How to Pray Before Giving Birth

This afternoon, after church was over, I finished Rabbi Harold S. Kushner’s international bestseller When Bad Things Happen to Good People. It might seem like an odd book to pick off the shelf for a woman who is expecting to deliver a healthy baby girl any day now. I should perhaps be exuding more of the joy we heard in the epistle we heard this morning. Again, along with Paul, I should rejoice.

Maybe, but I’ll leave the rejoicing for you to do. Rejoice for me that there is new life when the world feels so broken. Rejoice for me that our bodies can do amazing things because at this very moment, I have some doubts. I have lots of doubts.

In fact, this book found its way into my hands because I found a journal of my mother’s from when she was hospitalized at Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. A friend brought it to her, though I don’t know which one. It was these words she read when her body was failing and as I’ve been trying to commit my heart and mind to this project of writing about my own experience of grief and loss, I wondered what she found in these words. So I cracked the spine to be close to her.

It was meant to inspire my writing, but it has again touched upon my grief.

As I get closer and closer to the arrival of my baby girl, there are so many things I want to ask my mom. So many things that only she would know.

Just a few nights ago, my husband and I met with our doula for the last time before labor begins. Anticipating the pain ahead, she asked what comforts me. Would massage help? Do I prefer the lights dim? Do I light candles and ease into a warm bath? I couldn’t answer her questions.

I still don’t have real answers to her questions. It’s not that I don’t know what I usually do to relax and unwind, but that the kind of comfort I’m really wanting and needing is prayer. And I’m not sure how to pray right now.

Rabbi Kushner reminds me,

“Prayer, when it is offered in the right way, redeems people from isolation. It assures them that they need not feel alone and abandoned. It lets them know that they are part of a greater reality, with more depth, more hope, more courage, and more of a future than any individual could have by himself.”

It is not a matter of praying for outcomes even if I have a lot of those petitions heavy upon my heart, but prayer is a movement toward others so that we can be “in touch with other people, people who share the same concerns, values, dreams and pains we do.” I’m trying to wrap my head around how many people that is.

I’m trying to let go of that very human impulse to ask God for particular comforts and assurances that made Rabbi Kushner write this book after the death of his young son, but it’s not that easy. Even if the good rabbi assures me that God doesn’t need to be all-powerful to be all-loving, it’d really be nice. I would find comfort in that, lots and lots of comfort. But, there is no such promise that God can alter the laws of nature. What prayer does, instead, is bring God’s people into closer together so that no one feels alone or abandoned.

Perhaps that is the comfort I need in my grief, but it reaches beyond me to include every parent that grieves the loss of their unborn child. Those women who have felt a fluttering in their gut and felt their body change, but then all of the signs of life disappeared as quickly as they had come. Before this pregnancy, I was one of those women. I may be again. There is no way to know how this chaos befalls us and the good rabbi knows better than to provide an answer for tragedy.

Instead, Rabbi Kushner claims that what religion can do is call it a tragedy. It’s something only the voices of the faithful can do. Without offering any justification or defense, the faithful come close. They dare to say that no one is alone.

So, then, how do I pray in these hours or days before giving birth? Do I pray for the best possible birth experience? Do I pray for the doctors and the nurses that will care for me? Do I pray for my husband and doula that they can withstand whatever curve ball I might throw at them in the middle of a contraction? Do I pray that my little girl be healthy and strong or do I reject all of those possible outcomes knowing that God cannot alter the laws of nature? Do I instead, then, put my faith and trust in the hope that I am not alone? Could it be as simple as that?

It’s what I can’t wrap my head around because there are so many people that know my grief. We are quiet about it. We don’t talk about it much but there are a lot of us. We don’t want to burden you with our pain, because we know that you don’t really understand. You haven’t felt this thing that we’ve felt whether it was a child or a parent or some other dear departed soul that we lost. We’re still trying to figure out how we will live after tragedy struck, and there are times that we aren’t sure that we will make it.

This isn’t one of those times for me. It may have been for my mom. She died within a year of reading this book and so I’m not sure what it may have meant to her to receive the invitation to consider what would she do next. It implies that there was something after the cancer and maybe there was. Maybe it made her feel less alone. Maybe it encouraged her to pray to be redeemed from the isolation of her diagnosis. Maybe.

