Becoming Mother

A book and a blog for first-time mothers

Tag: loss

A Time to Say Good-Bye

When my dad died five years ago, I didn’t have the chance to say good-bye.

Since then, I’ve had a few dreams about him. But nothing that has given me much closure.

Until recently.

The dream went like this: My dad is alive. So is my mom and her new husband, Warren. And everyone is okay with this.

It’s a dream, right? You know how dreams are.

It’s also Thanksgiving and we’re back at our old house in Huber Heights. The table is set up in the living room, which is awkward. But that’s because my youngest sister’s bed is set up in the dining room, and we’re all coping with that.

Fine.

There are lots of chairs around the table, but no one is sitting down. I see that it’s because, apparently, everyone has already eaten except me. I feel hungry. And yet I’m frustrated because there is food all over the table and the floor. I start picking up, scraping bits of food into my hands: lemon wedges, wet and cold Spaghetti-os, cracker crumbs, and rice. Absolutely nothing that looks like anything we would actually eat at Thanksgiving dinner.

No one is helping me. Actually, I can sense that they are annoyed that I’m cleaning up. They’re all talking with each other, laughing, having a great time.

Apparently, my dad and Warren are old pals. I can hear my dad’s laugh above everything else. That cutting HA! that interrupts what someone else is saying, just before saying, “Well, that’s just like what they did down there in…” And he segues into a new story. They’re off to the races.

Ah, whatever, I think as I get up from scraping up food from the carpet. Maybe later.

By the time I get over to where I think my dad is, I see my mom sitting on the sofa, staring out the window, a book on her knees. She’s sad. And she won’t talk about it.

And she’s also pregnant. Like third-trimester pregnant. At sixty-some years old. Her hands rest protectively on her belly.

It’s a dream, right?

Suddenly, she’s gone. The book is still there, conveniently left open to the page that she was reading, marked with underlining. The heading reads “Brain Disorders.”

“It’s her decision,” my dad says. He’s there now, sitting on the couch.

“Why won’t she talk about it with me?” I ask.

“This isn’t about you. This is between her and God.”

“But…” I can’t think of the words. But what I feel is this immense emptiness opening in the fabric of my life. This is isn’t about you. This is between her and God.

Through the window, I see the tree in our backyard tipping over, its roots becoming exposed to the air.

“I don’t want her to make that decision,” I finally say.

“It’s not about you,” he repeats.

He is not somber. He’s actually quite jovial about it. His health has been restored to the last time that I remember him being physically and mentally well, probably around 2007. He tries to help me see the positive possibilities. What if the brain disorder actually benefits the baby? He tries to give me examples of babies with certain brain disorders who were born in the past and who are now astounding doctors. He places his fingers close together and far apart, saying something about the spaces between synapses.

“But we don’t know what type of condition the baby has,” I say.

“You can’t know everything that you want to know,” he says. “Sometimes, you have to trust God.” He is laughing.

Laughing!

The nerve.

“Dad?”

“What?” he says.

I reach over and grip his large hand in mine, pull it to my heart and lock it there so that we are connected from fingers to elbow. This is not something I ever remember doing when he was alive. Our family wasn’t big into hugs and we certainly didn’t hold each other’s hands.

But I don’t have the words anymore.

All I have is the grief of his loss.

The knowing that when this is over, he’ll be gone again. He will slip away for months or years, away into realities that I cannot sense or galaxies where I cannot travel. He’ll be gone again and I’ll still be here.

And I won’t know when I’ll see him again.

I don’t know what I’m doing, but I feel that I’m sending out everything that I want to say but can’t find the words for. All the empty spaces in my life where he should be. All the moments that he should have seen with his grandkids. All the times that I regret I didn’t spend more time with him. All the jealousy that I have for my peers who still have their fathers with them. All the love that I still have for him that has nowhere to go, nowhere to land. And so it swirls inside of me and rises at unexpected moments. Crying in the store over 0.99 cent cinnamon rolls. (I would pay you $1 NOT to eat them!, I had joked.)

My roots are raw and exposed, my world is upside down.

