I live in an interesting extended family situation in which another family very dear to mine lives in a house right next door to us on the same property. We share meals and childcare and joys and worries.
A week ago, my friend and neighbor’s 96 year-old grandmother came to live in her family’s house so close to my family’s house. She had been confined to a nursing home after a long stay in a hospital following an accident where she fell, then lay in spilled bleach on the floor till she was found many hours later, resulting in severe chemical burns on a large portion of her body. She was not expected to live.
Yet this resilient, wizened, little, Cherokee woman made it. She is still alive, her wounds now mostly healed. Since that time there has been much family debate about the safest, healthiest place for her recovery and her opportunity to live the remainder of her days, however few or many may be left. My friend gallantly volunteered to keep grandmother at home with her and her family.
And so she arrived, one day before her 96th birthday on New Year’s Eve. On the day of her arrival I entered the house next door, warmed and cleaned and full of the workings of caring for life: fresh food, nourishing tea, clean washcloths, soft bedclothes, new blankets, gentle soaps for the washing of delicate skin. I was struck, for not only was I familiar with the trappings of this type of caretaking, but I was at home immediately with the intensity of the energy in the room. Having attended many homebirths over the last several years I have come to know the feeling of the gate between the worlds being parted, of a particular energetic channel being open in a space in which life is about to pass through that channel. Here it was again, only the life that will be passing when her time comes will be leaving our earthly realm rather than entering it.
Today I sit with another friend, greatly pregnant with her first child. Her labor has begun, a slow tide flowing in, just beginning to rock her body with those great waves of power that will open her body and allow her child through her and will simultaneously teach her strength, patience, endurance, and humility. She was up for most of the night though this process is still in its beginning stages, and this morning when I woke I cleaned her house, fed her breakfast, held her hand in the bath, and now I’ve tucked her back into bed.
My work today is the same work that my neighbor has been doing with her grandmother this last week. It is the work of life and of death. It is the work of labor and of a transition in our life process. I do not know how many hours or days my friend will labor to bring forth her new child, and I do not know how many days or weeks, or months, or even years the 96 year-old grandmother will labor to come to the end of her life, but I do know that the work each of them is doing is not so removed from the other. I do know that when the gate between the worlds is open and the veil between this realm and other realms is thin that it is the same opening for each process, for the entering and the exiting of life. Both crossings are sacred, holy, beautiful, and whole.
The work of aiding those who are in the throes of life’s transition is not always easy work, but it is to be cherished. I am sure that my friend has spent her morning feeding, tending to, and cleaning the body of her grandmother. I am sure that as today wears on we will each have the opportunity to wipe the most private and delicate folds of the bodies of the women we serve, to do away with the fluids and the wastes that bodies give up but cannot be tended to by these woman as they move through the work of their labors. We will each be surrounded by washcloths and disposable underpads and cups full of tea and juice with straws sticking out of them so they can be put to the lips of the woman who needs a drink but cannot reach for it herself.
And amidst the trivial details of these incredibly significant processes we are all surrounded by the immensity of the energy, of the mystical vortex of opening, of change, of the moving of life forces that may sound cliché, but I assure you is real. It is palpable. It is as tangible as the subtle thump of the fetus hiccupping against his mother’s abdominal wall, as delicately visceral as the waxy, blue-veined thinness of the skin on grandmother’s hand in your own.
When the grandmother who is blind arrived on our mountain and was settled into her new bed in her warm house surrounded by loving family, she said, “Sounds good and solid up here, doesn’t it?” She who can no longer see with her eyes could hear that she had moved into surroundings that are safe and stable.
On a different mountain where I now sit, I can hear the fire gently consuming the wood in the stove. I hear the quiet, sweet music the coming child’s father has playing for the pleasure of the laboring mother. I occasionally hear the mother’s deepened breaths, her groans of discomfort as the birth tide makes its way through her body. It sounds good and solid up here, too.