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Philosophy Can Clip an Angel’s Wings

October 18, 1998 was a typical Sunday morning. After a visit to the health club and a shower I settled into computer work for the Freethought Society of Greater Philadelphia. The phone rang, jarring me from my concentration. I answered, half expecting to hear the voice of my neighbor, Stacey Carter, or that of one of her three children, Kiersten, Brianne, and Brandon. The family often honored me by turning to me for things they needed.

Stacey occasionally requested cooking items or assistance with family obligations. The children usually called on me to help them with homework. I loved it when the children would spend time with me. I never hesitated to stop what I was doing to find the perfect book, a costume, a prop, or to help them with a project.

My Atheist life stance is no secret from my neighbors. Stacey is actually pleased at knowing that her children are exposed to a philosophy different from hers.

The Carter children have been through years of Catholic training (C.C.D. classes). Stacey often told me that she wanted her children to grow up appreciating diversity of thought. I am not a token Atheist for the Carter family, however. Over the years I had become an integral part of the family. The youngest child, Kiersten, one time jokingly called me her “Godless” mother.

I picked up the phone on the second ring. The voice on the other end of the phone was short of breath. She spoke as quickly as she could as she told me, “I’m calling for your friend, Stacey Carter. There’s been a terrible accident. Her daughter was hit by a car. Stacey asked me to call you. She needs you to come here right away.” After asking where the accident had taken place, I hung up and left the house immediately.

When I arrived at the scene, the entire street was blocked with police cars, an ambulance, and shocked observers. Brianne was struck by a speeding car as she crossed the street. There was no crosswalk. Lack of space in the parking lot caused vehicles to line both sides of the two-lane road. Soccer parents, children, and coaches were tearfully looking on as emergency workers attempted to stabilize Brianne for a helicopter airlift to a trauma center.

I found Stacey near the bloody sidewalk. Two strangers were hugging her as she wept into her hands. When she saw me she reached out desperately, in eager need for comfort. As I embraced Stacey, one of the strangers said, “She needs you to pray with her!” She said it several more times as Stacey and I turned away to talk.

The other woman standing there said, “But that’s her Atheist friend.”

I heard the first woman say, “I know. That’s why I’m telling her what to do!”

This was the most inappropriate time to bring up philosophical differences. When the accident occurred, Stacey must have told her companions at the scene that the friend she needed was an Atheist. I believe that Stacey felt I could help her most or she would not have requested me. I was appalled by the stranger’s purposely disparaging reference.

While I held Stacey in my arms, an emergency medical technician approached to tell us that Brianne would now be airlifted to a nearby trauma center. The medic said that Brianne’s condition was very grave. I looked into the medic’s sad and helpless eyes and knew what she meant. There was no hope.

Knowing how serious this was, I conveyed to Stacey that the other children should be with her at the hospital. It would be wrong to exclude them even though the experience was sure to be overwhelming. Between our sobs we exchanged information as to the whereabouts of the other children. I volunteered to retrieve ten-year-old Kiersten from a house she had been taken to when the accident occurred. I arranged for Stacey to be transported to the hospital with a family she knew. Another friend went to pick up Brandon.

I knew that retrieving Kiersten would be a challenge. I mustered up all my emotional strength.

Before heading for the hospital I took Kiersten back to her house and told her to get her favorite stuffed animal. As my husband drove to the hospital, I sat in the back seat with Kiersten. I held her hand as she asked questions about the accident.

“Brianne just broke her arm, right?” I could not lie, I knew what lay ahead for this sweet little girl.

“No, Kiersten,” I said. “It’s much more serious than that. Brianne is badly injured and she was taken to a very special hospital.”

We talked about trauma centers and why helicopters are used at some accident sites. She asked insightful questions and I did not shade the truth. I needed to help her prepare for the harrowing time that lay ahead.

As we waited at the hospital, family members began to arrive. Within a few hours nearly all local family had gathered except for Stacey’s husband, Bob. He was out of the country and was not due home for one more day.

Just as Stacey’s mother and father arrived, two doctors, a nurse, and two hospital-assigned priests passed the waiting room. Stacey saw the group and began to sob. Right after the doctor delivered the news of Brianne’s death, the two priests took over.

As one priest prayed with Kiersten, the other prayed with Stacey. Brandon displayed utter shock at the news. I later found out that he had not been prepared for the worst. The person who picked him up had only told him that there had been an accident and that his mother needed him. Brandon’s late arrival at the hospital did not expose him to the reality of the situation.

