Becoming Mother

A book and a blog for first-time mothers

Tag: wonder

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

Norma,

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

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

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

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

I smiled. You rocked.

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

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

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

Norma and Felicity

Norma and Felicity: October 2013

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

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

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

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

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

I hope I got the answers right.

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

I hope I don’t let you down.

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

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

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

A brief moment passed to let that information sink in.

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

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

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

It was always about the journey.

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

Because, after all, what was worse than failing?

I was young. I was insecure.

***

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

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

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

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

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

Reciprocity like that is rare. And it is powerful.

***

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

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

I was so, so full of joy.

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

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

I had been there before. Many times.

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

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

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

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

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

That made coming home so joyful.

***

What happens when we die?

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

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

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

And I’m willing to say, I don’t know.

What happens when we die? 

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

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

I thought a lot as I ran.

And then clarity hit me.

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

I was wondering.

I was in wonder.

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

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

To wonder? To think?

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

Sometimes, clarity hits you in odd ways.

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

Sometimes, it seems almost supernatural.

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

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

And all I saw was,

Norma.

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

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

With gratitude,

Sharon

PoP # 7: What Pulls Us Together

This part of my life could be called “Following.”

 

 

 

When I’m not following this tiny human around and making sure he doesn’t kill himself via stairs or light sockets or small items lodged in the throat, I’m feeding him.

Actually, a lot of the weekend is spent just feeding him. (Thank God the older one reminds me when she’s hungry. I can’t keep both of them straight.)

Offering handheld foods.

Mixing and mashing food.

Haphazard attempts at letting him feed himself

Spooning food into his mouth as he lowers his chin, head turned 90 degrees as he stares off into the unknown…

And I just think, Me too, sir. Me too.

When I’m not orbiting him around the house, he’s orbiting me in the playroom.

Because in a room of 5,000 toys, the most fun thing to play with is always, always, always Mom. Mom’s hair. Mom’s clothes. Mom’s coffee cup. Mom’s blanket that is so nicely arranged on her legs. No matter how many times I try to distract him with other things, he always comes back to me.

Over and over again, we are pulled toward each other, by the simple fact that we are existing in the same space. Either I am following him or he is climbing all over me.

And as I’m sitting on the floor of the playroom, moving my cup of coffee from left to right to left while he climbs over my legs from left to right to left…

I flip open the newest issue of National Geographic on my lap. And for a moment, both of us stare together at an illustrated image of our galaxy as it unfolds in full panorama from the magazine’s pages.

Galaxy

There we are, that tiny speck of a solar system in the Sagittarius Arm

A collection of stars orbiting each other, spinning by the force of their own gravity between each other

And I read about the fact that not only is Earth uniquely situated within our solar system to foster the conditions for life, it’s also situated well within the galaxy

And that our solar system exists in a relatively asteroid-and-space-junk free area of the galaxy

And that the sun actually repels harmful cosmic radiation that would kill us

There we are, so vulnerable and exposed, whether by design or by happenstance, protected from complete annihilation (for the foreseeable future, at least?)

There we are, in that great cosmic swirl around the mysterious, hotter-than-hell core of our galaxy

There we are, the tiniest of tiny of tiny in a universe of unfathomable vastness.

And I just think,

Well, shit.

What labor and death have in common

I had been told that labor was painful. That it could last for days. That drugs help.

But I never expected that experiencing labor would mimic the process of dying.

I first realized this when I wrote a poem about giving birth. As I reread a certain group of lines, I saw the connection. Here, I describe what it was like when I fought against the pain of the transition stage of labor.

I clutched. I gripped. I clawed. I seized.

I groaned. I moaned. I moaned. I groaned.

I reasoned. I pleaded. I begged. I shrieked.

 I cursed. I cried. I cursed. I hated.

I doubted. I despaired. I questioned. I bargained.

 Until I surrendered.

 And then I believed.

The turn in this poem (highlighted in bold) shows me giving in to birth and allowing myself to feel the pain. And this helps me re-imagine labor—as a form of dying. It’s right there in the lines of the poem—You go through all the same stages of grief. Reasoning, pleading, begging, cursing, hating, doubting, despairing, questioning, bargaining

And finally surrendering.

Unbearable, incessant, rhythmic pain will do that to you. It will grind you down into the salt that you really are.

Some who read this may think, Oh God, that sounds awful! I would do anything to avoid all of that. No one should have to suffer.

Part of me agrees with you.

And part of me now acknowledges that suffering can also open your eyes to greater truth—realizations that you cannot grasp until all of the anchors have been ripped free and you find yourself floating away on powerful currents. But there is beauty in surrender, in reaching the edge of your abilities and reason, and acknowledging that you are not so important that you can’t be completely humbled. That you are not so special that you just get to say “pass” on this one.

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And that is what labor and dying do–they reduce you. They re-orient your compass to true north. You are not the center of the universe. You are a small part of something much greater and much more powerful than you will ever be. We call it “God,” but that word is not enough. No word will ever be enough.

So stop fighting.

Stop grand-standing.

Stop asserting your own will and power.

Just stop. And feel.

