Lessons Learned from a Baby

LessonsLearnedby Deana Chadwell    4/12/14
Twelve years ago our third grandson was born and then, 18 days later, died. It was not a shock that Conner left so soon; we had known for several months that he was beyond fragile, but what we didn’t know is all that he would teach us in such a short time.

I’m going to talk you through some details, some unpleasant details to try to share a little of what we learned. I suppose the most important things we absorbed are not things we can really talk about – as Edgar Lee Masters said “And for the depths, of what use is language?” But a little of it can be reduced to speech.

Conner was a trisomy 13 baby — 1 in 10,000 live births are. This condition is also called Patau Syndrome. During conception each of the 23 chromosomes splits in two during the original division of the fertilized egg. We take for granted that this division process will go well. But it doesn’t always. For Conner, during that first cell split the 13th chromosome ended up with an extra copy. No big deal? It’s only one chromosome – how much damage can that do? Quite a lot.

When scientists started studying chromosomes they numbered them. The chromosome that carries the most genetic information is #1; the one with the least is #23. It is #23 that determines gender, and gender only – an extra chromosome here will produce a person with androgynous sex characteristics, but that is the only system affected. If a lower chromosome produces an extra copy – say a #2, or a #5 then that fetus will be aborted – it will not be viable.  A great many miscarriages are the result of a trisomy  problem in an important chromosome, many so early in the pregnancy that the woman doesn’t even know she’s been pregnant.[pullquote]He didn’t suffer, didn’t show any signs of pain, for which we have always been grateful. But he did struggle; his body struggled. From a purely human perspective he had little to live for, but that little body did not want to give up.[/pullquote]

Our little Conner’s body was compromised in many ways. The two lobes of his brain were different in size – we’ll never know how that would have affected him, though longer-lived Patau babies do have severe cognitive disorders. His kidneys were also uneven. His little legs were crooked, bending forward at the ankles – he wouldn’t ever have walked. He had 6 fingers on one hand and 5 and a half on the other – a tiny, magical half-finger perched on his right pinky. The irises of eyes were more oval than round; his pointy ears gave him a sweet little elfin look.

We never knew whether or not he was seeing and hearing well. Probably not. His palate was severely cleft so he had to be tube fed. Many of these abnormalities would have robbed him of any quality of life, but the problem that stopped his life was with his heart. It was on the wrong side of his chest, which isn’t in itself life threatening, but it was also missing the right ventricle.

When Conner was still with his mother that didn’t matter. His body was being fed her oxygen, but after his birth his heart had to struggle to send blood up through his lungs to re-oxygenate.  As he grew the job became more and more difficult. We knew when he was starting to die because his color took on a bluish tint.

He didn’t suffer, didn’t show any signs of pain, for which we have always been grateful. But he did struggle; his body struggled. From a purely human perspective he had little to live for, but that little body did not want to give up.

Which brings me to the first thing I learned – I gained a profound respect for the will to live that is implanted in all of us, even in those who have no reason to. Time after time as we took turns holding him the night he died; he would stop breathing, be still for a few seconds and he’d shudder and gasp and hold on for a few more minutes. Over and over. I’m not even sure his soul was still there, but his body was doing its job as well as it possibly could. Such huge determination in just five pounds of body was awesome to watch. Our being alive must be profoundly important or our bodies would give up much more easily. In spite of his problems, Conner was programmed to live.

As I listen to the debates these days about abortion, about evolution, my opinions are vastly shaped by Conner’s short presence on this earth. This is what I realize that he taught me.

• I learned that conception is nothing to sneeze at, nothing to take for granted. I had had no idea how complicated, how precise, how delicate the process is. Every pregnancy that involves a well-formed child is a miracle. With that first cell division there are 23 things that could go very, very wrong, to say nothing of all the subsequent subtle hormone balances that must occur at exactly the right times. The intricacy and astounding fragility of this process should leave us all with the awareness that at each conception something earth-shaking has taken place.

