You should see your little brother Micah. He is, without doubt, the most beautiful creature alive. He is six months old now and happy. You would think he has been given an inside tip on life. Maybe he knows what he's done for us and smiles with self-satisfaction.
Micah has saved me. During those quiet nights in Ethiopia I would listen and hear, so clearly, your absence. Like all babies, when Micah is hungry he can let out a cry that will not let our attention go. That scream soothes me for it drives away the silence that grew weightier day by day for me in Ethiopia: the silence of not hearing your cries or your banging of bright rattling toys or your first clumsy footsteps. You weren't there but now Micah is here. He has saved me.
Forgive me, Anastasia, for not having the faith of King David. When his newborn child was cursed with sickness he prayed and fasted for God's mercy. When the child died, David's servants were too afraid the King would be overwhelmed with grief to tell him the news. But after David discovered his child was dead he let go. The child is in God's hands, he said. "I will go to him; he will not come to me." I'm sorry that I have not shared that kind of faith. Oh, yes, I believe in heaven. I believe when there cannot be a now there will be a later. I believe that, somehow, when that later comes it will be sufficient.
But after David discovered his child was dead he let go. The child is in God's hands, he said. "I will go to him; he will not come to me."
I know that for the Christian, the focus of Heaven is the Lamb, not a reunion of friends or a reconstituted family. I know that and I've taught that. But if I were to die today I'm afraid my heart may be diverted away from the Throne and instead I may seek you out, Anastasia. Forgive me if I've become an idolater. I've let grief do that to me.
That grief has been like carrying Micah. He seems so light at first; no problem to carry around. But after a few minutes I need to shift him to the other arm, then lean him against my body. Eventually my arms and shoulders grow sore with his weight. I then need the baby carriage. He could, I suppose, become too heavy for me to carry. When your heart stopped and a few hours later you came out in a tide of blood I was swept along with your mother's tears. (I would never have believed she could weep so — this woman who is as strong as the mountains). The sight of her sorrow-racked face will always be seared into my heart. She was a mother who had felt the child within her shifting for weeks. Her child, her flesh and her heart that was beating and had stopped. At that moment — that moment — I grieved for her.
Only later, in the months that followed, did I begin to feel the burden of my own sorrow. I remember visiting the house of a Danish family across from the small Ethiopian town we lived in for six easy months just after that moment; I was transfixed by their little girl. I began to realize I had grief of my own. Every once in a while I would shift it to rage — rage at little absurdities like when the driver of a Fiat slowly and purposely drove his little car right in the path of my car because he assumed that he had an eternal right of way. But the quiet moments that you should have been filling with cries or coos were getting heavier. I was near to being crushed when a baby rescued me. Micah came just in time.
We fought for you, Anastasia. Your mother had the first sign of problems when you were only fourteen weeks from conception. She spent almost all of the next six weeks laying on a thin mattress over a board — what we had for a bed — in a two room apartment on the third floor of a plastered mud building. She had no TV, only a couple of cassette tapes to choose from and had to put up with my cooking — 101 varieties of tomato sauce-based stew — for nearly every meal. I had to empty her bed-pan and for the few times she went downstairs, I carried her. Our doctor, a balding Australian anesthesiologist, knew nothing but we assumed that there was nothing to be known and nothing that could be done. We trusted that everyone was doing the most they could do. Surely they knew how important you were.
Shortly before we left Ethiopia your mother and I went to a movie at the American embassy. The U.S. embassy was one of the few places to have a night 'on the town' in Addis Ababa. The movie was a mediocre murder drama exploiting the autistic fascination started by "Rain Man". It begins with a shot of a woman's foot protruding from underneath a sheet covering the rest of her dead body. The foot is splattered with blood. When your mother saw that scene she cringed and said "Yuk." Her "yuk" jogged my memory of another foot — her foot — covered with blood — her blood. I had to clean that blood off, using a tissue to get between the toes. Sometime amidst that I put my hand in my pocket and brought out the airline ticket that was supposed to have taken your mother back to Singapore in a week or so. I thought of how close she came to getting back to good medical care and then I thought that she needed a visit back to her homeland. That thought became a decision that gripped me and there was no more inner deliberation. When our "boss" back in Singapore thought a visit was a bad idea I screamed at him for an hour over the phone. I got our trip and, for once, my hard-headedness paid off.
