Perfectly Human, Sarah C. Williams. Walden, NY: Plough Publishing, 2018.
Summary: A personal narrative of a couple facing a pre-natal diagnosis of fatal birth defects, their decision to carry their daughter to term, their process with family and friends, and the larger issues their own decision raised for them.
Sarah Williams had struggled through a horrendous pregnancy of nausea, even as her children anticipated a younger sibling. A routine, twenty-week pre-natal screening turns suddenly serious. A specialist diagnoses thanatophoric dysplasia, a skeletal deformity resulting in a chest that is too small to sustain proper lung development, and a baby unable to breathe upon birth. The expectation of the medical professionals is that they would terminate the pregnancy, and this is Sarah, and her husband Paul’s, first instinct as well. Except that she felt God speak to her that May evening: “Here is a sick and dying child. Will you love this child for me?” Subsequently she reflects: “…it became less a question of my loving the baby as me watching God love and then following him in his love.
Close friends and their pastor rally around them. Others respond less helpfully, from insistent faith that God would cure the defects to criticism from academic colleagues for even thinking of carrying such a “sub-optimal” life to term. We also see things from Paul’s perspective, and how men are often closed out of this process, when they also love and grieve their child.
Most touching are the ways they deal with this as a family. They talk honestly with the children, who each respond in different ways as they love and grieve their baby sister. The family names her Cerian, a Welsh name that means “loved.” One of the children records her heartbeat. The family goes camping, and then stays with Sarah’s mother Wren, who provides a place of spiritual retreat as Sarah approaches delivery, complicated by hydramnios, a buildup of amniotic fluid because the baby is not swallowing enough.
The narrative of her induced birth is powerful. Sarah had nearly died as the baby pressed against a major blood vessel. The time has come to let go of the baby but she fights against her body until she “sees” a horse and rider, who she understands to be Jesus, come for her baby.
She deals with the rawness of her grief and that of her family. No effort is made to spiritualize it but we see grieving people helping each other to figure out how to remember Cerian, and to learn from the love they were called into. Sarah writes:
“During the nine months I carried Cerian, God had come close to me again unexpectedly, wild and beautiful, good and gracious. I touched his presence as I carried Cerian, and as a result I realized that underneath all my other longings lay an aching desire for God himself and for his love. Cerian shamed my strength and in her weakness she showed me a way of intimacy.”
The book is pro-life without pitting mothers against babies, without judging or advocating. The author acknowledges that others facing the same situation might choose differently and she refuses to judge those choices. An epilogue does wrestle with these issues, more with questions about the choices we have taken upon ourselves because of our technology that suggest that our humanness, and sometimes that of others, reflects our own self-definitions and self-creations. Cerian showed her a different way:
“Limitations, finitude, suffering, weakness, disability, and frailty can be gifts. Far from robbing us of our humanity, without a place for these things we are less than human. Ultimately, personhood is not a work of self-definition and self-creation. Instead, it is a gift.”
This is a work of exquisite, intimate, and aching beauty that also raises profound questions without becoming preachy or censorious. It also reflects the power of a community of family and friends. The inclusion of Paul and his own struggles and growth in the process reminds us that pregnancy is also about men, not imposing their will upon a woman, but through conception, stepping into the joys, the griefs, and the sacrificial love of being a husband and father. Paul rails against the ways he is institutionally excluded, and chooses not to remain aloof but as deeply involved as a man can be in these things, allowing both love and loss to touch his own heart. Williams shows care with words, using them well to articulate self-understanding and insight. To read this narrative is alternately to wonder and to weep, in our own longings for we know not what, at the perfectly human gift of Cerian.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.