I pull him all the way to me, into my very heartbeat.

And he starts weeping.

He doesn’t deny how I’m feeling. He doesn’t tell me it will all be okay. He stops mentioning God and the possibilities.

He just weeps with me.

We don’t talk anymore. I just hold his arm against me until all the emotions are gone and what remains is stillness. Peace.

Once all these emotions have been released, the truth that remains is that my father is Gone.

And I don’t have to be okay with that.

I’m not angry. Anger is just an emotion that covers a far deeper wound.

No, the anger is gone.

Now, all that’s left is love and pain. And it’s not wrong. It’s not a failure or a flaw. Sometimes, this is just the way that it is.

Sometimes, love just plain hurts. Sometimes life grinds cold Spahetti-os into the carpet, pulls out trees by their roots, and takes away the people that you love the most. And it gives zero shits about how you feel about any of it.

But there is also Peace to be felt in the middle of it.

But first, the pain has to find its way out. It cannot be numbed or ignored or medicated. It needs to be felt and acknowledged, directed and released.

The only way to Peace is through the Pain.

***

I woke up shortly after that, replaying the bits and pieces that I remember over and over. Dreams are often slippery suckers. But I think this one will stay with me for quite a well.

It felt like a chance to show my dad what I’m carrying with me through this life, now that he is gone. But also to assure him that I will be okay, as long as I have someone to hear my stories, as long as there is an outlet for the emotion to flow through me and settle elsewhere. It’s the bottling up that makes grief unbearable.

It felt like a space to catch my breath.

A moment to hold on with all I have.

A moment to decide to let it all go.

It felt like my chance to say good-bye.

When you are far away
I dream on the horizon
And words fail,
and, Yes, I know
that you are with me;
you, my moon, are here with me,
my sun, you are here with me,
with me, with me, with me.
 
Time to say goodbye
To countries I never
Saw and shared with you,
now, yes, I shall experience them.
I’ll go with you
On ships across seas
which, I know,
no, no, exist no longer.

with you I shall experience them again.
I’ll go with you

“Con Te Partiro” Lucio Quarantotto, as sung by Andrea Bocelli

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)

A Long December: Reflections on a Decision that Changed Everything

Rocking my almost two-year-old son in the rocking chair.

Christmas night.

The humidifier steams. The white noise machine zzhhhhhhs.

Faint lights from passing cars travel across the walls.

With his soft breath against my shoulder, I rock back and back and back. One year. Two years. Five years. Ten years. As many Christmases as I can remember.

Plenty of happy ones.

Plenty of ones filled with tension. (Growing up in a house with four teenagers will do that).

Plenty of forgettable ones in my 20s. (That limbo between getting married and having kids.)

Now, we’ve entered a series of Christmases that no longer mean comfort and joy or the most wonderful time of the year.

There was the Christmas of Nausea (2012), when I grasped for ginger candy and Sea Bands or whatever anyone suggested that might help me ride the waves of first trimester nausea. From December until mid-January. (Truly a delight, let me tell you.)

And the 37-Weeks-Pregnant Christmas (2016), when I told myself that I only had three weeks left to go. (It turned out to be another five weeks. Yeah.)

And all those fun Christmases of Illness (2014, 2017, 2018). 2017 was by far the worst, as the baby’s diarrhea stretched on for a few weeks, taking us all down into its shitty vortex.

And the downright sad Christmas (2015) when the baby’s heart stopped beating. After I had a D & C on New Year’s Eve, I sat in the parking lot of Whole Foods while my husband bought me a slice of apple pie. I listened to “Long December” by the Counting Crows and cried.

And it’s been a long December and there’s reason to believe

Maybe this year will be better than the last

I can’t remember all the times I tried to tell myself

to hold on to these moments as they pass

But if I’m really thinking about the Christmas when everything in my life changed direction, when I started plotting a course that brought me to this rocking chair, with this child in my arms, while my oldest sleeps in her bed across the hall, I always end up traveling back to Christmas of 2002.

