Tehilah: Our Answered Prayer
(McCall's, December 1990)
My name - Chava - means "mother of all living" in Hebrew. As a little girl, I remember learning from my parents, both deeply religious Jews, that names are very meaningful. Quoting the Jewish sages of long ago, they told me that parents are granted a moment of prophecy when they choose their newborn's name.
I took their words to heart. Not surprisingly, children have always made me weak in the knees. The fact that a 1955 bout with polio made me very weak in the knees never deterred me from my dreams of motherhood.
At 15, I remember asking my doctors, "Will I be able to have children?" They explained that polio had no effect on the reproductive system; getting pregnant, they implied, would be no problem. "But, young lady," and here their voices grew ominous, "your pelvis is deformed and your breathing is restricted. These polio-related factors could jeopardize a pregnancy. And let's not forget your arms; they're too weak to care for or carry a baby." One doctor found my question amusing. "Aren't you putting the cart before the horse? First, see if you can find a husband; then worry about having a baby!" His voice insinuated that my chances for marriage were slim.
By the time I was 30, I was beginning to think he was right. My social life in the Big Apple was active, but my dating life was nearly nonexistent. Then, in 1982, a miracle happened: I met a wonderful man named Michael Levy. We began dating that December, during the Chanukah season.
What a glorious Chanukah that was! We were head over heels in love, learning how many things we had in common: similar religious values, a passion for words and music and, since Michael is blind, hands-on experience with disability. Married in August, we prayed that God would grant us our deepest wish: to bring a child into His world.
Cushioned by a euphoria common to newlyweds, we were amused when people - even doctors! - asked us if we had consummated our marriage. Amusement turned into annoyance when some people said that, given our disabilities, we'd be irresponsible if we went ahead and had a baby. And in November 1984, when doctors informed us that - due to infertility problems unrelated to our disabilities - our chances of having a child were nearly nil, we were engulfed by anguish.
That Chanukah, still stunned by the doctor's verdict, we hardly felt like celebrating. Each night, as I lit the menorah and recited the blessing, "Blessed are You, our Lord, who created miracles for our ancestors, in days gone by and in our own time," I could barely hold back the tears. Would the miracle we prayed for ever come our way?
Three months later, I was pregnant.
Our jubilation knew no bounds. The doctors groped for scientific explanations, but as far as we were concerned, this was the miracle we had been hoping for. We kept our thrilling secret to ourselves for the first three months and then, bursting with joy, we broke our news to the world at large.
Perhaps we shouldn't have, because at the end of my third month, we lost our baby. My obstetrician explained that I had a blighted ovum, a fertilized egg that never developed. The hormones it produced made me look and feel pregnant, but in fact there was no baby growing inside me after all.
This emotional rollercoaster ride sent us reeling. We struggled with painful questions - Why did this happen to us? What did we do to deserve this agony? If we were not meant to have children, why would God "tease" us with such short-lived joy? - but the answers eluded us. We tried to keep our faith and trust that God's love, although hidden, was still with us.
Then on February 26, 1986, nine months and four days after our miscarriage, Michael and I learned that I was pregnant once again. Two days earlier, my younger brother and his wife had their fifth child who, by higher mathematics, was conceived just when our first conception faltered and failed. After months of mourning and attempting to make sense of our loss, I felt that all was right in the world once more. There was a God in the universe after all, and He had decided that in our family tree, another life had to precede our little one's arrival.
My optimism swelled the next day when a man and his three-year-old son passed me in the street and noticed me struggling to get myself and my motorized wheelchair into a taxi. Without a moment's hesitation, the man brought his son over to me, placed the boy's hand in mine, and told him, "Now, hold on to this lady. I'll be right back." While he proceeded to put my wheelchair into the cab, I marveled at the feel of this child's hand in mine, the look of his lovely face, the sound of his barely audible voice when I asked his name. It was a sign, I remember thinking as I looked at my deformed hand holding his perfect one and noticed how he didn't pull away. This time the little one wouldn't leave me.
A few hours later, I headed to my gynecologist's office for the official blood test (a home pregnancy test had given us the glorious news). On the way, I passed a little gift shop.
Attracted by a glass candlestick in the window, I decided to pop inside and treat myself to it. I made my purchase and was about to leave when I noticed, on the back wall, a display of children's puppet-washcloths shaped like various animals. The variety was impressive - pigs, roosters, bulls, mice, frogs - but the moment I spotted the pink and white lamb, I knew what my selection would be. On our second date, my husband had shared with me a children's poem about a lamb, and it had figured prominently in our courtship - as it still does in our marriage. So I bought all the lambs in the store: one for my new niece, the others for all the babies our friends were expecting, and one for our little one.
The next day, I started staining. My euphoria turned to dread. Silently, I begged our little one, "Please don't leave us. It's been only two days, but we love you so much already."
It took several weeks to discover that I had an ectopic pregnancy: The embryo was growing in my fallopian tube; if left unchecked, it could have killed me.
Ectopic pregnancies are usually terminated surgically. But because anesthesia restricts my breathing, I spent a week undergoing a new drug treatment that dissolved my life-threatening embryo. The doctor told me that once a woman has had an ectopic pregnancy, she is less likely to have a baby.
It took several months to recover from our loss, but Michael and I soon were back on the infertility circuit. Month after month came a slew of blood tests, sonograms, hormone medications and doctor appointments. Month after month, my supply of lamb washcloths dwindled as relatives and friends had babies; when only one remained, I tucked it away next to Michael's love letters, suspecting it would stay there forever. By the time Chanukah of 1988 rolled around, I was overwhelmed by frustration and fatigue. I remember turning to Michael, the most supportive husband in the world, and saying, "I've never been one to cut my losses, but I can't keep banging my head against the wall. Do you think we could look into adoption?"
