Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity
“An Everlasting Life” first appeared in the Winter 1997 issue of Touchstone.
An Everlasting Life
Remembering Mary Denise Sauer July 12, 1995—August 26, 1995
by James L. Sauer
In the summer of 1995, my wife Paula gave birth to a little girl we named Mary. Mary was not a normal child. Her genes were all mixed up. Mary was doomed from day one to die.
We had no hint that there would be any trouble. The ultrasound had picked up nothing amiss. We had prepared her crib and painted the room. All was ready for the normal joys of a newborn child. But then Mary came and she was not the kind of child we were expecting at all.
Dr. B. looked troubled that day in the delivery room. Things were not going right. Delivery was too slow. He kept feeling what he thought were the irregularities of a face wrongly positioned in the birth canal. But Mary was not face forward. It was the irregularity of human deformity. And when our daughter’s head crested from the womb, there was a hole the size of a silver dollar that exposed the rough membrane of her brain and a mouth that opened wide into the cavity of the nose. Dr. Evans, the neonatalogist, was rushed in to pronounce the death sentence. Prognosis: short term. What was that prognosis—long term? “No, short term,” she reiterated. This was the baby that God had sent us. This was his gift. This was the child we received with gratitude.
We sent out this announcement to my work community a week after her birth in an effort to explain our strangely mixed feelings:
We are happy to announce that on July 12th, Mary Denise Sauer, 8 lb. 15 oz., was born at Chester County Hospital.
Mary is a special child created by God for his unique purposes. Mary was born with an extra 13th chromosome (Patau syndrome). On the exterior, she has a cleft palate and a scalp lesion. On the interior, a hole in her heart and neurological malformations, which will result in a short life of a few weeks or even months.
The Psalmist says: “Children are a blessing from the Lord.” And Mary is a blessing to us. She has already been the focus of prayers, tears, gifts, calls, and acts of charity. Her presence in the world is advancing Christ’s kingdom. (Something that, unfortunately, cannot always be said of everyone.)
Mary reminds us of our own helpless, short life; and God’s inexpressible love for us in the humanity of Jesus Christ our Savior, God’s incarnate Son, “who was conceived by the Holy Spirit…and suffered under Pontius Pilate.”
We rejoice that Mary has come to be with us a short time.
I BELIEVE IN GOD THE FATHER, MAKER OF HEAVEN AND EARTH…
Life strikes me as very odd at times. Shakespeare compared it to players, walking shadows, strutting and fretting, tales told by idiots. And it is very much like a story. Very seldom is it heroic; mostly it is idiotic. Vanity upon vanity; trivia upon trivia. Repetitious events strung out. Work, work, work. Lost hours. Things break down. The basement is backed up with sewage. Didn’t get the raise. Sisyphian tasks that lead nowhere. Many times it’s tragic. Tragi-comic. Death is always at the door. Bills to pay. The checkbook doesn’t add up. Yet somehow, we know it has meaning. Life is a gift. When we hold a baby in our hands we are looking at a miracle. We are created beings, fearfully and wonderfully made. God is in charge. There is a Maker who is making sense out of all the senselessness. There is an Author who is writing the history of man’s suffering and man’s redemption. And yet our baby is dead. And I can’t give a nice theological reason for it. All I can do is weep as I drive home from work alone in my car. I believe, Lord, help my unbelief.
…AND I BELIEVE IN JESUS CHRIST HIS ONLY SON, OUR LORD; WHO WAS CONCEIVED BY THE HOLY GHOST…
I don’t think we consider enough what it means to have had God become one of us. The Incarnation is a miracle of incredible proportion. Humanity is generally so self-centered that we don’t realize what petty insects we must appear to angels, let alone God. Yet he loves us. Yes, it is amazing that humanity has produced people like J. S. Bach or St. Francis; but we also produced some nasty slugs like Heinrich Himmler and Idi Amin. We may be the crown of creation, but we are animals nevertheless. And not just animals, but savage sinners. We eat. We excrete. We smell. We copulate. Good stuff. But we also fornicate. We blaspheme. We hate. We steal. We disobey our parents. We murder. We are helplessly dependent and wickedly miserable creatures. Since Adam every one of us, as our little Mary, has been born deformed, perhaps not physically, but certainly morally. The miracle is that we are not all physically deformed; the amazing thing is the relative uniformity of Creation. Into this mess the Creator took on the form of a baby. God was made man at conception. Helpless in the womb, as we are helpless, he came forth as one of us.
