Becoming Mother

A book and a blog for first-time mothers

Tag: death

On Rising Again: A Remembrance of Alyssa

Alyssa,

We were cousins who grew up states apart, seeing each other sometimes in the summer. You were two years older than me, always finding out things before I did. Always reaching milestones before me. We survived the traumatic hairstyles of the early 1990s, which inevitably led to us inhaling whole cans of Aquanet over the years.

True warriors, right?

But I didn’t know you like your family knew you. I only have a few memories that still remain sharp, even today.

Here is my favorite one.

In the summer of 2000, my friend and I were driving from Ohio to California, as a celebration of finishing high school. Our first stop was Minnetonka, MN, where we stayed with Grandma Bundy. Our second stop was Sioux Falls, SD, where you had just moved. My friend and I met you at the hair salon where you had just started working. Grinning from ear to ear, you greeted me like an old friend and insisted that we try out this burger place that you loved.

Over burgers and fries and sodas, we talked. You were 20 years old. I was 18. You seemed so much cooler, so much more grown-up than me. Your life was taking off, and it was exciting. You had an apartment of your own. A full-time job. You were the one calling the shots, and you reveled in your freedom.

While we sat there, a song came on that made you howl.

Yes, howl.

You threw your head back, laughing, saying, I LOVE THIS SONG! And right there in the middle of the restaurant, you belted it out, wiggling in your seat, arms and hips twisting in opposition.

I did not know the song. But you knew it word for word.

The best thing about being a woman
Is the prerogative to have a little fun and
Oh-OH-oh-oh, Go totally crazy, Forget I’m a lady
Men’s shirts, short skirts, Oh-OH-oh-oh,
Really go wild, yeah, Doin’ it in style, Oh-OH-oh-oh,
Get in the action, Feel the attraction, Color my hair, Do what I dare
Oh-OH-oh-oh
I want to be free yeah, to feel the way I feel
Man! I feel like a woman!

Young. Wild. Free.

I think that is how I will remember you best.

***

Although we didn’t really talk much over the years, I heard updates from my mom. You got a new job. You started a new business. You got married. You became a stepmom. Life was no longer Young and Wild and Free.

Yes, Life had taken off. But instead of riding a rocket to the stars, you found yourself navigating life in a hot air balloon. Fueled by your energy and drive to keep rising. Tethered by so many ropes. Carrying a basket holding all those you loved. You traveled a bit. Then, came back down. Then traveled more. Then, back down. Up and down. Over and over. Your will, the fuel that kept you going.

Did you ever have the chance to ride in a hot air balloon? It seems like it would be just the kind of adventure that you’d like.

Years ago, I went hot air ballooning on my honeymoon. There was a lot about the trip that surprised me, but the most surprising thing was this:

The pilot didn’t have a fixed landing site.

In fact, it was impossible to do so because the trajectory of the balloon shifts as the air currents change. At one altitude, the wind may take the balloon east. At a lower altitude, it may shift west. And so safely landing the balloon requires that the pilot be able to make adjustments and readjustments to the landing process, depending on the air currents and the landscape.

Is there a better metaphor for how many of us live life?

Hard to think of one.

You faced a lot of shifting currents as your life took off. Through the ups and downs, the surprises, the detours, and the unexpected mid-flight landings…

You kept rising.

For that is the true Measure of a Life.

It’s not about how high you rise or how far you travel.

It’s about how many times you get back off the ground.

And it’s about the people you carry and how much you lift them.

That’s what makes the loss of you difficult. You lifted so many others with you.

***

You shared memes on Facebook about raising teenagers. You seemed to be carrying a lot on your shoulders. One of the last memes that you shared was this:

That line haunts me.

We are almost there.

There.

***

How could any of us have seen this coming?

How could we imagine a future in which you died so suddenly?

Here one minute. Gone the next.

Your sister reminded us in her first post after your death that, Life is a vapor (James 4:14).

Yes. It truly is.

Even to live 80 years. A vapor.

In the millions of years that life has churned on and on and on.

A vapor.

And yet, what we do matters.

How we live our lives matters.

And when the atmosphere finally swallows the vapor that is our Life, this thing that we so painstakingly lived day after day, all the energy that we poured into our goals, getting up each morning, drinking the coffee, doing the things, making decisions, dealing with the outcomes of the decisions that we made and those that we didn’t, may we all have the perspective to hold to this Truth: All that we did mattered.

Every damn moment of it mattered.

But rest assured, no one does Life perfectly.

The true impact of our lives is measured in how we used that time. Whether we chose Love. Or not.

It’s measured by how often we chose forgiveness over grudges, mercy over vengeance, compassion over resentment, empathy over judgment, inclusion over exclusion, gratitude over envy, contentment over greed.

And so, Alyssa, when you lifted others with your sheer willpower, it mattered.

When you made space in your life for people you loved, it mattered.

When you listened to someone who was hurting, it mattered.

When you apologized for something that you had done wrong, it mattered.

And every time that you gave Love to someone, it mattered.

Love is the whole point.

It’s all that has ever mattered.

***

A final clear memory that I have of you happened during the summer when your family of six came to visit my family of seven. (How did we fit thirteen people in our tiny 1,000 square foot house? One of life’s great mysteries.) I think you may have been twelve. I can’t remember for sure.

One of the ways that we got everyone out of the house was a trip to Eastwood Lake, a fifteen-minute drive from our house.

We went canoeing.

And as a stepmom to teenagers, I’m sure you can appreciate the recollection of what happened next.

With the surface of the water so still, your father rested the oars against the sides of the canoe and closed his eyes.

Then, to the horror of my siblings, he started singing.

I’ve got peace, like a river

I’ve got peace, like a river

I’ve got peace like a river in my soul…

He didn’t have a bad voice. That wasn’t the issue. It was just Parents are so embarrassing. And what if other people hear him and look at us? What would we even do? Is he ever going to stop? How many verses are in this song?

