Twenty miles and twenty minutes away, a high-pitched beep suddenly filled my dark bedroom. Numb from the early hour, I fumbled for my glasses too so I could read the number on my pager. "Oh no, it's too early," I groaned, even as I shuffled toward the closet where I had pre-positioned my clothing. Still groggy, I managed to get dressed while placing a whispered phone call to the maternity ward.
"Chaplain, we have a baby who's not doing well," the nurse reported. "The parents are asking for you to please come."
Maternity wards are the happiest places on earth—except when they are the saddest places on earth. The contrast in patient stories on the floor can be jagged and capricious. Even as I enter a room of sobbing parents, I often will glance over my shoulder to see other families happily backslapping each other with congratulatory pats.
As I stepped to the bedside, the couple told me of their journey through a problem pregnancy filled with frightening neonatal reports. Nevertheless, they had nursed thin hopes that doctors would find things more fixable than predicted. But now the baby had arrived, and initial reports showed underdeveloped lungs and a leaky heart that was beginning to fail. Concerned doctors were seeking parental consent for a birth-day surgery.
"Has God just teased us?" the parents wondered aloud. "What do we have to do? How do we pray? What do we say? Would it help to baptize the baby? Can you baptize her, Chaplain? Or bless her? Something. We've got to do something! She's got to have a chance."
Now, you have to understand: in my tradition I don't baptize babies. But those who would argue theology at a time like this have never looked into the eyes of desperate parents and heard them say, "Do something, Chaplain!"
I asked the mother if she might have the strength to come with me to the neonatal intensive care unit (the NICU, which staffers pronounce "nick-u"). The NICU is a world of wires, IV bottles, tubes, and back-lit beds that remind me of the scene in the movie E.T. when scores of scientists and doctors examine the little alien. In close quarters, the doctors, nurses, and respiratory therapists squeeze through tangled tubes to deliver highly specialized health care to the tiniest people you'll ever see. But as cramped as it was in there, the staff made room as I entered with parents and two sets of grandparents in tow. As we encircled the baby, the usually noisy NICU fell silent in readiness for this "emergency blessing."
Mom stood beside her tiny daughter, stroking the baby with her index finger in an attempt to reestablish the sustaining love of the umbilical cord. Her finger seemed just long enough to maintain a fragile connection between her and this baby of faith. It was an image reminiscent of the fingertip touch between God and Adam in Michelangelo's painting in the Sistine Chapel.
In the E.T. movie, special-effects artisans attempted to recreate the scene using an extraterrestrial with a flashlight finger to deliver a healing touch to a child, but Hollywood could never paint this scene. Yet it is a scene that is enacted every day in our special-care nursery.
Here was a mother trying to give her very breath to a child who could only breathe with a machine. With the touch of a single finger, Mom was sharing the hopes and prayers of a family.
Unceremoniously opening a bottle of sterile water, I placed a drop on the baby's forehead and asked that God "bless this child in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit."
With that, Mom's whimpers melted into weeping. And as she cried, she took her daughter's tiny hand and, finding a spot that wasn't wrapped, poked, or monitored, she placed a kiss in that tiny palm and whispered something into those little, curled-up fingers. Then, as if she had placed a thing of priceless value in her daughter's grip for safekeeping, she closed it tight.
This mother's love reminded me of the miraculous way in which God whispers his love into the hand of each of us when we are born, placing there a promise that, no matter what, he will never let us go. And having pledged that love to us from our first breath to our last, he wraps our fingers around that promise for safekeeping.
The apostle Paul wrote, "For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God…." (Romans 8:38–39 KJV). Even as a minister, I sometimes forget how personal and deep God's love is for each of us. I often talk about the depth of God's love, but it took a mother's heartfelt whisper into a tiny hand to remind me that God is always there to love me, and all I need to do is reach out and accept it.
I'll never know the exact words this young mother entrusted to her daughter's grip. But in the coming weeks of miraculous procedures and risky surgeries, the real miracle that was witnessed by all who would see it was how this little girl never released the grip of her mother's promise.
Three months after her birth, she went home a healthy little girl.