“Have you thought about names?”
My friends asked. My parents asked. Kind church members offering hugs in the receiving line asked.
Pregnancy invites all kinds of advice, but it also ignites curiosity and questions. I was surprised last year how many people asked me what baby names we were considering. I was also surprised by my response, considering I myself had asked that question of numerous friends, numerous times.
Whenever I’ve asked others this question (or when I was myself asked), I felt its rhetorical nature. Of course people have been thinking about names! What I really wanted to ask was, “Will you tell me the name?”
Perhaps there’s a fear of judgment, or maybe the desire to surprise, but I think the deeper impetus to hold names close to the heart is their holy quality. Names are precious. The first gift we receive, some say. Names are a special and sacred treasure. No wonder we protect them.
We choose baby names for all sorts of reasons – perhaps we like the sound, its popularity, the meaning touches us, or every boy in the family has been “William” for ten generations. We can choose names as a sort of blessing or wish, a name that holds a virtue we hope and pray our child will live into, or a name we feel describes our child. Names aren’t a big deal to everyone. “What’s in a name?” some might say, echoing Romeo’s question. But for others, the answer is, “a lot.”
Last summer, during long car rides as we drove cross country to visit family, I’d open the “10,000 Baby Name” book and start reciting some options to my husband, Jeff. Deciding not to find out the gender of our baby meant the task doubled, as we needed to look at both girl and boy names.
For us, meaning carried the most weight. I’d read a name whose sound I liked, then discover it meant “bitter” or “sorrow” or “dog.” We quickly settled on a boy’s name (and now you are perhaps wondering what the name was), but a girl’s name proved elusive. I scoured internet lists, looked in my favorite novels, ploughed through the entire section of girls’ names in the baby name book. I queried friends – “What girls’ names do you like?” (in other words, “Can you please provide me the perfect girl’s name for our child?”). We found a few that felt okay. But I never felt like we found the girl’s name. There were too many syllables, I didn’t like the sound, or I thought it seemed trendy.
“We must be having a boy,” I told Jeff.
As the weeks passed and my due date approached, I started to feel anxious. I even had a dream that I delivered our baby, she was a girl, and we had no name. The weight of this name, this gift, was real to me.
The Facetime call with my parents one humid August afternoon put all of my name ruminating on hold. My father’s leukemia had relapsed. There was no cure. He would enter hospice care.
Suddenly, all our preparations for new life mingled with those toward death. Jeff and I immediately flew to South Dakota to share what would become my Dad’s final days. Thinking we had some time but unsure how much, I decided to stay with Mom, hoping to be of help as hospice care began, hoping I could elongate the moments and days as much as possible, hoping Dad would see his first grandchild. At 30 weeks, our baby was theoretically still a couple months away.
Just 10 days after diagnosis, Dad and I were alone at home. The house was still, quiet, and peaceful, but Dad struggled. Situating him in the plush, green recliner, I grabbed his prayer quilt and draped it over his lap, tucking in the edges around his thin legs. Pastor Charles had brought the blanket just one day before – a beautiful tapestry of trees and tiny pieces of yarn, all tied into knots by the church staff’s prayerful hands. It reminded me of the Garden of Eden – God’s original home of wholeness and peace.
“I’m covering you with the prayers of your sisters and brothers in Christ, Tom,” Pastor Charles had said as he bent over Dad, blanketing him with the quilt.
I sat on the wooden chair beside Dad, wishing with all my heart I could make the breathing easier, the recliner more comfortable, the macaroni and cheese on the TV tray appealing. That I could somehow blow away the suffering and the struggle. Dad mostly kept his eyes closed, as if every drop of energy was needed for drawing in that next breath.
In breathless bits and bursts of words, Dad began to speak. “I see colors,” he told me. “And a bright light.”
“Dad, what colors do you see?” I asked, wrapping my hand around his arm, wanting to enter the vision with him.
“Red, blue, yellow….now orange. And there are trees and leaves and flowers.”
I thought again of the Garden of Eden.
“Oh Dad,” I said, “It sounds beautiful.”
Ever the critical thinker, he responded, “It is beautiful. But it’s bizarre. Like swirling art,” he said. Dad closed his eyes again. We hung suspended in thin air as heaven and earth co-mingled in the space of our living room.
