Daughters of the Dirt / Sarah Higdon

To My Unexpected Son: A Hymn To Surprise
by Rebekah Shardy

On the way to the convent, I became pregnant with you. I guess you've always enjoyed a challenge.

The Mother Superiors who eyed me thought me too quick to question authority and probably tainted by my work for a peace and justice group that included married priests and lesbian nuns. Little did they know they were rejecting a woman so close to your Annunciation. 

You know the reproductive drill, but yours was a most Unlikely Conception. When not studying or working, I visited the sick at an inner-city nursing home. I read psalms to the dying and goaded mean-spirited nurses into giving dry sheets to the incontinent. I'd never been inside a singles bar; if I wasn't gay or a saint, I was simply indifferent to those prosaic concerns.

One of the poor souls I tended introduced me to your father, an orderly capable of hearing the whispered mumbles of a thirsty Parkinson patient halfway 'round the room. How could a closet 'sister of mercy' like me not be enchanted? When he told me he was living on the street (true) and estranged from his family (true) and dying of leukemia (well, not true), he won my bleeding heart completely.

The morning you were conceived, I noticed an impromptu gift your father had left on my stereo the night before: vividly green wild grasses heavy with seed. I suppose it was a sign, if I had been paying attention.

In those days, being pregnant and unmarried was something only easy 'white trash' did. Not a virgin and employee of the Catholic Church. I knew I'd have to quit before anyone found out. At the same time, I didn't feel particularly like a sinner. I'd had sex more out of curiosity than lust, and, as the parodied Jewish talk show host says, "it was no big whoop." So when I was invited to give a talk to the 'best and brightest' young Catholics in the Diocese - presumably as their role model - I chose a topic that challenged self-righteousness and brandished compassion.

I asked the shining, mostly-abstinent faces, "If our society lived in the time of Mary, would we scorn her for an unwed pregnancy? Would we provide for her needs, or shame her and deny her public assistance, calling her a 'welfare mother'?" I knew I had a powerful precedent - of sorts.

A nun-friend suggested I hide out at a Pittsburgh convent and give you up for adoption to a nice Catholic family. You didn't like that idea. I believe the government should take its hands off a woman's private parts (including the prognosis of her uterus) but I couldn't abort you, either. And your dad insisted on spending the rest of his natural days at your side. Practically strangers, we married our lives to each other, and to you.

So the secret is out. Like me, your Dad and nearly half of the people walking the earth, you were 'unexpected.' I don't think this will create any hemorrhage of self-esteem in you. After all, it is the unexpected things in life that bring happiness. The things we have good cause to dread - taxes, aging, death - are the expected ones.

Like Mary, I was large with child when we trekked across the country with everything we owned in the backseat of a Ford Fairlane. Instead of a manger, we slept in my sister's basement on her waterbed. It was all worth it because of you. I worked outside that winter, conducting marketing surveys in mall parking lots, when I wasn't home throwing up. Your Aunt Kat called you the 'little dragon' for your power to create fire in my heart (mundanely called 'heartburn').

Dragons traditionally hide treasure - and yours was your heart. You were a wise child, quietly observant, keenly creative. You seemed to pity the screaming brats at the toy store, the baffled look on your face suggesting you would never stoop so low. When you did misbehave, we never touched you. Why spank a child, when a mere explanation and serious tone could produce sober tears in your eyes?

Your capacity for learning was astounding. By age 3, you knew the name of every car (and their cylinder size); by age 5, you could hand your father the correct tools at the side of the engine and give me detailed directions to his mistress' home. Science and math absorbed you. Given time, you would have figured out how to repair the Hubble Telescope with Legos.

Blessed with an Aquarian's instinctive respect for others, you discreetly live up to your name - 'Justin.'  On one of our walks when you were nine, you confided the sweetest sentiment about racial discrimination. Heart-breakingly earnest, you said, "White people have done so many mean things. I don't want to be white, Mom. I want to be clear."

We didn't go to church, yet you carried an elemental morality. A neighbor gave you your first job watering her plants while she was gone - such was her trust in the integrity that stuck out all over you liked your spiked haircut. You'd been encouraged to tell the truth, even when it was ugly, and true to our promise, we didn't punish you and give you 
reason to lie. When I think of honesty, Justin, I think of you.

The teen years are tough for everyone, especially anyone who is sensitive and not marching to other people's drums. It broke my heart when you asked to borrow cash to name a star after a girl who broke yours. Like many of the young, she was oblivious to unexpected great fortune.

I love the depth and breadth of our discussions. After all, who else would accompany me to hear a Buddhist nun, or explain hypothetical physics to me or share my black sense of irony? Talking down to you has never crossed my mind. 

During the last election, while your dad slept, it was you who stayed up to follow the controversial results with me, re-examining and sometime confirming - but not always - my old political roots.

As time marches on, our talks have halted or been sidelined into petty arguments. Here is a transcript:

Me: "How's it going?" - or -
Me: "What did you do in school?" - or -
Me: "What's up?"
You: "Nothing."

No matter. I've never taken it personally. I didn't yearn for a child to fulfill my identity, so I have always looked upon you as an individual, not my possession. You have a right to your feelings, your silences, your mystery, outside of my need for control.

I take great satisfaction in knowing I talked you into your first roller coaster and taught you to ride a bike. And when you cried in frustration that you would never succeed at skateboarding, and I urged you to try one more time, you worked so hard you won first place at the citywide competition! You exemplify that quality I call "will to power"- so necessary in the daily resolve against despair. (Taoists-at-heart, we both understand that life is a balance between not being so humble 
that you can't aspire against the odds and not being so proud that you can't ask others for help.)

You know I am enormously flawed, so what good words can I leave you, my Green Grass Seed? Just that I will always love you, whether you fix cars or chart stars, love one woman forever or stray down wilder paths to the heart, become a priest or a pagan. No matter which road you think you've chosen, fasten your seat belt: it's sure to be a bumpy ride. 
Nothing ever ends as it begins or reveals what you awaited. Anticipate surprise and open your heart to the gift you didn't expect.

After all, I was on my way to the convent to find a purpose bigger than myself, as well as beauty, truth, justice and the kind of love that breaks your heart but makes you glad there is something worth breaking it for. And out of all the crazy surprises in God's bag of tricks, I was given You. It wasn't an Immaculate Conception - but it's the closest I will ever come to experiencing the Sacred.

Seeking Mystery, I never expected it to have dirt under its nails and a baritone belly-laugh. Yet I was startled from behind by amazing grace, riding a skateboard and leaving me the tender vapor trail of an undeservedly sweet and mischievous smile.

Rebekah Shardy is a professional trainer and writer who teaches creative writing to women recovering from prison and addiction through the nonprofit "Mighty Muse Writing Project for Women" in Colorado Springs, Colorado.