The call came early. It was Labor and Delivery informing me there had been a failed therapeutic abortion and the husband of the woman was requesting a chaplain to come offer comfort to his wife. As I threw on my white lab coat identifying me as official and qualified for such a call I considered myself anything but qualified for this one. What the hell was a failed therapeutic abortion anyway? Those three words seemed totally incongruent to me. Wasn’t abortion about causing the developing process to fail? So then, had there been a failure in the failing? Something that was meant to end life had mistakenly resulted in life? And how could that be considered failure? What part of this whole thing was supposed to be therapeutic?
Entering the room to a foreboding silence, I came face to face with the husband. His eyes were filled with horror and helplessness. He was standing in the middle of the room, paralyzed by the pain of reality. His wife lay as a lump on the bed, as if she were dead. I guessed perhaps she wished she was. She faced the wall in an apparent effort to shut out the world. There was not one word in the English or any other language in the universe that would bring one ounce of comfort or even sanity to this situation. The only ministry I could offer in this moment was eye contact with the husband.
Sensing my own tension building, I excused myself and went out in the hall. I asked the nurse for the location of the baby. And yes, I said baby, not fetus. She looked pale as she led me there. I entered the small room, more of a glorified closet really, and saw the tiny body lying in the center of a small stainless steel table. He was naked and face up. Exposed to a world that would never know him. He looked to be fully formed, yet clearly not ready to be born. Picture those life-like baby dolls that you might buy for a new big sister. Everything was there, but without the wrinkly details of life. A tiny little vein faintly throbbing in his chest was the only visible sign that failure to abort had occurred. He would lay on this table until death succeeded.
I would learn that the parents had been informed during pregnancy that he had a genetic defect. One that the couple agonizingly felt they couldn’t handle. They had decided on abortion but had not conceived of the possibility it could fail. As I looked at this wee one I remembered the night before praying with a young father of a little girl who had the same genetic defect. She was going in for heart surgery and this dad had pleaded with God for her life. As I stood at the “bedside” watching the life drain from this child, anger and shame began to rise up inside of me. Although my telling of this moment may sound like judgement, I did not feel any judgement toward the woman and her husband. My call is not to judge but to simply be with people in their pain. We never know for sure what we would do given another’s circumstances. But I angered toward something larger and darker than the decision of one particular couple. I felt the white hot anger that one feels when faced head on with injustice. The kind of injustice that comes from being part of a beautiful but broken world in which there are times when answers are elusive and questions suffocate. And I felt the shame of knowing, although beyond my control, I was a part of this injustice. By my standing here. By my watching. By my absolute inability to comprehend, much less do anything.
Maybe it was a pastoral instinct. More likely my desperate need to do something, anything except stand here and feel helpless. Whatever the motivation, I asked the nurse to bring me some distilled water. Distilled water was what we used in the hospital to baptize. Now that I think about it, I guess it was pretty presumptuous of me to think that I could somehow wash away even a bit of the emotional stench of impending death with an ounce or two of sterile water. At any rate, when the nurse returned, her cheeks stained with tears, I took the bottle from her and I baptized this nameless baby boy. My regret is that I did not pick him up to do so. I’m routinely a rule follower and I told myself picking him up would be breaking the rules. Like baptizing him was within the boundaries?! Truth is, I was afraid. Afraid to fully immerse myself into the messy rawness of the moment. Maybe I was afraid I’d never recover. In spite of my pitiful cowardice, I managed to sprinkle tiny drops of water and, making the sign of the cross on his forehead, I baptized this parent-less child in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. I trusted, I needed to trust, that the one true Parent of us all knew well his name. I was alone in the room with this little one but I truly believe that I prayed in the fullness of the company of saints. I simply could not be standing here alone. I wouldn’t have been able to stand. I clung with every fiber of my being to the hope that there were angels who would carry him out of a world that had refused to accept him into the arms of a Love that would celebrate him forever.
I believe someday this little one, in his perfect wholeness of joy and life, will tell me my hunch is right. I believe that he will confirm for me that atonement is less about fulfilling an unreachable holiness code and more about a Love that breaks through even the ugliest failure. That’s the shred of hope I carry with me this day. Something to chew on…