My unborn son’s story began, five years before he died, on my parents’ screened-in porch on a cool September evening. The reception for my sister’s wedding was going on around us, but my aunt was distressed. She justified her job at the abortion clinic by claiming she was a caring presence to those who needed it most. But months on the job were wearing down her resolve. She saw things her determination to help could not cancel out. Her conscience was protesting.
I do not speak with my aunt often, and so her question, “What should I do?” was a surprise. Though my family is Catholic, she posed the question to her evangelical nephew, and it was an urgent one, asked in tears. Her husband had died in a car accident many years earlier and she was bringing up a teenaged daughter alone—all the more reason for staying in a good-paying job. Nonetheless, I suggested, uneasily, that she quit. The rest, I suggested, was up to God.
I have since been to seminary, where I was taught to be wary of giving bold advice and to look cautiously on miraculous testimonies, skeptical of reports of God’s activity in the lives of overzealous parishioners. I learned instead to theologize about the mystery of suffering and God’s absence. Later news from my aunt, however, confounded my training. Not only had she left her job at the abortion clinic and found a better one in the prenatal ward of a nearby hospital, she had even remarried her first husband, from whom she had divorced many years previous.
Five years after the conversation on my parents’ porch, my wife learned she was pregnant with our first child. We dutifully waited until after the first trimester before joyfully announcing the news just before Christmas. Our parents would all be grandparents for the first time, and the tidings added a rosy glow to Christmas visits. Immediately upon our return, my wife went in for a checkup, and the baby had no heartbeat. After a day of waiting and an ultrasound, a doctor returned to confirm the news. “Call it bad karma,” he clumsily offered with good intentions. We canceled a dinner date with some friends.
Why didn’t we wait longer? This was my first thought, corrected as quickly as it had come. We were given the chance to rejoice in our child, and now we would be given the chance to grieve. The next day our doctor called in a rushed tone, and said something must quickly be done. We were to go to our local “Women’s Center” for a procedure. This did not appeal to me, but my wife was in danger. I called the clinic.
“I need the remains of this child to be treated with respect,” I said. “We’ve never had that request before,” the receptionist replied. “Let me check with my supervisor.” After a wait, the receptionist returned with the news that this would not be possible, as “it” was “medical waste.”
But, she added, due to the lateness of the pregnancy, the local center would probably not be “doing the job” anyway. Most likely my wife would come in for an exam, and be referred to the larger clinic. Fortunately, I had an aunt familiar with prenatal care. I called her and related our situation. She explained to me that the Atlantic City clinic to which we would be referred was the very one that she had left.
Quickly, my aunt arranged for us to come down to a hospital at which she had worked in South Jersey. The care we received at the Shore Memorial Hospital was extraordinary. On our arrival, we related our story to the specialist, Dr. Cicerone, who said, “The Catholic church is right over there,” cheerfully pointing out the window.
Dr. Cicerone administered medication to induce labor and our nurse, Jessica, sat with us through the night. Sarah, Joanne, Marie, Connie, and a fleet of other nurses attended to us with a mix of sadness, but also joy. They knew just when to leave, just when to stay. Our son, Clement, was delivered eleven hours later at 4:26 A.M. My wife held our baby, a tiny pietà. We both mourned and prayed.
The nurses took the footprints of tiny feet. They even dressed Clement in an outfit and took a picture, wrote out a birth card. The undertaker came and handled the body with a reverence of movement that ministered more than ten chaplains’ prayers. We buried him in a family plot, where we told the story of how his life began. He has parents and grandparents who love him; nurses and an undertaker who cared for him in his short life.
In the days since, we’ve heard from others who were given that same initial counsel to go to the Women’s Center. Our better experience was made possible only by questioning the directives of the medical system. When we learned that the Atlantic City clinic was shut down by the New Jersey board of health for excessive violations (such as pools of blood left under the operating tables) we could only imagine what we had been spared. Before Clement, I was pro-life—passively, for it is, after all, an unfashionable position. Since Clement, I have cut through ideology with the story of our son.
The scriptural account given us in counsel by our Presbyterian pastor was a great comfort. He told us of King David’s words on losing an infant: “I shall go to him, but he will not return to me.” But comfort has come from unexpected places as well. The Golden Legend is the chief medieval source for saints’ lives and legends. The story of our son’s namesake, St. Clement, ends with the kind of fabricated illusion that embarrasses those eager to show Christianity in a logical light. The Emperor Trajan had Clement, bishop of Rome, thrown into the sea with an anchor around his neck. When Clement’s companions prayed to see the martyr’s body, the “sea drew back three miles, and all walked out dry-shod and found a small building prepared by God in the shape of a temple, and within, in an ark, the body of St. Clement and the anchor beside him.”
The story then grows even more odd. Each year, at the anniversary of Clement’s death, the sea drew back for visitors. One year,
a woman went out to the shrine with her little son, and the child fell asleep. When the ceremony was finished and the sound of the inrushing tide was heard, the woman was terrified and forgot her son in her hurry to get ashore with the rest of the crowd. Then she remembered, and loud were the cries and lamentations she addressed to heaven, wailing and running up and down the beach, hoping she might see the child’s body cast up by the waves. When all hope was gone, she went home and mourned and wept for a whole year.
At the next anniversary of Clement’s death, when the sea dutifully drew back, the grieving woman was the first to the tomb. She prayed at the shrine, and when she arose, the child—as if nothing had happened—was fast asleep where he had been left. “Thinking that he must be dead she moved closer, ready to gather up the lifeless body; but, when she saw that he was sleeping, she quickly awakened him and, in full sight of the crowd, lifted him in her arms.”
I wonder what the Bollandists, those scholars who comb saints’ lives to separate fact from fiction, make of this incident. But that question is not the most important one. Odd things happen, like young couples getting whisked away from a Herodian system to a South Jersey hospital haven. The apocryphal tale of St. Clement, for us, is a true one. For when the tide of this world recedes, we will hold our son again.
Matthew J. Milliner is a Ph.D. candidate in art history at Princeton University.