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Niedner: The world’s oldest story told again by a wrong number

Frederick Niedner

Frederick Niedner

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Updated: October 16, 2012 6:06AM



My telephone number differs by one digit from several local business lines, so at our house we routinely handle wrong number calls and occasionally help the dazed and confused to reach their intended parties.

When I answered the phone absent-mindedly one evening last week with a simple “Hello,” a young woman’s voice declared, “I wanted you to be the first to know. I’m pregnant!”

The voice did not sound familiar. My mind raced. What friend or relative might want us to hear such momentous news before she told anyone else? When no names came to mind, I said, “Wonderful! Congratulations! I’m happy for you. But I must tell you, this is the Niedner residence in Valparaiso, Ind. I’m not sure you meant to call us.”

After a pause, the voice on the other end, now a bit more subdued, said, “Oh. No. You’re not who I thought I was calling.” I expected the conversation would end there, but the woman continued, “As long as we’re talking, do you have any thoughts on what I should name this child? If it’s a girl, I’m thinking of Agatha, or maybe Gertrude. Do you like those names?”

“Agatha, that’s good,” I replied, guessing this young caller likely didn’t know Greek and wouldn’t catch my subtle joke. “And Gertrude was the name of a dear, dear friend who lived to be 100,” I added. “I love that name, too.”

After a brief “Hmmmm,” the caller added, “I’m also considering Madonna. I love her singing. Is that silly?”

It was time to ease my way out of this curious advising role I’d assumed, so I said, “Any name can be perfect, and however you name this child, that’s who she’ll be. Most importantly, no matter what name you give her, you’ll love her to death.”

As soon as I’d uttered those last words, I wished I could have them back. Putting death and babies in the same sentence didn’t sound properly celebratory. The young woman simply said, “Yes, I’m sure I will.”

I wished her well. She said, “Thank you,” and we hung up — still strangers, I suppose, except for my sense that for a brief moment, until this chance conversation partner could dial the number she meant to call, I alone shared her secret and the tenderly halting joy with which she had announced it.

And so begins the most common story on Earth. Intimacy begets pregnancy, and long before the mother who bears this new life rests her eyes on the child, she wonders, “Who are you, little one? Are you Agatha? Gertrude? Madonna?”

Common? Yes, but also the holiest storyline of any parent’s life. As the words I didn’t mean to say reveal, that new mom, like every other, will indeed love her child to death. Even now, her body and heart no longer belong to her alone. Until she dies, her heart and soul will thrill and yearn and ache for this child, and should the child die first, the mother’s heart will keep on loving and yearning.

This faithful loving is the most important work anyone anywhere ever does. The fabric of our society and the thin veil of civilization depend on it, more than on anything else, though every parent begins this work a novice, with no more training than having been loved oneself, in ways he or she will only later, when holding their own newborn, come to understand.

I’ll likely never know you or your mom, little Agatha Gertrude Madonna. But I will pray for and remember you both, and my heart will be richer for it.

Frederick Niedner is a professor of theology at Valparaiso University.



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