I know she grieved that she would miss out on so much. She wouldn’t be there to see her children marry or to watch us become parents. She wouldn’t even get us walk across the stage moving that silly tassel from one side to the other to mark the occasion that we had just become high school graduates. She’d miss everything. She cried about it to my grandmother, I was told. And now, I miss her in everything. I missed her in the days leading up to my wedding and the early days of my pregnancy as much as I miss her now when I’m about to become a mother. There is nothing that stops me wanting her to be by my side telling me to breathe and reminding me what I was like when I was a little baby.

I can only pray that somehow that comfort will come. Somehow, she’ll be there when I need her most.

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Waves of Grief after Waves of Nausea

Grief is my constant companion. It is there every day and every moment even when there is a smile plastered to my face. Sometimes I choose not to acknowledge it. I don’t want it to dominate and there are still other times when it rides along in the sidecar of my whole existence.

For the first three months of my pregnancy, it stayed there. It didn’t hop into the driver seat but stayed somewhere in the background. I noticed it only enough to order a copy of Hope Edelman’s Motherless Mothers, but then the swell of nausea would hit and I would speed down the hall praying that I’d make it to the toilet this time. Waves of nausea is too gentle for what I had been feeling those first few weeks of my pregnancy. I felt sick. I felt so sick that I can’t even consider an apt metaphor.

I could barely pull myself off the couch. I binged on television and hid behind my hands every time food appeared on the screen. The odor of that food would waft through the television screen and my stomach would turn. Back down the hall to the bathroom I would race muttering prayers of disgust.

When I finally started to feel better, it was Mother’s Day and the New York Times published this popular essay on The Birth of a Mother. It was posted and retweeted though all of my friends and family at the same time that I got a sweet text message from my sister wishing me a happy mother’s day for the very first time. It is no secret that I have complicated feelings about this observance. I’ve blogged about it in the past. So it may come to you as no surprise that I couldn’t bring myself to read this poignant essay. It remained an open tab on my browser for weeks, but I never read a word.

I never read a word until today.

I read only the first paragraph before the swells of grief rose in my chest. Tears began to roll down my cheeks not because of the overflow of hormones in my body, but for the fact that I am still a motherless daughter and so as careful as Alexandra Sacks is to include the wide variety of emotions that pregnant women experience, she still left me out. My family dynamics changed long ago when my mother died. Ever since, I have been creating my own style. I’ve borrowed from lots of amazing women — including my beloved stepmother — in parenting myself so that I still quite imagine what will emerge when I first hold my daughter in my arms.

Ambivalence is not the right word for me. Ambivalence doesn’t even describe the years before I met my husband when I knew that I couldn’t be a single parent. I couldn’t imagine doing it alone. I didn’t want to raise a child with all of my grief leading the way, but I hoped that there would be someone else to ride that wave with me. I didn’t want to be a parent if it wasn’t a partnership.

Is that my own version of guilt and shame? I don’t know. I do know that when I met my husband and first watched him interact with the little girl who would become my godchild, something inside me shifted. It changed. I could see something that I hadn’t let myself see before. Parenting no longer seemed impossible, at least not with this man by my side.

This is something we talk a lot about these days. It might be the sappy talk that every couple has in the midst of a pregnancy but every time it comes up, it feels revelatory. He chose me to be his partner because he saw that I’d be a great mom. There were other reasons, I’m sure, though those aren’t highlighted quite as often as this particular fact. And even though I tell him the exact same thing, I can’t help but wonder what kind of mother I will be.

My mother did not work. She put all of those moms that worry about being good enough on edge. In my memory, if not in real life, it was what she wanted most. She wanted to be a mom. She relished in every bit of it. I don’t know if I will be like her though I’ll probably spend a lot of time wondering what she would do. Let’s be honest, I’m already doing that because that it is how it is with grief.