• I learned, as a corollary, that this very intricacy, this unlikelihood of it producing a viable child, totally negates the possibility of this all being a product of blind natural selection. Darwin spoke of the simple cell. We now know that there’s nothing even remotely simple about it – whether it is a recently fertilized human egg or an amoeba, the complexity of each is mind-boggling. Watch either of these short videos to see what I mean: The Stages of MitosisMolecular Visualizations of DNA

• In that vein, I also came face-to-face with what genetic mutation – the driving engine in natural selection – looks like. Mutations are not helpful. Linguistically, we understand this – to call someone a “mutant” is not a compliment. Nothing that was amiss with the body Conner came to was to his advantage. Nothing about it was an improvement. I’ve come to see genetic mutation very personally – it cost us a grandson; it did not give us a super-child.

•  And I learned that a baby — a healthy, functional baby — is a terrible, horrific thing to waste. Scientifically, we don’t have any idea when a human soul and its body are introduced, and theologically we have only a few biblical references that discuss the issue and then only tangentially. But Conner taught me that the question – When does life begin? – isn’t the important question. The point is that it does begin. No pregnancy would ever take place without the will of God, without there being a plan and a purpose for that child. And I suspect that every baby comes with the same kind of determination, the same intense will to live that Conner had. Regardless of whether the child becomes a human being at conception or at birth, God willed it into existence and respect must be paid to that will and to the will of the child himself. Respect must be paid, honor and awe must be present.

We have been graced, tremendously blessed with 5 other grandchildren: Ben graduates from engineering school this spring; Maggie, his younger sister, is our tall, slender, breathtakingly beautiful model; Aidan is our lanky, handsome family comedian; Our elegant Julia, who was born 2 years after Conner — a gracious, brilliant princess; and her little sister Violet who sparkles with life, enthusiasm and curiosity complete the family.  We have been blessed. And someday we’ll get to see Conner again and he will be whole and we’ll have eternity to get to know him.

When he died, Maggie, who was about 8 years old then, asked if Conner would be a baby or a grown-up in heaven. We don’t know, but it will be so cool to find out.
Deana Chadwell blogs at ASingleWindow.com. • (1855 views)

Deana Chadwell

About Deana Chadwell

I have spent my life teaching young people how to read and write and appreciate the wonder of words. I have worked with high school students and currently teach writing at Pacific Bible College in southern Oregon. I have spent more than forty years studying the Bible, theology, and apologetics and that finds its way into my writing whether I'm blogging about my experiences or my opinions. I have two and a half moldering novels, stacks of essays, hundreds of poems, some which have won state and national prizes. All that writing -- and more keeps popping up -- needs a home with a big plate glass window; it needs air; it needs a conversation. I am also an artist who works with cloth, yarn, beads, gourds, polymer clay, paint, and photography. And I make soap.
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13 Responses to Lessons Learned from a Baby

  1. Glenn Fairman says:

    Conner continues to impart lessons. Heartbreaking and beautiful, Deana.

  2. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    I don’t know if that’s the way it works, but I hope you meet Conner again.

    This essay represents the complete opposite view to the disposability of human life. You wonder how abortion advocates can live with themselves.

    Also, this is the way to eloquently write an essay regarding highly personal matters without it getting creepy, excessively sentimental, or indulgently maudlin. And I mean that as a compliment. It’s a very difficult thing to do.

  3. Rosalys says:

    This beautiful story emphasizes that each one of us is created by God for a purpose. Even little Conner’s 18 days of life out side the womb fulfilled a profound purpose. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

    “And for the depths, of what use is language?”

    So true. I think it is impossible to grasp the essence of life’s peaks and valleys by words alone. Although your piece gives a clear picture of what passed, I am sure no reader can truly understand the joy and agony, the mystery and clarity which such a child brings to one’s life.

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      So true. I think it is impossible to grasp the essence of life’s peaks and valleys by words alone.

