A sidewalk birth

Any day that starts off with a run is a good day. Never in my proudly Luddite life, however, have I ever been so glad to be carrying a cellphone. These two things — being on foot and having a cell (plus the inexplicable fact that I took a different route from my normal one that morning) — allowed me to be part of a sidewalk birth on a chilly Thursday on the busy corner of Welland and Geneva streets in St. Catharines.

This distressed mother could have done a lot better than to have me be the one who heard her screaming. I have not been trained in first aid. I don’t think quickly on my feet. And as it turns out, just as the 911 dispatcher was saying those words nobody ever wants to hear (“I am now going to walk you through how to deliver this baby”), my phone froze, cutting off any further guidance that could have been offered. I was wearing sweaty flimsy running clothes, and so didn’t even have a coat or sweater to lay on the ground as the baby made its arrival, let alone to wrap the baby when it emerged. All I could offer was a body for the mother to frantically grab onto through each contraction, a hand to rub her back, and an eye to gratefully spot the ambulance pulling up just as her final push delivered the baby. I didn’t even bring a good attitude with me into the situation. When I realized that someone’s screams were cutting through my noise-cancelling headphones and understood I would have to stop running, cross the street, and find out what was going on, my first thought was, “I don’t really have time for this.”

My last thought, as the mother and newborn were loaded into the ambulance and the doors were shut, was that of course the baby was dead. The whole encounter took about ten minutes from start to finish.

The baby wasn’t dead. He was a healthy five pounds and ten ounces. “Babies are resilient,” more than one person has laughed in response to my story. It took a few hours (maybe a few days) for my heart to stop racing and to realize that I had indeed been part of a miracle. The miraculous part wasn’t so much that the baby survived my lack of expertise and failed cellphone or his mother’s desperate surprise. It was in the more ordinary parts of the story, the parts that are no less amazing for being common — that our bodies could have their own program for constructing and delivering life that functions quite apart from our schedules and intellectual know-how; that something that is excreted from a mother’s body looking so alien and quiet and fragile could be wiped off and washed up and be revealed as a chubby-cheeked, silky-skinned, lustily crying baby that also has a built-in agenda for pursuing life.

There were others who were needed in this particular miracle. It was because of my colleague Michael’s willingness to be the driver to a meeting we were attending that day that I got to run to work in the first place. And when I finally re-booted my cell phone, it was my other colleague Linda who took on the task of locating the baby’s father at the local Tim Hortons (when Linda announced to the surprised morning coffee crowd that she was looking for a man named “Christopher” whose wife was due to have a baby, four men answered to her description, not one of them being the actual dad). And of course, the paramedics arrived as the real heroes. Maybe it all felt like just part of a day’s work for them, but their calm competence was astonishing to me.

As grateful as I am to all of those who were involved, the shadow side of this story is the number of people who weren’t involved. This woman gave birth to a baby on one of the busier streets of our city.

And nobody stopped. The traffic kept driving by. There were even a few pedestrians on the other side of the road who didn’t stop either. When I finally saw the ambulance coming down the street and began waving my arms madly at oncoming traffic to attract the ambulance’s attention, none of the many cars in front of that ambulance pulled over, noticed or acknowledged in any way the critical situation taking place.

This past Sunday, Christians all over the world celebrated the feast day of the Reign of Christ. In the Gospel reading from Matthew, which we all would have heard, the judgement is clear: I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ (Matthew 25:35–36). This is the sole sticking definition for righteousness. It is a judgement that is not open to interpretation, and its corollary is this: that those who fail to do these things have led lives that, in the final account, are unrecognizable to God. In fact, all of the examples here listed by Jesus can be boiled down into one simple instruction. We have to be willing to stop for one another. We have to be willing to take our earphones out and our blinders off and turn around to hear and help a neighbour.

I am not claiming any moral high ground here. I barely stopped. I often charge through life on a mission to get where I’m going, likely with very little awareness of the cries on the street along the way. I am challenged by this sidewalk birth to commit to charging a little less and stopping a little more.

I am also challenged by these words of final judgement inaugurating God’s rule of love. I do not, however, place my hope here. I place my hope in the Advent words looming just around the corner: The dawn from on high shall break upon us, to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace (Luke 1:78–79). I place my hope in the God who breaks through the distractions of our busy world, tapping us on the shoulder, calling our attention to the incredible, strange and disturbing things happening around us, willing to use us to get some work done, even if our qualifications fall short. I place my hope in God’s grace, the God who never gives up on drawing near to us. I place my hope in the God whose name is inscribed on every newborn heart and whose law of love continues to lay its claim on us.

(I will also admit that this experience has inspired me to consider buying a new cellphone and signing up for some first-aid training.)