But after it became clear that your dad was invested in this moment, you threw caution to the wind.

You sang with him.

I’ve got love like an ocean.

I’ve got love like an ocean.

I’ve got love like an ocean in my soul…

Looking back now, it was the right thing to do.

To be present and support those we love is always the right choice.

***

I believe in a God that sees through us, from top to bottom and beginning to end. I believe in a God who sees all our flaws, our mistakes, our failures, our weaknesses, and our sins. And knows the difference between them.

But I also believe in a God who sees our intentions, our motivations, our faith, our courage, all the things we’ve done right, all the love we gave, and all the goodness we shared.

And finally, I believe in a God that gathers us in and brings us Home.

May you rest forever in the spirit that you lived.

Rising again.

Young. Wild. Free.

Home.

***

If you’d like to help Alyssa’s family in their time of need, you can donate here.

Alyssa and her siblings: two younger brothers and her younger sister.
Some of the people you loved most: Your siblings. (2009)

5 Years

Dad and Sharon 1982

“I Will Be Blessed” by Ben Howard

 

Heaven is a place we hold.
Heaven is the arms that hold us
Long before we go
If you’re there
When the world comes to gather me in
I will be blessed

 

Funerals

The last post that I wrote was over three months ago.

I’ve started a few posts, but haven’t been able to finish them.

Partly because I haven’t really had an hour to breathe since mid-February.

Partly because I have nothing to say.

Partly because I have so much to say that I don’t know where to start.

Truth be told, this time of year always gets me a little down. Every year since my dad passed away in June 2014, a general malaise and “I’m-so-done-with-this-whole-life” attitude sets in around Memorial Day and doesn’t lift until mid-June (which, sadly, is always when Father’s Day happens).

There are still a few hundred others things I should be doing right now (and as I type this, I’m falling further and further behind), but I am utterly burned out, and WHATEVER, I need to do this.

In the mood for some rambling?

Here we go.

***

Three months. Three funerals.  

One, a lifelong friend who has known me since I was 8. Her death, expected, but still difficult.

One, an acquaintance, whom I had only met only a few times. Husband of my colleague. Father of four. His death, sudden and unexpected, the last page of his story, ending in mid-sentence. Tragic, confusing, and unbelievable.

One, someone whom I have never met, but whose words created a new space for me in the Christian faith. Writer. Theologian. Mother of two young ones. Her death, also unexpected, tragic, confusing, and unbelievable.

The lifelong friend that I lost was the mother of a close friend, the kind of person who knew everything and anything about how you grew up, who you were, and what kind of person you are still becoming. Her funeral was the only one that I had any time to process, a full “luxurious” nine hours to speak at the funeral, cry, and rest with a coffee cup in hand while hearing and telling stories. (Thank you, babysitters.)

And then there were three tornadoes that tore through my hometown, though mercifully not through my neighborhood. On the morning of Tuesday, May 29th, I got texts and messages and emails, “Are you okay? Let me know.” Our community’s tragedies, front page national news.

This is the tough part of Life.

When you have to keep doing all the responsibilities, all the work, the chores, the parent-teacher conferences, dentist appointments, birthday parties, oil changes, groceriesgroceriesgroceries, not to mention all the future-focused, long-term plans (Should I go back to school? When? Change jobs? When? What kind? Where? How?)

Do all of that, while you’re reminded over and over again that:

It.

Just.

Doesn’t.

Matter.

We will all die.

Our children will die.

The homes that we build and the things that we acquire will blow away, burn, or crumble.

The great achievements that we work toward and glory in will fall into ruin and be forgotten.

Even if what we do amounts to something on this planet, Earth is still in the midst of the Milky Way, which is spinning towards Andromeda, and billions of years from now, all of this will explode in another fiery end.

What does it all mean?

pexels-photo-1205301

Image credit: 01234567890, pexels.com

***

Okay, right, obviously it does matter to my children that I teach them how to love and show kindness. That I live my life in a way that I want them to live.

Of course, yes, that matters.

I guess what I’m wrestling with is the truth that,

the plans and aspirations and goals that I have in my life… aren’t really that important at all.

What does it matter if I never have a boss that can appreciate my competence rather than be threatened by it?

What does it matter if I’m never paid enough for the work that I do?

What does it matter if I never make another creative thing–a book, a post, a video–that other people enjoy?

Why does it matter so much to me that I be productive, that I continue to achieve… because all of things that I’ll make and achieve are really just dust.

Or, more likely, bits of data, easily erased or buried.

It.

Just.

Doesn’t.

Matter.

That truth is the same for all of us.

But perhaps what is different is our conclusions about that truth and how we let it affect our lives.

***

And then there were these words from Nadia Bolz-Weber at Rachel Held Evans’ funeral.

While it was still dark.

***

So I guess there is something that you find at the bottom of the pile of grief, that continues to grow because there’s never time to process it all.

Peace.

There is some measure of peace in knowing that it’s okay.

Whatever I do.

Whatever I don’t do.

Whatever I plan to do, but am never able to accomplish.

It’s okay.

All is well.

On Wonder: A Eulogy to My Physics Teacher, Mrs. Norma Howell

Norma,

I can still see you holding my three-week-old daughter in our living room, rocking in the glider. You offered to stay overnight at our place and help out with the night feedings on occasion, and we gladly took you up on the offer.

You cradled her in your arms, your gaze landing on her tiny face, your hands tracing her tiny hands. You said, “Oh… This is the best.”

“Really?” I asked, thinking of how unbelievably sleep-deprived I was. “The newborn part? Not when they were older?”

“Well…” You paused for a moment, before breaking into a wide grin, “Actually, it was all pretty awesome. But this… I just have such fond memories of my nursing my boys.”

I smiled. You rocked.

