“St. Thomas Aquinas, the premier theologian in the Catholic Church, explains this paradox as follows: If a person lives according to the natural law written on his heart, God will send him a means of knowing the truth by either natural or supernatural means; that is, he will send a missionary to teach him the faith or even an angel, if necessary.”

Questions and Answers on Salvation, Fr. Michael Müller, C.Ss.R.

Part I

It’s not a very remarkable looking intersection.  Just like every street corner you see in America.  There’s a 4-way stop light.  On the corner, a small blue sign that says “BUS”, where one of only a few buslines run up and down 1st Avenue dropping people off and picking people up.  There’s a wooden bench painted green, and that’s about it.  Behind the bench and bordering Amistad Street is a little community park.  It has a slide, a yellow swing-set, and a grassy field for kids to run around and play games.  It’s where I used to take Sierra as a toddler.  She had learned how to swing on those yellow swings, and I remember her falling and scrapping her leg.  She cried and cried.  And the only way to get her to stop was to sing her one of her songs.

But other than that memory, it was truly unremarkable.

It’s amazing how something so routine and commonplace can change your life.

* * *

“Sierra!  What is taking so long?”  I yelled into the bathroom.  It was getting to be bedtime and she was fraying my patience.

“Give her a few more minutes, Tom,” Sarah, scolded me without looking up from her magazine.  Her bedside light splashing light on the gloss pages of Us Weekly, Glamour, or whatever it was she was reading.

I glanced at the clock and grumbled loud enough for her to overhear.  When I shot a scowl toward her she poked her eyes above the magazine.

“Oh hush,” she said, closing her eyes and sticking her tongue out at me, which instantly cracked my frosty look and I broke into a smile.

That was unfair.  Sarah knew this was the easiest way to bring me out of a bad mood.  We discovered early when we were dating that she had an odd inability of not being able to stick her tongue out and keep her eyes closed at the same time.  We once tried to practice doing both, and while she grew frustrated, I couldn’t help but laugh every time her face contorted in many failed attempts.  It was one of those odd funny things you discover as a new couple, and her nose always wrinkled in pleasure over this power over me.

“Daaahh-dee-daaaah-dee-dum!” came from the bathroom.  “One flew over the mountains.  One flew over the sea.  And one flew all the way home to me.” 

It was Sierra’s Song.  She was singing in the shower again.

Sarah and I would sing songs to her as a baby and she’d started singing those songs back to us before she could talk.  As a toddler she would pick up the tune of whatever Sarah happened to be humming or what I would be whistling around the house.  By the time she got to be four she was already belting out tunes in the bathroom.  Lately, she’d created whole melodies that were unique to her.  Sarah and I called it Sierra’s Song.

I normally don’t mind, however, bedtime was upon us.  I was going to shoot my wife another look when she beat me to it.

“Ok,” she said as she closed the magazine and got up from the bed, “I’ll get her.”

“Sierra, honey,” she said peeking through the door, “get your wrinkly butt out of the shower and get ready for bed.”

“Juuuuust a sec-cond!”  She half yelled, half sang her response.

In a few more minutes than I would have liked, Sierra finally emerged from the bathroom in a cloud of steam.  Dressed in pink pajamas, her long blonde hair still wet and matted.

Sarah kissed her and whispered good night and turned to me, “your turn.”

Every night, when she finally settles down in her room, and as long as I’m not traveling for work, I read a story to her before bed.  It’s my favorite thing in the world.

“Where were we pumpkin?” I say closing her window to the summer night breeze.

“Wait!  Not yet!”  She whined.

“Ok, just a crack,” I said opening up the window again.

We don’t get a lot of breeze coming through our small one-story house, but she loves the little bit of summer breeze this time of year; making it’s way through the streets and up the small hill in our front yard and into her room.  The gentle breeze turning and tossing all the glitter-covered arts and crafts she has hanging in her room.  They dance and sparkle, like the whole room is alive.

Tucking her under the covers I tussle her wet hair.

“Read from here daddy,” she says practically bolting out of bed and grabbing her pink Bible from the nightstand.  It’s a children’s Bible we got for her years ago.  Filled with pictures more than anything, but there are few Old Testament stories that she loves to hear; Joseph and his dreams, Noah’s ark, Jonah getting swallowed.  Tonight was Daniel and the lions.

She’s heard the story of Daniel getting trapped in the lion’s den many many times.  Following along as I read, she asked how God and the angels protected him, but eventually sleep took hold.

