Copyright© 2012 by Robert McKay
We named her Hadassah. It's an odd name, we knew, but we were reading in the book of Esther when she was born, and we both loved that name, Esther's original name, the one her parents gave her, and so we named our daughter Hadassah Ruth Garvin – Ruth, for another favorite person in the Bible. We named her Hadassah, and she grew up like that name – limber and sweet and mysterious, with just the slightest lisp to her speech that gave her sibilants the sound of extra significance.
The name fit the day of her birth, too. It was early September, but a bright warm day, with a gentle breeze moving the branches of the trees as I escorted my wife to the car. Somewhere in the neighborhood a lawn mower was running, and I could smell the mingling of freshly cut grass and gasoline exhaust on the air.
We named her Hadassah, which proved to fit her very well, and we brought her up in church, and did our best to teach her the ways of the Lord. She studied the Scriptures in Sunday School, she was with us for the sermons from the first, and we regularly read to her from the Bible and explained to her what it meant. When she was seven she made a profession of faith, and when after a year we'd seen what we considered good evidence of a genuine conversion, we brought her to the elders of the church, who examined her gently and confirmed her readiness for baptism. And that year on July 20 she went down the steps into the baptistery, and emerged dripping wet and shining with joy.
That was a spring day, cool and bright and full of promise. I'd heard birds singing as we led Hadassah to the car that morning, and again as we walked from the car to the door of the church. She'd spotted a butterfly dancing above her head, and tried to follow it, though we kept her with us lest she get accidentally run over. Her dress had been yellow that day, with her black curls bouncing against the ruffled fabric, and I'd known that I would remember that day forever.
Through her years we never had cause to find her displeasing. She was, yes, angry at times and rebellious at times, as are all children, but never malicious, never deliberately hurtful, never cruel. She shied away from the worst aspects of hip-hop culture, never caring for tattoos, never wishing to listen to the harshness of "gangsta" rap, never accepting the notion that women are "hos" and worse.
And so it was a terrible shock when she came to us just three weeks after her 17th birthday and told us she was pregnant.
She came in after school and went up to her room to do her homework. My wife was fixing supper in the kitchen, while I stood looking out at the back yard – specifically at my studio. I'd been writing all day, working on the preface for a commentary that was nearing the deadline, a preface that just wasn't coming together the way it needed to. Whether it was some of the areas where I disagreed with the commentary's author, or something not quite right with how I'd phrased my meaning I couldn't yet figure out, and it was driving me insane. I'd given up for the day when my wife buzzed me for supper – two long buzzes telling me it was time. I'd saved my work and shut down the computer and locked the studio for the day, and was now thinking of my daughter in her room studying.
In late September the grass and the leaves were still green, and though the mornings were chilly the days were as hot, it seemed, as though it were still summer. I still had the smell of study in my nostrils, the odors of leather and the computer's ozone, of ink from a cheap ballpoint pen and musty pages from books that I didn't open often.
The sky over the studio roof was clear blue, with just a few puffs of cotton clouds drifting slowly along. The weathered wood of the studio walls was a soft brown, and one day would be the silvery gray of unpainted wood left out in sun and rain for years. I'd deliberately left the boards unpainted; I might live in the city and make my living in a scholarly pursuit, but I didn't want to forget my rural upbringing.
My wife's name is Gill, short for Gillian, and I'm William, Bill to my wife and friends. We'd been married 20 years that day, our anniversary having passed a couple of months before. I heard her voice from the kitchen: "Bill, would you please call Hadassah?"
"Sure." I walked to the stairs, and climbed up to knock on Hadassah's door. "It's time to eat," I said, and waited for her response. When I heard her acknowledge the call I went back down the stairs and helped Gill put the last bit of supper on the table – she carried the basket of warm rolls while I hefted the bowl of green beans. I saw a bowl of spaghetti on the table, and another of sauce – from the sauce came the odor of parmesan cheese, which Gill included liberally in her recipe. The rolls too smelled delicious, just yeasty enough, and I could see very faint curls of steam rising from the basket. And then came the thumping of Hadassah's feet on the sitars...
Over supper we talked of Hadassah's studies – she was learning Latin, of all things in this day and age, but Calvin Academy was a private school and hadn't followed the downward trend of public education. Her current assignment was translating a portion of the Vulgate Bible, the Latin version that Jerome had prepared and which to this day serves as the basis for Catholic translations. She'd chosen a portion of the book of Romans, and discoursed – not too learnedly, much to my relief – on her progress.
"I don't suppose you could study an easier work, could you?" I asked. I'm competent in Greek and Hebrew, but Latin is beyond me.
"We could have, but we decided to try the Bible. Mr. Contreras gave us the choice and seemed happy when that's what it was. And now I think we're all too worried about hurting his feelings to change our minds." She smiled – though it did seem to me that it was less of a brilliant smile than usual.
"You're stuck with it then," Gill put in.
"Exactly, Mom. But I'll manage. People my age once learned Latin so well that they could speak it in conversation, and I'm not about to say I'm stupider than they were."