      I’m going to beg to differ with Deana, Mr. Kung, and Edgar Lee Masters. I find that often without the words, our feelings and thoughts remain confused or inchoate. Granted, a word is different from a thing or a feeling. But when the words are strung together thoughtfully and artfully, then we find what use is language. And I think Deana has done that here.

  5. Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

    “I’m going to beg to differ with Deana, Mr. Kung, and Edgar Lee Masters.”

    I didn’t see anybody claiming words are not useful. But words are only poor substitutes for much of life’s experience.

    I think a case can be made that the most important things which people have to express to each other are non-verbal. Simply because one says “I love you”, doesn’t express it nearly as well as the personal actions one can take to demonstrate love. A tender kiss or a helping hand means a lot more than the emission of CO2 or scribbling of India ink on paper.

    The more I think about it, the more convinced I am that the most important communication in life between people who are close to each other is non-verbal. Words are mainly needed for the mundane, strangers and those at a distance.
    I believe the intensity of some things can simply not be expressed. How does one express the color red? How does one express the feeling of a warm breeze caressing one’s cheeks at dawn while gazing toward Mt. Kinabalu at dawn. It can’t be done.

    If you need a very concrete example of the difference between words and reality let me posit the following. “It is one thing for me to describe to you the feeling of a horse kicking you in the rear. It is something altogether different to actually be kicked in the rear by a horse.”

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      I think a case can be made that the most important things which people have to express to each other are non-verbal. Simply because one says “I love you”, doesn’t express it nearly as well as the personal actions one can take to demonstrate love.

      No doubt many important things that are expressed are non-verbal. And there’s no doubt that language can be used badly, or fraudulently, such that “I love you” becomes a cliché or a cover.

      In my experience, I don’t always know what I think about a subject until I write it out. The power of language to not just express our thoughts but to form them is vastly under-rated — except by those on the Left who have long understood that what we think is deeply connected to our words, thus they are constantly trying to manipulate what we think by changing the words.

      And time after time when doing movie reviews (with my highly insightful movie radar), I hear frequently from people, “Oh, I didn’t see that.” In more than one case, by giving what I think is a fair and apt description of a film, I’ve changed people’s minds from “I liked it to” to “Yeah, it was pretty mediocre,” and not from force of personality but from force of bringing to the surface that which had either laid unconscious or was not considered (ill-formed) at all.

      You can short-circuit this idea by stating the obvious that words aren’t reality. But that’s not my point. And if we are to dig deeper, we might ask, “What is reality?” And that reality changes with our thoughts about it, thoughts that inherently have a connection to words. It is this inherent connection that I’m talking about. It’s fine to say “Some things can’t be expressed in word,” and that’s no doubt true. But many things can be. And you’d be surprised at what exactly can be expressed through words and how our experience of reality itself changes by what we can put into words.

      A horse kicking you in the rear will remain an unknown and unimportant event outside the event until you point out that a horse kicked you in the rear. Of course it’s bloody obvious that a horse actually kicking you in the rear is different from telling of the event. But even so, that event itself becomes crystalized, clear, and perhaps even filled with a meaning it did not have before when you put the event into words. Mark Twain made a pretty good living at that.

      • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

        “A horse kicking you in the rear will remain an unknown and unimportant event outside the event until you point out that a horse kicked you in the rear.”

        The point was not whether something was unimportant until it happens to you. The point was that the words used to tell you what something is like are a long way from the actual experience. Whether it happens or not or whether the experience is important or not has nothing to do with the point made.

        “Of course it’s bloody obvious that a horse actually kicking you in the rear is different from telling of the event. ”

        Thank you, that is the point. Simply because it is obvious does not in any way disprove it. In fact, I try to find such obvious examples as they are readily available to everyone, i.e. one does not have to be a PhD. to get the point immediately. Once they get the straightforward point, perhaps they will think more deeply on another matter where the same logic applies.

        I am in complete agreement with your other observations.

  6. To all of you who responded — thank you for reading this with good hearts. I appreciate it. And I thought you might all like to see from whence I garnered the Masters quote. It’s from his piece “Silence,” which is one of the great masterpieces of American Literature.

