What follows is an essay I wrote for a seminary class on Dante’s Purgatorio in the spring of 2000. We read it alongside Eliot’s Four Quartets.
“You cannot face it steadily, but this thing is sure,
That time is no healer: the patient is no longer here.”
(From “The Dry Salvages”)
Once upon a time, I was a little Episcopal school-girl, academically bright but with poor marks for conduct. No self-control, they said. “Unsatisfactory” read the remarks on the report card. I remember at eight climbing out of the classroom window and running off to the woods behind the Lower School. The well-worn, familiar paths around St. Agnes felt safer than the buildings. On those paths, I had been the priest when we buried a dead bird, using the service in our prayer books. We were on top of a hill and close by was Seminary Hill. When I grew a little older, I excelled in Bible class. I learned how to stay in the room, how not to climb out the window.
I have been in and out of Andover Newton for eight years now. While I did not become a student until the fall of 1994, I came to visit as a potential student in February of 1992. Around the same time that I made the plans to attend the Conference on Ministry, I discovered that I was pregnant. I had two boys, one about to turn 6, the other about 16 months old. It was fairly obvious that I was not going to enter seminary that fall, with a new baby due in August, but I decided to attend the Conference anyway, figuring that I would be less able to attend the following year with a baby. If I liked the school, I could always apply and defer admission.
I remember making that first trip to Newton quite anxiously. I worried about my children, about the traffic, about whether it was really all right to do something just for me. In many ways I was sleepwalking, dreaming, weaving a future which had no basis in reality. I was 30, but I appeared to be younger. I had a very tidy sense of how to live and what was right, not just for me, but for everyone. I felt conflicted about leaving my children to go to school, yet I also felt a compelling impulse to become a minister. Those are conflicts which have been at the heart of my life for the past eight years.
During the Conference, I visited three classes, heard two fabulous sermons, and sat in groups of men and women who grappled with their own questions. The title of the Conference was “Is God keeping you up at night?” During dessert at a professor’s, I had an experience of being nailed to the floor, of being not in time, of knowing that I had become conscious, but only for a moment, of the dangerous combination of smugness and naïveté which ruled my mind. All else fell away.
It would be another two-and-a-half-years before I drove up the hill to become a student. The baby was gone, lost in that Leap Year Holy Week, diagnosed with a genetic abnormality and “terminated” on Good Friday. His name was Christian, a family name, chosen in a burst of hopefulness as we waited for test results. Termination is a word used to avoid the word abortion. It seemed a kinder word at the time, less charged somehow. Here is the truth: there was a life, in potentia, and then there was not. While he was taken, his mother slept. When she awoke, in desperate need of comforting, her husband was weeping as if he would die himself. The mother was already a minister. She put herself aside and comforted him.
We can talk about choice, but it did not feel like a choice at the time, either the termination or the comforting. When the news came, on Monday of Holy Week, I knew. I knew there was no need to ask for counsel, or to discuss the situation. There was only one solution. That my husband agreed was merely convenient. For the first time in my life I was prepared to take a decision without regard to the opinions or wishes or demands of any other human being, as if a great wind had rushed through my inner house and swept away the knick-knacks and oddments and gee-gaws placed by others, leaving only my self.
Was it a sin to take such an action? I went forward as if not, for as long as I could, then one day asked for forgiveness anyway. What had I feared and known in that terrible moment? That my husband would leave? He left anyway. That I would be left alone with three children? I was left alone with three children anyway.
We buried Christian’s ashes in the garden at church and planted a tree there. It is a dogwood tree. Eight springs have gone by, and still it does not bloom. I look into the garden every week, but in the spring I like to go and sit alone there for awhile and try to find a moment which is not in time. When I tried to go this year, the garden at church was locked. The doors were broken, and the gate at the other end had been locked, too. I believe if this had happened in another year, I would have been more distressed. Eight years is a long time. The agony of loss which followed that clear decision, the breasts full of milk, the still-swollen belly, the parishioner asking when I was ever going to give birth, all remain in my mind but they seem to have happened to someone someone else. I am no longer the same person. “The patient is no longer here.”