Homily from September 11, 2016. The day after my anniversary of ordination as a bishop, so I thought I'd preach about...bishops!
Sunday, 11 September 2016
Saturday, 10 September 2016
Not long after my father died in April, my sister Miriam announced to the family that she was with child once again. The baby was to be due, believe it or not, on Christmas Day. Based on the dates, Miriam would have only very recently become pregnant. Although my father did not know it before he died, he was already a grandfather once again, and personally I found it to be a consolation to know that he, from heaven, would have been the first of our family to see his new grandchild growing secretly in the womb.
Although the pregnancy seemed to be proceeding normally, things changed on Friday, September 2. While preparing for a special mass at the diocesan seminary, I got an urgent text message from my sister. I phoned immediately, and discovered the terrible truth: she was in labour, at only 23.5 weeks. My poor sister was sobbing on the phone, sobbing through a contraction, as her words poured out her love and her fears for her baby. She just asked for prayers, and then had to hang up. I got to the seminary somewhat discombobulated. I even forgot my homily at home and had to preach it from memory. The good news was that I had been working on it for weeks, and I knew my subject. My topic was HOPE, and on that evening, I discovered in a very personal way a whole new layer to the meaning of the word.
Did I pray? Oh yes, yes I did. In particular, I turned to my dad. "Papa," I prayed, "your daughter and your grandchild are in trouble. Get on it." Not the most elegant prayer, I know, but none of us were in an elegant mood, for sure.
My mother was in Germany attending my cousin Daniel's wedding. I had the job of reaching her to give her the news. I rustled up my best German to leave a voice message on my aunt's answering machine (it was 3 am there by that point), and the next morning I gave my mother more detailed news when she called back. While she was originally scheduled to only come back of September 12 she booked a new flight within hours. We would expect her on September 5 (Labour Day).
It is, of course, impossible to say what prayers from whom made the difference, but the next news I got from my sister was that her contractions were in abeyance! No one knew how long this situation might last -- hours, days, weeks -- but in the meantime my sister had been transferred by ambulance to a hospital better equipped to deal with a premature birth. The doctors had also given her medication to spur the development of the baby's lungs and nervous system. We were told those meds would require 72 hours to work, so from Friday evening we needed at least until Monday evening.
Because my sister's water had broken part of the risk to the baby was also the danger of infection. My sister was taking a "ton" of antibiotics as a preventive measure, and at first we tended to keep away so as to not unwittingly bring in some bug. Despite not going to Ottawa immediately, however, I cancelled every appointment I had the weekend, so that I could leave at a moment's notice should it become necessary.
While it is difficult to say, I also had to warn my Archbishop and colleagues at the diocese that I might be gone for a bit longer. The doctors had warned us that the baby's chances of survival at this stage were only 50-50. I don't like to think about it, but a funeral was a real possibility. I got on my dad's case even more, and also brought Mother Teresa into the picture. My sister had met her years ago in India, and had brought back small medals that Mother Teresa had kissed and offered for the members of our family. Her canonization that weekend made me think of asking for her intercession as well. The prayer went something like this: "Mother Teresa, you once met my sister years ago in the chapel in your house in Calcutta. You prayed side by side. Please help her and the baby."
Monday finally came. I headed to the airport in Ottawa to pick up my mother, and after she had a chance to freshen up we went on to the hospital, getting there at about 4:30 pm Sunday afternoon. My sister's husband and other two children were there, as well as her midwife. Shortly after our arrival she started feeling off, and pretty soon the contractions were coming again. There was no stopping them this time. The kids went off to visit their aunt (my brother-in-law's sister), and Miriam was moved to the birthing unit. There wasn't even any time for painkillers: Temperance Miriam Browning was born at 6:33 pm, weighing a mere 680 grams (about 1.5 pounds).
Temperance was, of course, rushed to the neonatal intensive care unit (aka NICU). She was intubated and attached with sensors and placed in an incubator. The nurse told us that she was showing many signs of vitality, like kicking and punching the air. She even had her first bowel movement not long after birth, as babies are meant to do. I'll confess, I don't normally get excited about other people's poo, but in this case you bet I did.
Our family knows that we have been lifted up on a cloud of prayers, especially Miriam and Temperance, and for this we are grateful. Many messages of support have come in by email, Facebook, and text message, and I treasure them all. I'm glad to report that Temperance has been doing well. She is fragile, of course, and there may be rocky days ahead. Still, she is now able to breathe normal air with the help of a CPAP, and the staff at the NICU are doing everything they can on the level of medicine to support her. We know she is in expert and caring hands.
Still, there are ongoing needs, and not just of a medical nature. Miriam and Michael will understandably need to be at the hospital quite a bit, but this will put a strain on their family life, especially as they have two other small children (Brigid and Paxton) to care for. There will also be a financial strain: because Michael is self-employed as a therapist, he cannot simply take paternity leave. To put it simply, if he doesn't work, the family does not eat, does not pay for gas, and does not cover the mortgage.
The goods news is that people are rallying to help. People are babysitting the older siblings when necessary. A meal train was also started to help cover that part of domestic life. Finally, a GoFundMe fundraising campaign was started by friends of Miriam and Michael to take some of the financial stress off them and allow both parents to see their baby as much as they can. If you'd like to help, here are two important links you can use:
Finally, please keep praying! We've already seen miracles. We just need a few more. Thank you for lifting us up. Stay tuned to this website for more news as it (and baby Temperance) develops!