Since my granddaughter Stephanie Grace ‘s 2016 stillbirth, I have been a member of a Facebook anencephaly support group. The women in this online community have endured heartbreaking losses after carrying their doomed children for months, knowing that there were no medical miracles, no last-minute rescues to be had. Under the worst duress, with their imagined futures freshly destroyed, they have gone toe-to-toe with doctors. They have each said, “I will carry my baby to term.” They have made very private decisions public.
In a country where 660,000+ babies are aborted every year, their decisions are stunning.
For my daughter, April, the decision was instant. Usually quiet, she was fiery with her NO that day: the brusque doctor who first said anencephaly and then said medical termination was talking about her baby.
Six years ago, when I had never heard the word anencephaly, I was drawn to the story of baby Shane Haley whose young parents made his bucket list after his diagnosis. His story had the hallmarks of a human interest story: people trying to make the best out of bad news, searching for the bright side from deep within a pit. They were young and cute and looked like a couple to whom bad things should not happen. The Haleys beamed adorably for TV cameras as they resolutely visited the places they would have taken their son had he lived.
I followed –for no real reason–Layla Sky, another anencephalic baby. Hers was just another story in the media, another “follow” thoughtlessly clicked.
One November, I even called a hospital in Tennessee, where an anencephalic baby (who had unexpectedly lived for days) was not receiving proper medical care because her young, indigent mother did not speak English. I spoke sternly to a nurse manager, and for good measure, called the nearest TV news station.
I did these things. For no reason.
Oh, the hindsight.
How clearly I see the laying of the table.
I knew nothing, but I would need to know much. So, God set a framework. He showed me love. He gave me a bit of knowledge so that I could stand on that March day when my knees wanted to collapse, so that I could talk clearly to the doctor, so I could help to gather and guide my elder daughter.
Sometimes, when a new mother joins the support group, I wander back through her Facebook wall. I see her long-ago posts, posts I am sure that she has forgotten about.
Posts where, years before this diagnosis, she declared that she would choose life.
Where she offered words of comfort to others who were bereaved.
Where she posted inspirational videos on overcoming, persevering.
Where she talked about standing, then standing some more.
In these old posts, I see the table is being set before her. Her spine being steeled. I see the strengthening for the onslaught that is to come.
We can’t know the future. Inherent in most tragedies is the element of blindsiding, of having been overtaken by something that simply does not belong, that is unjust and wholly wrong. The undeserved–barrelling down upon unsuspecting innocents.
I have been there when worlds buckled. I have held the just-widowed. I have closed the blinds, blocked out the sun, offered bites of chicken and rice.
I have sat in that silence.
But there is also goodness, still; there is the beauty in the world.
In the past four years, amid horrific despair, wrongs piled in my life, more hurts and pain piled atop incompletely healed traumas, break upon break in the charred-wood of my heart, once again friends faithfully reached out. Brought coffee cake. Irish stew. Pizza. Mailed jigsaw puzzles and laundry detergent and even Dr. Pepper. Offered awkward words of comfort at the copier. Stood in my silence beneath the drake elm.
Our kind-hearted friends and extended family consistently wandered by our solitary, unknowable table, so far from theirs–so different, too–and said, “We see you sitting here . . . You’ve been over here a while, haven’t you? We’re so sorry you keep getting put at this dark, cold table. We’re going to play a song to cheer you up. Let us feed you some good, hot food–and here’s a candle to bring a little light.”
They could not stay at our table–there was no space, and we were too tired to talk–but they knew we are there, and that was, somehow, enough.
This semester, I have worked with a new group of people in a different department–at the high school, with its large staff, meeting everyone is a near impossibility; I am sometimes fortunate to see even my best friends. (One of the science teachers and I count the number of times we see each other each year–last year, it was only six.) My “new” coworkers and are building our relationship while busily working with students–so there’s not a lot of time for intimacy or chatting.
One day, after the bus-loading, I mentioned this blog–probably saying something along the lines of “I don’t watch TV–I play Scrabble and do a blog.” And I tossed a coworker my phone, telling her to read a draft.
And that was that.
I didn’t know, then, that God was in that instant–that He was setting her table. That what we thought was meaningless, end-of-day filler would become full of meaning. Would give her breath in the days ahead.
That day, I’d tossed her a blog about surviving tragedy–about floating in the flotsam, trusting God when all seemed destroyed. And that afternoon, although we didn’t know there were dark waves behind her, that she was about to feel the shifting of the seabed and taste sorrow’s salt in her lungs, God did.
In those five minutes, in His mercy and grace, her table was quickly set so that she was not hurled headlong — but when the waves crashed, when she first felt herself fall, she could feel Him there, holding her hand.