Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. Matthew 24:42
November rain drummed the stained-glass panels of St. John’s southern exposure—not with the intruding rat-ta-tat-tat of a snare, but the low, rolling of a bass drum, more of a feeling than an actual sound—like the third cello in an orchestra, whose part is only appreciated in absentia. On any other day I might not have given such weather any consideration, but, on this day, I worried that the rain might somehow distract or detract from the service. Perhaps our pastor’s words might be inaudible or garbled or, worse yet, miscommunicated, the way my sister’s always were when we tried to talk underwater in our backyard pool as kids; however, once seated, I found that the rain acted as an insulator, a white noise opposing all the outside traffic, allowing Pastor Kringle’s offer of salvation to reverberate freely among the faithful.
“Beloved of God, called to be saints: Grace, mercy, and peace be with you all,” Pastor projected in a voice as clear and pure as our purpose there that morning. I embraced her words—savored them like a cup of early morning coffee—while surrounded by the warmth of family and friends, believers and nonbelievers alike, who had also braved the downpour to join us in prayer and celebration.
“And also with you,” we replied in unison—the regular congregation infused with the guests’ diversity. Chris squeezed my hand at these words, and, as gently as the first time we made love, he pulled me closer as we sat.
Befitting the occasion, Pastor’s sermon delved into the heart of such matters as house and home, family, and, most importantly, the need to keep awake throughout the course of life. Her lighthearted wisdom and astute observations culminated in an intense silence for self-reflection, during which I recalled all that I had to be thankful for on this weekend following the Thanksgiving holiday.
* * *
Just over three years had passed since we were married in a similar church near our childhood homes, and our pre-wedding meetings with that church’s reverend were the first times the two of us had set foot into a church together. In fact, our wedding was the first religious service we ever attended simultaneously. Back then, religion wasn’t reality for us. We relied on tangibility. We’d known of each other since third- and fourth-grade; been best friends for two years of high school; were high school sweethearts who endured (sometimes just barely) a four-year, college, weekend-only romance; and, neither one of our families had strong religious ties.
My parents spoke of religion less frequently than they discussed sex, and when they did, it was usually my mom who would say that she believed in a higher power, but she didn’t know what it was. My Roman Catholic father eventually allowed me to dropout of catechism classes due to rumors of illicit goings-on with one of the priests, a decision that left me unconfirmed in the faith. Though Chris’s mother was also Catholic, she had little influence on him because his father and brothers proclaimed atheism long before I met them.
Growing up in such religiously indifferent climates allowed us to believe, at the time, that our faith in each other was enough to sustain our relationship. After all, though not rooted in religion, we shared many of the same values; most of our goals in life were the same; we were healthy, happy, and on the magic carpet ride of love. Nothing but the unthinkable could change that, and so we were completely unprepared when the fabric of our lives began to unravel.
Marriage had not been easy for us at first. Saying, “I do,” seemed to have removed our abilities to discuss anything more significant than the weather or work, so our long evening chats about the future slowly ceased. Our silence was not one of animosity or boredom, it just was. And, as if silence is not a plaguing enough demon, I infinitely complicated matters by having an affair with a close family friend. Not the physical, all-consuming passion, can’t-keep-your-hands-off-each-other kind that eventually burns itself out with no chance of re-ignition. No, it wasn’t that. I had the worst kind of affair—the kind that grows silently, gradually, unintentionally and then lingers indefinitely beyond its time frame; the kind that builds an intellectual and emotional dependency so that even when the contact has ended, it is still a lie to say that it is over.
I justified the time I spent writing intimate letters to this other man by believing that I was entitled to a rich, language-based relationship somewhere in my life, and if it wasn’t going to be with my husband, why not with him? After all, I was just writing. I wasn’t slipping out of bed in the middle of the night to meet him incognito. I was just writing letters. For almost a year he complimented me, told me the things I deserved in life, encouraged me to pursue my dreams. I rationalized that he understood me in a way that Chris couldn’t. I never intended to hurt Chris. I never intended for Chris to find out.
I never intended to fall in love either, but words have a way with my heart.
Chris left the morning that he found the letters, laying down long, thick lines of rubber that curved from our paved driveway into the street. I didn’t believe we could make it, he and I in our marriage, and I figured that the next time I would see him would be with our lawyers arranging an agreeable segregation of belongings and monies. But Chris believed. He came back that night hurt, humiliated, and enraged. But, he had the faith in our marriage—in me—to make it work. We talked openly that night. Trust wouldn’t be easy to regain, but it was possible to move forward. I promised myself that I would give our marriage everything that was within my power to give—starting with a family.
Three months later, I was pregnant. Ten weeks pregnant according to my OBGYN.
* * *
The moment of self-reflection offered by Pastor Kringle ended, and my reminiscences dissipated amid the bustling of those around me. I rose and stood alongside my husband, my wonderful, wonderful husband, whose faith in us may have faltered but never failed. I leaned into him, inhaling his steadfastness. The off-key choir sang “Wake, Awake for Night is Flying,” a hymn I had never heard, but followed along with until verse two when, “Zion hears the watchman singing, and in her heart new joy is springing. She wakes, she rises from her gloom…her star is ris’n; her light is come. Oh, come, you Blessed One.” As the choir’s music filled the church, the initial joy that had overwhelmed me the first time I discovered I was pregnant came flooding back.
After my first prenatal visit, the doctor set-up an ultrasound appointment. Two weeks later, Chris and I sat in the imaging center not-so-patiently awaiting our tiny embryo-turned-fetus’ first appearance on film. The ultrasound technician joined us and explained that the machine could detect a pregnancy as early as two to three weeks after conception with a carefully trained tech—which she assured us she was—and, after several minutes of silent exploration, she pointed to where my ovaries were, where my uterus was, but she didn’t mention the baby.
