Laura Sera (from Radix Vol. 36:2)
It was as though incense hovered in the room, a fragrance of grace that never fails to move me. To walk through the time of birth with a woman is to walk on sacred ground, but it is never uncomplicated. There are the realities of her labor, her body, her baby, and complex family issues. A nurse is truly entering an ancient human process that remains a mystery.
This baby hadn’t come easily. As with most first-born it had been a journey of emergence that had taken the young woman to the edge. Her fatigue was profound and an afterglow of completion had finally replaced the shock of pain. No, it hadn’t been an easy birth for anyone in the room. Her struggle through the hours of labor had been punctuated by hostility, a consequence it seemed, of longstanding difficulty and dysfunction within this family. Her family was supposed to be her support through the hours of travail, but the years, generations of addiction, violence, and despair, had taken their toll on this hurting family.
This night had been an obstacle course and it was with extreme vigilance that I maneuvered the woman and her family through the minefield of the powerful emotions it unleashed. I had stepped into a family structure at a time when such issues are always magnified, and this was a family in trouble.
Recoiling from the harshness, I worked hard to create an oasis of beauty for the entry of this new soul, but there were no tears of joy as this baby slipped into the world. No, the words were harsh. There was no sign of blessing or even of celebration in the room, only shadow. My heart quaked for the newborn.
I worked quickly to get the new mother cleaned up, covered with warm blankets and fed, so she could rest in comfort. As her family left and the room took on the hush of exhaustion, I lowered the lights and she submerged into deep sleep. I gratefully entered a quiet freedom, no longer navigating conflict, suspicion, and fear.
My next nursing tasks were only about the baby and I addressed myself wholeheartedly to them. In fact I looked forward to them. As I turned on the water to fill the basin, I gathered all the things needed for this child’s first bath: warm towels, washcloth, gentle cleanser, and a comb to clean remnants of birth from its lovely head of hair.
Many families loved this particular milestone and joined in. But this baby would have only me to adore and exclaim over its beauty and count its fingers and toes in the half-light. So in the warmth of the water and the wall heater we performed an ancient ritual, this baby and I—my hand gently guiding cloth and water over its silken features, blessing it with each stroke as its limbs danced through unfamiliar space.
I found myself, in remembrance of this family in pain, moving into words of grace and baptism, proclaiming its life before God as my hand cupped water over its soapy brow. It was a hallowed moment, a lingering over the sweetness of new flesh and new soul. I had discovered in these in-between hours a fragrance of the Spirit, a celebration of life that was intoxicating and rich, and I inhaled deeply.
As the baby made its hunger known, I moved to the young woman’s side and gently brushed her cheek as she awakened and reached for her firstborn, a sacrament of hope, for her, for her family. Covered by this mantle of hope myself, I was profoundly glad to be a nurse that night.
Dreams, Disaster, and Gratitude
Today was a day of disaster dreams, deep grieving, and gratitude. I awoke this morning after a spate of dreams that had a common theme: disaster. These weren’t the cryptic dreams from a few years back that took over my dream life until I deciphered their message. Those had disappeared after the last dream—a titanic train derailment at 150 mph that opened my mind and fairly shouted “Hello, are you listening?” And I finally was.
No, the dreams I had this morning were clothed with a premise of disaster. In the first dream, my car ran off the road at high speed and blazed onto high desert, flying toward a gorge. I braced for collision, certain that the car would roll. But it soared beyond the edge and continued hurtling along. After the third dream I awoke and wondered what the day would bring.
My patient that night wasn’t able to sidestep the disaster unfolding in her life. The twins she had carried suffered from a congenital abnormality that would eventually take their lives, and when she landed on my floor she was deep in shock and pain. One baby had already died and the other clung to a fragile tenuous life that promised to be brief. Confusion and denial took turns washing over her, yet the pain in her eyes told the truth of her condition in a way no chart or nursing note could.
As is usual for me in these cases, I entered her room with fear and trepidation and I prayed. I am always afraid of the ocean of raw grief unleashed in the rooms of families. There is a moment just before I knock on the door to enter when I ask God to help me.
I stood at her bedside, felt the pain and confusion, and softly began the work of care. It is a cautious dance, this caring for a body in the midst of brokenness. Grief is the rudder that steers this care: how much to do, what to prioritize, when to move closer. I performed my assessment and nursing care and offered a tentative smile. “Are you hungry?” I asked.
This woman was so hungry that everything I offered sounded good to her. I loaded a tray and carried it to her room as though it were an offering of hope itself. In fact I think it was hope that fueled this hunger, hope—and denial. One baby clung to life and so all was still possible. I went to see her baby.