It was Christmas Eve. 11:00 p.m. At Wal-Mart. And I was standing in the card aisle. Looking for cards for a few friends and my boyfriend. I had no trouble picking out the cards for my friends.

But I was having the hardest time picking out one for my boyfriend of three years.

Forever and always. My one and only. Meant for each other.

I couldn’t even pick them up to consider them.

Because I understood, suddenly and completely, that I couldn’t see a future for us anymore, the way that I used to.

What was our future? It was his vision for what we would become. A married couple. A house. No kids. I could be a teacher, but did I really need any more education than a Bachelor’s degree? Why did I want to travel when he was the most important thing in my life? Wasn’t a life with him good enough? And kids? Why have kids? They just ruin a good thing.

And for a long time, I thought, Yes, of course. You’re right. You are the only thing that I want in life. I couldn’t possibly want anything else. Right. I don’t want kids. Nah, too much work. We’d be much happier by ourselves. Living our life together without kids getting in the way.

But I did want more. Much more. And in time, conversations about the future brought me back again and again to a realization that I could not ignore.

We had come as far as we could together, but now there was more pulling us apart than was keeping us together.

And although my heart had been feeling that way for some time, I didn’t want to give up. I had poured so much of myself into making it work. I wasn’t a quitter. I didn’t want to hurt anyone. I liked his family. I didn’t want to make life more difficult or more inconvenient for anyone.

And above all, I didn’t want to believe that although love can bring people together, sometimes it wasn’t enough to keep them together. No one makes movies or songs about the power of finding someone with compatible values and goals for life, or someone who trusts you and works with you to resolve conflict. It’s not sexy enough. And if I’m being honest with myself, I didn’t have the vocabulary back then to even articulate the problems.

I just remember thinking, This isn’t working.

I thought that a lot.

And yet, I was like the women in my family who came before me: devoted and long-suffering, servile and contented.

To end this relationship was not within my repertoire. At all.

But I also couldn’t lie to myself.

And therefore, I wouldn’t lie to anyone else anymore either.

I paid for the cards for my friends, got in my old car, turned the heat up, and flipped on the radio. The voice of Stevie Nicks reached through the speakers and the tears rolled.

Can I sail through the changing ocean tides?

Can I handle the seasons of my life?

I don’t know.

Well, I’ve been afraid of changing

Because I built my life around you

But time makes you bolder, children get older

And I’m getting older too

I didn’t realize it yet, but when I left that store that night, I had changed the entire trajectory of my life.

Because the very next guy that I dated became my husband.

Three years later, we were married.

And we had two kids.

Doug_Sharon_2002_01

***

I know. I know.

It’s what we’re tempted to believe: That all the decisions–good and bad–that we’ve made in our lives have brought us to a point for which we’re ultimately grateful.

But, had I made different decisions, would I have ended up somewhere else, where I would be equally as grateful?

Maybe.

Maybe not.

But what I do know is that I did something extraordinary on Christmas Eve of 2002.

For years, I imagined my future, married, but no children. Never kids.

But on Christmas Eve of 2002, I allowed myself to imagine a different future.

A life in which, someday…

maybe…

I might have kids.

It turns out, as it is with a lot of things, the biggest steps that we take all start with a thought.

The simple willingness to imagine a different future.

That ability to imagine a different future has taken me far beyond the original course that I had plotted for my life. It has helped me imagine that I could get a Master’s degree. And travel overseas. And change my political and religious beliefs. And write a book. And lose forty pounds. (Three times, yeah.) And relearn algebra. (It’s true.)

And, yeah, it has helped me to imagine a life that includes kids.

And, with endless gratitude, it has helped me imagine a future moment in my life when my children won’t always need me every moment that they are awake. And a time when we won’t have to pay for babysitters. And a time when we can travel with them without losing our minds.

What about you?

What different future do you imagine for yourself?

And what will you do tomorrow to help you get there?

May you surprise yourself in this next year.

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

Where Did God Go?: Some Thoughts on Hurricane Harvey

I grew up believing that God was in the good and pure and holy and clean things.

And that I would spend my life trying to keep myself good and pure and holy and clean. And by doing that, I would remain close to God.