That January, after consulting with an adoption attorney, we placed ads across the country and waited by our new phone line, hoping to hear from a pregnant woman in need of our help. The calls were few and fruitless. In mid-February, in need of a break, we decided to spend a few days in Florida, visiting Michael's parents. While there, I got my period. The usual disappointment turned to dread when I noticed that the flow was barely a trickle, similar to my ectopic symptoms. As we flew home, I said to Michael, "I don't care if New York is battling a blizzard. First thing tomorrow, I'm going for a blood test. I can't have this anxiety hanging over my head."
The next morning, I made my way across town to the lab where I'd gone so often. All I wanted to hear was that I did not have an ectopic pregnancy, that this strange period was perhaps a reaction to air travel. That afternoon, just as I was about to light the Sabbath candles, the phone rang. "Congratulations, Mrs. Levy. You're pregnant!" a cheery voice announced.
"That's impossible! I've got my period," I whispered. "And besides, we stopped all fertility procedures and medications two months ago!"
"There's no doubt about it: You're definitely pregnant. Some women do get a period during their first month; that's why they often miscalculate their due date. As for your due date, it looks like it will be at the end of October."
Following that extraordinary phone call, Michael and I were too stunned to speak. We sat together and, with tears in our eyes, prayed that this time the Almighty would help us bring a child into His world.
He did. The pregnancy had its rough moments - a month of bedrest, a bad fall in my eighth month, breathing and sleeping problems, a caesarian section - but God did not abandon us. (Neither did our many friends and relatives whose prayers, good deeds and optimism helped us through many months of anxiety and anticipation.) On October 17, 1989, our breathtakingly beautiful daughter was born. We named her Tehilah Sarah. Tehilah means many things: praise, a song, a poem to God. And the Bible paints a poignant picture of Sarah (a name shared by my two grandmothers), the matriarch who knew the heartbreak of childlessness but lived to build a dynasty.
Today, as I watch our little one blossom, I remember my doctor's dire prediction: "And let's not forget your arms; they're too weak to care for or carry a baby." He was half-right: I can't carry Tehilah, but I can care for her. When Michael is home, we can manage pretty well, each of us compensating for the other's disability. Diapering Tehilah, for example, can be quite an adventure. Michael lifts her onto the changing table, unfastens her diaper and holds her legs while I wipe her and apply Desitin. If Tehilah is really dirty, we reach for her lamb washcloth, hidden away for so many years. As she squeals with glee and tries to grab it, joy overwhelms us.
Because Michael's job takes him away from us, we have hired a full-time babysitter/housekeeper. She and I work as partners. At mealtime, she lifts Tehilah into her high chair and brings me her food so that I can feed her. When it's time for Tehilah's bottle, I lie down and Tehilah is placed on my stomach. Our babysitter puts a small pillow under my wrist so that the bottle stays at the proper angle. These tasks are tiring, but I wouldn't relinquish them for the world.
When Tehilah was seven months old, I actually discovered that I can carry my little girl with the help of a baby carrier called Sara's Ride. We originally purchased it with Michael in mind, figuring he could carry Tehilah on his hip and still get around unencumbered with his cane. Well, as it turns out, Michael rarely uses the device. I, on the other hand, have begun to carry Tehilah around on my own! I sit in my motorized scooter and, once Tehilah is secured on my lap, we roam the streets of New York unaccompanied! After an hour or so, fatigue sets in - but how thrilling it is to feel so truly united with my daughter, with no one hovering nearby to intervene. At day's end, we often head for Broadway and wait for Michael to emerge from the subway station. When Tehilah spots her Abba (Hebrew for Daddy) approaching, she gurgles excitedly. Michael stops in his tracks and, when I verbally second her emotion, he beams with delight. Passersby, notorious in New York for keeping their distance, smile at us as we head for home.
People often ask us if Tehilah knows yet that her parents have disabilities. The answer is yes - and no. When she was only seven months old, I discovered that Tehilah's "pick-me-up" plea, indicated by arms stretched eagerly upward, is never directed to me. And one evening, when she was eight months old, Tehilah started whimpering while the three of us were watching a television game show. We had no idea what was wrong. Suddenly, our unhappy little girl craned her neck until she located me. She gave me a pleading look, turned back toward Michael and then my way once more. "Michael," I said, "could it be that you're blocking her view of the TV screen?" Michael moved slightly to his left and Tehilah was content once more. More interesting than our daughter's fascination with game shows is her awareness that visual obstacles are easier to resolve with her mother's intervention.
So yes, Tehilah has learned that her parents have disabilities. But she has not learned that, in the eyes of most people, her parents are "different" or even "unfortunate." Seeing a wheelchair, a braille book, unfocused eyes or an assymetrical body is commonplace for our little girl. And, speaking candidly, Michael and I think that makes Tehilah a very fortunate person. As she gets older, she will discover society's misconceptions about disability. But, happily, children and adults who lack Tehilah's enlightened upbringing will encounter a refreshingly bemused response from our little girl. We pray that Tehilah will teach them all that disability need not be an obstacle to successful parenthood.
As Michael and I anticipate Tehilah's second Chanukah, we remember the Chanukahs that have come before. This year as I light the menorah for my husband and daughter, I know my eyes will well up once again - this time with tears of thanksgiving. Each night as I recite the blessing, "Blessed are You, our Lord, who created miracles for our ancestors, in days gone by and in our own time," I will thank God for our miracle baby. And each night I will add a special prayer: May our little Tehilah grow up knowing that, as her name signifies, she is a song, a poem to God.
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