Saturday, October 18, 2014

In Praise of the Small, Common Life

This week has been incredibly dramatic for the Benjamin family. Today, I packed up my newborn in our minivan. I put Frozen into the DVD player. I added a newly repacked hospital back to my car trunk because my son came inches from needed a hospital admittance today. (Preemies are delicate creatures, even the hefty 8 pound and 36 week variety).

Yesterday, I heard about my son's bad lab reports from a telephone call at 3:30 PM.  I started panicking when I thought about going back to the hospital for the fourth time in less than 4 weeks. I was backtracking on all my bold prayer promises last week. "Lord, I know I said that I'd handle anything NICU related if the baby came early, but please, I can't handle another 72 hour hospital admission. Let me off this hook!"

I thought about telling my husband that it was his turn to go to the hospital with our kid. I'd just stay at home, pump breast milk and enjoy sleeping at night with all the lights off and on a firm mattress that doesn't artificially rock like the sea.

Today started out eerily like last Saturday morning. Our son was in trouble. We weren't sure what to expect, but we bravely set out to the ER ready to do anything we needed to do in order to get him better.

In the middle of the wait for the doctor, who would decide if we were going back home today, or spending the night in a NICU room, I sang quietly to my sleepy son.  I thought about how much of routine family life is spent in boredom. Out of love for my sick kids, I spent time in uncomfortable settings. I'm bored. I'm tired. I'm uneasy. Ever since I got pregnant eight months ago, I spend a large part of my day uncertain about the future.

Somehow family life keeps going on, even in uncomfortable settings. My newborn son still needed to eat. He needed to get changed. He needed to be soothed and comforted. My 2 1/2 year old learned the names of every African Safari animal in her plastic toy bucket. Who cares that she learned their names in the doctor's waiting room and not on our dining room table? Toddlers can have fun almost anywhere.

My husband and I got some praise today for our large family. We also got some scorn. We had some hard moments. We had some good moments. My kids amaze me. My kids annoy me. At the end of a long day, 8 people crammed together in my tiny bedroom to watched "Edge of Tomorrow" on my Xfinity TV screen. I'm so grateful for Family Movie Night on Saturdays. It's such a soothing ritual for the hard weeks.

Today was a totally average day, even though we just added a new family member.

Tonight, I read about Pope Francis' remarks after the Synod of the Family. (Thank you Leila!) I didn't follow the Synod reports this week. Instead, I lived out my vocation. I lived the highs and lows of family life intensely. Sometimes, it's easy to feel overshadowed by the other vocations in our church--the call to the priesthood, religious life or the deaconate.  More and more, I'm becoming more fond of the ordinary greatness of married life. I'm called to love this one man for life. I'm called to nurture these specific children. My life is not always calm or predictable. Yet in the center of my activity, I am calm.

My life has meaning.

Today, the doctor told me that I don't have to go back to the hospital with my son. I felt grateful.

I walked out of the ER with my newborn son in his car seat and we caused a scene. Some nurses were staring at us because he was so small. One nurse started talking about us because he's my sixth and I look so healthy after a c-section seven days ago. She looked at the both of us with an admiring smile. Her co-worker said "That poor thing!" without looking up from her computer screen.

"I'm lucky to have six!" I said boldly to the top of her bowed head.

I'm blessed! Everyone who does this marriage thing, and who takes both the lumps and the joys that our individual marriage entails is blessed. It's okay if we never get a chance to address a Pope or Bishop personally about our lives. They each know our story. They are all encouraged by our Hope.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Our New Baby!

Celebrating John Francis Benjamin, born October 11, 2014

 This party idea totally impressed all our nurses. We have a "0" Birthday party planned for each new baby. We bring a cake into the hospital room. We buy party supplies. Then each older siblings gets a present from the new baby. The new gifts (legos and play dough) keep everyone occupied during the first sibling visit. We chose to have a pirate theme to celebrate the first new Benjamin brother in 10 years. The $2 nerf swords from Target kept all the little girls happy for over an hour. Notice how much my 10 year old son is in love with his new little brother! Alex never held his little sisters like this when they were newborns.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Our New Baby!

Thank you for every prayer, every email, every phone call, and every note of encouragement from my readers!

We are happy to announce the arrival of John Francis Benjamin, born on October 11, 2014 at 10:19 AM and weighing in at 8 lbs and 4 oz.

