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Monica Doumit: Oatlands memorial shows new life blossoms forth from tragedy

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Selina Abdallah with flowers at the opening of the memorial garden for the Abdallah and Sakr children on Saturday. Photo: Giovanni Portelli
Selina Abdallah with flowers at the opening of the memorial garden for the Abdallah and Sakr children on Saturday. Photo: Giovanni Portelli

I can’t imagine how much preparation went into the blessing and opening of the memorial garden at Oatlands over the weekend. From the family’s four-year battle to be allowed to have a memorial built, to the design and construction, the invitations to dignitaries and close family and friends, the selection of readings, prayers and music, the setup of chairs and marquees to ensure the February sun wasn’t too oppressive, the podium and sound equipment, the speeches, the doves and balloons and flowers—it was clear that a lot of time and effort had gone into making the day just right.

The efforts were all overshadowed, however, by Selina Abdallah, nearly two-years-old. She joyfully occupied herself throughout the 90-minute-long event by playing and dancing through the memorial garden.

Selina, born two years after the tragedy that claimed the earthly lives of three of her siblings and her cousin, was completely oblivious to the ceremony occurring around her and the weight of grief and grace that had brought her parents, her siblings and her extended family to that moment.

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During the addresses from her mum and dad, from the prime minister and premier, and the former prime minister, Selina happily played amidst the newly-constructed memorial as if it had been built as a new playground just for her. Those gathered can be forgiven for not listening as intently as they otherwise might have as their attention was diverted from the dignitaries to Miss Almost-Two in a white cotton dress, delighting in her surroundings. Her play was so captivating that Premier Chris Minns playfully joked that those in attendance would remember the afternoon for a very long time “because Selina showed so much joy running around at the front of this assembly and destroying the beautiful flowers.”

I must admit, I was very grateful to have been recording Saturday evening’s speeches for the news report in this edition of The Catholic Weekly, because my attention too was completely diverted to the beautiful child.

Far from disrupting or detracting from the event, Selina’s play embodied everything it was about. She reminded us of everything Danny, Leila, Bridget, Craig and their families have embodied for the past four years: that death never has the last word, that not only does eternal life await believers, but that God continues to provide newness of life as a consolation to those left behind as well. That we are never forgotten or abandoned, even—and especially—in our darkest times.

For Selina, the memorial garden is not the site of a horrible event she experienced or witnessed; it is a place that she will visit often with her family and see blooming with plants specially chosen to flower each February. While she will grow up to know the story of that tragic night, she will not bear the grief of it in the same way that her parents and siblings will. She will instead be a living witness to the truth that God brings new life and with new life, healing.

In her speech for the opening, Leila dubbed Selina the family’s “miracle, cheeky baby girl” who can do no wrong and who has the entire family “wrapped around her pinkie.” Leila—who is due to give birth to another baby in April—also spoke of her joy at the family’s impending new arrival. “God is good, isn’t he?” she exclaimed, to laughter and applause. “I love my God.” Her joyful acclamation, spoken on the very spot where half of her children entered eternal life, would have seemed unthinkable four years ago but, for those gathered, Leila’s praise—with echoes of Job’s proclamation, “The Lord gave and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21)—seemed very natural and almost effortless. It’s hasn’t been effortless, of course, but that it seemed to be so is a testament not only to the faith of Danny, Leila and Bridget but also to the faithfulness of the God they serve.

“Remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old. Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert” (Isa 43:18-19).

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