Just four hours later, I knelt at Dad’s feet with one of my hands holding his and the other placed on my belly, kicking with life. My only language was whispered prayers within the walls of my heart. I spoke to Dad my love for him, and to my baby the hope she or he would be the first to embrace Dad when the moment came.
And then, Dad took his last breath on earth and his first in heaven.
The ensuing week was a flood of funeral preparations, visits from friends, filling of the freezer, phone calls, hugs, and lots and lots of tears. Jeff and I knew we needed to return to Indiana. That we needed to get ready for our baby who was due in two months. That we needed to simply keep living.
I hoped I would find space to grieve, heal, and hope once we returned home. The realities, though, of Jeff and I both serving as pastors and September being the kickoff month for the program year left my soul feeling crunched and my sleep restless.
A few weeks after Dad died, I awoke in the night. It wasn’t an unusual occurrence, especially as I neared the end of pregnancy, but the impetus of my awakening was different. It wasn’t the familiar dance of jostles and jabs from our baby, or my erratic internal temperature flaring.
It was a name. A baby girl’s name.
Eden. The name swirled with memories as I stared at my bedroom wall.
Eden….the Garden of Eden….I felt myself transported back to that August afternoon when I sat on the hard wood chair and Dad shared his vision.
Eden. If we have a girl, her name should be Eden. God’s original place of wholeness and peace. The place life began. The place Dad is now.
The name blossomed like a seed that’d been germinating in my heart. I felt my restless heart start to settle, and a peace pervade. My mind turned to the Tree of Life, my favorite symbol for years. It’s woven on the large Indian yarn hanging on our wall, cut away in the silver necklace I often wear, painted with my brush a few years ago when my oil painting supplies were still fresh. Somewhere buried under all my life’s layers was the Garden all along.
At breakfast the following morning, I shared the experience with Jeff. I felt a mixture of excitement and hesitation. What if he didn’t like it?
“It’s beautiful,” Jeff said. My heart sung.
Only a couple weeks after my own vision, I awoke again in the night, but not to a name. I jumped out of bed as the fluid poured.
“Jeff! My water just broke,” I hollered. With similar panic, Jeff sprung from bed, running the few feet to the bathroom. He put his arm around me as I cried on the floor.
“It’s too early. It’s too early. It’s too early,” I repeated. “What if something’s wrong?”
“37 and a half weeks is in the window, Arianne,” Jeff assured. “It’s okay. We’re going to have our baby today!”
Eighteen hours later found me in a dimly lit hospital room. A choral soundtrack played in the background, Jeff held up before my face photos from my marathons as inspiration, and I journeyed through the worst pain I’d ever known. My doula stood beside me as I hugged the birthing ball, coaching me through each contraction wave until I could breathe again in its recession.
One hour later, my voice intertwined with that of our child. I watched our doctor’s arms guide our baby out. With a swift swipe, she lifted our baby up before me.
Soft, grey skin with vernix, a full head of glistening brown hair, eyes dark and wide, arms outstretched as though ready for embrace. My wet eyes scanned below her belly, as did Jeff’s. “It’s a girl!” he exclaimed.
Joy and complete surprise overrode the flurry of feelings coursing through my body.
The doctor placed her on my chest.
“Hi, Eden,” I whispered. Jeff’s arms circled us, all three of our heads huddled together.
“Eden,” Jeff said.
“Eden,” I said.
My mom, back in South Dakota and eager for news, was one of the first phone calls. Her amazement over Eden’s name melded into my own wonder. She shared that earlier that afternoon, as I labored at home, my Mom went to a favorite park. Her friend had wanted to plant a tree in Dad’s honor. “I kept thinking, Arianne, it was just so good to see something living going into the ground,” Mom told me. A tree filled with life, hearkening to the Garden in our midst; a prelude to the bridge Eden would be, reminding us the Garden is both in heaven and on earth.
Eden, meaning “delight” and “paradise,” is who our daughter is and what she brings. When I say her name, I remember Dad and reflect on the past. When I say her name, I stroke her hair and imagine the future. When I say her name, my heart sees the Garden and the life that flows into new life. I’ve heard people say that when a loved one dies, they see them in dreams. My Dad didn’t appear to me, but he gave me a parting gift, a treasure, through one.
So, what’s in a name?
Heaven and earth.