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A sidewalk birth

Any day that starts off with a run is a good day. Never in my proudly Luddite life, however, have I ever been so glad to be carrying a cellphone. These two things – being on foot and having a cell (plus the inexplicable fact that I took a different route from my normal one that morning) — allowed me to be part of a sidewalk birth on a chilly Thursday on the busy corner of Welland and Geneva streets in St. Catharines.

This distressed mother could have done a lot better than to have me be the one who heard her screaming. I have not been trained in first aid. I don’t think quickly on my feet. And as it turns out, just as the 911 dispatcher was saying those words nobody ever wants to hear (“I am now going to walk you through how to deliver this baby”), my phone froze, cutting off any further guidance that could have been offered. I was wearing sweaty flimsy running clothes, and so didn’t even have a coat or sweater to lay on the ground as the baby made its arrival, let alone to wrap the baby when it emerged. All I could offer was a body for the mother to frantically grab onto through each contraction, a hand to rub her back, and an eye to gratefully spot the ambulance pulling up just as her final push delivered the baby. I didn’t even bring a good attitude with me into the situation. When I realized that someone’s screams were cutting through my noise-cancelling headphones and understood I would have to stop running, cross the street, and find out what was going on, my first thought was, “I don’t really have time for this.”

My last thought, as the mother and newborn were loaded into the ambulance and the doors were shut, was that of course the baby was dead. The whole encounter took about ten minutes from start to finish.

The baby wasn’t dead. He was a healthy five pounds and ten ounces. “Babies are resilient,” more than one person has laughed in response to my story. It took a few hours (maybe a few days) for my heart to stop racing and to realize that I had indeed been part of a miracle. The miraculous part wasn’t so much that the baby survived my lack of expertise and failed cellphone or his mother’s desperate surprise. It was in the more ordinary parts of the story, the parts that are no less amazing for being common — that our bodies could have their own program for constructing and delivering life that functions quite apart from our schedules and intellectual know-how; that something that is excreted from a mother’s body looking so alien and quiet and fragile could be wiped off and washed up and be revealed as a chubby-cheeked, silky-skinned, lustily crying baby that also has a built-in agenda for pursuing life.

There were others who were needed in this particular miracle. It was because of my colleague Michael’s willingness to be the driver to a meeting we were attending that day that I got to run to work in the first place. And when I finally re-booted my cell phone, it was my other colleague Linda who took on the task of locating the baby’s father at the local Tim Hortons (when Linda announced to the surprised morning coffee crowd that she was looking for a man named “Christopher” whose wife was due to have a baby, four men answered to her description, not one of them being the actual dad). And of course, the paramedics arrived as the real heroes. Maybe it all felt like just part of a day’s work for them, but their calm competence was astonishing to me.

As grateful as I am to all of those who were involved, the shadow side of this story is the number of people who weren’t involved. This woman gave birth to a baby on one of the busier streets of our city.

And nobody stopped. The traffic kept driving by. There were even a few pedestrians on the other side of the road who didn’t stop either. When I finally saw the ambulance coming down the street and began waving my arms madly at oncoming traffic to attract the ambulance’s attention, none of the many cars in front of that ambulance pulled over, noticed or acknowledged in any way the critical situation taking place.

This past Sunday, Christians all over the world celebrated the feast day of the Reign of Christ. In the Gospel reading from Matthew, which we all would have heard, the judgement is clear: I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ (Matthew 25:35-36). This is the sole sticking definition for righteousness. It is a judgement that is not open to interpretation, and its corollary is this: that those who fail to do these things have led lives that, in the final account, are unrecognizable to God. In fact, all of the examples here listed by Jesus can be boiled down into one simple instruction. We have to be willing to stop for one another. We have to be willing to take our earphones out and our blinders off and turn around to hear and help a neighbour.

I am not claiming any moral high ground here. I barely stopped. I often charge through life on a mission to get where I’m going, likely with very little awareness of the cries on the street along the way. I am challenged by this sidewalk birth to commit to charging a little less and stopping a little more.

I am also challenged by these words of final judgement inaugurating God’s rule of love. I do not, however, place my hope here. I place my hope in the Advent words looming just around the corner: The dawn from on high shall break upon us, to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace (Luke 1:78-79). I place my hope in the God who breaks through the distractions of our busy world, tapping us on the shoulder, calling our attention to the incredible, strange and disturbing things happening around us, willing to use us to get some work done, even if our qualifications fall short. I place my hope in God’s grace, the God who never gives up on drawing near to us. I place my hope in the God whose name is inscribed on every newborn heart and whose law of love continues to lay its claim on us.

