"There’s this shape, black as the entrance to a cave.
A longing wells up in its throat
like a blossom
as it breathes slowly.
What does the world
mean to you if you can’t trust it
to go on shining when you’re
not there? And there’s
a tree, long-fallen; once
the bees flew to it, like a procession
of messengers, and filled it
-Excerpt from October by Mary Oliver
The streets are desolate. Businesses are dark and shuttered. There is no traffic, no transit, no pedestrians. This is Boston. This is New York. This is Portland, Maine. Every city emptied out overnight. Civilian life pushed back like an invasive species. Coyotes and bears circle the perimeters of our villages, closer than ever before. Essential workers in hazmat suits tend to our ill and dig mass graves. We form “family units” and reject those “at risk”. We lock up our doors, our homes. We stockpile supplies and acquire guns. Suspicions and fear run rampant. Asking what comes after this assumes there is a next act, yet we were not ready for any of this.
Man’s Limitations When It Comes to Dying
My first experience with death was seeing a deer carcass dragged out of the woods on a blue tarp, gutted, and then hoisted up with a pulley and hook to bleed in the yard, while three generations of men cracked beers and drank in the driveway, proudly admiring their work. It was an experience I could get up close to, despite my shyness, and from an arm’s length, I could examine what death looked like, what it smelled like. And if I felt brave enough, I could reach out and feel how it felt.
“Go ahead, stick your head right up in there,” I remember my father encouraging. And I did, looking up, down and around that open cavity, counting the ribs of each lengthy side, with an emerging curiosity in God’s symmetry and the connection between the physical body and that spirit, energy, life force that once resided inside.
Around that same time, while on a road trip to visit my mother’s family in Pennsylvania, we were detoured around an accident where a tractor trailer and a string of vehicles plowed through a herd of migrating deer on a New York highway. The herd was making its seasonal trek back up to the Delaware Water Gap. In an effort to shield me from the scene, my mother told me to keep lying down in the backseat, but my natural instinct was to identify what remained and to wonder how many people a herd that size could feed.
Before fully understanding anything about responsibility or accountability, at five years old, I understood there were events that fell into the natural order of things and there were events that happened as a result of man’s interference with that order. I also knew my father tracked deer along runs older than his grandfather, older than the farm on which my great-grandparents lived, perhaps older than some of the streams cutting through their parcel of land, or even older than the twisted-with-age apple trees that fed the deer in the winter. And if a herd was biologically inclined to follow those same ancient routes for more generations than I could count, then what did that say about the men who built the highways, or the men who drove the trucks?
My first exposure to death was the closest thing to losing a pet without the personal relationship. Having a small-town rural upbringing, deer had a presence in my life, similar to the domesticated house pets who stalked the yards and terrorized the birdfeeders of my childhood friends or decimated the prized flowering hedges of the neighbors. However, unlike other children my age, I was not approached with a conversation about fairness, or a crash course covering what I had control over, nor was I give the G-rated version of the life cycle.
My mother, to her credit, did rent for me and my sister the PBS documentary, The Miracle of Life, to explain to us where babies came from. But the only connection I could make between how birth and death were related was that anatomically a woman’s vagina in labor looked much like the belly of a gutted deer. After watching the series, I could not believe a human being could endure something so traumatic as childbirth and still be alive.
Clearly, I was my father’s daughter; the offspring of a man who exclaimed, “Wow, that looks like a deer heart!” the first time he saw my mother deliver a placenta.
I did have some religion early on, though it was not a developed belief system by any means that could have helped to better explain what death was, nor was there any age-appropriate censorship provided to formalize and normalize the experience. My disassociation with death did not come from my parents putting distance between me and the messy and complex parts of dying, rather it came from my lack of experience in losing someone close to me. The loss of a deer life was hardly any different than a field mouse at the mercy of a hawk, and so there was no need for mourning or the learning of coping mechanisms.
When I first heard the adage, “Nothing prepares you for death,” I was twenty-five and had just lost the first person with whom I had a close relationship with; my grandmother. Though I knew the sentiment was meant to provide comfort in a time of loss, for me, it somehow unintentionally and poetically pointed out my inexperience and under-developed understanding of how death was viewed by others in the Western society in which I was raised.