This tiny infant lay in the Intensive Care Nursery, with its monitors that pushed gentle air into her undeveloped, too-small lungs. O sweet baby, moving arms and fingers, straddling the veil between life and next life, my heart breaks for you, your twin and your mothers. All I can do is pray and feed your mother. Chicken noodle soup, a sandwich, chips, cookies, juice . . . anything and everything that sounded good. I felt my mother roots showing.
So how did I land at gratitude from a day of disaster such as this? I think it was the sweetness of tender mercy and the piercing Spirit loving, moving, and abiding in the room of a wounded mother. For me it was the privilege of entering a cruel time of loss, navigating emotions primal and raw, and larger than I could comprehend. But gratitude was born in me in those hours as the little one came ever closer to crossing that eternal veil.
It was a day of lost dreams and disaster and gratitude. It was a day of birth and death and life, a day where God was visibly at work and hope was patient. At the end of the day all I could do was bow my head with gratitude.
I am getting older, and that fact mostly gives me quite a bit of pleasure. I know I am getting older for many reasons, but one of them is that I seem to have begun remembering a sacred language of prayer.
This language is one of ancient wonder and simple gratitude. It is ancient prayer as it has belonged to human beings throughout the ages, despite differences in tribe and tongue and generation. It is simple prayer that comes with quiet and stillness, rather than with all our efforts to find God in the holy place. It is a language that every child born speaks fluently while adults have to grow into remembering.
I became aware of my entry into this season of remembering when I began to delight in the birds around me. Like the old people I used to watch sitting on a park bench feeding little sparrows, I now stop and search the trees for the source of birdsong or watch as a bird lands on a branch and turns its head from side to side before darting off. Birds capture my attention.
A fierce hummingbird lives in my backyard and in the mornings as I sit outside, this tiny ferocious creature often hovers within inches of my head, peering directly into my eyes. I know she is having a stare-down with the trespasser that I am, and I also know that she thinks she is bigger than I am and is the true owner of this garden. She definitely has a larger persona than mine and when she comes to me I pay attention.
She searches my abutilon blossoms for fresh blooms and nectar, her wings drumming the air, and I listen and watch her at work. She is fierce, and graceful, and so at home in this garden of ours that I feel my soul feeding on the loveliness of this little bird as though upon nectar. I sit and watch and know that this celebration of beauty is prayer. As sure as anything I know, this is a language of prayer as fundamental as breathing.
Prayer is not just about lists of needs and fears, although they have their place. Needs and fears and dreams sometimes find their substance mysteriously transformed,. as suffering and hope become prayer. But prayer is even more elemental than that, more primal. Prayer begins with respiration: a breathing in and a breathing out.
Before there was any human breath, when the earth was formless and empty, when darkness was over the surface of the deep, the Spirit of God hovered over the waters. Despite my limited humanity I picture this, the Spirit hovering over darkness and formlessness, on the verge of life. The verge of Genesis and Exodus and the patriarchs. It is the verge of hopes, dreams, tragedies—the verge of the resurrection to come. At a time when substance was to be called out of deep darkness, the Spirit hovered over the waters.
Surely the Spirit hovers over the unborn, where there is also darkness in deep warm waters and a being who lies on the verge, already breathing. Indeed early in gestation a fetus begins the act of breathing. That breathing is an involuntary act directed by the brainstem; during inspiration the muscle (the diaphragm) contracts and drops.
The muscles between the ribs contract, lifting the rib cage upward and outward. Those actions expand the chest cavity, and because the lungs are attached to it, they also expand. This produces a negative pressure and air rushes in through the mouth and nose. Relaxation of those same muscles pushes the air back out.
While in the womb, babies breathe, moving amniotic fluid in and out of their lungs. They don’t obtain oxygen in this way but even so, they go through their days intermittently exercising this soon-to-be essential act. Why do they do this? Certainly it is a function of the brainstem, but it also develops the musculature that will be essential to obtaining oxygen outside the womb. Watching babies on ultrasound you can observe as they blink, suck on their fingers and toes, even yawn; and you see them breathe: a womb-breathing, a preparation for the act that will soon be indispensable to life.
As I consider my delight in birds, I believe that this too is a form of womb-breathing. Created for this sacrament of simple prayer, my brainstem-soul expands, and beauty rushes in. I sit and receive while the Spirit lingers deep in my soul, hovering over what is yet to be formed and birthed by a razor-sharp edge of pain. This “fetal prayer,” however, nourishes and prepares me for the time of changing pressures, when the cavity of my life will expand and necessitate the rigorous prayer of intercession or lament.
I have known suffering in my life, have seen suffering, and will suffer again—but today I sit in my garden and breathe deeply of the primordial waters of creation-beauty. Tomorrow I may be thrust into deep water but not today. No, today I sit in a hummingbird’s garden of blooms and nectar and celebrate life.