The Harder Choice: A Review by Amy Nicholson

Perfectly Human
By Sarah C. Williams
Plough, 2018
$16   160 pp.

Thou hast covered me in my mother’s womb. I will praise thee; for I am fearfully and wonderfully made; marvellous are thy works; and that my soul knoweth right well. My substance was not hid from thee, when I was made in secret, and curiously wrought in the lowest parts of the earth.
– Psalm 139:13–15

“There is something wrong with the baby.” Sarah C. Williams was 20 weeks into her third pregnancy when she heard these terrifying words from the technician at the ultrasound clinic. She would learn that her unborn baby had thanatophoric dysplasia, a rare and lethal skeletal deformity in which the chest does not grow big enough to accommodate the lungs. The deformity afflicts only 1 in 700,000 babies. Williams was told that her baby girl would most certainly die soon after she was born. To the doctor’s surprise, Williams chose to carry her daughter to term.

This book recounts Williams’s experience from the time she learned of her baby’s condition through the stillborn birth and well into the grieving process and beyond. We move through the process with her. From the lack of control over the morning sickness that overtook her typically ordered life, rendering her powerless to do many things on her own, to naming the baby Cerian, which is Welsh for beloved, to the firm stance the Williams family took in guarding their daughter’s life, however brief it was to be.

Throughout this physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually difficult time, Williams leaned on the support of her family, her friends, and her faith. She makes several references to the fact that it was the Lord who carried her through her trials. The experience drew her closer to God and made her more dependent on him. She and her husband Paul found God in the midst of the pain, not the avoidance of it.

The book raises the question of prenatal testing. Williams learned of Cerian’s condition before birth. This contrasts with the experience of another Christian author, Amy Julia Becker, who at age 28 gave birth to a girl with Down’s syndrome. In her book A Perfect Gift, she relates that she did not have prenatal testing. If she had, would things have been different? Becker has addressed this issue on numerous platforms, and reading both mothers’ books in tandem offers a wider perspective on this topic.

As Williams considers her daughter’s physical deformity, she ponders the idea of suffering, raising the question of the morality of bringing a child into a world of possible—and some would say imminent—pain. How does advanced knowledge of such suffering play into a parent’s decision making? How does God fit into such a scenario? God knew Jesus Christ, his own son, would endure suffering and even death on the cross. God himself could have prevented his son’s suffering, and yet he did not. He still chose life for him. Jesus’s life would serve as a ransom for many. Sometimes God asks us to make the harder choice because it fulfills his purpose. It is not always up to us to prevent our children’s suffering. Williams arrives at this realization when she writes, “What if my role as a mother was to cooperate with God’s dreams for my child even if they did not fit with mine?” And what if Williams had decided to terminate the pregnancy and later learned the doctor’s diagnosis had been wrong?

This book would be a suitable reference for families in similar situations, as it may offer comfort that they themselves are not alone in their pain and their struggles to understand God’s will. The author includes the tangible ways she and her family grieved their loss and how they shared the experience with their young daughters. Readers may find these methods useful in dealing with their own brokenness.

As emotionally difficult as it may be to read, this book is also a good resource for those of us who have not experienced such grief. Reading the Williams’ family account offers us an opportunity to better empathize with others who have been through similar trials. Learning of all the loving ways the Williams’ family and friends supported them through the process might encourage readers to do the same for those around them who are suffering losses.

The book also addresses a universal question that is woven into the very fabric of our being: What does it mean to be a person? For years, Williams equated her worth with the approval of others. Suddenly she found herself having to determine the value of a human who had not even been born yet. By way of an answer, she quotes Catholic theologian Heather Ward: “our intrinsic worth as human creatures resides not in our qualities, characters, or achievements, nor in our physical bodies or mental capacities, but in the eternal character of God. We treat one another with dignity because of the intrinsic worth of every person as a relational being loved by God.” If Cerian was loved by God simply because he called her, however briefly, into life, then I, too, despite my shortcomings and all my sin, am intimately and unconditionally loved by God. I was loved by him before I was born. This slim volume may recount the experiences of one family, but this idea of personhood affects us all. It affects how we perceive ourselves, our relationship with God, our relationship with those who are different from us.

Perfectly Human was originally published in 2005 under the title The Shaming of the Strong. In this new edition, Williams adds an epilogue as rich and compelling as the memoir itself. It contains marching orders for us all, and affirms that we are worthy not for anything we’ve done or how we look, but simply because we are children of God. Each one of us matters. Our experiences, as trivial as we think they may be, speak to the nature of God. For that reason, they too are worthy to be brought into the world and shared that others would benefit. As Mother Teresa said, “To God, there is nothing small.”

Amy Nicholson hopes to encourage and inspire others through her writing. She has been published in Country Woman, the Old Schoolhouse, the Lookout, and other publications. In addition to writing and discovering grace in ordinary places, Amy substitute teaches. Visit her at: www.amynicholson14.wordpress.com.

 

 

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