(I wrote this story twenty years ago. Two decades later we have entered a new season, a season in which we are again called to listen, learn and grow.)
One in creation, you and I
And bound together
By a world of limitations
Upon the holy ground
Of shared experience
We are human
This is enough
The message to come to labor and delivery arrived at about four in the afternoon, an hour before the shift change. The social worker had just interviewed the Morgan family and felt they might benefit from a pastoral presence. Though the Morgans did not belong to a local church, Mr. Morgan expressed curiosity about meeting a woman minister.
“Mom is nearly full term, and her baby has died,” reported the social worker, highlighting some of the pertinent details in Mrs. Morgan’s chart. “She also has three small children at home and probably suffers from serious psychiatric problems,” she mumbled offhandedly. Maybe bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, or borderline personality – or any of several other harrowing possibilities. The woman’s reaction to her baby’s death seemed “flat,” according to others present at the nursing station. Most of the staff agreed that Mrs. Morgan had been joking oddly and that she failed to grasp the meaning of what was taking place in her life and her body.
A discussion then ensued about Mrs. Morgan’s intellectual competence. The staff had given her some printed material about grief and loss, though they couldn’t tell if she understood any of it, or even cared. Perhaps the loss of this child was a relief to her, given the fact that she had a brood of very young children at home. The nurses and case managers continued to speculate about the situation An unspoken question underlay their discussion: “Why would the Morgans continue to have children when Mrs. Morgan is so sick, and she already had three youngsters under the age of four?”
I, too wondered about the entire incident, as I observed the facial expressions around me. The expressions denoted everything from bewilderment to hostility and self-righteousness.
“How about the baby’s father? I asked. “Is he here?”
According to the staff, Mr. Morgan was behaving strangely, too. His strident voice and peculiar jokes made them uneasy. He dominated his wife, bossing her and hardly permitting her to answer questions for herself. Troubling, too were his constant references to what he called his wife’s medical mismanagement. He clearly thought that this might have contributed to their baby’s death, and his questions were having a chilling effect on the various health professionals engaged in his wife’s care.
Yet, though overbearing and odd, in other ways Mr. Morgan appeared supportive of his wife—quite sympathetic, and reassuring. A strong bond clearly existed between them. As I listened to the cacophony of opinions about the couple, it struck me that they were just that – individual opinions reflecting individual preferences, experiences, and comfort levels. The final diagnosis: Mr. Morgan talked too much, and he was… well, she was… that is, they were different. The social worker nodded in agreement.
I soon discovered that the Morgans were, indeed, different. They differed from me and from the rest of the staff in ways that hindered much meaningful contact. While the differences began at a racial level, they included profound social, cultural, educational, and financial contrasts. The Morgans embodied what could be described as a subculture of loss. White, middle-class, and educated, the rest of us exemplified a culture of privilege beyond the Morgans’ experience or even comprehension.
The term “privilege” does not automatically jump off my tongue when I describe myself. Neutral or benign, perhaps, in the face of those who are culturally different but not privileged. To my knowledge, I’ve never intentionally wielded power over others. Nothing in my upbringing or education gave me any training in seeing myself as an oppressor. In fact, social justice ranks high on my list of priorities, a core value that has shaped my vocational call. But I also know that I spend most of my working moments in the company of other whites, a relatively easy audience for me to identify and negotiate with. Rarely do I experience obstacles or setbacks that I can’t transcend with a little determination and courage. In addition, I possess a convenient little bundle of provisions, tools that make my life uncommonly palatable – a passport, checkbook, credit cards, a home, a car that runs, health insurance, and perhaps most significant, choices. This kind of privilege has little to do with my good intentions. A lifetime of good intentions did not make me any less privileged in the eyes of the people I was about to meet.
Mr. Morgan greeted me loudly with a predictable remark about never before having met a lady preacher. A thin veneer of jolly chatter barely concealed his anxiety and confusion. It wasn’t long before he got to the point of his concern. “They say that our baby be dead for a long time,” he announced, “maybe a month. Maybe it plans on risin’ up like Lazarus! Do you think so, Reverend?”
He slapped his knee and, with a loud guffaw, beckoned to his wife, evidently granting her permission to chuckle with him over his icebreaking joke. She lay quietly in the bed, staring out the window, uncommitted to a discussion of any type. Mr. Morgan veered from one unrelated topic to another, regaling me with stories about everything from his tour of duty in the U.S. Army to the theology of Martin Luther.
I asked if they had friends I could call for then.
“No,” he replied. “We keep pretty much to ourselves. I maybe leave the house to go to the grocery store, but I don’t stay away long. We stick with each other and our kids most the time.”
“How about family?” I pressed, hoping to identify someone who might lend support. Mr. Morgan’s parents had died some time ago. Mrs. Morgan’s mother lived in Arkansas, but didn’t have a telephone – or much else, for that matter. Neither of them knew how to reach any other relatives.
“No, we don’t need to call no family,” said Mr. Morgan. “We can take care of this ourselves.”
Soon I learned that the Morgans had left Arkansas six months ago. They were heading for Canada when their dilapidated car broke down on the freeway. A highway patrolman arrived and, upon discovering that they had no automobile insurance, collected a $300 fine from them. The encounter left the family broke and marooned in the Twin Cities. When we met, they had already moved several times in search of a safe neighborhood for their children.
“A baby always loves you, you know. Like, I know that a baby needs me to take care of it. I like that, don’t you? I’m scared,” she whispered.
“A lady preacher. Well, now, ain’t that something? It would be good if you stayed with my wife while she has that baby. You know, my sister lost a baby once. And my wife’s mama lost twins. Hell, we’ve lost a lot of children, now that I think about it. Yes, you could be a comfort to her when she has that baby.”
Loss of power. Loss of identity. Loss of life.
“Is there anyone you would like to see, or anything I could do for you? I’ve never had a child die. I don’t know what it’s like to be who you are or where you are. I’m sorry.”
“That baby ain’t never done nothin’ wrong, has it? God is gonna welcome that baby, isn’t He?” Course He will. I know it couldn’t be no other way. I mean, what’s that baby ever done wrong anyhow? Course God is gonna do that.”
Loss of dignity. Loss of hope. Loss of dreams.
“You know, the other day I come out to get in the car and the horn started to honk. Just like that. It was the day my wife found out that the baby died. That darn horn be honking all the way downtown. People kep’ lookin at me, and I kep holdin’ my hands up in the air – like this—so they could see I wasn’t doin’ it myself. It was goin’ itself. Craziest thing I ever did see. I think maybe that baby’s spirit was right in that car, don’t you know? That be it. I know it. That baby’s spirit was right in that car telling us it was gonna be just fine up there in heaven. Do you think so Reverend?”
Loss of access. Loss of privacy. Loss of connection.
“Mr. Morgan I was wondering if the three of us could hold hands for a few minutes.”
He struggled out of his chair and made his way to the bedside where he took his wife’s hand and then mine. We stood motionless against a backdrop of fetal monitors and rush-hour traffic. Gripped by my own inadequacy, I offered a halting prayer of encouragement… for all of us. Tears slowly slipped down Mr. Morgan’s cheeks. Mrs. Morgan kept her silent vigil, seemingly trying to summon the courage to give birth to her dead child.
We tightened our grips on one another’s hands, a spontaneous gesture that found me at once understanding everything and nothing.
It was but a mere hesitation, a suspended moment in space, when we three said, “Yes,” to a life briefly shared and broken. Wordlessly we acknowledged the fragile and precious thread that knitted us together, suspended in time and creation, a merging of kindred spirits never to be separated by a world of human limitations.