“But honestly,” you said. “I really loved it all. Every moment of it. I’d do it all over if I could.”

We talked for a time about your health, as you had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer several years earlier.

“I remember praying to God,” you said, “And I said, ‘Well, if this is my time, then it’s my time…'” Then you broke into that same wide grin, “I thought, ‘But, I sure hope it’s not!’ Turned out it wasn’t yet, and now I’m just grateful for every day I have here.”

Norma and Felicity

Norma and Felicity: October 2013

After the initial shock that you had recently passed wore off, I combed over my memories of you. Things you had said to me first as a student, and then later as a kind of occasional life mentor. And I arrived at a common refrain:

I’m sorry I couldn’t see what you were trying to show me.

I remember all those times when I was your student and I was working through physics problems. Rather than teaching the laws of physics deductively without fully understanding their application, you used a clever, inductive reasoning approach to help students discover the laws for themselves.

I didn’t realize how clever of a method it was. I just knew it was making me think. A lot. And because I didn’t trust my own logic and judgment, it made me nervous.

When I’d come to you with a set of questions or completed problems, ready for you to approve so I could move on to the next module, I remember thinking…

I hope I got the answers right.

I hope I don’t look stupid in front of you.

I hope I don’t let you down.

I remember you gently asking me to consider, once again, what was the difference between acceleration and velocity.

You knew how to talk to a fragile overachiever like me. You didn’t tell me I was wrong. You just asked me to “tighten up” my understanding.

You were also merciful to the class as a whole. I remember a time when our entire class failed a quiz. You stood at the room, your right hand clutching the frayed edges of notebook paper, and you said somberly, “Well, there’s good news and there’s bad news. The bad news is…everyone failed.”

A brief moment passed to let that information sink in.

“The good news,” you continued cheerfully, “is that you can take a second quiz to replace that awful grade!”

For you, there was never failure. There were just more opportunities to try again.

For you, it was never about arriving at a destination.

It was always about the journey.

***

I wish I could have seen it that way. I wish you could have brainwashed me completely into seeing the world as full of wonder and possibilities.

It makes me sad to admit it, but I held myself back in your class.

I wish I could have let go of my fear of getting a bad grade in order to really embrace the deeper mysteries that this universe holds.

But I was young and insecure. I defined myself by what I achieved. And if I didn’t achieve, who was I? What did I have to define myself?

And so, I wouldn’t allow myself to imagine a future in which I was uncertain of whether or not I would succeed. I wouldn’t take the risk of pursuing a career in science or math. Because I was convinced that eventually, people would realize that I was an impostor. It would all catch up with me and I would fail.

So instead, I would carve out a path on which I wouldn’t fail.

Because, after all, what was worse than failing?

I was young. I was insecure.

***

After high school, I stayed in touched with you because your son married my good friend, Linda. I saw you over the years at get-togethers at your house or Linda’s house, and each time, you were the same: smiling, laughing, joyful.

You still peppered your speech with intonation and emphasis that made a lot of what you were saying into either Great News! or A Good Joke!

You were always interested in what I had to say, no matter what I talked about. You were that way with everyone, I think, and it’s why people loved you. You cared about what people said. You didn’t just listen–you heard people. Maybe this was because you found joy, real joy, in the happiness of others.

This is partly what made you such a great teacher: You were able to see me as a whole, complicated, unique person, someone more than just the scared-of-math-and-science teenage girl sitting on the left side of your class from August 1999 to May 2000.

But your willingness to being authentic with me also helped me see you as a whole, complicated, unique person.

Reciprocity like that is rare. And it is powerful.

***

Last night, I had a dream. It was one of those recurring dreams that you feel like you’ve had hundreds of times before (and it’s a mystery to you why you’ve always forgotten about it in your waking life).

I was walking a perfectly paved path, high in the most beautiful, lush mountains I’ve ever seen. But it wasn’t cold. Even the highest peaks had no snow. As I walked that path, I was completely free of any responsibility that I’ve ever had. I was so untethered, I felt like I was floating.

I was so, so full of joy.

And the music. If I knew how to compose music, I could have written out all of the notes when I woke up this morning. But that memory is fading.

What stays with me from this dream is my certainty that I was coming back.

I had been there before. Many times.

And I was home among something beautiful and wild that had missed me as much as I had missed it. And my joy was coming from the realization that I had been away for so long on a journey that had taken me everywhere but here. That everything I needed to do and everything that people needed from me was completely finished.

But it was the journey that made my coming home so joyful. For how can you be as joyful to see something that you never left?

It was all those moments spent with my own students, from countries far and wide, who first awakened my own curiosity in other ways of seeing the world. The same ones who helped me open my mind to the fact that (shockingly) there were so many ways of seeing and living in the same world.

It was all the times I thought well, this well definitely be the thing that breaks me… and then it wasn’t.

It was all the happiness, the stories, the hugs, the missed chances, the blatant mistakes, the fights, the kisses, the stress, the doubts, and all the uncertainty of the journey…

That made coming home so joyful.

***

What happens when we die?

I used to be so certain of the answer to that.

I used to be so well-educated on all things spiritual, particularly in my senior year of high school. I had answers, and those answers were supported by carefully selected Bible verses.

But I’m being a lot more honest with myself these days.

And I’m willing to say, I don’t know.

What happens when we die? 

During my morning runs this week, I thought about this over and over again.

If we are more than body, what happens to us? Where do we go? Do we travel to some higher dimension that we can’t possibly imagine with our three-dimensional brain? Will I return to this heaven in the mountains, some strange place that calls to me for reasons I don’t understand? Do we review our lives in retrospect, weighing everything we’ve done? Do we wait between worlds until we feel ready to move on? Are we re-united with the ones we’ve lost? Or do we lose all sense of self and join a larger, higher consciousness? And what would that even be like?

I thought a lot as I ran.

