As Taryn and I walked through the residential streets near downtown Evanston, it began to rain. Late March is still winter here; there were no leaves on the trees and no green in the grass as yet. The rain began to leave streak marks on Taryn’s glasses. We admired the eminently practical hat of a passing mail carrier, which suspended a small umbrella above her head. The early stages of Taryn’s labor continued as we walked; it was all terribly romantic.
The delivery process didn’t lose its romance that evening. Everything was perfect, textbook. As active labor became more serious, Taryn requested an epidural, which worked so beautifully that she began telling the anesthesiologist that he was a morally wonderful human being. The first signs of trouble came about an hour or an hour and a half later, when noticeable pain returned to the parts of Taryn’s body numbed by the drugs. Yet Taryn found the situation manageable.
Shortly after midnight, we were told that Taryn was fully dilated and ready to push. She found this process exhilerating, describing it as an endorphin rush. The hours began to pass, however, and our baby’s head was making little or no progress through the birth canal. Three and a half hours in, the ob-gyn told us that a Cesarean section would probably be necessary. This was Taryn’s greatest fear regarding childbirth, and the news that it was likely imminent brought her to tears. I asked the doctors and nurses to give us a few minutes alone, which they did — with seeming reluctance and a great deal of (quite unnecessary) advice that I not allow Taryn to fall out of bed.
When we were left alone, Taryn and I began to pray. I acted as the voice, pleading with Heavenly Father that, if it be his will, we be granted an intervention allowing for a vaginal delivery. Partway through the prayer, Taryn vomited copiously — all over herself and all over me. This we took to be an answer of a sort, whether divinely ordained or not.
As the nurses prepared to move Taryn’s bed from the delivery room into the operating room, Taryn asked me to bring Stephen Colbert’s book, I Am America and So Can You, so that I could read it to her while the procedure took place. She was wheeled off and I was taken to the recovery room to wait until the anesthetics were arranged. The nurse who took me there told me that, while it would seem like forever, I would probably be waiting for about a half an hour. In fact, the clock on the wall showed that over an hour had gone by before I was brought to the operating room and seated next to Taryn’s head behind a curtain that separated us from a direct view of what was being done to her body. I had waited because the anesthetic had not worked well and a great deal of adjustment was necessary. Shortly after I arrived, the surgery began; Taryn immediately reported pain and I was removed from the room so that she could be placed under full sedation.
We had now passed beyond the boundaries of the normal in childbirth. Full anesthetic places the child at risk and requires the greatest speed in getting her out of the mother’s body. By this point, I was simply terrified; the fact that I couldn’t be present made things all the more frightening. In spite of the hospital’s policy that cellular phones not be used except in lobbies, I called my parents and woke them in the middle of the night. As I described the situation to them, I burst into tears of fear and stress. Partway through the conversation, a nurse came in and asked me to return to the operating room; Taryn had decided to simply go through with the surgery in spite of her imperfect — read largely nonexistent — anesthetic.
So I turned off my phone, quickly cleaned up my face, and reentered the operating room. I sat down by Taryn’s head and held her hand as the procedure went forward. Someone near us asked Taryn to describe her pain level on the standard 1 to 10 scale as the operation took place. Taryn started with lower numbers (2, 3, 4) and escalated to higher figures (7, 8, 9) as the talk from the other side of the curtain became more urgent. As the ob-gyn instructed another person to “Put some pressure right here from below,” Taryn reported her highest pain figure. The medical personnel above the curtain with us seemed stunned that she was calmly describing her predicament, rather than screaming, passing out, or otherwise reaching a crisis state. Finally, the doctor said, “She’s too tense. I need her sedated.”
So I was rushed back to the recovery room. I got back on the phone with my parents and quickly began crying in terror once again. It surely didn’t help that I could see through the window in the recovery room door into a window in the operating room. I watched as more and more medical personnel crowded into the room, something I took to be a less than optimistic sign.
At this point, I could not help but think about the blessing I had given Taryn just before we left for the hospital the previous afternoon. I have always found the responsibility to speak for God, inherent in the act of blessing, to be a terrible and nearly intolerable burden. Of the many blessings I have been given in my life, a high proportion have ended up offering blessings or counsel that have proven profoundly, even diametrically, misguided. For example, I was given two unconditional blessings of health throughout my mission while I was at the MTC, one of them apostolic; less than five months later, I nearly died of a mosquito-born fever. It seems a grave thing to place such false promises in the mouth of God, and so my faith routinely waivers when I am asked to bless another.