Perhaps it is a combination of belief in our self-importance and our own powerlessness to protect that self-importance that drives us to try to control birth and death. Perhaps this partially accounts for our eagerness to hook ourselves up to machines which we believe to be more powerful than our own bodies. Or even to distrust our own bodies’ signals in favor of data pouring out of those machines.

Certainly, there is a time for using medical technology to mask or relieve our pain. When our bodies run amok with cancer and chronic, degenerative diseases—conditions when nature goes haywire—I am grateful to live in a time and place where I have options for healing or palliative care. But there is also a time to acknowledge what birth and death really are—natural processes. Stages of life. And denying or being afraid of them only intensifies the pain.

In my own experience, I know now that the urge to fight childbirth and escape the pain originated from outside of me.

It crept in when the doctor told me that I wasn’t progressing quickly enough,

or when the lines on the EFM monitor pronounced double-peaked contractions,

or when the doctor suggested that I could make all the pain go away if I just got the epidural.

After each of these in moments, I doubted the power of my body to get through the experience.

They knew what was going on with my body more than I did. That was how I felt.

But then I regained my focus. And I was able to take myself into a space where it was just me, the pain, and the moments between the pain.

With each contraction, my pain threshold rose and rose. I savored those moments between the pain, rather than focusing on the moments with the pain. When I was left alone, the messages from my birth attendants—my husband, my doula, and my nurse—were that what I was experiencing was normal. None of them acted like there was a reason to freak the hell out. I was not like other hospital patients, sick or diseased with a body gone haywire. What I was going through had a beginning, a middle, and an end. And what I needed was assurance that we were getting there.

It took some effort and planning to create this “birth as a process” environment in the hospital, where the assumption is typically “birth as a potential problem” in need of regulation and control.

But at least it’s not taboo to talk about birth like this.

Death, on the other hand, is far more likely to be seen as a problem, rather than a process. It’s the worst possible outcome. It’s failure. It cannot possibly be what we want.

***

My father died one year ago. Bipolar depression robbed him of his spark. Parkinson’s disease stole his smile and his gestures. Then, it ultimately caused him to lose his footing, fall, and break his neck. Gone was his ability to walk, and temporarily, his ability to independently breathe. He lay in the hospital for a month, unable to move and barely able to talk. When he recovered enough ability to lift his arms and breathe on his own, doctors started making plans for him.

Plans? Really? Plans for what?

My father was depressed. Unable to walk. Constipated and unable to relieve himself independently. His ongoing insomnia was exacerbated by the challenge of sleeping in a neck brace. It was a C2 vertebrae injury, so there was little hope of restoring many typical bodily functions—all of those small movements that we take for granted, but make us feel human. Feeding ourselves. Putting a shirt or shoes on. Picking up a pencil for a crossword.

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December 2008

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July 2012

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August 2013

So I wondered what these plans for the future were. Returning home? That seemed unlikely since he required someone to lift him and my mother certainly couldn’t do that. Going to a nursing home? Separated from his wife of 38 years. Confused by the constant shifts in caretakers, as nurses clock in and clock out. These were the plans? Were these the plans that the doctors would have wanted for themselves?

After my father fell, I admit that my prayers were not for him to heal. At best, they were vague prayers asking for God’s mercy or asking for God to ease his pain. At worst, they were prayers that his life would end soon. That he wouldn’t suffer in such conditions for weeks and months and years, according to the doctors’ plans. That his last moments of life wouldn’t be confusing or difficult. That he could understand what was happening to him so he could accept it instead of fighting it.

But then again…

Would I?

Would I be able to accept the end when I know it’s near?

These are questions without answers. Thoughts for the thinking, not for the deciding. At the end of life, it’s hard to know what we’ll want. Just as it is when we are in the hardest hours of labor. Our birth plans may be clearly and precisely articulated, but when the shit hits the fan, it’s hard to anticipate where everything will land.

But what I am sure of is that the experience of labor has prepared me for that winnowing down of self, that preparation to join a grand Divine, beyond human comprehension.

I think about what the end of life is like for women who have gone through labor. As they are dying, do they remember labor? Do they remember the way that it reduced their existence into a singular point? Are they better able to accept what is happening to them?

Is labor a special glimpse into the spiritual world that only women are fortunate enough to be able to access?

Because something happens once you become a link in that chain of life, a witness to life’s awesome resilience and power of renewal.

When you give life, life gives you something back—wonder.

The kind of wonder that results from the utter destruction of all your previous understandings and assumptions. The kind that forces you to re-examine all the surviving shards to see which ones deserve to go on and to acknowledge which ones have become dust, lost to the wind.

Wonder.

Over so many things.

How could my body do that?

How could this baby already be breathing on his own?

What will I do if this child dies? How could I go on?

Do all mothers feel this way?

What did I do to deserve any of this?

And Why?

Why Life?

Why Death?

Thoughts for the thinking, not for the deciding.

Like this post? Pre-order a copy of “Becoming Mother: A Journey of Identity” or Check out previous posts here.

Or watch this short related clip of me reading my favorite passage, in which I describe an unexpected spiritual moment.

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