If we had to heave our first child into existence, our second floated toward us on a gentle stream. We had only been trying for four months when we found out we were pregnant with number two. When Jennifer took a pregnancy test this time around, there was hardly any waiting before it blinked positive. It was so positive, desperate to be confirmed. “Toil” (at least our experience of it) in getting pregnant was familiar and therefore our expectation. All this effortlessness was welcome albeit unchartered territory. I had wanted to have at least two kids – a girl and a boy – and in a way I can’t fully explain, I had always known we would. And here we were, with a second on the way, ready to receive a fulfilled desire.
As now we were apparently a fertility super-couple, my biggest apprehension was that we’d end up being #double-blessed with twins. I could only imagine the tirelessness and consequently languished in anxiety about the prospect.
We went through the usual pregnancy routines with our midwives and it was particularly exciting to have our daughter, Anaya, with us this time. We heard the heartbeat (just the one!) as a family and saw the little baby kicking in the womb on the ultrasound. As Jennifer’s tummy bloomed with pride, we massaged it with belly butter and talked to the baby every night. It became our bedtime ritual.
A few days after a routine ultrasound, one of our midwives called us. By this time, we were lily pads on ponds, grown accustomed to the calm; unprepared for adversity. “There is an anomaly,” she said. Before she continued, suspense managed to squirm in between the nanoseconds. “The baby’s brain has an enlarged ventricle.”
As we pressed for details, including possible implications, nothing was conclusive. It could all be nothing (a measurement error etc.), have negligible impact, or worse. A thorough fetal assessment was required to confirm or negate anything. We would soon receive a call from a genetic specialist. Another ultrasound and further diagnostics would be scheduled soon. Naturally, I wanted to know what “worse” could mean. We were given the name of a syndrome previously unknown to us – again, not a foregone conclusion at this point. Googling it after the call was an inevitable though regrettable choice – it only clanged the death knell for me.
At the end of the call, the midwife asked us if we wanted to know our baby’s sex. We did. “You are having a son,” she said. I could hardly muster any genuine excitement. Though mere millimetres, the ventricle eclipsed everything. We exchanged a few more pleasantries, said goodbye, and hung up.
It was about a week before Easter. The end of the conversation marked the entrance into a twilight, neither here nor there. It felt especially difficult because we didn’t know when certainty would come and whether it would be benign or malignant.
Despite efforts to the contrary, all I could think about in the in-between was the “worse.” Fear swarmed me: hurrying my heartbeat, colonizing my mind, plummeting my emotions. Jennifer and I didn’t know what to say to each other. Talking about it didn’t offer reprieve; not talking wasn’t helpful either. We didn’t disclose anything to Anaya, then two-and-a-half-years-old, and it was difficult for me to maintain normalcy around her. It’s challenging to read “Moo, Baa, La La La,” and “Welcome Baby,” to your little girl when you’re worried about your unborn son’s life.
Naturally, we prayed and asked others to pray with us. What else is there to do? At such times, as Father James Martin says in his book “Learning to Pray,” it’s not that God and faith are a crutch. It’s that amidst suffering, we become more aware of our powerlessness and vulnerability. This deep-seated sense that I cannot do anything apart from God is what St. Ignatius calls humility. It is a precious metal that only melts into proper form in fire. As such, it is a spiritual grace, but one that requires burning.
Those days, my relationship with God comprised solely of repetitive begging for my son’s well-being. For whatever reason, even though I could theorize the unique gifts a child with particular needs might present, I was unable to accept the possibility. I know that anticipating a situation is not the same as experiencing it; that actually living with a reality is often easier and more beautiful. Nonetheless, I felt small-minded and guilty for my inability to receive whatever – whoever – this boy might be. I also felt shame for being a poor Christian; for not being able to find peace, contentment, and goodness in whatever God chose to give me.
As is routinely the case, Jennifer was an inspiration. One day she ordered our son a new, beautiful, ethically made, t-shirt. I was moved by the kindness and forethought, particularly given what we were going through. She showed me a picture of the shirt, which was light-coloured bamboo with simple, black lettering on the front. “How do you know?” I asked, assuming she had some insider information about the future; that all would be well. “Well, it’s true, regardless,” she replied.
The lettering said “Wonderfully made.”
In the waiting and amidst my own fears, I was grateful for Jennifer’s resolute celebration of our son and the way it called me to a deeper, more unconditional love. As Urie Bronfenbrenner says, “Every child needs at least one adult who is irrationally crazy about him or her.” But one wasn’t enough. No matter what, I wanted our son to have at least two besotted adults – including me – and I was struggling to get there myself.