"Nor are you a medieval scholar," Gill replied.
"And for that I truly thank God," Hadassah said. "In a way I think those who had an education back then were better educated than educated people today, but I have no desire to live in filth and constant war." Under Gill's tutelage, and the high quality of the education she was receiving at school, Hadassah routinely spoke better English than many college graduates. Calvin Academy teaches Latin, yes, but it also insists that all its students learn proper English, and good manners, and respect for others, and such things that public schools sometimes seem to teach against.
"I think you're right," I said. "The thing about 'the good old days' is that they're better in memory than in life. We remember 'knights in shining armor, ' but those knights were bloodthirsty killers whose code of chivalry worked best when the opposition was strong enough to enforce it. If you weren't as well armed and armored as Sir Knight over there, he would cheerfully run you through from behind."
Hadassah nodded. "I've read about the Crusades. Even if some of the Crusaders were sincere in their faith, God doesn't need that kind of brutality to promote His kingdom. And the droits de seigneur..." She trailed off on that, and I didn't blame her; it was a shameful and hurtful custom that's best extinct.
"No, sin never glorifies God," I said, "not even when you dress the sin up in pious robes."
A shadow came over Hadassah's face then. She looked around, and saw that Gill and I had both pushed our plates aside by then. She pushed hers away too, though there was still food on it, which I hadn't noticed until then.
"Aren't you hungry?" Gill asked.
"No." Hadassah paused, and her hands went below the table, and from the way her arms tightened I gathered that she had clenched her hands together. "Mom, Dad, I need to talk to you. It's ... it's bad news."
"What is it, honey?" That was Gill, leaning forward with concern on her face.
"Dad, you said sin never glorifies God. I know that ... I'm living that."
"How do you mean?" I reached across the table, and after a moment Hadassah brought a hand out from under the table and briefly squeezed mine, before retreating again. Her hand was sweaty and cold, telling me just how nervous she was.
"There is no easy way to tell you this." Her eyes dropped and her face turned red. "I'm pregnant."
I don't know how long it lasted, but there was silence. It could have been half an hour, though I don't believe so, it could have been 30 seconds, it could have been longer or shorter than those numbers, but however long it lasted I didn't even hear my own breathing during that time.
Gill recovered first. "Pregnant? You're sure?"
Hadassah's voice was faint, and I had the impression she was fighting desperately in order to be able to speak at all. "Yes, I'm sure. I've missed two periods, and I've used ... used a home pregnancy test. And I've been a little sick about half the mornings for the past two or three weeks. I'm pregnant."
I reached across the table again, but she either didn't see my hand, or just kept hers clasped. "Hadassah," I said, "give me your hand." She didn't move. "Please, give me your hand." She did, slowly, and I held it tightly. "Do you know who the father is?"
"Who is it?"
She looked up now, and I could see the tears on her cheeks, and the flush of shame too. "I don't want to tell you."
"Is it someone you're ashamed of?"
"No. I'm ashamed of what I did, but not of him. He's a good boy, he's a Christian, and..."
"And what?" Gill asked. Her voice was rough and I was afraid she was going to cry too.
"And nothing, Mom. I can't tell you."
"Hadassah," I said, and waited till she was looking me right in the eye. "Hadassah, before we go any further, I want you to know this. We love you. We're terribly hurt and disappointed by what you've done. You know better, and you've done something very wrong. But we love you. And we love our grandchild, or we will when we recover from the shock that I know your mother is feeling as much as I am. But we need to know who the father is."
"You still love me?" It wasn't just her voice that was incredulous. Hadassah's face looked as though she'd just won the Power Ball lottery without buying a ticket – not happy, but absolutely shocked.
I looked at Gill, who was looking at me. She nodded, and reached toward Hadassah, though that distance was too great even if Hadassah's other hand had been on the table. I looked back at our daughter. "Yes, we both love you. You're our daughter. We will always love you. We can't help but love you, and it's our honor and pleasure to love you. No matter what you do, we love you."
"Oh, Daddy!" she cried, and snatched her hand from mine and ran out of the kitchen. I could hear her feet thumping on the stairs, and then the closing of her door – not a slam, but forcefully nonetheless.
I looked at Gill. "She's terrified, Bill. She's pregnant and unmarried, and feels like she's alone. And I think the fact that we do still love her is more than she's ready to handle at this moment."
I nodded. "I'm sure you're right." I took a breath. "Thank you for being so calm. I had to hold tightly to my temper, and knowing that you were restraining yourself helped me not to shout."
"You were helping me. I wanted to scream at her..."
I nodded again. "God gave us grace here, I suppose. We both wanted to yell at Hadassah, when that was the last thing she needed, but we didn't do it."
Gill moved her chair closer to mine and put her arm around me, leaning against my shoulder. Her blonde hair, just collar length, rested against the blue of my shirt. "I'm scared, Bill. What are we going to do? What is Hadassah going to do? God's helped us tonight, but all three of us are going to need a lot of help in the future. This won't end quickly."
"No." I took a shaky breath. "I can't think of anything better to do than pray – right here and now."
And we did.