Second-hand copies of National Geographic taught me that in other parts of the world, certain traditions and ceremonies were observed with multi-day wakes and extended visiting hours, providing loved ones and neighbors more time with the departed in their naturally deceased state. When my grandmother died, her body was immediately taken away to a crematorium, leaving behind a sudden void and absence and the feeling that something that belonged to us was unrightfully taken away from us. There was no ritualistic bathing or dressing of her body, no traditions observed to aid her passing spirit, no food offerings prepared to honor our God(s) or ward off malevolent entities. Time was not taken.
We chose, instead, to follow the proper protocols and channels when dealing with our dead. Trained individuals were paid to quickly dispose of my grandmother’s body in a sterilized and impersonal environment, incinerating her at such a high heat to not just rid her of the cancer that killed her, but to completely dispose of her physical presence on this earth; except for some residual ash and bone, “the personal effects” of her being that were handed over to her children in a plastic bag, like some consolation prize.
I turned twenty-five the day of my grandmother’s funeral. My birthday was an occasion I nearly forgot about amidst all the travel preparations, the service, and the catching up with relatives and family friends. My grandmother had been an important person and force in my life, in all our lives, and losing her on Valentine’s Day, three days before my birthday, was a major blow to my heart.
But someone did remember the occasion of me turning another year older and managed to sneak down to the local Wegman’s to pick up a pre-made cake, so that when we gathered later at my aunt’s house after the service, my family could sing Happy Birthday to me. The thoughtful gesture came from the right place, still, it felt a bit funny celebrating the continuity of my life, when we were supposed to be celebrating a life lost, and that guilt stayed with me much longer than I would like to admit.
Not all deaths are created equal and there was no comfort to be found knowing that the life of a person close to me was cut short and that she was scared and uncertain until the very end. My grandmother, who swore she had tasted alcohol twice in her life and died of liver cancer, turned to her faith, because otherwise she would have died angry holding the unfair hand she was dealt. But it was her last lucid thoughts scratched upon a scrap of paper and left upon her bedside table that truly made me see no one was to blame: Holy Spirit, I have nothing to gain from this at all. This is not the truth of who I am. I am not a body. I am free.
In death, my grandmother shed her fleshy suit like an anchor and her naked soul was finally released of any more pain.
It is Cyclical: New Life After Loss
I may not have learned about loss in the most conventional ways, but I did learn that life and death could not be simply described with linear timelines that stop and start, nor could they be defined with a standardized set of timeframes without overlap. I learned that the relationship between life and death is more cyclical, ongoing, like those stories you hear about the passing of one relative and another being born, how maybe two spirits from two different generations crossed paths in their leaving and entering into this world.
Six months after the death of my grandmother, I learned I was pregnant. It was a shock.
An unplanned pregnancy was not just surprising, it was confusing and a little heartbreaking, too. My partner, who was older than me and in a different place in his life, felt no urgency or biological drive to get his genes into the next generation. And in knowing this about him, I had to muster up all the courage and strength I could just to share the news.
My concerns were different from his. How could I possibly become a mother, when I had only been out of college for a few years and did not even have a full grasp on who I was as an adult, yet? I wondered if I was being tested or punished, and I blamed myself for being so careless and stupid. I may as well have experienced another family death, because that is how I felt about this unexpected pregnancy— that I should kiss my goals and dreams goodbye, that my life was over.
When I first heard the Spanish word for pregnant, embarazada, in an introductory language class in junior high, I wondered why there was shame associated with this miraculous thing a woman could do. It was not until I became pregnant, did I see how, depending on the circumstances surrounding a conception, a pregnancy could either be a joyful occasion and reason for celebration, or it could be something one feels needs to be hidden away and discussed only in certain company. Even procreation had its taboos.
When my mother became pregnant for the first time, my Grammy told her, “Don’t be thinking you can move back home, now.” My grandmother made it quite clear that my mother would not be welcome with kids in tow and no husband. It was a you-made-your-bed, now-you’re-going-to-lie-in-it kind of tough love, which clearly got through to my mother, because never once did she consider going back home as an option, after her marriage to my father ended.
I still had a lot to learn about life, and maybe there was something to becoming a parent and taking on that kind of responsibility—the biggest responsibility of all, the care of another human being brought into this world. It was a lesson in accountability if anything.
I decided that if I was going to be a single parent at the cost of a tenuous relationship, so be it. I had a wonderful family and supportive community and I was a highly competent, adaptive, motivated young woman. I was no doubt privileged in this way. It was 2007, and there were plenty of examples of single and successful moms out there with enriched lives. I would make it work, not because I had to, but because I was equipped to.