…BORN OF THE VIRGIN MARY, SUFFERED UNDER PONTIUS PILATE, WAS CRUCIFIED, DEAD, AND BURIED…
Our Mary suffered a little. Perhaps we suffered more than she. Why must we suffer? That’s the way it is. It’s not a normal world. Why must babies be born with extra chromosomes? Because it’s a broken world. And yet the Lord God of the Universe, the Creator of Heaven and Earth, is still in charge. It’s not a mistake. It’s not chance. He allows it. We are born for his purposes. He chooses it. We suffer from pain and stupidity. History goes on. Pilate, Caesar, Mr. President. We are stuck under leaders whom God has allowed who are as sinful and as stupid as we are—but with more opportunity to do evil. We get taxed and taxed some more. They lie to us, and tax even more. Death and taxes. And what do I do? I cite our little dead baby on my 1040 Form as a tax exemption for the short time she was here. I mark down her social security number so that some bureaucrat is happy. “And a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed.” The tax rolls are the Goat’s Book of Death. Then we buried our baby.
…HE DESCENDED INTO HELL…
Some people have known hell. Dachau. Buchanwald. Treblinka. Kampuchea. The Armenian Genocide. The Gulag. Sometimes I get a flat tire, get a tooth filled, have a check that bounces, or get a sinus infection. I suppose that’s a kind of suffering. And I do sit through academic committee meetings—that’s a kind of hell. Ever the pessimist, I sometimes feel as if society is falling apart, that hell is about to break out around us. What’s holding it back? God. His Spirit. His Church. “And the gates of Hell shall not prevail. . .” It was hard having a baby who was going to die. But when Mary was born it wasn’t hell, in fact, it was more like a taste of the Cross, of heaven and hell mixed together—to be drunk down, bitter and sweet at the same time. Can you drink from the same cup as I drink? Yes, we can, Lord. How, I don’t know. For it was he who descended into hell, not us; and it was he who bore our sins; and it was he who bore the brokenness of all the broken babies. “Suffer the little children to come unto me.” I went through our personal hell in a kind of daze. Paula, on the other hand, was constantly working as nurse and mother. She would get up every night and, like the Statue of Liberty, she’d hold above her head a small container of formula connected to a feeding tube shoved down Mary’s little throat. The baby fed and resting, Paula would cry each night as she held her dying baby. I slept on, the self-centered, oblivious husband.
…THE THIRD DAY HE ROSE AGAIN FROM THE DEAD…
If Christ is not risen, we are fools. Life is just a series of meaningless, suffering events. If we are just evolved animals, then we are just suffering the process of evolution. Be content, you are advancing randomness to the glory of nothing! Babies come, babies die. Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher.
…HE ASCENDED INTO HEAVEN, AND SITTETH ON THE RIGHT HAND OF GOD THE FATHER ALMIGHTY; FROM THENCE HE SHALL COME TO JUDGE THE LIVING AND THE DEAD.
I am not a good man. People think I’m good. (My wife knows better). People think I’m a happy intellectual joker. But I’m a miserable sinner. Without Christ interceding for me I am lost. Without Christ dying for me, I am doomed. Lust. Greed. Anger. Pride. Despair. More lust. These are a few of my favorite sins. And yet he is returning in triumph. And because of his merit I will stand before my Maker. When he returns, I want to be on the side of God. I want to be on the side of the babies. This is why abortion is such a horrible thing. Kill a little baby like Mary because she is deformed? Why, you’re killing the image of Christ among us! We have very few opportunities to serve truly helpless people. “But when did we torture you, Lord, when did we suck your brains out, when did we cut you apart limb from limb?” “Whenever you did it to the least of these, you have done it unto me.” Thank you, Lord, for letting us have Mary; otherwise, we could not have served you.
…I BELIEVE IN THE HOLY GHOST; THE HOLY CATHOLIC CHURCH…
Mary was an ecumenical baby. When her head popped out of her mother’s womb, I’m not exactly sure what the doctor and nurses felt. In the birthing room everyone was quiet, there was nothing much to say. Sadness reigned. But from the moment she came, the Spirit began to move. Choked with emotion, I prayed with my wife and gave thanks for Mary, the hospital staff standing with us as witnesses. Later I called our pastor, Wayne Brauning, and our friends, Tom and Becky Albrecht; they came, and with the hospital staff again as a drafted congregation, we prayed and baptized the baby.