(I will also admit that this experience has inspired me to consider buying a new cellphone and signing up for some first-aid training.)

About Martha Tatarnic

The Reverend Martha Tatarnic serves as the rector of St. George’s Anglican Church in St. Catharines. Previously, she has served in congregations in Orillia and Oakville. Her focus in congregational leadership has been in empowering justice initiatives and outreach in the small church, starting a new service, the possibilities and potentials of Anglican-Lutheran partnership, and forming disciples through the power of music.
As a young mother navigating family life through the continually changing waters of modern-day life, she is passionate about connecting the dots between faith – worship – Scripture, and exploring the concerns, joys, questions, stresses, worries, celebrations, of Right Here, Right Now.

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31 Responses to A sidewalk birth

  1. What a wonderful story. The good Samaritan all over again.

  2. This makes my heart swell that you made the choice to stop and it break a little that no one else felt the need to help. Beautifully written.

  3. I can’t help but think this is the way Jesus came into the world. In a stable rather than on a sidewalk, but with busy Bethlehem bustling about and paying no attention to the birth.

  4. How fortunate for the Mother and Baby it was YOU jogging by! Your presence must have give her great comfort.

  5. Great and awe-some story. Better you than me!

    My mother had a similar experience in Shawinigan Quebec in the 1950s. The next door neighbour in the apartment next to hers – a friend – knocked on the door one afternoon and was already well advanced in a precipitous labour. While I think she’d called her husband at work, she hadn’t had a chance to call for the doctor – this was before the days of paramedics. It was an incredibly short labour, as is sometimes the case with women who have already given birth. My mother, who also had given birth twice before, somehow managed to catch the baby before anyone arrived. She wasn’t present at another birth (other than my own) until my son’s in 1997.

    Birth is astonishing and miraculous, and at the same time common and normal – kinda like God. God be praised that you were there for that woman and her son at that time.

  6. I was thinking about you and your story today. Your initial post asked how did we started our day that morning and I flippantly but sincerely replied a coffee and visiting my grandchildren. I am certain you were looking for more but indeed I hadn’t seen my grandchildren for almost a year and I too was having an incredible moment. What I want to say is thank you for being there and responding to the mother and child in need. Being a mother myself I remember the awesome experience of childbirth and I say congratulations for your amazing experience that cold November morning

  7. Well done, both for stopping by the wayside, and even more for writing about It and using the scary and uncomfortable experience in a way that is so helpful to others.

  8. St. Catherine’s is a town that must sit just outside the gates of hell. When anything truly horrid happens in this country…it happens there.

  9. Wow is all I can think of saying. I teared up as I read your account of this life changing moment for all involved. If that was me lying on the sidewalk, I would want you there without a doubt. You were chosen!

  10. Martha
    This has to be one of your BEST articles by far. So much heartful feelings and soul searching. Excellent read.

    Linda

  11. I have often compared the role of a parish priest to that of a midwife. You just modeled that image perfectly. Thank you for your faithfulness and for sharing that marvellous story.

  12. Awesome! You followed your heart!❤️

  13. So many wonderful reminders in this story. This was truly God’s plan at work. Thank you for sharing and thereby stirring up some important thinking.

  14. An amazing and dramatic story. Let it be a reminder to us all that there are people crying out along our paths all the time. They are in search of kindness and human connection. We are innately equipped for such moments if we just choose to respond.

  15. I suspect that God’s hand was working everywhere that day-for all of you! Your adventure reflects everyone’s need (not want) in life, to slow down and listen…. There are a lot of surprises out there if you do! Right?

  16. Beautiful story. Well done.

  17. Thank you for sharing this momentous event which involved 3 people Martha.

    I think your response to it accurately reflects St. Luke 10 vv 30 -33 and 37 in which Jesus is telling us that we should all show compassion and love to each other ,as He showed love and compassion to us.

  18. I was so moved by your story! Praise God from whom all blessings flow!

  19. Parishioners of St George’s Church all say thank God for you Martha, you are a shining example of a true Christian and we are so lucky to have you!

  20. Martha, that mother was blessed that for some inexplicable reason you altered your usual run that morning. Thank you for using the word, “judgement” in your reflection. We tend to skirt around those parts of the Gospel in which Jesus calls us to account for when we fail to turn aside from our own agenda and attend to the needs of others. I love that image of priests as midwives at the time of birth, and also death. Thank you.

  21. God equips the hands of a willing heart. Thanks for sharing this story.

  22. What an amazing story! 💕

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