When your child is wrapped up in her own umbilical cord, the further the labor progresses, the worse off she is. One learns this when accompanying one’s wife through a day, a night, and then another full day and night of labor.

Yards of heart monitor printouts are puzzled over by shift-swapping physicians. Slight progress seems to suggest that the mother should keep trying for a natural birth. But with each descent of the child toward the light of day, the cord tightens, and her heart-rate line displayed on the in-room computer screen drops.

We had lost a baby before, and my wife and I thought about him as we wondered if our second would survive. Clement, we had named him. Resisting our health care system’s counsel to discard him as “medical waste,” we got to hold Clement before releasing him to the undertaker. I watched my weeping wife embrace him—for us, a kind of tiny pietà.

A year and a half later, my wife joined me at the monastery of St. John the Forerunner in northern Greece, where I spent my summers as a graduate student researching. This declining Byzantine monastery had been revived in the 1980s as a convent and was now populated by vibrant Orthodox nuns from around the world. I had told them of our lost child. As a result, when we arrived, thirty of them encircled my wife on the spot and prayed fervently in Greek.

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