Weeks later when Mary died, we held the memorial service at the First Baptist Church in Downingtown, Penn., pastored by Chuck Vuolo. Both Wayne and Chuck took part in the service attended by over 200 people. The gospel was preached. We sang “Away in the Manger” and all four verses of “Jesus Loves Me” (I didn’t even know it had other verses!) Perhaps the most startling thing was that a prochoice woman attending Mary’s memorial service became prolife. How the little people defeat the strong! The pebble drops in the pool and it becomes a great wave. “And you shall call his name Jesus for he shall save his people from their sins.”
Seeing how much the First Baptist folk had done, some people asked us, “Is this your church?” We answered yes and no. No, we don’t attend here; but yes, yes, this is our Church, we are part of their body, and they are part of Mary’s body, and we are all part of Christ’s body.
…THE COMMUNION OF THE SAINTS…
One of the things that the short life of our daughter Mary taught us was the doctrine of the “communion of saints,” the vital interrelation of the body of Christ. Our own church, Immanuel Presbyterian, rallied round us, as did scores of others. During her frail life, Mary was the focus of notes, meals, visits, prayers, gifts, and acts of kindness—all done in the name of Christ. People all around the country were praying for us—from Chicago, Idaho, Texas, Buffalo, not to mention our own area. Later I found out that people were praying for her on the other side of the world in Africa. We were adopted as a Christian mission by the youth group of a local Baptist church who came to work at our house. Three Catholic ladies brought us special holy water that had been blessed by their bishop.
And we also know that prayers were given by Presbyterians, Baptists, Plymouth Brethren, Independents, Eastern Orthodox, Episcopalians, and Roman Catholics. Ecumenical Mary had brought unity in a way that ecumenical councils could not.
…THE FORGIVENESS OF SINS;
Death makes many people bitter. They can’t forgive God for exercising his divine prerogatives. They didn’t ask to be born. It was a gift. And the potter can do what he wants with the clay. I read that somewhere. (Who says Presbyterians can’t write anything without mentioning predestination?)
Oh, I suppose I could write one of those nice “how-to” pieces with the ten steps to take when you have a baby that’s deformed and dying; but honestly, life isn’t always neatly wrapped up. “And they wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger.” From the moment he was born they were preparing for his funeral.
I said earlier that Mary was born to die. But then, I was born to die. Paula was born to die. You were born to die. And thank the Lord that Jesus was born to die. “For without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sins.” Strange logic from the divine mind—but without it we are doomed.
…THE RESURRECTION OF THE BODY…
Mary was always half here and half in the next world. The first night she spent in the hospital she turned blue. She forgot to breathe at times. The signals from her brain were like two sets of computer software running simultaneously. Three times in the weeks we had her with us she choked and forgot to breathe. Three times we administered resuscitation and she returned to us. Once after church, she stopped breathing and we stopped our car and tried to bring her back to life on the hood. The children in the car didn’t know what to do—they just cried. I told the truth: “Their tears were prayers to God.” He heard them, and gave Mary back to us.
It was not so at the end. She would stop breathing, look at heaven, return, resume breathing. Stop breathing, look again, return. Stop breathing, look again, and then look again, and stay. We were blessed to have our Mary for the few days she was given. I do not know whether she will be a child or grown in heaven. I do not know whether a cleft palate is a badge of glory in heaven the way pierced hands are. I believe I do know at the Last Day I will see her. She will meet me in the clouds with him.
On September 8th, 1996, a little over a year later, Paula gave birth to another baby, Martha, our eighth child, our seventh surviving child, our fourth girl, our third surviving girl, sister of Jacob, Adam, Joseph, Ariel, Isaac, Abigail, and sister of Mary, who is in the hands of God, as we all are.
…AND LIFE EVERLASTING. AMEN.
Contributing Editor James L. Sauer is the Director of Warner Memorial Library at Eastern College in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. His previous Touchstone articles include “Three Sisters & the Puritan” (Summer 1993) and “Lessons from the Nursery” (Summer 1991).
“An Everlasting Life” first appeared in the Winter 1997 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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