Toddlers as Memento Mori

Families 150 years ago experienced often the pain of a baby or toddler dying. I have been reading about the beginnings of our worshipping community of St Mary’s Busselton as the Molloys, the Bussells and the Chapmans began their pioneer life first in Augusta then at the Vasse.

Georgiana Molloy apparently gave birth in a tent in Augusta, possibly assisted only by a Noongar woman. This baby drowned two years later. In the Australian landscape, and under those conditions, deaths in childbirth, deaths from snake-bite, drowning, accident and disease in the first years of life were bound to be common.

Families adjusted by having many children. Demographers point out that as societies become more affluent, they have smaller families. With safer life-styles, you need fewer spares.

Captain John Molloy’s gravestone St Mary’s Church, Busselton

That doesn’t lessen the burden of pain. Parents bonded emotionally with their infant child only to have that bond violently broken by an early death. You can read the pain on the gravestones scattered around our old cemeteries. For Georgiana Molloy the pain of losing children may well have contributed to her own early death.

It also meant, however, that these infant deaths taught families of that era to be more aware of the everyday reality of death, and more conscious of three things in particular which are often absent from our thinking:

  1. Sorting out what happens after death. It is true that the Victorians could be sentimental about the afterlife (“There is a happy land far, far away”), but they could also glory in the benefits of the resurrection. Because Jesus has risen from the dead, our destiny, though the details may not be clearly seen, is to be anticipated with joy.
  1. The act of dying. We may die in our sleep, or in an accident, in the twinkling of an eye. But it may be that we will be conscious in our dying, and we will want to be ready to set out on that adventure in a manner that matches our faith. We can plan ahead. For me, or you, as an individual, what will constitute a good death?
  1. If, after death, “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart imagined, … God has prepared for those who love him” (I Cor. 2:9 ESV), and if, we are to approach the act of dying with faith, then how much more should our lives now reflect the goodness of God? We should live each day with gratitude for the gift of eternal life.

The Repetitions of Toddlers

We took our grand-daughter to the Busselton foreshore this afternoon. It’s a great place for kids. There were quite a few kids swimming in the enclosed sea-pool. There were adults strolling on the grass, enjoying Simmo’s ice-creams. The famous jetty was crowded with people, some just venturing out 30 metres to the kiosk, others making their way to the aquarium one kilometre out to sea.

Aurora turns two in just a few weeks, so she’s an active toddler. She enjoyed an ice-cream. She swallowed about 80% of it; she smeared the other 20% from face to toes like 50+ sun-cream.

We wandered off, expecting her to enjoy all the activity around her. We came across a three-step brick staircase designed in a wide semi-circle. Aurora’s eye glinted. She grasped the rail, and took herself down the three steps at the end. Then she toddled off to the centre to the next rail, and hauled herself up again. She was very pleased with herself. We were ready to move on, as adults always are, but she went back to the end, grasped the rail and hauled herself down again. Of course we applauded her.

Back to the centre rail and up again. Her grin was wide and infectious. Aurora was having fun, and she had Grandma and Grandpa’s attention. Over and over again. How many times? Seven times? No: seven times seven. Maybe seventy times seven. Well, actually, it was probably about seven to ten times.

Aurora & GP on the stepsBut toddlers do learn by joyous repetition. Climbing steps – today – was just the challenge Aurora needed, and it was far more compelling for her than the attractions of the Busselton foreshore.

In our humility we need to learn by joyous repetition too, as we are toddlers in God’s kingdom. The action that challenges me is forgiveness. I don’t do it automatically, just as Aurora instinctively knows an adults automatically climbs steps. I can only become a forgiving person if I practise like a toddler with obsessive repetition. How many times? Seven times? No. Seven times seven. Or maybe seventy times seven.

As a teacher, Aurora is in good company.