Your mother needed those two weeks back in Singapore. Just the break from the unending squalor was relieving. But your mother needed to see her homeland, to feel the subtle sympathy of her friends. I remember seeing her greeted by her friends. There was no wailing, no extravagant displays of consolation. Instead they greeted her in a subdued mood. So much was communicated by what was not said — no "How are you?" s —, by the right look into the eyes and then the right turning down of the glance.
I remember, during those two weeks back in Singapore, the first jut of a conclusion that I did not want to have to come to. We had been to see a doctor earlier and he had told us, with some confidence, what had caused your demise. He had told us how he could treat the condition — called an "incompetent cervix" — the next time your mother was pregnant. He had even given us a photocopied excerpt from a layman's book on miscarriages explaining this condition, the usual cause of second trimester "miscarriages". (A miscarriage is far too broad a term to cover the range of losing a pregnancy at six weeks or a baby at 20 weeks. Earlier in your mother's pregnancy we had met a pretty young American reporter who had been born at around twenty weeks and had survived.) I had told a couple of friends in Ethiopia that this miscarriage just happened; it had nothing to do with being in Ethiopia. I was wrong but it would take me a while to realize it; though usually quick to blame, I was shielded from the conclusion that would begin to press down on me. That conclusion: if we had been in Singapore, doctors would have quickly perceived the problem and treated it. You would be well over two years old now. If our doctor would have bothered to seriously inquire about what could be causing the problem, your mother could have been flown out first-class, seat fully reclined. You would be asking me all kinds of silly questions right now. But worst of all: if I had not passively trusted the doctor and had made some phone calls back to America or Singapore....
For six weeks your mother lay on a thin mattress over a board in a two room apartment on the third floor of a plastered mud building eating tomato based-stew while she grew bigger with you, thus making your end all the more certain. For six weeks no one bothered to ask; no one even bothered to pick up a layman's pregnancy book. Oh, yes, we did hear that one doctor back in Singapore who had heard of your mother's condition insisted she must return immediately. Our office in Singapore didn't bother to relay that information to us. "The doctor with them is taking good care of her." Six weeks.
Micah came just in time to save me from that conclusion.
Micah has Down syndrome. Or maybe it's better to say he is a Down syndrome child. A chromosomal condition that affects every cell in the body, yet cannot be looked at as a foreign disease that has invaded the child. It is part of him. Without doubt, the most beautiful creature on earth.
We are left with no explanation of why. Why is Micah limited? Why will he have to struggle just to attain what other children naturally grow into? Silence; we aren't told. That too is another token of God's mercy. There is no blame with Micah; no one to point the finger at; no one to question. He has saved me from those questions that hover about your demise.
Buddhists say that someone is born with Down syndrome because they were so good in their last life they deserve to be spared from the knowledge of all that this world lacks. Christians, for once, are less theological but, as usual, more determined to look at Down syndrome in the face. When Jesus' disciples asked him why a certain man was born blind — was it because his parents sinned or because God foreknew his sinfulness — Jesus said "neither." That particular blind man, said Jesus, was destined to be an example of the mercy of God; Jesus healed him. But what of the ones Jesus does not — yet — heal? We are left with no explanation of why. Why is Micah limited? Why will he have to struggle just to attain what other children naturally grow into? Silence; we aren't told. That too is another token of God's mercy. There is no blame with Micah; no one to point the finger at; no one to question. He has saved me from those questions that hover about your demise.
We met a mother of a Down syndrome child who admitted that she had to take breaks from her continual, intensive therapy of her child to run to the sink and vomit, so disgusted was she with the condition of her child. She is a heroine because she has faced her revulsion and overcome it. Your mother and I cannot be compared to such heroic souls. You, because of your absence, have saved us from such heroism. Because Micah has come where you could not, because he has filled the air you left vacant, we have no revulsion towards him. The Down syndrome, instead of driving us to vomit, gives us an enemy to rally against, an obstacle to work together to overcome as far as is possible. How profoundly he will be retarded or how his health will be affected, we do not yet know. But this one thing you have taught us: he's alive and he's with us. I will come to you Anastasia; Micah is our gift for now. Later you will get to see him and then, then, we will know how all can be sufficient.
Micah, the baby that saved John's sanity, is now 21. He continues to share a special bond with his father and is proud that he works in church with his dad.
John and Micah belong to the Body Dynamics Gym in Yanceyville, NC where they regularly work out. They are also avid fans of the Alabama football team. Roll, Tide.
(This article was first published in June/July 1997 issue of IMPACT Magazine)