Catholic Family

My mother spent the first month of her first baby’s life on a stool in the NICU. My older sister was born years before hospitals embraced the sort of patient-centric design that included family suites with fold-out beds and televisions, so a stool was the best they could do to accommodate my mother’s desire to spend her days with the child everyone seemed to agree was dying of an infection after aspirating meconium at birth.

The staff, she said, seemed a little perplexed by her constant presence. They even made a note of it in my sister’s chart, as if documenting a symptom of postpartum psychosis: “Mother sits next to patient and stares at her all day long, even when the patient does not do anything.”

My mother kept her lonely vigil for hours each day and was joined by my father as soon as he was finished with work. And then the staff would bring a second stool, and the two of them would sit and stare at their baby until the hospital made them leave for the night.

My sister was finally discharged from the hospital on Oct. 7, and 35 years later, we still celebrate this day in my family, commemorating the homecoming many thought would never happen. And every year, as we give thanks for the gift of my sister’s unexpected survival and good health, I think of that month my mother spent perched on an uncomfortable stool, gazing lovingly at a hopeless case.

Oct. 7 is the Feast of Our Lady of the Rosary, and what is the rosary, if not the vigil of a concerned mother?

We live in a culture of action. If something is wrong, we must do something about it — something significant, something real. “He’s all talk,” we say dismissively of those who fail to take meaningful action when we think they ought. It’s a very masculine posture, this need to fix, to work, to do.

In contrast, prayer is increasingly regarded as a rather passive exercise, an empty gesture that makes the person praying feel a little better but doesn’t effect any real change. Like my mother’s baffling need to be near her baby despite not having any healthcare expertise to offer, prayer is seen as a performance that gets in the way of more meaningful activities.

I’m not being accusatory against nonbelievers here, because I count myself, a very religious person, foremost in the group of people who constantly discount the power of prayer. How often do I forego prayer because I tell myself it’s more important to do something? There are dishes to wash. There is work that needs finishing. There are meals to be prepped. And if by some miracle I get all that done, well, then far too often I find myself falling asleep to the sound of the television in some vague effort at relaxation.

I forget that prayer is proactive. I forget that it accomplishes something.

So, the genius of the rosary is that it’s a “sitting-with” prayer. It’s portable. I don’t mean the physical beads themselves. I mean the prayers, the mysteries and the companionship of Our Lady at the foot of the cross — the rosary allows you to bring these things with you. Whatever the situation, task or trial you face, Mary pulls up a stool.

I don’t think it’s sentimental or superstitious to say that my mother’s constant presence at my sister’s side during that first month played a part in her recovery. I think any doctor would agree that a body is better equipped to fight disease and infection when it is rested, strong and confident — and what child isn’t more rested, stronger and more confident in the presence of its mother?

We are all infants in the crib, subject to a strange and cold and loud world we cannot navigate alone. We are all moments from death. We are all hopeless cases with uncertain futures. I am. You are. I have never met someone who wasn’t.

In the rosary, Mary pulls up a stool, paying no mind to the discomfort or the comments of others.

In the rosary, Mary takes our hand and whispers, “You are strong enough.”

Daily devotion to the rosary was critical in bringing Colleen Jurkiewicz’s sister home from the hospital safely 35 years ago. (Photo by Colleen Jurkiewicz)