Recently Taryn confronted me on this point, reminding me that the blessing I offer comes from my lips, not God’s. When I invoke divine power in blessing on another, she suggested, that is a prayer of faith, not a prophecy. Before we went to the hospital, I had given Taryn a blessing putting this advice into practice. I blessed her that, God willing, she would have calm and courage throughout the delivery; that she would be healthy and would recover well; and that our child would be born healthy.
As I waited in the recovery room, I felt that the first of the three blessings I had prayed upon Taryn had surely been realized. Taryn’s physical courage overwhelmed me. Yet, perhaps, the last two blessings might not be granted. At least, the passing minutes and the crowd of doctors and nurses working on Taryn suggested otherwise.
After some infinite interval of time, I heard an infant cry.
A few minutes later, a nurse entered and told me that the baby had been delivered but that surgery was still under way for Taryn. Upon birth, the baby had not been breathing well, and so she was to be taken to the infant intensive care unit. But if I hurried, I would get a chance to see her for a moment at the elevator before she was taken up. For a matter of seconds, I saw a little red-headed girl with gigantic blue eyes looking out from an isolation unit. Then she was gone.
I returned to the recovery room and to the eternal wait. After geologic ages, the ob-gyn came into the recovery room. After answering affirmatively — three or four times, to be sure — my urgent questions about whether Taryn and the baby were all right, the doctor proceeded to describe the operation. The baby had become lodged in Taryn’s pelvis during the several hours of pushing, it would seem. A standard C-section incision was inadequate. Delivery had required an additional, vertical incision as well as pushing from below, pulling from above, and a range of other heroic interventions. She told me that Taryn would never give birth vaginally; any future pregnancies would require a scheduled C-section before labor began, because Taryn would be at substantial risk for a ruptured uterus if she went through any labor ever again. Otherwise, everything was probably fine. A nurse present at the delivery later told us that the doctor ended the surgery, quite uncharacteristically, with the words, “Thank God.”
Some time later, Taryn’s bed was wheeled into the recovery room. It was several minutes before she became aware of me. When she noticed me, I told her that I loved her and her response was “Hi.” Some time further on, a doctor came by and informed us that Taryn had been given a drug that would cause her not to remember anything that was happening at the time. I asked if that meant she wouldn’t remember the conversation we were having in that moment. The doctor said that was correct; Taryn immediately stated, “That’s not going to happen.” To this day, Taryn cannot remember a bit of this.
As we left the recovery room, Taryn and I were taken to meet our baby, Artemis Mary Nelson-Seawright. At the newborn intensive care unit, we were told that Artemis had begun breathing on her own a few minutes after birth and that no other problematic symptoms had shown up. She would be released to us in Taryn’s hospital room that afternoon. The rest of that day was a blur of sleep (for me), sleep and breastfeeding (for Artemis), and sleep, breastfeeding, and drugs (for Taryn).
The second day of Artemis’s life was quite a bit different. She woke up at about 8:00 in the morning. As the day tricked by, Artemis stayed awake and gradually grew angry. By 3:00 the next morning, she had been awake for most of a day without almost any sleep. She was inconsolable. Pain was etched in her face. The nurses kept suggesting that Taryn feed her again, but feeding didn’t calm her at all.
Finally, a nurse noticed that Artemis was having seizures in which her right arm and leg would, in unison, jerk up and down repeatedly. Taryn and I had also seen these, but we didn’t know what to tell the nurses. When one saw the seizures, Artemis was immediately whisked off, once again, to the intensive care unit. Soon afterward, a doctor visited to explain the possible reasons for the seizure. Taryn and I authorized various tests.
When he left, I wanted to read scriptures with Taryn. We discovered that we had forgotten to pack them in the rush to the hospital. Taryn recited parts of two Psalms that she could remember. One was the 23rd Psalm:
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. (She couldn’t remember the last two verses.)
The words of this ancient poem hit me. It surely seemed appropriate to describe the experience Taryn and Artemis went through the night of the birth as a trip through the valley of the shadow of death. Taryn made that trip with remarkably little fear; my best guess is that Artemis lacked the capacity to meaningfully fear the experience.
A doctor arrived and explained to us that Artemis had suffered a skull fracture some time during the delivery. A CT scan showed evidence of some bleeding inside her brain. Pressure from the fracture could account for the seizures. She would be given an MRI later, and she would be on a drug to prevent further seizures for months.
When we went down to the newborn intensive care unit to see our daughter, the experience was dreadful. Taryn and I were afraid, of course, that something more serious and more permanent might be wrong with her. And yet as we looked around at the other children in the unit, we quickly realized that Artemis was almost certainly in the best shape of them all. We were surrounded by tiny premature babies in isolettes. The walls had information about the hospital’s policies for families of babies in critical condition. I felt an awkward blend of distress at Artemis’s situation, a shameful relief that she was better off than so many other babies, and sorrow for everyone in those families.