Not quite finished with the story,  I saw her eyes grow heavy and kissed her goodnight.  Placing the Bible on the nightstand, I shut the window.  As I was standing at the threshold of her bedroom I quietly watched as she curled herself into a ball under the covers.

How did I ever get so lucky.

Turning to me, she said with a tired smile, “keep me safe daddy.”

“I will pumpkin,” I said turning out the lights, “I will.”

Why didn’t I lock the window?  Oh God, why didn’t I lock it?

* * *

A good parent doesn’t let this happen to their child.  That’s what I kept telling myself when it happened.  I would like to say that I woke up in the middle of the night, bolted upright and realized something was wrong.  I would like to say that in the morning we would have recognized she was missing right away.

Truth is I can’t.

That morning I woke up and did what I did every morning.  I went into the kitchen, started the coffee and grabbed the paper out of the driveway.  It wasn’t until Sarah came in did I begin to suspect something was wrong.

“Is Sierra with you?” she asked.

I put the paper down and mentally scanned through my morning routine.  “No.  I started the coffee and I’ve just been reading the paper.  I thought she was still with you.  Come to think of it, I haven’t even heard her moving around.  Why?”

“I went in to take a peek and her bed is empty and her room is freezing.  I noticed her window was wide open so I shut it.”

“Wha-,” she started to stammer with a worried look, “why would her window be open?”

“That doesn’t make sense, I closed it last night.”

I could tell Sarah was alarmed.  I wasn’t there yet.  But I set my coffee down and followed her down the hall.  When I walked into her bedroom I could still notice the chill from the night air.

We both made a search of the room and the downstairs basement; crawling under beds and searching the closets.

“Sierra!”  I began to angrily call her name, thinking this little prank of hers was getting me worked up and making me late for work.  By the time we began searching the outside and backyard my anger transformed into a panicked worry.  Sarah had a apprehensive expression on her face as a lump caught in my throat.  We both went in opposite directions throughout the neighborhood fanning out from the house, knocking on doors and yelling her name.

The rest happened in blur.  I kept wondering maybe the rest of my life will be like this.  Forever played in a loop, like a repeating bad dream.  When we called the police, a young officer came to our door and got our statement.  An AMBER Alert went out across the area.  It didn’t take long after that.  Later,  we would come to find that several people in a neighborhood just east of ours had been concerned about a blue van.  Many people even sighted it circling the park down by Amistad Street.  It happened with enough frequency that it made some parents call police.  When the alert went out, a van matching its description had been spotted the previous evening down by the baseball fields on the other side of town.  Beyond the fields was a wooded area that dropped over a steep hillside.  When the police searched the hillside, that’s when they found her.

But we wouldn’t know any of that until later.  All that we would come to know of our daughter came the moment when a detective and the young officer who had taken our statement earlier knocked on our door.  I could tell.  From the moment I opened the door to see the young officer’s face again, I could tell.  Earlier, when he was asking questions and gathering information, he was resolute.  Determined.  Time was a factor when getting the details of the morning events accurate and there was an urgency to find our little girl.  Our baby.  When I saw him again, it was in his eyes: defeat.  The feeling was overwhelming.  It must be what families experience when a loved one is undergoing an operation and a surgeon has to come into the waiting room to explain a complication or an unforeseen issue.  To tell them that their loved one isn’t coming back out through those doors.  Maybe it’s not like that at all.  I don’t know.  I just knew that whatever he was going to say, I knew it before it came out of his mouth.  People aren’t good at hiding horrible news like he was about to tell us.  His words never registered in my mind, but I just remember holding Sarah as she screamed and wailed.

The days to come weren’t unlike what you haven’t seen before in movies or television.  The days of dread replaced by days of grief.  At the time it was hell to live through.  It just comes back in flashes now.  Going to the morgue.  Identifying the body.  Seeing her little purpled and bruised body laid out on a stainless steel slab.  The life strangled out of her.  The news reporters coming and going, asking questions and always wrapping up in a solemn tone, “I’m so sorry for your loss.”  Then, of course, there was the funeral.  The outpouring of grief even when your body has no more tears left to shed.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m incredibly grateful for the support during those early days.  Especially Sarah.  But it was in the weeks and months to follow that grief wrapped us like a blanket.  Time does eventually get back to normal.  You find a routine, and you settle in.  When you’re alone, though, that’s when it consumes you.

