It’s your birthday. Just a few days before Mother’s Day. You would have been 69 this year.
It has been nine months since you passed.
Seven months since I asked for a divorce.
Four months since I left the courtroom, an unmarried woman again, trying to hold in my tears as I walked from the courthouse to the parking garage–and failing.
Your grave has a headstone now. I took the kids to visit you a few weeks ago. When I was taking pictures of your headstone, Henry walked into the frame and did this.
Felicity walked the cemetery’s pavement while Henry sat in the grass with me on your grave.
“Do you miss Grandma?” he asked.
“I miss her every day, Henners. You know why?”
“Because you loved her.”
“Yes. And because she was my mom.”
A moment passed and then he said, without any irony at all,
“Wow, you were really lucky.”
“I was,” I said. “I really was.”
After you passed, a few hopeful souls assured me that your spirit would visit me, in some way, in the following months.
There have been no apparitions.
But I did have a dream about you.
I was standing inside Sam’s Club (who can say why?) and you were just walking in, the large sliding doors opening to reveal your dark outline etched against the brightest of sunshine. I recognized you immediately. You raised your hand to wave at me, a huge grin on your face, as if you were telling me, I am having the time of my life. Or whatever this is now.
The thoughts came one by one.
Mom. You’re dead. I am dreaming.
And I just knew.
I wasn’t going to be able to reach you before this dream ended or before you disappeared or before I was transported somewhere else.
I just knew.
I would need to launch myself across the space between us. I would need to summon an unfathomable amount of psychic energy, just to come close.
And then I woke up.
My new life is full of moments like this, when I feel my heart stretching all the way back into my past, grasping at the years when everything was woven together, over and under and through. So safely and securely. I’m reaching back for the time when my life had parents. When my husband apologized when he hurt me. When I was one-half of a beloved couple among our friends.
I’m still grasping. I hate that I’m still grasping at the past. It yields nothing but longing and pain. And yet I do it. Even as my feet keep stepping forward through this life, even as I continue to build new walls and establish new rhythms, I am still Lot’s Wife, looking back at the city being destroyed by God’s wrath, daring the Divine to turn me to salt.
Why salt? Was it the salt of her tears? Were her tears so numerous, her grief so strong that she was consumed by it?
No, not consumed. She was frozen. That’s the difference. Her grief, her longing for her past life didn’t erase her. It transformed her into something else. All the soft, pliable cells in her flesh–capable of repair and regeneration–grew rigid and fixed in place.
This is what happens when your gaze becomes fixed on the past.
You become your tears.
You knew how to forgive, Mom. You knew how to let it go when people hurt you. You were an absolute master of this. You forgave even when everyone else believed that you shouldn’t have. But you forgave.
Forgiveness was so important to you that you even wrote it in the journal that I gave you for Mother’s Day in 1999.
It amazes me how strongly you believed in these words. You didn’t just say them. You lived them. I saw the healing that forgiveness brought to your life. You have shown me the wisdom of these words–that forgiveness is not only for the other person.
Forgiveness is for you.
It is your freedom from the past. Forgiveness is the force that uncoils the thick ropes that anchor your heart to the shore of your past, so you can set sail into your future.
I’ve restarted this next part over and over again, trying to explain what I’m struggling to forgive my ex-husband for. I tried brutally honest. Then, compassionate. Then, detached. Then, reflective. Each time I’ve written it, I’ve told the truth.
But in the end, whether it’s true is only a small part of this story that I’m now living.
Is it kind? Is it helpful? Is this healing me?
And then I’m staring at my mother’s words.
“Never remember details of a fight with a loved one.”
So I erased the words.
I don’t regret writing them. They needed to leave my head.
My purse knocks against my thighs as I sprint toward the bright red ER sign of the hospital.
It’s okay to go, Mom. It’s okay to go.
My mind flashes to a scene in Contact, where Jodie Foster’s character, Ellie Arroway, is on the verge of being launched into space in an extraterrestrial aircraft. When the spaceship begins shaking as it ignites, through her fear, Ellie continues to utter, I’m okay to go.
Even though she doesn’t know what awaits her on the other side, she continues to say these words.
It’s okay to go, Mom. You don’t have to wait for me, is my prayer.
But I’m still running.
I’m running because none of her children are there.
Because my father died alone, without anyone who loved him to hold his hand.
I’m running because my heart is screaming for just one more moment to be with her before she escapes to places where I cannot follow.
And I will expend every last ounce of my energy to help someone I love.
The ER sign grows larger in my sight and I am breathless already because I’m so anemic. But I keep running, my heart pounding in my chest, fighting the lightheadedness, my lungs seizing.
And part of me wonders if my heart has known for years that this is how it would all unfold.
If my body was simply following the rhythms of my heart.
And now those early morning runs, my feet pounding the sidewalk at 4:00 a.m., have prepared me for this very moment.
To run to my mother at this very hour, when she needs me the most.
Perhaps my heart has felt this moment approaching for years.
I haven’t really slept in days.
(It always seems like it’s dark when these things happen.)
My dreams aren’t dreams right now. They are instant replays of the last three days, holding my mother’s hand, watching her heart rate tick up, up, up as her face loses its color, its tone. Her eyes struggling to remain open.
(Labor and Birth.)
The image had been replaying in my mind for hours and hours.
It’s both too early. And too late.
(Dying and Death.)
I burst through the doors to the ER and slow to purposeful walk until I reach a set of double doors. I jiggle them. Locked.
A voice comes on over the intercom.
“Can I help you?”
“I need to get in. My mother is dying.”
“Do you need help getting there?”
“No,” I say. Then I repeat the number of the hospital room.
The door unlocks.
And I’m hustling now to the end of the hallway toward the first set of elevators. I need to go to the seventh floor. The buttons read 1, 2, and 3. I press 3, going as high as I can go. I ask for more directions, someone at a nurse’s station, a security guard, a custodian.
Every person stops what they are doing and guides me.
Down this hall, to the left.
What floor? Down that hall, take a second left. You’ll find the elevators to theseventh floor.
What room? Those rooms are in the west wing. Hang a right at the Exit sign.
I’m hurrying down the hallway when I see Doug come out of the room, flagging me down. He hugs me tightly.
“She stabilized again,” he says.
I gaze into the room and see that my mother’s bed has been lowered nearly to the floor. Warren is seated on her left, holding her left hand, the softer, unbroken one.
This room at the top of the hospital is dim, barely lit at all. The brightness and bustle of yesterday’s ICU room proclaimed plans and interventions. Real hospital work. But this room lacks any of that. Instead, it has been emptied, drained of all the light and equipment and interruptions. I wade into its stillness, as if it were a pond, the water barely rippling around my movements as I press forward.
She breathes heavily through her mouth. Says nothing.
There aren’t as many tubes and wires connected to her anymore. Just enough to monitor her heart and oxygen. An IV port for medication. Warren tenderly holds her arm where her last IV was threaded by Maria, an excellent nurse on the fourth floor who took the time to warm my mother’s arm with compresses to thread the IV on the first try into her tiny veins. The tape over the IV still bears the nurse’s initials and the date, MR, 8/11.
The monitor shows her vitals in bright green numbers and letters.
“Her heart rate is 155?” I ask Doug.
155 is my heart rate when I’ve been running for 30 minutes.
“She’s been holding at that for hours. Until just before I called you. Her vitals started dropping, but she rebounded.”
He pauses and his voice breaks.
“I think she’s waiting for you.”