    Silence Edgar Lee Masters

    I have known the silence of the stars and of the sea,
    And the silence of the city when it pauses,
    And the silence of a man and a maid,
    And the silence of the sick
    When their eyes roam about the room.
    And I ask: For the depths,
    Of what use is language?
    A beast of the field moans a few times
    When death takes its young.
    And we are voiceless in the presence of realities —
    We cannot speak.

    A curious boy asks an old soldier
    Sitting in front of the grocery store,
    “How did you lose your leg?”
    And the old soldier is struck with silence,
    Or his mind flies away
    Because he cannot concentrate it on Gettysburg.
    It comes back jocosely
    And he says, “A bear bit it off.”
    And the boy wonders, while the old soldier
    Dumbly, feebly lives over
    The flashes of guns, the thunder of cannon,
    The shrieks of the slain,
    And himself lying on the ground,
    And the hospital surgeons, the knives,
    And the long days in bed.
    But if he could describe it all
    He would be an artist.
    But if he were an artist there would be deeper wounds
    Which he could not describe.

    There is the silence of a great hatred,
    And the silence of a great love,
    And the silence of an embittered friendship.
    There is the silence of a spiritual crisis,
    Through which your soul, exquisitely tortured,
    Comes with visions not to be uttered
    Into a realm of higher life.
    There is the silence of defeat.
    There is the silence of those unjustly punished;
    And the silence of the dying whose hand
    Suddenly grips yours.
    There is the silence between father and son,
    When the father cannot explain his life,
    Even though he be misunderstood for it.

    There is the silence that comes between husband and wife.
    There is the silence of those who have failed;
    And the vast silence that covers
    Broken nations and vanquished leaders.
    There is the silence of Lincoln,
    Thinking of the poverty of his youth.
    And the silence of Napoleon
    After Waterloo.
    And the silence of Jeanne d’Arc
    Saying amid the flames, “Blessed Jesus” —
    Revealing in two words all sorrows, all hope.
    And there is the silence of age,
    Too full of wisdom for the tongue to utter it
    In words intelligible to those who have not lived
    The great range of life.

    And there is the silence of the dead.
    If we who are in life cannot speak
    Of profound experiences,
    Why do you marvel that the dead
    Do not tell you of death?
    Their silence shall be interpreted
    As we approach them.

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      But if he could describe it all
He would be an artist.

      But if he were an artist there would be deeper wounds

      Which he could not describe.

      If he could describe it all, that wounded old soldier would be God. If he could describe it well, he would indeed be entering the realm of art. But to actually describe it is to enter the realm of having a stated point of view about something of importance. Without that point of view, we too easily remain simmering stews of various shades of prejudice or let others do our thinking for us, filtering our experiences through what is considered proper or popular.

      In many ways, this poem is a contradiction of its premise. That old soldier needed to speak, to integrate and make some sense of his experiences.

      This is probably why I’m not a big fan of poetry because poets too quickly cheapen words by making them mean anything they want, as long as a pleasing emotion is stoked.

      That said, I’m a great believer in silence. It is the other side of the coin of processing our thoughts through language. There is without a doubt a kind of mysterious alchemy that occurs through silence where thoughts are free to roam, free from the constraints of language and/or conventional (cultural) thinking.

      In my experience, without silence we can too easily become language masters. That is, we can become very clever at dispensing words in forms that may be pleasing, are syntactically sound, and/or may flow according to some other motivation. It is thus easy for words to become mere constructs, light conventions with no deeper roots. It’s as if you had invented Lincoln Logs and then all you could ever build where log cabins, blind to the possibility of Legos.

      We need silence. We need that time and space for contemplation beyond language. But at the end of the day, in order to share whatever experiences we have had, or discoveries we have made, we must return to language and hopefully fill it with the vitality of the real rather than of the stilted or constructed.

