By Larry Peterson
New York’s governor, Andrew Cuomo, signed into law the Reproductive Health Act, on January 22, 2019, the anniversary of Roe v. Wade. The intentional signing of this bill on that day and the cheering that followed brought me back to a day 40 years earlier. The date was September 6, 1978. For my young family that was also a day about the life and death of a baby.
It was during the beginning of Loretta’s sixth month of pregnancy. We had been to the doctor the previous morning and, although he did not say anything, you could tell by his demeanor that something was not right. He had said to her, “I want to see you in a week.” He looked at me and, with tightened lips, gave a little shrug. I understood this was not a “thumbs up.”
It was a quiet walk to the car, and when we settled in and began driving, she said to me, “Somethings wrong. He knows it, and I know it.” She paused and took a breath. A tear fell from her eye. I still said nothing. Then she said, “Let’s say the Rosary right now.” And we did.
During the previous few days, there was very little movement from the baby. The doctor also said that the heartbeat “could be a bit stronger.” The rest of the day there was no movement. We had gone to bed and fallen asleep. I was on my right side, and Loretta was lying against my back. Suddenly something jabbed me in the back. It was hard enough to wake me. I sat up and said, “The baby just kicked me.”
She said softly, “Yes, I know.”
It was 2 a.m., and all was dark and peaceful but we did not fall back asleep. We just laid quietly, side by side, holding hands and waiting. A second kick never came.
The next morning, after I had gone to work, Loretta began to hemorrhage. Her mom had been staying with us for a few days and thanked God she was there. She called 911 and then called and left a message for me at work. Then my three kids, ages eight, five, and one, sidled up to their grandma and watched their mom being taken away on a stretcher. The two oldest still remember that morning. Mary, just a baby at the time, does not.
My first stop (I was running a small delivery service) was ten minutes away from the hospital. We lived thirty minutes away, and I was waiting at the emergency room entrance when the ambulance arrived. When they pulled the gurney out, I was stunned at what I saw. My wife had bled so much that her hair was smeared with it. She was in and out of consciousness. I stood by helplessly as they rushed her into the ER.
For those who reject and scoff at the wonder of God’s human creations here is an example of how one woman did not. As I was standing there not knowing what to do or where to go, a priest came in and asked me if I was Larry Peterson. I just nodded, and he told me that my mother-in-law had called his parish. As Loretta was being wheeled out of the house, she made her mother promise to have a priest waiting to baptize her child. Her mom kept her promise.
What was also amazing was the fact that there was a hospital ten minutes from our house. The paramedics wanted to go there. Loretta demanded they take her to the Catholic hospital a half hour away. They told her it was way too risky because of the amount of blood she was losing. She would not relent, and they did as she asked. She was determined to have her child baptized. She had knowingly and willingly put her life on the line for her child.
Father Hyland came to me later and told me he had baptized our daughter (we named her Theresa Mary). The doctor said the baby had lived for a moment and died. She was two pounds and too small to survive. What happened over the next three weeks could have driven some folks away from the Church.
When I walked into Loretta’s room the next day the first thing she asked me was, “What did they do with Theresa?”
I had not even thought about that. Loretta had come close to dying from loss of blood and had required several transfusions. I asked her how she was, did she eat, just making small talk while I processed her question. She asked again, “Well, do you know what they did with our daughter?”
“No,” I said, “but I will find out right now.”
I headed down to the administrative offices and told the receptionist why I was there. She was gone a few minutes and came back with a nun by her side. “This is Sister Carol Ann. She is our administrator.
Sister came over to me, shook my hand and said, “Mr. Peterson, our policy is to bury the cremated remains of the stillborn in sacred ground. That is where the remains would be. Now, if there is anything else I can help you with? If not, I am truly sorry for your loss, but sometimes it is for best.”
She walked away, and I said nothing. I was thinking instead; Buried in sacred ground? This happened yesterday. It’s for the best? How can they do that? Huh? I went back to my wife’s room. She was as pale as could be and very weak. I told her what I had been told and we agreed that we would come back the following week when she was feeling better.
