It's not easy for Jennell Dickens to explain, and probably impossible for me to accurately convey, what having faith means to her. But for those who have called or written to ask how the 22-year-old mother of quintuplets has been coping, faith is the answer. And it's at least worth trying to understand.
"I'm tired but okay," Dickens told me recently. "My faith is still strong."
Such a positive attitude may be due, in part, to the fact that all five babies, born prematurely, are home and healthy. And to the outpouring of support that Dickens and Noval Davis, the father, have received as a result of news reports about their dire straits.
But even when the young couple thought they'd have to face this herculean challenge alone, Dickens did not seem worried. "I made a decision to put it all in God's hands," she told me several weeks ago, when the babies had barely enough Pampers and infant formula to make it through the night.
This reliance on faith did not mean that she would sit back and take it easy until some hoped-for miracle occurred. She prayed for strength, she said, and went to work caring for her "five heartbeats," as she calls them.
"We're busy around the clock, feeding the babies every three hours," she told me, pausing to yawn. "Come to think of it, I haven't had a night's sleep in weeks. If Noval and I aren't feeding the babies or changing diapers or preparing bottles, were doing laundry and trying to run a few errands."
Before she got pregnant, Dickens was self-reliance personified. She worked two jobs -- as an administrative assistant at the University of Maryland Medical Center by day and as a security guard at night. She had her own apartment and car, and she came and went as she pleased. "I was used to being in control," she recalled. "I was organized, and when I made plans, I carried them out."
She and Davis had known each other since junior high and they occasionally discussed marriage. But there was no rush. Dickens suffered from a hormone imbalance which prevented her from producing estrogen. She could not ovulate. The hormone problem also caused a serious skin irritation, and last year her doctor put her on Clomid, a fertility drug now being used for such conditions.
She conceived within a week. So much for being in control. As shock turned to fear and confusion, Dickens discovered that her vaunted self-reliance was of little use, and she was quickly overwhelmed. But that's when her faith grew stronger. Suddenly, she realized that she was not alone.
Here is an e-mail I received after writing a column about the family Nov. 13:
"Jennell called me back and she sounds very pleasant (how I don't know with five new babies; what a trooper she is!!!)," wrote Barry Scher, vice president for public affairs at Giant Food. "We will have a nice Thanksgiving dinner delivered. And I am sure I can get Noval placed in a job."
Giant also plans to adopt the family and try to persuade other corporate vendors to join in the effort. "Helping those in need is part of my job and perhaps the best part," Scher wrote.
Many others have pitched in with financial contributions, food and clothes.
"A church group from Fairfax drove all the way to Baltimore to bring us dinner," she said. "I couldn't believe that people would go through that much trouble for someone they didn't even know."
It should be noted that Dickens had not asked for any of this. "I can't expect others to take responsibility for a decision that I made," she said. The fact remains, however, that she could really use a nanny service and a minivan.
"I pray a lot," she said. But not for those things. "At the top of my list is gratitude for the many blessings I have received. Then I ask for patience and strength."
And it does appear that her prayers are being answered.
(FYI: You can e-mail Dickens at email@example.com or send a donation to the Dickens quintuplet fund set up by the University of Maryland Medical Center at M&T Bank, 22 S. Green St., Baltimore, Md. 21201.)