The mind plays tricks on you too.  I can’t tell you how many times Sarah and I thought we heard Sierra’s voice come out of the bathroom, singing in the shower like she would so often do.  Or finding a toy of hers somewhere in the house.  It’s in those moments you change.  You’re different.  You body can sometimes try to find ways to do the normal things, but what do you do when everything you lived for is gone?  You change.

After awhile, I tried going into Sierra’s room again.  Sarah and I had kept her door shut.  Too many memories.  Too much sadness.

I tentatively walked in, like I would so many times at night when I didn’t want to wake her.  Her arts and crafts dangled from the ceiling, the pink and sparkly glitter everywhere.  Everything was exactly the way it was.  Even her Bible on the nightstand.  I picked it up and flipped back to the Daniel story.

Images of Sierra flashed in my head.

Why hadn’t God protected her like Daniel?

I looked at the window.  Did I close it?  Did I lock it?  I don’t even remember anymore.  My guilt betrayed my memories now.

Keep me safe daddy.

That last night.  Seeing her lying in her in bed, wet hair circling her face.  I was her protector.

Keep me safe daddy.

Her voice echoed in my mind.  It rang and rang until that’s all I was hearing.  It was too much.  Fire shot across my eyes in anger.  I threw her bible across the room.  It smashed into the wall and thumped to the ground behind her bed.

Keep me safe daddy.

Over and over I kept hearing it.  Collapsing to the ground, I didn’t realize until Sarah burst into the room with a horrified look on her face.

I had been screaming the whole time.

*  *  *

Nearly three months after Sierra’s death I went to church.  It wasn’t my idea.  It was a random evening.  The sun was just starting to disappear behind the trees.  The air had started to get cold and the leaves were just starting to yellow.  The bright orange of the sun shooting across the sky; a last gasp of light before it would sink behind the trees into night.  Maybe this was my last gasp at answers too.  Something to feel something besides grief and pain.  I wanted some answers, and would look for them anywhere.  I found the closest church to our house, which was only a few minutes away.  It wasn’t the regular church our family would go to.  I was too afraid of seeing someone I knew, and them taking pity on me.

The church was a tall building, built with grey, weathered stone on the facade.  It had an impressive stained-glass cross on the outside facing the street.  Next to it, a small set of steps leading to a pair of heavy wooden doors.

When I walked in, closing the thick wooden doors behind me, I was not inspired.  I guess I expected something.  Some divine providence or something.  But it looked like a normal day.  It wasn’t Sunday, so the place was empty.  I was surprised I could even get in, come to think of it.  That the place wasn’t locked up six days of the week.

The pews looked normal.

The aisles looked normal.

The sacrament table looked normal.

A plain wooden cross that hung above the table looked normal.  There was nothing exceptional about it.  No divine light shining through the windows to make it feel as if some omniscient being was bringing comfort even in his own house.

I walked to the middle of the aisle and took a seat in a random pew.  Again, I waited.  Nothing happened.

I looked around and began to get angry again.

Where are you God?  I thought to myself, clenching my hands together as I began to pray.  You have abandoned me.  I had put my trust in you.  I believed in you.  I taught my daughter that there was a higher power.  A  just power. 

My hands turned white as my grip tightened together.  But I can’t believe it anymore.  I can’t believe you would bring so much joy, just to take it away.  I’ve spent my life leading a good life, reading your book, and trying to fix my flaws.  How about your flaws, huh?  You want to fix them first!?

I bit my lip as the anger roiled within me.  After I paused I looked up.  The place remained empty and alone. I can’t believe in you.   I can’t believe in something so heartless.  I came here today to renounce you.  This is a terrible world we live in.  But worse than the evil that man can do, is the belief in a God that allows it.  A God that does nothing.  This is not part of some plan.  My daughter’s dead.  This was an act of a sick man who extinguished her life.

Tears began to form and sting my eyes.  No! I thought to myself.  Gritting my teeth, and shutting my eyes tight, I swallowed hard, refusing to let the tears fall.  You will not get anymore pain out of me!  I’ve been crushed with it.  How awful it is to blind people into hope.  How awful it is that I spent so much of my life on faith and prayer. 

I opened my eyes.  Still alone.  Still empty.  How awful it is that we point to you when miracles happen and cry out when they don’t. 

Finally, I got up and walked out of the church.  There were no answers here.

The sun had finally faded behind the horizon.  The large wood doors closed behind me once again.  This time, it seemed, to a world a little darker than before.