And then clarity hit me.

I was finally doing the thing that you were trying to teach me.

I was wondering.

I was in wonder.

I was allowing myself to not have the answers. To allow myself to live in the space of uncertainty. And I was doing it without thinking of myself as a failure.

Isn’t that what you were trying to teach us the whole time?

To wonder? To think?

To allow yourself to not have the answers, but by God, to think about it.

Sometimes, clarity hits you in odd ways.

Sometimes, it comes to you as you think about a loved one passing.

Sometimes, it seems almost supernatural.

Because when I slowed to a walk during one of my morning runs, I looked over at the sign for the apartment complex down the street. Lots of things around here are named “Normandy.” Normandy United Methodist Church. Normandy Elementary. Normandy Ridge Road.

But in that moment, the sign of the apartment complex was partially covered.

And all I saw was,

Norma.

It was my honor to have met you in life. I hope we meet again, if that’s what happens when we die.

If you see my dad (You can’t miss him. He’s about 6′ 3″, mostly bald, and he’ll be wearing a short-sleeved dress shirt, tucked into his swim trunks, which he calls his wrestling todds), please tell him that I’d give anything to listen to one of his annoying political rants, even if it meant hearing the words Make America Great Again hundreds of times–as long as he makes me his Famous Thresherman’s Breakfast when he’s done.

With gratitude,

Sharon

PoP # 14: “Daystar”

Four years later. Still hard.

Dad and Sharon 1982

My father and me (at 15 months), 1982

One of my father’s favorite songs was, “Daystar.”

He particularly loved it as sung by our small church’s music minister, Darrell Sproles.

Lily of the Valley,
Let your sweet aroma fill my life
Rose of Sharon show me
How to grow in beauty in God’s sight
Fairest of ten thousand
Make me a reflection of your light
Daystar shine down on me
Let your love shine through me in the night

When it was sung at his funeral in June 2014, it meant a lot to me that my name was in the first few lines.

If I could talk to him now, what would I say?

After I’m sorry for ever causing you pain and I love you,

I probably would tell him that his grandchildren would have loved to have known him.

He always had a very tender way with kids aged 2-5.

Love you, Dad.

Miss you.

Three Years Gone, Dreaming of my Dad

Maybe it started when I fell while I was running.

That was June 1st.

5:30 a.m.

Maybe that’s when this rough patch started.

While jogging in the dark, my foot must have caught on a piece of raised sidewalk and I fell forward and hit the concrete just as a minivan was passing me.

Left knee, right knee, left hand, right hand. I saved my face. (At least physically.)

The minivan kept going.

For a moment, I just lay there against the concrete, gauging my pain.

I hurt. But I didn’t think I had broken anything. I couldn’t see how badly I was scraped up, but I felt it mostly on the outer edge of my left hand and my right thumb, which was warm and wet. Blood, for sure.

What else to do but keep jogging home with bleeding hands?

***

I’ve only had a few dreams of my dad since he passed away three years ago, but they’ve always come around this time of year.

In the first dream, I walked into a convenience store and was looking for a jug of milk to buy. (Who knows why. I hate drinking milk.) After I pulled it out of the refrigerator case, I saw four men sitting at a small booth, playing a card game. All their heads were lowered, studying their cards.

I walked over and even though I couldn’t see their faces, I just knew that one of them was my dad. I don’t remember what I said to him, but we talked like we always did — our eyes looking at other things, words passing between us that didn’t really resemble anything like what we really wanted to say.

Like, I miss you.

Like, I love you.

Still, whatever we said was comfortable and familiar enough to make us feel like all was well.

It was then that I realized that my ride was leaving.

“I have to go, Dad.”

“Don’t leave,” he told me, still not looking up. Still staring through his cards.

I kissed him on the head, complete with his bald spot, and I told him that I would come back.

“It will be too long. I don’t want to be alone,” he said.

“I swear, I’m coming back, Dad.”

He didn’t lift his head. He just sat there, sad and withdrawn, just as he did for the last few years of his life. Completely alone, even in the midst of company.

I kissed his head again and walked toward the door.

When I got to the door, I turned around and told him, “This is where we can meet, okay? This is where we can find each other. I’ll come back. I promise.”

I woke up feeling empty.

I’ve never been able to get back to that convenience store.

***

A few nights ago, as the anniversary of his death approached again, I dreamed again of my father.

It was a scene I’ve lived a thousand times before — riding in the car next to my dad, his left hand balanced casually on the steering wheel, his elbow resting on the edge of his open window. He was talking a mile a minute about everything and anything, the way he did when he descended into periods of mania. At first, it was normal. Just dad talking and talking and talking while I was looking out the window.

Then, it started to snow. And snow. And snow.

The drifts piled up around the car as we drove. But then he veered into the parking lot of the K-Mart in the town where I grew up. He started driving in a circle, talking faster and faster, the tires kicking up snow around us. I told him to slow down, but he wouldn’t. As the car picked up speed, we spiraled once, twice, three times, four times.

With each pass, I tried to keep my eyes on a fixed point outside of the car. The McDonald’s. The apartment building. The ATM. Anything that would keep me anchored to reality.

Maybe, if I could keep my eyes on something, I could slow us down.

Maybe, this time, I could be the one to anchor both of us.

Maybe, this time, I could keep the world from spinning, keep him from sliding into depression, keep him from falling and breaking his neck.

But we kept spinning and spinning and spinning.

In my dream, I started screaming.

And then I was beside my mother, and we were looking at a calendar. She wrote down her birthday, May 9th. But then she crossed out the 9th and wrote in dark letters, May 10th and underlined it.

“What year?” I asked.

She wrote “1” and “9” very easily, but then struggled to write the next number. It came out looking like a gigantic “9” and then a “0.”

“1990?” I asked.

She shrugged. “Sure. It all kind of blends together.”

