Tribute to Faith Emily Altbush

Rev. Robin Landerman Zucker

Like most children, Faith Emily Altbush loved having her father read aloud to her at bedtime. It was a ritual deeply treasured by both father and daughter. Jeff tells me that he sought to work through as many of the Wizard of Oz series of books as he could with Faith for as long as he could. Among others, they read Rinkitink in Oz, Jeffís favorite, the tale of a brave young boy who rescues his mother and father and of a King who rides a talking Billy goat named Bill-Bill. Faith adored these books. She listened, laughed and observed with characteristic curiosity and engagement. It doesnít take a rocket scientist to notice the resemblance between Dorothy, that spunky girl who journeys through Oz, facing adversity and making friends, and Faith Altbush, herself a joyful, exuberant girl who skipped down a brief, but golden road with a quick mind, a radiant heart, and a lionís courage.

Faith Emily Altbush was born on October 29, 1993 into the family of Jeff, Marilyn, and Eric Altbush. She was cherished and a blessing to everyone from a time even before her difficult birth ó to her family, friends, and the communities of the Barrows School and this church. Her name was chosen carefully and quite deliberately to express her parentís enduring faith in life and joy, even in the face of loss and despair. And how this glorious child has lived up to her name.

Along the golden road, Faith loved the eels at the Aquarium, MacDonaldís French fries, and the Beatleís Yellow Submarine video; she collected learning books and beanie babies and an assortment of very special treasures. One day last winter, Faith gave me a tour of her room, all carefully and neatly arranged with her special things. She introduced me to her Hello Kitty figures and her little stuffed cat named Tiny, on whose ear she had affixed a sparkly butterfly hair clip. When I remarked that the clip should keep Tinyís fur under control, Faith shrieked with simple delight. Seeing her brother Eric often had the same effect. She adored him.

She relished games, especially card games like Uno and Rat-a-Tat-Cat. I recall an afternoon this past summer, playing these games with Faith in her kitchen, surrounded by her parents and devoted grandmother, Bea. Although she could no longer speak, Faith would let out these endearing, exuberant giggles every time she bested me, which was often! Her enjoyment in simple pleasure was humbling and inspiring. And it was as if she didnít realize she was even impaired in any way.

Along the golden road, for as long as possible during her 19-month ordeal, Faith did not allow herself to be defined or dampened by her medical condition. Marilyn recalls a frightening seizure episode when they rushed Faith to the hospital. Despite the circumstances, Faith passed the time happily drawing hearts and kitties and smiley faces. Last March, Faith attended the Religious Education Sunday worship service here and came up to the chancel to draw a small purple kitty on the mural the children created that day. When I remarked that Iíd never seen a purple kitty for real, Faith giggled and beamed. She didnít have a cynical or mean bone in her body.

Along the golden road, Faith developed a confident, trusting, and peaceful core. Jeff remembers a summer trip to Lake Sebago when Faith was 4 years old. While a group of older boys floated their boat at the edge of the lake, Faith cleverly and skillfully worked her way into the group. She deduced that if her brother and older cousins were nice to her, then all older boys would be, too. She held an almost Zen-like trust in the essential goodness of humankind.

And why not? Along the golden road, Faith was blessed with parents who never wavered in their shelter, their love, or their commitment. Even in the darkest moments, Faith was not afraid, because Jeff and Marilyn did not act fearful. They did all they could to protect and save her, and would have given their lives for her in a heartbeat. Truly, Iíve never witnessed such steadfast compassion, gentle tending, and selflessness. The example of these two heartbroken parents, affirming faith in the valley of their personal pain, is a powerful inspiration to all of us. In Marilynís words: "Everything we do, everything we did is an expression of love. This is love."

Along the golden road, Faith exemplified an emotional giftedness in her relationships with others. Marilyn fondly remembers their picnics and playground outings, and the tandem bike rides, with Faith sitting in back singing spontaneous songs with uninhibited gusto. Faith cared more about making others happy than she did about her own happiness. Even with her head strapped down during radiation treatments, Faith spread her special joy to the technicians. Theyíd say, "Youíre so happy, you make me happy." A nurse at New England Medical Center confessed to Marilyn and Jeff one day: "Faith is my strength."

With her friends, Faith was no different. They loved her, regardless of the effect of steroids or chemotherapy. Faithís friend, Nicole, came over one day and during her visit, she tenderly wiped some drool from Faithís face, without embarrassment or repulsion. In noticing Faithís hair loss, she asked innocently, "Did you get a haircut?" Marilyn has told me an amazing story. On the day Faith died, a cat came to Barrows School. No one had seen this cat before. It jumped up on the window ledge of the nurseís office and looked inside. It visited the windowsill of the first and second grade classrooms. And then it vanished. If we are to believe in mysteries beyond ourselves, and I certainly encourage us to do that, then we can believe that Faithís caring spirit came to Barrows on Friday to reassure her friends and to say Goodbye.

And it just had to be a cat! For, along the golden road, this golden child loved a golden tiger cat named Duke. Jeff had adopted the cat from a shelter because it reminded him of Faith as a baby. This fall, Duke disappeared and hasnít returned. It is no small comfort to Jeff and Marilyn that Duke may have gone ahead of his special human friend to greet her in heaven, that he may be waiting there to frolic with her and cuddle with her for all eternity, as they did so contentedly in life.

Sadly, Faithís golden road did not end in Oz like a perfect fairy tale. It ended in a cruel and devastating tragedy. Yet, despite its brevity, Faithís life was her message, and that message is clear, deep and enduring Ė be joyful, even if youíve considered the facts. Trust kindness. Cuddle your kitty. Giggle for no reason and every reason. Doodle purple hearts in the margins of your life. Donít take your good fortune or your health, your family or friends for granted. Children are precious. Laughter is golden. And every day, in every way you can, keep Faith alive.

Amen.