Naively, I asked, “Can you show us our baby? I’m having trouble seeing it.”
She held her finger up to me, as if to buy some more time, and then said, “Sometimes if a pregnancy is very early on, we can’t see it by looking through your stomach. Sometimes it requires a trans-vaginal ultrasound.”
I was in a hospital gown and back on the paper-covered table in less than two minutes, but the seconds couldn’t have been longer. Doubt had dug into my heart, and I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was going terribly wrong.
Without too much discomfort, a new picture appeared on the screen in front of us. Once again, she went to the trouble of finding all of my internal organs.
“Can you see the baby now?” I asked. “Or, is it still too small?”
“The doctor said she was about ten weeks along at her last visit,” Chris added. “Was he wrong?”
The tech shifted on her stool. She motioned to the adjoining bathroom and said, “You can get dressed. Dr. Harber will be in to see you shortly.”
Chris and I were still staring at the frozen image of my ovaries when Dr. Harber entered the room. He carried several pieces of film decorated with the identical pictures.
Matter-of-factly he offered the diagnosis, “You have PCOS—polycystic ovarian syndrome.” So, that was that. He had wasted no time before dropping the bomb that had sent me numbly into the darkest, most doubting, faithless year of my life. “Your ovaries are covered in the classic, string-of-pearl cysts. What you have experienced was not a real pregnancy, but rather, a chemical one, your hormones playing tricks on you, if you will. In fact, chances are you won’t be able to conceive on your own. Fertility is an option, not always successful though.” He barely looked at me as he spoke. It was a mistake—it had to be. I couldn’t even look at Chris, the man I had already forced to suffer so much.
Three days later, the call from Dr. Harber’s nurse stamped out my remaining hope. Blood work had confirmed it. PCOS—the price I was to pay.
* * *
Pastor Kringle once again gestured, and we moved up the center aisle behind Christine and Michael, our best friends. We stood around the pastor in front of the altar. Christine held Chloe, just five months old, against her side, sheer white fabric cascading gently, like a waterfall, halfway to the floor. Both she and her husband said before the congregation, “We present Chloe Jean-Reilly to receive the Sacrament of Holy Baptism.” Each of us, parents and godparents, in turn, then promised to nurture her in the Christian faith and life—a promise I felt the burden of immediately, considering how often I had struggled to find a place for faith in my own life in the previous years.
* * *
For months after Dr. Harber’s original diagnosis, I cried myself to sleep. Chris would pull my curled figure into him, try to console me, but there was no abatement for the pain I held inside. We’d make love, real love, like we did before marriage, and then we’d dream ahead our lives out loud. And each night, I’d relive the pain of knowing that I had broken his trust in me yet again—this time unwillingly, in direct contradiction to my intentions. My promise to give him a family, to confirm our existence genetically and morally, was just another lie. No moment of a day would go by that didn’t remind me of my deserved barrenness. Babies on television…at the mall…in my dreams. If only I hadn’t written those letters, I would think. Maybe, just maybe if I hadn’t done that we would be able to have a family, but no amount of repentance would cajole a second pink line to appear on my monthly pregnancy test. Month after month after month.
And then, it happened. That elusive second line appeared for a dear friend of mine.
She broke the news as if I should jump into her arms the way girls do when they’re excited. I smiled and excused myself to the bathroom, expecting to see in the mirror a red welt forming across my face where she had slapped me. But, I reminded myself that it was my own fault that I couldn’t conceive, not hers. So, I was there for her. I baked her favorite chocolate-chip cookies; I brought her Mylanta; I listened in twisted agony as she complained about getting fat and ugly, wishing I could try on her stretch marks for the afternoon. I guarded her growing stomach from Chris’s hands—watching him feel her child move inside her would have overwhelmingly broken me, and I was close enough to the edge as it was. I stayed with her family in the waiting room all night when she was in labor just to see a peek of her son after he was born. I didn’t stay long enough to hold him.
Life went on after T.J.’s birth. I’d see the new family once in a while, but for the most part, we lost touch. Whether it was due to my baby-envy, their new schedule, or any combination of the two is hard to say. But, as those summer months dragged on, I gave up on babies. I, instead, focused on preparing for the new school year and making my students my adopted children. This shift in maternal perspective worked briefly, but as September drew to a close, the familiar emptiness began to seep back into my being, albeit briefly.
On October 4, a year after being diagnosed with PCOS, I discovered that without the help of fertility, Chris and I were pregnant, and an ultrasound confirmed it two weeks later. So, it was in the midst of fall, when the days were getting shorter, that mine finally began to brighten.
* * *
Pastor Kringle set the silver pitcher back on the altar, drops of holy water still clinging to its surface. She gently lifted Chloe out of Christine’s arms and cradled her over the pillar of water. Pastor cupped the water in her palm and poured it over Chloe’s head three times as she said, “Chloe Jean-Reilly, I baptize you in the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. The floods shall not overwhelm us, and the deep shall not swallow us up, for Christ has brought us over to the land of promise.”
My heart lightened in that moment. We once believed that the flood would overwhelm us; I had certainly felt swallowed up by the deep, but as Pastor placed Chloe into her father’s arms, all of that was forgotten. When Chris gathered her up and rested her angel-kissed head on his shoulder, Chloe blinked beneath the brim of her bonnet and encircled my finger with her hand. Our little girl was there among us. Flesh and Blood. We had been delivered to our land of promise, and, although it was she who entered the family of Christ that November morning, it was my faith that, at long last, was confirmed.