“Don’t worry, Grandpa, I’m not looking.”
My World War II bombardier, tough-as-nails, rock-of-my-life grandfather lay dying in bed. Grandpa was at the end stage of cancer, and he needed help with the most private activities of daily living.
Certain tasks were so personal and basic that I knew he wouldn’t want his granddaughter watching. But I did look when I was helping with some of the other things he needed at the end of life: comfort care, sitting up, taking medicine and even a little joke-telling. (He was the king of that.)
My grandfather had taken care of me in countless ways since I was a little girl, so moving more than 4,000 miles and across an ocean — from Hawaii to my hometown in Wisconsin — to help care for him at the end of his life was one of my life’s greatest joys. It was also one of my life’s most teachable moments.
I definitely believed in the dignity and sanctity of every human life, but I never realized just how gritty and all-consuming it could be. Up until then, I thought the standard pro-life road map was pretty clear: advocacy, public policy, bumper stickers, voting. And while all of those can be good things, actually living out my beliefs led to a much bigger change in my heart. Before those days, I had never fully considered what it meant to “live pro-life.”
I learned that smack-dab in the middle of the pain and suffering and grief and heartache and mess was the essence of the dignity of human life — the transcendent truth that each human person is made in the image and likeness of an Almighty God who gave everything to offer us eternal life in Christ.
This is the truth we celebrate and commemorate at Focus on the Family during Sanctity of Human Life Month. My role as vice president of Advocacy for Children at Focus includes advocating not only for the littlest children, but also for every individual at every stage of life.
Each year our team looks forward to January, the month that we speak for those who can’t speak for themselves (Proverbs 31:8) and remember that God created each one of us, knitting us together in our mother’s womb (Psalm 139:13).
I can still remember the first time I ever wondered about babies in their mothers’ wombs….
The early years
“So, you and Mom were married in June,” I remember saying to my father one afternoon as a school-age child. “And I was born in August the same year?”
I continued to probe as was (and is) my “dog on a bone” way. “And it takes nine months to make a baby … ” I continued, puzzled.
“Go get your mother,” he replied, quite grumpily. That’s odd, I thought. So down to the basement I went to get her.
Soon my wonderful mother was explaining to me that she and Dad had made a mistake by having sex before marriage and that she’d become pregnant with me when she was only 16. She was honest and gentle and explained very clearly that while they had made a mistake, I certainly wasn’t a mistake. They wouldn’t change me for anything, she said, and they loved me very much.
My mother went on to tell me how absolutely terrified she was to tell her parents, but that a wonderful nun was kind and loving and helped her break the news. Most importantly, it always stuck out to me how Mom said her parents responded — with nothing but love and excitement for my arrival even in the midst of the shock and scandal of all this in a small town.
It really was a scandal back in those days. My dad was a local star athlete headed for a football scholarship, and my mom was smart as a whip and headed for college. At that time, certain universities wouldn’t take married players, so my dad’s big-school dreams were dashed as he settled for a smaller college with an offer that included married housing. (He was a great player, later doing a short stint with an NFL team.)
My mother, who I’ve always said could run a Fortune 500 company, became a teenage mom to me and then my brother who came along two years later. I remember asking her if she had ever considered abortion.
She was emphatic that she hadn’t.
I can’t recall any feelings attached to asking her this question, but I do remember thinking, So, I might not even be here? And while I didn’t yet know about this Jesus who gave His whole life so I could have life eternally, it all made an imprint on my heart. I became a pro-life advocate as a kid, before I fully understood why.
As I think about it now, it strikes me again that God often brings life in the midst of the messiest of messes.
A mother’s anguish
I am sobbing uncontrollably. Fast forward some 30 years, to a day not long ago. Speaking of life-affirming messes, picture me wailing in the courtyard of a psychiatric hospital. I’d just spent several hours holding my teenage son, singing songs I’d sung to him as a toddler, as his very life was hanging in the balance.
My husband and I adopted him as an infant — a precious baby born addicted to drugs and alcohol and with a family history of mental illness, including schizophrenia. And now he was very sick with auditory and visual hallucinations and psychosis that literally threatened to take him from us.
Our son was suffering so much that imagining him in heaven with Jesus — torment free — was something I actually longed for. There were times I felt sure we would lose him, and I even dreamed about his funeral and feared it was God preparing me to lose him. (I later learned from a therapist that it was normal for a parent in my situation to have such dreams.)
How did our lives turn out this way? When we adopted our four kids, all of them from the foster-care system, we knew we’d have struggles … but this? We’d always been passionate about the sanctity of human life and therefore supported adoption — at least in concept — with our mouths. But when we learned about the more than 100,000 orphans in foster care who needed families, we felt quite clearly that these children needed more than just our words. We needed to be pro-life not only in the safe confines of discussions, arguments and politics, but also in the mess of daily life. So we went for it — with great fear, abundant naivety and just enough faith.
Four kids and 17 years later, here I was in the psychiatric ward, a guttural cry pouring out from the core of my deepest, darkest pain. Where in the world was the life now? But somehow, by God’s grace, it was still there. He was still there, right there in our midst.
In the image of God
That’s when I heard the noises. Sitting in that psychiatric hospital courtyard, I looked up and saw patients with mental illness shuffling around inside what was essentially a metal cage. They had left their unit inside to get some fresh air, but because they needed to be kept safe, there was a fence and many other safety precautions. The noises I heard were the sometimes unrecognizable words and grunts of those whom Jesus would have called the “least of these” — very sick psychiatric patients, many of whom have lost their connection with reality. Each one a precious individual. Broken and hurting. Loved and valued.
God reminded me in that moment that Jesus said whatever we do for the least of these, we do for Him (Matthew 25:35-40). Those patients were and are beautiful people, made in the image of the Most High God, who loves them and died for them and grieves for them as the ravages of illness attack their brains.
In that moment, I was reminded again that their lives and the lives of my son and my other children who are learning to live with very acute special needs are all gifts. And while it makes no sense apart from God and His goodness and His grace and His mystery — the truth is still the truth. God is the giver of life and has bestowed the Imago Dei — the “image of God” — in every person.
When I think of my grandfather, my parents, my own children, even strangers in a hospital, I think of all those who bear the image of Christ. Turns out that I was “living pro-life” before I ever realized it.
As we go about our often ordinary lives, loving our families, our neighbors and our communities, we can look for ways to value life and attest to its dignity. We can teach our children about the worth of the lost and marginalized, the hidden and forgotten. We can look out for those who need to be reminded of their value.
May we never forget the preborn baby who has no voice of her own — a child who is definitely not a mistake. May we come alongside the pregnant teen who is terrified to tell her family for fear of the shock, scandal and shame. May we visit and care for a loved one at the end of life, or even a stranger who might otherwise endure suffering and pain all alone. May we take in orphans from foster care and work on behalf of those struggling with mental health or special needs — both in our own neighborhoods and around the world.
And, finally, we can simply thank God that He is our life in the midst of life’s messes.
As we love Him with our whole heart, soul, mind and strength, and as we love our neighbors as ourselves, we are bearing witness to the sanctity and dignity of every life He’s created.