On this blistering Independence Day weekend, many years later, as my son prepared to make his entrance, I found myself praying again, but in a different way.
My wife Jeana and I had gone on a walk. She and I were trudging up the hills of Somerville, Mass., on a Sunday afternoon, feeling mildly guilty for not being at church, but feeling even more nervous and excited about the mild contractions she had begun to have. But we were determined to bring our baby into the world as soon as possible--and walking was supposed to help.
Jeana stopped a few times during the walk and at one point suggested that we pray. So we stood at the crest of a hill with our sweaty heads huddled together as I speedily whispered an invocation to God that was a polite request for assistance crossed with a scream for help. We walked a little farther, and then Jeana couldn't continue.
I trotted home as fast as I could, part of my mind praying that she would be safe and wouldn't have the baby while I was gone, part of my mind numb. With a friend, I drove to where Jeana was resting casually. We rushed home, grabbed the suitcase of things one ostensibly needs for having a baby, quickly prayed as a group (again in a fashion that outwardly resembled respectful queries but were really cries for help), and drove through the crowded maze of Boston's streets to Brigham and Women's Hospital.
I have an aversion to hospitals and to anything remotely related. So if ever I needed help from the Divine, this was the time. I wasn't exactly counting on a calming chat with God in the waiting room, so I had asked a friend, Holly, to come along for moral support. Time dragged slowly as Jeana cycled through contractions, talked herself out of them, fell asleep, and then restarted the process an hour later.
When things were quiet or unbearably tense, Holly and I left my wife with her sister Cindi (a doula, or labor coach, by profession) and, beating a path between the delivery room and the cafeteria, talked about family relations, life changes, and other "light" fare. All the while, I was constantly praying but in a visceral, pleading way, almost as a baby who knows only a cry will petition his parents for food. After Jeana had struggled in labor for what felt like days, the doctor pulled my son away from his mother, and I saw him for the first time.
Runaway dogs notwithstanding, I guess I've known my whole life that prayers aren't always answered. When I was a child, I would regularly pray that my life would be safe and that I would feel loved. It didn't happen. I went through a caustic period, angry with God for having betrayed me. I had been taught that God protects children. But even though God had come through with my dog, He had allowed violence into my life. That story, though, is for another time and place.
Years later, my son's birth forced me to contemplate the Divine as I had never done before, to search beyond dogs, beyond safety, beyond planets and stars, beyond imagination, beyond dreams. My praying during my son's birth wasn't fixed on the over-prayed-for idea that he would live or wouldn't be born with a disability.
In a way, I was praying as I always had, to feel comfort, to feel that I was not alone, to feel that I could draw on a greater power. But for the first time in my life, I was also praying a new prayer--a father's prayer. I was praying to give comfort, to help my son know that he wasn't alone, that he could be helped by a greater power. All of these prayers and thoughts echoed through my mind, but all I could do in the first few moments of Joseph's life was lean over him and whisper simple, inadequate words through tears:
"Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you."