If you had asked me in the summer of my nineteenth year if I were "born again," my answer would have been a confident and unequivocal "YES!" I had just had a radical experience of God and was fired up about my relationship with Christ. Then I went back to college and thought I could face down temptation single-handedly. It never occurred to me that I might need support on this new journey. That I needed a church family and new, sober friends. So although I managed not to drink for over a year, I did not understand that this in itself was not enough. Although I evangelized, I also started allowing my old habits and lifestyle to creep back in. Although I now felt guilty for my sins, I still sinned over and over again.
I didn't get it. That for every birth there is a corresponding death. A death of the old and a birth into the new. None of us spring fully formed from the heads of our fathers as in Greek mythology. We grow in an environment that is small, safe and secure, but we don't stay in the womb very long. We are then thrust into a world so much bigger, brighter and louder than anything we could have imagined. The change is necessary, but traumatic and we can never go back.
The Bible says that anyone who is in Christ is a new creation. That the old is gone. Not just that the old is less and the new is more, the old recessive, the new dominant. No, the old is gone. It is dead. But unlike our natural births, we have a choice about this. God doesn't force anyone to love Him enough to die to themselves and live for Him. He presented Himself to me as a young woman, let me taste and see that He was good. Then He watched me try to hold on to a little bit of my old self, just a sample at first. To refuse to give up things that I thought I was entitled to, that the world told me were okay. To justify by saying that these habits and attitudes were part of the "me" that God made me to be. It was easy to believe those lies, to let my old self work itself like a splinter from the back of my mind to the fore. To go from Jesus freak one day to hedonistic party girl the next. It is what I did, because I failed to die.
I thank God that I'm not God. I think I would have said, "Well, then, to hell with her." But God's grace is so much bigger than that. He lets us stumble and fall so many times and in so many ways it's ridiculous and He is always there, extending the hand of grace. For over seven years, I lived as if God didn't exist, even though I knew better. I apologized to Him a lot. I had brief periods of remorse and sobriety; they became briefer and briefer, harder and harder to sustain as the disease of alcoholism progressed. Then, as I mentioned in "In Utero," I got pregnant and got sober. I began to get it. I was making progress, but it is a process and though I had given control of my life to God by the time Eddie was born, I wasn't dead yet.
I died when Eddie was about four days old. The first hours after his birth were euphoric. I was full of endorphins from having a prolonged, unmedicated birth and felt like I could take on the world. I was able to go see my baby. He was unconscious, hooked to a million tubes and wires, and his intestines were hanging in a little clear bag above his body. I found out later that some who saw pictures or visited him in this state were hysterical with tears, some prostrate in prayers for him and us. I was oblivious. He looked beautiful to me. I was grateful to be able to kiss his tiny knee, to put my hand on his head and feel his soft skin.
Within twenty-four hours, things started going badly. His intestines were turning black. He had a vascular deformity which gave a limited blood supply to his guts and they were torquing themselves around and further cutting off the supply. He would be rushed to surgery, they would remove some bowel, then he would be back. Then we would see more turning purple; he would go to surgery again. He also developed a bacterial infection that raged through his entire body and seemed impervious to antibiotics. Nearly every time we left the NICU to eat or try to rest, we would receive an emergency phone call to come back. It was a nightmare.
We had checked in to the Ronald McDonald house. On his fourth night, when we had gone over there to try to sleep, we received a call in the wee hours of the morning. We needed to come immediately. I don't think I have ever run faster in my life. I got to his bedside a little ahead of Phillip. It was dark in his ward so the other babies could sleep, but there was kind of a spotlight on his bed. One of the surgical staff was standing next to him and there was Eddie, covered from head to toe with a green sheet, only the top of his hair peeking out and his guts spread out on the sheet from a hole in the middle. I thought he was dead. I ran to him and put one hand on his head and the other on his feet. My knees went weak with relief when I could feel the heat radiating from his body, his heartbeat through his soft spot. It was difficult to stand, but somehow I stood. The surgeon was waiting for my husband, but I looked at her and yelled, "What?"
