This morning I’m delighted to welcome Caroline Langston to the blog. Caroline and I met a year and a half ago at the 2017 Ancient Faith Conference for Writing and Podcasting and have continued to spur one another on in matters of writing and faith. Today Caroline is sharing a slice of her journey waiting for her youngest daughter to be born.
When my youngest child, a daughter, was born, I was 40 years old, and she was a surprise. At my age and in the East Coast circles where I run, you don’t hear a lot about unplanned pregnancy, either among my secular or religious friends—among whom even the most traditional NFP types tend to have everything down to an Excel spreadsheet-kind of exactitude. In our case, my husband just happened to get off work early, we had a beer, and Anna Maria came into being.
I was delighted when I learned the news, almost scared to breathe. At that point, my one child, a son, was almost five. I felt lucky enough to have even him, a little tow-headed hyena, and to think of another made me feel full to bursting. But it was with some trepidation that I approached my husband, who suddenly felt the fear and anxiety of providing for another, in the nation’s third-most-expensive city, like a weight upon his shoulders.
Still, we nestled together and sighed and dug in for the coming months of waiting. We had a supportive community, loving families, and the banality of no real hardships.
Behind that, though, lay a shadow that I’d only recently begun to acknowledge, and to try to understand in full: My own mother had me when she was 43 years old, and had promptly been hospitalized for postpartum depression—from which, on some level, she had never really recovered.
So the stakes were already pretty high for the coming trimesters. But they were even higher when I learned of all the extra worrisome details that my Advanced Maternal Age was going to entail, right down to the visits to what I called the “Old Lady Ultrasound Place” that would soon be scheduled almost weekly.
And no, my husband and I kept having to explain, we were not planning to do the triple-screen, or the amniocentesis. That might be fine for other folks—we are irenic if nothing else—but it was not for us.
Then came the day in November that we were at the Old Lady Ultrasound Place and the doctor glanced silently at the monitor, and then back at us. The baby—and she did use that word, I remember—looked to have a number of cysts in its brain, that if unresolved would bring us, at the end, a very sick child with not long to live. We would know in about a month.
We glanced back at the doctor with a kind of blasé helplessness that seemed to make her, in the moment, almost angry. Oh well, we said. Guess we will just have to see what happens.
There were other things we could do, she said. But we elected not to do them, and she turned around, shrugged her shoulders, and said, “It’s your kid,” before she walked out the door.
I remember the afternoon light, and how quiet we were walking back to our cars, for the ultrasound place was far away from where we lived, and we’d had to come from work separately. And I remembered how scared we were: What if we had to birth a baby that we knew was going to die?
For that was what we had agreed to sign up for, to accompany this little one for however long a haul it would be, even if a tiny child would end up dying in our arms. (Although I think now, what baby is ever born that we don’t know will die?)
What I was not thinking about, except in the vaguest terms of my Orthodox faith, was the Mother of God. I sought her prayers, of course, but when I looked at the Virgin of the Sign, and was mostly conscious of my own belly as a cradle of uncertainty. I carried that belly before me, the weight itself the only prayer I could manage to pronounce. I hoped, and that was all.
The return visit to the clinic was scheduled for an exact month later. We returned, dazed, not sure we were ready to hear whatever news we’d receive. It was a different doctor this time, one with a curly fluff of hair that dangled over his brow and a thick Italian accent. He brought up the ultrasound on the screen, and we squinted, unable to read its cryptic map.
“Your baby’s fine!” he said. “It’s beautiful.” No remainder of the cysts at all. And did we want to know what sex it was? We demurred.
He insisted on writing the answer down on a piece of paper and putting it into an envelope that we could choose, or choose not to open. We left the office, and I stopped by the hospital cafeteria for a plate of fried chicken.
Now, my husband is a Catholic, not Orthodox, and his parish lies a mere block from our house. What we didn’t realize on the day that we were at the Old Lady Ultrasound was that we were arriving in the midst of the Feast of the Virgin of Guadalupe, that celebrates the unexpected appearance of Mary to Juan Diego, and the chief cathexis of Latin American idea. Thousands of roses were stacked on the altar of the church, and the celebrations went on through the night, over two days. A procession of hundreds made their way through the evening streets of our neighborhood, bearing the image of La Morena along with them.
Around that time, my husband and I toyed with the idea of opening the envelope, and decided against it. You can’t see through it anyway, he said, then lifted it to the light, where we could ironically—and clearly—read through the envelope, to where the paper said, “Girl.”
It fell into me then: how the Mother of God goes where she wishes, and even when we’re not totally sure that she is around. And that is how, just a few months later on Pascha, my daughter was born, daughter to an older mother, and was called Anna Maria.
A native of Yazoo City, Mississippi, Caroline Langston is a widely published writer and essayist, a winner of the Pushcart Prize, and has been a commentator for NPR’s “All Things Considered.” She has written for Good Letters since its beginning. A convert to the Eastern Orthodox church, she leads a retreat on “Living Orthodoxy Joyfully in the Secular World.” She is currently finishing a spiritual memoir on life across the American cultural divide. She lives outside Washington, D.C., in Cheverly, Maryland. You can find more of her writing here.