not just in the movies

Since Calvin was born, watching movies feels different. My senses have heightened and my nerves have splintered raw. I can still take most any genre—horror, suspense, drama—but now, it’s the occasional image I feel the urge to sensor with both hands over my eyes.

Shortly after we brought Calvin home from the hospital, when he was nearly two months old, we rented the film The Magdalene Sisters. A drama based on fact, it portrays the enduring hardship of three Irish girls having entered—against their will—an asylum for wayward teens and promiscuous girls known as the Magdelene Laundries. Some girls had been impregnated by their own fathers, others were deemed too flirtatious or too beautiful to be out in society. They were sent to the abusive institutions, which were run by the Catholic and Protestant Churches during the 19th and into the 20th century.

In one of the first scenes a teenage mother bears a child out of wedlock. The infant is snatched away by her parents and given up for adoption. Childless and grieving, the new mother is immediately cast into the asylum where she is forced to do hard labor in its institutional laundry. On her first night there, robbed of the child meant to nurse at her bosom, she suffers the excruciating pain of engorgement and the indescribable despair of knowing she’d never hold her child.

My heart hung heavy as I watched. I ached for the girl, knowing her physical pain—I’d felt it myself—grieving her loss, her despair. The scene reduced me to silent tears, its watery images skating across my vision like sharp sheets of ice, for I knew it’s truths, and I knew of other such atrocities in the world that were ongoing just as I sat comfortably watching the film.

When Calvin was born he came unexpectedly early—six weeks premature. Because of his neurological problems we had planned to deliver him during a scheduled cesarean in Boston. There were to be a number of specialists at our side: pediatric neurologists, a neurosurgeon, neonatologists and donor platelets in case of a suspected brain bleed. But Calvin surprised us all when he decided to come on his own and therefore had to be delivered by emergency cesarean in Portland. Some of my platelets were hurriedly extracted in case he needed them. The result was a platelet count so low that, if given an epidural, I’d risk a spinal bleed. So they put me under a mask, pumped anesthesia into my veins and cut Calvin out. I didn’t see my wee boy until he was twenty-one hours old. Even so, he was just beyond my reach inside a clear plastic capsule under bright lights in a room filled with alarming buzzes and bells, busy nurses and masked doctors tending to several other preemies each boxed in their own isolettes. It felt like days before I was able to hold my precious newborn, albeit, for mere minutes at a time. My body literally ached for Calvin, day and night.

Often it’s a movie like The Magdelene Sisters that moves me to tears and provokes such thought. But sometimes it’s a news story describing the victims of an earthquake or tsunami or genocide or human trafficking, that causes me to deeply reflect on the suffering others endure. I remember walking the streets of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia with my brother Matt on a layover from Egypt going home. We saw countless, hungry poor slumped on hot sidewalks wearing rags with their crippled, malnourished, disease-ridden children propped at their sides, a few coins at their feet. Flies encrusted their watery eyes as they held out slender hands. I gave what I had in my pockets knowing it wasn't enough.

Encountering these hungry people reminded me of the first time I’d seen a homeless person lying motionless on the streets of Seattle as passersby nonchalantly stepped over him to get where they were going. I’d touched my companion’s arm to stop and ensure that the man was okay—alive—and was ushered to continue on. I worried for him and was shocked by the apathy.

Since then I’ve tried hard to put myself in others shoes, tried to walk just one puny mile in them—and yet—can never fathom the marathon of their suffering. I try to make a difference in some small ways—do what I can—but it's never enough. And then I crawl into my bed at night and dream of my little boy, asleep in the room next to me, warm and dry and fed, a scene that—tragically—to some would seem real only in the movies.

photo by Paolo Roversi


  1. Dear Christy,
    I cannot find your email on the blog. I'd like to write to you.


  2. You have such an amazing ability to write Christy!