I was 30, married, the mom of two little boys, 14 months and almost 6. It was Christmas, and I had bronchitis, and the doctor prescribed antibiotics, and they made me sick to my stomach, but even after ten days had gone by, I still felt sick.
You’d think I would have known by then, after two children and two first trimester miscarriages in between.
Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. (Psalm 51:1, NRSV)
But it didn’t seem real, quite, until yet another week went by and I still felt nauseated.
This is the year it’s been twenty years since then, and in some ways it feels like it all never happened, and in others it feels like five minutes ago.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.
For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. (Ps 51:2-3)
I was a funny bird in those days. I had lived a very clean, straight life. Really, I was a professional good girl. I put being good ahead of most everything else. I had two or three college stories about drinking a little too much, had only smelled pot from a distance and had absolutely no sexual history outside of marriage, which believe me was unusual for someone who graduated from college in 1982, all of it, even among “nice” and “Christian” young people.
Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment. (Ps 51:4)
I worked hard at being good to compensate for feeling I was bad in every way.
It’s possible we can blame Calvinism for this, or Southern Baptists, or Southern culture and its emphasis on feminine purity, or my mom, or just my innate personality. I’m not sure where the fault actually lies; I only know I was conditioned or wired to take the responsibility on myself, whatever befell.
Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me. (Ps 51:5)
Ah, well there’s the key, perhaps. I had two mothers, the one who conceived me, and the one who raised me, and that’s where it gets complicated, which is to say, right from the beginning. Because the mother who raised me never seemed to be able to forgive me for coming from somewhere else, from someone else, from a mysterious past that could not be controlled or known. I went into my teenage years terrified of repeating what my birth mother had done, even though I had no idea of her circumstances, the underlying understanding being that if she couldn’t keep me she must have been some kind of a slut, and that wasn’t what I was going to be, even if and maybe especially because the mother who raised me was so afraid I would.
I realize this is a charged word, especially now, but it is the word I had in my mind then, and it shows the kind of world in which I lived, full of judgment of women and their sexual behavior in particular. It’s different in my mind now, but the world hasn’t changed as much as one might hope.
I was determined to overcome that expectation. I had to overcome it. It seemed like the only chance I had to live the life my mother taught me I ought to want: to achieve the successful marriage, which was the only validation any woman needed to have.
(Brutal. It was brutal. I hope no one taught you these lessons. I do everything I can to teach my daughter something different.)
You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart. (Ps 51:6)
I was in high school and started college in the 1970s. Young people were having sex, lots of it, in those days before we knew about AIDS, and girls were getting pregnant. Nice girls, Christian girls, all sorts of young women were having sex and getting pregnant. In my neighborhood outside Williamsburg, Virginia, we whispered about the family that paid for three abortions in the same year: one for their daughter and two for girls their son had gotten pregnant. I took the unsurprising attitude for an adoptee that this had to be a bad thing. After all, would I even be here if abortion had been so readily available in the year I was born?
I took that attitude, but when my friend, S, needed a ride to the clinic in college, I took her. She was afraid a pregnancy would crush her parents, who were already having a tough year because her father had been laid off.
And when my friend, P, who was if anything a good-er good girl than I, more pious — she even became a charismatic at college!! — when she told me about her multiple abortions, which she had because she never planned to have sex and therefore never had protection available, she told me her mother said to think of it as making a blood sacrifice.
Some mothers will tell us anything to get the story to turn out the way they want it.
Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. (Ps 51:6-7)
Wash me clean.
Well, if you don’t get dirty, you won’t need to be washed clean. That seemed to make more sense. If I could only be good enough, truly good, more good than P or S or the family down the street in the upscale suburb, no one would have to talk me into anything.
But in 1992, no matter how good a wife and mother I tried to be, nothing about the pregnancy felt real to me, except that something felt wrong. We couldn’t figure out when the baby was conceived; the predicted due date was a shock. Then prenatal tests pointed to a problem and more tests confirmed a genetic abnormality. I didn’t expect to be talking to my trusted doctor and hearing him say I had a choice about whether to carry to term.
Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.
Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities. (Ps 51:8-9)
I believe we made the best choice at the time. That does not mean I felt good about it, or that I regarded the life lost casually, as some people think women who terminate pregnancies must.
Most everyone close to me (parents, in-laws, spouse) felt ready to move on, relieved that the procedure was safe and legal, that it could take place in a fine hospital in my own city, that I received high-quality medical care.
Oh, it pleased my mother! (I believe she feared her impaired grandchild would survive. This, too, was brutal.)
Meanwhile, my milk came in.
I felt guilty, though I did not regret the decision, and I wondered, unsurprisingly, why this terrible choice had to be part of my life, why God’s eye had been off the ball when I was clearly such a good, good, good girl and such an unlikely candidate for an abortion.
Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.
Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me.
When you’re hoping to go to seminary, and you end up in the hospital to have a pregnancy terminated on Good Friday, it’s a dark place to be.
For me, it remained dark for a long time. I felt cast away from God’s presence, and I hated that. Later I was angry. My pastor assured me that God was big enough to handle my anger, but that made me madder! Surely there had to be a better way for God to run things than to let misery occur and then be receptive to our anger?!?!!
I concluded, eventually (and this is good news for everyone to whom I ever have or ever will be a pastor), that sometimes bad things happen and those bad things are not a judgment on the people who suffer them. And where God is at those moments remains a mystery, although I will say that when I have been at my lowest, God has reliably provided the help that I needed to get from one day to the next until I could do it by myself again.
In 1992, that help took the form of an older friend whose own history contained abortions she didn’t really want to have. She sympathized with the complex nature of my situation, and instead of trying to redirect me to the relief felt by my family, she said, “Why don’t you pray Psalm 51?”
I remember reading it for the first time — well, it probably wasn’t the first time ever, but it felt new — and thinking, “This is not me! I didn’t do anything wrong!” Holding that thought was making it possible to get up and get my boys ready for the day. Holding that thought was crucial.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit. (Ps 51:12)
I kept going, barely, but I was still bone-crushingly sad. It really didn’t get better until I was able to hold both the relief and the sorrow together, to know in my marrow that I could feel both at the same time. Then I began to feel restored.
God did not do this thing to me. God did not condemn me for making the best choice I could knowing what I knew then, and although my life has been personally complicated and not even close to what my mother would have deemed successful, I do not feel punished by God.
And I am grateful for and to the friend who knew, from her own hard experiences, how much a psalm could mean, those old words forming a ritual expression intended to bring us back into relationship with the God we blame when the fault is really in the frailty of humankind, in our complicated bodies that don’t always work perfectly, and in our striving minds that don’t always reach the right conclusions, and in our broken and breaking hearts that don’t always give the love we want to receive.
I continue to struggle with taking the blame for, well, almost everything, but twenty years later, I don’t feel I was at fault for what happened in my life that winter and spring, and I willingly take responsibility for the choice I made, and although I still feel sad about it most every Lent, I do not regret it.
And if there are parts of the story for which I needed to be forgiven, rest assured, it has all been asked and answered, long ago.
Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.