No.

Because in all of those moments when I thought I was good and pure and holy and clean, I was actually self-righteous. Self-serving. Self-important. Distant. Cold. Judgmental.

Perhaps intellectually, I felt that I was close to God.

But, oh.

No.

Not until those Desperate Moments did I ever really feel God’s presence.

Not until Fire and Separation and Cancer and Death and Pain and Uncertainty.

In those moments, my cold, assured heart broke open.

And I could no longer keep myself good and pure and holy and clean.

I was ungrateful and messy and blasphemous and so, so full of doubt.

I was everything that would separate me from the Love of God.

But then, didn’t I say that I believed that nothing could separate me from the Love of God?

Did I really believe that?

No. I did not. Not anymore.

Because Tragedy had come. And nothing could be any good anymore.

(Has Tragedy ever come for you? Can you imagine it?)

Hurricane Harvey

***

But here is the double-sided nature of God:

The more broken that we are, the more likely we are to be touched by God’s sacred presence. 

Because in our brokenness, we finally have room for God.

When we have lost all the Things that Keep Us Together, we finally reach out our empty hands

and really Receive.

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Photo Credit: Caitlin Regan, 2009, flickr.com

***

God’s Peace and Grace to all of you who are facing so much pain and loss and uncertainty because of Hurricane Harvey.

You are not Forgotten.

You are Loved.

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

 

The World is Good Because it is Bad: A Letter to my Unborn Child

My Child,

When I was five years old, my family’s house burned down. To the ground. What was left was a smoky, black carcass that used to be our home. I still remember returning to the site where our home once was.

I didn’t understand. Not really.

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Me: Easter, 1987

We walked through the safest part of the site, our toes nudging burnt, sooty items. A comb. A jacket. That one stuffed animal that looked like a cat, but was really a mouse.

The smell. Oh. The smell. I will never, ever forget that smell. Smoke and soot and water and grass.

While our house was still on fire, flames still clawing at the windows, the fire trucks and ambulances arrived. I saw my oldest brother, Phillip, throw my youngest sister, DeAnna, from a window on the right side of the house. A firefighter caught her. She was just a toddler. I can still see her sobbing there against the backdrop of flames, wobbling on rubbery legs.

I saw my father climbing out of a second-story window, still in his T-shirt and boxers.

I wasn’t thinking about where my other brother and sister were.

I remember thinking,

“I wonder when the fire will be over so we can go home.”

I remember thinking,

“Mom is so going to be so mad when she comes home to see this.”

That’s the way a five-year-old thinks.

My mother worked as a part-time cake decorator for a grocery store on Saturdays. I never knew who called her that day. Someone had to make that call. I wonder now what was it like to put aside the bag of icing that she had been using to decorate a cake for someone else’s celebration… only to pick up the phone to hear that her world was on fire.

***

That night, we stayed in some stranger’s home.

I don’t remember the people, but they lived in a large, well-kept home in old North Dayton, presumably a family who had signed up to provide temporary housing through the Red Cross.

In the middle of the hardwood floor of their living room was a large, oval, braided rug. While my mother talked to the homeowners, my eyes traced the outer edge of the oval rug, around and around and around. Until it ended in the center.

I wondered what was there in the center, holding it all together.

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Someone handed out some canvas bags from the Red Cross. Five bags. One for each of us. The homeless kids.

Inside, there were crayons and a coloring book. A toothbrush and toothpaste. Some soap. A towel. There might have been a T-shirt and sweatpants. I don’t remember for sure.

But I remember the smell of those bags. Sterile.

Like the smell of the hospital where we had just been. Where I had just seen my father hack and cough black mucus into a beige dish just minutes before he was officially discharged.

I remember holding that canvas bag, thinking that it was the only thing in the world that was mine.

Hoping that my parents could afford to buy it for me.

And then the surprise and gratitude when I realized that we didn’t need to pay.

***

We went to church, and the Sunday School teacher looked at me with wet eyes. In her quiet, shaky voice, she told me that everything was going to be just fine.

