No Greater Love
This story is dedicated to the memory of Louise Alexandra MacKenzie, the courageous woman who made the gut-wrenching decision to give my mother up for adoption in 1927, after rearing her at the Talitha Cumi Maternity home for over five months. She completed her nurses training, became a military nurse and rose to the rank of Captain after serving in World War II and the Korean War before dying in 2000 at age 95. My mother unfortunately never met her biological mother, but always wondered....
NO GREATER LOVE
August 20, 1913, Boston
Alexandra tottered off the train and tried to ignore the churning in her stomach. Surely it’s just motion sickness, she told herself.
A stooped, bespectacled gentleman flagged his arms and hollered, “Alexandra? Alexandra Mackenzie?”
She adjusted her gloves and waved, hurrying toward him, relieved that the nursing school had provided a hack, as she had never traveled in a city the size of Boston before. He lugged her trunk to his awaiting buggy. After assisting her up, he climbed into the driver’s seat. “St. Luke School of Nursing, that right?”
She nodded. “My classes start in two days.”
He shook the reins and the horses lurched forward. “Where you from, Miss?”
His eyes bulged. “Long way from home for one so young, ain’t you?”
“I’m twenty-one,” she said, suppressing her annoyance. Why did everyone always assume she was no older than sixteen? Her mother insisted her large blue eyes and round sweet face looked sweet and innocent. If mother only knew…
They clip-clopped down the cobblestone street until a wave of nausea overwhelmed her. She leaned over the side of the buggy and relieved herself.
“You okay, miss?” he asked, forehead etched with worry.
“I’m just tired.” She prayed this was indeed the case. I can’t be expecting. I can't be.
Why had she acquiesced and done the unthinkable? She knew why, of course. At the time, cuddled together on a patchwork quilt overlooking the Louisbourg Lighthouse at sunset, William’s loving eyes gazing into hers, it had seemed so romantic—a memory that would bind them together during the two long years he lived in Halifax and she in Boston. Even now, memories of the ocean, with its briny aroma, soothing waves crashing against the rocks, and seagulls crooning and soaring overhead, made her smile. Their secret indiscretion promised a future together where they would marry; he’d run a medical practice, and she’d be his nurse. William had wiped the tears from her cheeks with his thumbs. “Don’t worry, Alexandra. In two short years, we’ll be done our medical training and we’ll marry.”
While William seemed confident, fear caged her heart like the lobster traps her brother used for catching dinner. What if some pretty nurse flirted with him at the hospital? Would he be strong enough to resist? That’s why she’d given in—surely he wouldn’t abandon her after she’d surrendered her virtue to him. Wouldn’t that prove how much she loved him?
But her desperate attempt to ensure their future together may have backfired—she was three weeks late for her monthly and might be carrying a baby. Their baby.
The medical school forbade its students to marry, and the nursing school literature stated pregnant women would not be allowed to continue in the program. She couldn’t ask William to drop out of medical school—doctoring was his lifelong dream and he would come to resent her.
As the horse and buggy rounded the corner, panic gripped her chest. What would she do if she were pregnant? Could she hide it for the first semester, and then claim she needed time off to care for an ill father back home? That might work.
But she couldn't return to Nova Scotia. If the parishioners of her father’s church discovered she had conceived out of wedlock, he’d probably be fired. Imagine the scandal. She could hear the tongues wagging already. No, she couldn’t face her mother’s disappointment. Or anger. She couldn’t bear the shame.
The driver tugged on the reins. “Whoa! Here we are, St. Luke’s.” He gestured to a two-story stone building.
Maybe it’s a false alarm. Maybe the angst of leaving William and starting school made my monthly late. She inhaled a deep breath and strolled into the administrator’s office hoping that was the explanation. Only time would tell. Please God, don't let me be expecting.
Five months later:
“You wanted to see me, Ma’am?” Alexandra wiped her perspiring palms on her crisply starched uniform. She had been summoned into the administrator’s office, and since she’d excelled in every written examination and clinical, the frown on Professor Moreland’s face could only mean one thing: she’d discovered Alexandra’s secret.
Steely eyes penetrated hers. “Miss Mackenzie, there are rumors circulating the hospital that you are expecting. Are they true?”
Too embarrassed to look her in the eyes, Alexandra stared down at her contorted hands and nodded.
Professor Moreland scowled. “Miss Mackenzie, need I remind you that this is a Christian institution? Unseemly conduct is not tolerated.” She folded her arms across her ample chest and glared across the desk. “Did you think no one wouldn’t notice? You’re clearly showing.”
Alexandra felt her face flush and she instinctively wrapped her arms over her expanding belly. “I-I didn’t know I was expecting when I started the program.”
Professor Moreland leaned across her desk, fingers steepled. “So…what are your plans now? Will you marry the baby’s father?”
Alexandra’s legs quivered like a cornered mouse. “Unfortunately, my fiancé would have to drop out of medical school, so I h-haven’t told him I’m expecting.”
Professor Moreland’s mouth dropped. “He doesn’t know?”
