In the crook on the crozier of my shoulder, a premature, newborn baby is sleeping; little tiny fingers cling to the adjoining bend of my collarbone. The sweetness nestled therein has found its tending. Like a sheep unto a shepherd, this one tends toward being tended to. But for the supposed shepherd that I am, that small clutching hand uprightly leads me.
Frantic moments ago, with mouth wide-open, his face was wildly rooting around to the left and to the right of his hospital bassinet. With each turn of his anxious head his whimpering redoubled. He put one fist to his mouth, and then the other just to ensure I knew he was signaling all of his primal, infant feeding cues. My own hands could hardly move quickly enough to prepare a bottle for him.
With an initial gulp his limbs went limp in relaxation. It is comically cute, as quickly as he demanded, now too he sighs, satiated.
When I was still discerning about becoming a nurse, I was making a thirty-day, silent retreat as a novice having just joined religious life as a Jesuit. I was praying with the book of the prophet Hosea; and it became clearer to me that nursing was not at all a competing threat to my new religious vocation. Nursing is the mission and the mainstay of my religious vocation.
A line caught me hook and sinker, as if the Fisher of men was speaking directly to me in Hosea chapter eleven. The third verse is God speaking compassionately about Israel’s ingratitude. The prophet wrote, “I took them in my arms, but they did not know that I cared for them” (Hosea 11:3). In the latter half of that verse, I felt God invite me to nursing. The inaudible mission that hung in the silence of my retreat disclosed to me God’s hunger, “Adam, go and let them know I care for them.”
The desire to be a nurse was not only my own, but apparently God’s desire as well.
When it came time to decide how I would practice nursing, it was not much of a question. I would become a neonatal nurse and hold infants to my cheeks as the subsequent verse of Hosea describes, “I fostered them like those raising infants to their cheeks; I bent down to feed them” (Hosea 11:4). That specification in the vocation was second nature. Years of Marian devotional prayer accustomed me to relating to Christ as an incarnate infant.
If you have ever held a newborn for long, you may have noticed the baby in your arms occasionally experiencing bouts of irregularly fast-paced breathing. It is medically called transient tachypnea. It is a benign and natural experience for many babies. The infant I am holding is experiencing it now, a short squall.
I respond to his rapid respirations by exaggerating my own regularly paced inhalation and exhalation. This manipulated rise and fall of my chest, where the baby still rests in that couture curve, unconsciously syncs his breathing with my own. Once again we breathe easy. I think poets have said that the sea need not understand the moon to feel its tidal effects. Though, who is moving for whom, I wonder?
These days in my second year of practice as a neonatal nurse, the same old line of Hosea reels me in with a new take. Before, it was God’s desire for reciprocity that attracted me. The tone was bemoaning humanity’s insolence. Now the line catches me, and this time it seems that God is only stating the obvious.
Little does this one in my arms know, or will know, how much I cared for him.