* * *

The months traveled by slowly at first.  The pain and hurt began to be replaced by a tolerable numbness.  Sarah became distant and closed.  We had built walls around our grief so high that we could no longer reach each other.  But life crept on.  I kept on breathing, trying to lose myself in my work.  I had made good on my vow, and hadn’t step into a church since that day.  It separated Sarah and I.  But I didn’t care.  I don’t care about much these days.

I take the bus into work now.  It’s just a short ten minute walk down the street to Amistad and the bus stop, and I like the exercise.  In those ten minutes, I manage to walk alone with my thoughts.  But nothing of much consequence comes out of them.  It’s not a very popular stop, so many times I wait alone in peace and quiet until the blue and white stripped bus comes into sight.  Occasionally I’ll look up from my morning routine, but it’s now all so familiar.

Today, however, I was startled a bit by a man wearing a brown overcoat waiting for the bus.  He had a layer of grim on his face, like he hadn’t showered, and the overcoat was scuffed and old.  He was bald, with a ring of grey stubble around the base of the back of his skull where his hair was starting to grow back.  He had a goatee that was also all greying; stubby and pathetic looking.  Staring into the morning sun, the deadbeat was squinting off into the distance smoking a cigarette.

That’s what was ticking me off.  Someone was intruding into my little world.  And I hate smokers.  I was relieved to see the bus was already making its way down the street half a block away.  He looked at me, eyeing me up, and kindly gestured with a soiled hand that I could move in front of him as he turned to finish his last drag on his cigarette.

How disgusting, I thought.  Hoping I didn’t end up smelling like smoke the rest of the day because this deadbeat.

I forgot about him immediately when a small, black-haired girl with pigtails and a pink raincoat stepped off of the bus.

Stepped off the bus is not quite accurate.  She bounded.  Like a puppy chasing after a rabbit.  On the final step; with one great leap she landed on the curb.  As if sticking a perfect landing in an Olympic gymnastics routine, she flicked her head back and raised her hands high in triumph.  I couldn’t quite place the familiarity of the bundle of energy that was in front of me, but for the first time in awhile I smiled.  When she looked around after her “dismount” she beamed.  I waited to see a parent or guardian follow closely after but no one came.

This was puzzling.  She seemed awfully young to be on the bus by herself.

In a blur of pink she ran past me, her black pigtails bobbing as she went.  I was curious, so I watched to see where she scampered off to.  She hadn’t gone far.  She was already plopping down onto the green bench by the bus stop sign.  Sighing, she looked around and began to fidget.  She was still smiling with that big goofy grin on her face.  As if she had some secret she was just bursting to tell someone.  It seemed as if she was staring right at me.

I don’t know why.  Call it my civic duty as a parent.  Well, ex-parent.  I couldn’t let a little girl, no more than six or seven, unattended.  I was standing there for a few seconds, contemplating all this until I looked up to the bus driver who was impatiently waiting.

“I’m sorry,” I said, “I’ll catch the next one.”

“Suit yourself,” the bus driver shrugged.

I watched as the doors closed then turned toward the girl.  She studied me for a moment.  I could hear the bus belch and ramble off down the road.

The mysterious black-haired girl was wearing a pink backpack and a pink raincoat with unicorns galloping across the front, even though it didn’t look like it was going to rain.  Her feet dangling from the bench.  Attached to the bottom of those dangling feet were white shoes with pink laces that sparkled and caught the morning sun every time she playfully kicked her feet.

“Hi,” I said with a friendly smile.

“Hi,” she chirped back.

“I notice you’re sitting here alone.  Are your parents here?”

She frowned and looked up at me, staring for a long time.  She put her hand up to her face shielding her eyes from the glare of the morning sun directly at my back.  “I’m not lost, if that’s what your wondering,” she said scrunching up her nose as she continued  to study me.

“Well you seem too young to be here by yourself.”

“I’m waiting for someone.”

I stood there for a moment.  “Well I’d like to wait with you if you don’t mind.”

“Hmm,” she said as she took off her backpack and began fishing around inside.  “I don’t think that’s possible.”

I was a little struck by how mature she sounded.  As if she was an old soul who had already lived the world. “Why not?” I asked.

“Well you’re certainly welcome to sit down.  But you can’t wait with me silly.”  Her eyes lit up as she found what she was rummaging for and pulled a plastic doll out of her backpack.   “Because you’re the one I’m waiting for Tom.”

* * *