As brave an act as anybody has ever seen in New York was preceded by the arrival of three child-sized coffins at St. Thomas Episcopal Church on Fifth Avenue at 10:30 am Thursday. They were identical save for the bronze nameplates that gleamed darkly in the hushed dimness.
The only sound was a single stifled sob as the mother came in behind them. Madonna Badger also had lost her own mother and father in the Christmas Day fire in Stamford, Conn., that killed 9-year-old Lilly Badger and her 7-year-old twin sisters, Sarah Badger and Grace Badger. A step behind Madonna came Matthew Badger, her former husband and the father of her three children. They proceeded down a center aisle lined with two dozen candles on holders garlanded with evergreens, meant to be symbols of eternal life even amidst loss beyond imagining.
Death seemed the greater power as the first reader struggled to get through the selection from Ecclesiastes, sounding close to weeping at “a time to weep” and only closer at “a time to laugh.” The second reading was followed by what was described in the program simply as “Reflections.”
As the hush returned and deepened, 47-year-old Madonna Badger rose and stepped past the coffins set in a row before the altar with matching bouquets of her daughters’ favorite flowers in their favorite colors, Casablanca lilies, white and pink. She proceeded steadily to the lectern, clad in black, looking tiny beneath the soaring gothic arches.
Her decision to stand before this packed church marked her as brave as the Stamford firefighters who had done all they could to save her family from the flames and now filled the pews directly behind where she had been sitting. She proved herself beyond brave as she now sought to save her children from being lost to memory and to keep them alive in the hearts of all those who had come to mourn their deaths.
“I want to talk to you about my girls, my little girls,” she began, as direct and resolute as the boldest first responder. “I want to remember them out loud, to fight for them to never be forgotten.”
Madonna began with the eldest.
“Lilly…my angel, my light.”
Madonna spoke of wandering the city with newborn Lilly in a Baby Bjorn.
“With diapers in my pocket and my breast full of milk,” she said. “It was all we needed.”
She also spoke of a day when Lily was older and they made a wrong turn at the Metropolitan Museum, chancing into several depictions of a crucified Christ and a grieving Madonna. Lilly fell upon the floor and asked if she was going to die. Her own Madonna had not known how to respond and had finally said that it was all a mystery, that they would never know until the moment came.
“She accepted that,” Madonna now said. “I did, too.”
The girls’ grandfather, Madonna’s father, liked to play Santa, and one Christmas the family had gone with him to visit a nursing home. The sight of so many people in the last stages of life had given the others pause, but 5 year-old Sarah scampered cheerfully among those who so clearly needed cheering, passing out cookies and transforming the room into what the mother remembered as a place “full of light.” Sarah left saying that the Tooth Fairy should make sure to bring her teeth there.
“They really need them,” the mother reported the girl saying.
The mourners laughed, Sarah proving able to bring light even here, even now.
“This was Sarah,” the mother said. “Loved and lovable and full of love.”
Madonna was still steady, strong in her tenderness as she spoke of the other twin. Grace loved math and learning. She had asked for a microscope and a telescope for Christmas.
“I think she wanted to see the seen and the unseen,” the mother said. “She was a fisherman and an adventurer and an inventor. There was nothing Grace could not make with a Band-Aid.”
She had seemed to want to know everything, including whether she would die before her mother. Madonna had told her that would never happen.
“It happened,” the mother now said.
Madonna asked the question everybody was asking and nobody could answer.
She said she used to tell herself that she could never survive losing her babies.
“But here I am.”
She was only certain that there was no greater power than love, and by that power her girls live on. She at one point placed her hand over her heart.
“My girls are in my heart. They’re right here and that’s where they live now.
Her daughters had died before they could have children of their own, before they even had a body of work to leave behind. What they did leave was love.
“This love I’m realizing to be my children’s legacy,” she said.
She asked everyone to share in that love and put it into action, bringing light to others as her children had.
“Keep our little girls in your heart with acts of pure kindness,” she said.
She thanked everyone for coming and she ended with a sound that rang with too much resilience to be a moan and was too profound to be a sigh. It was the sound of someone completing what would have been impossible, were it not for the very love she invoked.
The girls’ father had some written memories of his daughters that the minister relayed. Madonna’s best friend, Jenni Muldaur, gave a remarkable rendition of Amazing Grace. Teddy Thompson sang This Little Light of Mine and Rufus Wainwright sang Over the Rainbow.
At the end, the minister said an individual prayer for each of the girls. The three groups of pallbearers then carried the three coffins out together to where three hearses were parked across the width of Fifth Avenue. The firefighters stood at attention as a woman who had proven herself as courageous as any of them stood with her former husband at the curb.
Behind Madonna, her boyfriend, Michael Borcina, stood with Matthew’s girlfriend. Borcina had been with Madonna on the night of the fire and is said to have swept a Yule log’s embers from the fireplace into a bag after the girls expressed worry that Santa would soon be coming down the chimney. Borcina is said to have placed the bag outside the house, but close enough to result in a fire that killed five. Investigators have said that the house was under renovation and a new smoke detector system had not been activated.
If there is any acrimony among the parties, it was not in evidence as Madonna was joined by her boyfriend in one waiting limo, while Matthew was joined by his girlfriend in another.
They rode off behind the three hearses to a cemetery in The Bronx.
Madonna left behind a mission of love for the mourners as they scattered into the city where she once wandered with a diaper in her pocket and her breasts full of milk.
One act of pure kindness they all could perform would be to make sure they have working smoke detectors.