Friday, February 27, 2009
The Magical Child
David Cameron with his son Ivan
A complete editorial from today's Tablet: The True Measure of a Life
True measure of a life
At precisely the moment on Ash Wednesday when the House of Commons was due to turn into the weekly bear pit of Prime Minister's Questions, proceedings were adjourned for half an hour and the usual raucous exchanges were postponed. It was as if parliamentarians of all persuasions sensed that in the circumstances, the normal traffic of party politics was too frantic and too trivial to contend with. For one of the key participants, Tory leader David Cameron, was absent due to a personal bereavement of the most poignant and tragic kind. Earlier that morning his six-year-old son Ivan had died in hospital. Ivan was born with severe cerebral palsy and epilepsy, and had never been far from hospital throughout his short life. Nothing softened his father's image more than his devoted care for his son through thick and thin. He often expressed a heartfelt solidarity with thousands of ordinary parents struggling with similar challenges. Indeed, Ivan may be credited with changing the way the Conservative Party viewed the National Health Service itself, no mean achievement for one so meek and little. The proposal to abandon Prime Minister's Questions came from Gordon Brown, who paid a tribute in the House that was manifestly from the heart. He too had lost a child, in his case soon after birth. Perhaps only those who have had such an experience can come close to understanding it.
The meaning of the life of a six-year-old infant with cerebral palsy cannot be measured by intelligence tests or physical prowess. His measure is the deep love he received from those around him, stirred all the more by his helpless vulnerability, and the love he gave back. Mr Cameron called him his "magical child". There is something mysterious about such children, for they have an ability to engage with others without the developed faculties of speech and hearing. Instinctively at such times people reach for poetic - indeed for religious - language to express what they feel. How else to acknowledge the infinite value of the many children who will never see adulthood but who are cared for in loving homes despite the sometimes gruelling duties of nursing them, except by reference to the God who formed them in his image?
It also takes religious language to articulate the close association of love with suffering, so that the greater the love, the greater the pain at eventual loss. But these are not reasons to refuse to love. Undoubtedly, had sympathetic doctors been asked, they would have signed the necessary consent forms for termination of pregnancy, ending Ivan's life in the womb as the lives of countless others have been. At such moments society needs to look at itself very candidly in the mirror and ask what it thinks it is doing.
The first day of Lent is one of the darkest of the liturgical calendar, surpassed only by Good Friday. But in the northern hemisphere at least, it comes when the spring days are lengthening, when Nature revives and summer lies ahead. For those who suffer bereavement it is always a kind of Lent, signifying loss, but it can also signify hope, of winter over and Christ's passion endured and overcome. Blessed are they who mourn, he said, for they will be comforted. And the meek will inherit the earth.