this very effectively. Sometimes she even hides them from me. She’s a little darling, all smiles and sparkles, though without much speech. Grandma says they’re testing her hearing next week. She probably throws the occasional tantrum—what three-year-old doesn’t?—but what sticks in my memory later is her charm, the way her smile’s like a little sunny day.

Turns out she hears fine, and I’m away and working and traveling and not with that side of the family through the doctor’s visits, the therapy, the warning signs. The next time I see her, she still has little speech, and she’s small—and her legs are in braces. Her gait’s unsteady. She’ll need a wheelchair eventually.

But that smile! She’s six years old, and she’s as beautiful as she was at three. This kid is special. She makes me happy. She makes everybody happy.

Eventually, the diagnosis comes, and it’s a relief to know, though it also means we know she’ll never live to see adulthood. It’s a miracle when she lives to see eight…then nine, then ten…and eleven and twelve. She loses control of her muscles. She can’t speak. Eventually, she can’t eat, and she’s given a G-tube.

But she can smile.

With her mom and her dad and her two older sisters, she lives her life like a twelve-year-old does: she goes to school, to church, to the park, to the pizza place. Every person in that little town knows her. She gives her smile to everyone she sees!

And then she dies. I get the phone call in New York, while I’m crossing the street. I can’t go to the funeral. I’m committed to facilitating a gathering that weekend, one that’s been in the works for nearly a year. (It’s the first funeral I’ll miss for this reason, but not the last.)

But I hear stories. I hear stories of all the people who show up to honor her. I hear stories of the local fast food place that puts her name up on their highway sign and adds WE WILL MISS YOU. I remember her for her, for who she was, but I also remember her as a model of ministry, of somebody who took the gift she’d been given and gave it and gave it, literally everything she had to give, and in doing so offered us all a taste of heaven.





This story is part of a series on traveling in the ministry. Names and identifying details have been changed. 

If you’re in the Caribbean, South America, Central America, or North America, and if your Friends’ community might benefit from the experience of having a traveling minister come to visit, take a look at this program from Friends World Committee for Consultation.


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