Where is God? I cannot say for sure, but I have gained awareness of God throughout my life when I have been open to the state of wonder. We can all experience this essential emotion in everything from encounters with nature, to faint whispers of synchronicity, to profound dreams and visitations. It is most difficult to maintain a connection to wonder and to God when we are suffering, which is why I want to tell you about this most remarkable event in the life of our family—the day we found God, when we needed it the most, in a Cabbage Patch doll. It might sound crazy, but when you finish reading, you may find yourself in wonder as well.
My Uncle Henry and my brother Steve both lost their lives when they were barely on the threshold of adulthood. Of course, my mother’s brother, Henry, and her youngest son, Steven, never knew each other. Still, they were tethered in a way that leaves me in awe, reflecting about our deepest connections which reach far beyond this mortal life.
Steven was my mother’s fourth son. We were kindred spirits, bound together in our large Irish clan as the only two redheads and the only two water signs—my Cancer resonated with his Pisces. The sensitivity of those astrological signs was a blessing and a curse to us both, but especially to Steve. It wasn’t easy to be an emotional boy in the 60’s. But by the autumn of 1983, when he was only twenty-three years old, he’d already been married for four years, had a three-year-old daughter, and had just completed a four-year stint in the Marines. He’d proven to all that he was a man.
I was twenty-seven years old then, and about to join my fiancé, Carl, to study in Switzerland. My mother came to me in my room where I was packing and handed me a yellow, faded piece of paper. In 1944, she and her father had received the dreaded telegram in their Canadian home. It stated that her only sibling, Henry Arthur Kelly, had been killed in the Battle of Rimini on September 20, 1944. It named the place where he was buried as the Coriano Ridge War Cemetery in Italy. No one had ever traveled to his grave, and she asked me if I might visit him sometime during my stay in Europe. “Of course,” I said. “I’d be happy to.”
I was only in Switzerland six weeks when Steven committed suicide on January 8, 1984. After coming home for two weeks to attend the funeral and grieve with my family, I returned to Switzerland with a fractured soul. Traveling to visit my uncle’s grave was not possible. I did everything I could to keep one foot in reality and to keep myself alive. Sometimes I prayed to be hit by a train or fall off a precipice. Life was unbearable, and I thought it would be that way forever. My heart was closed, disconnecting me from wonder. I knew that if I lived, I would never be the same. That part turned out to be true.
A few months later, still slogging through my black-bog life, I was awoken from a visitation by Steve where I cried to him: “I’ll never see you again.” He responded: “That’s not true. I will return, and I can visit you anytime you wish. Even when you don’t ask, I’m with you all the time.” I awoke with a burgeoning awareness of the thinness of the veil between this world and the next. Steven felt close. My heart opened a sliver, and I inched toward healing. Carl and I were beyond ready to be released from the cages we found ourselves in, so we booked our train tickets for May to Florence and then to Rimini where we would take a bus to Uncle Henry’s gravesite.
I was a tight bud in the early stages of blossom on that journey; it pained me to open, yet nature would not be stopped. The art in Florence was an endorsement of creation, and my heart began its slow thaw. By the time Carl and I got to the bus depot in Rimini, the launching pad for Coriano, I felt more robust. We sat silently on the coach, gazing in awe at the boundless fields of scarlet poppies, a bittersweet reminder of the blood that saturated yesterday’s battlefield.
When the bus finally stopped in Coriano, I headed for the florist in spite of our preconceived image that Uncle Henry’s grave would be engulfed in weeds. “We’ll just get a geranium,” I told Carl, “because it’ll die with no one to water it.” I asked the clerk for directions, and she pointed down a road, “Due kilometers.” We trekked onward, geranium in hand, determined. After what seemed like at least a kilometer, we met a man and asked, “Cimitero?” He too said, “Due kilometers.” We continued on with a giggle, hoping we weren’t being duped. Then we came upon a hefty woman feeding her chickens in the yard and inquired again, only to get the same response, “Due kilometers.” At that point, I feared we’d been had, or maybe Italians had no rational concept of distance. But we laughed, feeling more curious and alive than we’d felt in a very long time.
