“ Chaplain,” the Nursing Supervisor’s call began, “we have a baby needing a blessing.”
“Well, there might be a problem with this one. This baby’s, um, the baby’s d-dead” stuttered the caller.”
The baby was a Christmas Eve baby and the parents were expecting “swaddling clothes”, but a shocking ultra sound suddenly revealed that her family would soon purchase her burial clothes.
“That’s not a problem either,” I said, instinctively lowering my voice amidst a crowded nurse’s station.
“It could be,” the caller explained. “The baby died two days ago.”
“Well, OK,” I said, a little slower this time. It was an unusual ministry, but I’d done this too.
“OK, so where do I find the parents?”
“Chaplain,” she said, in a cautionary tone that told me the surprises weren’t finished.“ They aren’t coming. They are a little too upset to see the baby again.”
She continued, “The baby’s in our morgue. I’ll meet you there, but the hospital’s hopping, so you’ll be flying solo on this one, Chaplain.”
“OK,” I said, pinching the bridge of my nose.
A few minutes later I met the supervisor outside a locked room in the basement. She ushered me in long enough to point toward a refrigerated unit and say as she stepped back out the door, “There’s only one baby in there, so you shouldn’t have any problem.”
I looked past several stainless steal sinks and counters filled with some odd looking medical instruments. There was certainly nothing resembling an altar or a baptismal font.
As I opened the refrigerated space and looked down at a bundle of blankets, I focused on a tag on one end. I checked the tag. Yes, this was the baby.
With a safety pin holding the tag, it reminded me of days I used to change the cloth diapers on my own kids. This safety pin was the only thing holding this bundle together and I carefully unlatched it. Then as if peeling a Christmas gift delicately wrapped in tissue layers, I unwrapped the child.
Unwrapping only as much as was needed to see the face, I felt like I was finding a lost treasure embedded in the surface of the sand. Finally with three layers of blanket peeled away, the ashen face peeked through.
That’s when the question hit me — What blessing can I pronounce, if no one is present to hear it? This felt like the old adage – If the tree falls in the forest without someone hearing it, does it make a sound?
The baby was dead and already in heaven. There was nothing I could do to speed her journey or even get her better accommodations. Knowing all these things in my theological brain was very different from knowing these things with the heart of a parent.
“Hello, sweetheart,” I said. “You were someone’s promise – someone’s anticipation and expectation. Your mamma and daddy love you very much. I know because they asked me to come and tell you that one more time.”
And then, against all the classroom theology I’d been taught, I pronounced a blessing, rewrapped her, strained to latch the safety pin and gently placed her back onto the refrigerated shelves.
“Had this been a real blessing?” I wondered. Would the parents be able to know, to feel, to hear the blessing that had taken place that day? Or had this just been the proverbial tree falling in a forest with no one to hear? Was anyone really listening? Had the blessing really been “heard?”
Within my own heart, I knew something had happened, but what? Then it occurred to me that “blessings” can’t always be something someone does for another. Sometimes blessings can be what happens to the one doing the ministry.
Or perhaps it is always both.