His head was turned away, his eyelids closed, his mouth sculpted shut, his expression peacefully loving and painless, the cross on his back smooth and perfectly stained and varnished. His soft white skin was clean and bloodless except for the superficial wound in his right side and the road rash scrapes that encompassed the nails in his hands and feet. The crucifix was suspended in the dead center of a modern, geometric recess in the stone tile wall; a darkened, indistinguishably illustrated stained glass window hung behind it. The warmth of the perfectly spaced incandescent bulbs in the ceiling swelled from above the alter to the edge of the dark sanctuary pews like a deeply held breath, watching and waiting for the resurrection of morning. It was midnight and Katie and I were alone.
As Katie sat in her wheelchair in tired silence, I stepped into a pew for a moment to myself. My thoughts and the events of the preceding days broke the delicate quiet with simultaneously reckless and precise strokes like a centurion’s whip against the tender flesh of my already battered mind. I don’t remember if I sat or if I knelt, but the weight of our daughter’s early arrival and all it brought with it final threw itself across my shoulders and pulled me down like a solid, splintered beam. Until that moment, I’d been running on adrenaline. Now it was late, I was alone, and the last of my strength was pouring out of me in streams.
I’d started a new job the week before Katie’s C-section after more than a month of unemployment. I’d had to leave work suddenly toward the end of the day in the middle of second week to be with my wife who had been admitted to the hospital with pre-eclampsia. After a frantic race to the hospital, the doctor told us that he had decided he was going to perform the C-section the next morning. With no bags packed, no time to board our animals, and a filthy house, I called a friend to stay with Katie, then I called my mom to drive me home and help me get the house ready for a petsitter and, soon thereafter, a premature infant. After the longest trip to Target for clean sheets and last minute baby supplies, the fastest shower of my life, throwing clothes in a bag, a little spot cleaning, some erratic sweeping, and some freshly changed cat litter, I got a hushed, urgent call from Katie’s stand-in caregiver to let me know that the doctor had decided to take the baby that night. With my phone near death and my nervously chatty mother driving cautiously under the speed limit, we began a steady crawl back to the hospital.
Curbside in front of the Women’s and Children’s Center, I jumped out of the car, grabbed all that I could carry and flew into the building, past the guard, into the elevator, up the elevator shaft, out of the elevator, into the maternity ward, and finally to the birthing suite. We sent a friend to Katie’s car in an ill-fated attempt to retrieve our camera while my phone charged enough to get a few pictures. Once we had been outfitted with gowns, caps, shoe covers, and masks, we were off to the operating room.
They took Katie in to prep her for surgery and left me all alone with my thoughts just outside the door. I scrolled through my phone anxiously. My Bible verse for the day read, “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgements and how inscrutable his ways (Romans 11:33 ESV). It was prescient and biting. My attention shifted. Immediately all I could think about was her blood pressure spiking and losing her, bleeding, guts splayed open with a screaming baby that I was in no way prepared to care for.
When they finally invited me in, I was almost shaking I was so nervous. I averted my eyes as I walked past her exposed torso to the safe side of a tall blue sheet that separated the experienced from the squeamish. Katie took my hand and said some words I didn’t hear to comfort me. As the medical team started to work, Katie was shivering from the anesthetic, and the further along they got, the more I noticed subtle jostles and jerks as they worked their way to the baby. It wasn’t long before the doctor alerted me that it was time to stand and peek over the safety sheet and see my daughter enter the world. I shook my head. The doctor insisted. I sheepishly rose out of my chair and glanced over the partition. A bright mass of white and yellow and red gave birth to amorphous blob of screaming gray. I sat down quickly and stared into the chasm the lay between everything I’d ever known and everything that I would know after that moment; I gawked into a dark, fuzzy bewilderment.
The moments, hours, and days that followed snuck by in a soft-footed but clumsy, numbing gallop. Florence, our tiny, beautiful baby girl, had to stay in the NICU for over a week so her lungs and body could learn how to breath right. Since Katie had relented to the necessity of neonatal evisceration, she wasn’t getting around much, so I shuttled visitors and well-wishers back and forth between the birthing suite and the little plastic case where Florence slept. When things got quiet and everyone else was gone, I’d go sit with her with my hand through the little portholes, her tiny fingers wrapped around my index finger, her eyes locked with mine. I learned how to hold her. I learned how to swaddle her. I learned how to change her. I learned how to feed her. When she would fall asleep attached to her bottle, I would brush my long blonde hair against her soft, round face, and she would wake up just enough to finish her meal. We bonded in those days, but all of the excitement and worry and fear and caregiving was wearing me out.
When I wheeled Katie into the chapel late that Saturday night, I was desperate. It had all come so fast I hadn’t recognized my desperation. I had no idea what I was doing. I couldn’t see how any of this was going to be alright. I was exhausted and overwhelmed and scared as hell. But as I sat or knelt in that pew that night, God sat or knelt beside me. He took every whip that the centurion in my mind cracked against me, and he silenced every clap and clank and tear with Himself. In that still, brief moment, He took it all away. He covered me in love and hope and peace, and He whispered that it was going to be okay. That, somehow, He had overcome all of this. I don’t remember if I cried or not. It was only a moment in a sea of moments from those days, but I looked up at the crucifix in the warming, subtle glow of quiet midnight lights and knew that Jesus was more alive than that wooden figure, but somehow, despite the clean, empty stillness of the graven image, the truth of His living swelled and receded like so many life-giving breaths that have always and will always continue to sustain us all until He comes to set all of this back to the way it has always been intended.