A Prayer for Owen

By Jean Sheridan '59 / March / April 2002
July 1st, 2007
Three of us-my son, one of my daughters, and I - are driving from Providence to Maine when the cell phone brings the news that my daughter Julie, who lives in Brooklyn, is in labor. She is five weeks early.

By eleven o'clock the next day I am at LaGuardia and in a taxi on my way to Beth Israel hospital in New York City. Once there, I wind through a maze of ramps and up rickety old elevators, pulling my suitcase behind me down windowless corridors. When I eventually find Julie and her husband, Eric, in a small dark room, Julie greets me, her speech lethargic and slurring from the magnesium that drips into her arm to stop the contractions. "Let's keep this baby in as long as we can," says the obstetrician, a young woman around Julie's age.

The afternoon drones on and the contractions cease. Feeling like a country mouse in the big city, I taxi back alone to Julie's Brooklyn apartment and lug my suitcase up four flights of stairs, wondering how they are going to deal with a baby in this place. The next day, while waiting for Julie and Eric to arrive, I clean out the refrigerator, drink tea, and wonder what I will do with myself until the baby's due date four weeks away. But this baby will not wait. By eleven o'clock that night I'm back at the hospital, recalling a year earlier when I was with another daughter in another labor room. There, in a small town in Oregon, we looked out on a vast rolling hillside and timed contractions while she soaked in a warm Jacuzzi. There is no green hillside at First Avenue and Sixteenth Street in New York, there is no Jacuzzi, and the grimy window shade we pull up reveals only a rain-streaked brick wall. It is just the three of us, and it is the middle of the night.

Julie is yelling, but she is brave despite the back pain that has been plaguing her throughout this pregnancy and that recurs every time she has a contraction. Eric massages her back. Suddenly we hear a loud crack like the retort of a gun; the bag of amniotic fluid has finally burst. Now the pushing can begin. I want to leave. This is the second time I have watched a daughter writhe for hours in labor, and I don't like it any better now. But I am needed; it is my job to hold her leg while she pushes.

As the monitors bleep away and the birth becomes imminent, a team of pediatric specialists pushes open the door and crowds into the tiny space, hooking up equipment and setting up bright lights. They huddle and whisper, scrutinizing the monitors, checking the baby's vital signs. The doctor becomes stern. "Push harder," she tells Julie sharply. "Get this baby out."

Finally the baby emerges. He's in fine shape and a good weight for an early arrival. The tension in the room quickly dissolves into a combination of exhaustion and serenity as the new mother and father peer into his little red face. The obstetrician and neonatal pediatricians chat about hospital news. Julie sits up and eats a sticky doughnut. I would do anything for some sleep; we have been up now for thirty-six hours. It is morning again.

Looking for food, I wander the maze of halls and wings and come upon a door labeled Meditation Room. Finding it unlocked, I slip inside. I am in a small room loaded with books. They are everywhere, scattered on tables and crowded onto shelves. Peering around a corner, I find myself staring for the first time in my life into what appears to be a sacred Jewish space. Like Julie's room, it, too, is small, crammed with a jumble of ten or twelve chairs that look as if they have just been vacated. Several panels on the front wall are painted with what appear to be red flames. Oh, the Ark of the Covenant, I think. I stare at it in awe, at this revered ancestor of my own Roman Catholic faith.

I tiptoe inside and tentatively take a seat - is it all right to be here? - enjoying the distance from the chaos in the noisy corridors outside. I can still feel the wonder that accompanies a birth, and I want to savor it. I whisper words of thanksgiving and then look around, poking through the books; no one would mind, I think. The Daily Prayer Book catches my eye. How many daily prayer books have I held in my hands over the years? I pick this one up and peek inside, fighting the sense that I am trespassing on someone else's holy ground. The prayers are in Hebrew as well as English, and I find this delightful. I am reminded of the Latin-English missals of my childhood, now replaced by no missals at all. I scan the table of contents. There are prayers for everything in this book I am holding, even a "Prayer for Dew." I am touched that the first and last prayers are for children. In the "Morning Prayer for Children" I read, "Hear, my son, your father's instruction, and reject not your mother's teaching."

My new grandson will not be instructed in the Lutheran or Jewish faiths of his father's parents, nor will he be taught the Catholicism in which Julie was raised. The baby has been named after the title character from John Irving's A Prayer for Owen Meany, but there will be no prayers for this Owen, no baptism, no naming ceremony. The symbols of water, oil, and light will not attend his coming into a community of faith, as he will not be brought into a community of faith. No words entreating the divine force to strengthen and inspire him on his life's journey will be prayed over him. His parents, like so many today - and who can blame them? - are opposed to all forms of religion and would not even countenance the mention of God in their marriage ceremony. When it comes to religious faith, Owen is out there on his own.

In the good-natured way most parents of my generation handle this disappointment, I will not mention it. In my heart, however, I am sad for him, I am sad for his parents, and I am sad for all those many others who have rejected the cultural and spiritual nourishment - so rich, so grand, so elegant - provided by the great religions. I am sad for myself, too, but I will leave my sadness behind in the comforting calm of this lovely space, asking God to receive it and hold it there. I am one of the lucky ones; in today's strange world, I can still count on this.

Before I leave, I say a prayer for Owen. It is on page 752, part of the ceremony for "Redemption of the First-Born Son":

"May the Lord bless you and protect you; may the Lord countenance you and be gracious to you; may the Lord favor you and grant you peace.

"The Lord guards you; the Lord at your right hand is your shelter. A long and happy life will be given you. The Lord will guard you from all evil; he will guard your life. Amen."

Jean Sheridan, of Portland, Maine, is the author of The Unwilling Celibates: A Spirituality for Single Adults.
What do you think?
See what other readers are saying about this article and add your voice. 
Related Issue
March / April 2002