“And how is the little one enjoying vacation?”
I was lying on my back on a hotel room bed, with one hand holding the phone to my ear and the other hand resting on my pregnant belly.
“He’s liking it just fine, Mom,” I answered. Then, feeling a small quiver of movement below my navel, I added, “And he says ‘hello’ to his grandma.”
Exactly three weeks later I was again lying on my back, this time on a hospital room table. I was afraid to look at the monitor, so I fixed my eyes on a corner of the ceiling and tried hard to think of pleasant things. It was a sunny August day, and my seven children were probably having a grand time at my friend Jean’s place. Jean and her family lived in a huge old house with lots of good hiding places, and a backyard with an in-ground pool. I imagined the kids splashing happily in the pool, and then drying off and heading indoors for a round of hide-and-seek…
A woman materialized in my line of vision. She spoke.
“Mrs. Behe, there isn’t any… We can’t find a…”
“It’s okay,” I managed. “I understand.”
I felt sorry for the soft-hearted nurse, who was struggling to find the words to tell me that my son was dead. But it wasn’t okay. And I didn’t really understand. My baby’s heart should have been beating. I was 24 weeks pregnant, and miscarriages weren’t supposed to happen after the first trimester. Besides, I’d already had seven problem-free pregnancies, and my babies, thanks be to God, had all been healthy and beautiful. It wasn’t okay. Not at all.
I dreaded telling my children that their brother Nicholas had died. I dreaded the pain of childbirth without the reward of new life, the heartache of arranging for Nicholas’ burial, the anguish of resuming day-to-day life with an empty womb. But what I feared most was that Nicholas would be lost to me forever.
Nearly every mother is familiar with the terror that strikes when she loses sight of her young child in a public place. In a matter of seconds, her panic will escalate to the point where she fears she will never see her child again. It is one of the worst tragedies that can afflict a mother, the tragedy of being separated from her child.
So my separation from Nicholas was a heavy burden, made even harder to bear by the fear that it might be eternal. Until Nicholas died, I hadn’t thought much about the question of whether unbaptized babies go to heaven, but the answer to that question had suddenly become very important to me.
It was the first thing I asked my pastor, as my husband and I sat in his office that evening. My labor was not going to be induced until the next day, so Mike and I had the opportunity to speak with Monsignor before the actual delivery took place.
Monsignor was very solicitous. He took the time to explain the Church’s position on the salvation of unbaptized babies, which is found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
“As regards children who have died without Baptism, the Church can only entrust them to the mercy of God, as she does in her funeral rites for them. Indeed, the great mercy of God who desires that all men should be saved, and Jesus’ tenderness toward children which caused him to say: ‘Let the children come to me, do not hinder them,’ allow us to hope that there is a way of salvation for children who have died without Baptism.” (No. 1261)
And while “the Church does not know of any means other than Baptism that assures entry into eternal beatitude,” the Catechism also states that “God has bound salvation to the sacrament of Baptism, but he himself is not bound by his sacraments.” (No. 1257) This means that, although we are bound to receive grace through the sacraments, God is not constrained to dispense sacramental graces only through the sacraments; in fact, He can do so in any time, place, or circumstance. This is why “baptism of blood” and “baptism of desire” have the same salvific effects as ritual baptism. Monsignor’s words gave me both reason for hope and strength for what was to come.
The next morning, soon after I entered the hospital delivery room, the prep nurse asked if I wanted to hold Nicholas once he was born. I hesitated, afraid that doing so would bring home the cold reality of my son’s death, and cause me to completely fall apart. But my doctor gently encouraged me, so I consented. Once labor began, I prayed that the doctor and nurses and technicians had all been wrong, and that my baby was still alive and eager to be born. But some hours later, I gave birth to a still, silent baby that my doctor quietly baptized. Nicholas was wrapped in a blanket and handed to me. I couldn’t bear to look at him, but I held close his small form, still warm from my own body. Thankfully, I didn’t fall apart.
Both the funeral Mass and burial took place the following day, and as often happens with sad memories, my brain did not retain a clear recollection of either. But I do remember standing by the little white casket and speaking to Nicholas in the silence of my heart. The words I spoke then are the same ones I’ve repeated over and over in the fourteen years since Nicholas’ birth and death. I tell him that his mama loves him. I ask him to watch over his sisters and brothers.
And I say, “Arrivederci in cielo,” meaning, “Until we meet again in heaven.”
Copyright 2012 Celeste Behe