I look at her chest rising and falling rapidly, how she is still fighting, even here at this late hour.
We could be here for hours, waiting for her body to surrender.
But I am resolved.
I will bear this moment for her. I will be here for her, no matter how long it takes. No matter how hard this gets.
“Mom, it’s Sharon,” I say. “I’m here.”
She breathes heavily, the cool washcloth still folded over her brow. Her eyes are closed.
I have no plan for this moment. I wasn’t committed to being in the room with her when she passed. I’ve allowed myself to accept whatever fate would have for the end of my mother’s life.
Whatever was bound to happen would unfold just as it should be. And it did not need to involve me.
But here I am.
In this room.
And I know that Death is here.
I feel it thick and still in the air around me. It doesn’t spin around us, like a vortex pulling my mother into some other dimension. It drifts and floats, like dust in the air when the light shines through a window. Only there’s nothing to see. You can only feel it, seeping like thick syrup, settling heavily into your ears, your mouth, your nose. So heavy is Death in this room that simply uttering words takes a concentrated effort, not to mention anything meaningful or heartfelt.
I open my mouth to speak and, at first, I choke, the sob caught in my throat.
I push it down and remember.
I will bear it for her.
“I’m going to play some music for you, okay, Mom?” I say calmly, searching for the live version of Both Sides Now by Joni Mitchell, just recently performed at the Newport Folk Festival less than a month ago. “I’ll start with the one that you said you loved last night. Remember that? I played it for you and you said, ‘I love it.’ It was a little hard to hear you, but I know you said it. Here it is.”
I let the song play without interruption and we all listen to Joni sing to my mother with her haunting, soulful voice. I hold my mother’s right hand, rubbing her knuckles, her fingers. I say nothing.
But now they only block the sun They rain and they snow on everyone So many things I would have done But clouds got in my way
I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now From up and down and still somehow It’s cloud illusions I recall I really don’t know clouds at all
“Both Sides Now” by Joni Mitchell
More tears fall and I wipe them with the back of my hand.
I can tell how loved she is, the ICU nurse on the second floor, Regina, had said as she administered morphine the night before, into the IV that Maria had placed. Two amazing human beings who treated my mother with such compassion.
So many people here with her. You’d be surprised how many people leave this world alone in these rooms.
Have more heart-breaking words ever been said?
The song finishes and soon we are listening to troubles melting like lemon drops, away above the chimney tops, rainbows stretching off into the distance, leading my mother to an unknown land.
I want that so much for her.
Even as my heart cries out for her to stay.
I want for her to wander into a land of rest and peace, where her memories of broken hips and legs and arms and necks, of cancer, of diabetes, of untreatable, chronic pain… Where all these memories become nothing but distant moments in time through which she has persevered. Where she has no need for morphine or demerol or toradol or fentanyl or hydrocodone or any of the other medications that only cut the pain in half.
Tears and more tears. I pull her hand to my wet cheek. Just two days ago, when she could still utter words, I asked her if she was in any pain. She fought to simply whisper the words, “They can never make it pain-free.”
I wish I could have born some of this pain for her.
But I know her better.
She would never have allowed that.
Just as I would never allow my children to bear my pain.
The song finishes again and I look over my shoulder at the heart monitor.
156. 154. 155.
The fog of Death that surrounds us is growing. Why is it getting heavier?
Doug is seated behind me, his head rested against my mid-back, as if literally supporting me so I don’t fall over. Every now and then, I feel him turn to look at the monitors. Warren is gripping my mother’s hand, sometimes pressing it to his face, sometimes lowering to the bed and bending forward over it.
It’s so hard to remain upright. I’m not sure how I could explain to anyone else why, in this moment, simply sitting up and speaking takes unimaginable strength.
But it does.
How many moments has my mother faced that were as heavy as this? What would she do?
And then I know what to play.
The soft notes of the song begin and I’m transported back to those final minutes, laboring with Henry, this song soothing my ears while my screams filled the air and my hips lit on fire. Those last moments just before I hemorrhaged and nearly bled to death on the bed, only minutes after I finally pushed Henry free from me.
“I played this song when I was in labor with Henry,” I say. I pray that she can understand. That she feels my intention. Because I cannot find my words to articulate it in this moment.
What I want to express is that I’ve been here before, in this most sacred of spaces. More sacred than any cathedral or altar. I’ve been here before–But never on this side.
There is a stillness in the air when Life enters this world that I cannot explain to anyone who has not been present for it.
Now, I know that there is also an unexplainable stillness when Life leaves this world.
We all want to bear witness to the beginning of Life. We believe that it is good and holy and pure.
But who wants to bear witness to the end of Life? Even though it is just as sacred?
I will bear it for her, I tell myself.
“Mom,” I hold my voice steady. “I want to tell you that it’s okay to go. You don’t have to stay here for us. We’re all going to be okay.”
I pause and consider what to say next. Doug and Warren are both bent forward, their heads bowed, reverently as I speak, my head lifted, my back straight.
Now, I understand. Why Death is so thick, so heavy.
This room is not empty.
It’s overflowing with everyone waiting for her.
My father. My mother’s mother. My mother’s father. And on and on. The generations have poured into this room, surrounding her and holding her, just as They held me when I cried out for help in laboring with Henry.
They have returned, these People of my Blood.
My heart almost cannot stand it.
I know what to say now. I close my eyes and I speak without any hesitation.
“And Mom…everyone is here with you. It’s not just me and Warren and Doug. Everyone is here. Anna is here. Nate and Lisa are here. Holly and Corey here. Dominic is here. Felicity and Henry are here.”
The words are spilling forth from me, as if she’s relinquished her sword to me and allowing me to fight this last battle for her.
So I will not stop.
I will do this for her.
I will help her over to the Other Side.
I keep listing all our family, as many as I can remember, all her brothers and sisters, their spouses, their children, her cousins, her friends. My shoulders hurt now, physically ache, simply from the action of sitting upright. I can almost feel my mother transferring her burdens, her cares, her wishes, her regrets, her Love, all to my own shoulders.
Perhaps that’s what Death really is.
A great transfer of all the emotions and cares that one person has carried to those they leave behind.
I will bear it for her.
The hospital door opens, but I don’t look at who it is. Words are still pouring out of my mouth, names, reassurances that we’re going to be okay.
“It’s okay to go, Mom. We will all be okay. You can go. Dad is waiting. Your mom is waiting. Your dad is waiting.”
“It’s okay to go, Mom.”
“It’s okay to go.”
I repeat this over and over, my last reassurance to my mother.
That if she would be courageous enough to press on toward the unknown, I would also be courageous and press on here in her place.
I choose to carry this pain of losing her. For the rest of my life.
Because it will free her.
“You gotta go, Sweetie,” Warren says, his voice as broken as his heart. He clutches her hand to his lips and kisses it, his tears freely falling. “I’ll see you there.”
“Mom,” my voice shakes. “There’s not a single person who loves you who can’t be here for you right now. We are all here and we love you so much.”
Doug taps me, but I keep going.
“But we’re going to be okay, Mom. I promise you. It’s okay to go, Mom. It’s okay to go.”
I say it over and over again.
Doug taps me again, but I keep going.
“And the last thing I’ll say, Mom, before you go…” I take a breath. “I just want to thank you for all the I Love You notes that you’d slip into my sandwiches.”
Warren reaches across the bed, over my mother’s body, and grasps my hand.
“She’s gone, Sharon.”