So, I began my prenatal routine of daily vitamins, a healthier diet, and scheduling my first ultrasound at the women’s clinic. Life did go on and as the weeks went by, my body and mood changed. My heart began to feel full once again, despite the recent loss of my grandmother and the impending loss of my partner. And at seven weeks along, I could not wait for my first appointment. To hear that heartbeat. To see that little pea-shape on the screen.
I went alone to the clinic and was surprised when I had to be escorted through a crowd of Pro-Life protestors, their chants and posters making me feel even more exposed and vulnerable. All I wanted to do was yell back over my shoulder, “Can’t you see I’m alone?!”
My first check-up did not go as planned. From neither the pelvic exam or the ultrasound could my doctor detect any sign of life, despite my blood and urine tests providing a positive result. Disappointed, we agreed I would return in a week and hopefully, by then, we would have a confirmed pregnancy.
That wait was anxiety-inducing and made me question if somehow in all my indecision around being pregnant and becoming a mom, had I somehow willed there to be nothing to see. Maybe all the changes I had been experiencing were in my head. Maybe I had jumped the gun when I should have waited to tell my partner. Maybe we could salvage our relationship, after all.
It was a lot to process and I did feel very much alone during that time. I tried to go to work and act like nothing was out of sorts when my insides felt twisted up with so much stress, I found it difficult at times to breathe. Then the pain started.
At first, it was a dull poking feeling in my lower back, not much different than the feeling you get from a tight muscle or pinched nerve from sleeping funny. I stretched at home and when I was at work on my feet, I kept moving and ignored it. But after a couple of days, the pain did not go away. It got worse, reaching a point of being so uncomfortable, I could not sleep through the night.
I drove myself to the ER and waited for hours to see a doctor, as my symptoms did not warrant any urgency, compared to the drug overdoses or cardiac patients that came in on stretchers and oxygen. When the doctor did make an appearance, she checked my vitals and found nothing too unusual, other than me looking very tired.
She looked quite tired herself. It was late in the evening and she was probably operating on caffeine, adrenaline, and energy bars to get her through the back-to-back shifts and the long list of patients who showed up needing to be fixed.
“It’s probably just a miscarriage,” she told me, lacking the appearance of empathy or any real concern. “I will give you a script for the pain.”
I was over-tired and sick of hurting, but something told me that pain killers were probably not the best solution, especially if the pregnancy had any chance of being viable. Call me a masochist, but I wanted to be aware of what was going on with my body, whether the pain was increasing or dissipating.
I went home and tried to sleep, and in spurts was successful. The next day, I could barely stand upright and ended up calling into work, so I could stay horizontal and rest. I was bleeding quite a bit at this point, which indicated to me that the doctor may have been right all along. Maybe my body was trying to purge itself of the pregnancy.
My back and sides were tender to the touch. Back and forth I went from my bed to bathroom, fearing where I would pass the small fetus, and what I would do when I did. Then the bed became too soft to lay upon, so I moved to the floor and crawled to the toilet when I felt a need.
The next day my boss called and told me that I had to come in. It was the way she said it, I knew I could not count on her to understand what I had been going through the last 48 hours. Worried I would lose my job if I did not show, I popped some extra strength Tylenol, put on my best face, and stocked up on super-absorbent pads.
It was about 7 pm and I had not even made it through the early dinner service, when my barback said to me, “You don’t look so good.”
I was taking a breather in the corner, between drink tickets, because the Tylenol had worn off and I could not unhunch my back without shooting pain running through my body. I felt as though I could pass out at any moment.
The General Manager offered to drive me to the hospital, but I told him I would be fine. It had taken so long in the ER last time and I did not want to take a cab home later.
This time my experience at the hospital was very different.
At check-in, my blood pressure was so low it immediately drew the attention of the triage nurses. And as I waited to see a doctor, they kept asking me to say my name out loud and what day it was.
They told me to undress and get into a Johnny and asked if there was anyone I would like to call. They took my jewelry, my cell phone, my car keys, and my clothing, and placed it in a plastic bag, inside a plastic container. I gave them the number of my dad and stepmother.
From check-in, I was placed on a stretcher and wheeled quickly down a hallway to radiology, for a scan of my abdomen and back. From radiology, I was again shuttled down another hallway, to where my doctor was waiting for me with a waiver.
“It’s about liability,” he told me. I remember hearing those words and how his voice cracked when he told me there was lots of blood and that it would be an exploratory surgery. I wondered if it was nerves, but my sight was so blurry from the lighting and my watering eyes, I could not make out a single feature, let alone the expression on his face.
