Easter Sermon (A Baptism Story)

Last night, during the Easter Vigil service, we baptized my son, Samuel Graham.

Earlier in the day, my husband and I, and the godparents–my sister-in-law and one of our dear friends–attended a pre-baptism “training” and the priest asked me, “Why do you want to baptize your son?”

It’s a good question.  Many of my friends have asked as well.

Do I believe my son’s soul needs saving or that he needs to believe in the veracity of a risen Jesus Christ?  No, I don’t.  I have a very, very low soteriology.

Do I think he needs to be part of a church community to grow into a kind, big-hearted, moral human being?  No, I don’t.

Do I feel tied to some family tradition?  Not really.

Do I believe in symbol and ceremony?  Yes, very much, but I don’t believe these require much pomp and circumstance.  They can be quiet, personal, and daily.

But nor did my husband and I make the decision lightly.  In the training, the priest reminded us that what distinguishes the postmodern world from the modern is its inhabitants’ understanding that they choose their own narratives, and then participate in the construction of those narratives.  So my short answer is: we baptized our son because we needed to finish writing a really good story.

It begins this way: I couldn’t get pregnant.

My chances of conceiving were low: I was 37, suffered from severe endometriosis, fibroid tumors, and polycystic ovaries. After I had a myomectomy to remove one mango-sized tumor from my uterine wall, my egg reserve diminished by half. When my husband, Trip, and I finally decided to borrow money from our parents for in-vitro fertilization, I wondered if we should adopt. I wondered if I had the right to spend money on IVF while some mother somewhere worries about her child’s next meal. Why did my desire for a child trump hers? I sobbed everyday in my closet trying to choose heels or flats, a skirt or slacks.

Once, a woman at our local coffee shop said to me, “I don’t believe in IVF, because I believe in Jesus.”

That coffee-shop lady hit a nerve. We live in a culture that still sanctifies and deifies mothers, that speaks of the “miracle of birth” and the “blessing” of children, and is largely content to leave the science of reproduction a mystery.   I felt unholy and un-whole. And just two weeks ago, Dolce & Gabbana, in an interview with an Italian magazine, called IVF babies “synthetic.”

People’s ignorance astounds me. Even after pregnancy and childbirth, many have only a dull understanding of their own bodies. They think of IVF as a day surgery, like an eyelid lift, and when I use terminology about the reproductive process their eyes go foggy. They have no idea what IVF really is, but feel entitled to speak about it.

Here’s what I know: IVF is sonohysterographies, transducers, and speculums. It’s icy terminology like advanced maternal age, implantation, insemination. It’s a hormonal hurricane and meticulous scheduling. It’s hope and disappointment spiked so high you can’t eat for days or return phone calls from your friends. It makes Facebook a nightmare, all those babies posed in front of chalkboards announcing their ages—“Harrison is 16.25 days old!”—in cheerful, loopy handwriting.   It’s healthy living right when you need a stiff drink. It drains the joy out of sex and reduces it to check marks on a calendar. It’s trial by fire, a real initiation into the painful and paradoxical vocation of parenthood.

I also know that IVF brought me the closest thing to a religious experience I’ve ever had.

After two years of horror, we finally managed to retrieve one good egg from my uterus.  One.

My egg transfer took place on Ash Wednesday. Everything in the room was blue: blue light, blue walls, blue bed sheets.

Trip sat to my left. Our shoulders touched.

Dr. Schenk said, “In a moment, the lab will flash an image on the screen so you can see the embryo before I insert it into the catheter.”

A sudden yellow sparked into the blue room, the screen buzzed and we saw him for the first time: tiny embryonic sun, five days old, and his fragmented cells quivering the way the water’s surface quivers, alive and becoming.

“Oh,” she said, “that embryo looks good.”

Trip sat up straighter.  Just a few days earlier, when the embryo arrived back from the genetic testing center as our only chromosomally normal egg, she pronounced it a middling grade B/C. Teachers, we spent the interim period between then and now threatening to get our son the embryo expensive tutors to bump him up to at least a respectable B+.

Then the screen went dark. My full bladder tightened.

“I want you both to watch the ultrasound image,” she said. “You’ll see the catheter, white, move as close to Casey’s uterine lining as we can get it, and then you’ll see the embryo release.”

In the universe of my uterus, our son emerged from the catheter’s long tube a tiny bright white traveler, propelled toward my uterine lining.

Dr. Schenk stripped the paper mask from her face, and she placed her hand on my right knee and her eyes brimmed. She was trying not to cry.

“We’ll just hope this works,” she said.

We hoped too. Our hearts and wallets were worn thin.

That night, I attended Ash Wednesday mass with my father.   I didn’t say a word to him about the egg transfer. We always go to Ash Wednesday mass, not out of piety, but because my grandmother loved Ash Wednesday, and we loved her. Catholic masses can be beautiful, but this mass wasn’t. I paid more attention to the cerulean stained glass behind the Virgin statue’s head that grew bluer in the dusk.

