Thursday, October 08, 2009

A Birth, A Death, a Glimpse of the Soul

Seventeen years ago this weekend, I got a call from my friend Judy at 10:30 at night. "I'm in labor," she told me. "Can you come now?"

It was the festival of Shemini Atzeret, a time that I would normally not even answer the phone. However, as we had arranged that I would not only attend but photograph the birth of Judy's child, I readied myself to leave for the night, tossing off a guilty goodbye to HOBB, who looked skeptical about the entire enterprise.

"Is this really necessary?" he asked, alluding not just to my departure but to the forbidden act of driving during the holiday.

I did not answer, wondering the same.

It was the early 1990's and Judy and I were revolutionaries in Westchester County, New York -- critics of the often-invasive style of obstetric care, avid consumers of midwifery, which most people believed to have been outlawed about a century earlier. My own daughter, Middle Babe, had been born in 1987 in a crowded municipal hospital in the Bronx because Westchester hadn't yet granted delivery privileges to midwives.

I gave birth to Middle Babe in a hallway, assisted by four women and HOBB, lying sideways on a purloined gurney with one foot pushing on my midwife's shoulder, moaning melodically through my contractions, bellowing like a female moose as I pushed my child out of her private ocean and into the brightly-lit world. The drumbeat of my ancestors echoed in my ears; I walked the path of my great-grandmothers, I transcended the here and now, reached above and beyond myself, became a she-wolf, a lioness, a galloping mare, sinewy and wild.

After the terrifying premature birth of Big Babe four years earlier, when I was only 23, my midwife-assisted second childbirth was spectacular, primal and deeply spiritual -- the ascent up Sinai, the face to face encounter with the Almighty. When I walked out of the chaotic hospital hours later against medical advice, tiny girl wrapped in my arms, I felt like I could run a marathon.
And now, with Middle Babe just three years old, the right for midwives to "catch" babies in Westchester County had been won. Judy queued up to be one of the first to take advantage of this miracle, booking her birth at a swanky, state-of-the-art birthing center in Yonkers which came equipped with Laura Ashley decor and a country cottage motif.

My friend had given a great deal of thought to her midwife-assisted birth and had an elaborate birthing plan. It included long walks down the peaceful birthing center corridor, sips of red raspberry leaf tea, dedicated breathing, visualization, journal writing, dips in the Jacuzzi, talking, resting, listening to music and a harmonious childbirth with her husband at her side.

A writer, she intended to sell her story and asked me along to capture the event on film.

Flattered and greatly moved, I said yes.

And now the drama was about to unfold.

When I arrived at the birthing center, a business-like midwife opened the door. "Diane," she said, by way of introduction, shaking my hand. A far cry from the soothing, hippie-chick midwives I had found up in Ossining, Diane set about to scrub the Jacuzzi in preparation for Judy's immersion. Judy's contractions are quickening, she tossed over her shoulder, disappearing into the bathroom. Remember, she doesn't have to suffer needlessly, she shouted from inside the bathroom. I have medication if she needs it.

I entered a spacious room where Judy was deep into labor -- serious and unsmiling -- leaning into a wall in a flannel nightgown, her dark curls sticking to the back of her neck. Her husband sat on the edge of the bed watching TV. The sound of running water filled the space between us. I put my hand on the small of her back, felt the heat of her labor.

"This is tough," she reported.

For a long while, the water ran. I went to make red raspberry tea with sugar, steaming hot. I brought it in for Judy, who could barely drink it. Her contractions were layered, two and three-tiered, peaking and waning, chasing her then disappearing...only to ambush her again a minute later. Her nightgown grew sweaty. Her eyes were wild and agitated.

"Let's take a walk," I suggested.

We walked and walked. We walked the entire night, it seemed. We stepped forward one or two or three steps, then paused to honor the contraction's will. We barely spoke. I held her hand or arm. I touched her back. I made her drink water. I argued when she said she couldn't do this thing -- give birth. I reminded her that labor ends and babies are born. I told her that she could have medication if she wished. I wondered where Diane was, realized I hadn't seen her for a while. I hope that I was right, that this labor would end...and soon.

The labor squeezed Judy's spine, producing that rare form of torture -- back labor. I had had it with my first child and thought I would not survive the pain. After back labor, regular old labor is a walk in the park.

Do you need anything? I asked uselessly.

"I need the Jacuzzi." she said. "I want to give birth there."

I found Diane sleeping in a small room and woke her up. She examined Judy and found her fully dilated. Together, we helped my friend into the tub, but the hoped-for relief she imagined would arrive cruelly eluded her. When the contractions came, she draped her arms over the sides of the tub and moaned. Diane poured warm water over her back, smoothed the damp hair from her forehead with a washcloth. A female scent hung in the air, thick and heavy. Suddenly, Judy let out a cry.

"I'm going to have a baby!" she cried, nearly collapsing as the relentless waves of labor overtook her. Diane crouched at Judy's head, administering a blood pressure test.