And somehow, I understood that we were deciding when we would go back in time.

We were trying to get back to a time when Dad was Dad.

***

I woke up a few hours later and went for a morning run in the dark.

Because I’m a glutton for punishment? Maybe.

I prefer to say it’s because I refuse to be beaten by a bad experience (although, there are plenty of times when I am).

It was beautiful that morning. The moon was full and still high in the sky at 5:00 a.m. I watched the sidewalk much more carefully than before and walked for a few minutes before I started jogging.

full moon

The Head and the Heart played on my Pandora station.

Darling, this is when I met you.
For the third time not the last
Not the last time we are learning
Who we are and what we were.

You are in the seat, beside me.

You are in my dreams at night.

Turns out,

it’s easier to run with bleeding hands than it is to run with tears.

***

I’m like a lot of people — I only want to believe that dreams mean something when they’re good.

I don’t want to believe that the bad dreams mean anything more than the emotions that I’m working my way through when I have them.

But still.

But still.

Why are American Women Dying in Childbirth?

 

American women are more likely to die from complications in pregnancy and childbirth compared to women in any other developed country.

It’s true.

But why?

***

At 1:27 p.m. on February 2, 2017, I gave birth to an 8 lb. 10 oz. boy.

Because there was meconium in my amniotic fluid, a NICU team was paged to be present at the birth to make sure that the baby’s lungs were clear.

Those first minutes after birth were very blurry. There was just too much going on to fully appreciate everything that was happening. From my perspective as the birthing mother, I remember my son turning his head upward and looking me in the eyes (that really happened). I remember seeing that he was a boy. (A boy!?! Really!?! What?!?!)

I remember dropping my head back against the bed and crying in relief that it was over. I remember thinking, “Well, that’s the last time I’m doing that.”

I was euphoric and so, so grateful. We had made it. We had survived that. Both of us. That was what I was thinking.

I did not know that I was hemorrhaging. 

This is the thing about hemorrhaging: It happens so fast.

It happens while mothers are crying from happiness that their baby is alive and breathing. It happens while they’re trying to get a good look at their baby’s face. It happens silently as the room’s atmosphere turns from the intensity and suspense of the pushing phase into joy and excitement of the delivery phase.

No woman wants to believe that it’s going to happen to her. I had none of the risk factors associated with postpartum hemorrhage.

But it still happened to me.

While we were celebrating and crying and basking in the joy of the birth, my midwife was tracking my blood loss. I remember looking down and seeing her furrowed brow every time more blood poured out of me. But I didn’t think anything terrible was happening. I was flooded with joy and gratitude that labor was over.

But in the first ten minutes after birth, more and more nurses entered the room and the treatments started. My midwife told me each treatment that she was doing to stop the bleeding. By this time, I had lost about 1200 mL of blood, about 2.5 pints of blood. In other words, I had lost about 25% of the blood in my entire pregnant body.

Surviving postpartum hemorrhage requires a medical professional who quickly realizes what is happening and starts treatment immediately.

In my case, the midwife tried a shot of Pitocin. When that didn’t work, she gave me Cytotec. When that didn’t work, she gave me IV Pitocin. She kept massaging my uterus. She was on her last treatment before starting a blood transfusion: a shot of methergine.

That’s how close we were to a true emergency.

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My heart rate during labor. You can see exactly when the hemorrhage begins and how my body responded.

 

Hemorrhage is one of the leading causes of death in childbirth.

Causes of Death in Childbirth

Still.

Let me be clear: postpartum hemorrhage isn’t caused by a lack of care. This would probably have happened to me if I had given birth anywhere else.

But women die from hemorrhage when doctors and nurses don’t quickly recognize the amount of blood loss and begin treatment. Some states, like California, have codified and implemented standardized procedures and training for nurses and doctors so that teams can quickly and efficiently follow protocol to prevent postpartum hemorrhages from killing mothers. Instead of “eye-balling” how much blood a mother loses during delivery, nurses were taught how to collect and measure postpartum blood loss to help them quickly identify hemorrhage.

“Hospitals that adopted the toolkit saw a 21 percent decrease in near deaths from maternal bleeding in the first year; hospitals that didn’t use the protocol had a 1.2 percent reduction.”

But not all states have such standardized protocol.

***

A joint investigation by NPR and ProPublica found that more women are dying of complications related to pregnancy and childbirth compared to any other developed country.

In every 100,000 births in the United States, 26 women die. In other developed countries, the numbers range between 5 and 9 births. And those numbers have climbed from 17 to 26 deaths from 2000-2015.

Seriously.

Seriously.

It seems unimaginable. Really? In the United States? But we have so much technology. We have some of the best hospitals in the world.

Maternal Mortality

What the hell is going on?!?

There were several major findings from this investigation.

  1. The U.S. is spending more money on research, equipment, and training for improving infant outcomes. Think of how much progress we have made in helping premature babies and treating newborns born with previously fatal deformities and diseases.
  2. Decreased education and training about caring for birthing mothers, for both doctors and nurses. This leads to a lack of knowledge that is passed on to the mother when she is discharged from the hospital.
  3. Lack of standardized best practices for caring for birthing mothers among the states. Unlike other developed countries, there is no nationwide effort for reducing the maternal death rate in the United States. Responsibility has been left to individual states to decide if and how they investigate maternal deaths.

America has not conquered maternal mortality. We like to think that because we have advanced technology and highly trained medical professionals that tragedies like a woman dying in childbirth just simply don’t happen anymore.

At least not nearly as much as it used to.

It’s a kind of hubris, really. To think that we have mastered childbirth. We have tamed it and told it who’s boss. In fact, we’re so good at childbirth that we should just focus most of our attention on the infants. They’re the ones that are the most vulnerable, right?