It’s true what they say about how a person changes in that first minute after death. In that first minute after death, I surrender to the wave of grief crashing over me and weep over my mother’s arm and hand until I feel her go cold.
But that coldness is all it takes for me to know wholly and thoroughly that the thing that made my mother who she was–a spirit, a soul, an essence–was not her body. She was not just skin and organs and fluids. She was so much more than this body that is now left, apart from her.
I’m the first to stand up.
It’s surprisingly easy to do.
To get to my feet and walk out of this room, knowing that I’m stepping into the shoes that my mother is leaving behind. She would be the one to say the hardest words to the people who need to know.
I feel it already, the passing on of matriarchy.
I will be the Keeper of Family Memory from now on. The one to memorialize what we’ve lost. The one to keep her memory alive by baking her recipes. The one to be a mother to all of us left behind.
And it starts now. With this walk down the hallway, where I will say the hardest words to say in this moment. I will say it.
At the nurse’s station, a young woman is eating what looks like her lunch, a large bowl of noodles, something that requires her to anchor her head over the bowl to not make a mess. 4:30 a.m. I suppose it is lunch for the night nurses.
She sees me and puts down her spoon.
I point to the room behind me.
“She just passed.”
The nurse’s face goes solemn.
“I’ll let the doctor know right away.”
I shake my head.
“There’s no rush.”
Dawn is breaking by the time I arrive back at the hotel.
I meet my sister in the lobby of the hotel. She is sitting on a bench, tears already running down her red cheeks. I lean down, hold her by the back of her head, and kiss her forehead. She stands to hug me.
Then, I tell her everything, as much as I have the words for. There is too much that I don’t have words for yet, that I don’t fully understand yet, that I will need time to make sense of, that I will need to find the language for. But I say as much as I can and promise to myself that someday I’ll sit down and commit the sacredness of this morning to human memory, that it may never be lost.
But in this moment, what I say over and over again is this:
“I told her we were all there. And we were. We were.”
“She’s out of isolation, so you don’t need to bother with a gown or gloves. Whatever it is, it’s not COVID,” the ICU nurse says. I glance at the whiteboard. Nurse: Megan.
Through the window, I see my mother reclined on the hospital bed, her eyes closed, her chest rapidly rising and falling. This labored breathing has been ongoing for days now, her heart rate increasing steadily over the days. 90. 100. 110. 125. 130.
It holds at 140 now.
140 is my heart rate when I’m jogging or doing kickboxing. And there, she lies, reclined on the hospital bed, her body racing as if accelerating toward some unknown destination in the distance. Does she know where she’s going? And when will she arrive?
What’s causing her high heart rate? I had asked the doctor.
It’s the body’s stress response.
We don’t know.
There would be nothing else to say until more tests were done. More and more tests.
I look at my mother through the door.
She is dying. Surely, they can see that.
I slide the door of the ICU room open and step inside and rest my eyes on my mother. And the reality of the situation washes over me again, a horrible reminder. Oh, right. It really is as bad as the last time that I was here, just hours ago.
But then, I realize. No.
It’s not as bad as last time.
It’s actually worse.
I want to tell every nurse and doctor and hospital worker, This isn’t what she looks like. She’s really not like this.
In a week, she has transformed from a robust 68-year-old woman into a woman who looks to be in her 80s. Frail.
I place my cup of coffee on the floor beside the chair next to her bed and sit beside her. The welts that have emerged on her face and arms are starting to crust over. The doctors guess that it’s a reaction to antibiotics to treat a UTI, but it’s just a guess.
I slide my hand under hers. It’s not as hot as yesterday, when her fever was 102, but it’s still so warm. Her fingers are swollen. From what? I don’t know. Why is she breathing like this? There are new masses in her lungs, ones that have grown rapidly at some time in the last month, but is that what’s causing her body to run like its out of control?
Her spinal tap is clear. There’s no infection. Her brain is fine. Her heart is fine. Carcinoid cancer is strange. We don’t know everything about it.
“Hi, Mom,” I said, trying to keep my voice steady. “It’s Sharon.”
I open a document on my phone. It’s a letter that I’ve written to her. I was going to read it at her funeral, but she deserves to hear it while she’s alive. My eyes skate over the first line that I’ve written to steel myself to read it, but I can’t see through the blurry curtain of my tears. They drop freely onto my dress.
That looks so nice on you! she had said, not two months ago. Stitch Fix? I’ve never heard of it!
I look around the room for a box of tissues and see nothing. There are never enough tissues in these rooms. I wipe my face with the back of my free hand as I hold my mother’s hand. Then, I pull a used paper towel from the dispenser in her last hospital room and dab at my face again.
I close the app with the letter to my mother and navigate to a song. Something that has comforted me in the past.
See me someday sleeping softly Flowers draped across my knees Hear the cries of friends and family Missing me Press on
She’s not gone yet, but I miss her already.
I look down at my mother’s hand.
Just two weeks ago, she responded to my touch. One week ago, she could still acknowledge that I was in the room. Yesterday, with effort, she could say a few words–if they were important. I fed her a small piece of strawberry, and with great effort, she chewed it. Now, when she is aware, her communication has reduced to groans and a look from behind glassy eyes.
In this moment, her eyes are closed. I could almost convince myself that she was sleeping, if she weren’t breathing like she were running a race.
My head drops to her hand and I press it to my cheek, where my tears are now sliding over her knuckles and down her wrists. I turn my head and look up the side of her arm, upward at her as she is reclined in the bed and suddenly she seems as large as she was to me when I was a child. Authoritative. Grand. Only now, silent and suffering.
I want to wake her up, shake her out of this nightmare. I want to curl up in her arms. She was not a mother who would say something like, “Everything’s going to be okay, Sweetie.” Instead, she would say something simpler, like, “Hey, now. What’s wrong?”
Her hand is slick underneath my cheeks, my tears still spilling forth. There is Life there, inside of her, as strong as it has ever been. But not for long. Soon, her hand will turn cold and there will be no warming it up with peach tea or coffee with cream. I can still see the steam rising from her mug as she laughed about my ridiculous guesses for unscrambling words in a puzzle book.
The sadness settling over me is so heavy I cannot even hold myself up and soon, I’m collapsed over the rail of the hospital bed. I’m crawling up the side of the bed now, my face and neck pressed against her arm and hand, gazing up at her. I want her to snap out of this. For her breathing to slow. For her to look over at me and say, “I had the weirdest dream.”
But her face is so thin now. Her face has never been this pale, this thin, this drained of life.
I want to go back. To my beginning. When I was the Protected, and she, the Protector. When it was her tears of joy covering me at my birth, not my tears of sorrow covering her just before her death. How short the years were between those two turning points in our universe. I didn’t always take those years for granted. I cherished them more each time she told us the cancer was back. But how many years had the cancer slept–and I lost sight of my gratitude?
Moments with someone you love become so much more precious when you’re threatened with losing them forever. You find yourself making frequent trips to see them. Cherishing every word they say. Not throwing away their cards. Taking more pictures. More videos.
My mind drifts and I think of the woman who wept upon Jesus’s feet and then wiped away her tears with her hair, just before pouring expensive perfume over his feet.
Why was she crying? Jesus and his disciples believed that it was because she was “a sinful woman” and was plagued with regret.
But no one asked her. They just assumed that she was sad about her “sinful life.”
But now I wonder if she knew, in the way that I know now, that Death is at the doorstep. I wonder if she felt the same tight tug at her heart when she looked at Jesus, the tightness that I’m feeling now as I gaze at my mother in these final hours, as if she is being pulled into a thick fog while I am anchored here. Unable to follow, even at a distance.
