Mary was ninety, her terminally ill great grandson was twenty-one months old. "Mr Poulton, why can't I have the illness instead of him? Why can't I go? I have a long and a good life, why can't I just die and let him stay here?"
I had no answer then, any more than I have an answer now. I stood in an inarticulate silence. What was there that could be said? Perhaps there should have been some reassuring line about God having some purpose, except who would believe in a God who caused pain and death to a toddler in his working out of an eternal purpose? Would such a God be worthy of being regarded as God? Would a deity that willed the suffering of a child not better be regarded as nothing more than a malevolent spirit, unworthy of worship, unworthy even of acknowledgement other than contempt?
The death of that little boy still haunts me. It is not hard to understand the way that Mary felt. Impotent in the face of person's, particularly the illness of a young person,who wouln't make a wish that it might be possible to somehow lift the burden that the person is carrying, to somehow lighten the weight that the person has to bear?
Of course there's nothing that can be done, nothing other than treasure the life that one has been given oneself, and to urge others to regard every moment as of infinite worth.
Talking with a man whose wife was a patient on the cancer ward of a Belfast hospital during the Troubles, he spoke with exasperation about the Republican and Loyalist paramilitaries. "Ian, I wish they would come in here and see what life is about. I wish they woudl come in here and see people fighting for their lives. I wish they would come in here and see how precious life is. Then, they might think before they go out murdering people."
The man's exasperation is expressed in a stanza of the 1969 pop song, "He ain't heavy," which says:
If I'm laden at all
I'm laden with sadness
That everyone's heart
Isn't filled with the gladness
Of love for one another
Human pride rebels at the thought of being incapable of doing anything, at the thought of situations that cannot be manged. Perhaps all we have is, as the lyric says, love for one another. All we can do is love people. Sit with them, hold their hand, say nothing, for there are no words.