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 himfor 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.
We were then advised to pray before the holiest icon in the monastery. Politeness overrode our Protestant instincts, and my wife and I, somewhat uncomfortably, entered the darkened sanctuary of the ancient church and stood alone before a gaudy nineteenth-century iconostasis to ask God for a baby.
The nuns gave my wife a white ribbon to tie around her bellya Christianized fertility ritual, I conjectured. One over-enthusiastic Texan nun (a convert to Orthodoxy) announced we’d be back within a year with a baby named John or Joanin gratitude, of course, to the monastery’s namesake, John the Baptist.
Several years passed. One day at the beach a boy came up to us who would have been just about Clement’s age. He looked at the two of us intently for several minutes. As we walked to the car, I found myself crying. No, I do not think Clement appeared from the grave, or that God sent that boy to remind us that our little one is with him. It was, I imagine, just coincidental, but was oddly reassuring too.
There were more years of waiting, and as it happened, when we least expected it, my wife found out she was pregnantthirteen years into a marriage that had been hoping for children all along the way. The day my wife relayed the good news I was grading a paper by a student about the Virgin of Guadalupe. Mary alone, apart from her son, as she is depicted on Juan Diego’s miraculous tilma, is an illustrationI had long thoughtof the very abuses that the Second Vatican Council aimed to correct. Where is Jesus in this image?
But as I read my student’s paper, I learned something about the patroness of the Americas that I hadn’t known. The ribbon over Mary’s womb meant that the Virgin of Guadalupe was gravid with child. Jesus is therein utero. So I had discovered the same day I learned that my wife was pregnant.
As my wife was entering labor for the second time, I received a text from my sister, who told me that my nephew Oliver, six months younger than Clement would have been, had prayed matter-of-factly, “Jesus, get the baby out.” There I was now in the hospital, surrounded by the concerned faces of doctors and nurses poring over printouts, muttering the same prayer.
Our physician finally made the call for the C-section. I suited up in borrowed scrubs as they whisked my screaming, exhausted wife into the operating room. I was permitted inside, and told to stay put behind a blue cloth operating screenno less intimidating than that nineteenth-century iconostasislooking down into the face of my barely conscious wife.
“Time to look up, Dad,” commanded the doctor from behind the blue curtain. It was good advice. I popped my head over the barrier, and watched a physician lift our baby from the womb, ghost white, the umbilical cord tangled around her like a python. Though we meant no offense to John the Baptist, we didn’t name her Joan, but Mary, and we call her Polly.
A casual acquaintance, seeing a photograph of our newborn daughter, commentedquite bizarrely, it then seemed to me“I wish I could smell her head.” The remark caused me to realize that the smell of a baby’s head is, so to speak, a thing. I realized that whenever I held Polly after she was first born, I pressed my nose to her precious head, often looking up at my wife after doing so and ineloquently uttering something like, “I love her so much.”
So dumbly happy with my child, I hadn’t anticipated that something could scramble this biological bond. As I dressed up my daughter for the big baptismal day, my attitude befitted a bourgeois initiation rite complemented with lawn lemonade.
Mary was welcomed into the Church beneath a sprawling mural at All Souls’ Church in Wheaton. Inspired by the twelfth-century apse mosaic of San Clemente in Rome, my colleague Joel Sheesley transposed its medieval Christ onto an Illinois landscape, complete with a distant Chicago skyline under a Midwestern sky of Byzantine gold.
A Middle Eastern Christ with a lamb flung over his shoulders stands beneath the tree of life teeming with suburban squirrels and birds. Below him is a water-gushing rock that frames the doorway, so that every parishioner, as if through a waterfall, walks through their baptismal commitment as they reenter the church, experiencing a weekly mortification: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?”
Under this painting our dozing Mary was baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. “Original sin? Gone!” the Anglican bishop commented. Mary had been rescued from my wife’s womb, and here she came forth from one again.
“By a virginal birth the Mother Church bears the children she conceives by God’s breathing,” reads the inscription at the famous St. John Lateran baptistery in Rome. Architectural historians have even suggested that early Christian fonts were deliberately shaped like wombs.
But they also resembled coffins. “That saving water was at once your grave and your mother,” said Cyril of Jerusalem. The oldest surviving baptismal font at Dura Europos is covered by the same arcosolium found in burial places; and it is not a coincidence that the first great freestanding baptisteries resembled mausolea, the architecture of the dead. My daughter had been wrenched from the cords that threatened to smother her new life, only here to undergo a different, mysterious death.
To this I was oblivious. As the bishop handed Polly back to me, I instinctually did what I always did. I took back the daughter that God had given me after so much praying and hoping, and pressed her head up to my noseonly to receive an unwelcome shock. She had been chrismated as well, and the aggressive aroma of holy oil, not precious baby head, blasted into my nostrils like smelling salts.
“You have dedicated her to God, and He has taken the offering.” So wrote John Henry Newman to his friend Edward Pusey upon the death of Pusey’s infant daughter. I knew the same counsel applied to our dead child Clement, but I hadn’t considered that it could apply to our living one as well.
I should have thought twice before going through with the baptism. She is no longer mine.
Matthew Milliner is assistant professor of art history at Wheaton College.
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