Upon finishing seminary and entering my first pastorate, my wife Tammy and I decided we were ready to start a family. We tried for almost a year to get pregnant with no success. Everyone was happy to offer their conception advice (some of it helpful and some of it kind of weird, to be honest). I guess we were desperate enough to try about anything.
There were a handful of moments when Tammy was “late,” and she’d rush down to the local drug store to get a pregnancy test and then rush home. We’d crowd into the bathroom, fingers crossed, hoping against hope that it would be positive.
But it never happened.
Every time, the test turned up negative. Tammy would sink into my arms in tears, broken-hearted, a grief growing large in that empty space in her womb meant for a child. Eventually God would answer our desire to be parents through the blessing of adoption. But it was a road paved with loss and grief.
It was a strange and haunting feeling then, exactly ten weeks ago, when my wife went rushing again to the local drug store to pick up a pregnancy test (nearly twenty years later). Only this time it was for our sixteen-year-old daughter.
I stood outside our bathroom door and listened while the two of them did the test. I recalled all those times when Tammy and I huddled in the bathroom, desperately praying for it to be positive. Now my desperate prayer, as I leaned against that bathroom door, was the opposite. “Please, God, let it be negative.”
The sound of my daughter’s heavy sobs and Tammy trying to comfort her told me the results. My heart sank. I slumped to the floor and buried my head in my arms.
How is it, Lord, that a pregnancy test showing negative so many times can be the source of such a great sorrow; and then here now, a pregnancy test showing positive can the source of an equally great sorrow? It feels cruel. Unfair. It’s all so backwards.
So yesterday was the first Mothers’ Day we celebrated not only for my wife, but also for our soon-to-be-mother daughter. The last two months have been a whirlwind of emotions—all of us trying to wrap our heads and hearts around this new reality. We love our daughter deeply, and we are so proud of her. She has shown so much courage and resilience. And we are committed to being right by her side every step on this journey.
Author Kathleen Norris writes that, while it’s perfectly natural to ask “Why?” when hard things happen in our lives, “sooner or later we need to learn to deal the cards we’ve been given, and look for the grace that is hidden in our loss.” She urges us to listen for the “grace notes“ sounding in the unexpected and barren places.*
Already there have been plenty of grace notes, more than I could have imagined. As a family, we decided to share this news on Facebook (which I’m typically reluctant to do), and the responses of love and kindness have been overwhelming.
We’ve experienced the grace notes of members of our church showering us with cards and notes, people dropping off meals on our door step, young moms delivering gift baskets full of things that helped them through their pregnancy. It hasn’t just been people from our church. It’s been people from the wider community—our conservative small town in northwest Iowa has showed us a kind of grace that is profound and humbling. It’s been people from other places too, across the country. Every day a mail delivery arrives—a maternity or baby gift on my daughter’s registry—sometimes from people we haven’t seen for years but who are such an important part of our story. The poet Hopkins was right. Christ really does play in ten thousand places, “lovely in limbs and lovely in eyes not his, to the Father through the features of men’s faces.”
And of course there are the grace notes of a little life growing in my daughter’s womb, a life that wasn’t planned or expected but is no less a miraculous gift. A life that will be loved. A life that, though initially a source of sorrow, will no doubt be a source of great joy.
Yes, at some point we do have to deal the hand we’ve been given. I suppose it’s all we can do. And then look and listen for the grace notes in the unexpected places. Sometimes those grace notes sound in an empty womb that we longed to be full. Other times in a full womb we expected to be empty. But in and through it all, in the barrenness and the fullness, the grace notes sound. And when one hears them, and sees them, you can only whisper, “Thank you.”
*”The Grace of Aridity and Other Comedies.” The Best American Spiritual Writing 2004 (The Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004), p.186.