The doctors call it cancer, the kind that attacks the bones. There are treatments but no known medical cures. So a couple times a week, my mother in-law drives him down to the edge of a cliff. Somebody carved a road in the side of the cliff, and at the bottom, after your ears have popped several times, two mighty rivers meet like ancient, dueling serpents. And marksmen in white coats ask my father in-law to stand perfectly still while they shoot chemical bullets at the cancer apples clinging to his fragile bones.
I suspect they’re the best sharp shooters we have in the industry, and so we’re really quite thankful. But I’m not sure they fully understand. It’s easy to forget that he’s in labor. We’re all pregnant. Once you’re alive you’re pregnant. And as my wife has pointed out to me on more than one occasion: once you’re pregnant, you’re committed. There’s no turning back. No matter how the pregnancy goes, no matter what: there will be pain, there will be labor, there will be a delivery.
I know my father in-law is in labor because of the pain. The pain grows. I’ve watched my wife go through pregnancy and delivery a number of times. I’d recognize it anywhere. I remember how the small aches and pains grow. I remember how the discomfort increases. Acceptable sleeping positions dwindle and then there really isn’t one. And there’s sleeplessness, trips to the restroom. Barely noticeable at first, the Braxton Hicks begin tightening, gripping the body. They will grow. They will intensify. The body is practicing for the big game, for the main event.
But the whole pregnancy is practice for the main event. The new life will feed around the clock; the new life will not understand our sleep cycles. The new life will need attention, care, vigilance. And yet, that new life will make us smile, make us laugh, make us gape in wonder.
My wife says that being in labor feels like dying. And I believe her. I’ve held her as she moans, as she breathes through the pain, as it grows sharper and louder in her body. A woman goes into labor like a man goes into battle, into combat. So we praise her. We encourage her. She’s our hero. She makes us proud.
I have a daughter buried in the humid South, and I have a son nestled under towering Spruce in the North. They have already finished their labors ahead of me. They have already won their crowns, their medals, and they are waiting for us on platforms with flags waving proudly behind them while their anthem plays.
But a stillbirth, a miscarriage is also a warning for all of us, a picture, a parable. On the one hand, we plant these seeds in the ground, laughing at Death because those who sow in tears always reap with shouts of joy. And we already have the Last Word. We have met Him. He was born on Christmas. But on the other hand, the warning is in the loss, in the dark, in the sorrow because it is possible to live and labor and lose it all. It’s possible to go through the motions of planting, to drive various tractors over the field of your life and just be playing at farmer. It’s possible to sow nothing but wind and reap only whirlwind.
Of course you never ask a woman if she’s pregnant. You just don’t. At some point it may be safe to ask when she is due, but even then it’s important to ask with a certain combination of care and casualness. If you’re too concerned, it may sound like you think she should be going into labor any minute when she’s still got two months to go. Or maybe she was due last week, and now you’re just rubbing it in. Or maybe you think she looks funny. You never can be too careful. It’s probably best just to congratulate her when you see the baby.
But if you’re alive, you are pregnant. You’re pregnant with something. You’re either pregnant with life or death. You’re either expecting new life or you’re expecting sorrow and pain and loss. Once you’re alive, once you’re pregnant, there’s no turning back. There’s no other option.
My father in-law is expecting a boy. He’s a clever boy. He’s a strong boy with thick wavy hair and deep green eyes and a quick smile. He has a mind for math but he loves history. He loves to tell stories, and he loves to go to where the stories happened. He loves to act them out, to think about what it was like to live then, to see the hills where they fought and lived and loved. He loves the ocean and taking walks. But he loves a good book too and good food and good drink. He loves to talk, really talk, to have a good conversation.
His boy will be named William, but we’ll call him Bill for short. Which is of course his name. Because as it turns out, he is in labor with himself. He is pregnant with himself, and at some point before too long he’s going to be born.
I watch him smile through the pain. I listen to him joking with his nurses, thanking his doctors, making fun of quirky receptionists. He laughs at himself. That’s how he’s carrying. He carries joyfully. He carries gratefully. You can tell when they carry like that, when they carry well, that it’s going to be a good life born.
He tells the truth as well. It hurts, and it hurts more and more. It’s getting more intense. My wife holds him as he labors, as he breathes through the pain. And we cheer him on. He’ll be out under the lights soon. The big game, the main event is approaching. We wear his name and number on our jerseys. He’s our hero. He makes us thankful. He makes us proud.
But we know this story. We know what happens. We know the Last Word because we have met the Last Word. And He was born once like us, and labored for us and then He was born again from the barren womb of the grave and somehow at the same time, He gave birth to us. And now our lives are pregnant with Life, pregnant with His life because our lives have been safely hidden in His.
It will be hard. Labor is always hard, always painful, always a kind of death, but then comes life, then comes new life, then comes laughter and tears of joy and we gape in wonder at the beauty. And so despite the coming pain, we can hardly wait to meet my new father in-law, my father in-law made new. We can hardly wait to meet ourselves made new. We can hardly wait to see him come walking down to meet us with his medals, telling us stories of men and wars and talking, really talking, and laughing like a boy in the sun.