Monday, March 2, 2015

"But how could you live and have no story to tell?" - Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Part of the pain associated with losing a baby includes not getting to use his or her name. For many parents once a name is selected, a baby becomes more permanent in the mind’s eye. A name allows parents to begin to picture themselves yelling, “Matilda Plum stop climbing on the couch!” or imagining family and friends’ squeals of approval when finally hearing the secret name “Milo Juniper” after the baby is born. Perhaps most importantly, naming a baby is one of the very first parenting acts that shapes who a child will be for the rest of her or his life.

On January 12th, 2015 we welcomed our son who we named Fyodor Rain. We chose the middle name Rain for a couple of reasons. As I wrote in a previous post, a rainbow baby is one who comes after the loss of another child—a glimmer of hope in the face of a dark storm. The name Rainbow was out of the question, but Rain seemed a perfect reminder that there has been such beauty in our darkest of days and the losses of all of our babies. Additionally, as Matilda and Milo’s middle names are both trees, we wanted this new baby to have a tree name too. The Rain Tree or the Albizia Saman is a gorgeous tree whose leaves fold in during night and rainy weather—a reminder to hold one another tight when things get dim.  

The name Fyodor first came to us about five years ago. We were hoping to get to use it for one of our three embryos resulting from our second IVF cycle. When we lost Baby Willer after that cycle, we held on to the hope that someday our Fyo would come to us. Because we thought Milo was a girl our entire third pregnancy (and Milo was one of our girl names), we did not plan to use Fyodor. When we found out Milo was a boy, we discussed whether we should switch his name. However, he had been Milo throughout almost the entire pregnancy, and so it just didn’t seem right to give him someone else’s name. I promised Mark that if we ever had another baby and he was a boy, we would name him Fyodor.

Fyodor is a Russian name meaning “God’s gift.” We pronounce it “fee-ah-door,” like the American name Theodore. We call our sweet little guy Fyo ("fee-oh") for short. The name is a nod to the Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky whose most famous books include Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov. Our admiration for him springs from a chapter in Philip Yancey’s book Soul Survivor.1 Yancy details the life of Dostoyevsky in comparison to another 18th century Russian novelist, Leo Tolstoy, who wrote War and Peace and Resurrection. Yancy uses the lives of the authors to illustrate the depths of grace, forgiveness, compassion, and love.

Both men longed to please God; however, their paths were very different. Tolstoy’s philosophy was that the way toward God was to live perfectly according to the laws of the bible. However, he advocated a life of chastity but his wife had 16 pregnancies; he vowed to give up meat and his servants, but never actually did so; he helped others but never offered to give his wife a break from her laboring. No one was more critical of this failure to live up to his own and the perceived ideals of God than Tolstoy himself.

Dostoyevsky was not a perfect man either, implicated in such immoralities such as gambling, infidelity, and alcohol abuse. He was accused of treason and sentenced to death. At the last minute, the tsar pardoned Dostoyevsky and sentenced him to four years of hard labor. He then spent six years in exile. As a result of his pardoning and an unexpected second chance at life, Dostoyevsky committed himself fully to God. Despite dreadful conditions, during his time in prison he went through what Yancy calls a virtual resurrection. He was able to glimpse Christ even in the most vile and hateful prisoners and in those who extended him kindness while he was there. He came to believe that it is only through being loved that one is capable of it. It is this grace that Dostoyevsky conveyed in his greatest works of literature.

Yancy uses the stories of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky to illustrate how he came to understand how we, as terribly imperfect beings, can possibly live according to the bible’s seemingly unobtainable ideals. Yancy writes: “There is only one way for us to resolve the tension between the high ideals of the gospel and the grim reality of ourselves: to accept that we will never measure up, but that we do not have to. Tolstoy got it halfway right: anything that makes me feel comfort with God’s moral standard, anything that makes me feel, ‘At least I have arrived,’ is a cruel deception. Dostoyevsky got the other half right: anything that makes me feel discomfort with God’s forgiving love is also a cruel deception….God loves us not because of who we are and what we have done, but because of who God is. Grace flows to all who accept it.”

As self-acknowledged perfectionists, these words and the novelists’ stories are so very meaningful to Mark and me. My desire to be good and do good have been functional for me; I have enjoyed much success. However, such pressure at times has been debilitating. I’ve laid awake uncountable nights fearing how I will ever meet a deadline or about how I’ve let someone down. Like many people who can’t get pregnant or have lost babies, I have constantly questioned what it was that I did that made me a worthy recipient of so much pain. My feelings about my imperfect body and its failings are very well-documented in this blog. But at the time I read Yancy’s chapter and even today, I am reminded that I am not perfect and I don’t have to be. My pain isn’t the result of my misdeeds or my inability to measure up. As I get some distance from my most painful of days, I get better at choosing to accept grace.

There is no doubt that our son we be imperfect. He will make bad decisions, at times disappoint us, and likely will be heartbreakingly hard on himself. As he gets older, we hope that our sweet Fyo doesn’t hate us for choosing such an unconventional name. People will inevitably mispronounce it and mistakenly think he said “Theodore” instead of “Fyodor” when he tells them his name. Others will avoid saying it all together out of fear of getting it wrong. When he fails and when these things happen, hopefully he is reminded of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky and that he and others are not perfect, nor should they be. In so doing, our hope is that he learns the meaning of grace.    

Copyright Katherine Payne Photography

1 Soul Survivor: How Thirteen Unlikely Mentors Helped My Faith Survive the Church by Philip Yancy is an inspiring book. It details how historical figures such as Martin Luther King Jr., Annie Dillard, and Mahatma Gandhi helped Yancy reclaim his faith after growing up in the shackles of a fundamentalist and racist religion.