This has been one of those years that feels like forever in a day. The time has gone far too fast, and yet we can’t imagine our lives without this sweet one-year old. Birthdays are a time for reflection, so here’s mine:
You don’t expect to have your core rattled walking down the greeting card isle at Target, or standing in line at the grocery store, or sitting on a shaded bench quietly. But then, isn’t it so often these unexpected moments where lessons unveil themselves from dusty shadows, and angels lean whispering into our ear? The first time it was shortly after Walter’s diagnosis in-utero, the next well into my third trimester, and the third with my three week old baby at the park.
“Congratulations!” read the card, “…on your perfect baby boy!”
“10 Little Fingers, 10 little toes, beating healthy heart, and a button nose,” exclaimed another.
“Oh don’t you worry about a thing, honey,” cooed an experienced older lady, “as long as that baby’s healthy – that’s all that matters.”
“What a cute baby!” cried a mother of three, “boy – or girl. Well what does it matter, he’s happy and healthy! What else could you hope for?!”
There were others too. Like the small boy at the Children’s Hospital who tugged his mother’s sleeve and asked why the baby in the elevator with him was visiting the hospital.
“He’s not sick,” the boy observed.
“Well, healthy babies go to the doctor too,” she replied.
It was the morning of Walter’s second open heart surgery.
Over the course of my pregnancy, and Walter’s days spent outside the hospital, the tableau seemed to repeat itself time and time again. I rarely corrected the inquirers, or told them that this happy little boy was actually not so healthy. Every encounter was, after all, well intentioned. As months went by, it became a kind of relief to not give my “elevator speech” about Walter’s heart to casual acquaintances or passersby. I was able to duck the series of questions that inevitably ensued about how Congenital Heart Defects occur, whether they are avoidable in pregnancy, and whether he’ll be “as good as new” after multiple surgeries.
See, Walter isn’t perfect. Nor am I, my husband, you, or your parish priest. But in his innocence and purity, Walter’s imperfection is simply more obvious than those around him. Walter was born broken, as we all are. I don’t want him to be “as good as new” because that would present itself as a death sentence anatomically speaking, and condemnation eternally. Aristotle argues that the Good is the state at which all things aim. Not, I might add, to return to a supposedly perfect state of birth, but aiming at something further, beyond – something tried, tested, and redefined. Walter’s brokenness begs unsettling questions about faith and life. Unsettling questions that shatter glass houses and comfortable tranquility. His scar peeks from under his neckline, and his tummy is riddled with chest tube incisions. They are markers of something flawed tangibly, for him, that we all possess intangibly ourselves.
And that is why being his mother for the past year and four months (since we received his diagnosis) has allowed me to see why our expectations for perfect children in perfect families in perfect health is so misguided – because life is fragile and incredibly precious. Even the most flawed among us, and the unhealthy babies given to us, have an immeasurable, unrepeatable value. And because even the healthiest of us know not what tomorrow holds.
Every mother wants nothing but health and goodness for her child. But having Walter has freed me to move beyond perfection. Beyond disappointment and grief, and beyond the more earthly and mundane worries of today. I’ve seen that Perfect is not the Good, and that perfection does not lead us to anywhere but fleetingly false security and an eternity of doubt and sorrow.
As for our blemished, our sick, our scarred, and ourselves – my hope is that we will learn to see these moments in our lives as perfectly imperfect. Because we are not given perfection, but purpose.