The baby earned the nickname "Johnny Drama" for his crazy arrival into this world. It was pretty much the worse case scenario for us. My water broke at 8 AM on Saturday morning while I was at home. Within minutes, I developed a complication. My husband started driving me to the hospital in my nightgown. On the way, things got so bad that I called 911. Then I crawled out of our car into a waiting ambulance. I gave birth at a random hospital, one that we'd never seen before, which was on the way to my regular OB practice.

I felt so bad for the new OB because he had to operate on me totally blind. My regular OB doctors had been so careful to document multiple sonograms and tons of tests before my sixth c-section, but none of my electronic medical records were easily available when I most needed them.

Yet God is so cool! My emergency c-section went textbook perfect. My son was born with an apgar score of 9, despite being born before 37 weeks. He came out perfect and crying loudly. Within 10 minutes of my son appearing, the main surgeon was soliciting ideas about where to take his visiting parents to get good crab cakes for lunch. I couldn't believe it! My sixth c-section ended up being so easy that my whole surgery team started talking about food while they were still sewing my womb back together.

The baby and I are both under a microscope during these past 48 hours. So far, the baby has managed to dodge a trip to the NICU. He has some minor issues with being a born a preemie. I feel so patient with every hiccup he has because I know that the situation could have been much worse.

I'm actually having the easiest recovery ever from surgery. It's amazing how great my medical team is here.

My kids are totally in love with their youngest sibling. They held a pirate themed 0 Birthday Party for Baby John today. Yesterday, I nursed our baby in post-op, but then a nurse took him away after 30 minutes because he was having labored breathing. For about an hour, I assumed my son had gotten admitted to the NICU. Instead, he was taken back to our birthing room. Baby John was there with my husband and all his siblings when I called the nurse to check in on him. All the older kids were serenading him with the chorus of Frozen's "Let it Go!' I can't tell you what that background song track did for my heart! It's been warm scenes like that in our hospital room time and again.

Thank you again for all of your love and prayers!

(Pictures to follow when we get home.)

Saturday, October 11, 2014

A Lovefest For Our Priests!

This last hospital stay completely broke me emotionally. It was awful. I'm renaming it in my head, "Abigail's horrible, awful, no good, very bad hospital stay."

Yesterday, I called my favorite priest at my new parish to arrange to receive Confession, Communion and the Sacrament of the Sick before my c-section on Wednesday. I wasn't surprised when I got his answering machine instead of him directly. It had been one of those weeks.

My parish priest called me back within the hour. My heart jumped! Because of my bed rest, I haven't been to Mass in a month. I asked Father to schedule a time for me to receive the Sacraments. Then I started asking him for some general encouragement before I return back to the hospital on Wednesday. Our surface chat about life, soon developed into a deep, friendly, and hilarious spiritual conversation about our Catholic Faith.  I learned so much in a short span of time. I also felt such a mystical feeling of Hope after our conversation.

The first thing that Father told me was that the reason I was having such negative initial interactions with new OBs, who started pressuring me to add a Tubal Ligation to my upcoming c-section, was because of fear. "We live in a litigious society," he said. "People sue doctors over everything. Malpractice rates are through the roof. People even sue when a baby has a birth defect and the doctor's didn't tell the parents in time to abort the baby."

To deal with that fear, the doctors can go overboard in the "I must give urgent warnings" department. Instead of having a calm, reasonable discussion about real medical issues-- the strength of my scar tissue, the risk of uterine rupture, the potential for a nicked bladder or emergency hysterectomy, etc.--I'm often on the receiving end of dramatic comments based on fear. Because in a hospital setting, a new OB comes on my case every 12 hours, that's a lot of stress for me to absorb from near strangers.

Father encouraged me to have compassion for the doctors. They have a hard job. He told me "The doctor's aren't used to running into someone like you." At first I thought Father meant, someone with six kids, let alone someone who needs a sixth c-section. But Father told me about something far bigger. He said "Everyone in our society is so selfish. Everything is all about them. Most people find it impossible to focus on something outside of themselves. You are walking into that doctor's appointment thinking about your baby. You are caring about yourself, of course. But you are also trying to make good decisions for your baby and even a potential baby that might come along later into your life."

Father explained to me how thinking about others, is a radical viewpoint in our modern culture. The doctors are used to giving medical advice to patients who are only considering themselves. With that vantage point, total sterilization makes sense. Who the heck wants to go back to the hospital for a seventh surgery, much less wants to pace the floors a 7th time with a sleepless newborn?

