Rosary beads passed through my fingers this past Friday as I prayed over a child’s grave at the back of Cedar Grove Cemetery. Just over a year earlier this young girl was laid to rest, the daughter of loving parents, the sister of loving siblings, the beloved of many. The first half of her life was spent in her mother’s bodily care and the second half was spent almost without interruption in the arms of family and friends. In the resplendent light of this April morning, I prayed for her intercession because later that day a young mother—the friend of one of my students—was scheduled to terminate her own pregnancy.
I went to this grave with my rosary in hand because I didn’t know exactly what to pray for. I had thirty minutes before I was to drive my student to the train station so she could go home to be with her friend—the pregnant mother, whose appointment at the abortion clinic was later that day. Certainly, I wanted to pray for the life of this child, which, as far as I knew, would only last another few hours. Of course, I wanted to pray for this young mother, whom I do not know and whose particular suffering I could not fully imagine. And yet in the passing of the previous night I had already begun to ponder all that a ‘prayer for this child’ and a ‘prayer for this mother’ would entail. It would at least also mean praying for the child’s father, who, as I was told, is an “abusive boyfriend.” It would mean praying for the child’s mother’s mother, who, as I was told, “wants her to get the abortion.” It would mean praying for the love and support of a family I cannot name, a community I cannot picture, and, ideally but also rightly, a set of conditions that would truly support life. In short, I needed to pray for a miracle and I didn’t quite know how to do that. But I did know Issa Grace.
“Issa Grace O’Brien of South Bend, IN, passed away in the loving arms of her family, on Monday, March 24, 2014, after living for nine months with Trisomy 18.”
This blessed child. It would be foolish to try to mark where the care she received ended and her life began. Who she was and the care she received were inseparable. The care she received was bound up in who she was, and thus those who provided the care were themselves bound up in her, and she in them. That isn’t just who Issa was, that is who Issa is—the same Issa who is now moving into the fullness of glory. How can I pray for that unborn child in the last hours of his or her life? What does this prayer sound like, what does it look like? My answer was this blessed child, Issa Grace.
I wasn’t just praying ‘to’ Issa ‘for’ this other child. I don’t really know how else to say this, but I was praying ‘with’ Issa and, even more startling, she ‘is’ my prayer. I pray that the child in the womb of that young mother will become who Issa is: the beloved of many, the one whom many behold, the gift of care. To pray for this unborn child is to pray for everything. It is total prayer.
If Trisomy 18 is an abnormality; the care Issa received should not be.
Praying over Issa’s grave I found myself desperate for the life of this other child I did not know. I prayed for her life, and in doing so I prayed for her mother, and thus for her father, and for her mother’s mother, and for all those circles of care that could and should be there for this child, and for all the arms that can and should hold him or her, and for all of us who must not rest at anything less than total care in our total prayer.
I don’t personally know any of the people for whom I was praying and I don’t presume to know too much of their situation, nor do I presume to know too much about what it is like to carry a child into this world. What I do know is what I have witnessed and, in some real way, participated in as my wife carried our four children to term. I know that even under the best circumstances—with a supportive family, excellent medical care, more than adequate financial resources, the seemliness of a child born in wedlock—that child bearing and child rearing is nothing short of heroic. Truly. No matter how common childbirth might be in this world, it requires much more than common virtue. What’s more, no one can do it alone. It is an act of community to support the mother who supports the child who comes into the world. Next to all the more obvious sacrifices of body that most everyone can probably imagine for the mother, there are innumerable imperceptible sacrifices that run from beginning to end: small sacrifices of time, preference, comfort, privacy, and the like.
I know this from (imperfectly) accompanying my wife as she carried and, in many ways, still carries our four children, but I also know this from that remarkable witness of little Issa Grace and her family. Rarely if ever was there a moment when that child was not carried, and rarely if ever was there a moment when those who carried her—beginning but not ending with her mother—were not themselves carried by others. The prayer I was learning to pray for this unknown child now held within the body of this unknown mother is a prayer for the miracle of these layers of care and carrying to sprout in the apparent hopelessness of the present situation. In the desert of desolation pressing in on that child, I was learning to pray for the emergence of those concentric circles of life, opening like a rose in full bloom.
When I felt that last bead of the rosary slip through my fingers, and as those last words of prayer were passing over my lips and floating over Issa’s grave, my heart had expanded to make room for what my prayer means:
Hail Holy Queen, Mother of Mercy
Our Life, our sweetness, and our hope,
To thee do we cry,
poor banished children of Eve…
If that child for whom I sought to pray is the one crying out to the Mother of Mercy, then that child is praying that I, myself, recognize the poverty of my own care for others and how I, myself, am wandering in exile from the love in which I should live. But that child is also praying that I, myself, might always remember that I am a child of the care I have received, and do receive, and will receive, in the sight of those eyes of mercy turned towards me and in the eyes of all who have likewise seen me in mercy. That child for whom I pray is already the image of what I pray for: that child lives for the moment without fear or anxiety, wholly supported in the body of his or her mother. In a moment such as that, who that child is and the care that child receives are inseparable. That child was not in exile; I’m in exile—along with all those like me who do not trust in this care nor live up to the duty of providing it without ceasing. That child did not know the day nor did that child have any sense of the approaching hour.
All this pierced my heart as I concluded my prayer, and all I knew is that I wanted this child to live.
Sometimes it is harder to accept the answer to a prayer than it is to pray the prayer itself. But when I received the text from my student later in the day that her friend, “isn’t getting it done until Wednesday because she printed off the wrong sheet of paper,” I immediately rejoiced. The “wrong sheet of paper” meant five more days of life, all of it gift. For this child who, I imagine, cannot yet measure time (though who knows if I am right about that), five days is an eternity… almost literally. Dare I even hope that in those five days that miracle for which I pray might come to be: that the family and the community and all of us will hold the mother who holds the child and accept the sweet weight of holding that child now and at the hour of his birth? Dare I hope that this child will be another Issa: the one beheld and beloved all the days of her life?
All I know at this moment is that that child lives, even though, as of this writing, nearly half of the time given by the miracle of that “wrong sheet of paper” is already spent. It is still hard for me to know exactly what I should pray for, and so I continue to think of Issa, to pray for her intercession, to allow her to be my prayer. She is the image of my prayer for this one life. Issa holds together my prayer for this child with the prayer for this child’s mother. Issa connects that prayer to the prayer for the father, for the mother’s mother, for the mother’s family, for the community, and even for myself, even though I don’t personally know any of them. In short, I pray for life.
Issa Grace, pray for us.
St. Gianna Beretta Molla, pray for us.
St. Joseph, pray for us.
Mother Mary, pray for us.