This essay was never published online. It was written for the book (RealLivePreacher.com) and published in 2004. There were 9 essays only that only appeared in the book.
The phone call came at night. Doesn’t it seem like they always do? I felt sick. I hung up the phone and turned to my wife. “John and Denise’s baby came.”
There was nothing to say, really. We sat there feeling horror and dread. “How far along?” she asked.
“Twenty-two weeks. A little boy, and he was alive.”
Her face fell. My wife is a chaplain. She spent years working labor and delivery, so she knows what twenty-two weeks means. At twenty weeks, he would have been born dead. At twenty-five weeks he would have had a fighting chance. Twenty-two weeks is just old enough for the heart to beat but too young for the lungs to breathe.
John and Denise lost a little girl the same way a few years back. She just came too soon. Everyone who knew them saw how scared they were this time. We were counting the weeks, hoping and praying it wouldn’t happen again. But it did.
I gathered my keys and wallet and put a small New Testament into my pocket. “I’ve got to go to the hospital, but there’s something important I want to ask you before I go.” I asked. She thought a moment and gave me her answer. It was the right answer, but it was a little scary. It put some pressure on me.
“Okay,” I said and got into my car.
When you are the pastor of a church, you are many things. You are an agent of grace and hope, a repository of spiritual and scriptural wisdom, and a gatekeeper at big events like weddings and funerals. Somehow people weave all of these into a complex image of you. You are all things to all people. And sometimes you are the Black Rider of Death. People indulge in all sorts of denial while they are waiting for the minister. It’s a blessed procrastination that helps them make it for a short time. And then you appear, framed in the hospital doorway, bible in hand.
I am come. Let the grieving begin.
When I got to Denise’s room, I could tell they were waiting for me. I saw a little boy in a shallow tray under a light. He had no covers or clothes, and he was shockingly small. Stunning in his smallness. You would stare if you saw him. Denise was quiet in her bed. Some of her family were with her along with a woman from our church who is one of her closest friends. One or two of them rose to their feet when I appeared at the door.
I am a keeper of a most sacred truth. It is the incarnation truth that enables ministers to walk into the grief storm unafraid. If you come in the name of Christ and stand with people in their grief, you have done the most important thing you can do and the only thing they will remember. You might bring words with you, and they might even be good and helpful ones, but your presence is what matters. If you know this truth, whatever you have will be sufficient. If you do not know this, all that you have will not be enough.
I went straight to Denise’s bed. She began to tremble a little in anticipation of grief as I approached. I put my arms around her and let my cheek touch the side of her head. I spoke to her in a soft voice. “I come in the name of the Lord who has not forsaken you.”
And so it began.
She who felt forsaken by everyone and everything, especially God, burst asunder, and her grief came rushing down like a mighty stream, filling every low place. Hers was a mother’s grief. She wrapped her sorrow around her bicep like an addict and pulled it tight with her teeth. Then she sliced her moorings and delivered herself unto her mourning. We lashed ourselves to her bed and held on for dear life. She did a lightening round of grief stages, raging at God and at her own body. She wept, she denied, she pleaded, she gave in. She talked to her little boy. She apologized for not having a better womb, for not being able to hold him. She said she was sorry so many times that it became pathetic, and we hung our heads in shame for hearing it.
It was hard labor, this grief, and it came in howling waves. At times we hung onto the bed like people holding onto a lamppost in a tornado, and our feet would be lifted from the ground. In these moments we lived only in the present. We had no thought for the morrow, but only wondered how we might hang on a little longer.
When she rested, our feet would settle back to the ground, and we would shift them and stretch our backs, waiting for the next blast.
John grieved like many men I know. He kept his sorrow locked away and busied himself with caring for her. He hovered over the bed, whispering words of encouragement and fluffing her pillow. She was the voice, the oracle, the truth teller for the family. He left the gift of his care at her altar and stood back to watch the words issue forth from the darkness. I looked at him sadly, for I know that grief abides no proxies. Sorrow will come for him some dark night when he is alone, and on that night there will be no one to speak for him. Grief can be terrible that way.
But this is how they grieved, and it was good enough. They got down to the business of it, and I was honored to bear witness.
There came a time when Denise rested, and I walked over to look at the little boy in the tray. He was about ten inches long, a Barbie doll with an apple-sized head. His skin was waxy and almost transparent. His eyes were sealed shut like a newborn puppy. He looked like a boy, but there was something alien about him. He was not ready for this world.
He was born with a heart that was ready and able, though. You could see it beating through the translucent skin of his chest, faithfully doing its part. There was something innocent and hopeful about his heart. It looked like a baby salmon fluttering in a yolk sack, ready to be born. It was like a child knocking at the door, wanting to come out and play. But you cannot play without lungs, and his weren’t ready. All he was granted were a few precious moments to struggle and reach for life. When the umbilical cord was cut he had no oxygen, and his body lost whatever strength it had. He settled back and gave up the fight, but his heart throbbed for almost two hours. It was a sad reminder of what might have been.
I was afraid to touch him. He was so limp and delicate, like wet cookie dough. It seemed like he would come apart if you tried to pick him up, but John held him with no fear. He wrapped him in a blanket and held him like any baby should be held. When John lifted him, his head lolled back and his mouth popped open. In that moment I felt a stab of knowledge that hurt me.
This is a real boy.
Before I left my house that evening I asked my wife one question. “I know that being there in the name of Christ is the main thing, but is there anything else I can do for them?”
This is what she said:
“If you can, find a way to ritualize their goodbye. They need to remember that he was real. In the coming days, many of their friends and family will want to pretend that this child never existed. They will want to gloss over the reality of his life in an attempt to ease their pain. Don’t be a part of that. All they will ever have is the memory of this goodbye, so make it the best goodbye you can.”
I asked John if I could hold his son, and he let me. He was so light, no heavier than the blanket, really. I kissed his head and it was already cold. I noticed his heart was slowing down, barely beating. I took a chance and said, “Would you like to say a goodbye prayer with your son while his heart still beats?” My question kicked off a new round of crying, and for a moment I wondered if what I said was too much for them. But they were holding each other while the cried, and they nodded. They did want to pray with him.
Denise’s prayer was like some I’ve read in the book of Psalms. She was passionate in her praying, accusing and confessing and finally weeping. It was an honest prayer and good. John held his son in his arms and prayed the sweetest whisper prayer I’ve ever heard.
After the wrenching labor of this terrible grief, I think it was John who gave birth to hope.
This is what he said:
“Dear God, thank you for our lives. Thank you for my son, even if we only had him for a little while. Take him to be with his sister, and watch over them both so we can meet them someday. Help me and Denise as we try to get through this.”
After a few minutes the nurse came, and we noticed that his heart had finally stopped. She gravely put her stethoscope to his chest and pronounced that it was finished. They swaddled him in a blanket, put him in a little basket, and then he was gone. One by one we left to go home and rest. For John and Denise, the long journey of grief was just beginning.
Looking back on that night, there are two things I want to say.
I say that grief is a painful labor, but hope may be born of sorrow. Be honest with your grief. Keep your eyes open so you won’t miss the moment when hope appears.
I say that.
And I say that Everett Joseph Smith was a real boy.