But the truth is…

“In recent decades, under the assumption that it had conquered maternal mortality, the American medical system has focused more on fetal and infant safety and survival than on the mother’s health and well-being.”

~Nina Martin & Renee Montagne, “The Last Person You’d Expect to Die in Childbirth”

***

If there was one major takeaway from this report that I want to share with everyone it’s this:

Women still die in childbirth. 

Giving birth in the United States does not guarantee that both mother and baby make it out alive.

I completely agree with the report’s observations that labor and birth put women in the most vulnerable position in their entire lives. They don’t know what’s going on. They’re immersed in the pain and process of labor. Birthing women depend on everyone around them, doctors and nurses alike, to notice the signs that an emergency is unfolding.

If you or someone you know will be giving birth in the United States in the near future, I strongly encourage you to read ProPublica’s full investigative report on this topic.

This is not a political issue. ProPublica is an independent organization that is not funded by political donations.

This is a human issue.

American women are not immune to maternal mortality.

For the women who die every year from pregnancy and childbirth from preventable or treatable conditions, let’s raise our awareness of this problem and insist that we study this at the national level, not just the state level.

We can do better than this.

The death of a new mother is not like any other sudden death. It blasts a hole in the universe.

~Nina Martin and Renee Montagne, “The Last Person You’d Expect to Die in Childbirth

The Thing We Hope Never Happens (a call to help a hurting mother)

My absolute worst fear is suffering the death of one of my children.

I can imagine coming to grips with the death of anyone in my life.

Except my children.

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***

Last Friday, I was reading my Facebook feed and read a horrific post from a member of my church.

Her daughter-in-law, Britney, was driving on a two-lane road with her five-year-old daughter, Jocelyn, and two-month-old son, Jonah, in the backseat.

You already know how this story ends.

An oncoming car illegally crossed the center to pass a car.

It hit them head on.

crash

It killed the little girl.

The mother and baby boy survived.

In the picture, Jocelyn was balancing on one foot, as if in the midst of dancing. She was posed proudly with her baby brother. Smiling. Blond and smiling. Happy. Just like my daughter.

Jocelyn 2Jocelyn and JonahJocelyn

There at my desk, I cried.

Britney was me. Her kids were my kids.

And my heart was broken for her.

All of this happened just days before Mother’s Day.

***

It was too cruel and unfair for one person to bear.

How could Britney face life and the world, now knowing, now feeling every day, that horrific things like that can happen?

Just like that.

How?

How could she keep going?

But of course I know how.

We all know how.

She’s a mother.

Britney

This is stuff that mothers are made of.

Loving through pain.

Living while part of you is dying.

Believing through despair and doubt.

Resiliency beyond measure.

Pure grit and strength.

***

Britney has already undergone several surgeries to repair her broken bones, including her pelvis. She has been moved out of the ICU and into the trauma unit. (And let’s not forget the fact that she’s just three months postpartum.)

Her newborn son also suffered extensive injuries. Two broken femurs and a broken arm.

Noah

He is currently being cared for around the clock by his grandmother, Lanae, who works as a surgical nurse. He couldn’t be in better hands while his mother is recovering.

***

I made myself imagine what I would do if I were living Britney’s reality.

What would I do?

I would sob and ache and grovel and resent and rage.

For a Long Time.

I would lash out and blame and despair.

I would be out for blood. I would crave Revenge. I would want to hurt and crush and obliterate. I would want to empty the life of the person who didn’t think first, who would rather take a risk, who thought the laws didn’t apply to him.

(Because I think first. Because I don’t want to take the risk. Because I don’t think the laws don’t apply to me.)

And while I would be going through this, I would still have to Get Back Up.

Although I would want to take time off from Life to mourn and process and make meaning, I would have to immediately Get Back Up.

For my son.

Because he would still need to eat and sleep and grow.

He would still need my arms to tell him that he is safe, even though I had just seen how unsafe the world can be.

I would need to decide every hour to keep on practicing the appearance of Love even though I’d be simultaneously steeling my heart from the possibility of Future Pain.

Because Love would have just killed off a part of me.

Love had created a trove of beautiful moments of my little girl — but now there would be no more. And the more time that would pass, the more those memories would lose their clarity. And if I forgot any part of those memories, it would be like losing her all over again.

All I really would want to do is climb into the ground with her so she wouldn’t be alone in the dark.

I would be like this for a Long Time.

***

But I also know that One Day, through the crisis and search to find meaning, I would finally choose Love again.

Because Love is the only path to Peace.

I would keep walking.

Still vulnerable.

Still hurting.

But alive.

And courageous.

***

I used to pray that Life Would Be Okay and Get Better. But I’ve stopped doing that.

Because that’s not what Life is for. The life worth living isn’t a life without pain because the pain is what shows us life’s worth.

When I say prayers now, it is in moments for others who are in pain.

And the prayer is that they keep moving

And keep walking through the pain

And that if they fall, that God will reach a Hand down to help them get back up.

***

Britney,

Our hearts ache with yours in your time of hurting and grieving. My prayer for you is that you keep walking through the pain. Keep moving. And keep believing that there is good in the world even though it is also so very bad at times. In fact, perhaps the world is good because it is bad.

Years from now, I hope that you can look back at these dark hours of your life and see all the light that people are shining on it. It’s always the people who have suffered and cried and walked the Path of Pain that will be the first to reach out their hands to you. Take those hands. Let them help you get back up. And don’t feel guilty about it. You are not a burden.

Because Some Day, it will be you who is the one reaching out and saving someone else.

You are not alone.

And you are Loved.

***

If you would like to help this family financially as they cope with medical and funeral expenses, you can contribute through their GoFundMe fundraiser here.

No gift is too small and you can give anonymously if you prefer.

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If you would like to provide financial assistance to Lanae as she takes care of Jonah full-time, you can donate here.

Lanae

 

Week 38: Paradoxes

Are you ready?!