She pulled out some paper figures from a crinkled envelope. They were dressed in robes and sandals. One of them fell to the ground and I picked it up, feeling the fuzz on the back side. Then, she handed all the figures to me and I helped her arrange them on the felt board as she told the story of the Good Samaritan.

good-samaritan

My child, here is what I want to tell you.

Believe in the goodness of people.

Certainly, not every person will be good to you. Some will bully you. Some will mock you. Some will see you hurting and walk to the other side of the road to avoid you.

Do not expect kindness and empathy from those who have never suffered. Too often, they will find a way to either minimize your pain or blame you for what has happened to you. In their eyes, it will always be your fault. And if they cannot blame you for what you have done, they will blame you for what you have not done.

You really didn’t have it that bad. You should have tried harder. You should have asked. You should have done this. You should have done that.

But always, always, always remember this:

As long as there is injustice and trauma and pain and tragedy in this world, there will be empathy.

Because those who have lost and suffered and cried and bled will be the first to reach out to you when you need help.

Every. Single. Time.

Do not wish away misfortune and pain.

Because a life without either of those is a life without true empathy.

And empathy is what has kept the human race from extinguishing itself.

***

Have faith, my child.

Paradoxes abound in a world where we lean on logic to make sense of the hard times.

This world is good because sometimes it is bad.

Goodness and tragedy can exist at the same time.

God is both light and darkness. Fullness and emptiness. The loud, booming voice and the stillness beside you.

It is all so hard to understand now. Even as you grow and learn and experience, it is still hard to understand. Even I don’t understand it.

But my prayer for you is that you remain open. That you are always looking for more answers. That you never feel that you have arrived at the truth. Because your truth is not someone else’s truth.

But that doesn’t mean Truth doesn’t exist.

***

Some of us are lucky enough to have a life that gets better and better, from beginning to end. As Americans, that is what feels normal and right and just.

But the truth is, most of us don’t.

The truth is, much of the time, we don’t get what we want.

Most of us struggle. We fall. We’re pushed back. We lose. We become sick. We grieve.

And this can make us feel that something has gone tragically wrong. It can make us feel that life is unfair and has no meaning. It can drive us to determine that God isn’t real.

How could God be real when there is so much suffering in this world?

How could God be real when I am suffering so much?

What I want you to understand is that believing that life always improves from beginning to end is an illusion. In fact, some cultures in the world do not plot life’s path as a line, rising at equal intervals, ever into the horizon.

Instead, they see life as a spiral.

A constant moving away and returning.

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Photo credit, Jeff Krause, http://www.flickr.com

Moving away from what matters.

Returning to what matters.

Moving away from truth.

Returning to truth.

Around and around and around.

Until we arrive at the center.

Until we return to God.

What you’ll learn as you walk this path of life is that over and over again, every time you return, you will be caught by the hand of God.

That hand of God is your mother’s voice when you come home with a broken heart.

It’s the friend who sits with you at your father’s funeral.

It’s the doctor who tells you that there is no heartbeat. But it’s not your fault.

It’s the teacher who tells you that everything’s going to be just fine, even when her eyes say otherwise.

It’s the non-profit organization that steps in with a bag of normalcy on a very strange day.

It’s the stranger who opens their home to you when you’ve lost everything.

My child, be that hand of God.

Be the one who gives and comforts and heals.

As Mother Teresa has said…

The good you do today, will often be forgotten.  Do good anyway.

Give the best you have, and it will never be enough.  Give your best anyway.

In the final analysis, it is between you and God.  It was never between you and them anyway.

My child, welcome to this wonderfully complex, sometimes painful, but always beautiful world. It is my hope for you that when you face the hard times, that you are still able to see the larger Truth.

With all my love,

Mom

My Baby’s Due Date is Inauguration Day

The timing of this is not lost on me.

I started this pregnancy in May 2016 to the devastating news  of the measly 3-month sentence of Brock Turner, a “man” from my own hometown of Dayton, Ohio. A man who raped an unconscious woman.

Then, the Harambe the Gorilla madness.

Then, a crocodile eating a toddler at Disney World.

