I have wanted to write about this for some time, but felt that I should hold off, out of respect for the family. One of the chapters in Finding God in the Ordinary is about the memory of God. In that chapter, I write, "The Trinity never forgets." It's a simple idea, really, with profound implications. And one of those implications compelled me to write this article. I hope it's of some comfort, however small, to those of us who are continuing to grieve the absence of a little girl.
My five-year-old son went to school with a sweet, kind, energetic bundle of energy named Hailey. I only met her once, at her fifth birthday party, and then only for a few moments—long enough to watch her flit and flutter around the room like the butterflies she loved. Hailey contracted e coli and, in a matter of weeks, passed away due to complications from Hemolytic-uremic syndrome (HUS). I can't tell you how terrifying that is to a parent, nor how crippling it would be to experience. It is simply beyond me. What I can tell you, however, is what happened when our family arrived home after attending a tree planting ceremony for Hailey at the nursery school.
Hailey's parents had passed out tiny bottles of bubbles for each of the kids to play with at the tree planting. Around the top of each bubble container was a purple ribbon, tying on a purple paper cutout of a butterfly. When we got home and wrangled the kids out of the van, one of these little butterflies fell on the ground, landing softly at the threshold of our garage door.
I picked it up. I carried it with me to my desk, where it still sits. Now, why is that worth writing about? Let me try to explain.
I didn't have to pick up the butterfly. In fact, for a split second, I thought about leaving it. It was just a little piece of paper. And yet . . . it was much more than that. It was a symbol of a person, marking an event that has marked all of us, calling attention to the brevity and unpredictability and sanctity of life. It was made of paper, but it weighed so much when I stared at it. It was a token of everything sacred. So I picked it up.
That seemingly insignificant decision hung around for the rest of the day, until it revealed something quite profound about the nature of God: God picks everything up too; nothing gets lost on him. He doesn't leave parts of life littering the streets of history. He doesn't walk away from remnants of what is truly valuable: he gathers them up in his memory. He cherishes them, because he cherishes people, who are made in his image, and who are bound up with parts of his world. That image of a butterfly was an image of Hailey, and Hailey is an image of God (Gen. 1:27).
Now, people are forgetful. We focus on the now, the immediate, and we worry about the future, but we don't always cherish the past. This is never the case with God. The Trinity (Father, Son, and Spirit) never forgets. It doesn't matter how small the detail is—a fleeting memory, a mispronounced word, a wisp of cloud in the sky, a tiny purple butterfly. Nothing is lost on God.
God's memory, in other words, is utterly perfect and all-encompassing. As one theologian put it, everything is immediately present to God. That fleeting memory you had yesterday, the word you mispronounced, the way the sky looked this morning, the tiny purple butterfly on the garage floor, and yes—far more important than all of these things, little Hailey, the living, breathing, laughing, one-of-a-kind human that left the world so quickly.
If I lost a child, one of my fears would certainly be that others would forget him or her, that they would walk through the world as though that little person never existed, as if a vibrant flare of life had somehow disappeared and would never burn again.
And the truth of it is that some people may forget. But the greatest "person" of all (God himself) will always remember. Every. Single. Minute.
People are fickle and easily distracted, but this couldn't be further from the truth with God. Nothing ever has or ever will get lost on him. No flare of life, especially a fluttering five-year-old, disappears never to thrive again. God keeps everything. He keeps it all. And he keeps us too.
I won't ever forget Hailey. Our children talk about her all the time. She has an immovable place in our lives. But more important than this is the unshakable truth that—no matter what we think or feel or believe—God will never forget her, because she is always with him. She is ever-present to the God who called himself love (1 John 4:8).
I'm planning to keep the paper butterfly. Whenever I look at it, I'll remember that God keeps us, that he keeps Hailey, and that we will never be lost on him. One day we will be forever found in him.