On Advent and Expectation

Beginning early last spring and well into the hot months of summer, I found myself thinking of the season of Advent, even though that season — the four weeks leading up to Christmas Eve — was months away.

The reason was that for the first time I was “with child.”

For Christians, Advent is a season of “expectant waiting and preparation” for the birth of Jesus at Christmastime. It’s also a reminder of the Israelites’ waiting for the birth of a messiah and Christians’ anticipation of the second coming of Christ.

The word “advent” comes from the Latin “adventus,” meaning “coming” or “arrival.”

“(Advent) helps us engage in the spiritual meaning of waiting and preparing,” a pastor explained to me once. “We are so productivity oriented (today) that just waiting feels like wasted time. The text (for Advent) has to do with waiting for God’s promises to be fulfilled.”

It’s no surprise to me that when people talk about having a baby, they say they are “expecting.” The process is more than the conception or the birth; it is also the monthslong journey of preparing your body and mind to nurture this child, while it is within you and when it comes into the world.

I don’t mean to equate my baby’s arrival with the birth of the Son of God (and my apologies to anyone who may be offended by a comparison). But during those months, as my belly squirmed with life, my heart grew calm with anticipation and I readied myself and my life to embrace this child, I felt the process to be sacred.

That a baby requires nine months (or in my case, eight months!) to develop gives you time to prepare, to challenge yourself, to try to become the person you want to be to parent this child and to welcome it with a sure and open heart.

And pregnancy has a lot of waiting: Waiting to find out if you are pregnant, waiting for the first ultrasound to see the baby. Waiting for test results, first hints of movement, the second ultrasound, finding out (or not) whether it is a boy or girl. Waiting to see which pregnancy symptoms you’ll experience, or for when they will end. Waiting for the big day to arrive when you welcome your baby into the world.

Even so, I felt the months went by quickly. It seemed a matter of days between sitting in a doctor’s office hearing the good news and heading to the hospital with delivery on the horizon. I’m thankful for the intervening months, in which I could at moments rest my palms and fingertips on my belly and reflect on how fortunate I felt to have been chosen to bring this creature into the world.

It was not a journey that I always expected to have. Since my early 20s, doctors told me I likely would have trouble conceiving or carrying a child, and that there could be above-average risks if I did. By the time I was in my late 30s, the odds of the biological clock seemed likely against me as well.

So when at age 38 (with education, career, marriage, etc. finally in alignment) my husband and I decided to at least try, we expected a long journey that might end in disappointment, or at least a different-than-planned outcome.

Considering the biological processes that must be in sync to create a child, pregnancy itself seems a nearly inconceivable result under ideal circumstances. So we were incredibly excited and surprised to learn I became pregnant in the first month of trying. During the following months, we received each milestone reached, each appointment completed, each day and month of continued pregnancy with gratitude, joy and a certain level of tension, thinking of the next goal to meet. When our son was born, we were almost surprised to have gotten so far – yet here he was!

Creating, bearing and raising a child is a solemn responsibility, but also such a tremendous gift.

During Advent, some churches light candles each week leading up to Christmas. Each candle has a meaning: The first week’s candle is hope; the next, peace. Then joy, and love. I can’t think of better values on which to focus when welcoming a child.

Three Pictures I Wish I Had

We like to think that photographs capture a moment in time, make it real and  permanent. We can look at them later and think “that really happened” or remember the events leading up to them or unfolding in the shots. Of course, we know pictures really are just chemicals on paper or pixels on a screen, not the event itself or the people featured.

Even so, there are three photos that I wish I had.

Picture #1

The morning that my water broke, signaling the end of my pregnancy and the beginning of a new chapter of life, we were completely caught off guard. The baby wasn’t due for another 3.5 weeks and we’d just purchased items needed for the labor bag (still in sacks on the kitchen table when I awoke to the sensation of water in the bed – no labor bag packed) the previous afternoon.

A quick call to my doctor resulted in orders to head to the hospital immediately, as I was not apparently in labor and the early rupture of the amniotic sac might not mean a good outcome for the baby. My husband and I rushed around the house, throwing items in a suitcase and trying not to feel too freaked out over what the day might entail.

