Penance on a Wet Thursday Morning
It was raining, a fine wet drizzle that seemed to slowly saturate their coats and clothes, but for Sarah the weather matched her mood.
She was sat in the front pew of the church, a black coat over her dark blue dress, while her husband Philip sat next to her in his black interview suit, though he still wasn’t making eye contact with her. The funeral service was almost halfway through, the priest had started his eulogy about Rachel and Sarah was trying not to listen to Fr. Graham’s voice, but his words flooded her ears.
“Rachel was such a young life and taken so soon, but we have the comfort of hope. Rachel was truly an innocent and therefore she’s already with our Lord in Paradise...”
Sarah closed her eyes. She didn’t want to cry, not again here, but her eyes were already glazing over with tears. She knew, out of everyone there, she had the most reason to cry, it was her daughter’s funeral, it was her five month old daughter in the tiny coffin before her; but she couldn’t break down again. The church was full, even for a Thursday morning, people from their church, Philip’s work colleagues, her family, and Sarah couldn’t breakdown in front of them all again.
Rachel was their first child, their only child. Almost from their wedding day Philip had not just wanted to be a parent but had excitedly expected to be one, and Sarah had equally agreed. She was married and embraced her role as a wife. When she finally became pregnant with Rachel she was so relieved, especially taking comfort from Philip’s joy and excitement. She offered so many prayers of thanks that she was finally pregnancy.
Mothering Rachel had not been the pleasure and joy Sarah told herself it would be. Rachel was an unhappy and restless baby. She’d cried endlessly, for hours at a time it seemed, and there was nothing Sarah could do to comfort her. She’d feed Rachel, change her nappy, rock her in her arms, but nothing would stop her crying. It was only when Rachel fell asleep, exhorted, that the crying finally stopped. The worst was at night; Rachel would only sleep for short periods before waking up screaming. Sarah would be the one who had to go to her; Philip complained that he needed his sleep for work.
By the time Rachel was five months old Sarah was physically exhausted, her lack of sleep was like a chronic illness. She had no energy, her body constantly ached and her concentration levels were painfully low. All she could think of was a time when Rachel would sleep through the night without waking, so she could too. Her mind was fixated on that imagined moment.
That afternoon, eight days ago, she’d felt so tired she could barely keep her eyes open, Rachel had kept her awake most of the night. When she’d lain Rachel down for her afternoon sleep the child had been crying loudly but she’d ignored it. She was far too tired to stay until Rachel stopped crying. Instead she just left Rachel there, in her cot, closed the bedroom on Rachel and went to lie down on the sofa. She was asleep barely seconds after settling on the sofa.
She awoke two hours later, for a moment she simply lay there enjoying the quiet, then she pulled herself off the sofa and went up to Rachel’s bedroom.
When she walked into the room she thought Rachel was still asleep, but as she reached the cot she knew that was wrong. Rachel lay motionless, her skin an unnatural blue colour. She screamed and snatched Rachel up into her arms, but the child was cold and unresponsive.
In her hysteria she called for an ambulance, though the operator seemed to ask her endless questions, and then rushed to the front door to wait for it. When they arrived, a handful of agonisingly long minutes later, the paramedics took Rachel off her and started to administer to her.
The ambulance rushed them all to hospital but there Rachel was taken away from her, into the Resuscitation Room, while she was taken to a private waiting room. Much later a middle aged nurse, in a Sister’s uniform, came in there and gently told her that Rachel was dead.
As she stared at the woman, all Sarah could think of was that she hadn’t told Philip what had happened.
Fr. Graham finished his eulogy by calling for them all to pray for Rachel.
Sarah felt a moment of relief, she could bow her head and no one would be looking at her because their heads were bowed too. She just wanted this funeral to end. She felt no comfort from this, her daughter was dead and she still felt so deeply guilty. Nothing would take that away.
They call it a “Cot Death”, Rachel’s death, a natural accident, but Sarah didn’t agree. Philip blamed her and repeatedly told her so. He said that if she’d kept a closer eye on Rachel, instead of sleeping, then their daughter would still be alive. Sarah couldn’t disagree, she knew it was true, it had all been her fault. God had taken Rachel because Sarah had killed her first baby.
Sarah had been seventeen when her then boyfriend, Ross, had gone too far one night, when Sarah had been babysitting. Their session of heavy petty had turned into full on sex, her first time, that was over in moments.
Five weeks later, when she was certain that her period wasn’t coming, she’d told Ross; but all he’d done was stuck in air through his teeth and say:
“It’s your problem.” With those words her first relationship ended.
It took her nearly two months to do it. She was constantly weighing up her opinions, but in the end she had no choice. If her father knew he’d have thrown her out of their home, and her mother would have been backing him up. In the end, she only had one choice.
She took a day off work, but didn’t tell a soul what she was doing, and went for her appointment at the Brook Clinic. At her normal time that evening she returned home, she had to make it look as if it had been any other normal day, though she was still bleeding from the abortion she’d had that morning.
Over the following days and weeks she was haunted by what she’d done. She knew that she couldn’t have raised a child on her own, she knew she’d had no choice, but none of that stopped her guilt. She’d killed her own baby and she couldn’t stop thinking about that.
Eventually she returned to church, searching for some relief. Her parents were active members of their catholic church, but Sarah had stopped attending when she was fourteen. Now she returned.
Her first confession, after her return, was early on a Saturday afternoon. She’d sat down in the confessional and heard the voice of Fr. Kendall, the elderly priest who assisted around the parish, on the other side of the grill. With her head bowed, she briefly told him of her abortion.
Fr. Kendall’s reply had been equally brief:
“You’re dirty and disgusting. You murdered your unborn child. You’ve committed a moral sin and God will punish you for this... I don’t know of a penance for a sin as great as yours.”
Sarah raised her head up, after Fr. Graham had finished his prayer, and again stared at her daughter’s small, white coffin. The coffin was so small and fragile. When Rachel had been born she thought God had finally forgiven her, but only with Rachel’s death did she see how she was being punished. She had killed her first child, before it was born, and this was how God had punished her.
She glanced towards Philip but he was staring fixedly in front of himself, with a hard and dry expression. She knew he blamed her for Rachel’s death and that he was already growing cold towards her. She also knew she would loss him over Rachel’s death and there was nothing she could do to stop it all.
She was to blame for all this because this was her punishment from God. She blinked away another tear.