Grief raises questions. It makes me wonder about things that I can never know no matter how many times I ask those that knew her. What is left is just a hole where there was once a person. She is gone and all of that wisdom that I might have once gleaned from her is now gone. It is lost. It will never be retrieved and so many of my questions will go unanswered. I’ll never really know if what I’m remembering is a fantasy or some complicated illusion I created to survive her loss. Those that knew her will tell me, but it will always be what they saw or what they wanted to believe. I’ll never really know how she would have chosen to define herself as a mother or as a woman.

It’s these questions that rise from the depths — once again — as I wonder about the kind of mother I will become. I can only hope that my children know how much I love them, for this is what I’ll never forget about my own mother.

 

Letters to Heaven

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Every year, as January comes to a close and the calendar turns to February, I start to wonder about what I’ll say to her this year. I wonder about what I would want her to know about this year and who I am right now. Way up there in heaven, I wonder what I’ll tell my mother about my life.

Every year, I’ve written to her in the pages of my journal as if she is sitting beside me. Of course, she isn’t. Today is the anniversary of her death. She died twenty-nine years ago today. Twenty nine years ago, on this very day, I carefully prepared a package of stale marshmallows and the almond cookies we made in school that day to bring to her in the hospital. But, before I could leap off the bus, I could see my dad and I knew something was wrong. So much has happened since then. So much that she hasn’t been around to share with me. And this year, I will get married. I’ll marry a man that she never got to meet and begin to think about becoming a mom myself.

Maybe it’s because of those things that she feels so very far away today. Today it feels like I’ve spent the past twenty-nine years grieving something that never existed. I have photographs and other people’s stories that contradict this fact. They tell me what she was like and how wonderful she was, but I don’t have many of my own memories. When most people grieve, those normal people, they can tell you something about the person that they miss so very much. They can tell you about his laugh or her generosity. I’ve listened to so many of these stories. I love these stories so that I make it my business to seek them out. A glimmer will come into her eyes when I ask about their dearly departed before she tells me the most ridiculous story. A smile will creep across her face and she’ll sigh because that’s what she misses. She misses those little moments.

I don’t have too many of those stories. The only clear memory I have from when she was healthy was from one cold winter morning when we went ice skating on a nearby pond. My brother took off skating with lightning speed. The running joke in my family was that he was born with skates on his little feet. This day, that seemed to be true. I had never been skating on a pond so I wobbled down the wooden plank, fighting against the layers of warmth that encased me, until I hit the ice. I pushed off and made a clear, graceful arc straight into a snowbank. That’s when my mother started laughing. She couldn’t stop laughing even as she tried to pull me back to my feet. I really, really hope that this doesn’t reveal my mother’s character. It doesn’t fit with what I’ve been told but it’s the only memory I have stashed away. If my mom was alive, I’m sure we’d laugh about this. Or I really want to believe that we’d laugh about this ridiculous moment from my childhood. But, I don’t know what would make my mom laugh uncontrollably. I don’t know what would bring tears to her eyes out of sheer delight anymore than I know what would really break her heart. And that’s what makes anniversaries so hard.

My dear friend Teri, who lost her mother ten years ago, is much more frank about it. As she said by text message today, “anniversaries are shitty.” I can’t argue. Anniversaries are the cruel reminder that so many years have passed. Every year, I hope I will feel differently but it always feels the same. It is one of those days where everything feels thin. Just as the ancient Celts imagined it, it feels like the walls between heaven and earth collapse and it feels as if something should happen. Every year, I’m confronted with this terrible indecisiveness about how to spend the day. Sometimes that means spending the days with others whether that’s taking a ferry to a quiet island in the middle of Casco Bay to quietly walk with a friend or building a fairy house in the woods on another island with another friend. I’ve thrown ice cream parties where we heaped mounds of chocolate ice cream into bowls as I told the story of the last time I saw my mom but most years, I don’t know what to do. I feel that I should do something but I struggle with what do with the strange cosmic energy that comes each and every year.