I was glad that I had been honest with Kiersten. She was traumatized, but calm. Brandon’s emotions ranged from anger to denial to grief in a matter of minutes.

The priest confirmed to Stacey that he had delivered “Last Rites.” That ceremony was also important to Kiersten. We learned several days later that Brianne died instantly. Kiersten asked many questions over the next few days about “Last Rites.” She was confused about the time of death, the arrival of the priest, and the ceremony that guarantees a person’s place in heaven. There were no satisfactory answers and it finally became a matter of faith that Brianne was indeed safely in heaven.

From the moment I arrived at the accident and was told to pray with my friend, I wondered how I could provide the Carter family comfort. As an Atheist, I am unwavering. I avoid hypocrisy in professing my life stance. This is why everyone who knows me knows where I stand philosophically. My challenge now was to find how my friendship to the Carter family would be of benefit to them. What could an Atheist offer to a devoutly Catholic family?

Instead of praying with the family at the hospital, I comforted them with words of love and sympathy. I vowed to the family that I would not rest until the dangerous street conditions at the soccer field were improved. I told the children that Brianne did not die in vain. We would never allow another child to be subjected to an unguarded, low-caution crossing zone. A few others at the hospital also joined me in the promise and work began almost immediately. One woman called Congressman Joe Pitts that night. I called the city manager’s office the next day. Within one week, “No Parking” signs were erected so that driver vision would no longer be obstructed. The little committee that originated at the hospital is still working on the instillation of a blinking warning light and a “Caution” street sign.

It would have been easier for Stacey had her husband Bob been home from his vacation. His absence complicated the situation in that many decisions needed to be made. I arrived at the Carter house early the next morning to be of assistance.

A priest arrived early in the morning. After a brief, private talk with Stacey he left, saying that a nun would be visiting the children. Stacey told me that within ten minutes of his consultation the priest asked her if she would be interested in donating money, in Brianne’s name, to a new Catholic school. Brianne attended public school! Even Stacey was surprised at the priest’s lack of sensitivity.

After the priest left, I sat down with Stacey to discuss a crucial decision. She needed to decide how to tell Bob about the accident. Given all options, she decided it was best to tell him in person. I volunteered to make arrangements for the news to be delivered to him at the airport. I placed myself in Bob’s position and proposed a plan to Stacey. With detailed planning everything fell into place.

Delta Airlines was cooperative when I requested the use of their lounge. An airline official would have to let us into the room, but what took place there would be private–an atmosphere appropriate for the horrible news Bob would hear. I asked Stacey if she wanted the priest who visited that morning to be at the airport with us. She said emphatically, “No.”

The Delta supervisor took the liberty of requesting a chaplain to attend the meeting. Both the chaplain and the supervisor returned my call to confirm the use of the room. I told them the services of a chaplain would not be needed. They were taken aback and I got the impression that the use of the room may be in jeopardy. I told them I was a trained Humanist leader. With a short explanation of what a Humanist was the room use was settled. The supervisor and the chaplain hung up more enlightened.

I also arranged for the family to travel to the airport via limousine. None of us were in any condition to drive, and the sorrow was sure to deepen as the reality of what had happened sunk in.

The phone calls arranging for a grieving room and limousine were interrupted by visitors and other phone calls. Concerned friends and neighbors arrived with food and spent hours consoling Stacey and her children. Out-of-state family members also arrived during the day.

Sometime in the afternoon, the monsignor arrived to speak to Stacey. I told him he had to wait in the family room with me as Stacey was busy with visitors in the living room. During his wait, the monsignor observed me answering the phone, receiving food, and guiding the children in a photo tribute to Brianne.

The monsignor asked, “How did you learn to be so efficient yet so compassionate?” I told him that I attended the Humanist Institute. He was not familiar with the program but indicated he knew about the Ethical Culture Building in New York where the school is located.

Suddenly, a strange thing happened. The monsignor’s demeanor changed. He began telling me about all the wealthy and influential people he knew in town. He described his difficult morning with a DuPont executive consulting him about a fatal disease. It became clear that I had intimidated the monsignor enough for him to put me in my place. He wanted it understood that most wealthy people in town were Catholic. They do not turn to Humanists like me for help. While he boasted, I was thinking how he would probably ask Stacey for a donation, since the priest had been unsuccessful that morning. And he did!

When Bob’s flight arrived, an airline employee brought him from the plane to the grieving room. Stacey greeted Bob in private. When Bob was ready, the two were joined by the rest of the family, me, and my husband.