After the transfer, we waited. I couldn’t read or write or sleep.

The ninth day after the transfer I succumbed to the home pregnancy test. I knew the routine. Pee. Wait. Move the stick under the lights. Tilt it. Shake it. Weep. Repeat in two days.

But this time, a line.

I didn’t trust it at first. I took over 20 tests. We lined them up one below the other on the bathroom counter, and I labeled them all with meticulous abbreviations: 9dp5dt, 10dp5dt, 12dp5dt.

The fourteenth day after the transfer, they took my blood. The HCG levels came back at 88.

“It’s low,” Dr. Schenk’s nurse, Gloria, said. “But what matters is whether it doubles by Wednesday. We’ll take your blood again then.”

Pause.

“But for now, you’re definitely pregnant.”

Gloria’s reassurance didn’t reassure me at all. On Wednesday, the HCG levels came back at 224.

Then in the fifth week, I bled pink then brown into my panties. I read horror stories about blighted ovums. I started to cramp.

The seventh week, my gestational sac measured two weeks behind, the amniotic fluid dangerously low. Several websites assured me this signaled inevitable demise.

Trip assembled a small altar next to our bed, a skeptic’s Hail Mary pass. He placed a silk scarf over a corner table, bought one dark indigo candle of Saint Gerard Mejalla, patron saint of motherhood. He hung my grandmother’s blue rosary over the altar. At night, after he jabbed a two-inch needle of progesterone into my behind, we slept, resembling nothing if not two palms pressed together in prayer.

In the ninth week after the transfer, Gloria slipped the transducer through my vaginal gates as I lay back on the bed and stared at a mobile of wooden fish circling on the ceiling. The soft light cast shadows across the walls, making the fish swim. Trip held his head in his hands on the other side of the room. We could hear my uterus—a stormy bay in the Doppler.

It seemed like hours that we waited. My legs quaked in the metal stirrups.

“Do you hear the heartbeat?” Gloria asked.

A different sound, underneath the others: a rapid pulse, pulse, pulse.

Trip said, “Oh my God.”

One of the few gifts of infertility is that I learned to love my son before the fact of his existence, which is to say I believed in him without knowing if I’d ever meet him.  Certainly that love, rooted in hope, fear, and knowledge, functioned like deep faith.

A woman’s body is hallowed ground even if she never conceives—motherhood is not the litmus test for a woman’s worth. Still, I think IVF is a sacred process, one where doctors work through science to encourage the everyday-miraculous. To that awful woman in the coffee shop, and Dolce & Gabbana, I say what the faithful always say to nonbelievers and what scientists always say to the uneducated: Just because you don’t understand it doesn’t make it any less beautiful and true.

Oft read scripture passages during Easter vigil include the Exodus story, specifically the parting of the Red Sea, and the opening and closing lines of the Gospel of Mark. Mark does not begin where the other gospels begin, with the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. Mark begins the story much later, on the day of Jesus’ baptism by his cousin, John the Baptist. It’s as though Mark considers this second birth more important than the first. John the Baptist, Mark tells us, appeared to baptize Jesus “in the wilderness.” He uses the word “wilderness” twice. A wilderness, of course, is an uninhabitable, inhospitable region, words I definitely would have used to describe my womb as well as the landscape of our two-year infertility journey. All the signs had pointed toward disaster, so we clung to our transfer experience on Ash Wednesday. It became the blue water-light bobbing on the far horizon of the long, long desert through which we walked. When he arrived eight months later—skin and bone like any other baby in human history, even Jesus—my son’s eyes shone that same bottomless blue.

Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the Lenten season, the forty days Jesus wandered through the desert preparing for his holy vocation, and Easter marks its glorious end. On an Ash Wednesday we invited Samuel Graham into the wasteland of my body, and during last night’s Easter vigil, candles aglow in the dim cathedral, its dark wooden ceiling like the underside of a capsized boat, his parents, grandparents and great-grandparents witnesses from their pews, we invited him into the body of the church and into a narrative he can use and reconstruct when he needs a sense of self and belonging. His godfather, my friend Greg, said to me after the service, “I watched the priest anoint his forehead and took a mental picture that I won’t ever forget.”

And from my broken body, briefly made whole, such an upwelling of gratitude and awe.

Amen.

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7 thoughts on “Easter Sermon (A Baptism Story)”

  1. Thank you for this, so beautiful! I absolutely love this, “One of the few gifts of infertility is that I learned to love my son before the fact of his existence, which is to say I believed in him without knowing if I’d ever meet him. Certainly that love, rooted in hope, fear, and knowledge, functioned like deep faith.” Those words are a true gift. Thank you again, Justine (www.everupward.org) I would love to send you my soon to be released book if you like?

  2. How beautiful, Casey! I describe myself as a spiritual agnostic, and everything you said comes down on the side of spirit. I was happy to take part in the smallest little part of Graham’s coming into this world, and you and I and a number of others know that the greatest love is that for a child.

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