And then, with frustrated tears running down my cheeks, I feel guilty. It happens every single year. I am overwhelmed and overcome by this terrible guilt. This is something I will never understand. I don’t know why I feel guilty but it’s something that Teri tells me happens. She calls it survivor guilt. It’s a real thing, she argues because she knows that I am going to disagree. I don’t want to see myself as survivor. It’s not like I survived a plane crash or the collapse of the twin towers. My mom died from a disease that I have yet to contract. Though I live in that fear, it remains only a possibility. That doesn’t change the fact that I always feel guilty on the anniversary of her death.

I feel as if I should feel something or do something but I can never figure out what that is. I have tried time and time again for twenty-nine years. Still, the guilt hangs out mixed up with this sense of wonder that everything feels thin. All the hairs stand up on the back of my neck. There is a feeling like something might happen. Something could happen. Or maybe I just really want something to happen so that the only constant from year to year is that I sit down  with my journal to write letters to heaven. On the anniversary of the day she died, I take a pen in my hand to try to collapse the walls between heaven and earth.

This year, it doesn’t feel thin. That feeling is still there. I still feel like anything could happen. I really want something to happen but it’s not a thin feeling. It’s a thick feeling that hangs in the air today. Today, I’m aware of the distance between heaven and earth.

I feel the distance in the years that I have lived without her. I feel the distance in the huge events that are about to take place this year that she won’t get to share. I feel the distance that comes from not knowing what would make her laugh or cry. And yet, no matter how far the distance might be, I still want to collapse those walls that separate us. I want to believe she’s right here beside me.

That’s how small I want the distance to be. I want to believe that she is standing beside me. I try to convince myself that she always has been. She’s right here on earth and hasn’t really left my side, except that on this anniversary, on the day that she died, the calendar turns and I can only feel her absence.

It doesn’t feel like she is here. She is anything but here so she must be out there somewhere because she hasn’t been here for so very long. She died twenty-nine years ago and I still can’t quite believe it. She has to be up there in some other realm that I cannot reach, no matter how hard I try. It’s only on this dreadful day that I let myself believe that I have any power to cross the divide and reach toward that place where she dwells. On other days, I don’t believe such things. I remain unconvinced that heaven is somewhere else. I refuse to believe it most of the time. Except that on her anniversary, especially on this anniversary, my faith isn’t quite so resolute because the distance seems so vast and I want nothing more than to bring her close and tell her everything about my life that she needs to know. (She’s still my mom. No matter how much I want this sweet communion, there are still things she doesn’t need to know.)

Part of me believes that she knows it all already. I don’t need to tell her because she’s already seen it. She’s been busy watching me all year long from her cloud just over my head. There’s no need for me to reach through the veil between heaven and earth with my pen and paper because she already knows. She knows it all. She hasn’t missed on anything. She’s done all that she could to be there even if I never knew that she was standing beside me but I can’t quite convince myself of that today. So today, just as I have so many anniversaries before, I’m writing my mom a letter. I’m sending it out to the far reaches of the heavens.

Mom,

There are so many things that I want to ask you. There are so many things that I don’t know about you and so very many things that I want to know. Years ago, I used to ask those that knew you and loved you.

Maybe they were trying to convince themselves that you lived as much as I am trying to do now, because they wanted me to know how human you were. They told me that you were so damn stubborn and that you had a mean streak of anger. They wanted me to know that you were not perfect even when I wanted so much to believe that you were. I never got to be a teenager with you. I never got to rebel and slam doors in your face or whatever it is that teenagers do. Instead, my rebellion took me to church. I plopped down in a pew and wanted the answers to everything that didn’t make sense. Because I didn’t understand — I still don’t understand — why you had to die.

I feel like a child writing that to you, but I”m your child. So I can still be a kid, right? I can tell you that this still doesn’t make sense to me no matter how much I want to make sense of it.

I’ll never understand it just as I’ll never get to know you. It’ll always be someone else’s story or someone else’s anecdote. I won’t get to have those stories with you because you died before we ever got the chance. Just as I won’t have the chance to see you beam with pride and delight on my wedding day in just a few months. You weren’t there to watch me try on my wedding dress and I won’t get to have some frustratingly special moment on that special day where you try to give me advice and I shirk it off, but that doesn’t change the fact that I want those things. I want you to be a part of that special day just as much as I want you to know my beloved and my future children. Oh, it hurts to even imagine that. How can I be a wife and a mom without you? How will I learn my own rhythms without your support?

