Try to relax your body. Don’t fight the pain. Breathe in slowly, here, I’ll do it with you—now breathe out. We’re right here with you. The words come to me naturally when I hear the reflexive moans of a woman in labor; I surprised myself when they spilled out in response to Gramma’s wailing, an audible signal fire to the tumors infiltrating her pelvic bones. She could no longer walk and every transfer from the couch to her wheelchair meant rousing the pain. Six children were born of her womb, and now death was ravaging the very place that brought forth life.
Witnessing my Gramma die was profound not only because it held grief, but also because it reminded me so much of the sounds, sights, and process of birthing. As a doula I stand at the door into life, coaching women through childbirth and guiding them to surrender to the process of pain and sacrifice of their bodies for the sake of life.
Birth is unpredictable and unglamorous but has its recognizable patterns nonetheless. There’s a quiet magic that happens in the morning hours when a woman is in early labor: the lights are down, hospital hallways sleepy, we might play soft music while she relaxes in a bathtub or in bed. I time her contractions on my phone. We snack on peanut butter pretzels and her husband sneaks a nap, or often will tell her stories of pleasant memories they have together, providing distraction and imagery to calm her body. The anticipation reminds me of the Spirit of God, the ruach hovering over the deep, waiting to breathe life into creation. I’ve seen the most beautiful sunrises from hospital rooms when I can open the blinds and show a laboring woman how she’s made it through her longest night.
Eventually, sometimes suddenly, most women reach a crossroads in labor, the most intense phase called “transition.” Here she is flooded with a sense that she cannot go on and must find the courage to allow her birthing instincts to take over. She faces the question: will you surrender to the life inside of you, who is ready to leave your body and make its way out to the world? Glory and relief await, but first, she must let go, and when she does the baby usually arrives soon after—its lungs fill with air, with ruach, and life gives way to life.
Gramma transitioned to hospice care in my aunt’s home after several years of battling cancer. She’d spend her days solving sudoku puzzles, brow furrowed and her tongue peeking out of the corner of her mouth in intense focus. Remote work allowed me to spend the last few weeks of her life with her there, and every night we’d transfer her to her wheelchair, which my cousins hoisted as if it were a throne, to their shoulders and carried her up the stairs. Her hospice bed was in a deep purple bedroom, the color of royalty for our matriarch; the birthstones for each of her twenty-four grandchildren on a tarnishing gold chain jostling around her neck as they carried her. An April diamond set in a charm shaped like a little girl was strung first: the oldest daughter of her oldest daughter.
Don’t brace yourself; don’t fight the pain. Now I was coaching myself while I sat with Gramma on the back patio one day after a visit from the hospice social worker. Papa poked his head outside, and asked if she’d make him some eggs—we all laughed nostalgically, knowing that just days after their wedding, after he’d jokingly harassed her for breaking the yolk of an over-easy egg, she famously told him she’d never cook him eggs again and had proudly kept her word.
I was grasping, tightly, trying to make something of every last moment with her, pinning more pegs in my memory so that I would not forget her. I offered to paint her nails but she declined, saying she always just picked at them anyway. She told me how while pregnant with my mom, she awoke to a rat running across her belly in the middle of the night, and she enlisted the help of her dad and brothers to move them out the next day amidst the midsummer Cleveland heat. A few weeks later, she went into labor: “While we waited in the room to have your mother, I heard the woman on the other side of the curtain screaming bloody murder to get her baby out. I mean, screaming! I told myself, ‘I will never get to the hospital too early again.’” Besides the rat scare, my mom’s birth was apparently rather ordinary, but the mystery of it all is that part of me was there too. Women are born with all the eggs they will have in their lifetime, the micro-physicality of their future children having developed while they themselves were in utero. My own tiniest beginnings nestled into my mother’s fetal frame six decades ago as Gramma nurtured the growing life inside of her.
As Gramma’s body lost strength and functioning, slowly then all at once, we moved the hospice bed downstairs to give ample space for our family to gather around her. My aunt and I pulled clean linens out of the dryer, working together to hook the fitted sheet around the navy pleather hospice bed. “Diagonal corners first, then the other two, just like Gramma always taught us!” she instructed in a bittersweet tone, but my breath caught in my throat—I’d heard my own mother teach us the same bed-making strategy as a child, her voice echoing each time I put clean sheets on my bed as an adult. In a mystery of nature, nurture, and epigenetics, we are all mosaics made of the pieces our relatives gave us. My mom, for instance, inherited Gramma’s focus face—scrunched brow, tongue slightly cocked. My siblings and I all know how to keep a stubborn vow, and my chipped nail polish sits in a pile below my feet as I type this, heir apparent to that pesky anxious tic. Most presciently, though, we learn courage from our mothers and grandmothers, who took on the uncertainty and pain of pregnancy and childbirth for our sake.
Birth mirrors the first creation. I once heard a pastor explain that God, who is all and in all, who before time filled all of time and space with himself, must have somehow cleared room for us as he formed the heavens and the earth with his ruach. God’s relationship with humanity is founded and later redeemed in sacrifice and surrender, a willing release into the world in order that we might be found by him and made into all that we will become. A woman’s potential to bear life is signaled monthly by a little death, a turning of the soil to keep the ground fertile for humanity’s seed to take root. They carve space in their already full bodies to create and release new life. A surrendered love is our birthright, one we spend our lives learning and then imparting to others.
Death, like birth, is unglamorous, unpredictable. A priest came to administer Gramma’s last rites; on his way out, looked me straight in the eyes and gently whispered courage as he squeezed my hand. We gathered with bated breath, lights turned down, singing old hymns, grabbing midnight snacks from the kitchen, and napping on blankets on the floor. My cousin’s six-week-old lay sleeping on the bed next to her, a daughter of her daughter’s daughter peacefully unaware of the ocean of grief engulfing the room. Each time Gramma’s chest rose with another breath we hit “lap” on our phone’s timers: stubborn as ever, whenever her breathing spaced out we would gather everyone close and she would perk back up.
Three days after she began dying, Papa brought out a box of letters he’d written to Gramma during his deployment to Japan a lifetime ago, their old Marines postage stamps still discernable though the ink had begun to fade. It was now early evening, the sun was beginning to set. We took turns reading them out loud, and with what strength remained, Gramma turned and looked at my grandpa, her co-creator in their life together. We stood now at the outgoing threshold of her life, sensing her transition was coming. This pain won’t last forever; you’ll get to rest soon. Surrender to the life leaving your body. They locked eyes for a long few moments, and her ruach departed from her.
Cover image by Eduardo Barrios.