My oldest daughter sat across the table from me and shook her head no. The gesture was full of sadness and quiet acceptance. She tapped into an inner strength that she had discovered over the past few years.
This was the first time she had said the words. That ship has sailed. There will be no babies for us, Mom.
She didn’t go into details. I knew the back story. And I grieved for my daughter and son-in-law who had accepted infertility with marital resolve and met it with reordered plans. My daughter had cried plenty of tears, she said, and then smiled softly when she saw the tears forming in my eyes. Her strength, her calm acceptance, had not come easily or quickly. It had come with each passing month.
Each time her younger sister announced another pregnancy — and again when her brother’s wife became pregnant — the wanting returned. And then the wanting was processed and quietly set aside.
She was working on her master’s degree, she said. They were planning a trip to Costa Rica for their anniversary.
Tears of supplication
I wanted to change things for her. I wanted to make life fair as I had during my children’s youth. When one of my children played with a toy for a while, another one had a turn. When one child had a birthday, the other celebrated because his birthday would come in time. The longing for a child is central to the vocation of married life. Love presses on to this great event. So why does pregnancy come so easily to some, yet not for all? I had no answers.
The next morning we worshipped at St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in New Brighton, Minnesota. As I genuflected and knelt to pray, I thought of Sarah, and Rebekah, and Hannah. These women symbolized Israel: Daughter Zion, the barren one. The tears of each woman — the tears of a nation — accompanied each supplication. When, oh Lord? When will the promised one come to us?
This ache-for-God’s-blessing had touched the matriarchs of salvation history and reached its summit in the lives of Mary and Elizabeth in the hills of Judea.
As I waited for Mass to begin, I thought of Elizabeth. Was there a moment when she sat across from her own mother and said these words? There will be no baby for Zechariah and me. We are focusing on other things now. Had Elizabeth cried? Had those tears dried up as the years passed? Had she watched as siblings welcomed babies into their own little families? Had she rested in her husband’s arms with reluctant acceptance hanging heavy in the air around them?
There I was, praying, offering up a petition as I went forward to receive the Eucharist that Sunday morning. For months I had been working on a book proposal called “Gifts of the Visitation,” but this was the first time I truly felt Elizabeth’s pain. Elizabeth’s longing. Israel’s longing.
It seemed as though some kind of spiritual pilgrimage had ended at the feet of Elizabeth, her son’s name on the bulletin, the signpost, the priest’s lips. St. John the Baptist Church.
I got a glimpse into the matriarchs of salvation’s history that I never had before. They had no reason to believe they would ever hear their own child’s first cry. They would not know what it was like to push that final push — the one that instantly transforms pain into joy.
They had no reason to believe — except a faint hope that remained in the deepest, most hidden part of their hearts. Where God listens. Where each tear is saved and returns to earth full of divine grace.
Last January, my daughter called to say that she is expecting a baby. Her little girl is due this month. Soon, I will travel to Minnesota and hold my granddaughter for the first time.
And I will return to St. John the Baptist Parish to say thank you. Thank you, oh Lord, for hearing the supplications of women throughout sacred Scripture, for giving life where new life is least expected, for raising up sons and daughters — and grandsons and granddaughters — who will learn to hear your voice and take their own places in this Christ-bearing mission.
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