We forged on and soon hiked over a rise in the road to a wondrous view. There before us was the most meticulous cemetery we’d ever seen. The white tombstones stood in perfect rows, many with petite, private gardens. We entered the gate where we anticipated plowing through knee-high grass, only to be met by a short, kind Italian man, spade in hand, who spoke perfect English. He accepted my telegram, went to the directory, identified the location, and walked us to Uncle Henry’s gravesite. On the way, he assured me that my humble geranium would be planted, watered, and even protected in a greenhouse in the winter. I flushed that it wasn’t a rose bush.
Walking past the stone monuments, I imagined Steven’s body, held in the ground since January in a military cemetery in Maryland. I thought of all these men – boys really – ripped from our lives. Steven was only 23! I arrived at Uncle Henry’s site, and tears spilled. I set the geranium before the maple-leaf imprinted gravestone, grasped Carl’s hand and read:
D82201 PRIVATE H. A. KELLY
WEST NOVA SCOTIA REGIMENT
SEPTEMBER 20, 1944, 23 YEARS OLD
My heart fought to break free from my chest. I knelt on the grass and sobbed. Carl continued to read:
OF A DEAR SON AND BROTHER
DAD AND SISTER EVELYN
“Twenty-three! They both died at twenty-three!” I cried, absorbing this realization. Carl knelt beside me as I wept in his arms. Some tectonic plate gradually shifted inside, as I witnessed God’s healing hand. I didn’t know what it meant, but I didn’t need to know. I only needed to feel the touch. It broke my heart open to wonder, reuniting me with the fragile, precious mystery of life.
We journeyed back to our studio apartment in Erlenbach where I called my mother to tell her about the trip. When I spoke the words on Henry’s headstone, she too was surprised. She’d forgotten the exact age of her brother when he died, but she did not yet feel the wondrous connection between Henry and Steve that I had experienced. Her voice cracked as she spoke of her memories of Henry. He was always called “Pep” because he vibrated with joy and life. Steven could have had the same nickname. He was full of antics, always making us laugh. We wept for our losses.
It wasn’t long before Carl and I returned home to Maryland to be wed. After our honeymoon, we moved to Florida and started our family. My grief still burned in my chest, but relief came as our developing son kicked in my womb, as we prepared the nursery and began to build our lives. My mother did not have these gifts of life to distract her from her loss. She sought comfort wherever she could find it. Early in 1985, she discovered the new line from Cabbage Patch, known as Preemies—tiny dolls needing extra care because they were thrust into this world too soon by a late spring frost in the cabbage patch, called “Blackberry Winter.” Mom wanted to buy one, and I encouraged her. Perhaps this could warm her heart during her own incessant winter.
Days later, she called me on the phone, clearly shaken by something profound. Mom had gone to the toy store and paid for her Preemie. Then she had to go to a location where the dolls were delivered down a slide. When she got there, another man was there before her, waiting to pick up his Preemie for his daughter. She watched as the large bag slipped down to them. The man turned to my mother and said: “You’re a lady. You go first.” Mom was hesitant, but thanked him and picked up the bag.
Mom glanced inside at the doll, making sure it was male. She noted his white, cotton cap and two-button shirt, indicating the boy she longed to “adopt.” She went to her car and drove out of the parking lot. When she came to a red light, she took the box from the bag and looked through the cellophane to see the legendary adoption papers that accompanied every Cabbage Patch doll, with unique, random names for each one. She saw the name and went numb. Mom thought she misread it, so she studied it further: “Henry Steve.” How could this be? Tingles spread up and down her body. “Both Henry and Steve were so close,” Mom said. No one was behind her at the intersection, and she could not move the car. She sat through two rounds of the traffic light. “I felt lifted up. I was in a state of bliss. It felt like they were next to me.” The doll has been an immense comfort to her for all these years.
To this day, “Henry Steve” holds something wondrous to our family. Even now, my mother says, “It is still hard to believe.” We long to understand the events of our lives, but perhaps what we should believe in is just this state of wonder. Wonder does not seek specific answers, nor confine life and God to our limited ego awareness. Wonder remains curious and keeps us connected to the Source. Even during times of suffering, when we believe it is gone forever, we must watch for its return. Being human is difficult. No matter what, if we maintain wonder, we have the greatest opportunity to be healed. Life and love are there. God is there. We can rest there, at last.