Even though there was a time when we were so connected that the echoes of our heartbeats rippled throughout the same body. My hiccups were her hiccups, and hers were mine.
Wasn’t there a verse in Isaiah (Was it Isaiah?) that said, Death where is thy sting?
I know where it is. It’s here, in this room. I feel it needling me every time a monitor beeps, announcing some new threshold that my mother has fallen too far below or risen too far above.
The nurse, Megan, quietly enters the room and I don’t even try to hide my tears. What’s the point?
“Here,” she says softly, handing me a hospital washcloth. “This is better.”
I nod, unable to even thank her properly. I push the stiff, paper towels into my purse.
She doesn’t say anything.
There is nothing to say.
Life is filled with bitter music Breeze that whistles like a song Death gets swept down like an eagle Snatch us with our shoes still on
Behind me, I can hear the soft conversations of nurses in the hallway. I can’t hear the content, but the tone tells me that whatever they’re talking about weighs infinitely less than what is happening in this room.
Do they know? Can they tell what’s happening? Is it obvious to them too?
When do we start using that word, dying? Is it too soon? It doesn’t seem too soon.
Instead, it seems too late for someone to be notifying me. Instead, it seems that I was meant to figure this out on my own. It seems that we are in the wrong place here. ICUs are meant for people to get better. Why is she here anyway? Shouldn’t we be in hospice? Why are we pumping high-flow oxygen into her nostrils and administering potassium?
Why did we do a biopsy? Will the results read as clearly as a pregnancy test? Dying or Not Dying? When are the results supposed to come back? After she’s dead? Why are we still testing?
The sobs overwhelm me and I find myself praying not only to God, but also my father. My grandmother. Any ancestors who will hear me.
Please. She needs someone to guide her. She needs help to find her way forward. I cannot stand to watch her suffer like this another day.
I love her too much to allow this to go on.
There is a doctor’s knock at the door. They all knock the same–an interrupting, quick signal that you are next in line. But I cannot even lift myself to acknowledge the sound. If this doctor’s time is money, they’ll need to pay the price for now. And I will come away from this moment knowing that I owe them nothing. I will not shield them from my pain or my grief. They should know the weight of what is happening here, how the gravity of this moment warps time, slows it down, so that every moment is lived painfully and with the greatest effort imaginable.
They should feel it, if even to a small degree, in the way that I’m feeling it now.
My mother is dying.
Whoever is about to sit with me and talk with me already knows that, too.
He’s very kind, this doctor in his late 30s. He uses phrases like, “How are you feeling about her condition?” And “Yes, I agree that it’s time to modify her goals.”
When I ask if we can help her pass without suffering, he says, “We absolutely can.”
Then, a new flood of tears arrives as phrases that should be uttered twenty years from now are spoken today.
We can move her to a private, quiet room. Make her comfortable. Give her morphine for pain. Give her anti-anxiety medication.
How long will it take, we ask as a family.
Could be 30 minutes. A few hours. Or days.
I’m hoping for a few hours. Time to say what we want to say to her. To pray. To read to her.
But the thought of wandering for days in this Space Between Worlds…
The thought is crushing.
But I know that I will bear it, no matter how long.
I will bear it for her.
The night nurse comes, Regina. I believe she is the Holy Spirit, the Great Comforter, incarnate. She can’t be older than 35, but she speaks as someone who has traveled this road of Death many times. She props her hands on her hips like she’s telling us the specials on tonight’s menu.
“I want to be clear about what we’re doing tonight. We’re going to do a terminal wean. We’ll do everything to make her comfortable and relieve her pain.”
It’s not insensitive the way that she says any of this. Instead, it instantly puts me at peace. What we are doing is not unusual or awful. We are only getting out of the way of Death. We are simply fulfilling my mother’s wishes, even though it means that she’s leaving us behind.
We read last minute messages from friends and family who want to say goodbye. We hold the phone up to her ear to allow family who can’t make it to talk to her. My mother says nothing. She cannot talk. All she can do now is groan, and only when absolutely necessary. She breathes heavily through her nose and mouth, which quickly dries out her lips. The tone in her jaw is gone. She cannot keep her mouth closed. Every time Warren carefully applies Chapstick to her lips, tears sting my eyes.
Can she still hear? I wonder. While half of me is glad that we are talking to my mother as if she can still hear us, the other half of me remains skeptical and wonders if this is all a show to make ourselves feel better.
Her brain is fine, the doctors had said.
As I sit on my mom’s left, my daughter, Felicity, walks in, tears slowly careening down her nine-year-old cheeks. She has been pinballing between entering the ICU room and remaining in the hallway.
Anything you want to do is fine, I assured her. Only do what you want to do.
She sits on my lap, facing away from me. She’s too tall for me to hold her like a baby anymore, so I do the next best thing and bear-hug her from behind.
Felicity gazes over at her grandmother and places her hand on top of hers.
My mother groans.
My chest tightens and I swallow.
“She can hear you, baby girl. She knows it’s you.”
Felicity leaves her hand there as her little body shakes in my lap. I know in this moment, my mother hates that she’s making Felicity sad. She hates that she can no longer mask the fact that she’s dying. She wouldn’t want to scare Felicity. She would despise the fact that the only sound she could make to comfort Felicity was a monotone groan. She would encourage Felicity to not let her condition make her sad. She might even tell Felicity what she had said so many times before, “I’m getting better and better every day, Felicity. Don’t worry about me.”
Without warning, Felicity jumps to her feet and moves to the other side of the bed.
“Can I hug her?” she asks.
“Yes. As tightly as you want.”
She leans across the bed and rests upon my mother and pushes out her shaky words.
“I love you, Grandma.”
Warren helps Regina remove my mother’s neck brace, which had been supporting her nearly healed neck after her most recent fall.
They remove the arm brace, which had been keeping her broken right arm in place.
Regina pulls away the tubing that forces high-flow oxygen from my mother’s nostrils.
A lump rises in my throat as a thought occurs to me.
We are removing all her armor now, letting it fall away, leaving her vulnerable. We all understand that she can’t be any more broken than she is now. Nor, are we are protecting her anymore. We’ve wandered off the road to recovery long ago. Now, we’re on a different path, each of us recognizing it at different times, as if we are each acquiring a new language at different speeds. I’ve been able to read the signposts for weeks, but I know that others have only been able to read them for days.
We are handing Mom over to a Thing that we have all feared, no matter what our faith teaches us. No matter how many cheery faces have told us confidently that there’s Heaven waiting for us on the other side, none of us have seen this destination, nor have we traveled there. Perhaps someday I will find comfort in the thought of Heaven. But not today. Because my mother’s path to get there is covered in thorns, ripping at her mercilessly even as she barrels blindly forward.
She will travel this last path alone, exhausting every weapon and tool that she used in this life. She will do this alone, just as she did when she gave birth four times. Just as she did when she fought through unbearable pain when she broke her back in 2007–and all the years of pain that followed. Just as she has fought this cancer for 24 years.
Like every other time before, she would do this last battle all by herself.
No man has ever come close to demonstrating the strength that my mother has.
Not even close.
She is the only person I’ve known who has chosen over and over again to walk into the shadows of Pain and Loss.
And still found the Light inside of it.
And then held that Light up for all to see.
Warrior isn’t the title that she has earned.
She is the Hero.
Maybe that’s why her body is still wielding its sword, slashing at shadows.