Then, the Orlando mass shooting.

All of this set against the backdrop of this shitty election, the Syrian refugee crisis, and constant shootings of unarmed black Americans.

Now imagine having a full month of nausea day in and day out while living through this.

But we pulled through.

Once a Bernie Sanders supporter, I swallowed my pride and embraced Hillary.

I believed that Donald Trump would certainly crash and burn.

I think we all thought that.

And when Pussy Gate happened, I breathed a sigh of disgusted resolve.

Certainly, now, there is no way enough people can stomach the reality of voting for this numb-nuts. Look! Every decent Republican is withdrawing their support! They are finally saying he has crossed the line. They are showing that they care about women. 

And then Election Night 2016 happened.

***

We bought pizza and champagne to usher in the first female President. We invited our friends over and we were festive. It’s like Christmas morning! we cheered.

And then Ohio was called.

We shouted. We felt betrayed by our own neighbors. We looked at the electoral map by county. The only blue counties were the ones with the major cities. Clear as day, you could see Cincinnati, Dayton, Columbus, Cleveland, and Toledo.

And then we understood.

***

I’ve cried a box of tissues since this news broke.

I’ve had to look my international students in the eyes and tell them, without totally losing my composure: “No matter what anyone else says, I welcome you. am not afraid of you. I think you matter. This is not the message that I am sending to the world. Please do not think that the way that Donald Trump acts is the way that Americans are.”

I’ve sat in my colleague’s cubicle, spilling my fears about the future, so thankful that she was willing to listen to me and tell me that she still believes in the goodness of people. (I love you, Jeri.)

I’ve cried all the way home from work, listening to gleeful Trump supporters on All Things Considered share their excitement that Trump was going to bring their jobs back (yeah, right) and build the wall (you seriously believe that?) and stop abortions (whatever).

I’ve cried on and off for hours, while my husband listened.

I told him that what hurts the most is that multiple facets of my identity and my values have been insulted by this man who now wants to lead me.

The pain is not coming from a different political party having power.

The pain is coming from being told that who I am (woman, academic, teacher) and what I value (diversity, humility, inclusivity, compassion) are worthy of insult.

I told my husband that I could barely keep from breaking into tears in front of my international students because I realized that I could no longer pretend that our country is the chief beacon of shelter and protection for those who are persecuted. For those who are striving to attain the civil rights that so many of us take for granted.

Canada is stepping into the shoes that we’ve kicked off and tossed into the face of the world. They are becoming the new face of a country of immigrants–and they’re doing it with compassion and community.

It’s ironic to me that so many white Americans are proud of their immigrant ancestry–yet they cringe at the thought of extending a warm welcome to today’s immigrants. They create these untrue historical narratives about our own ancestors. They say they gave up their culture and their language to become Americans. They say they came here “legally.”

But the truth is, we didn’t even have the vocabulary to consider immigration legal or illegal during the great immigrant influx of the 19th and early 20th centuries. (See Episode 47, “Give Me Your Tired…”) People just came. And we just took them. Because we needed them. The Civil War decimated our population. So did World War I.

And those immigrants took a long time to “Americanize.” They kept their home cultures for one or two generations. They spoke their native language. And they were scapegoated for problems in America, just like so many of us are doing today.

So “Make America Great Again?”

That’s a knife to my heart.

How far back should America go?

Should we go back to before women’s suffrage? Or forcing Native Americans off their land? Or Japanese internment camps?

Or how about those Leave it to Beaver days, which white Baby Boomers keep referencing with sweet, untainted nostalgia. You know. The days when black Americans were lynched for voting in the South and the Freedom Riders were attacked and killed.

“Make America Great Again” makes sense if you are a white Christian–and if you cannot imagine this country through the eyes of someone who isn’t like you.

It’s ignorant and myopic.

Donald Trump’s plans for “making America great again” creates a vision of America that looks like this:

20 million Americans stand to lose their health insurance if Obamacare is repealed.

11 million undocumented immigrants stand to be deported from their families and the lives they have built here.