I asked him if I was dying. To which he said, “Well, it’s a good thing you showed up when you did.”
The surgery took two and a half hours and they had to enter my abdomen in three different locations. My right fallopian tube had ruptured, which caused me to hemorrhage. Later, I learned from my doctor that had I waited even a couple of hours more, I would have died. He was amazed that neither the pain nor the low blood pressure had not caused me to lose consciousness. I told him my priority, despite all the pain and fatigue, was to stay awake, that there was something in me that needed to be aware of what was happening to my body and my baby.
It took almost two months for me to physically heal from that surgery, but emotionally that trauma stayed with me for many, many years. My relationship with my partner did end, eventually. Part of me resented him for not being present and at my side, which made it even more difficult to repair trust and intimacy and to heal. It made me recognize that people grieve in different ways and that some choose to not grieve at all.
“Look, hasn’t my body already felt
like the body of a flower?
Look, I want to love this world
as though it’s the last chance I’m ever going to get
to be alive
and know it.
Sometimes in late summer I won’t touch anything, not
the flowers, not the blackberries
brimming in the thickets; I won’t drink
from the pond; I won’t name the birds or the trees;
I won’t whisper my own name.
the fox came down the hill, glittering and confident,
and didn’t see me- and I thought:
so this is the world.
I’m not in it.
It is beautiful.”
-Excerpt from October by Mary Oliver
New Life in the Time of COVID
I am married and thirty-seven years old. It is 2020. My husband and I have been trying to conceive for years, but we are losing hope. Truth is, I had lost hope long before we met, believing I was broken. Believing that if by some miracle or God’s will I do become pregnant again, I will die. But out of love for my husband and the desire to raise children with him, we optimistically keep trying.
We are referred to the best fertility center in the state. We are referred to an acupuncturist who specializes in conceiving. We are recommended an energy worker who deals in the kind of trauma that resides in the body and blocks growth.
We look beyond Western medicine and consult two Senegalese shamans. They slaughter a sacrificial lamb and a goat that feeds an entire village. We find this to be one of the most beautiful acts of human empathy, knowing that an ocean away and in a tongue we do not know, they are praying for us.
We are encouraged to keep looking for signs. We do the work. We visit salt caves. We fill our glasses with wishes and bathe away that which does not serve us. We forgive ourselves, let room in. When spring comes, a flock of fifty lambs are born up the road. We try to remain humble. This is farm country and these lambs will be many meals into the next winter season, feeding hungry families and supplying the local soup kitchen.
We are told to stay close to home. There are people dying. They say it is a global pandemic. There are riots in the streets. We are told to take inventory of what is most important. Even the trees look agitated. We count our blessings for the health of our family, for the health of our friends, for the health of our neighbors. Our blessings do not discriminate. We plan and plant a garden believing in tomorrow. We know hope is a privilege.
We have questions about how we grieve in this strange and modern world, with populations forced to isolate themselves from one another. We worry about the individuals on the front lines witnessing first-hand the quick decline of the stricken—the nurses and doctors and healthcare workers, staring death in the face, day in and day out. Is this epidemic part of the natural world? Will we be haunted eternally by man’s limitations?
We worry about the families who are not given the opportunity to say “goodbye”. The families that cannot hold their loved ones to comfort them as their lives come to an end. Will they forever be tormented with guilt or blame?
As soulful human beings, we want decency and a special regard to be set aside for the intimate business of dying. We call this human nature, but it is not the true nature of the natural world.
We set up barriers, sterilize our environments, create hierarchies, and our own resource chains, all out of the fear of “foreign agents” and the fear of expiring. Our species is unique in our fear and anticipation of death, and how we memorialize those who have passed on. Do we honestly believe that somehow, someday we may actually have control over one of the most natural acts of all?
My husband and I learn we are pregnant amidst the chaos, the societal upheaval, and all the loss. It is not a joke, though it feels like it should be. At least some laughter would be welcome to lighten all this heaviness. We do not want to appear deserving or too joyful. It is difficult to pretend.
“What do we tell our son?” We wonder. He will want to know someday, won’t he? What story should we share? Do we tell him we sacrificed a lamb? Do we tell him we had almost given up hope? Do we tell him that while others were grieving, we had to hide away our joy?
Maybe we will just start out by telling him about the deer and how their routes are older than men.