We can’t tell her to stop fighting.
But at least we can take away her pain while she fights.
My stepfather is on his feet in a moment, talking to my mom, asking her questions. I move from my chair to the edge of the bed and take her hand in mine without thinking.
Are you okay, Mom?
Do you know where you are?
Warren tries to talk to her.
Who’s holding your hand? Who came to visit us?
…Sharon. And Doug…
My stepfather leaves the room to get the nurse and my mom stares at a fixed point on the wall, somewhere faraway. I pull her hand into my lap and rub her hand, her palm, her wrist, her arm, over and over again.
I want to say, It’s okay. We’re getting help.
But my mouth is dry, the words catch in my throat, as large as stones. I could not cough them out if I tried. My eyes don’t sting with impending tears, nor do they water. My heart does not panic.
My hands keep moving, comforting her as she drifts between consciousness and unconsciousness. I have been there myself, on that cold, shaky cusp between states of awareness. Sinking into a cloud of thick unconsciousness, swallowed whole for a dark moment. The ringing in my ears, the cold sweat, the sounds drifting back into my ears as I push back through the clouds, breathing in the clear atmosphere once again. I know what it is like to be able to hear and understand–and be unable to speak, the task of moving your mouth and articulating words too much too handle. Hoping beyond hope that someone will just stay with me and talk me through it, until I rise to the surface again.
It’s the cancer in her leg, fueled by a reoccurring hormone-disrupting carcinoid tumor, that is causing these blackouts. Her heart is fine. Her brain is fine. Her endocrine system is not. These drops in blood pressure have brought her here, where she is now–in a rehab facility, nursing a broken arm and an injured neck.
I move my hand over her bruised wrist, where they drew blood several days ago. I cringe. That’s a spot where it would burn and sting. I rub the dark spot tenderly, careful not to push too hard.
I should be crying, I think.
But I’m not.
Because I’ve stepped into something familiar. A path that I’ve walked, both consciously and unconsciously, for the last ten years.
I think of the nights I held Felicity while her chest rattled with mucus from RSV, rubbing her back so tenderly, talking into her ear.
I think of the way I would carefully transfer Henry, so smoothly, so orchestrated to minimize the sensation from my arms to his crib.
I think of how I held each of my children after injuries and surgeries, the even and loving tone that I would hear come from my mouth, so assured. I surprised even myself.
I think of all the ways that motherhood has required me to use my whole body, my touch, my hands, my shoulders, my whole physical self to be present and to move along with the rhythms and pace of my heart.
I think of these memories. And I know exactly what to do.
I know how to hold my mother’s hand, how to talk to her softly and assuredly, without making demands or imposing undue stress on her, to let her know that I am there for her and there is nothing that she needs to do for me, that all she needs to do is breathe and hold on, and how grounded I need to be to keep her from panicking or floating away completely.
And she allows me.
Whenever I ask my mom if she needs help while I’m visiting, she said, “Help is my middle name right now.”
I help her adjust the cervical collar, which holds her healing neck as still as possible. I help her grasp the dried banana chips that I’ve brought from the store. I hand the puzzle book to her to ask for her help on a clue. I direct the kids about where to stand so Grandma can see them better.
Warren is there every day, for most of her waking hours. He sits patiently next to her and helps her remember the days and what has happened. He keeps track of what occupational therapist has said, what the physical therapist has said, what the nurse has said, the medications that haven’t arrived yet, the outcomes of particular doses of this and that. He helps her lean forward in the inclined bed by gripping her unbroken arm and bracing himself. He does all the actions that she cannot do.
I don’t pray much these days. If I’m being honest, my prayers are sometimes confined to the liturgy, Help, save, comfort, and defend us, Gracious Lord.
But there as I’m watching Warren take care of my mother, I pray for him.
I downright thank God for him.
The tears don’t come as I leave the rehab facility. They don’t come on the long drive home, with my husband and kids in the car. They don’t arrive while we’re making dinner or getting the kids ready for bed.
They arrive as I lay in bed, reviewing the day in the way that all introverts do: by carefully combing through the day’s memories. The considering and classifying and making sense of. Aligning memories alongside each other, drawing the far past to the what-just-happened. The contemplation.
It all gives rise to sobbing. The ugly, whole body sobbing that just wrecks you and turns you into a red, wet, messy disaster.
What do I think about?
I wonder how many times my mother has comforted me by holding me. As an infant. As a preschooler. As a young girl.
How tall was this mountain of memories that I would never remember? And I cry more because I know, I know, how many moments of my life have been spent in this period of suspension. When nothing else got done, except for the simple act of holding.
The simple act ofcaring.
Now, I feel the full Truth of that moment–It was worth it.
It was worth my time, my sacrifice, my pain, my life. I knew it was worth it then, but now I know it was worth it even more than I did in those moments.
And how much of a gift it is to offer this moment to my mother now.
And how I deeply wish I would have been able to offer the same to my father as he lay dying.
But now I know.
This is a gift.
To be there for her.
To bring her grandkids to her so she can see them.
To sit with her in the silence and simply be.
To hold her hand in moments when her body conquers her mind, and reassure her that, No, you are not going anywhere.
We will wait for that moment together.
But it’s not today.
Oh, but now old friends they’re acting strange
And they shake their heads and they tell me that I’ve changed
Last week, I bought your first backpack for kindergarten (not your first one ever—you had one for preschool). While we were shopping, I thumbed through the spiral-bound journals, remembering when I was eight years old, and my mother bought me my first scented diary. I let you pick one out for yourself and you chose a light pink one with a unicorn, the words Make today magical scrawled across the front.
That night, you stayed up far past your bedtime. You wanted to write in your notebook, but you’ve only just learned how to write the alphabet. So you pulled out your Richard Scarry book and copied words from it.
Then, you wrote your oft-repeated motif from your fourth year of life,
Mom love. Love moma.
I thought you would sleep in the next morning.
But there you were at 4:00 a.m., standing next to my side of the bed. You didn’t touch me to wake me up. You just stood there until I opened my eyes to the light of the hallway.
“Henry’s talking, Mama. So I’m going to write in my notebook now. Are you going to do yoga?”
It turned out that Henry was just sleep-talking, but I got up anyway since I usually get up early to exercise. To you, exercise always means yoga. But instead of yoga, I lifted weights while you copied words into your notebook while eagerly watching me lift weights to my workout DVD. After fifteen minutes, you joined me in lifting weights.
You picked up a two-pound weight with your right hand.
Since this happened to your left elbow a few weeks ago.
You and I “worked out” together. You, with a 2-pound weight and a haphazardly stretched resistance band. Me, with 10- and 20-pound weights.
And when we were done at 5:00 a.m., we took a walk down the street, you wearing your brand new backpack. With the tags still on.
You told me about how excited you were to start kindergarten and all of your plans about what you would put in your new cubby in your new school. You recited all the steps that will be involved in getting you to your new school.
“First, I’ll get up in the morning and get dressed. Then, Daddy will take me to daycare and I’ll eat breakfast. Then, someone will drive me on the bus to kindergarten. And then what, Mama?”
We went over the steps several times, our sneakered feet moving quietly across the pavement, the moon high in the early morning sky.
Of course, by 1:00 p.m., you completely crashed at naptime.
I’ve learned a lot about you in the first five years of your life.
You’re like me.
Caring. Lover of books. Curious. Persistent to the point of Stubborn. Strong.
But you’re also not like me at all.
