Birth Astride a Grave
Reflecting on Ash Wednesday
“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” Father Jonathan said yesterday as I received the imposition of ashes. He smeared a paste of anointed oil and burnt palm fronds from last Easter across my forehead in the shape of a cross.
There’s a grimness to this memento mori, but it doesn’t have to be depressing. I’ve learned that honest acknowledgement of my mortality allows me to have a richer, more meaningful life.
My pregnancy was fraught with reminders that death lurked everywhere. I worried I’d do something that seemed innocuous, but would harm the baby: eating a rare steak, or canned tuna fish, or a bite of sashimi. Using a hot tub or scooping out our cat’s litterbox. Everyday life had reminders of life-threatening dangers everywhere.
I read a lot about mortality risks, following my own modern version of the Rule of St. Benedict which instructs: “Day by day remind yourself that you are going to die. Hour by hour keep careful watch over all you do, aware that God’s gaze is upon you, wherever you may be.”
My research ran the gamut from medical journals to literary novels. “When a woman gives birth, death holds her hand for a little while,” wrote Betty Smith in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. In Elisa Albert’s After Birth, she describes labor as a process that “approached death. You go down into places it’s hard to get at in life, you know? Extremity. And there’s no safe word. No, like, ‘stop this train, I want to get off.’”
When I finally went through labor, I found firsthand that these accounts were true. After 20 hours of active labor, my doctors worried that my baby had shoulder dystocia, a relatively rare condition in which a baby’s shoulders are too wide to push through the birth canal, and the results could be fatal or cause disfiguring paralysis and neurological damage.
As my husband I tried to figure out if we should consent to an emergency C section or continue with our natural childbirth plan, a distinct message came to me. A moment when I realized God’s gaze was on me, and I had to surrender control of the situation. If you die or if your baby dies, it is fate. You have no control over it. If your baby has shoulder dystocia, it’s meant to be. And if so, that will be the way he lives and learns and exists in this world.
“Facing death, without denial or distraction, is a necessary part of living truthfully,” writes Tish Harrison Warren. Acknowledging that I couldn’t power my way through this reality with over intellectualizing or ignoring was liberating. Later I learned there’s a name for this: transcendent realism, which means confronting the truth of the grave, a term theologian Henri Nouwen coined.
Stanley was born an hour later—without a C-section and in perfect health. While I distinctly felt God’s grace that day, I continued to be terrified of all that could go wrong with an infant. In my forthcoming book, What Will Outlast Me?, I wrote an essay called “So Many Ways” about all the ways I imagined my baby could die:
whooping cough, influenza, pneumonia, RSV, measles, mumps or rubella, or any of those other childhood diseases he can’t be vaccinated for until he’s six months old but can be spread by some anti-Vaxxer. By a gastro-intestinal virus from contaminated formula, or an unwashed hand, and then by the subsequent diarrhea leading to deadly dehydration. Strangulation by Venetian blind cord, by the straps of his car seat malfunctioning, by the ribbon that holds his paci, by the cords that tighten his hood. By drowning in a bathtub, in as little as an inch of water. By SIDS. By a potentially faulty crib mattress. By a spider bite. By West Nile from a mosquito bite. By typhus from a flea bite. By choking on a piece of food. By ways and means I haven’t imagined, couldn’t possibly imagine, but could kill him nonetheless.
Incessant worry made me value how precious his life was and to rely on Christ for comfort. The thing they never told me in childbirth class is that by bringing a life into the world, I have also created a death. We die simply because we were born. There’s a famous Samuel Beckett line from Waiting for Godot: “One day we were born, one day we shall die, the same day, the same second… Birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more.”
Which brings me to my Lenten practice. Instead of seeing Lent as penance, a hair-shirt of suffering to endure, I see it as an experience to openly reflect on how my life is gleaming for an instant, if only I would pay attention to it. To that end, I’ve chosen Lenten practices that encourage mindfully presence to all the sensory wonder and delight being alive has to offer. I’ve deleted the apps (Facebook and Amazon) on my phone that cause me to numbly scroll through my days, and I’m taking extra time to pray and meditate using the practical tips in Wayne Muller’s Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal, and Delight in Our Busy Lives. When I get too busy with the work my ego thinks I should be doing to “stay ahead,” I lose the simple truth of being open to the Spirit, to loving others, and being loved.
My new baby taught me that what we give attention to gets tended, loved, and nourished, and in the first months Stanley’s life, he and I paid a lot of attention to the glorious joy of being alive. There were so many gleaming moments I discovered: the way his face lit up the first time he tasted a strawberry, the gleeful chatter as he discovered word-making, the way he giggled when I tickled the right spot under his chin.
In the very physical embodiment of tending to an infant, I realized we’re here to experience both giving and receiving love, with our frail, vulnerable, human bodies. I also realized it’s inherently joyful that for the time being I have a body that can see and taste and touch and smell and hear. How glorious! I want to show my son and those around me these gleaming moments for the rest of my life because they can be gone in an instant. So, let’s take Beckett’s warning to heart, let’s you and I live and love as much as we can before it’s night once more.
The Lent Project, a daily email devotional from Biola University’s Center for Christianity, Culture, and the Arts. Sign up and get artwork, music, and scripture readings that are reflective and immersive.
Nadia Weber-Bolz on Truth, Dust, Babies and Funerals.
Why crying your eyes out while watching The Land Before Time is a natural part of navigating life in Mari Andrew’s Out of the Blue.
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