“You have the sweetest voice. I’m going to call you Bethlehem.”
My neighbor, Miss H, announced this resolution in the middle of a soap-making workshop.
I laughed and thanked her. I almost asked what a sweet voice and Bethlehem have to do with another, but I was distracted by the potion of lye and goat’s-milk in front of me. Besides, I’ve learned to let the wisdom of my neighbors percolate for a while before offering comment or question. Most of them are my elders by several decades, and all have endured more life–both joyful and painful–than I can imagine. So I try to listen well before speaking my mind.
This was in the spring time, approaching Easter, and I was finally beginning to feel my roots break through this clay-thick, east-Austin soil. It was (and remains) a painful rooting: I have lamented my quiet academic life with tears and terrors; I have missed my students and Chickasaw neighbors fiercely; and, despite coming here to live in community I have been so lonely in this frantic city, a beautiful Babylon where everyone is friendly, but it is hard to make a friend. And yet, for all that, I could feel the roots growing, ancient instincts inching toward water.
And so, in my weariness and hope, I received Miss H’s nickname as a benediction: Bethlehem, town of Christ’s birth. Let it be so for me, I prayed, Let Christ be born in me. A few weeks later, on the Thursday before Easter, I learned I was pregnant. I think babies must always be a kind of joyful terror, not to mention an interruption in practical affairs (e.g. My first thought was, “We live in an RV — which cupboard is big enough to hold the baby?”), but we had wanted a child, prayed for this child, and so we were glad in our trembling.
On Easter Sunday we had a dessert potluck for friends and neighbors. Afterward, I went for a walk, noting all the blossoms on the fruit trees (our farmers have planted over 100 on the property), laughing to think of all the peaches, mulberries, persimmons, and satsumas the year would bring. Perhaps this is why God has called me to die to so much, I thought: to my career, my students, my parents’ hopes. Perhaps it was so something new could be born in me, in us.
But the day after Easter I began to shiver, and by Tuesday I was delirious with fever, a virulent strain of flu. On Thursday, I began bleeding, and that was the end of it. To feel, however briefly, so full of life, and then to crash back into the reality of death was agonizing.
For most of the past nine months, I haven’t thought directly about the loss of the baby. It was so early–mercifully early–that we had no time to make plans or set expectations in any particular way. We had picked no names, planned no showers, imagined no futures. And yet, the grief has infected almost everything. Feeling betrayed by the future, I have longed for the past more than ever, resenting the work at hand, resenting my husband, who thrives on dreams and future plans.
But the baby would have come right about now, sometime during Advent. I usually observe this watchful season with a careful and quiet gladness: lighting candles each morning, decorating the house little by little, sending letters and gifts to friends. I’ve done none of that this year. But I have pondered what it means to long for a savior, to cry out a God for deliverance, to demand, like Martha, why my Lord has not come sooner to raise the dead.
I have remembered Simeon’s words to Mary, that a sword would pierce her heart. I’ve remembered Rachel weeping for her children, for they are no more. I’ve recalled the Magi, bringing incense for burial to a fresh-faced child.
As I walked tonight I had a strange fancy that one day, when we come to table in God’s kingdom, we’ll feast on all the food we thought was lost — bread from wheat we saw scorched in the field, fruit from the tree that fell in the frost. And the little ones gathered at the table? Only God knows. We can believe, if He will help our unbelief.
Heavenly Father, if there is a life here for my books and quiet ways, if there is water for my roots, then send your Son to pitch his tent (or trailer!) right here among us. Put honey on my tongue and make room in my heart: let me be Bethlehem, even if there is no baby in my arms.