The ride home was slow and agonizing. Even the limousine driver shed tears as he made his way back to the Carter residence.

Bob called me early the next morning. He thanked me for all that I had done, and asked me to come over to help with the headstone selection. As Bob and I conferred with the headstone designer, Stacey met with the priest about the service. I quizzed Bob about his wishes for the headstone. I coordinated what he said with the designs available, and made suggestions. The resulting design included a pastoral engraving and a family name. It would later change as the rest of the family expressed their needs.

After the headstone plans were set in motion I turned my attention back to the photo project. More family albums were gathered, and each child, mother, father, uncle, and aunt had an opportunity to contribute a favorite photo of Brianne. I purchased four large poster frames, and divided the pictures into four categories. I placed the pictures in a collage pattern showing a progression of age.

Brianne was only thirteen when she died. Her smiling face in the photos conveyed how much she enjoyed swimming, field hockey, her friends, her family, school, and vacations. It seemed as if Brianne had done more in her short life than most of us have ever done. Even so, she was too young to die.

The collage displays were exhibited at the funeral. This enabled everyone to reminisce about Brianne’s life and feel fortunate to have known her.

The Catholic funeral service was planned primarily by Stacey. I was honored when Stacey asked me to speak at the funeral. I accepted the invitation, and immediately began working on what I would say. I knew I did not have much time to devote to this important speech, however. The photo project was not complete, and I had also taken time to set up a memorial at the accident location.

The accident site memorial I started was secular. It included flowers, Brianne’s picture, and a message about Brianne. Within a few days the site was visited by many people some of whom left special things for Brianne. I was not surprised when someone erected a cross.

The memorial site has evolved into a garden. A marker dedicating the garden to Brianne’s memory has been installed. The marker faces the street she tried to cross that fateful day. Once in a while toys, notes, and other sentimental items appear on or under a small pine tree in the garden. Brianne’s friends find it comforting to visit the garden. I’m glad the garden is there and that I had something to do with it.

Just before the funeral I learned that the priest would not allow Brianne’s field hockey stick to be laid on the coffin. The hockey stick, he said, was, “not religious enough.”

I encouraged Stacey to do what she thought was best. I volunteered to tie yellow roses on the stick to dress it up. Surely the priest would not object to this expression of sadness. Field hockey, after all, was Brianne’s passion and her teammates would be at the funeral.

The funeral was attended by about four hundred people. The Catholic church was filled beyond capacity. Apart from the priest mentioning Brianne once, the ceremony could have been for anyone. Incense, rituals, and communion were done in routine fashion.

When the priest made his fleeting reference to Brianne and her age, he said, “I’ve been asked why. Why would God take Brianne away when she was so good, so young, and so nice. I must admit that I don’t know why. Sometimes we just don’t have any answers and all we can say is that God works in mysterious ways.”

I did not know that the priest would say those words but when I got up to delivery a memorial to Brianne it seemed as if I had prepared to counter the words of the priest. This is what I said at Brianne’s funeral:

On this very, very sad day, I am honored that Stacey and Bob requested that I say a few words. It is an especially sad day because grief for the loss of a child is hardest to bear. When an old person dies we may grieve, but we can accept more readily that a life has been lived and has drawn to its inevitable close. But when a child dies, we mourn not only the life that was, but also the life that might have been.

It is right and natural that we should grieve, because sorrow is a reflection and measure of the love, the happiness and the intimacy we shared with the one who has gone. In a way too we grieve for ourselves, because we know that our own lives will never be the same without Brianne.

A few days ago Helene Stephens looked at me with sorrowful eyes and asked, “Why — why was Brianne taken from us so young? She was so good, so honest, so sweet? Why, why, why, why?”

I told Helene, and I tell you now, that every human tragedy is an act of nature. Nature does not know good from bad. Nature does not know right from wrong. In nature there are never rewards nor punishments. There are only consequences.

Death is as natural as life. All that have life have beginning and end. Nature is permanent in this world. The world is now a much poorer place without our Brianne. How do we know? By remembering that the world was once enriched by her presence. And what a presence she was.

When we close our eyes we each see a vision of Brianne as we each knew her. Every memory is as different and as individual as we are. Every anecdote we recall reveals a special side of our lovely Brianne.

My special vision of Brianne is that of a generous person who volunteered to help me with my parties. She loved to help me decorate and cook. She graciously greeted my guests, hung their wraps, and escorted them into the party areas. I never worried about the reception my guests would receive when Brianne opened the door for me. I knew her smile and radiant cheerfulness would immediately charm anyone who arrived.

