Only after we had decided on Jasper as the name for our firstborn did we realize that Jasper was one of the Three Wise Men. Later we also found out that one of my husband's ancestors, Jasper Gunn, came to the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the 1640's. When we chose his name we were thinking a bit about Jasper Johns, and Jasper National Park in Canada, and the deep red rock with green striations. Maybe the British designer Jasper Conran crossed my mind, though I can guarantee that he never crossed my husband's.
As a child I loved the story of the Magi, the distinguished and holy men who followed a star to the place where the young Jesus lived. I was artistic from a very early age: a clotheshorse, a coloring book aficionado and a maker of homemade paper dolls. The Wise Men spoke to these predilections. No matter how crude the representation on the felt banner hanging in the church sanctuary, no matter how cheesy the illustration in the Sunday School materials, the Magi were the most colorful part of the Christmas story, decked out in ermine and purple and dripping with jewels. No matter how dispiriting it was to color in the sand and the hay and the dun-colored animals, I knew that the best was still to come, that eventually I would be handed the coloring sheet with the Wise Men in it, standing there next to their camels. I could at last use the best hues in my oil pastel box: the ruby, violet and lapis.
And then there were the gifts.
When I was five years old I often visited my grandfather's cousin, a genteel Nashville lady who kept a cut glass bowl of rose petals and balls of sandalwood on her sideboard. That was how I thought of the Magi's gifts: fragrant, rare, opulently displayed. The gold, frankincense and myrrh were fantastic in and of themselves, and they were transported in wooden boxes inlaid with ivory and in colored glass bottles with domed tops and silver filigree.
Of course I understood that Jesus was the king, that he was the one receiving the gifts, but he was just a boy in bare feet wearing a tattered dress. He was not fun to color at all. The gifts belonged to him, but not really. The Magi were frozen in eternal presentation, the gifts never leaving their hands. It didn't seem real that the next day the Magi would leave and Jesus would put those gifts on a crude shelf in his mud hut.
The Magi were not of the kingdom of Judea. Jasper was traditionally believed to be an Indian king, Melchior Persian, Balthazar Arabian. The fact that the three were not Jews, saints, or apostles, but Zoroastrian priests and astrologers, visitors in the Judeo-Christian story, like Shakespearean actors appearing in cameo roles in a James Bond movie, was fine with me when we chose Jasper's name. It seemed exactly the right amount of distance to keep from my religious heritage.
Seven years later, when we found out we were having another boy, we asked ourselves if we dared to name him Balthazar. All too well I remembered the horrified silence that had greeted me when I announced to my mother that Jasper was named Jasper. I had prepared for disapproval; I had not revealed the name to anyone until it was on the birth certificate and would have required legal proceedings to change.
"Well, I like the name Jasper," my cousin said to me sympathetically a few months later, confirming the nature of the discussions that had gone on behind closed doors.
Jasper was Stickley next to the Baroque magnificence that was Balthazar. But in addition to just thinking it was a tremendously cool name, we liked the idea of linking the brothers together. Of course they would never have a brother named Melchior, but that was OK. Two out of three Wise Men was fine with me. Maybe Melchior would be a cat.
After Balthazar died, when I was in the labor and delivery room, I hesitated at the whiteboard where the nurses wrote their names when they came on duty. There was a place to write the name of the baby, but I wasn't sure it was appropriate. They had not written it in. Technically it no longer mattered, since he would never use it. He would not have a birth certificate or a death certificate, would exist only for us and in the unsettling limbo that is the province of the almost-born. We could have called him 'Pumpkin' or 'Baby Q' or 'Captain Zimbo'. After an hour or two, though, I took the blue marker and I wrote 'Balthazar'. Because it was his name.
The nurses seemed confused by it, not sure how to pronounce it, not sure what ethnicity it signaled, all but one, whose mother was from Spain. She kept calling him 'Baltasar', but I didn't mind. High on fentanyl and still in shock, I babbled on about how much I love Spain. I told her about the Spanish human rights lawyer Baltasar Garzon, who had tried to extradite Pinochet for war crimes and was at the time of Balthazar's birth being railroaded by right wing elements in Spain for daring to investigate war crimes under Franco. I was proud that my son shared his name. During that long night, when he lay in the bassinet next to me, there but not there, she listened without comment, pressing on my uterus and taking my temperature.
When the nurse asked if I wanted her to call a clergy member I said sure. My thinking was as follows: when someone dies, you call the minister. Someone has died. What else is there to do? It was not a sophisticated analysis of our situation, but it was the best I could do in my shell-shocked condition. And it set a precedent for how I would go forward: I would accept help from anyone, anywhere. I wouldn't try to be brave, or stoic, or proud. I would do anything anyone suggested, no matter how weird it sounded, whether I wanted to or not.
I gave the nurse the name of the church where I am (still) a member. My membership for the last four or five years has involved writing a check for $100 so I don't get kicked off the rolls, and sometimes flipping through the newsletter that comes in the mail. But whether I still believed in God wasn't really the point at that moment.
David came to the hospital on the morning of April 4. I remembered him from certain church suppers at which, as a member of the Hospitality committee, I had set the tables and washed dishes. Bespectacled, with thinning hair and a calm, soothing voice, he seemed to me to be the very model of a minister. Jasper had been a year or two old then, and he and his wife were in the process of an open adoption. They got as far as the delivery room with the birth mother before she changed her mind and kept the baby. Devastated, they decided to end their quest to adopt and to live child-free. I knew at the time that being around me and my baby must have been excruciating, and yet I felt it would be presumptuous, to say or do something to try to console the minister. So I didn't say anything. I put it out of my mind. And then I stopped going to church at all.
It was that history, though, that made him acutely sensitive to how it felt to have your baby, your heart, snatched away at the very last moment, a time that should have been so joyful but was instantly its darkest opposite. I have never in my life believed that things happen for a reason, but it was fortuitous that it was he who was there, because he was probably the only person I know who could have said the right thing at that moment.
He prayed over Balthazar, and he blessed him. As he did so, he said, "Like the Wise Men, Balthazar brings gifts. We may not understand now what they are, but in time we may come to know the gifts he brings."
A Presbyterian minister who came to my hospital room the day after my son was stillborn framed his life and my life as his mother in Biblical terms, and I chose to accept his framework. I didn't have to. But I also didn't have to name the boy Balthazar.
I'm not an optimist by nature. I'm not a glass half-full type. I am the last person on Earth to invoke angels, to tell anyone to find the silver lining in their personal tragedy, to suggest they make their lemons into lemonade. This is not a book of blessed assurance, of easy comfort.
But when I chose Balthazar for my son's name I committed myself to discovering and nurturing his gifts. That commitment was made before he was born. The fact that he died doesn't change it.
These are not the Magi's gifts of my childhood. They are rough gifts, necessarily. They come in broken jars and battered boxes, brought by men with bare feet and torn robes. They are what he brought.