A few months ago, I read an article about a Palestinian woman injured in a car accident who could not breastfeed her nine-month-old son. He refused a bottle for seven hours, screaming with hunger, his aunts desperate. Then a Jewish nurse arrived for her shift, and volunteered to nurse him.
The expression on the faces of the two women speak volumes–the aunt’s plaintive gratitude from a depth of sorrow and need; the nurse’s contentment in motherhood–the ability to comfort and give and hold a baby, even if he’s not hers.
Reading this story, I was overcome with emotion at the mercy and love shown, at the surprise and disbelief of the Palestinian women. Of course the nurse would breastfeed him! What mother having milk would even hesitate?
But there was something else too– the knowledge from my own body of how it feels to be helpless and rely on someone else to save your baby.
September 7, 2014: Our little family of 4–Mommy, Daddy, our 2 year old daughter and 3 month old son–is heading toward Hilton Head on I-16 (which is a long stretch of nothing) for a vacation. It’s storming, we’re going too fast, trying to get to Savannah for dinner, and our car hydroplanes off the interstate, hits a tree, flips onto its side. Everyone is ok except for my broken ankle, which must have snapped when the airbags deployed, because I stupidly propped it up to stretch my hip and froze in shock when we started sliding off the road.
At the hospital, I call my mom and my sister, who are both 3.5 hrs away in different directions. I’ll need surgery, and 6-8 weeks of recovery, which, factoring in my husband’s travel schedule, means I’ll need to stay at my parents’ house with my kids until I can walk again and move back home. In the meantime, until my surgery is over, my babies need to be someplace else.
But Braden, at 3 months old, won’t take a bottle. And once they give me morphine for the pain, I can’t nurse him, or the drug will get into his system. My sister starts driving around 8 pm to get there, arrives close to midnight. She sleeps in a chair, and when Braden wakes up, tries to give him formula, which he chokes down a little of before refusing the bottle. She drives the kids back to Atlanta (which is challenging with little sleep), stopping once on the way to try to feed him again, which works–until he throws it all up. And now she’s starting to worry about how she’s going to keep him alive for the next few days.
Finally when she gets home, she’s able to try sugar water on the nipple, which my brother’s wife in Utah recommends. Twelve hours since mommy could last nurse him, he finally gets a full belly.
Of course she would do this. Without hesitation. She’s my sister.
It’s raining pretty hard, but we’re driving at a steady clip, trying to make it to Savannah before we stop. Since Braden won’t take a bottle, I need to nurse him while we stop for dinner, because I really don’t want to stop twice, this trip is long enough already
and then we’re sliding, sliding off the left shoulder, frozen is this really happening when will we stop the rough ground hammers us, we hit something and we’re flipping, glass bursts we’re still sliding the kids are screaming. We finally coast to a stop, the airbag powder is coating the air, stinging, the kids are crying which means–they’re ok–we’re ok. We’re going to be fine.
We’re all hanging in our seatbelts sideways. I find my phone and coolly call 911, estimating where we are. Rain is coming in my husband’s window. He struggles out of the seatbelt and climbs out of his window–and the chronology of the rest is a bit blurry. People have stopped in the rain right away and are helping us out of the car. There are off duty EMT’s and doctors before any ambulance arrives, checking Braden’s little spine, splinting my broken ankle that was hanging by what seemed like a thread.
And despite the strange adrenaline clarity that gets you through the moment, I was overcome with relief and gratitude at all the complete strangers (10 or more) who stopped in the pouring rain to save us. I remember sitting in the back of a lady’s car, someone handed Braden to me, and I pulled my shirt up (who the hell cares at this point who sees my boob) to nurse him for a few minutes, because he was hungry long before this need for comfort.
But the image that epitomizes the mercy that was shown to us, the one that is seared into my consciousness, is the image of the black teenage boy reaching in through the window to unbuckle my baby while I watched, immobile with a broken something, from the front seat. He reached in, unbuckled this little white screaming baby, wrapped his long dark fingers around his middle, and lifted him up into the rain, and I cried with relief, saying thank you, thank you, knowing it wasn’t enough.
I’ve contemplated why it should move me so much to see this particular boy holding my son. Was it because he was black? No. At least–not merely. I know there is nothing unusual about any African American saving someone else’s life. But when I dig around in the instincts of that moment, maybe the answer is Yes. Or more precisely, the surprise comes not from his race, but from mine. That if I had come across this young man in a convenience store, he would very likely see me as “just some white lady,” and perhaps anticipate being avoided, snubbed, ignored, or invisible. And his indifference, his psychological distance in that moment, completely justified by history.
Perhaps I am projecting my cultural prejudices onto this man, assuming too much about the way he perceived the event. Perhaps juxtaposing this incident with the Palestinian women and their Jewish nurse is not an apt comparison. In my experience, in my lifetime, there is nowhere near the same amount of animosity between blacks and whites in the South as between the groups warring over the West Bank. Perhaps he, like me, has somehow been shielded from the realities of our history. Of course I would save that baby! Who wouldn’t?
Then again I now know enough about white privilege, about our blind spots, and about a history that we haven’t really left behind, to suspect that my discomfort at this comparison could very well be naive.
This is what Grace looks like. It reaches across a chasm between us. Within us. It surprises us. But it doesn’t hesitate. When it sees human beings in their naked need, it pushes aside the abstracts of history and pulls the car over. It reaches in and saves strangers. And in the depth of our extremities, we can see it clearly.
When have you been surprised by the mercy of a stranger?