I recall the many times she delivered bags of mail to me after I had been away. Sometimes it would take her several trips and sometimes Stacey, or Brandon, or Kiersten would have to help her. Brianne never failed to fulfill her obligations. She was truly a responsible young lady.

I long to see Brianne knocking on my door to visit me. Brianne was also anxious to learn. I spent many wonderful hours sharing my knowledge and experience with her. She wanted to be wise and intelligent. I never got the chance to tell her that her innocent wisdom and intelligence actually taught me many things.

We all want Brianne to live again. It is your individual vision and the recounting of her legacy that will bring her back to life. Speak of her often, for stories and memories are truly an afterlife. Her legacy is worthwhile and her life is honored when recounted time after time.

Speak of her sweetness. Tell others about her lack of prejudice. Talk of her kindness towards people and animals. Express your love for her memory and she will live again. Emulate her grace, poise, sense of fair play, and being a good sport. In doing so, you will honor her legacy.

‘The record of a generous life runs like a vine around the memory of our dead, and every sweet, unselfish act is now a perfumed flower.*’
(*quotation from Robert Green Ingersoll)

Brianne’s unselfish acts touched every person in this room. Hold on to that memory as a celebration of her life. Adore the memory you have of her, for like a beautiful precious flower she bloomed only a short time to give the world a little bit of happiness in seeing her, touching her, and loving her.

What can we learn from her tragic death? We can all learn to be more aware of the valuable short life we have. We can be reminded to drive slowly and carefully. We can justify taking extra time to love our children, our nieces and nephews, our grandchildren, and our precious friends.

Leave this ceremony today knowing that Brianne would want you to slow down and share the flowers on the vine of life with the ones you love. Remember her and she will live again.

I can not take credit for coming up with all those wonderful words myself. Since time was short and I was an emotional wreck, I called upon a few of my nontheist friends for help. They felt my pain and patiently assisted me as I struggled to find the appropriate language for Brianne’s memorial. I know I could not have done it without their help. I appreciate my Atheist circle of friends more than I can say.

After the service Bob and Stacey hugged me tightly and thanked me for saying what I said. Bob commented that the priest and monsignor looked shocked as I began to speak and had listened intently. I did not mean to offend them, but if I did, so be it. Throughout the evening many people complimented me on the tribute. One woman said that she found my words more comforting than the priests’.

A library at the school Brianne attended is dedicated to her. As I said in the tribute, Brianne had a thirst for knowledge. Everyone who knew her knew she loved to read. I recently donated a Thomas Paine book to the library. I shall always remember the joy it was to work on a Thomas Paine project with Brianne.

I write this story near the one-year anniversary of Brianne’s death. So much has happened between the Carters and me since that time. We are still the best of friends but there were times when I felt Stacey and the children pulling away from me. I noticed that Brandon and Kiersten sometimes avoided talking to me, and they seldom let their eyes meet mine. A bond had been severed but I did not know how or why. Even though I spent the Thanksgiving holiday with the Carter family, I knew something was not right. The change of demeanor troubled me greatly.

One day I asked Stacey if there was something wrong. Stacey told me that she had been doing a lot of spiritual reading. She said that she could not share her new found enlightenment and deeper religious convictions with me. She also told me that because I don’t believe in angels and heaven it was disconcerting to her and the children.

I wanted to speak honestly. I thought of the Keats quote, “Philosophy can clip an angel’s wings.” I did not want my philosophy to clip the wings of Stacey’s angel. My response was, “But Stacey, I believed in Brianne. She was my real life angel. I love her and she lives in my heart.” Stacey embraced me and said she was happy I was her friend.

Angels were also important to Brianne. The week before her death, Brianne and I worked on a school project together. She wanted to put a picture of an angel in the poster she was making and asked if I would find a picture of a pretty angel on the Internet. I did so and she was pleased with what I found.

Little did I know that the research for angel pictures would be needed twice for Brianne. Brianne’s headstone now has an angel pictured in the meadow I originally suggested. The family loves the final design of the headstone. I am pleased to have satisfied their needs even though I only believe in real life earth angels.

The children have been much more friendly lately, and Kiersten has been over just to talk several times. Stacey and I often have tea together. Our tea-time conversations are deep and meaningful. The philosophical strain appears to have diminished.

I continue to provide loving support for the Carter family. They know how much I care, and that I don’t consider our religious differences a matter of concern. Actually we believe in many of the same things–love, friendship, kindness, and angels.