I stand for communion at church, after the rest of the congregants have gone forward for the bread and the cup. My newborn sleeps in my arms. It does not occur to me to ask a friend to take her, although the incision on my abdomen still throbs, six weeks after my caesarean section. I step forward, unsure, and attempt to take the elements from my husband, who is also the minister of our church.
Four years ago, I followed Sergei back to Ukraine, after we finished college in the States. We now make our home with our children in Kiev, the city where he grew up. I hardly remember life back home in Michigan. When you live in a foreign country long enough, your native home starts to feel like an alternate reality. You are separated from your family by an ocean, removed from their everyday life, yet you know that somewhere they are going about their lives, too. It’s like living with a constant echo.
Eleven months ago, on vacation in a village two hours from Kiev, I made love to my husband and pastor outdoors in a folding chair next to a crackling bonfire below a thousand stars. Today, I tuck our month-and-a-half old baby in my arms.
“The bread of Christ,” Sergei says in Russian. He holds out a small, stale piece of bread in the palm of his hand. Tears flood my neck. This child, just five pounds, is a brick in my arms. My body drips like a burning candle. I start to sink into the ground. My mouth clamps shut. I cannot say “Amen,” a word I’ve said easily for over 15 years.
“The bread of Christ,” my husband repeats, his usual strong vibrato now a soft whisper. His eyes pierce mine, urging me to take it. I am no longer conscious of the congregants seated behind me. I hear the words he isn’t saying as he offers me communion. Agree to this new life God flung at you without your consent. Commit to this flesh and blood you hold in your arms.
Before church the baby was clothed in a simple, white dress. My hands, well-versed in motherhood for over six years, gently placed a bonnet on her head and hurried to tie a loose bow under her chin. As I finished the bow, her almond eyes met mine. I looked away.
The doctors say our daughter has Down syndrome. Two simple words alter everything I know about my life.
I sob and rock back and forth, shifting my weight from leg to leg, just to remind myself I exist. Suddenly, I remember the room full of people sitting behind me, watching; I imagine them leaning forward, urging me to take the bread. Accept this, Gillian. Accept this. There is no sound now, except the low moan that escapes me, unknowingly, with my tears. I am at a crossroads, standing in an old, cracked Soviet building. “This place used to be a school for the blind,” Sergei told me when he first brought me to see it.
Is my baby broken? My theology says no. Honestly, though, I cannot say. Our child’s diagnosis has stuck a pin in my faith. The air is speedily seeping out.
Once at church, a woman came in late and slept through the service in a chair in the back. After the benediction, she promptly woke up, hurried to the front of the room, and started to gobble up the remaining pieces of bread from communion. Sergei noticed and walked over to the table. “You can’t eat this,” he said. “It’s communion bread. We have food in the other room if you are hungry.” The woman looked at him, blankly, and continued to shove doughy chunks into her mouth.
My hunger this morning is voracious, easily matching hers. But I’m not hungry for communion. My stomach aches for before, when I was simply a wife and a typical mother to our two other children. I want that life back. This food: flour, a little salt, yeast, water, how can it satiate me now?
I look down at the baby’s tiny clasped hands. She sleeps. This is my child. I am her mother. My molars push and grind against each other. I will myself to reach out and grasp the bread of Christ. I open my mouth and force my hand to place the dough on my tongue. I start to gag, but instead chew. I commit to this child in my arms. Sergei’s eyes soften. He looks kindly on me. He understands the surrender taking place.
“Amen.” I swallow the stale bread.