Martin Browning reflects on a brief life and great love
I was afraid I would be too late. My bus was stuck in virtual gridlock at the main crossroads. Even when it all unscrambled and I hurried through the automatic doors of the nearest side entrance, no-one seemed to know where the maternity wards were; certainly not listed under ‘M’ on the gleaming boards in the hospital’s new showpiece block. So it was an anxious, breathless Grandpa who finally knocked on the door of the right fourth-floor room overlooking the park.
And here was Sally, sitting on the bed, with Jim, my son, in the chair beside her. Relief; they haven’t started. Her Mum and Dad had also been held up, in the same traffic, but now they were here and the youthful Chaplain was getting ready. All was well.
Well, that is, within the tragedy which had brought us together. There were hugs and tears, not the first or the last on that long-extended weekend. I was not sure quite what to expect, but when we had arranged some spare chairs around Sally’s bed, the nurse came in with her small cradle, beautifully prepared with tiny ribbons, and its silent, hidden occupant. She placed it in Sally’s hands and folded back the cover. We saw the minute pink head of the lifeless child and grandchild who had not quite made it.
Dying and Living
Two weeks before, Sally had worried that no heart-beat was evident. The next examination showed that her baby – her first – had died a month or so earlier. The no-longer-expectant mother must face the double pain of labour and delivery with no new life at the end. Eight weeks before, her husband Jim had lost his Mum – my beloved wife.
I have witnessed many hospital events, but this was a first for me. The Chaplain handled it beautifully with both confidence and sensitivity. Some prayers had the peculiar comfort of formality. We were also given space to weep and to be silent, or to put into our own words what we wanted to say to God at that moment. Down the corridor, mercifully out of earshot, was the cry of someone else’s baby who had safely struggled into our outside world.
But not this baby; not our baby. Until the post-mortem it had no gender, therefore no name. But what struck me then, and still does now, is that to all of us gathered in that small and holy place, the centre of our attention and the reason for our coming was a human being. To borrow a highly-honoured title, ‘that holy thing’ had lived and grown, been loved, longed for, cared for, provided for and prayed for, for something under four months. Some infants who live nearly twice this long are aborted as surplus to requirements, to be discarded as if they were lumps of unwanted tissue, embarrassingly disposable bits of a mother’s body.
To digress, but to a purpose: their recognizably human forms are sucked out or simply ripped apart. Even at ten weeks it is quite clear who it is we are dealing with. Their hands, fingers, feet and toes are all too obvious; pictures of what happens are described as ‘shocking’ when we include them in pro-life literature, but ‘educational’ when they are used to commend the violent techniques involved. Our nation has sacrificed millions of tiny lives who might have brought untold joy to our world. And now we know a little more, we can refer to this particular person as our nearly-granddaughter.
Being asked to read from the Bible, I struggled through the welcoming words of Jesus in Mark chapter 10. Surely this too was right. Jim, who had held his mother’s hand as her life slipped quietly away not three miles distant from here, now held a daughter in his arms before a breath was granted. Close friends who heard about it ventured the thought that my wife, who had so recently joined the whole company of heaven, now had a new grandchild with her, to welcome, love and cherish. The other four are left behind with their respective families; our turn, and theirs, will come.
Was this too fanciful? The baby’s parents, I discovered, had just the same thought. The communion of saints must be not less than we imagine but far more; not poorer but incalculably richer. And certainly in ways which are hidden from us and filled with surprises. Some gleams of that glory are given us on earth. As an Evangelical Christian, I feel sad for some of my fellow Protestants who (as Francis Gardom has commented in these pages in April) have lost or never discovered the nearness of heaven, the treasures in our Book of Common Prayer Communion service, or the mind-expanding truths of Hebrews 12, to go no further.
My daughter-in-law was even able to pray aloud as she sat in bed with her uncrying baby. Later she talked with us about the tiny hands and feet, the body’s shape perfect for this stage of its development, which for so many weeks she guarded within the womb at the small price (as she thought) of her own sickness and discomfort. Psalm 139 comes alive at such moments.
I have no means of knowing whether our experience reflects common medical and nursing practice these days. Down in the Accident and Emergency Department of the same hospital, I found, things are not so well arranged, nor staff so well-trained or organized. Someone will tell me about resources and shortfalls; I know, I know. I also know that those precious minutes on Maternity, whatever its proper name, would not have happened fifty years ago, maybe not twenty. Thank God, and we do, that in some areas we are learning and improving.
The Lord has himself been in the womb, and our salvation depended upon it. The Lord has been a one-week, 10-week, 20-week foetus, his inmost being ‘knit together in his mother’s womb … fearfully and wonderfully made.’ He has also been with Rachel weeping for her children, now as then, and with the children too.
That Psalm goes on to scream, ‘Away from me, you bloodthirsty men!’; is it easier to cope with bloodthirsty men than with a bloodthirsty God? But God thirsts not for our blood, but for our love. To that end the Lord has been with Mary his mother, with childless women everywhere, and with our dear Sally weeping for her lost daughter. No, not lost, for we know where she is. And where he is.
‘The Lord is here’, we sometimes say, as if we needed some liturgical reassurance. For those moments of wonder and worship, of grief and love, in hospital and at home, we did not need to say it. We knew. And he knew, and he knows and loves, all of us, the smallest not the least.
Martin Browning lives and works in London.