You’re a Natural Born Leader. Optimistic. Super-sociable. Pusher of boundaries. Observant. (You can spot a tiny cricket, hiding behind the vacuum cleaner, from across the room.)
Some mothers say they love the baby years. Some say they love the toddler years (though I think they’re few in number). Others love the preschool years. And although I had moments when I couldn’t get enough of your newborn smell, I have to say…
I think I’m going to love the school-age years.
Here’s what I want to say to you as you turn five on your first day of kindergarten.
If I cry when you leave, it’s not because I wish you were still a baby. Still small enough for me to encircle in my arms. Still young enough to believe that I can keep the moon from fading from the early morning sky so we can walk together, uninterrupted for hours.
If I cry when you leave, it’s because I’m so excited for you.
To learn to read and write.
To find out what interests you, makes you curious, drives you crazy.
To dive into math and science.
To figure out how to build friendships and make amends.
To solve puzzles.
To make bad decisions, and (hopefully) learn from them.
You won’t understand this just yet, but someday you will:
Please, please, don’t try to be the best.
Please, please, don’t try to be perfect.
There will always be someone who is better at something than you are.
I don’t care if you get all A’s. I don’t care if you’re the best at clarinet or soccer or gymnastics. It doesn’t matter to me if you’re class president or voted Best Artist.
Please, please, don’t live your life according to ways that you think will earn my love, my attention, and my respect.
You already have them.
Find what you love to do. Find what you’re good at. Try lots of different things. Read lots of different books. Ask questions.
But most importantly, don’t serve yourself.
Do good. Follow a higher calling. Keep your moral compass pointed north.
Don’t create a life that leads you down a path of wanting more money and more power. It’s futile and unsatisfying. And it will never be enough.
But finding time to fully develop and organize a written blog post has proven to be… challenging.
Full-time work. Two kids. House. Life.
It usually takes me at least three or four hours to craft a post that I publish on this blog. And let’s be honest, I’m really stretched for finding that time.
But I really love writing.
So for 2018, I’m going to try a different format and reach beyond the written word.
The theme of the year is “Pieces of Parenthood.”
Each week, I’ll share a picture, a video, a sound file, or maybe just a short written post. The theme of these posts is to give the reader a glimpse into what parenthood looks like in this version of life that our family lives. Since these pieces of media will be curated, I’ll present them like an art exhibition.
Admission is free.
So, here we go.
Pieces of Parenthood # 1: Infant feeding
Format: Digital picture
Feeding is a central theme in the care of infants. It is one of the three-pronged components of an infant’s life: feeding, peeing/pooing, sleeping. To feed a baby is to love a baby. My 11-month-old son is in the midst of transitioning to solid foods. As such, his primary caloric intakes comes from formula (soy-based, to respond to lactose intolerance). In addition, he eats three bowls of some kind of solid, blended food. In this photo, I capture the moment just before I mix together some baby oatmeal cereal with a blueberry/pear blend.
On his face, you can see the eagerness with which he reaches for his food and his recognition of the person who is offering the food.
A few weeks ago, a friend emailed me a link to a blog post by Samantha Johnson, called “When I Became a Mother, Feminism Let Me Down.” She argues that while feminism prepared her to break barriers and pursue any dream she desired, it did not prepare her for motherhood.
Motherhood was not considered to be one of those many dreams of feminists. Feminism has railed so hard against the culture of homemaker/breadwinner that now, there doesn’t seem to be much of a space to stand inside of feminism while you are a SAHM (stay-at-home-mom, for those unfamiliar with the lingo).
We are teaching our young people that there is no value in motherhood and that homemaking is an outdated, misogynistic concept. We do this through the promotion of professional progression as a marker of success, while completely devaluing the contribution of parents in the home.
But I have to agree.
Before having a child, I saw myself as a successful product of feminism. I had a Bachelors and a Masters degree. I had a full-time job at a university. I had presented at state and national conferences in my field. I had married a man who was also a feminist. He was the cook in our marriage, for God’s sake.
Check, check, check. And kicked-ass-while-doing-it, check.
By societal standards of success, I was doing very well.
Our culture is very good at instilling the idea that for anything important, you should engage in some kind of education or training. But the subtext underneath all of this required preparation for a career (and the pride from all of my accomplishments while engaging in that career) is that no preparation is really needed for motherhood.
Either because it’s so easy that anyone can do it? Or perhaps there’s nothing much that you can learn before actually becoming a mother?
Both of which any mother can tell you is far, far from the truth.
In my twenties, I had privately viewed the work of mothering as not as difficult as the job for which I had worked so hard to be prepared. On an arrogant day, I might have even been so bold as to believe that mothering also wasn’t as important or valued.
My logic went like this: Millions of women are mothers, but how many women can say they teach English as a second language? And if I was doing something “less” than my what I could with all of my capabilities, wasn’t that a step backward in life? How much time would I have to take off from work before I could jump back in? Would I still be able to travel and present at conferences?
Would I be as proud of myself for being a mother as I was being a teacher? Would “mother” be a title that I would use to introduce myself to others at parties? And if not, why not?
And then I turned 30.
Having a child changed our lives for sure, but our changes haven’t mirrored some of the national trends.
Unlike many American women, I didn’t have to quit my job to stay at home with the baby. We live in Ohio, where the cost of living is still very reasonable and the commutes are not bad. We make enough money jointly to be able to afford daycare (even though it’s still extremely expensive).
But I can’t deny that I’m not reaching for the stars anymore. I’m doing my job but I have to admit, I bristle at the thought of working evenings and weekends. And gone are the days when I would fuss and fret over a task until it was “just so.”
Unh-uh. Ain’t nobody got time for that anymore.
Sometimes, I think about the trajectory of my career now that I’m in the middle of “small-child-dom.” It would be nice to do something a little different than what I’ve been doing for the last twelve years… but good health insurance.
Ah, to rise so “high”, only to be stymied by family responsibilities and health insurance.
“High” is in quotation marks, of course.
That’s exactly the problem. The modern vision of what it means to “succeed” never, ever depends on having children–although plenty of “successful” people have kids. Children are definitely part of the vision that we have for a modern American family (and if you don’t have kids, people definitely notice and make comments, regardless of the reason).
But when was the last time that you watched a movie where a character was being portrayed as “successful” and that character’s success depended on their role as a parent? (See the bachelor version of Nicholas Cage in TheFamily Man.)
Usually, the plot of the movie is that the character needs to discover that, hey, being a parent is actually a hell of a lot more important than the job that makes you money (See Adam Sandler in Click!).
All of this reminds me of a recent episode of the podcast, On Point with Tim Ashbrook. In the episode called “A Scathing Critique of Contemporary Feminism,” author and writer, Jessa Crispin explains that feminism has gotten away from one of its main goals–to change systems of oppression. Instead, it has become a movement that seeks to elevate women further and further into the upper echelons of systems that have benefited mostly men. Instead of changing the system, feminism has inspired some women to not only join the system, but rise higher and higher inside of it. While it works out fantastically for those women (what company doesn’t love to brag about how many women it has in upper management?), it leaves the rest of us in the dust.
Or perhaps more fittingly, either unemployed or underemployed.
Her commentary gave me a lot to think about.
In the feminist view, what is “success?”
How do we talk to our children about what it means to be “successful?” And what changes do we need to make in our own minds about what success is so that we may instill a different understanding of success for the next generation?
I knew the feeling of that tiny, dense star settling in.
Laying its roots.
Sensing its first lines of communication.