3.3 million Muslim-Americans have been told that they are responsible for reporting “suspected terrorists” to the proper authorities. (Do we ask Christian-Americans to do the same? Did you just do a double-take of the word “Christian-Americans?” Did you stop to think about why?)

And this land of immigrants wants to completely shut its doors to 11 million Syrian refugees who are fleeing from ISIS. We’re completely content to turn our backs on our European allies who are struggling to figure out how to integrate millions of refugees.

***

I told my husband that I’m working through such immense grief about this election. That the last time that I can remember it being this hard to teach through my pain was on the day that my dad died.

And I still went in to teach.

I told my husband that our baby deserves better than this.

Better than sexism, racism, and xenophobia. And better than the rationales and excuses that his supporters make on behalf of this man who cannot control himself. (You’re the puppet! No, you’re the puppet!)

Better than fear-mongering and blaming and ignorance and hatred.

Childbirth is painful. Fucking painful. And I’m familiar with every bit of that physical pain because I did it without drugs.

But believe me when I say this: The physical pain of bringing this child into the world under this next American leader does not compare to the emotional pain that it brings.

Physical pain wanes. Emotional pain scars.

Emotional pain changes the landscape. It can make you callous and cynical. It can leave you hollow and numb. It can drive you to recklessness and disengagement. It can drain your expectations and your faith in others.

But there’s another side to emotional pain that survivors of trauma will unanimously tell you.

It can make you a fighter.

And every time I feel this baby pummel me in the ribs or the stomach, I know that I’m carrying a fighter.

***

My body, and thus this child, have been put through the wringer since the beginning of this pregnancy. At times, my anxiety has been high, but nothing like what I’ve experienced in the last two days. I can only imagine how much cortisol has been coursing through my system.

This morning, I strapped on the pregnancy belt and when for a third-trimester walk/jog. I was still hurt. Still pissed. Still angry.

Then, I started to notice something.

All the political signs were gone.

All the Trump signs that lined our street had been taken away.

And replaced with American flags.

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I do not have words for the emotion that I felt in that moment.

But let me draw an analogy.

It was like being punched in the face. And then as my vision returned, seeing an outstretched hand for a handshake.

In the cold, morning light, I started sobbing.

Again.

I thought I was through the pain. But no. It’s still very much there.

Do you mean it? I wanted to ask my neighbors. Does your patriotism extend beyond self-preservation? Beyond white Christian America? 

I wanted to kiss those American flags and set them on fire at the same time. 

How could we all love this country so much and understand it so differently?

This is the complexity of living in a pluralistic democracy. This is the love and this is the pain. There are setbacks, but hope lives on.

I kid you not, as I walked this path of flags, crying into my hands, not caring if the neighbors saw, perhaps even hoping they would see, this song came up on my Pandora feed.

I’ve never heard it before. It’s called “After the Storm” by Mumford and Sons. Let me share the lyrics with you.

And after the storm,
I run and run as the rains come
And I look up, I look up,
On my knees and out of luck,
I look up.

Night has always pushed up day
You must know life to see decay
But I won’t rot, I won’t rot
Not this mind and not this heart,
I won’t rot.

And I took you by the hand
And we stood tall,
And remembered our own land,
What we lived for.

But there will come a time, you’ll see, with no more tears.
And love will not break your heart, but dismiss your fears.
Get over your hill and see what you find there,
With grace in your heart and flowers in your hair.

And now I cling to what I knew
I saw exactly what was true
But oh no more.
That’s why I hold,
That’s why I hold with all I have.
That’s why I hold.

I won’t die alone and be left there.
Well I guess I’ll just go home,
Oh God knows where.
Because death is just so full and man so small.
Well I’m scared of what’s behind and what’s before.

And there will come a time, you’ll see, with no more tears.
And love will not break your heart, but dismiss your fears.
Get over your hill and see what you find there,
With grace in your heart and flowers in your hair.

***

Today, I have finally reached my enough point.

Enough crying. Enough sadness. Enough frustration and disillusionment.

Because my baby doesn’t deserve any of that either.

I remember what I once told myself on a desperate January morning in 2014.

When I woke up sick again.

