By Norris Burkes March 6 2016

During my years as an active duty chaplain, I became accustomed to getting calls for help at any time of day or night. But one of the most disturbing calls I ever received came during my assignment to Moffett Field, Calif., in 1996.

The disturbing call came from the other side of the wall in the quadplex apartment we shared with three other military families.
The caller, an Air Force captain named Mark, was crying. “Chaplain!
They’re trying to take our baby.”

“Who?” I demanded.

“The county sheriff,” he said.

“I’ll be right over.”

His call wasn’t a complete surprise. Mark had already shared with me that they were expecting a baby with anencephaly, a condition that gave the baby nearly no chance of survival with his partially formed brain.

So Mark and his wife enlisted a midwife to deliver the baby at home and surround the little guy with all their love while he died. However, the scrappy little guy surprised us all, surviving for most of the day before he died.

After I hung up the phone, I called the Security Force desk seeking more information.

“Sergeant,” I asked the officer, “Do you know why the county sheriff is responding to a matter in our jurisdiction?”

He did. Apparently, another neighbor called 911 complaining that Mark and his wife were keeping a dead baby in their home.

“Chaplain,” the sergeant asked, “Can you meet the responding officer at your neighbor’s door?”

A few minutes later, the security force officer and I entered Mark’s home where we were greeted by the smell of decay. The captain was holding his newborn son in a blanket that covered the baby’s head and partially revealed his cherub face.

“Don’t you think he’s an angel?” Mark asked. The father’s angelic question seemed to quiet the room, dispelling any concerns authorities had expressed over holding a dead baby.

“Yes, I do,” I said. The baby’s beauty was reflected more in the love of his parents than it was in the face of the child.

A few minutes later, our base commander entered the apartment and immediately knelt in front of the mother to offer his condolences. The next hour was one of the most humbling in my Air Force career as ranking officers helped me bless a little baby, dress that baby and gently hand him over to the funeral home personnel.

Later, I reflected on how the father had called his son an angel. The word “angel” means messenger.

“What message did this child bring in his short visit?” you may ask.
I think there were probably many messages, but certainly, I think the child echoed the writer of Ecclesiastes who suggested that “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven: a time to be born and a time to die.”

So what happens when our time to be born and our time to die come minutes apart? The answer to that is the second thing I heard our angel saying.

I think if mom and dad were listening, in between their sobs, they heard their son’s indisputable message that life, no matter what the length, is a precious, but mysterious gift. Sometimes, life is but a moment, but sometimes, a moment is all a life will have.

– Write Norris at or P.O. Box 247, Elk Grove, CA 95759. Twitter @chaplain, or call 843-608-9715.