We had three, young, demanding, kids at home and her mom was still there. It took longer for her to get back on her feet than was expected. Two weeks passed before she went anywhere. Then we headed for the doctor’s office. He told her she was doing well and finally, she asked the big question; “Okay doctor, where is the sacred ground located that Sister Carol Ann told Larry contains the remains of the stillborn?”
His mouth literally opened and he momentarily stared at her. Then he said, “I have no idea what you are talking about. You had better go ask her.”
We left and headed to the hospital. We walked into the administrator’s office, and I told the receptionist we wanted to visit the “sacred ground” where the remains of our daughter were. She hurried away from her desk and a few minutes later came back and told us Sister would be right with us. We began our wait.
We waited for almost forty minutes. It was unnerving, to say the least. Finally, the waiting ended as Sister Carol Ann came in. She was followed by two nuns and a priest. Sister introduced us to Father Burke, Sister Bridgitte, and Sister Gabriel. Sister opened a folder and made believe she was reading. Then she looked up at Loretta and said, “Mrs. Peterson, you never had a baby in this hospital.” Momentary silence erupted in the waiting room.
Loretta just looked at the woman in the veil and habit and said, “I think you have the wrong folder. I DID have a baby here on September 6. She was a girl and her name was Theresa and Father Hyland baptized her and my doctor told me he delivered an intact fetus. I want to see where the sacred ground is you dumped her in.”
Up steps the priest and he introduces himself as Father Burke. He starts talking about when does “personhood” begin and how even Thomas Aquinas questions when it begins and it isn’t necessarily at conception. Loretta and I had morphed into being the enemy and the administrative staff had joined forces to stop us.
The next thing I knew I was nose to nose with this priest who is trying to cover up an obvious hospital disaster. He was trying to back away from me when someone stepped between us. It was a stranger who had come into the waiting room. He looked at me and said, “It will be okay. Don’t worry. It will be okay.”
His words settled me. He was like a guardian angel because I was going to say things to that priest I would have regretted later. I never got the man’s name nor did I ever see him again. He seemed to come from nowhere and vanish into nowhere just like that.
As we left the room Sister Bridgitte came over to us and said in a very low voice, “There were ‘products of conception’. Call Dr. Ali.” She grabbed Loretta’s hands and squeezed them. Tears were in her eyes. Then she walked away.
I called Dr. Ali and discovered he was the chief pathologist at the hospital. He knew exactly what I was talking about. I cannot quote what he said but he confirmed that we were the parents of a stillborn baby girl. He told us that because she was less than two pounds and it was a teaching hospital they brought her to the lab for research. She had been used as a guinea pig. He apologized profusely and said, “please trust me? I will do my very best to resolve this for you.”
On October 1, 1978, the Feast Day of St. Therese, the phone rang, and Loretta answered. It was Dr. Ali. All he said was, “Mrs. Peterson, I found your daughter. What would you like me to do.”
Loretta started crying and handed me the phone. I told him I would make arrangements with the funeral home near the hospital. A few days later, the desecrated remains of Theresa Mary Peterson left the funeral home in a tiny white casket. The casket was placed on the front seat of a limousine. We followed it to Gate of Heaven Cemetery in Valhalla, N.Y. She was buried with my parents and her name is on the tombstone. She did exist and will always be remembered.
We had honored the life that never lived out of honor and respect for the life that could have been.
Fast forward back to January 22, 2019. Led by their “devout” Catholic governor, Andrew Cuomo, lawmakers in New York State have passed a bill that allows for the execution of full-term babies. Yes, that is correct, FULL TERM fully developed, ready for birth, infants.
When the bill was passed, a suffocating wind exploded from the halls of the capitol caused by the cheers and screams of those upstanding “lawmakers” who had voted to legalize infanticide. Indeed, the wind has moved like a tsunami across our land leaving behind a foul and repugnant odor.
There is an inexplicable paradox that engulfs humanity. There are many women and men like Loretta Peterson who are willing to lay down their very lives for their child, even if it is still unborn. And then there are those people who rejoice in the death and destruction of the most innocent and helpless of all God’s creations.
As the great Pope, St. John Paul II said, “A nation that kills its own children is a nation without hope.”
Lest evil prevails, I hope within our nation there are more of us than them.
©copyright Larry Peterson 2019