This is the most likely comment that people will say to me in the next few weeks.

How do I honestly answer this?

Yes. I don’t want to be pregnant anymore.

No. I’m not ready for labor again.

Yes. I’m tired of all the fluid retention.

No. I’m not ready to breastfeed again.

Yes. I want to finally see this baby.

No. I don’t want to do all the night feedings.

Yes. I can’t stand carrying all this weight anymore.

No. The room still isn’t ready yet.

Yes. We’ll never be fully prepared anyway.

***

When I sleep at night on these bitterly cold days, I sweat. I throw the sheets off until I freeze. Then I pull them back over me. Repeat.

I have crazy dreams. Last night, I successfully managed to outsmart, outrun, and hide from a serial killer who had me trapped in an office building, much like the one in Mad Men (which, of course, I’ve been binge-watching lately).

At full term, a woman’s placenta generates as much estrogen as a non-pregnant woman will produce in three years.

Yeah.

Thus the sweating and crazy dreams.

In the weeks to come, the loss of these same hormones will cause me to shake with hot flashes and chills, to weep at the drop of a hat, and to constantly check to make sure the baby is sleeping.

Basically, their loss will make me feel completely undone.

This is the beginning of the ride down into powerlessness. This is when my individual will and desires start to bow their heads to my body’s processes and the needs of this tiny person, now coming forth.

This is when I become a passenger in my own body.

***

Dr. Robbie Davis-Floyd, a cultural anthropologist who specializes in the rituals of birth, points out that pregnancy is both “a state and a becoming.” If you translate the word “pregnancy” from Latin, it would literally read, “the state of being before being born.”

It is a kind of limbo. To be pregnant is to experience the world in flux. To see the world turned upside down and inside out. In her book, Birth as an American Rite of Passage, Davis-Floyd writes that,

“the near-constant inner and outer flux of pregnancy keeps the category systems of pregnant women in a continuous state of upheaval as old ways of thinking change to include new life” (p. 24).

So fluid is this state of being that I oscillate back and forth between wanting to be free of this pregnancy and not wanting it to end.

***

Labor also brings its own set of paradoxes.

In labor, the fastest way to progress is completely counter-intuitive.

You need to relax through the pain.

Try it the next time you burn your hand or stub you foot so hard you scream. Your first instinct is to clench and bear down. Not to breathe calmly through it.

Labor takes you out of the boat and throws you to the mercy of a series of invisible, crashing waves. At first, you might hold your breath through the pain and gasp for air in the breaks. But in time, the waves come at you harder and faster, leaving little to no time to breathe.

And that is when you realize that what you really need to do is stop fighting.

Let the water hold you down, down, down. Until you are still.

Because the more you resist, the longer labor is.

So surrender becomes your savior.

Surrendering to pain. Accepting it. Even though you don’t know when it will end.

That is the smoothest path through labor.

***

As a human being, I loathe this truth, that surrender is necessary in labor. I hate uncertainty and I cling to control. I avoid pain if I can.

But allow me to get spiritual for a moment.

As a Christian, I understand this truth.

Of all the symbols that Christians could have used to represent their most ardent belief, they chose a symbol of execution. Of Death.

Instead of choosing a symbol of humility (the manger) or peace (the dove) or bounty (the fish), Christians chose a symbol of intense pain and sacrifice. A sacrifice so crushing that it would obliterate body and mind, leaving behind only spirit.

They chose a symbol of death because they believed that it was only by dying to their previous lives that they would be able to embrace new life. They believed that before experiencing true humility and peace and bounty, they first needed to give it all up.

Because you can’t truly receive until your hands are empty.

Emptiness first. Then Plenty.

Death first. Then Life.

As a Christian, this is how I understand labor. I see labor as the most authentic expression of what I worship.

I follow a belief that Death comes first. Then Life.

Death to Self. Then, New Life.

***

As I’ve said before, January doesn’t seem like a month that goes well with birth. It stands in contrast to so many other months when we see evidence of life at work. In the United States, nature lovers will tell you that we are currently in Deep Winter, a period of seven weeks before Early Spring begins. In these weeks, we see nature as barren, perhaps even conquered.

But below the surface, the world is shifting and preparing for spring.

light-shining

I think about this as I walk in the mornings now, bundled beneath layers. Even though the winter air bites and stings, the winter light still warms me when the clouds break.

I went to church last Sunday and I was reminded that we are in the season of Epiphany, the time of year when Christians remember that God’s light doesn’t just shine on us. It comes down to light our way. Even though the darkness consumes so many hours of these winter days, the light is still there.

Even though darkness, light.

Even though Death, Life.

Even though pain, progress.

Even though two, one.

Even though being, becoming.

Even though ready, not ready.

Book of Life and Death: A Book Review

I picked up this book at a library book sale a few weeks ago. Two middle-schoolers handed me a grocery sack and said that I could fill it with as many books as I wanted for $5.00. This was one of the books that I grabbed.

Signs of Life

I’m so glad that I did.

***

Signs of Life is a cogent blend of journalistic investigation and memoir that explores hospice, palliative care, and our modern preference for treating the human body as a battle field and death as failure. But it’s so much more than that.

Brookes shares stunning observations and insight about the dying process and the grief that follows it. He does more than gather facts. He narrates his mother’s last six months as she slowly dies from pancreatic cancer. This bittersweet combination of history, science, and human experience provide a multi-layered approach toward understanding this topic.

I was first struck by one of Brookes’ first arguments:

The more we try to avoid death, the more likely we are to end up with exactly the death that we fear the most: helpless, afraid, in pain, alone. (p. 24)

Brookes combines interviews with doctors and hospice nurses along with his own experience with observing the dissection of a human cadaver to show us the absurdity of treating death as failure even though death is absolutely certain.