“I-I don’t want him to feel obligated to marry me.” Alexandra peered across the desk. “I’ve decided to give the baby up for adoption so I can complete my nurse’s training. Once William finishes medical school, we’ll marry and I'll be his nurse.”
Skeptical eyes bore into hers. “Do you honestly think you’ll be able to part with your baby once you’ve held it in your arms and nursed it for months?”
Tears pooled in Alexandra’s eyes. “What choice do I have? How can I support a baby all by myself?”
Professor Moreland’s lips tightened. “Perhaps, you should have thought of that before succumbing to unbridled passion. This pregnancy was obviously a huge mistake.”
Alexandra’s hands fisted. How dare she say that! She and William may have sinned, but this baby was not a mistake. Before she could stop herself she snapped, “This baby is not a mistake. It was conceived in love and is God’s child, just as much as you and me.”
Her eyes softened. "You're quite right. We are all God's children." She reached for Alexandra's hand and patted it. I didn’t mean to upset you."
Alexandra turned her head away as tears poured down her face. She wiped her cheek with the back of her hand and whispered, “I feel so alone. I'm new to Boston and I don't know anyone. I don’t know what to do or where to go.”
Professor Moreland opened a desk drawer, pulled out a pamphlet, and handed it to her. “Unfortunately, you are not the first student I've enrolled who’s needed the Talitha Cumi Maternity Home. It’s located right here in Boston and has an excellent reputation.”
Alexandra eyed the brochure. Would she be allowed back into the nursing program once she’d given up the baby? “Please don’t kick me out for one indiscretion. I’ve already repented before God, and I beg you to give me another chance.”
Professor Moreland drummed her fingers on her desk, lips pursed. “The Bible does say, ‘Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.’” She offered Alexandra a slight smile. “Tell you what, I’ll inform the others an unexpected health problem forced you to take a semester off.”
“So you’ll allow me back into the nursing program?” She held her breath while waiting for the answer, praying her hopes wouldn't be dashed.
Professor Moreland removed her spectacles and cleaned them methodically, as Alexandra gripped the arms of her chair for what seemed like forever. Please God, make her relent. Finally, she replaced her spectacles and glanced up at Alexandra, her face unreadable. “Alexandra, you’re my top-performing student, with an obvious aptitude for nursing. Call me after the adoption.” She placed an index finger to her mouth. “Remember, I'm making an exception for you, so this is our little secret.”
Alexandra grabbed her hand and wanting to shout for joy. “I won't say a word to anyone. Thank you. Thank you so much. I promise you, you won't regret giving me a second chance.”
Four Months later—Talitha Cumi Maternity Home
Alexandra stared into the face of her one-month-old baby girl, Rhoda Anne, and tears streamed down her face. When she’d signed the adoption papers, she hadn’t counted on one thing: falling irreversibly in love with her baby. From her huge blue eyes to her sweet smile to the way she curled her tiny hand around Alexandra’s finger, Rhoda Anne was perfect. Even her roly-poly legs and the large mole on her left wrist were endearing. How could she possibly surrender her darling Rhoda to complete strangers? It was unthinkable. She gently stroked Rhoda’s feather-soft hair and tried to absorb her every feature. In just four months, she’d be forced to hand over her precious baby to virtual strangers. She couldn’t do it—but she had to.
Unfortunately, even the option of marrying William had evaporated—he had recently written that he’d fallen in love with a nurse at the hospital—her worst nightmare come true. He was sorry…he never meant for this to happen . . . he cherished the memories they’d shared…he would never intentionally hurt her. She’d written a scathing retort, but then ripped it up. What good would it do? Besides, maybe they’d break up, and he’d beg her to take him back.
She gathered Rhoda close for her bedtime feeding. Her tiny mouth suckled greedily then settled down and murmured soft coos. She caressed Rhoda’s soft cheek. She wouldn’t dwell on the adoption. She would focus on the here and now and store up precious memories, for too soon, memories would be all she had to sustain her. Dear God, give me strength.
Four months later:
“I can’t wait any longer,” the social worker, Mrs. Bond, said, as Alexandra cradled Rhoda to her bosom for her final feeding. Alexandra desperately tried to memorize every curl, every wrinkle on Rhoda's chubby legs, and the sweet smile and huge blue eyes, so like her own.
Rhoda was five months old today; Alexandra couldn’t delay the adoption any longer, though the urge to dash out the door with Rhoda tempted her. What if the adoptive family isn’t good to her? No, you mustn’t think like that. How could they not love her?
“Let me finish feeding her,” Alexandra insisted. “I don’t want her to leave hungry.”
After Rhoda finished eating, Alexandra snuggled her baby to her shoulder and patted her back until air was released. Rhoda gazed up at her mother and grinned, displaying her two new teeth.
Mrs. Bond extended impatient arms. “I really must be going or I’ll miss the train.”
“Just let me change her diaper before she…” Alexandra couldn’t eke out the words, “is taken away from me forever.” “It’s a long trip from Boston to…” She stopped herself. She mustn’t reveal she’d overhead the lawyer telling Mrs. Boyd that Rhoda’s adoptive parents lived in Middlebury, Vermont.
