It’s been forty years since the baby almost lost his hands. He’d been born in a small country hospital, and at day six he’d developed unexpectedly severe jaundice. His grandmother had been giving him a bath while his mother tended to his toddler older brother, when the grandmother called out, “This baby’s yella!” And with that they headed back to the hospital.
Forty years ago there were no take-home glowworm blankets in which to wrap a severely jaundiced baby. The only protocol was to admit the child and put him under a bilirubin light. As you might imagine, in a small-town hospital with no pediatric ward, and in the days anyhow before warm colors and kid-friendly scenes, the experience was traumatic for an infant. To keep the light from mesmerizing the child and thus burning his staring retinas, gauze blinders were placed over his eyes. And to keep him from incessantly pulling the gauze away, someone created little make-shift pouches of gauze and put them over the baby’s hands like mittens. The mittens were kept snugly in place by some convenient elastic rubber bands.
For a while the baby kept pawing at the blinders covering his eyes, but then he merely lolled his arms about. And finally he quit raising his arms at all, as though his hands were too heavy to move. No one is quite sure how long it was before a new nurse on duty looked askance at the makeshift mittens and removed the rubber bands from the infant’s wrists, but when the mittens were taken off, the newborn’s hands were limp, cold, and very, very blue.
Immediately, the nurse began firmly but carefully massaging the tiny child’s hands. She spoke soothing words to the baby, though tears of concern welled in the corners of her own eyes. She cooed and sang and stopped periodically to thump the child’s palm with a finger to see if he had any feeling or reflex. For a long time—or, at least, for what seemed like a long time—the nurse continued her work. And then, finally, she was able to tease life back into what had felt like dead, cold tiny lumps of flesh. The doctor stormed in demanding to know how this had happened, how someone could constrict a child’s hands so. But while he blustered, the nurse smiled at the baby once more and for a final moment warmed his hands in hers. And then she left the room, nameless, and, forever to that baby with gauze on his eyes, faceless. She saved his hands in the course of a day’s work and moved on, perhaps to save someone else’s life.
I know the story of the six-day-old baby who almost lost his hands because my grandmother told it to me. She sat in the corner of the room as the melee occurred, as the saintly nurse unbound the child’s hands and massaged them, hope against hope, back to life. I remember the story, and repeatedly asked my grandmother to tell it to me over the years, because the newborn baby was me. And when we celebrate the Feast of All Saints–which occurs this week–I cannot help but recall that nurse.
When I was ordained a priest, the story took on even greater poignancy for me. Each week I stand at the altar of God and raise my outstretched hands in the “orans” position. It is a position of beckoning and invitation, and it is all about the hands. I stand before the congregation, and I utter, “Let us join our voices with angels, and archangels, and with all the company of heaven,” and I know this host to include a woman in a country hospital, a saint for a day and perhaps after that for life, who soothed and sang and massaged back to life the very hands I raise.
I am not, usually, among the better of men. But when I recall that woman, who did not let her own fear well to the surface but soothed my tender fear as she soothed my hands, I hear the angels sing, and in me her saintly light shines warm and bright.
All Saints Sunday is November 4. Remember this year all the saints in your lives. Honor them; bless them; pray for them. And let their leaven raise you to lives bright as the sun.