But I will. I’ll somehow manage this just as I’ve managed every other event without you by my side. You can’t be there. I know, I know. We will never have that but that doesn’t stop me from wanting it. I will always want you to be a part of my life. I will always want to know what you think. I will always want to hear your advice. I will always wonder what you would say to any of the bizarre and wonderful things that this life has already offered me.

Mom, there are so few things that I remember about you. I can’t remember your laugh or the sound of your voice. I don’t have many stories about you. In most of my memories, you were sick. You were as pale as the sheets on your bed. You didn’t say much but you were there and I guess I want you to be here now. I guess I’ll never give up on that hope that I’ll get to know you better… I love you.

Yours, Elsa

 

Mother’s Day is NOT a Liturgical Holiday

It was months ago when I agreed to preach on the second Sunday in May. I said yes ever so willingly. I was just so thrilled to be preaching again after this new reality seeking (im)possible things.

I didn’t realize then what is all too real now.

The second Sunday in May is Mother’s Day. It is the Sunday where churches offer corsages and carnations to mothers. It is this Sunday where prayers to “Mother God” are lifted in congregations that would otherwise struggle with inclusive language. It is the Sunday where the grieving and the childless stay home along with those that struggle with infertility and those that don’t ever want anyone to know that she had an abortion. There are those that we abandoned by their mothers and those that never knew gentle touch of their mother. They don’t come to church because they know that they will not be celebrated. They will not be honored.

IMG_4444They will not hear so much about the resurrection as they will about mothers. And they know this, so they stay home. Each congregation has their own traditions and there isn’t one of these bodies of Christ that seems to realize that Mother’s Day is NOT a liturgical holiday.

The liturgical year moves from Advent to Easter. From birth to death, we are led into the Season of Easter which continues for much more than one day. Because we are still in it. It is the season that we find ourselves us in now. This second Sunday of May is the Sixth Sunday of Easter. It’s nothing flashy really. Just another chance to talk about this amazing thing that happened. It’s a chance to talk about the awesome possibility of resurrection and what it means right now. You know, no big deal. Or perhaps it really is no big deal because it seems that most congregations replace this talk of resurrection with something called the Festival of the Christian Home. (This is also what it is called in my denomination but I can find nothing on the United Church of Christ website about it.) And it seems that churches expect it. Something must happen on Mother’s Day in our worship. Something must be said. Something must be done because that’s what we always do. But, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Mother’s Day is NOT a liturgical holiday.

Christmas is a liturgical holiday. Easter is a liturgical holiday. Even St. Patrick and St. Valentine have feast days. But, this isn’t one of them. There is no feast day for mothers. It’s simply not part of the liturgical calendar. You’ll find it on other calendars — those printed for dry cleaners and banks. On the second Sunday of May, it is Mother’s Day. So let there be brunch and flowers and perhaps even some chocolates. Make mom breakfast in bed. Or, at least, give her to break. But, when it’s time to live into the resurrection in the pulpit or pews, let’s remember that that’s not everyone’s story. Not everyone has a mother who was as kind and gentle. Handing every woman a carnation will only remind some of those women how they don’t fit in. Because those women came to church this morning needing to hear some good news. She needs what we all need: to hear the good news of resurrection.

Preach that good news.

Because every man, woman and child needs to hear that good news.

Make that good news the focus of your celebration on this second Sunday of May. Make it known in stories that reveal that what Jesus commands is that we love one another. Make that love known in the caring ministries you offer each other. Make it known in the works of justice and peace. Try not to make every single story about mothers. Please.

And if you need a call to action, read the Mother’s Day Proclamation. Because this is how it really began. There were brokenhearted women who saw a hurting world ripped apart by war. They would not allow one more child to lay down their life. Arise, all women who have hearts, they called out. They called out for new life from death. They called for new stories and new words. They called for hope where it couldn’t be found. Do we have that same heart? Might we rise with those women?

Mother’s Day is NOT a liturgical holiday but it is a good time to ask who we are as people of the resurrection.