How to Pray in the ER

Sitting alone in a dim emergency room, cordoned off by a sliding glass door and curtain for privacy. I have been here before, but never alone. The last time, I was 22, and surrounded by not only my parents, but all three of my younger siblings. I didn’t know then that I’d long for so much chaos.

I’ve sent Gabe home. He wanted to wait in the parking lot because you never know how long the ER will take — you hope it will be quick and I’ll be running out there with a relieved skip in my step. Go home, I say over the phone, feed the baby and put her to bed. It’ll be awhile.

I sit and I wait. What will they detect? What dark, amorphous shadow will they discover in my lungs? Will it be large, so big they hook me up to an IV? Is surgery looming? Or will it be small? Small enough to terrify, but small nonetheless? Or, hope against hope, will it be nothing? Just two lungs working hard but not broken, filling to not-quite-capacity, but all systems go?

No one told me Covid could cause blood clots. For all the reading and listening I’ve done over the past 11 months, I have never encountered this fact. I knew to watch for a fever, for difficulty breathing. It was this — the hitch in my breath when I breathed too deeply, the thick choking cough — that made me call my midwife, and then my primary care, and then the respiratory specialist. Not till I sat with the specialist did I hear the word “clot” or “given your history,” and not till then did I realize there could be far more wrong than Covid.

The tv hanging above the door is dark, and I have no desire to turn it on. I have no book, no distraction other than my phone. Social media holds no enticement, and I look at the clock. How to be patient? Is the doctor looking at the images now? The CT results clear to him but unknown to me? I worry I was forgotten, as though they could forget the pregnant woman, positive with Covid-19, possible blood clot. As though there were any sort of hubbub in the small hospital at all.

The hands on the clock tick, so time is passing. No one checks on me. I was told half an hour to read the results forty-five minutes ago. I practice a deep breath. There it is: the catch, the cough.

The anxiety of waiting.

Picturing my daughter eating dinner with Gabe and my mother, babbling away, asking where I am. Or not asking, because fear doesn’t yet exist.

The first time, as I learned I had a blood clot in my thoracic outlet, I floated. I was young enough to have never thought of clots and healthy enough to think I could will myself back to health. Death was possible (as it is always), and in the days and weeks afterwards as I took my daily blood thinner, I wrestled with my fear of Death in a real and profound way.

I would miss my family, my parents and brothers and sister.

I would miss my friends.

I would miss the future I had imagined and was just now beginning to realize.

This time, ten years later, I am 32 years old.

I would miss all those things, but this time, my little girl is being tucked into her crib by her grandmother.

This time, my husband waited in a freezing cold car because he didn’t want to leave me alone at the hospital.

This time, a new life spins and swirls within me, refusing to let me forget that my lungs breathe for two.

Something my mother did very well was teach me how to comfort myself: You need to make a list of things that make you feel better. And when you’re upset, look at that list and choose one thing.

So I start singing.

It is soft, almost a whisper, and I am surprised that with such tired lungs I am able to sing whole lines. Words flow from me, from my memory. I can’t pray because I have no energy left to create. Instead, I receive the words passed down to me, and I both use them to soothe and offer them as prayer.

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound

that saved a wretch like me.

I once was lost but now am found,

was blind but now I see.

Hymn after hymn filling my little room just loud enough for me alone to hear. And as I sing, I realize what a gift I have been given: to have words within me when I have none of my own. Our minds are so malleable, so open. It’s easy to forget that what we read and see is imprinted in our brains. The headlines that are keeping me awake at night — I fill my mind with things that torment me. Yet, here I am in a hospital bed, and years ago I had been given words of comfort and rejoicing for a time such as this.

Suddenly, I remember my great grandmother. At 105, she had little memory left. On good days, we had sweet conversations that replayed enough for me to anticipate the next line. On bad days, she didn’t remember which great-granddaughter I was. What she always seemed to remember were the words to the hymns I played on the piano, her tired but lively voice singing words that were not her creation, but were hers nonetheless. Her mind was often not with us, but the words emblazoned there 100 years ago reminded us of her soul.

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When the doctor comes back, saying “No blood clots, but your lungs are covered in Covid pneumonia,” I rejoice. I want to reach out and hug him. How odd to rejoice over that! But blood clots are far, far worse, and my prayers, humbly and perhaps awkwardly lifted up, had been received and lovingly answered. When the nurse leaves, I remove the EKG pads myself, toss them in the trash, gather up my clothes. I bend down (with difficulty) to tie my boots, and walk out of the ER with a huge smile on my face.

Evangeline is asleep when I get home, and I don’t wake her. How I want to hold her in my arms! To snuggle her soft head against my face. Instead, I eat reheated macaroni and cheese on the couch. I tell my mom and husband about singing in the ER and what a strange experience it was. Eventually, I go to bed, trusting that I will get to hold my daughter in the morning.

Fire in Her Belly

It was a simple print hung on the wall of a house I hardly knew. I was fourteen, I think, maybe fifteen, and I saw it as I was leaving. The black ink outline of a woman’s full, pregnant body, the orange flame of fire inside. I must have looked confused, or maybe I asked outright: “What is this?” because the woman who lived there tried to explain.

Mary, human body filled with fire, Jesus, Holy Spirit, pregnant with fire, flesh.

I wasn’t much older than fifteen because I was unable to understand. Art — like life — was still two-dimensional, and the idea that an image that wasn’t real could represent the true was too hard for me to comprehend.

I still see that image every Advent, burned into my memory like the fire in her belly.

Last Advent, I, too, was expecting my first child. I basked in the joy of sharing that time with the Church calendar, and I loved that we had much to wonder about. Many of our questions have been answered (she has Gabe’s eyes, my smile, and her own sense of rhythm), but there are still so many. Every morning, she wakes up new, and just when I think I have mastered this parenting thing, she changes the rules. I am grateful that we have been able to make her life beautiful and comfortable, even while so many parents struggle to fill their children’s tummies.