      • Though I have great appreciation for Masters’ poem it must also be said that language is perhaps the greatest gift God gave us. “In the beginning was the Word…”

        I have always told my students that though language is often inadequate for true expression (hence that all-too-common feeling of not being able to find the words), it is the poet’s job to push language out past the usual barriers, to say things that can’t be said. The bad poets do cheapen language by manipulating feelings of their readers without actually experiencing those feeling themselves. A good poet gives evidence, presenting, as Marianne Moore said, “imaginary gardens with real toads in them.”

        • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

          “In the beginning was the Word…”

          That’s an interesting choice of…errr….words. I admit to being a little tone-deaf regarding poetry. And the one you highlighted is certainly better than most.

          But so much of poetry is pretentious. It’s not just in political prose that the “intellectual” element can intrude. They may be different-looking intellectual clothes than the ones Thomas Sowell talks about regarding politics. But I believe the same sort of thing, in a different guise, runs amok. Something is given the form of poetry, and a lot of flowery things are said, so it is just assumed by all (for all art depends to some degree on a shared pretension) that there are real toads in the garden.

          And I tend to be just as brutally frank with my own writing. It goes through a couple filtering processes before hitting the page. Even then, none of that is a substitute for artistic imagination and inspiration, without which the words may be correct, even erudite, but dull and lifeless. No toad. No garden.

          And that’s one reason I haven’t tried to force that kind of creative writing of late. There are few toads in the real garden. But the garden does have a few nice patches, and I may expand and write more about those as well — but always being on guard to avoid the clever engineering of words instead of rooting them in something deeper. So much of the time my silence (such as it is for me) is an acceptance of the sometimes lack of wart-covered toads in and around the pond.

          As for the Word in the beginning, that is an awesome concept. Imagine without any language at all (verbal or otherwise) how different life would be. One of the things Buddhist try to do, for example, is extinguish all that extraneous stuff (such as words) out of the mind so that they can get to the real and supposedly genuine experience of reality.

          As with anything, there is probably some truth to that. There is a realm beyond words…and obviously so. But there’s also something to be said for the idea that an experience not shared is not an experience at all — or at least a lesser experience. We humans are situated between both extremes. Through sheer words, we can make up interesting stories and create a virtual reality. But without the real reality to give substance to our words, there would be no stories in the first place.

          Now try imagining the idea that the very existence of the universe itself was the result of a Word. Believe me, it is in moments of silence, deep in the woods, when my mind is baffled by the idea of how we can know anything at all. Which view or mode of knowing is privileged? Must there even be a privileged perspective? If not, then how can we know anything? How could everything then not be cast off as an illusion?

          It truly does become a case as you get older, the more you know the more you know you don’t know. All the accumulated knowledge and experience of a lifetime can suddenly be cast into the flames of an Aquinas-like “so much straw” moment.

  7. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    That video, Molecular Visualizations of DNA, was particularly interesting. It’s a wonder that DNA can be copied accurately at all.

    And look at those long chains that are coiled up. Has anyone ever made a mess of a relatively short piece of fishing line or kite string? It boggles the imagination how DNA itself keeps from becoming a tangled mess.

    Metaphysically, we’re obviously witnessing something much more than the material, even if all we have to measure is the material. It’s analogous to our minds. All we can ever measure is brain cells, chemicals, and the electrical transmissions that occur between cells, but no one denies that there is such thing as mind (or at least very few do, and none do so convincingly).

    So we are in this same situation with the remarkable mechanisms of something we rightly call “life” which is more than just the sum of its parts (assuming we know all the parts). And it is at this point where our religion (secular-socialist-Leftist or Christian) delivers us to opposite wanton conclusions. To the materialist, life is to be explained away. Those animations, although they show marvelous mechanisms, can ultimately be denatured of their miraculous nature and called mere “science.”

    To the religious — and others — the mystery of life and existence are merely deepened by viewing these “under the hood” elements, an appreciation for them not wrung out by explaining-away but enhanced by justified awe. And no one need be shy about these under-the-hood features, for are we not seeing a kind of magic? What must a miracle look like, and who are we mere humans to set the parameters for such a thing?

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