Something about babies makes us all babblers.
I remember listening to a adoption center worker go on and on about absolutely not allowing out-of wedlock, high school moms to bring their babies to school. The mere sight of a babe in swaddling clothes is dangerous to young women, who—she claimed—see only the love and nothing of the responsibility we all take on when we “have kids.” Teenagers—especially young women—lose all sense of reason when they hold babies, she told me. About that, she was as adamant as some old Puritan preacher.
But I think we all suffer such weakness. I remember being struck with the story of the temple priest, Simeon, who was “righteous and devout,” the Luke account says, a man who, once he held the Savior, simply said he was ready to die. That story came unbidden into my mind the very first time I held my granddaughter, my first grandchild. I don’t believe my holding that baby had anything to do with the Biblical account, nor was this little sweetheart any kind of savior. What I felt was likely something deeply anthropological, as if at that moment something had changed forever, something was, strangely enough, behind me. I was ready to go. Weird. I don’t know how to describe it, other than as an epiphany I’ve never felt before, nor again. Right here in my office stands a picture I took the morning of that baby’s baptism. It’s ancient now, my granddaughter rapidly turning thirteen, even though she’s only six; but I wouldn’t replace that image with any of the gallery of sweet shots I’ve taken since.
There’s something about babies. They are what they are—and a whole lot more, which is, of course, the textbook definition of a symbol. They are hope, they are future, they are somehow life itself, the apotheosis of death’s grim reaping. And we gaze at them, I suppose, in a kind of silly human triumph. We babble, all of us.
Yesterday in our church, a baptism. I’m guessing that those evangelicals who don’t do infant baptism have created some ritual to celebrate the joy of birth and the glorious mystery of new life. If they haven't, someone better write something up this afternoon. There is no cause for greater glee.
Once the sacrament was over, our pastor admitted, shaking his head as if coming out of a dream, “One of the best moments in church life.” Who on earth could disagree?
Well, maybe some could. Babies are so rich in meaning that I’m sure they awaken us to our greatest miseries, too. I sometimes think of the grandparents in a pew not that far away from where we were sitting yesterday, a couple who lost a grandson more than two years ago. Or the folks on the other side of the church—several of them—who realized, several months after just such a gala sacrament, that their baby carried some incurable disease, a burden that innocent child would have to contend with for their rest of his or her life.
And then yesterday, in the afternoon following the baptism, this story. We walked into my in-law’s apartment in the home, where a grief card funeral parlors create is tented on Mom’s table. Not unusual. When you’re almost ninety, you could go to funerals weekly.
But this one looked different. I opened it. The woman’s face was young, hair spikey. I asked my father-in-law the story.
It seems that when she discovered she was with child, the doctor also found cancer. The treatments themselves would be severe enough to threaten the new baby, the oncologist must have told her.
It’s almost impossible to create a more horrendous scenario because whatever one chooses, death will be at least half-victor.
I don’t know the people, don’t know how the determination was made, don’t know the anguish or the pain—don’t know whether, once made, she lived her last days in the splendor of peace—that could well be. But whatever happened in the year that passed between conception and death, this young woman chose to give her life for her baby. So today, last week in some local church, a widowed father stood, babe in arms, two young children at his side.
I felt slapped around—the exhilaration of baptism just hours before, the agony of death in the tented card standing on the table.
That woman—the one so adamantly against unwed moms taking their babies to school—I told her once that I envied her job, taking adopted babies to new parents who wanted so badly to have children of their own. Must be immensely gratifying, I told her—those parents so hungry to hold a little one in their arms.
“But I also have to take that child from the arms of a birth mother,” she said, as if to remind me that all of this joy is really about life itself.
There’s just very little to say about that tented card. An old Jewish proverb goes like this: “He who saves one life, saves the world.” That’s a beautiful sentiment, a cause, a mission, a proverb worth pinning to the wall above one’s desk.
But saying it over and over, like a mantry, doesn't mean I forget that widowed father, baby in his arms, on an immensely cold day in a cemetery.
My father-in-law claims that people say she was a wonderful woman, 33 years old. Her own grandparents are residents of the home. The woman was deeply religious, he says, a loving personality, a giver. That she was, a giver.
My guess—and my hope—and my prayer—is that her husband is at peace too, as much peace as any of us will ever find in this world of ours, this vale of tears.
He has this much at least--he has their baby. And for that, this morning, I give thanks.