“You don’t tell your story so people will know you better. You tell your story so people will hear their story in your own.”
“Any sorrow can be borne if a story can be told about it.”
Karen Blixen, quoted by Richard Lischer in The End of Words
Her name is Gretchen.
Is, not was.
I have wanted to tell this story thirty times. I have wanted to tell this story for thirty years.
When the long summer days grow shorter, and children start back to school, and the next break on the calendar is “Labor Day,” I know what is coming: back-to-back birthdays. My daughter, Lindsay, has a birthday on September 5th, and her mother, Leann, has a birthday on September 6th, and in the midst of the joy and celebration of the bundling of these birthdays, comes the sorrow of a memorial that must be made in the midst of them: birthdays and deathdays. (FYI: As if we must hide from the stark reality of the latter, the spellchecker red-underlines “deathdays” as misspelled, but not “birthdays.”)
Life and death, birth and burial, always held in tension on this day. Highest joy in one hand, and deepest sorrow in the other. Prayers of simultaneous thanksgiving and remembrance, are offered. My fingers are fastened together as tightly as the memory of the good and the bad that I feel deep in my being.
Her name is Gretchen.
Since Leann was a little girl, she had chosen a name—actually made up the spelling—of her child, if she had a girl. Having “conditions” when one gets married is probably not the wisest of things, but I knew this was a condition, or a law, or an irrevocable beneficiary, if I was going to have this one as my wife. “Kerra” would be the name of our first girl. And it was. At least I got to put my own mark on that naming, by picking out the middle name: “Leann,” after her mother. I scored points on two counts that day: living up to the pre-marital child-naming condition, and honoring a mother with a namesake, all in one fell swoop. Meet “Kerra Leann.”
But I had my own childhood naming ideas.
They began to form when I was in junior high, and became interested in my surname, and its connections to Germany, and the little bit of family history that my father could tell me. I thought if I ever had a little girl, it might suit her to have a German girl’s name: “Gretchen,” I thought. “That seems pretty ‘German.'”
As I grew older I honestly do not remember giving much more thought to naming my little girl “Gretchen,” and I certainly never considered it important enough to be a deal breaker for selecting a life-mate. I do remember I had picked out a little girl’s name, but not a little boy’s name.
We found out we were expecting a second time in the spring of 1990. Kerra was three years old, and the right age to be really excited about a new baby. The whole family was excited. As I recall, my mother had suggested not sharing a baby’s name before the baby was born, because then one would have to put up with explaining, and defending the choice right up until the day of the birth. I thought that was wise council. Until it wasn’t.
At about 22 weeks into the pregnancy, I accompanied Leann to an obstetrician visit. An ultrasound was scheduled, and she thought I might want to be there for the news that might arise from the examination. When the doctor walked in the room, where the two of us were waiting, and he smiled and asked: “What’s he doing here?” we found out the ultrasound would be scheduled on this visit–not done. But as the doctor felt and prodded and listened to a rounding stomach with his stethoscope, he announced: “Well…maybe we will be doing an ultrasound today. I think I hear two heartbeats.”
With no history of twins on either side of our family, we were quite shocked and surprised by the news. A few minutes later, on another floor of the doctor’s office building, we found out we were indeed expecting twins, and, at the same time, there were some concerns about a significant difference in the rate of growth of the two babies. So we received a referral to yet another doctor’s office in the neighborhood, and the term “specialist” started being thrown around like it was a sign of being privileged.
There was long enough between the two ultrasounds to grab lunch, call our parents to let them know of the exciting news, and to ask for prayers, as we moved toward learning more about the possibilities of a very complicated pregnancy.
At the second-in-the-same-day ultrasound appointment, which included a (then) new technology, Doppler ultrasound, which measures the flow of blood, the specialist informed us that our identical twins—girls— had a rare (and rarely positive outcome) condition known as “twin transfusion.” Being able to see the flow of blood confirmed that “Baby B” was receiving used and contaminated blood from “Baby A” through an umbilical cord that was not returning directly to the mother. So Baby B was getting blood from the mother, and used blood from her twin sister. Because the outcome for the babies, and sometimes for the mother, was so dire, the doctor recommended terminating the pregnancy.
