I grew up thinking that life was supposed to follow a certain pattern. You reach such and such age and you get married, then the kids come. Each one is carried for nine months and born into a world that is deliriously happy to see him, where they grow up with the balanced parenting of two harmonious partners.
Although I seem to have been somewhat mistaken in my rosy perception of the universe, I also discovered that some of these wonderful things do happen to some people. But it is rare to find a person for whom all of these things go smoothly.
That is why I did not feel bitterness that cold November, when I found myself laid up in the hospital with premature contractions, expecting kid number two. Kid number one had arrived in the seventh month, and the doctors were just a wee bit nervous about the outcome of this one.
My roommate was a woman who had been through the long struggle of infertility, and now that she was finally full with new life, the doctors weren't taking any chances.
Listening to the steady "thump, thump" of our unborn children, there was a palpable sense that there were four of us in that room.
We struck up a fast and tender friendship, as these situations often lend themselves to doing. We were at exactly the same stage of the game. We lay there together each morning, strapped with monitor belts, listening to the steady "thump, thump" of our unborn children. We fell in love with the signs of life within us. There was a palpable sense that there were four of us in that room.
At the end of the week, we were both discharged to continue our hibernation in our respective homes. We exchanged phone numbers.
As we lay in our homes, whiling away the empty hours of bed-rest, we called each other with updates.
"We passed the 30-week mark -- could you believe it!"
"We made it to 31. Our babies have a fighting chance of making it to term!
"32 weeks! They're bigger than three pounds!" Things were really looking up.
We never had the 33-week conversation. My baby was already out and fighting to breathe every breath by then.
The phone rang. It was her.
"Tell her I can't come to the phone," I told my husband. It was true. I couldn't come to the phone to hear about her baby, kicking and growing inside her protected womb, while mine lay minuscule and helpless in the neo-natal unit.
I bumped into her in the hospital; she was there for a routine visit. She saw me carrying a bottle of milk.
"You had the baby!" She was exuberant. And then, "I tried calling so many times." I gave her a weak smile.
"It's hard," I said. I looked at her swollen middle enviously.
"I understand." She looked at me with genuine sympathy and I felt genuinely sorry for myself.
That night, I tossed about in bed. Conflicting emotions raged within me.
"Do you not believe that God, in His infinite wisdom, doles out to each what they can handle? Don't you know that this is the test that was crafted just for you?"
And then, "You already have a child. Stop with the righteous indignation. You are not entitled to anything in this world. Everything is a gift."
And yet, I found no peace.
My feelings ballooned to include all fertile women who were able to carry a baby for nine full months. They had earned a token badge of womanhood that I was never to wear. Every friend who delivered on time was a threat to my sense of self worth, and it marred my ability to be happy for them.
"Envy, greed and thirst for honor take a man out from this world" (Ethics of the Fathers, 4:28). Was I not guilty of all three of these vices? I felt the truth behind these words -- I had removed myself from my life as I knew it, and I was moving into an acrid tasting territory.
A few weeks later, I was in the hospital delivering milk to my baby. I saw her there again. She was with another woman, perhaps her labor coach. She must be due about now, I surmised.
She walked up to me and looked at me, her eyes were strong and clear. In a firm voice she told me, "I have to be strong, it's all over."
My heart shattered into a thousand shards of pain, as she subtly informed me that she was about to deliver a stillborn child.
If you could have seen the maternity ward on that day, you would have seen two women embracing. One had a child in the neo-natal unit, reaching and grasping for new life each day. Her guilt found respite in the tears that coursed down her cheeks. The other was accepting the profound loss of what would never be.
And the master plan for me became clear.
Seeing the blessing of a child who survived, I was more than amply grateful for my portion.
From that day forward, my heart became clean of envy, greed and thirst for honor in regard to this issue. I did not beg for the lot of others, only for what was meant for me. Seeing the blessing of a child who survived, I was more than amply grateful for my portion. Having the great merit to bear children at all was honor enough. I did not want for more.
The equanimity with which my friend accepted her loss created a stirring within me that I will never forget. She was grateful to have had the chance to carry a child, and that brought her some measure of solace. She was a bulwark of faith in the face of adversity.
"We will find the message in this," she said.
Any strength of character that resulted from the experience was drawn from her well and poured into mine -- and for that I am forever grateful.
A few years later I heard through the grapevine that she had given birth to twins. I had just given birth to my third premature baby. I called her up, and hearing her voice, a delight so pure and real flowed through me. I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that this time, my tears -- tears of joy -- were for her, and her alone.