Last Advent, I sang in a stretched-thin gold dress for three nights. I ran out of breath on nearly every musical line, but my voice felt strong. The baby liked the music. I was happy to squeeze a six-month belly into my old concert dress.

This Advent, I had a dream of her sitting in the concert, her eyes wide with delight. I thought she would love it. Gabe, even, thought it was doable. So he dressed her in a plaid Christmas dress and tights and sweater.

She made it through the first song. She didn’t want to listen to us, she wanted to sing with us.

That’s the problem with a baby who’s used to singing: she doesn’t know when to stop.

I use the term “singing” lightly. She scream-sings, shout-sings, utters every single emotion she experiences with her voice. She doesn’t know how not to interact with people — how to just let them be — and so she is apparently a difficult concert baby (which is to be expected at nine months, I suppose).

I was sad to see them get up and leave the room, but also relieved.

Did you hear that baby in the back? Ruined every single cadence.

After Gabe took her out (they paced the entryway for a bit, went downstairs, listened through the floors), we sang a set about flowers, the idea of Mary as a Rose, Christ as a Rose. The lines flooded over me.

There is no rose of such virtue
As is the rose that bare Jesu,
Alleluia.

For in this rose contained was
Heaven and earth in little space,
Res miranda.

Here it was again: “For in this rose contained was Heaven and earth in little space.”

Fire in her belly.

Res miranda — marvelous thing!

As Madeleine L’Engle says, “I do not understand the incarnation. I rejoice in it.”

This is beyond my understanding. It is beyond my reason. I remember feeling the baby move inside me and wondering who this baby would become. How much harder would it have been to allow Jesus to become who he was? Just as I wrote last spring, she is her own, and Mary must have wrestled with the same feelings I have: This is my baby, and yet he is not. He was the fire in my belly, and yet…

I often think what a terrifying honor to hold the Son of God in your womb. Then I think what a terrifying honor to hold any human in your womb. I think of the women who desire a child but aren’t able to carry one. I think of the babies who aren’t wanted. I think of my own mother, the exhaustion, the stress, the deep ache of love. I yearn for a world where hearts are not broken.

Maybe we all have fire in our bellies.

Nighttime Writing

More than once, I remember walking down the dark stairs with a soft yellow light coming from the living room that told me: Mama’s up. It felt like the middle of the night, but it was probably just a dark early morning. What was I doing awake? Nightmares? Maybe. But often it was just the turning of my own mind, a good book that eased me both into life and out of it again, or the feeling that life was happening around me even as I slept.

I would turn the corner and see her sitting on the couch in the half-light of a small lamp. A candle burned on the coffee table, ushering in contemplation. A mug of hot tea steamed beside her. I don’t remember wondering why she was awake. I might have asked her, but what sits in my memory is curling up next to her — her book sacrificially (and I don’t mean that lightly) set aside for the curve of her daughter’s body against hers and the thoughts that came tumbling out of her mind and heart and soul.

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I am fairly certain this was before she started making me tea…

We share so many similarities, me and my mother.

I have been waking up around 3:00AM these days with restlessness in my bones. I am not one of those people whose creativity grows out of sleeplessness, nor am I productive in any tangible way when it is dark. But right now, I am sitting on my couch with a huge pillow behind my back. I have lit the candle my mother taught me created soft space, and I have a mug of loose-leaf tea steeping by my elbow. It is dark except for the candle, the glow of my laptop, and a faint light on the stairs. I can hear my husband breathing as he sleeps, the sounds of his in-and-out drifting down the stairs, making me not so concerned that I woke him with my movements.

Part of the reason I’ve been waking up is someone else’s movement. The little limbs that grow bigger every day, that seem to kick and stretch in perfect rhythm, over and over again like a drum. This is not frustration I feel. This is gratitude.

Lately, my participation in creativity has consisted of giving feedback to high schoolers’ essays, knitting one or two huge rounds of a baby blanket I semi-regret starting, and attempting to dress myself each morning despite me deep desire to crawl back into bed. No time, no time, no time. That is one phrase I am sick of watching run through my head on a tired reel. Perhaps this is why I’m waking up? There’s time now.

Because I don’t remember asking my mother why she woke up in the night, I am left to conjecture. As I approach motherhood, I am convinced it had something to do with little ones needing her constantly. What is alone time to a mother of four? Maybe she even woke herself up on purpose. Maybe she reveled in the moments of candle-lit darkness, the only ones that brought her quiet, ease, and a settling-in with herself.

And then I intrude, a little girl who never once thought: maybe Mama wants to be alone. It never crossed my mind, and she certainly never made me feel that way. She set her book or her notebook aside as though it had merely been filling time until I came down. She made me my own cup of tea. We rested awake together.

I do not yet have anyone to wander down the stairs and ask me to set things aside. I type away and am free to wonder what the future will hold.

Will I wake in the night on purpose to steal a few moments for myself?

Will I find time to write and think and be Catherine, even when most of my creative energy will be going into shaping and caring for and loving a brand new human?

Will I hold in one hand my desire for quiet contemplation and writing, and in the other welcome my child’s sleepy-but-awake body next to mine?

Somehow, I will do both, I am sure. I will learn how to work with the rhythms that come naturally, as well as create new ones that I need. I see my mother’s desire to steal away time for herself, but also her love for her children. I want both of these things.

And so, I start now. It was easy to swing my legs out of bed, to stop trying to fall back asleep. It was easy to create a warm space for me to finally put some words down.

With practice, I will be able to do this anytime, anywhere, with anyone.

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Practicing with my niece. She makes it seem easy.