For the third time in a month.

And my 6-month-old baby was sick.

And I still had to go to work.

And there was three inches of snow on the ground.

And I had an 8:00 a.m. class.

And my voice was gone.

Get up, I told myself. You are fucking fierce. You’ve been through worse. You’ve felt worse.

Get up. 

And I did.

But honestly, this time, I cannot do it alone. I’m going to need help. From my family. From my friends. Even from readers of this blog whom I’ve never met in person.

I’m going to need to feel your hands, pulling me up from the thick mud of this grief. I need to feel reassurance that many, many of us are still standing after this massive blow to all the American values that I hold close to my heart.

I need to hear you out there.

I need to know that we’re in this together.

That we are still moving forward.

To all current Millenial Parents out there and all those Millenials who will be parents in the next ten years, I say to you this:

We. Are. Next.

We are responsible for raising this next generation of children. What we teach them matters. How we talk about people who are different from us matters. Whether we are serious or joking, our children hear everything. They see what is acceptable and what is completely unacceptable.

And if our kids’ history textbooks whitewash away the pain and oppression that the ancestors of so many non-white Americans have suffered, it is our responsibility to tell those stories. Those stories matter. Those stories are America, too. Even if these stories are painful, we must tell them so that this next generation is equipped with the empathy that this country needs to engage in effective communication in a globalized world.

Let’s raise these kids to once and for all value everyone’s voice, not just the voices of those who have always been the loudest and most heard.

Let’s teach our kids that the road to our own prosperity shouldn’t be paved with the suffering of others.

And to White Millenials specifically, I say to you this:

Let’s stop churning out entitled white children who never interact with anyone of a different religion or race or language. That shit matters. It matters that our kids have friends who are different from them. Because when you have friends who are different from you, you stand up for your friends.

You don’t let people tell your friends that they aren’t what makes America great.

In 20 years, when the Baby Boomers have lost their political power and the Millenials shift the political landscape, let’s make certain that our children will not have to face an election like this ever again.

Are you with me?

When Pro-Life is Anti-Health

I’m an avid watcher of Samantha Bee.

I love her so much.

In a recent episode of Full Frontal, she dives into the murky intersection of women’s health, abortion, and miscarriage. While the media prefers the clear-cut terms of “pro-life” and “pro-choice,” Samantha Bee has brought together a collection of women’s interviews that demonstrate just how complicated these issues are.

Especially when those issues are governed by a specific set of religious views.

In these interviews, women describe how and why they were denied care by Catholic hospitals that were required to follow a Catholic health care directive that forbade doctors from providing birth control, performing tubal ligations, or performing abortions.

Even if the life of the mother was at risk.

I’ll let these women speak for themselves.

***

Mindy Swank: Forced by a Catholic hospital to continue an unviable pregnancy after her water broke.

“…he tried to breathe, he was turning blue… he wasn’t conscious. It wasn’t a magical time, like people think.”

Dr. Rupa Natarajan: Describes how the directives restricted her ability to care for her patients at the Catholic hospital where she worked.

“…to save her life, I needed to terminate the pregnancy. But because of this religious directive, I had to transfer her to another facility when she was medically unstable.”

Jennafer Norris: Denied a tubal ligation by a Catholic hospital during emergency c-section, even though her life would be at risk if she were to get pregnant again.

“I had to make a choice to survive and to give my child the best option.”

Melanie Jones: Spent two weeks bleeding and in unnecessary pain after a physician at a Catholic facility refused to remove her dislodged IUD.

“…Because my IUD was a non-hormonal type of birth control… (the doctor told me that) the sole purpose of your IUD is to prevent pregnancy, so we can’t help you.”

***

Take a good look at these women.

I hope that you remember them the next time you think that anyone–religion or government–should come between a woman and her health care.

I believe and will always believe that women deserve to be trusted to make the best decision. As Mindy Swank said,

“I was the only person in the world who loved my baby… and yet people who don’t know me and don’t care about us, who never have to live with the repercussions, were making decisions for us. And that just feels very wrong.”

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.

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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.

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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)

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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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