Two weeping cherry trees stand opposite each other on the grounds of my church. One has been there for nearly twenty years. It was a gift from the town, part of a Holocaust memorial project that plants a tree at a school or place of worship each year.
The other tree is much younger. It’s there for Charlotte—a little girl who six years ago received the Eucharist for the first time, along with the rest of her second-grade class. Just two days after that, while she and her mother were shopping for groceries, Charlotte collapsed. Tests disclosed a rare and aggressive cancer. For her and her family there now began a year from hell, a roller-coaster ride of ups and downs with successes measured in blood counts and millimeters, and good days defined by a pain-free hour or two. Charlotte’s school chums made origami paper cranes, and her religious ed class sent regular notes and prayers. In early spring, after an awful Christmas, Charlotte’s condition seemed to improve. She was out of the hospital for longer periods of time, and she began to regain some weight. After three months, however, her illness returned. The tumor grew, bringing white-hot pain. Medications provided little relief, and toward the end, trying to keep her comfortable was an hour-by-hour battle.
The church was filled with children at Charlotte’s funeral. Their artwork and hers decorated the sanctuary: brightly painted pictures, vases filled with colorful paper cranes. Off to the side stood a large portrait of Charlotte receiving her First Communion, which, as we were all aware, was the last time she had been in the church. Her godfather shared some memories, as did several of her teachers. At the end of the Mass, her mother and father were surrounded by Charlotte’s entire class, and together they slowly walked out of the church. A few weeks later, the parish planted the cherry tree in remembrance.
Charlotte’s tree bids us never to forget what a gift children are to our congregations. The yip and squeal of children is a wonderful sound, but one that was largely absent in this parish for years. Now, however, weekend Masses are filling up with young families who are a significant part of our growing parish. With their return, the noise level at some Masses has naturally increased. Now and then it shocks some of the older folks who have warmed our pews in thin times as well as thick. They sometimes glare or sigh heavily when the two-year-old sitting behind them “sings” a little too loudly.
I understand their impatience. Mass is full of people trying to pray and listen for a word of comfort or direction. Some have lost jobs or spouses; they’re struggling with serious problems, and have come to church needing peace to listen for that word when it comes. If a child erupts in a wail that takes half the church prisoner, I hope the parents are wise enough to take Junior for a walk, knowing that they will be prayed for (gratefully) in their absence.
The two trees, however, give some perspective. Although one speaks about millions of lives and the other recalls just one, they both remind me how fragile and fleeting is human life. And so I say, What’s a little noise in church? I can put up with a couple of crying babies during Mass. It is the sound of life. It is the sound of children who can live at home and travel in cars and use their legs. It is the sound of young ones who will outgrow a phase.
Through the seasons I have studied the two trees in the churchyard, watching them weather the winter, bloom in the spring, and grow a little more each year. It’s the same with children. On the best of days, we watch them get older and grow up and get married and have children of their own. In the darkest of nights, we fold paper cranes and plant trees. The kids who made their First Communion this year were only toddlers when Charlotte died. I have to think that back then they did their fair share of crying out and jumping on the kneelers and ripping through a missalette. Not this year, though; not at their special celebration. They’re growing up.
Thank God, they’re growing up.