For Peter

When I asked Catherine why she pledged, this was her response. A beautiful piece she wrote as part of her thesis, a few years back. It hits the very heart of what and why we're doing what we're doing. Thank you, Catherine.

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For Peter

I pray morning and night for my nephew Peter, born into great expectations, the first born of my sister Jane whose body finally softened into a miracle—an imperfect miracle, a miracle with a price, a reminder that we may hold life inside us but it’s a mysterious and slippery gift.  Peter arrived all mixed up, with intestines and liver on the outside and a sternum and diaphragm that needed Gore-Tex reinforcement.  Two years in and Peter still lives on tubes, but he lives, still.  The scar splitting his stomach has turned from purple to pink.

After her first ultrasound, Jane called me at work, her broken voice reaching from somewhere dark as she told me of complications that could mean at worst, death, and at best, immediate surgery at birth and an unpredictable recovery.  “Abortion” circled the procedure room like a vicious bird released from the doctor’s mouth, and the beat of its wings tremored Jane’s heart.  Leaning against the brick wall of my office, I listened, powerless.  What could I offer in such a moment?  So I roughly shaped and sent a bird of my own.  Dear father. All I am, all I have, if.  Please, father. If I never want another grace.  Please. 

What does it mean to pray for someone?  What divine threads are wound and bound between those who speak and those who hear and those who are spoken of?  Do my silent words join two fates, or two faiths?  Do my pleadings mark Peter’s spirit like the squiggly scars that mark his body?  Will he wear the story of his birth?  If I had eyes to see, could I read a part of me there?  

Or:——more hesitantly——do prayers matter?

Jane and I both pray for her baby but I have to believe our prayers differ.  Hers are so much older.  To have asked for something so many times you confuse it with breathing.  To have offered to give everything despite knowing all you have is God’s already.  To be heard and answered with a heartbeat sounding against yours, and to learn that what you’re asked to give up is the very thing you desire—a healthy baby.  You’re back to your knees this time asking, Who are you?  

Before Jane and I were born, there had been another Peter, our brother, who died when he was a month old because he had a hole in his heart.  All three brothers started life with a similar glitch: the oldest, Ben, had open-heart surgery when he was four and made the news with Marie Osmond for his unprecedented and successful procedure; and the youngest, David, had a heart that grew back together on its own.  Like some of my sisters, my heart murmurs, beating irregularly, stalling occasionally.  Our hearts fall across a spectrum of broken.  

When my brother died, neighbors bumbling at my mother’s emptiness did not know what to say.  At least I hope that is the case because what they did say—he was too good for this world—turned her bitter toward them and God.  She had prayed give us this day, not thy will be done.  She wanted Peter to get better, wanted to weight him with enough love to hold him here in this world whether he was too good or too sick or too anything.  She wanted him.  And what could be gathered from the necessity of the doll-sized white coffin except that God heard those prayers and chose otherwise, or did not hear at all?  

I am a believer but surprised by the burden my faith must bear.  Again, I ask—, but hesitantly.   

Morning dear father midday dear father night dear father; my days blur in attempts and false starts, ideals half reached for.  The repetition begins to wear and I whisper threadbare.  What grace must lift these mumblings to heaven.  My spirit filters through my mortal frame and so trails the inconstancy and frailty that mark my life.  I try to bring holiness to the table, or at least holy desires; I try for words that voice my stuttering heart.  I try—an imperfect but earnest offering, yet sleep often freezes me in my penitence and I wake up hours later, half of my body asleep, too groggy to resume my communion.  This, even, with so much on the line.  Forgive my debts…

On the day of the ultrasound, calling out to that black bird, Jane named her unborn baby Peter.  She wanted to defy the doctors and anchor him, and a name would validate his existence, his reality, his possibility.  The bond these two Peters shared—fragile and uncertain life derived from our material makeup—was tenuous and risky.  At the same time, I could see Jane reaching for stability, probing with cautious fingers for a firm hold, a rock.

Years from now, Peter won’t remember his birth or his journey to health: he will hear about the months in the hospital and the uncountable prayers as he lies in bed asking for a story, his story, eager to avoid lights out and sweet dreams, and Jane will smile and tell him again how his body worked to live, how he finally started to laugh, and how his healing was her healing.  He won’t remember then as I don’t remember now what it felt like to be the youngest living thing in the world for a pulse or two, exploring the novelty of a shell of skin that breaks and bruises and bleeds.  But maybe he will lift his shirt at recess to prove that, really, he doesn’t have a belly button!, and maybe some kids will recoil to see the grotesque mercy, forgetting that we are all sewn up a thousand times.

So one dies: one lives.  Two birds are always near. 

During the day, Peter stays on my mind; I hear rasping wheezing lurching breath and see his undersized heart bumping his chest like a fist punching from the inside.  My prayers circle, watch, and probe him: I hope they leave a trace, sound a faint flapping, before rising.