That afternoon, Taryn discussed her sense of guilt that, by pushing too hard during delivery, she had broken our baby’s skull and caused her suffering and medical problems. I responded by invoking the New Testament story regarding who was responsible for a man’s blindness: was it his fault or his parents’ fault? Jesus famously responds that nobody was to blame. I don’t know how comforting this was.
I also mentioned my mother’s strong spiritual intuition that Taryn’s mother had been with her during the labor and delivery. Taryn’s mother had died during Taryn’s sophomore year of high school, so I never met her other than through people’s stories. A central theme in those stories was the woman’s extremely high tolerance for pain. Hearing my mom’s impression about this brought Taryn to tears. Clearly, it was true, at least at a symbolic level. It felt true to me at some other level, as well, although I couldn’t define why or how I felt that way. It has never seemed right to me to believe that our dead ancestors are literally active in our lives. And yet in this particular instance it also doesn’t seem right to me to believe that the idea is entirely false.
That evening, our bishop, Matt Downs, came to the hospital to give me a blessing and to assist me in giving Taryn and Artemis blessings. Before we began, he sat down to share a spiritual thought. The little message he offered, based on something he’d said in a meeting earlier that day, was the exact same passage from John 9 that Taryn and I had talked about in response to Taryn’s feelings of guilt over Artemis’s predicament. Was this a miracle, evidence of the loving attention of our God? For me, in that moment, it felt that way; my sense is that Taryn shared this feeling. As logical evidence of God, this is merely a petty coincidence. It is, however, quite convincing evidence of Matt Downs’s love for Taryn and for me. And I think that love is a powerful token, although certainly not a logical evidence, of God’s care.
The three of us entered the newborn intensive care unit. We anointed Artemis’s ankle with oil, because I was perhaps irrationally worried about hurting her fractured skull. I pronounced a blessing on her that was filled with the exuberantly supernatural and metaphysical. She would have “angels to protect her and the Spirit to ease her pain.”
The story continues. Over the last month, we have had doctors argue among themselves about whether Artemis experienced a very modest stroke — one that would have no practical consequences — or simply bleeding from the surface of her brain. She appears to be a normal and healthy infant. When I sing to her, she smiles.
By nature rather than preference, I tend to conceive of a highly non-interventionist God. My heart speaks to me of the human aspects of sin, as well as of the mortal component of compassion. My soul tells me that senseless tragedies are, indeed, senseless. I am willing to see God’s hand in everything, and I do in the sense of accepting God’s decision not to act and not to alter events as a necessary part of every explanation. I want to believe in a more activist God, one who will protect my daughter from starvation, rape, and murder (and also, if He has time on His schedule, from bad grades, skinned elbows, and awkward social situations). But when I strike those chords with my mind, I usually find little sympathetic resonance in my heart. There’s an episode of the Simpsons in which a character describes God as “an impotent nothing from nowhere with very little power.” I don’t think of God like this, but I nonetheless usually experience Him like this.
Did the events surrounding the birth of Artemis change everything?
She is a miracle in so many ways. Without modern reproductive medicine, she would never have existed in the first place. We are beyond lucky that we lived right next to an excellent hospital and a large collection of exceptional doctors and nurses. In other times or other places, Artemis would not be sleeping peacefully in our living room right now. There are many places on this earth today where Taryn would likely not have survived, as well. My family is become a living symbol of inequality.
I felt the miraculous presence of God and not just capitalism in Artemis’s birth. Did God intervene to ensure her survival and health? I don’t know. The answer depends on too many unobservables. The question of God’s action in the world is vexed because, if and when He acts, He does so in ways that are generally indistinguishable from His failures to act. Even if God acted, we have no direct information about what would have happened in case he failed to act. I feel that Artemis is a gift from God, but I don’t know how literally that statement should be taken.
Whether God saved lives or not, though, I feel confidence in saying that divine gifts were given. God gave us the gifts of friends and family who loved us enough to see us through our darkest hours. God gave us the scriptures that spoke to our souls when we were in need. God gave us each other. God gave me moments of emotional transcendence that strengthened me when I felt near the breaking point.
And so I’ll wrap this up with a prayer, in the words of a song by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, for Artemis:
I don’t believe in an interventionist God
But I know, darling, that you do.
But if I did I would kneel down and ask Him
Not to intervene when it came to you.
Not to touch a hair on your head,
To leave you as you are,
And if He felt He had to direct you
Then direct you into my arms.
And I don’t believe in the existence of angels,
But looking at you I wonder if that’s true.
But if I did I would summon them together
And ask them to watch over you,
To each burn a candle for you,
To make bright and clear your path,
And to walk, like Christ, in grace and love
And guide you into my arms.