We don’t take a trip . . . a trip takes us. John Steinbeck
In the cold months of winter, in a bed by a window, my ninety-three year old mother lay dying. She wanted this transition, was tired of rallying; the broken hip was too much. And the distance between my home in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and her hospital bed in coastal Maine felt great. I didn’t want to miss out, didn’t want to have any regrets; yet, I also didn’t want to completely let go of my lively full life in Michigan. I remember how unsettling it was to try to gauge the “right” time to fly east for these wintertime visits, how unsettling it was to dance in this particular unknown. It was my friend, Garee, last January, who reminded me that my mother’s choice of a dying date wasn’t my business — and, of course, she was right. We leave these bodies in our own time, and, we are born out of our mothers in our own time as well. And now, in the sweltering hot days of a Colorado summer, my mother’s great grandson is reminding us all of that. We witnesses, we family members can bet on a day that Baby will be born — this, the third day of July, is the day that Cam has chosen — and, yet, this isn’t our summertime ball game. This isn’t our Fourth of July Parade. Or Fifth of July Parade. Or Fifteenth of July Parade. This is Baby’s show and he’s in charge.
I visited with my mother in January at Mid-Coast Hospital just a week or two after she had broken her hip. It was my birthday and she was sweet and coherent and the two of us nibbled on cookies and marveled that she had given birth to me all those years ago. I told her how Shel’s belly was beginning to swell, how soon Pete and Shel would know the gender of this child. My mother smiled and closed her eyes and soaked it in. And on this wintertime visit to Maine in mid-January, while my mother rested, there was space to leave her side and browse the aisles of L.L.Bean, space to walk briskly along the shoreline in the biting cold at Popham Beach, space to breathe deeply. And now, in this waiting for Baby time, we also are finding the space to breathe deeply. We touch Shel’s belly, feel Baby’s bottom or a foot as he moves as best he can in his ever-shrinking watery home. When all of us, all four grandparents and his dad, are in the room, when we’re talking amongst ourselves, he seems to become more active — Shelly thinks it’s because he hears us and likes having his family close. Yesterday, Shelly made Cam and I Indian food for lunch — eggplant curry with pineapple slices on the side. Cumin, ginger, eggplant, pineapple — all foods known to induce labor. “Hopefully it won’t be much longer,” Shel said.
As I hugged my mother good-bye on my birthday weekend visit last January, she said the same thing. “Hopefully it won’t be much longer.” I returned to Maine two and a half weeks later to find her lying flat now, in her bed by the window at Winship Green. She was barely eating and her breathing was labored, and, although the curtains were pushed wide open and the gulls were flying high and the cardinals were perched in the snow-covered trees, my mother didn’t seem to notice. She was going inward. She had work to do. And all I could do was be present, bearing witness. She loved it when I placed my hands on her forehead or the crown of her head. And when I did, I was surprised by the energy, the sparks I felt in my burning palms. I think my mother was leaving her body through the crown of her own head.
I wonder what it is like to be born, to press down with the crown of your head, to enter this world of the senses, this world of matter, crown first, to surrender to this process of being born. Baby just doesn’t seem to be ready yet. So Shel is eating spicy foods — cumin and garlic and hot peppers — is willing to swig down shots of ginger in order to speed this process up, while we, in the meantime, have slowed ourselves down. Our days are long and spacious. Cam and I discovered a trail system right at the edge of town that is new to us, and we hiked, on Sunday afternoon, for hours, up into the red rock formations. At one point, Cam rested on a rock and a lizard skittered up beside him. Later, I slipped out of my running shoes and dipped my feet into the icy mountain waters of the Boulder Creek. I stood there knee deep for a long time, watching the people tubing downstream, carried by the river.
It was a few days before my mother’s passing that I last saw her in her physical form. I wasn’t present for her final breath. And the timing felt okay to me, felt right somehow; it had been an honor to bear witness to her process, to be a loving daughter to a loving mother who was getting ready to leave her body. And now we’re here. And I want to be present for Baby’s first days. I want to listen to his first breaths, smell his new baby smell. I want to bear witness. And I’ll wait and see how it plays out. In the meantime, I have my feet in the river and I’m facing downstream.