Eddie's small intestine had just about had it. They were going to have to go in and remove very nearly all of it. It was a radical surgery and in his weakened condition due to the infection, a risky one. We were waiting for his primary surgeon to be ready, for us to the sign the releases, and then we were going. Our nurse was arranging for someone to come take his picture. They were going to let me hold him. None of this was good. It meant they thought it was over. That they were going to try, but that he was probably going to die.
Phillip had called the priest from his church but he had not reached him. He wanted him to be baptized. When he expressed his concern over it, our nurse, Cindy, pressed a bottle of sterile into another nurse's hand and said, "You're Catholic. Baptize him." The Catholic nurse, Heather, managed not to panic although I think she wanted to. She sprinkled some of the water on to Eddie's head, said "We baptize you in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit" and we all said an Our Father (the Lord's Prayer for those of you unfamiliar with Catholicism).
They asked which parent was going to get to hold him. Phillip did not hesitate and said, "Mom." They did whatever needed to be done to get him ready for surgery, sat me down in a chair, and handed him to me on a secure pillow so that I would not hurt him by mistake. It was only a few minutes, but just feeling the weight of him, all five pounds of it, was such a blessing and the idea that he was about to be taken away from me, perhaps permanently, was unbearable. I wept harder than I had ever wept in my life. Then it was time to go.
Our family, my mom, my two sisters and my sister-in-law, were waiting for us in the waiting room. I was a wreck. Weeping inconsolably and falling apart at the seams. My head had disappeared somewhere into my neck with stress and my eldest sister had me lay down so that she could save my spine. The nursing staff had called the priest on call for the hospital and he walked in. He looked at my other sister and said, "Mrs. Espinoza?" She said, "No, that's Mrs. Espinoza on the floor." It made us all laugh and I think made the priest think we were all a little crazy. Anyway, I got up and was able to have a conversation with him and agreed to come by the chaplain's office once Eddie was out of surgery.
Let me make something clear: I still wasn't dead. I may have wanted to be, but there was further to go. I don't remember how long we waited. I know we were the only ones in the waiting room that night and that the room was dark with spots of soft lamplight. I remember my sister-in-law giving me a granola bar from her purse. I was so out of it that I was eating like a three year old and kept having to pick crumbs off of my chin and chest. We laughed again. Then the surgeon, Dr. Meyer, came in to talk to us.
The surgery had gone as well as could be expected. They had been forced to remove all but twenty-two centimeters of small intestine and the ileocecal valve. Eddie was stable and we could go see him in thirty minutes or so. He was still in bad shape and fighting for his life. They had done everything they could and, aside from continuing with antibiotics, were pretty much done at this point. Then Dr. Meyer looked me in the eye and told me the truth, as gently as it could be told. He said that even if he survived the immediate crisis, Eddie was not going to have enough intestine to sustain him.
It is very nearly impossible for me to describe what happened to me in that moment but I'm going to try. I had a split-second to choose. I could either go with God or fall into the pit. It was either life with Christ or none at all. I could choose hope or despair. I chose hope... and died. Something inside of me was instantaneously dead as a doornail. I never asked Dr. Meyer but I am fairly certain from his expression that he saw something change in my eyes. There was a very real, very physical sensation of the person who I once had been dying. It was immediately replaced by something new, though. Someone new. Someone stronger. I was enveloped with a sense of peace, the peace that passes understanding. Not that I thought that the doctor was wrong and that Eddie was going to be just fine. It was an acceptance that this was what was meant to be and that, somehow, in all of it, we were all safe in the arms of God.
All of that happened in a moment. In the next, Phillip asked Dr. Meyer what he meant by "not able to sustain him" and I was able to very calmly turn to my husband and say, "He means he is going to die." Dr. Meyer didn't say anything, but I saw a sheen of tears in his eyes and he nodded. We all thanked him and he left. I asked if Phillip and I could be alone for a moment. I held Phillip while he cried, but did not cry myself. I was not really Abby anymore. Abby would have been on the floor throwing up granola bar and writhing in agony. I was who Abby could be through Christ alone. I had supernatural strength and a deep down certainty of God's presence, His love and faithfulness. I was reborn.