Many have heard the story of the rather newly named saint, Gianna Beretta Molla and the story of how she, diagnosed with cancer and advised to abort, chose to deliver the new life and accept having “run the race and finished [her] course.”
It is an astonishing story of love in an age where woman are routinely counseled to put themselves first. And now we read this tremendous love has happened again in Vancouver. (Hattip: KJL at NRO’s The Corner )
Vancouver Woman Chooses Life for Her Baby just before Dying of Breast Cancer
VANCOUVER, January 12, 2005 – Gabriele Helms, an assistant professor of English at the University of British Columbia died on New Years Eve of breast cancer, but not before giving life to her much-awaited daughter who was born at 26 ½ weeks just before her mother’s death….
In Canada is it routine for pregnant women diagnosed with cancer to abort, but Helms’ friends said that being a mother was her first priority. Ruth Kwok, Helms’ friend and fellow breast cancer survivor, told the Province newspaper, “She was in excruciating pain but she was still elated about her pregnancy. I saw her during her stay in the hospital and she was always putting her hand on her stomach because she could feel the baby by that time. In (Gabi’s) obituary, it says she chose her daughter over herself. She did that because she wanted the child so much.”
Although the reflexively Pro-life might consider this sort of sacrifice a no-brainer, I am always awe-struck when I read of this sort of woman. Not because I think she is a rarity, but because I think most mothers understand what Gabriele Helms did, even though many – particularly men who imagine themselves with a child and no wife – might question the “sense” of it. How can a woman with a family let herself die, and leave them without her help, her love, her guidance, her nurturing?
But many mothers know what it is like to stand at the bedside of a child whose lungs sound like rattletrap jalopies and pray, “let me have this illness, instead, please heal my baby…”
It is a thought I believe a woman had last night, at a hospice. I watched Mom look at my very ill brother, his eyes sunken and closed as he slept, and she knowing (as we all know) that his time remaining on earth is so very, very short, and felt like I could read her mind. I believe that on some level, Mom was thinking, “I would take his place in that bed in a heartbeat if You will only make him well…” She adores her husband and her other children and grandchildren, and would do anything for them – she can never do enough, this remarkable, generous woman – but if she could give life to any one of them by making the sacrifice of herself, she would do it, and trust that the others would get by.
I do not mean to imply that fathers are incapable of making this same prayer, only that in the case of women I do believe it’s a prayer that comes to us very quickly and instinctively. I do not know if the instinct to die for your unborn child is as quick or instinctive – only women such as Gianna Beretta Molla and Gabriele Helms can answer that. But I know I have worried over a son with mysterious ailment and have thought…”give it to me, instead,” half-hoping God will just fix the kid and then skip over that giving-it-to-me part, and so I suspect that the willingness of a pregnant woman to forego her own life in order to preserve the baby’s is really a rather remarkable willingness – one borne of grace and what Pope John Paul II has called “the genius of the feminine.”
There is the endless debate: what is worth more, and therefore more important: a helpless baby or a helpmeet wife? It’s an awful choice, but one that must sometimes be made. Does a woman look at her husband and her other children and say, “let me destroy this one, because I cannot bear to leave these others – how will they go on without me…” thus making a choice that no one could compassionately gainsay (who among us would want to be in that untenable position) and choosing abortion and treatment for her illness? Or does she say, “I know the love that came into the world through my marriage, and through these children, and the treatment may not save me, anyway…and I cannot get in the way of the coming of more love…” and sacrifice herself?
I suppose to do this takes a servile mindset – a mindset that says, “maybe this is all the life I am supposed to have, maybe this is all the time God intended for me, and so I will obediently make room for this new life, because I trust Him…” That is a mindset that is profoundly misunderstood in this era. It is a mindset thought foolish and unsophisticated and wrong, by many. It is a mindset on display in the blog entry I have made directly below this one, because these two themes oddly mesh, today.
Really, I guess what it it comes down to is faith, and trust that in sacrificing oneself, one is not leaving the rest un-tended to, un-nurtured, un-watched. It comes down to the great Mystery that we are all invited to explore, if we are only open to it. And the key to the Mystery is Love.
For some reason, all of this makes me think of the Parable of the Two Sons: Jesus asked, “What is your opinion? A man had two sons. He came to the first and said, ‘Son, go out and work in the vineyard today. The son said in reply, ‘I will not,’ but afterwards he changed his mind and went. The man came to the other son and gave the same order. He said in reply, ‘Yes, sir,’ but did not go. Which of the two did his father’s will?” They answered, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Amen, I say to you, tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God before you.”
The article I have linked to does not tell us if Gabriele Helms is a Christian. For all I know she could be a staunch secularist who – urged and instructed by Love – hooked into the Mystery and made her choice. But in doing so, she has also hooked into the message of the Christ: Greater love hath no man than to lay down his life for another. Does it matter whether or not she was Christian? Not really. What mattered was that Gabriele Helms was open to Love, in its coming and it its going.
Or, as Paul Winter submitted in his “Earth Mass:”
But when I listen deep inside,/I feel you best of all/Like a moon that’s glowing white, and I listen for your call/And I know you will guide me, I feel you’re like the tide/You move the ocean of my heart, that’s open wide./O, Mystery, you are alive, I feel you all around/You are the fire in my heart, you are the holy sound/You are all of life, it is to you that I sing/Grant that I may feel you, always in everything.