As I talked about all this with my spiritual director, I realized that it took far more faith to believe God wouldn’t require suffering. Given the twists of my own life, as well as my understanding of the gospel (a God who enters into suffering rather than bypassing it, Jesus’ invitation to take up our cross and follow him, Good Friday before Easter Sunday, etc.), it was clear to me that suffering and death are part of the Christian faith. So, as we perched on the precipice between ultrasounds, I couldn’t easily believe in an outcome free of hardship. Believing against the reality of an enlarged brain ventricle seemed outrageous, if not dangerous.
The problem was that every time I prayed, and I mean every time, I felt something within me saying “Everything is going to be okay. Your son is going to be fine.” I don’t mean that I was hearing voices. It was more like an interior sense. Given the stakes, it was difficult to know what to do with this, let alone to trust it. Was this God, wishful thinking, or something else? Conjuring any idealism seemed beyond my will-power, and that left me wondering if it was actually God. Regardless, if things weren’t okay and my son wasn’t fine in the end, how would I reconcile what I “heard?” I didn’t want to harm confidence in my own experience of God.
I reminded myself that I had “heard” several other things in prayer prior to them happening: that Jennifer and I would get married, that we’d have a baby, that we’d have another baby, that we’d have a boy and a girl. Just as these reminders made me more carefree and buoyant – perhaps I was hearing correctly this time! – I tethered myself to the knowledge that I could still be mistaken or wrong, that God was free to have different ideas and plans. Nothing was guaranteed. So back I went into fear, prayer, and the inevitable tilt between this and that which typifies the life of faith.
Our geneticist called and we huddled on the couch with his voice on speaker. He asked a number of questions including whether Jennifer and I were related (we were happy to rule out the relevance of consanguinity). He said that the ventricle enlargement was “barely” outside the normal parameters and given the relatively narrow margin, he wouldn’t have flagged it. That was good news, though he still wanted us to have the fetal assessment to check things thoroughly. The assessment would be in a few days and he gave us the appointment time and date. We appreciated his bedside manner, thanked him, and hung up with a straw of hope ventilating us.
Later that week, on Easter morning, I gave the homily at our church. I felt positively elated as I talked about Jesus’ resurrection. As it is intended to do, the Easter story filled me with great hope that, in the end and sometimes even now, suffering and death will be wrung entirely into life. During prayer for one another, we asked for prayer for our son – that his enlarged brain ventricle would be innocuous or healed and that he would be totally and completely well. It was wonderful to hear other people voice their solidarity with us in this desire. The rest of the day brimmed with hope and I don’t recall feeling afraid.
Eventually, the fetal assessment day arrived. Because of COVID-19 and the strict governmental and hospital guidelines, we knew Anaya and I could drop Jennifer off in front of the hospital, but wouldn’t be able to accompany her for any part of the assessment. She would have to go through everything alone – including finding out whether there were any issues – before I’d be informed. We drove there that morning, prayed, hugged, and Jennifer walked in.
Fetal assessment normally takes around an hour, if that. I had calculated that I would hear some news in a little over an hour, considering wait times etc. I can’t remember what Anaya and I did when we got home from dropping Jennifer off, but every minute if not sooner I looked at the clock. If being present was difficult previously, it was nearly impossible for me now. Half an hour passed. An hour passed. An hour and fifteen minutes passed. An hour and twenty minutes passed. An hour and a half passed. Jennifer still hadn’t called and I had no idea what was going on.
“Surely something must be wrong if it’s taking this long,” I said to myself. “Everything is going to be okay. Your son is going to be fine,” said something else. The voices walkie-talkied back and forth with static tension in between.
Finally, after an hour and a half, my phone rang.
From the way she said it, I knew. Suspense squirmed in again, but the feeling was different.
“Everything is fine.”
They had meticulously checked everything, the ventricle measurement was in fact normal, and our baby was healthy. Completely. Jennifer apologized for not calling sooner and acknowledged that I must have been sweating through every conceivable pore of my body. We laughed.
When I hung up, I howled. I mean, literally, like a wolf in heat. I couldn’t contain the joy that burst from every molecule in my body. I was laughing and howling and howling and laughing. Anaya looked at me as if I was some sort of circus wonder. She started laughing, too. She had no real idea what all had materialized and why it was significant, but she enjoyed the howling. It felt all of a sudden like water could flow uphill, like something had turned on its head. Whatever fear I had evaporated instantaneously. It felt like a personal Easter. And somewhere in the dawn, I felt something similar within laughing with me and saying “I told you so.”
I’m not sure whether the initial brain ventricle enlargement was a measurement error or whether God miraculously rectified it. It doesn’t matter now. At 11:38am on July 24, 2020 our son was born weighing 8lb7oz. He is the sweetest little boy in the whole, wide world; a true gift and grace. And I am so happy he’s my son. Perhaps I would have always felt this way. Though I will always be grateful that everything is okay.