"Out of the tub!" Diane commanded, directing me to get my friend up. She turned off the jets of the Jacuzzi and opened the drain. "She's too weak. Her blood pressure isn't stable. This is too dangerous."

"No!" Judy cried. "I want to give birth in the water!"

"Out," Diane said, handing me a large towel. The water slipped down the drain with a gurgle and a hiss. Judy looked like a mother sea mammal, sleek, wet and magnificent. I threw the towel over her shoulders. Diane stepped into the tub and wriggled her hands underneath Judy's arms.

"Stand up," she said. "We've got to get you to the bed."

I don't remember the process of walking my laboring friend to the bed. I don't remember draping the nightgown over her. I do remember her crying. I don't remember seeing her husband. I do remember her kneeling into the bedpost, panting. And then, I recall hearing the sound of something cracking.

"Ohhhh!" she exhaled.

"The baby!" cried Diane, gloving her hands, bringing her birthing kit close.

A current went through my friend. Her face took on a beautiful agony. Her brow was knit in concentration. Her legs were quivering. My heart started galloping. Every cell in my body stood at attention. A white energy filled the room.

"!" she panted. "Pictures of the birth."

What camera?

My lungs filled with the purest air. I felt sheer elation. My breath caught in the back of my throat. Something was in our midst. Something had joined us. We were not alone.


Slipping, sliding, slithering out from my friend's body came a tiny creature, face scrunched in earnest concentration -- the baby, her baby, Judy's baby. We let out a whoop, catching the being, escorting her from the ocean of her mother's womb into the new, waterless world. We told Judy it was a girl. Judy broke into happy tears. "A daughter!" she said. "I have a daughter," she repeated. Diane took the child and did her midwifely or doctorly things. Flushed, Judy lay back on the pillow, weak, relieved, smiling. The punishing labor was now just a dull reverberation in the ever-growing distance.

The baby born that magical, tortuous night is now a beautiful and poised 17-year-old. My friend looks more magnificent with each passing day; indeed mother and daughter share an uncommon resemblance. These intervening years have been dramatic and sometimes difficult for my friend, witnessing the break-up of her marriage, innumerable heartbreaks and staggering successes, personal transformation, stellar achievement, the stuff of life itself.

As for me, I would leave my beloved Tudor home in Westchester a couple of years later for a Manhattan apartment, leave the life I had built as a freelance writer for one which offered greater financial stability, have the remarkable chance to live in Israel and Europe, travel more than I ever had before, give birth to a third child -- also with the help of midwives -- undertake challenges both professionally and personally, endure my share of heartache and disappointment, find myself thrillingly in the middle of important conversations and pressing issues of the day, watch my older children grow to adulthood, have adventures of the mind, heart and soul, keep alive the dream of returning to my life as a full-time writer.

You know, I never did take pictures worth anything that night, I reminded my friend when she called me the other day. I was a good labor support but a lousy photographer.

I know, said my friend. I forgive you. You stayed with me throughout my labor. It was awful. I'll never forget that.

And I will never forget the presence that filled the birthing room at the instant of the birth of Judy's daughter. It was luminous and comforting; it stayed with me for a while afterwards. I have pondered it many times since, trying to recapture the wonder, shyly and secretly wondering -- was it the Shekhina? And if so, are all laboring women so visited?

Or was it the descent of a new human soul into this realm, separating itself from the great collective of souls that is God, that is eternity? Was it the contraction of the Great One, the mystical concept of tzimtzum that I witnessed, the physics of the soul which must be poured into each new person at the moment of birth?

Since that time, I have been visited only once more by the same overwhelming presence and it was in the exact opposite context -- standing graveside at the funeral of my mother-in-law in the spring of 1995... in the eighth month of my pregnancy with Little Babe. With greatly swollen belly I stood next to HOBB in the cemetery, watching the coffin of my vibrant, beautiful mother-in-law lower into the ground. I had feared this moment since she was diagnosed with incurable cancer, nurtured nightmares about the spectacle of her burial, nearly campaigned to stay home, away from death when I was bursting with new life.

As the coffin slipped ever lower into the ground, one of the planks on the top shifted suddenly. The assembled mourners took a collective intake of breath. One of the party -- I cannot remember whom -- knelt to right it. And at that moment, I was visited by that same overwhelming presence, filling me with a feeling of wonder and happiness. It enveloped and comforted me, powerful, maternal and eternal. My eyes filled with tears as a message made its way into my heart. I am saying my farewell. Don't worry about me anymore. I am released.

There are things that I have doubted, there are people who have left me feeling bereft, uncertain, unloved, there are questions that I carry. There is sorrow that I carry in my soul. There are mysteries that surround me.

But one certainty of my earthly life has been the existence of a universal being, He or She whom we call God or any variety of names. And the other certainty has been the existence of our eternal souls, compressed and poured into human form to accomodate our time on earth, property of God, patient and indwelling, longing to be free.

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