I stopped and put my fork down on the plate. There was still food on it, but an emotional force had interrupted my appetite. My wife and I had been sitting at the dining table, chatting idly about preparations for our child, now nearly 34 weeks old and still in the womb.
34 weeks. In the mere act of thinking those numbers, my mind suddenly brought out memories of many other children I had seen with those same numbers attached. 34 weeks but still with an unexpected high-grade intraventricular hemorrhage. 34 weeks but with panhypopituitarism. 34 weeks but with neurologic devastation. 34 weeks but…
We had been going to the new parenting classes and in talking with new-fathers-to-be and “classmates,” I heard them speak with fear. They would talk quietly about how they were afraid of hurting the child through some mistake, or of not knowing what to do when it really mattered, or of being seen as incompetent by their wives and in-laws. These husbands would speak to me with relief in being able to express this in words, and I would say that I understood, that I was a pediatrician and that this was a perfectly normal thing to feel. Expectant mothers would look at my wife and sigh and say, “It must be so great to have a pediatrician for a husband!” I would laugh and joke, “All I want to be is a mediocre dad. If our child comes home from school with a card that says, ‘World’s Most Average Dad’ I will be ecstatic.” And everyone would laugh except my wife, who would tell me I would be an amazing father, that I would be an amazing Dad.
But that night at dinner, that night I set down my fork prematurely, I was not thinking about being a great father. In fact I was slightly nauseated at the thought, mainly because I did not feel deserving of the title. I had been very disinterested in the many small details of our preparations for a new baby even as I loved him. It perturbed me not to feel excited by the baby clothes or the Pak-and-Play or the toys or cute sleep sacks even though I desperately wanted to.
That night I realized why: it was because I had come to see all babies as patients. It was because I had gotten used to leaving them in the hospital and leaving them with their parents and leaving them in the care of people who were not me, because the children were not mine. The first diaper I had changed was not that of my own child; it was for an anonymous foster baby almost exactly six years ago:
She wouldn’t stop crying, so I picked her up before realizing that the diaper was wet. The sun was setting and the room was dim and quiet, disturbed only by the peripheral noises of the hospital hallway and the sound of her distress. I gingerly held her up, setting her flat on the bed, and watched her arms wave from side to side as I puzzled over how to change my first diaper.
“Hey,” I whispered. “Stop crying.” She didn’t listen and I spent a few moments fumbling with the pacifier before sitting down in the rocking chair, swinging back and forth easily with the infant cradled in my arms. A plastic music box hanging on the edge of the crib’s stainless-steel safety bars began playing a lullaby. We rocked and swayed, rustling quietly in the dusky shadows of twilight. It was as if the hospital, that crazy world of light and noise and pain and angst, had rumbled off into the distance and lazily forgot to bother us for now…
And so we rocked, back and forth, and I thought and thought. Did she know how alone she was? What kind of person would she become? Who would rise up to defend her weakness, her frailty and vulnerability? If she met me in ten, twenty, thirty years from now, would she still let me hold her in my arms? Why couldn’t I adopt her? How different will it be on the day I hold my own child? Unfamiliar feelings of affection, of unknown protection and helplessness swilled around inside of me, centered but unfocused on this loose bundle of warmed clothing and weak, spastic movements. I didn’t know how to feel or how to respond. I still don’t.
I couldn’t wait to write this stuff down, mainly because I didn’t know what to do with all these ambiguous thoughts. I only held her for a few minutes and yet it’s taken me two days to articulate what I’ve been feeling. Who will love her? Who will dream good dreams for her at night? Who will give her the first cherry ice pop, the first kiss on her scraped knee? Who will keep her safe in this world of terrors?
I was walking outside my apartment tonight, thinking about these things. I stared through the bare branches of a budding tree and into the lamplight that stood fixed beneath a muddied sky. I asked my Abba, father, to provide one for her, and then realized that I didn’t know her name.
I sat in the church pew at our Maundy Thursday service and cried a little. It was for a lot of reasons I didn’t understand, but some of it was for those babies and children and dads and moms whom I have loved even though I barely knew them and even as I watched them suffer: parents with brain dead children, children with brain dead parents, kids with cancer, micro-premies on ventilators, grandfathers with dementia. And I knew that the technical term for what I was feeling was transference or counter-transference or whatever, I didn’t care, all I could think about was how messed up and how beautiful it was that the entire mechanism of our salvation and rescue from death was that a God who could have had anything would willingly choose to subject his only beloved son to be tortured at the hands of dirty and malicious and sick people because he loved those dirty and malicious and sick people that much. He loves us all that much.
Joshua. That is what we named our son. It means “Yahweh is salvation.” Today is Good Friday, the day of the Passion in which theology tells us our innocence was bought with blood. At that church service, Pastor Tom taught us that Jesus’ words, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” were a simple reference to Psalm 22, the end of which reads:
All the rich of the earth will feast and worship;
all who go down to the dust will kneel before him—
those who cannot keep themselves alive.
Posterity will serve him;
future generations will be told about the Lord.
They will proclaim his righteousness,
declaring to a people yet unborn:
He has done it!
My dear Joshua, my unborn child, your father’s work and great life’s labor will be to share with you and all people we know the singular truth of your name: Yahweh is salvation, and it is finished.