The Zika virus is all over the news, right now, so it isn't surprising that journalists are looking for other news stories they can connect to it.
This past week, I received several notes from readers about the following Washington Post "Inspired Life" feature. One came with the traditional trigger warning: "Have tissues ready."
The reader could have added this warning: "Prepare to read about a powerful human drama that is haunted by a religion ghost." The headline: "What this amazing mom of two girls with microcephaly has to say about Zika scare." Here is the classic feature-story overture:
Gwen Hartley’s 19-week sonogram was normal. Her baby girl, her second child, was going to complete her storybook life. She’d married her high school sweetheart, they already had a healthy son, a house and a dog.
When Claire was born, Hartley looked adoringly into her daughter’s big eyes and remembered thinking that she’d forgotten how tiny a newborn’s head was. Then the doctors whisked her baby away. Something was wrong. Something that couldn’t be fixed.
After a series of misdiagnoses, the Hartleys, of Kansas, were told Claire had microcephaly, a serious birth defect that causes babies to have extremely small heads and brains, and, in her case, made it unlikely she would live beyond a year. Almost five years later, Claire was defying the odds and, although she couldn’t speak or walk or even sit upright, she was a happy and vibrant child. The Hartleys felt ready to get pregnant again. Rounds of genetic testing had not revealed anything to suggest Claire’s microcephaly was anything but an anomaly.
Then, at the 26-week point, a sonogram showed that their unborn child's head was too small. The odds of microcephaly striking again?
Now stop and think about this: Isn't there an unstated question at this point in the story? What kind of advice might the doctors have offered to this traumatized mother concerning this, some would say, doomed pregnancy?
One thing is clear. The Hartleys of the heartland decided to let the pregnancy proceed. Might this be a hint of some kind of religious worldview at work?
Later, readers are told:
The vision of their perfect life had been shattered, and they had no idea how long they’d have their baby girl. But Hartley’s priorities shifted in those 12 months. Perfect was in the eye of the beholder, and to her, she still had the perfect family. She was going to stop mourning the life she didn’t have and celebrate the one she did.
When Lola was diagnosed, some of those negative thoughts seeped back. Knowing the life expectancy of these children was still short, she worried about how she would bury two children someday. Recalling these feelings now, Hartley started to cry. “It’s hard to think about that,” she said, her voice catching. But she doesn’t let those fears stay around too long.
“This is the baby I’m supposed to be a mom to,” she said. “I would be missing out on a gift that had been given to me.”
A gift? Yes, we have another unstated question. However, the Post team -- once again -- let's the implied statement of religious convictions, of some kind, pass by without question or comment. Strange.
But that was not the end of hinting, by this "amazing mom." You see, Gwen Hartley has a blog where speaks for herself.
In a recent post, she wrote about how she’d dreamed Lola could walk. Once, those dreams would have left her with a longing for all she couldn’t have, she wrote, but there was a peace to this one.
“It felt a little bit like a fast forward of our lives … and as hard as it is for me to say this (I almost don’t even want to go there), it almost felt like Heaven -- how I imagine it will be when we reunite someday on the other side,” she wrote. “I was able to see my little girl in such a different light. I know her heart inside & out already, but seeing her explore her world & delight in the little things felt like a lifetime worth of happiness condensed into one breathtaking moment.”
Now, it's clear that Hartley is writing this blog to a wide, diverse audience. She did not add denominational details. Still, as one reader noted, concerning the Post article:
Catholic Heaven? Baptist Heaven? Who knows? She also says, “This is the baby I’m supposed to be a mom to . . . I would be missing out on a gift that had been given to me.” A gift from whom? Again, who knows? It's a lovely perspective but a frustrating piece.
It certainly does appear that some kind of religious faith is at work in this story.
Did Gwen Hartley talk about the details of her faith, but this crucial content was omitted by the Post team? Did she talk about her faith in a general way and the reporter simply elected not to ask a follow-up question or two?
Perhaps the Hartley family is religiously unaffiliated, even when dealing with these kinds of crushing "theodicy" questions (as in, "Why did these bad things keep happening to good people?"). Perhaps she asked for the faith statements to remain vague?
There's no way for readers to know. That's kind of the point.