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Every Life Has An Impact

October 10, 2014

This post contains a powerful example of how every life - without exception - has an impact on the world. Whether we realize it or not, simply by being born we change the course of history. No matter how long or short our time is on earth we have a profound effect from the moment of our conception until we take our final breath. As you will see, the impact of a human life can continue indefinitely.

A few weeks ago my wife was sitting in our living room going through some heirlooms she had been given which included an assortment of books and family Bibles. Recently she has been researching the life of her great, great grandfather, James McDowell. James was born in Ohio in 1842. He fought bravely for the Union in the Civil War. At the age of twenty, he was seriously wounded in the leg at the battle of Shiloh. When he returned from the war, he married Susannah McClelland, and they soon started a family. His first daughter was named Minerva. She was born with a developmental disability and she lived with her mother her entire life until her death at the age of 61. She was followed by four more daughters and a son. Tragically, in his later years, James became an alcoholic. At times he was homeless, and he eventually died in a facility for veterans in 1931.

As I worked in my office, my wife continued to spread books and documents around as she tried to compile an accurate account of James’ life. Suddenly I heard her begin to cry. I stepped into the living room and saw that she was looking at a large ragged family Bible. I sat down next to her, and she showed me what she had found. On the first page inside the fragile front cover was the outline of a tiny handprint. There was information written with it that stated this was the daughter of James and Susannah. Her name was Martha Jane. She was born February 13, 1875. She lived one month and two days.

With no other way to preserve their daughter’s memory, James and his wife had taken their dead infant’s hand and traced its outline. It was the only way they could show that she had ever lived.

I stared in silence at the faded image because it was difficult to truly grasp what we were looking at. This simple tracing of Martha’s right hand was the only tangible thing in the world that James and Susannah had to remember their child by. In this age of digital photography and video, when virtually every second of a baby’s existence can be captured forever, this desperate effort seemed hopelessly inadequate and yet the sketch had such power that you could not take your eyes off of it.

Martha had lived just 30 days. She was on this earth a little over 700 hours. And yet incredibly, almost 140 years later, this tiny human being’s life was still having an impact. The profoundly touching action that her parents took to hold on to her memory is startling in its tragic beauty. As you stare at the outline, with the words scratched inside it, you cannot help but wonder what that moment must have been like. I cannot begin to imagine the agony they felt as they made the heartrending effort to carefully draw around each of her tiny fingers. We do not know if she died suddenly or if she had been sick since birth. Her death may have been a complete shock or James and Susannah may have been resigned to the eventual outcome of their daughter’s fate.

Looking at this simple drawing forced us to ask questions that have no answers. Who would Martha have become? What would she have done with her life? What kind of person would she have been? Would she have taken care of Minerva? Would she have become a mother herself and faced similar trials and tribulations with her children? These things are unknowable. But if Martha had lived she would have turned eighty in 1955, the year my wife was born. Perhaps they would have had the opportunity to have their picture taken together. A photo that could stand the test of time would have shown a newborn being held lovingly by her great, great aunt.

My wife and I wondered what part the death of his little girl played in James’ decline. Since we cannot know for sure, we can only speculate. Perhaps he was haunted by her short time on earth. Perhaps he was forever changed by the horrors he experienced during the war. Perhaps the wound he received left him with a painful physical challenge. Perhaps all of these events combined to create an overwhelming sense of despair that James could not overcome. Unless other letters or documentation surface we will never be able to ascertain exactly what changed the course of his life. We only know that on March 15, 1875, a heartbroken mother and father delicately traced around the lifeless hand of their baby in a grief stricken desire to have a permanent physical reminder of their little girl.

Martha and her parents are proof that human beings create lasting legacies that can inspire and move people for decades and even centuries. Although she was denied the chance to live a long life, Martha’s brief existence does matter. The very fact that she was born had a traumatic effect at that time, and now it has affected the present. Because even though Martha’s life flickered for only a heartbreaking moment, her parents’ desperate effort to have some kind of remembrance of their daughter, has ensured that her influence is timeless. Martha’s faint handprint, carefully drawn after her last breath was taken, has touched people almost a century and a half later. Hopefully, others will now read about her and be moved by the power of this simple story about a mother and father’s love for the child who was only allowed to live through their memories.