Wednesday, April 15, 2009

No Other Names

He was like nothing we had ever seen before. Our babies came out blonde, lithe, olive skinned. We hardly recognized this little stranger who scowled at us from beneath a dark brow as he dangled from Dr. Klein's hands. He came into the world covered in fine dark hair, skin red as Southern Utah dirt, with rolls across the back of his neck and two jowls resting on his collar bones. He also came nameless . . . and remained so for several days. We have a picture of him propped up on my legs in the hospital bed with a list of names in front of him: Reuben, Asher, Charles, Caleb, Brock, Maxwell, Isaac, Luke, Ethan, Elliott, Owen, William.

He had turned slowly in my womb, about once a day, like a pig on a spit. I felt his presence as dark, and big. I told Kevin as much. This one's going to be different. But what name? What to call this fourth child? (Quatro?) What name would capture his essential self and bring to life what he already was and would become? Caleb's a good name . . . sort of strong, sort of middle linebackerish, until I read that it meant "faithful dog." Charles was considered, except my sister Margo actually had a dog named Charles--who was very faithful. Nicholas surfaced early and then subsided, drowned by the sibilant s which seemed too soft for this one.

We called him Adam--man from the red earth, a new creature. In hindsight, we named him well. His essential elements are earth, and body, and passion. The tongue is always out; food is eaten with hands; the face is never clean. Total and absolute immersion in life's physical movements and pleasures is Adam' s hallmark.

There were no such deliberations with our third child. As soon as I read the passage in Genesis, I knew. This was the name, and the name was the child, and the child was the blessing. A holy trinity of sorts, grace made flesh, a mother's longing, a Father's grace, the union of love and longing taking root in my womb.

I'd wanted. Like the woman who touched the hem of Christ's coat, I'd petitioned the Lord: "Send me a child. Send me a child." But, ashamed of my petty wantings, a third child, when some women have nothing, I sent my requests silently, on the back rows of my prayers. An option to be considered, if the Lord had nothing better to do with his time.

I'd waited. I waited through the excitement of each month and the disappoinment as the blood flowed healthy red. I waited as anticipation turned to sullen resentment. And then, slowly, after two years, I waited in hope. In fact, I had forgotten I was waiting. All I really did was hope; hope that the Lord would grant a dearest wish; hope that one day we could have a William or an Anna; hope that the child would come.

Here he was. Quietly, without ceremony, without asking, without telling, he took up lodging. I spoke to him, rubbing my stomach: "I hope this time you can stay. I hope this time my uterus walls feed you well. I hope this time my blood is rich with nutrients. I hope your cells know how to divide and grow. I hope your heart has four chambers pumping with determined abandon. I hope this time you can stay to be with us."

I read of another woman, another mother, the very first, who felt that same way, who had lost a child and been blessed with another. "And she bare a son, and called his name Seth: For God, said she, hath appointed me another seed." Eve and I knew what to call our third son. We called him Seth, so that whenever we say his name, we remember.

There's something in a name. Something more than a collection of syllables that make a distinct noise. There's something in the sound, and the shape, and the meaning that gives body to spirit, that calls up and makes flesh the very meaning of a person's life.

In Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible, a family of American missionaries arrives in the Congo just prior to the fight for independence. The four daughters set about learning (or not learning, depending on their inclination) the Congolese culture. Adah, the brilliant and crippled part of a twin set, learns to speak the native language from Nelson, a young orphan. She discovers that underlying all the Congolese categories is a common root word that denotes being. But Being is asleep until touched by the power of the word:
Nommo is the force that makes things live as what they are: man or tree or animal. Nommo means word. The rabbit has the life it has--not the rat life or mongoose life--because it is named rabbit . . . . A child is not alive, claims Nelson, until it is named. I told him this helped me explain a mystery for me. My sister and I are identical twins, so how is it from one single seed we have two such different lives? Now I know. Because I am named Adah and she is named Leah.
Could I have turned out anything but the way I am, living as I do with this name of mine: Tessa. It's a strange one. In South Africa, people are fond of calling glossy, black Labradors Tessa. In this country, people think its Theresa. I've gone my whole life being called by a name that most people get wrong the first time. But I'm always the only one in the room--most of the time. At least I used to be. There are a few Tessa's about 25 years younger, but none my generation. This "Tessa" sound is the positive affirmation of my existence, reserved solely for me, chosen especially to name my characteristics and breathe life into my being. Whenever I think of it, I think only of me. The sheer sound of it creates my own space in the world and allows me to become. Tessa is my nommo and I have the Tessa life because of it.

It is easy to live with and grow into the name one is given, trusting your parents were inspired to name you well. It is another things entirely to willingly take another name upon yourself, to add to your base level, to deepen the meaning of your given name and to enlarge the boundaries of your life.

I did not want my husband's name when we got married. I thought his name had nothing to do with me, and besides, I didn't know anything about his name. What did I know about being a Santiago? I'd never been to the Bronx, let along Puerto Rico. I offered him my name. (He seriously reconsidered me as a marraige concept.) He said, " If you don't want my name, then you can't have me." I wanted him--enough to take upon me his name. So, I signed both names to the register and have been using both names ever since. That new Santiago name became the symbol of my faith in this man, and in a God who would have me paired. This now not-so-new name I've been living with for the past almost twenty years keeps me rooted and connected. It reminds me of my covenant to love him, to honor him, to help him as we live together. It is my beginning point, my expansion point, the level below which I cannot go, and my destination.

I suppose others have names that are their own personal struggle: Wife, Husband, Father, Neighbor. These are mine: Santiago. Mother. Woman. Saint. I have taken them upon me. Santiago, upon my marraige. Mother, upon each of their births. Woman, upon mine. Saint, at my baptism. Now they are mine, part of the Tessa life. They do not always sit easily.

These names of mine require me to call up from my inner being a person so much more than I am now. They require me to unpack and repack my soul, making space in my life for these names to take root. They are my touchstones--the names upon which I can test my own purity. They reveal me, in all my foolishness. They also reveal in me my fondest dreams and sweetest desires: that my children will grow well, that they will learn to love this world as I do; that I be and do good; that I will be better next time. These names I have taken upon me are reminders of my most honest moments, when I was sweet and pure, filled with good intent.

These names are for me, the hard words of the Good News, the purifying agents, the sword that comes to cut me asunder and to make with the pieces, should I do desire, a new creature. They bring to bloom, waiting through drought and disinterest, the life God has seen for me. I can throw myself against these names; I can shrug my shoulders with heaving motions hoping the mantle will fall to the ground. I can deny I ever took them upon my shoulders. Or, I can submit to what taking these names requires me to become. I can just give in, and reach for the yoke, hanging my weaknesses, my pride, and my postures on the stable wall.


  1. WOW! I love your writing. I can sooo Relate. I found you this morning on Meridian Magazine. Thank you! Thank you! You have a gift. Please keep have put my feelings to words.

  2. I found you from Meridian Magazine as well. I love your writing. I love your topics. I love your randomness. Please keep posting. I understand your writing; your words speak to me. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.

  3. Indeed you have a gift for words. Keep sharing; you lift others with your words.