We loaded the suitcase, birthing ball, towels and ourselves into the car, still thinking – now, I realize unrealistically – that maybe the baby wasn’t really coming and this was a false alarm. Needless to day, 16 hours later, we were parents for the first time.

A friend of mine, faced with a similar situation – but with twins – had the presence of mind to have her husband snap a picture of her before they headed to the hospital, even if the babies weren’t on their way. (However, they were, and all ended up being well). I wish I’d had the foresight to do the same.

The last picture I have of me pregnant is at 35 weeks, a fuzzy shot I took of myself in the bedroom mirror. My mom had scheduled a visit from California that was intended to be a few weeks before the baby came. We planned to do last-minute baby preparations, share mother-daughter time and take pictures of us together. She wanted me to pose for a picture next to the baby’s crib to recreate a similar photo my dad took of her when she was pregnant with me.

As it turned out, she was able to come a few days after my son’s birth instead, for which I’m thankful. But I do miss the idea of having captured the hope and anticipation of those final weeks, my big belly and the excitement of being about to welcome our baby into the world. I would have liked to show those pictures to my son one day when I tell him about how happy we were that he was about to join our lives.

Picture #2

When my husband and I got married, my dad was in the hospital being treated for late-stage cancer. In the months leading up to the wedding, we had high hopes that the chemotherapy would be effective and he not only might be able to be part of the wedding but could be well. He went with us to the menswear store to select outfits for the men in the wedding party and got measured for his tuxedo (black with a dark gray vest).

But the day of the wedding, he was too sick and his immune system too weakened to leave the hospital. Up until the time I headed into the church sanctuary with my mom, who walked me down the aisle, I hoped he would still arrive. It wouldn’t have surprised me if he’d arranged for a last-minute attendance, showing up being pushed in a wheelchair or even on a hospital gurney. That may been a more dramatic entrance than he would have liked, but having him there would have made the day complete.

After the reception, my husband and I went to the hospital to see my dad. I grabbed my camera before we headed out of the parking garage in our wedding attire, through the hospital entrance, down the halls and into his room. He sat propped up in the hospital bed, his face dominated by a smile. He had developed a fever during the day and wasn’t feeling well but he climbed out of bed and stood between us in his hospital gown as a nurse snapped several pictures of us together. Seeing him on our wedding day was my favorite part of the day (no offense to my husband, who I think would understand).

On the Wednesday of our weeklong honeymoon, I realized with a sick feeling in my stomach that there was no film in my camera. I did not have the pictures with my dad after all. On Saturday, my mom called to say my dad had taken a turn for the worse and we’d better come home. We did. He spent the next week in the critical care unit, mostly delirious or unresponsive. Over the next several weeks he recovered from the infection that almost killed him, but could no longer receive chemotherapy, allowing the cancer to run rampant. He was discharged to home hospice and died the next month.

I have a lot of pictures with my dad. I even took some with him after he came home from the hospital, with me wearing my wedding dress. In them, he already seems distant, a man not fully inhabiting his frail body. I treasure the time I spent with him and every picture I have. But I’ve never stopped kicking myself for forgetting to check the film on that special day.

Picture #3

My sister and I were talking the other day about a memory we have of our dad. It was 2005, the year before he died. My sister’s friend had brought her baby boy, Gram, over to my parents’ house for a visit. My dad got such a kick out of that little boy. He carried him around the house, his face aglow. My dad was already sick then, his hair lost to chemotherapy. But we could tell that being around that little boy made him feel happy and alive.

Someone snapped a picture of them together that day, which my sister recently found and sent to me. My dad is standing in the living room, holding Gram against his chest. Gram’s bootied feet dangle beneath my dad’s forearm. My dad’s head is thrown back, eyes closed, his mouth wide open in a laugh. It’s as though, with that baby in his arms, he is experiencing a moment of ecstasy.

When I see the back of Gram’s little head in the picture, covered in soft brown hair like my son’s, I can’t help but allow my mind to fill in the blanks, to see my 4-month-old boy there in my dad’s arms. How I wish my dad could have experienced being a grandfather and for them to have gotten to know each other. It would have been worth so much more than a picture.