Up Front and Personal

Forsake Not the Work of Your Hands

By Barbara McGillicuddy Bolton

At Mass, one Sunday every three years, those years when my son’s age is divisible by three, we read from Psalm 138. It ends in a plea for God to “forsake not the work of your hands.”

I woke up on July 24, 1974, when my water broke. I called my doctor, and in the course of that day walked several times from my apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan to his office.

That evening my husband and I were watching the Watergate hearings on TV when the doctor phoned to say that even though labor wasn’t progressing I had better check into the hospital.

As I was settling into my room at Mt. Sinai Hospital, I overheard a nurse say, “She thinks she’s going to have a natural childbirth.” Well, yes. Right here at Mt. Sinai, along with a half dozen other couples, my husband and I had taken prenatal classes taught by an enthusiastic in- structor. I had chosen natural childbirth for the birth of my first child because it meant my husband could be with me throughout labor and delivery and I was afraid to be alone. A friend had recommended the drug she had been given during childbirth because it made her feel high. Feeling high in such circumstances sounded as scary as being alone.

I felt that with the classes and my husband in attendance I was well prepared. In my mind, I compared the coming ordeal to swimming across the lake that lay just outside my hometown in northern Maine. I’d spent many a summer day in that water, and although I’d never swum all the way across I knew I
could if I had to.

Natural childbirth, as it turned out, was nothing like swimming across a lake. With the help of my husband and the nurses and the doctor, however, I stayed the course. My son was born at 6:26 on Thursday morning, July 25, 1974, 24 hours after my water broke.

The next day his bilirubin spiked and we were kept extra days in the hospital so that he could spend many hours under lights. Meanwhile, I wasn’t doing all that well myself. I couldn’t stand up straight. I couldn’t think straight. I couldn’t understand why my visitors wanted to talk about Watergate.

An announcement came over the loudspeaker inviting new mothers to a demonstration of the baby bath. My heart sank. I didn’t feel up to leaving my room, and I didn’t think I’d ever be capable of bathing my baby. Suddenly, I felt that although I had taken classes to prepare for the birth of this child, I was woefully unprepared for what to do with him for the next eighteen or so years.

Sunday morning the loudspeaker announced that Catholic Mass would be celebrated in the hospital auditorium. I felt well enough by then to hobble down a hall, ride up an elevator, and shuffle into Mass. I sat
in a folding metal chair and glanced around at the crowd, most of whom looked much worse off than I.

Some were heavily bandaged; some looked alarmingly frail. Many required wheelchairs or walkers or canes. Many, I feared, would never be well again.

The first reading in which Abraham bargains with God to save sinners did not make an impression on me, nor did the second about being buried with Christ in baptism, nor the Gospel about persistence in prayer: asking and receiving, seeking and finding, knocking and the door being opened. Psalm 138, however, spoke directly to me.

“Lord, on the day I called for help, you answered me … you built up strength within me … though I walk amid distress, you preserve me.” And then followed this reassurance, a reassurance I savor each Year C on the 17th Sunday in Ordinary Time: “The Lord will complete what he has done for me; your kindness, O Lord, endures forever,” culminating in this plea: “forsake not the work of your hands.”

McGillicuddy Bolton, a retired teacher, has published short stories, a novel, and a memoir.

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