She unpinned the diaper and Rhoda giggled and bicycled her legs. Alexandra’s heart melted then splintered into pieces. She brushed away her tears and tickled Rhoda’s tummy; she had to hear one last belly laugh. She stared into Rhoda’s eyes, overwhelmed by the love and trust she saw gazing back at her.
After securing the safety pins, she lifted Rhoda to her chest. How can I give you up? I can't do it! No one could possibly love you as much as I do. She squeezed her soft bundle closer, delaying the fateful moment.
Mrs. Bond glared at her watch and stretched out merciless arms, gesturing for Alexandra to hand over Rhoda.
Only a tear-blurred mirage of Rhoda could be seen now. Do you know how much I love you, Rhoda?
Rhoda’s pudgy hands curled around her neck.
I can't do it! I can't! Do what’s best for Rhoda, even if it kills you, her conscience urged.
She brushed away her tears and said as brightly as she could, “Rhoda, you’ll have a wonderful new mommy and daddy and a secure future. They will love you and make you very happy.” She squeezed Rhoda close one last time and kissed each cheek.
She tucked a lace handkerchief that she’d hand-embroidered into Rhoda’s nappy bag, praying it would someday provide Rhoda with a tangible reminder of her love. She forced herself to hand Rhoda to Mrs. Bond, then bolted from the room and ran to her bedroom. She flung herself onto her bed, shoulders heaving. Huddled on the bed, she refused to leave the room or eat lunch or dinner. Despair spun its web around her heart; a part of her, the best part, had been ripped away forever.
Long after midnight, she sank to her knees at the foot of her bed. “Dear God, give me a sign, somehow, someday, that Rhoda is loved. Let me know I made the right decision. Please God, let me know Rhoda is loved.”
March 22, 1932—Rhoda’s Eighteenth Birthday
Rhoda turned eighteen-years-old today. While time had lessened Alexandra’s anguish, every March twenty-second, Rhoda’s birthday, an aching void gnawed inside her like a virulent cancer; a yearly reminder of all she had lost. She hoped tonight’s Boston Philharmonic concert--a luxury she could ill-afford--after her long shift at the hospital would provide a welcome diversion. She'd made a habit of treating herself on Rhoda's birthday each year to lessen the pain. Keep busy and endure the day.
* * *
She ambled down the aisle of the concert hall and located her sixth row seat. Opening her program, she skimmed the symphony selections and the names of the musicians, many local college students. Her heart lurched. One of the student trumpeters hailed from Middlebury, Vermont, the tiny hamlet where Rhoda’s adoptive parents lived. Could it possibly be her Rhoda? If so, her name had been changed to Lillian Thompson. Don’t get your hopes up—they’ve been dashed before.
Over the years, she had thrice crisscrossed the streets of Middlebury, desperate to catch a glimpse of Rhoda. But each time, she'd come back empty and even more despondent. With time, she had learned to focus on her positive memories of Rhoda; if she started to ruminate, she forced herself to pray for her daughter’s happiness.
The symphony players, attired in concert black, strode in and assumed their seats. Her heart pounded like a kettledrum as her eyes scoured the trumpet section. Please, God, let it be Rhoda. Adrenaline surged through her, when standing proudly, with her trumpet held high, stood a carbon copy of herself at age eighteen: short-stature, huge blue eyes, dimples, and that round, innocent face. It was Rhoda—she was sure of it. After all these years, it had finally happened!
Throughout the concert, her eyes remained fixed on Rhoda. Her plump baby had matured into an elegant woman.
At curtain close, she rushed to the front for a closer look. Rhoda stretched her arms, and that’s when Alexandra saw it—the telltale mole on her left wrist. She gasped, then forced herself to inhale slow, deep breaths. As she gazed at her daughter, stylish and beautiful and talented, a wave of relief coursed through her. College, trumpet lessons, exquisite clothes—luxuries she could never have provided as a single mother. Instead of shame, Rhoda exuded poise and confidence.
Perhaps sensing someone staring at her, Rhoda glanced up. Their eyes locked. Rhoda’s eyes widened and her back lurched, no doubt shocked at their remarkable resemblance. She knew—Alexandra felt sure of it. They exchanged a tentative smile. Knees wobbly and weak, Alexandra had to sit down or she'd faint. What now? Should she introduce herself? She glanced down at her shabby brown skirt and tattered white blouse. No, she mustn’t risk embarrassing her daughter in front of all the other musicians. Besides, would Rhoda even want to meet her—the woman who had willingly chosen to give her away?
Perhaps she could write a note.
Alexandra rummaged through her pocketbook and yanked out paper and pen. She scribbled a hasty letter and ended it with John 15:13, the same verse she’d stitched onto Rhoda’s lace handkerchief those many years ago: “Greater love hath no man…” She folded the paper into quarters and asked a nearby violinist to hand the note to Lillian.
She strolled up the aisles of the concert hall and exited the front entrance into a strangely invigorating night breeze, that whipped at her skirt and chilled her face. While she didn't know if Lillian would ever contact her, tears of gratitude poured down her face. She now knew with full confidence she'd made the right decision those many years ago. God had indeed granted her the deepest longing of her heart: her Rhoda was loved.