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 for the first time, 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
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. 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, Maine. 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 despair. 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. We saw
countless, hungry poor slumped on hot sidewalks wearing rags with their
crippled, malnourished, diseased children propped at their sides,
a few coins at their feet. Flies encrusted watery eyes as they
held out their slender hands. I gave what I had in my pockets knowing it
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 the homeless man and was shocked by such
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.
Originally published 12.18.11.
|photo by Paolo Roversi|