For a doctor wrapped up in fear, making a medical decision about cutting up my fallopian tubes is the same type of decision as cutting out my appendix. I'm supposed to think of myself first. My decision about my reproductive organs has no bearing on anything or anyone outside of myself.

Father is a retired college professor. He walked me clearly through the four steps of "double intention." I felt comforted that the church's position (yes to emergency hysterectomies during a c-section, no to tubal ligation that might prevent future harm from a potential uterine rupture) was based on logical reasoning. My Pope doesn't come up with decisions willy nilly. There is a solid decision making structure that is applied to each modern medical question.

I told Father that I feel like our Catholic Faith encourages us to use both our brains and our hearts. I care about my body. I care about medical advice. A good medical decision, however, is something that fits my whole person--my brain and my heart.

Father shared some interesting details of St. Gianna Molla with me. I've felt a lot of resistance from loving that Saint because I had understood her story as a doctor who refuse medical treatment for her cancer in order to save her unborn child. I did not want to embrace that high ideal of literally putting the life of my child ahead of my own. (I'd like to come out of my sixth c-section alive and kicking, thank you very much!)

Yet Father explained to me, like Paul Harvey once said, "The Rest Of the Story." St. Gianna was a female Italian doctor in the 1950s who came down with ovarian cancer while pregnant. She did not refuse medical treatment for her cancer! At the time, she had 3 options available to her. She could do nothing. She could have a total hysterectomy which would unintentionally kill the unborn child. Or, she could just remove the cancerous ovaries, and leave her womb intact for the baby. Father said, that as a doctor, she was well informed of all of her options. She chose the one that was best option for both her and the baby. (St. Gianna died, not from cancer, but from sepsis (or blood poisoning) eight days after her daughter was born.)

I felt so encouraged after learning the full Truth. St. Gianna chose to have medical treatment! She did not passively sit there and let the cancer eat up her body. She used science! I felt encouraged because that felt like a more attainable goal to me. Study the facts. Use modern medicine. But always make the best decisions for myself and my kid (or potential future kids) who I adore sight unseen before their birth.

At the end of our conversation, Father told me a story that gave me the giggles. He told me that he went to the doctor recently for back pain and the doctor turned the conversation to his sex life. "When was the last time you had sex? No seriously, when was the last time you had sex?" the doctor kept asking him.

"We're you wearing your collar at the time?" I asked him.

"Yes, I was wearing my priest collar!" he said.

Father is well over age 60. Just the mental thought of him with his shaggy gray hair, wearing one of his old man grey sweaters with a distinctive Roman Catholic priest collar poking up through the neckline and still getting interrogated from a doctor "No seriously, when was the last time you had sex?" gave me the giggles.

Father really joined in my mirth. "Abigail, everyone has a problem with sex in our culture. I'm seen as completely unnatural for not having sex. Clearly, I must be lying about not having it!"

I started laughing. "Oh Father, we are facing the same struggles. You are getting in trouble with the doctors for not having sex and I'm getting in trouble with the doctors for having sex with my husband!"

It felt so good to have a belly laugh with a priest over this subject. I feel comforted that I'm not alone. Everyone with an authentic Catholic faith has a sex life that is troubling to doctors and the wider social culture at large. I don't have to obsess that I'm facing this specialized problem of "is a sixth or seventh c-section okay?" Instead, I've got to accept the difficulty, use my head, and make the best individualized decision I can make.

Chastity is a rare virtue in this world. I'm going to take courage that many priests, Religious Sisters and Monks join me in the cross of having totally awkward conversations about their sex lives with new doctors. Jesus promised to never leave us alone in this world!

St. Gianna, pray for us!

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

In the Hospital Again--Update

I'm back in the hospital again. (Stuck in the hospital again?) I had a second bleed early this morning. For a while it looked like I was having a c-section at 11 AM this Wednesday morning instead of next Wednesday. The On Call Anesthesiologist  even showed up to do a full consult. After a sonogram and hours of monitoring, they are changing their tune.

Every OB seems very excited to hit the magic 37 week mark next week. (Right now, I'm 36 weeks and 1 day).  I'm a little disappointed. At this point, I'd like my son to be outside where I can keep my eyes on him. Who wants to spend another 6 days stressing out about more potential problems?