Even though the tests had been coming back negative.
10 days past ovulation.
13 days–I’ve missed my period.
Then, at 15 days, the faintest of lines.
You’re four weeks pregnant, the app announces. A tiny cluster of cells, burrowing, hopefully in a good location. I feel twinges and fullness, a familiar Oh, right. That’s what it was like. I begin teaching my fifth (and final) seven-week term of teaching for the academic year. I make plans to accomplish everything that I can do ahead of time before the hard weeks set in.
You’re five weeks pregnant, it tells me. A tiny tadpole, the neural tube forming. I wonder how many days I have left before the cloud of nausea overwhelms me. I look back at my previous pregnancies and chart out my symptoms to help me make an estimate. I worry about not feeling much yet. Then I tell myself to be grateful.
You’re six weeks pregnant, it tells me. The heart starts beating. The symptoms begin. I leave work early to sleep and sleep. I read about a gorilla dragging a three-year-old boy at the Cincinnati Zoo. I watch parents mirror the same aggression, ripping the mother to shreds with their judgment plastered across social media.
You’re seven weeks pregnant, it tells me. The organs move into place. The symptoms build. I stop exercising at 5:00 a.m. I spend mornings trying to establish equilibrium with my nausea while teaching 8:00 a.m. classes four days a week. I tell myself that I’m grateful that I’ve made it this far. I read about the Brock Turner rape case. It makes me more nauseous.
You’re eight weeks pregnant, it tells me. The organs develop. The symptoms peak. Mundane teaching tasks take all my concentration. I battle hunger and nausea hour after hour after hour. Trial and error. Carb or protein? Water? No water? Constantly queasy, wave after wave after wave. I wake up at 2:00 a.m., hungry, nauseous. I eat crackers in the night.
I read about another mass shooting, this time in Orlando. I watch the familiar script, that we’ve all been trained to follow, play out in detail after agonizing detail on social media. I’ve just about had enough of the argument that more weapons = more safety.
Then, a diversion: more parent-shaming as a toddler is attacked by an alligator at a Disney resort.
And then, the ultrasound.
The beauty of a tiny flicker in the center of its chest.
The unmistakable wahn-wahn-wahn-wahn.
166 beats per minute. Good rate. Chances of miscarrying now are much, much lower.
You’re nine weeks pregnant, it tells me. The tail disappears and the hands forms. The symptoms continue, with just the slightest hint of weakening. I put away my size 6s. And my size 8s. It’s size 10 for right now. I think about how much longer I can hide this.
I watch Democrats start a sit-in on the floor of the House of Representatives. I read about Brexit, shocked and dismayed.
You’re ten weeks pregnant, it tells me. The baby inside me looks like a baby. It is tiny and translucent, but complete. I look in the mirror and I know I need to start telling people soon. I’ve put away my fitted dress shirts. I’ve taken out my stash of maternity clothes, now three years in hibernation, but every summer shirt was bought for my third trimester. They are huge. So I buy some larger clothes to get by.
I think about telling my co-workers, but then I decide against it. What if I lose this one, too, just like the last one? Am I ready to have those conversations with everyone?
I’m not. I’m really not.
So as the last day of my teaching contract passes for this academic year, I turn in my final exams and final grades, pack up my snacks at my desk, and unceremoniously bow out of my teaching responsibilities until mid-August. Without sharing the news.
You’re eleven weeks pregnant, the app announces. My baby begins to open and close its fists. Its bones begin to harden. I’m officially living in someone else’s body. On some days, my lunch sits in my stomach until 7:00 p.m., my digestion moving at an absolute crawl. Everything causes heartburn. Everything. I’ve given up on coffee. It’s just too painful. I want to eat protein and more protein. I want nectarines, grapes, peaches, watermelon, tomatoes, anything high in vitamin C.
Screw it, I think. I put away the size 10s and embrace maternity jeans.
I stop reading the news. It’s too depressing.
I hear my baby’s heartbeat again at my next appointment.
I relax more.
We visit some friends who have just had their second baby. They are hosting a Fourth of July cookout. A gaggle of kids take turns diving into the inflatable kiddie pool, despite the overcast skies and cool temperatures. My friend’s tiny newborn sleeps curled up on her chest, tucked into a baby carrier. It makes me smile.
I wish this whole pregnancy were already over and I were in her same position. I’m already exhausted with this whole process and I’m not even out of the first trimester. I want to be able to eat a normal meal without wondering how long it will sit in my stomach. I want to run like I used to, early in the morning, three miles. I want to sleep through the night without getting up to pee at least three times. I want to take medicine when I get a cold. I want to have a cold Guinness from the tap on a summer night.
I want a spicy tuna roll. Badly.
Of course, I know that the postpartum period is even rockier for me than pregnancy is, but in this moment, I just want to be beyond where I am.
I feel like I’m getting too old for this.
But dwelling on all of this doesn’t make it go faster. It just robs me of my gratitude.
So instead, I fix my attention on what I will do during these next six weeks, while my daughter is in daycare, while I continue to grow a human being, and while my body finishes the exhausting job of creating a placenta. (And, God… it is.)
I will read. I will write. I will exercise on my own schedule. I will take care of myself and hopefully dive into some creative project that heals my soul enough to swallow another year of new rules and policies and mandates that don’t lead to better education.
You’re twelve weeks pregnant, the app tells me. The baby now has reflexes and will squirm away if something prods it. I think I’ve learned the new rules about how to eat and feel okay in this new body of mine. It’s humbling to bow to the truth that someone else is steering this ship again.
I’ve forgotten how hard all of this is.
I turn on NPR again to catch up on news.
More shootings. More death.
I rest my hand where life is growing.
I think about what I might write about all of this.
If you liked this post, check out my book Becoming Mother, a great gift for first-time moms.
And then there was Eve, Sarah, Esther, Ruth, Naomi, Mary, Mary Magadalene… These are the ones I can remember.
Looks like I left out three of them…
How we imagine God makes a difference.
How we imagine God’s followers makes a difference.
“For man did not come from the woman, but woman from man. Neither was the man created for the woman, but woman for the man.” 1 Corinthians 11:8
“But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence. For Adam was first formed and the Eve. Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived was in the transgression.” 1 Timothy 2: 11-14
I grew up in the Southern Baptist Church, where such verses were summoned forth as rationale for explaining the subjugation of women according to the Bible. But I always had a problem with these verses.
Man did not come from woman?
It was clearly a reference to the creation story in Genesis. I understood that. And at the time, I believed in that story. I was taught to read the words of the Bible literally and not get lost in the sticky web of interpretation.
Read the words. Believe the words.
But I could not understand why the apostle Paul was so adamant to throw the creation story in the face of the reader. Man did not come from woman? Give me a break. Men come from women all the time. It’s called birth.
But Eve was deceived, not Adam.
Who cares? I’m not Eve. Hadn’t I been taught that I was responsible for my own actions, not the actions of my ancestors?
I just didn’t get it. Why was it so important to blame women for the fall of all creation?
During my senior year of college, I was reading some chapter in a linguistics textbook about the “rhetorical situation”: speaker/writer, message, audience, and context. Then, it struck me.
Women were not the authors of the Bible.
The authors were all men. The people who got to make the decisions about what to put down on paper–they were all men. Men got to decide which women would be mentioned and how they would be represented.
But then, new questions opened up: Why were women left out of Bible stories? Why were their stories less worthy of telling? How had women ended up so powerless in societies throughout the world? Had it always been this way? Were men just naturally stronger and better at organizing political and economic systems?