We decided to just hang on to the very small percentage of hope, and see what would happen.
Although I have spent a fair amount of time and money on my formal theological education, this was the school at which I learned the most about prayer, and how God answers prayer (or doesn’t), and about God being in control (or not), and how God’s plan (as some would frame it) just couldn’t be God’s plan, if what eventually happened in “the plan” for Baby A and Baby B was actually written out on God’s own creative drawing board.
In the next calls we made to our parents, the previous nervous laughter and “what-if’s” about twins, was filled with sounds without words—mostly sobbing—on both ends of the line.
“We will pray….we will ask everyone we know to pray,” was the response that we got, as we rolled out our breaking news. It happened. People really did pass the word, and people prayed. I know this, because I received many a note and letter from people I’d never met, who were third or fourth in succession of hearing this news that had been passed from somebody who knew us, to somebody who didn’t. It was astounding. But somehow, “Pray for Baby A and Baby B” just didn’t seem quite appropriate. They needed names.
I guess if ours had been a typical one-baby, second-girl pregnancy, Leann and I may have had to arm wrestle over our baby’s name. “You named the first one. It’s my turn this time!” Now we needed two names, and we really didn’t particularly have even one name that either of us were insistent on using. So we both got to pick a name, and I got my wish: “Gretchen. I’ve always thought Gretchen would be a pretty name for a girl.” Leann liked “Lindsay spelled with an ‘a.’” So we both got our choices. We took advantage of needing two names to honor two other important women in our lives: Leann’s mom, Marie, and my mom, Jane. I’m not sure exactly how we decided “Baby A would be ‘Gretchen Marie,’ and Baby B would be ‘Lindsay Jane,’” but that is how it worked out. When I think back on it, I wonder if Leann was thinking: “Baby A has a better chance of making it. I got my ‘Kerra,’ and so Matt should have his ‘Gretchen?’”
Her name is Gretchen.
Is, not was.
Lindsay Jane lived. Gretchen Marie did not.
I’ve written a few words about that sad day, that one can find here. But what I write in this space is not about the sadness of Gretchen’s death. It is about the thirty years of sadness of not hearing her name.
Every now and then, I write something that brings an unexpected gift to me. I never write with that intention, but it certainly happens more often than I expect, and certainly more than I deserve. This writing has been no different. I believe paying attention and telling the truth are the two most important things a writer must do. I believe the same for plumbers as I do for poets, and the same for seamstresses as I do for songwriters. Pay attention. Tell the truth.
I have loved this passage from the Book of Isaiah for a long time. I have never really associated it with my memories of Lindsay’s birth and Gretchen’s death until this very writing.
I have prayerfully read these words from the prophet, Isaiah, to people who are about to have serious surgery, and I have read it to people who are going through a really hard place. I read it to my life-long, dearest friend, on her death bed, about three days before she died, and a Holy Presence wrapped me and her, and our other two dearest friends who were present for that special farewell, in an embrace as strong as the Universe, and as gentle as a whisper of love.
But now thus says the LORD,
he who created you, O Jacob,
he who formed you, O Israel:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.
For I am the LORD your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. (Isaiah 43:1-3a NRSV)
The Holy Presence wraps around me the very same on this day.
There is truth in every line of this Word from God, through the prophet Isaiah. There is truth for Gretchen, and truth for Lindsay, and truth for their dad. I would be safe in saying there is truth here for you too, dear reader, whether it is truth you need on this day, or truth you might need on a day to come.
God has called you by name, and you are God’s.
Gretchen, I have called you by name, and you are mine—will always be mine.
Your name partly lives on with your sister, Lindsay Jane-Marie, and, in some sense, because you are genetic copies of each other, so do you.
Gretchen is your name.