I either get out in 24 hours or need to stay admitted in the hospital for the full 7 days. Right this minute, both the baby and I are totally safe. Things even look pretty rosy for a calm c-section. I just have miles to go in uncertainty and mild discomfort before I meet my son.

St. Teresa of Avila, pray for us!

(Totally accidentally my regular OB scheduled my c-section three weeks ago for a major Carmelite Feast Day, St. Teresa of Avila, on October 15.)

Update: I'm home! I only needed a 24 hour observational stay in the hospital. I'm still on track for a relatively calm pre-planned c-section at 37 weeks on October 15.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Happy Feast Day of St. Francis of Assisi

What a joy to celebrate a beloved Saint's Feast Day along with the name day of our beloved Pope Francis and the founder of the Franciscan Order. I've meet so many cheerful and uplifting Franciscan Brothers during my Catholic Journey. One of my favorite places to eat, pray, and party in downtown Washington DC is at the Franciscan Monastery.

Thanks to St. Francis' expert negotiation skills with a Sultan 800 years ago, the Franciscan Order is still in charge of preserving important holy sites in the Holy Land of Jerusalem. (Be still my historian's heart!)

My husband and I met while I was living in the Inter-Faith dorms at the St. Francis Student Center, an Episcopal Church Program for the students at the University of Wisconsin. I have many sweet memories of kissing Jon next all the various St. Francis images that were scattered all over the place. I remember many times when I kissed Jon, and I looked up, and I'd feel startled to see an image of St. Francis looking out of a painting at me. The contrast felt a little sacrilegious at time. My little Methodist mind had not yet connected the dots between a good kissing session with my new Catholic boyfriend and holy living. Now, however, I think St. Francis was probably giving me the thumbs up sign. "Good job Abigail! Go fall in love with this poor, sincere Art Student and stop mooning over all those preppy Law School dweebs in your Evidence Class!"

I'm so grateful to St. Francis and St. Clare, because they were the first Saints I could relate to easily as a young Protestant.  I remember having an instant connection to both saints while I was looking at my 4th Grade Methodist Sunday School Book. Living at St. Francis House for a year and following the Angelican High Mass every Sunday, really helped make my transition to Catholicism easier a few years later.

St. Francis of Assisi, Patron of Peace, Pray for Us!

Update: On the eve of St. Francis Day, the world lost Franciscan priest Father Benedict Groeschel. Just the sound of his voice on EWTN calmed me down and gave me feelings of great love and peace. If I remember correctly he was a psychologist. Early in my conversion journey, I really enjoyed learning from Father Groeschel how both psychology and Catholic theology could be united and strengthened by each other. So often as a person growing up in a more secular mindset there was this idea that psychology could somehow explain away, or "replace" religion. Peace be with your soul, Father Benedict!

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Happy Little Flower Feast Day!

St. Therese of Lisieux is easily the most famous of all the Carmelite Saints. She is this true blend of the spirituality behind our two founders, St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross. She only wrote one book in her life time, her memoir "The Story of a Soul." That single book made her a Doctor of the Church.

Today is St. Therese of Lisieux's Feast Day! St. Therese was a real person. Even though both of her parents are on the tract for full Sainthood, she had a lot of problems in her childhood. She had a difficult anxious and depressed personality. Even after her famous healing on Christmas Eve at age 14, she still struggled as a young adult.

I laugh when some Catholic writers describe St. Therese as "a mighty oak." That wasn't her personality at all. St. Therese was someone who made peace with all her broken pieces. With God's help, she became comfortable being little, humble, ineffective and small. She really made peace with that Old Testament Psalm, "What delights God the most is a contrite heart." The most mighty thing about St. Therese is her gigantic love for God. That is something that all of us can emulate! 

It's good to remember how little St. Therese fit into the theology of her time in France. Most of the Carmelites around her were big into making constant "reparations" to a God of Fear.  They feared God's Judgement and were constantly trying to make up it to God. St. Therese comes along as a 15 to 23 year old, and she starts talking confidentially about easily approaching a God of Love and Mercy.  Her approach to God predates the establishment of Divine Mercy Sunday by 200 years!

Real Christian theology is timeless. The love that the Saints show all of us can't be ended by their death. My daughter Hannah and I are so blessed to feel a special friendship with St. Therese of Lisieux. Many of her struggles are our struggles too. We hope that her triumphs, one day, become our triumphs too!