When I was two, I killed my baby cousin Lydia.
Not really, but I thought I did.
She was a tiny baby, fragile, translucent, with lavender-tinged fingers. They set her in her infant carrier under the windows in our dining room and told me sternly, "Do not touch the baby!"
I was so curious. The baby was nearly hidden beneath blankets and the little canopy over her carrier. I crept closer and closer, and nobody saw. Furtively, I reached out and pulled back the blanket so I could see her tiny purplish fingers. With my own two-year-old index finger I stroked her little, limpid hand. Then, filled with fear and guilt, I ran away.
A few days later when I heard that Lydia had died, I was filled with dread and guilt. "She had a heart murmur," they said. "She died in her sleep. Peacefully. Painlessly." That was what they thought, but in my heart, I was convinced that her death was a direct result of my disobedience.
Other cousins had also died. Betsy and another one whose name I can't remember (Nancy?). They were all baby girls. They all died peacefully in their sleep, or so it was said. But Lydia was the only one I had seen and touched before she died. It was my first brush with death, and it terrified me.
Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord my soul to keep,
If I should die before I wake,
I pray the Lord my soul to take.
They taught me to pray this prayer before I went to bed at night. "If I should die before I wake... If I should die before I wake." It would echo in my mind as I lay in my bed after they had tucked me in and kissed me and turned out the lights. I learned to fight sleep. I was a master at staying awake for hours, fearful of falling into the Great Sleep of no return.
When I was three, I remember Easter at church. This is my first memory of Easter at church, and there was an Easter breakfast. For some reason, I came with just my mother; my father and my brother and sister must have gone ahead earlier. The Easter breakfast was winding down, and the food was largely gone. My mother made me a plate of something which (I think) included scrambled eggs. There were no seats left in the fellowship hall, so she found me a seat at a table back in the corner of the church kitchen. She sat me next to a very, very old woman named Aurabelle Wyman. Then my mother disappeared.
Aurabelle looked vaguely like the wife of Miracle Max in The Princess Bride, except she was better dressed. She was also tiny. I was only three, and my mother was only 5'4", but even from my perspective, Miss Wyman looked fantastically small. She was diminutive, wrinkled and frightening, and I don't recall that she smiled. I sat there and looked at the unappetizing food on my plate, which was also cold, and I knew I was not going to be able to swallow even one bite.
Miss Wyman leaned over with her sharp, birdlike face, pointed at me with a hooked, birdlike finger and said, "They killed Jesus, and they took his body and laid it in a tomb." I pictured a cold, hard place that was white and dark at the same time. I felt fear in my soul. I thought of death and how afraid I was of dying. I choked back tears of distress. Miss Wyman looked deeply into my soul with her cloudy black eyes. "His body lay in the tomb for three days, and then they went to look at it and do you know what they found in the tomb?" I was incapable of speaking , so she repeated herself: "Do you know what they found in the tomb?" I just wished my mother would come back. I was trembling.
Miss Wyman would not give up. She shook her finger in my face once more and told me, "They found nothing in the tomb! Nothing! And do you know why? Because Jesus had risen from the dead!"
I felt a vague sense of relief. I was afraid that Miss Wyman might die then and there, because she was so old. And I was afraid of my own death every night when I was supposed to go to sleep. But on that Easter, I was glad to hear that Jesus had risen from the dead, even though I was not sure exactly what it meant.
Over the next year, I learned a lot about Jesus. I learned that He healed sick people. I learned that He made blind people see and lame people walk. I learned about how He cared about little, short Zacchaeus, and how He saw him up in the tree and invited him to lunch. My favorite was how Jesus loved the little children and let them come to Him, how He held them in His lap and blessed them. I didn't figure I'd be scared of Jesus the way I was scared of Miss Wyman.
When I was four years old, Mrs. Winterfield was my Sunday school teacher. She was rather severe, but not malevolent. We sat at the round red table on the toddler side of the nursery and had stories and snacks. The snacks were usually round butter cookies shaped like flowers with a hole in the center, so we always put them on our fingers and ate them off. We also had red juice because it was 1969 and nobody knew that red food coloring caused ADHD and cancer.
One day as we-the-four-year-olds sat at the round table with our round cookies, Mrs. Winterfield told us, "There is a Lake of Fire. You will go there when you die, if you do not ask Jesus to be your Savior. It is a terrible place full of weeping and gnashing of teeth." I was riveted. Even if you are only four and have no idea what gnashing of teeth is, it sounds really bad, and scary.
I knew that lakes of fire and weeping and gnashing of teeth sounded awful. I also knew that everything I'd ever heard about Jesus was wonderful. He could heal and love and rise from the dead.
That afternoon, I went into my bedroom. I still remember how the sun streamed in from the west facing window. All by myself, I knelt down and asked Jesus, "Please be my Savior so I do not have to go to the Lake of Fire when I die." I felt a peace and reassurance as I finished my prayer. I knew He had heard me.
I went and told my parents what I had done. They were somewhat surprised and mostly pleased, although not particularly happy that Mrs. Winterfield had frightened me with accounts of the Lake of Fire. Nevertheless, it was true, and it worked, and I have belonged to Jesus ever since.
Also, He has relieved me of my guilt over the death of my baby cousin Lydia.