Who knows whether our panic and hand-wringing in the hospital corridor are at the thought that someone is dying, or that someone is dying the wrong death, in the wrong place? (p. 205)

This observation, I feel, is key to unlocking some of our modern discourse around death. We all know that we’re going to die. But when our moment has come, we’re encouraged to deny that it’s happening. This isn’t my time. This isn’t the way.

***

We typically view the concept of living in physical terms: breathing, heartbeat, and brain activity. But this is limited, as those of us who have watched our loved ones fade away piece by piece can attest. In an especially insightful passage, Brooks defines living in terms of our ability to be creative, even in the most mundane sense. As his mother’s health declines to the point that she struggles to continue her silversmithing, Brookes explains how losing this ability to create is a kind of death.

Any action is an act of knitting the past with the present to create the future, of making things that will exist that will have consequences, that, like earrings, will still be there to be given away or shown off. Inaction, the stricture of a sterile environment, severs the connection through time and thus suspends life, as if death had soaked like a beet stain backwards through time and saturated the fabric of life still left. (p. 168)

Our ability to create, then, becomes the vehicle that connects our past, present, and future selves. As Brookes narrates his mother’s dying, we see her selves slowly detach from one another: first, from her future self, and then from her present self. What remains in her final days is a self that digresses further and further from the present world until she is nearly completely engulfed in her past.

It makes me think of what my mother told me about my father in his last days. Suffering already from Parkinson’s and depression, my father died of complications after he fell and broke his C-2 vertebrae. Several days before he passed away, my mother walked into his room in the nursing home and he asked her if she had “his whites washed.” She asked him what he meant. He said that he needed his whites washed so he could get ready for his shift at the bakery. In his mind, he was living in a moment that had happened thirty years earlier.

***

Brookes also expresses the experience of grief in words that resonated deeply with me. Here are several quotes that need no explanation. They are just pure, simple truth. I underlined them. I starred them. I nodded ferociously.

I had thought that grief was a sign of lack of completeness, a wailing for the piece of the self that is missing, and as such, bereavement is necessary for us to individuate, to be whole. Now I saw that individuation is a machine’s notion of humanity: we pour into each other like inks in water. To be complete is not to be unaffected, or if we are separate, we are also part of something else, something we have in common, that infiltrates us at every cell. (p. 210)

Somehow grief had given me an exquisite awareness of the difference between the things that were suffused with life and those that lacked life energy, or abused it. (p. 211)

I felt as if I were breaking myself into little pieces and feeding them to vultures… The difficulty comes in the crossover between the inner and the outer worlds, having to deal with the pressures of the material world at a time when we have just been somewhere else. (p. 247)

I didn’t have the energy—and perhaps above all I didn’t want to have to be the one to spell it all out: I was wounded, and I wanted someone else to take care of me, someone who understood it already. (p. 248)

***

About a year ago, I opened up about my own experience with connecting birth and death in a blog post called “What Labor and Death Have in Common.” In summary, I feel strongly that experiencing the pain of childbirth pushed me into a space where death came up alongside me—and I allowed it to stay. I didn’t panic. I didn’t fear it, simply because there was no time to fear it. I was consumed by the waves of contractions. And so I entered a space where my body and mind went to mute and all I could sense was… quite frankly, God.

This experience was so profound that I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I wished that there were some way to fully convey what I had sensed during these hours, but language couldn’t fully articulate it. I felt that I had grown a new pair of eyes that could see a whole new view of the world, as if I had learned how to bend light to hit objects in a new way.

I wrote about this in my book, Becoming Mother, but I placed it in a separate appendix at the end of the book, not totally sure that all readers would truly understand what I was talking about, or perhaps be turned off by too much “woo-woo.”

So imagine my surprise when I read Brookes’ account of how he felt after had said good-bye to his ailing mother and accepted her impending death. His description of walking alongside the inevitability of death mirrors perfectly my own experience in childbirth and the first few days that followed.

I was of this world, but not affected by it, my mind unencumbered by gravity. Remarkable thoughts kept occurring to me… It was as if I had burrowed through all the rubble of tedious necessity in my life and found myself in a chamber lit by some unknown source, walls covered with pictures and hieroglyphics… I felt immune to trouble or hardship; I couldn’t imagine anything that could defeat my spirit. It was as if I had an umbilicus to God… The euphoria lasted about five days… (but then) I felt like I had lost my soul: I simply couldn’t think myself back to the state of grace I had known… Being so close to death, it seemed, was offering me wisdoms that I wasn’t using. (pp. 193-195)

I could have written these exact words about my own encounter with experiencing and witnessing life’s beginning.

In fact, in my own book, I write these words:

I felt the presence of God for the first time in the darkness of a shower, hours past sleep deprivation, and in the hardest hours of labor. In those sacred moments, punctuated with pain, I was finally truly aware of a portion of the self that is beyond the body and beyond the mind. My spirit soared into the foreground. And there, in the quiet darkness, as water spilled over me, I was connected to the Divine. Its energy flowed into me, took control, and pushed me forward. It stayed with me for days. It caused me to glow. (p. 274)

After such a profound experience, I also went through an opposing wave of emotion, feeling that I had lost my center. I kept trying to get back to those moments of clarity and spiritual connection, but it just wasn’t possible.

I had a similar experience when my father passed away, though not nearly as profound. And it truly made me a believer that those who draw near those moments of birth and death also enter sacred spaces. Life coming in. Life going out. Life all around.

***

After I finished this book, I flipped to the front matter to check its year of publication and noticed a stamp from the library on the inside cover. Discard, it read.

I laughed. The irony was too much.

Then I flipped back to this passage:

To talk only of death makes death triumphant. The best thing we can do for the dead and for ourselves is to give them back their lives. It’s a kind of resurrection. (p. 232)

I feel that this is what I’ve done for Signs of Life today, as I retell its story, hoping that it finds even more readers 20 years later.

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