When I wasn’t studying and reading for my other classes, I spent a lot of time in the stacks at the library. Not kidding. I was on a quest to learn more about the origins of Christianity, and I was determined to come away from college with some answers. The more I read, the more I added to my reading list.
And I came across this book:
This book rocked my world.
The author, Merlin Stone, pieces together archaeological evidence and primary texts from a number of ancient civilizations to present a narrative of a grand shift in how people imagined God. In 25,000-15,000 BCE, many civilizations all created similar religions, ones in which the chief divine figure was a Goddess. She was called different names, but in all of these societies, she was revered for her powers of fertility.
Because we worship what is important to us in our time and in our place.
And fertility was a power so great at that time that it was worth worshipping.
At this time, people didn’t recognize the relationship between sex and reproduction. The idea of paternity was non-existent. Therefore, women were seen as powerful because they had the greatest power of all: the power to give life.
Because paternity was non-existent, children were raised both by their mothers and the community. Mesopotamian societies at this time had mostly matrilineal descent patterns, with children tracing their origins through their mothers. Inheritances were passed from mother to offspring.
In addition, societies that worshipped a Goddess were typically relatively peaceful agrarian communities. Labor was not spent on making weaponry, but rather on growing food, care-taking, and leisure. In short, the Goddess of these communities mirrored what they people valued: the ability to produce and reproduce.
But things shifted.
Stones states that a group of “northern invaders”, also known as the Indo-Europeans, entered into Mesopotamia in wave after wave of invasions for 1,000 to 3,000 years. The timeline is not completely clear since writing systems were not used until about 2400 BCE. This is why we don’t know as much about the Goddess religions. No one was writing it down. The most prevalent and convincing evidence of this time period are the statues of the Goddess found in numerous civilizations.
Ishtar, goddess of Bablyon, 19th century BCE – 18th century BCE
Indus Valley Terracotta Figurine of a Fertility Goddess, Pakistan/Western India Circa: 3000 BCE to 2500 BCE
Venus Fertility Goddess from Falkenstein Austria 6000 BCE
Mother goddess Nammu, snake head Goddess figure, feeding her baby – terracotta, about 5000-4000 BCE, Ubaid period before the Sumerians
However, the Indo-European invaders enter the historical record around 2000 BCE, when they established the Hittite civilization in modern day Turkey. Historical accounts of these invaders call these groups of people, “aggressive warriors, accompanied by a priestly caste of high standing, who initially invaded and conquered and then ruled the indigenous population of each land they entered” (p. 64).
Among these warriors were the ancestors of Judaism, which explains a lot of the imagery used in the Old Testament to depict God. (trembling mountains, lighting, fire, etc.) Just as the Goddess mirrored the lives of the people in Mesopotamia, the God of the Indo-Europeans mirrored the lives of the Indo-Europeans. Their God was a young, war-like god. He was a “storm god, high on a mountain, blazing with the light of fire and lighting” (p. 65). Because these people originated from mountainous areas in Europe, they had probably interpreted volcanic activity as supernatural events. Therefore, it’s not such a stretch of the imagination to see how and why the Indo-European God was seen as a god of fire and lightning.
And because the Indo-Europeans were engaged in constant invasions of occupied lands (i.e. what was important to them was conquest), it’s not difficult to understand why the God of Indo-Europeans was a war-like God.
As the Indo-Europeans moved into the area of Mesopotamia, they brought with them their war-like practices, their religion of the storm god, and their patrilineal social organization (if their God was a man, didn’t patrilineal descent seem natural?). As they fought against the societies that worshipped the Goddess, they won. They crushed the previous civilizations with their advanced weaponry.
But it took longer to crush the religion.
I won’t go into all of the details of When God was a Woman (it’s far too detailed to do it justice in this single post), but I will summarize Stone’s account of how the Goddess religions were crushed and the new Indo-European God was revered.
As I mentioned before, the idea of paternity in societies that worshipped a Goddess was non-existent. Eventually, people figured out the connection between sex and reproduction. As the Indo-Europeans won more and more land and power, they sought ways to destroy the old religions that stood in their way.
One specific practice of the Goddess-worshipping societies that especially bothered the Indo-Europeans was their sacred sexual customs. In some Goddess religions, temples offered space to people to have sex, which was a form of worship to the Goddess of fertility. Some women lived their whole lives in these temples and were considered holy women. Although the paternity of their children was unknown, their children were not considered illegitimate. They simply took their mother’s name and acquired her status.
This drove the Indo-Europeans nuts. It was completely incompatible with a patrilineal descent system.
After all, how could a patrilineal system be maintained unless the paternity of children could be certain?
And in order to determine paternity…
…you have to control women.
More specifically, you have to control their bodies.
Stone suggests, “it was upon the attempt to establish this certain knowledge of paternity, which would then make patrilineal reckoning possible, that these ancient sexual customs were finally denounced as wicked and depraved and that it was for this reason that the Levite priests devised the concept of sexual ‘morality,’: premarital virginity for women, marital fidelity for women, in other words total control over the knowledge of paternity” (emphasis in the original, p. 161).
So the challenge of the Indo-Europeans was to end the sacred sexual customs. And they did so through demonizing the worship practices of the Goddess religions, which then gave birth to taboos and shame surrounding women and sexuality.
It’s not hard to see that the Indo-Europeans were successful. The thought of women freely having sex with whomever they choose elicits words of shame like, whore, slut, prostitute, while men who engage in the same behavior are called studs. Women can’t enjoy sex too much (or risk being labeled nymphos). Women are more judged for having sex before marriage (girls should be virgins at their weddings, but boys are expected “to sow their wild oats”) and outside of marriage (cheating men can be forgiven, but cheating women will be forever shamed.)
Hearing this narrative of the predominant religions that once existed and comparing them to the major religions of today helped me understand that there is nothing natural about seeing God as a father. Seeing God as a father makes sense when we see the world through the lens of a patriarchal society. This view of the world is further upheld through religious texts that were written at a time when the Indo-Europeans sought to assert their superiority over the older Goddess religions.
Understanding this helped me to read the Old Testament with different eyes. The authors of the Old Testament were writing from a place of inadequacy. The religion that they were offering people of Goddess-worshipping societies did not appeal to them. Although the Goddess-worshipping civilizations were conquered, their hearts remained true to the religions that had shaped their world for several thousands years.
The writers of the Old Testament were writing for the purpose of redefining their current reality–a reality in which other, more established religions around them conflicted with their long-range goals of asserting widespread domination.
They were writing to redefine “normal” and “natural.”
And they succeeded.
As a Christian, I say “God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit” in the liturgy.
But in my mind, I add, “God the Mother, God the Daughter, God the Holy Spirit.”
And when I say “God the Mother” to myself, I feel differently about my relationship with God. When I imagine God as a mother, I feel nurtured, accepted, and loved, regardless of my actions. When I imagine God as a father, I feel fearful and judged, like I must be on my best behavior. That I must put on a good show and not disappoint. (I should add here that my own father was nothing like this. I think my psyche hearkens to archetypal portrayal of fathers in our culture.)
Of course, God is neither man nor woman.
But how we imagine God makes a difference.
Other reading if this topic interests you:
Armstrong, Karen. (2004). A history of God: The 4,000 year quest of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. 2nd ed. Gramercy Books: New York.
Stone, Merlin. (1976). When God was a woman. Harcourt Brace & Company: Orlando.