“I’m holding heaven in my arms tonight!” the lyrics of an old country song came unbidden, as I gazed down at the little one cradled softly in my arms. The afternoon sun highlighted the perfect features of a tiny face, illuminating like a halo the downy hair peaking from beneath a newborn cap. The baby girl’s name was Caeli, from the Latin word for heavens.
* * *
Her mother Regina and I were born just eleven days apart, and were best friends from the age of seven, when I convinced her to walk home with me from school one day. I had her wait outside while I asked my mother if she could come over to play. “Who is Regina?” my mother asked. “The girl standing in our driveway…!” She wouldn’t have to ask again, as Regina quickly became a permanent fixture in my life.
Three decades later, we were still the best of friends, but no longer shared a school or a zip code. I was single, with my New York City work and shoebox apartment. Regina and her husband had a house in the country, shared with eight young children. I visited when I could, to entertain them with stories and give them sugar highs.
As I had every other time, I shared Regina’s enthusiasm when she announced that she was expecting again, due in the summer of 2014. But then I shared her devastation, when, as the pregnancy progressed, there came sobering news.
Tests showed signs of anomalies, and more tests were suggested, followed by more doctor visits and somber consultations. Eventually the fears were given a name: it was believed that the baby, to be named Caeli, had both Trisomy 18 and spina bifida.
While spina bifida brought challenges that could be reduced or corrected by surgery, Trisomy 18 was more serious and life threatening. An extra chromosome 18 brought with it high risk factors—only half of these babies live to be born, and only ten percent of those live past the first year. Those who survived often had heart defects and/or damage to other organs, and ongoing health risks. In fact, the specialist to which Regina and her husband Erik went for help refused to treat them, saying that there was no point.
We began to pray a 54-day rosary novena for a miracle. The miracle was Doctor Elvira Parravicini. Dr. Parravicini was a Catholic neonatologist working at Columbia Hospital, who had begun a program especially for families in such situations. She had come to New York at the suggestion of Monsignor Guissani, founder of Communion and Liberation.
For her, to follow Christ in such a situation was to “follow” the child: that is, to respond to the needs of the child, including not only medical needs but also the need to be welcomed and loved, even if for a painfully short while. In Caeli’s case, Dr. Parravicini met with the parents to provide good prenatal care, and to be prepared for surgery (necessary within 72 hours) should the baby require it. She also arranged for the other children, Caeli’s siblings, to be at the hospital the day of delivery, so that they could meet and welcome her.
Early on the morning of June 18th, Regina began procedures to induce labor, with Erik at her side. Her brother, a priest, brought her mother and the other children awhile later, and staff provided activities for them while they awaited Caeli’s arrival.
Across the city I waited anxiously, begging God for a miracle, that Caeli be healed and be allowed to live. I don’t know that I have ever prayed harder for a miracle, as if I could move heaven with intensity alone.
Regina had gone into labor early that morning, but hours later I had heard nothing. I tried to work, but was too distracted. Finally, I sought refuge in the Church of St. Monica nearby. I prayed to every saint I could think of. And then out of desperation, I prayed to the future St. Caeli. I knew that God is outside of time, and that Caeli was likely be a saint soon and always, and so I implored her help, too.
Just then, kneeling there in the front of the church, I was surprised by a peal of girlish laughter. I felt this laughter rather than heard it—it is hard to explain what I even mean by that. It was too real to deny, and yet beyond the realm of the normal. But I was simultaneously sure of two things: that is was Caeli’s laughter, and that it was a laugh of perfect joy. At once my anxieties fled and I knew that all was well; I couldn’t contain my own joy.
Later I would wonder at the timing. It was shortly thereafter that I received the waited-for text, and I crossed town to Columbia as fast as city traffic would allow.
But the little girl that they placed in my arms was too still. There was no movement of breath; no tiny heartbeat as I held her close. I saw Regina’s face etched with pain, as she lay in her hospital bed.
Little Caeli had lived for just under half an hour. She had been baptized by Dr. Parravicini, and then confirmed by her uncle, and all her siblings were gathered around singing the Regina Caeli as she moved from our world to the next.
If I was surprised by my earlier joy, I was more surprised by the magnitude of my grief. Why? I knew that even though it wasn’t the answer I wanted, that Caeli was in heaven, in perfect joy. So why such pain? As I prayed once again, I realized that my grief too was a gift.
I stood with Jesus at the side of the tomb where Lazarus was buried. He too, knew the ending—better than I. But He wept. Not because of the power of death—which He would defeat; but rather, because of the power of life, which He gave and so loved.
And I found myself back further, at the dawn of time, when God looked over creation and said, “It is good.” Then when He created humanity, He said: “It is very good.” This pronouncement came before any human activity or achievements; before love could be earned or reciprocated. It was God’s delight and love for human life itself.
“You can’t explain beauty, but your heart recognizes it, intercepts it…” said Dr. Parravicini.1 For a few minutes we were invited to heaven. Invited to see with the eyes of a Father, to love with a Father’s heart, the matchless beauty of a human person.
Caeli was loved into existence. The love which she received and mirrored was already perfect. God had nothing more to ask of her, no further mission to accomplish than to witness to heaven.
St. Caeli, pray for us.
1From a 2012 blog post by Rev. Robert O’Connor on Dr. Parravicini. The formatting has since become compromised but I strongly recommend reading it in its entirety—it may well be one of the most beautiful things I have ever read.