The sweet sugar smell of candy corn and the warm orange glow of carved pumpkins, crunchy acorns underfoot, the Swiss children shrieking and throwing burntgold leaves – every year the small things take me back to an autumn night 26 years ago.
I remember that afternoon, how we spent the first stages of labor hurriedly carving pumpkins on the front porch. Later, on the way to the hospital, seeing the children trick-or-treating on the sidewalks of our little town.
And I remember my husband pulling up at a stoplight and noticing that the driver in the car next to us was a demented clown with blood running out of his eyes. He turned and waved with a creepy grin, and it all seemed perfectly normal to me. It just felt like another surreal facet of the carnival-like, fun house experience of childbirth – vivid colors and sensations, horrific pain, blood and of course the underlying dread of something going bad.
Well, not exactly like that.
I was just trying to remain calm through the contractions, all the while wondering if we would have a little pumpkin-headed Halloween baby.
And it progressed quickly – so fast that when he was born the umbilical cord became wrapped around his tiny neck. His head was turning blue and there was a moment of fear, but the midwife calmly instructed me to remain still and to just exhale slowly.
And even though I was scared, I took a few deep, even breaths.
It felt like each of us in the room was holding our lungs for those few seconds and the shared oxygen in the small space felt condensed, vital and rare, pulsing with the pure essentials of life.
I waited for this new being to take his own breath. And then finally he was free and the there was a collective sense of deep relief and pure joy.
Anyone who witnesses childbirth knows this to be true: no matter how planned or orchestrated it is, there is always an element outside of your control. And while breathing through contractions may seem lame, it is the surest tool for relaxing the muscles, for opening the body and allowing life to take over.
I remember last fall we visited our son in Montana and he took us up to the Bridger Range and we listened to a lecture by an expert on the magnificent birds of prey, the eagles and hawks that inhabit that area of the country. We learned about the raptors’ great migration traveling from Canada all the way south to Argentina with a stop in little Bozeman along the way.
Every season they are guided by some unknown force to fly along the thermal winds that are unique to those rocky mountains. Using the strength of their great powerful wings, they can draft along the currents for hundreds of miles a day without rest.
Later that day when we drove home through the canyon, I kept my eye out for the hawks along the split rail fences and telephone poles. I just wanted to get closer to the birds’ exotic freedom, have a tiny brush with their beauty. And as I looked for them I imagined my soul taking flight up into the late afternoon sky into the darkening canyon.
To soar seamlessly with an innate confidence and with an instinctual surrender – few things in my life have ever felt close to that – but labor and delivery maybe is one of them.
Because every year at this time it strikes me what a crazy thing having a child is. How even though it is an everyday human act, it is a profoundly mystical thing, the moment when one body becomes two. One soul divides into another one.
The fact was that my small world was changed forever, seized and carried away in a direction that was never up to me. At the mercy of my body but also empowered by it too, conscious and aware but mostly taken along by ancient evolution.
To the Native Americans, the hawk and eagle are among the most revered in the physical world. Their people believe that they live close to the Great Creator in the sky and that they fly between earth and heaven as conduits of wisdom and the Divine.
The word raptor means to seize or plunder and these birds definitely characterize the opportunistic, somewhat sinister skill of the hunter/predator.
But to me they are also a witness from beyond, a reminder of my place in the universe.
I think of the hawk’s journey, an exhausting trek of purpose and intent, and it seems like we humans also ride the winds of time, dependent upon our fragile, tenuous bodies to move us. With no wings to carry us, only our bracken bones, we take only minuscule wisps of the atmosphere’s huge expanse of air.
Yet we ride those great buffeting winds that connect us. We can’t live up there in the great expanse but it exists for us too, a connector to the rest of the universe.
In the way my son was born on my own ragged exhale and tired push of uterine muscle, how he was pulled onto this planet, into this delicate ecosystem that is home.
And the new jolt of pulse and pump of blood/heart muscle, where did they originate? And what did he bring with him all his own? Were there thoughts, intentions? Was he simply floating down the pike completely mindless/soulless?
The word raptor also comes from the root verb rapere, to be seized in ecstasy. It’s a bizarre, funny image – as if one is like a passive puppet and experiencing the most beautiful thing imaginable, but part of a violent act.
How similar that seems to childbirth. Indescribable and paradoxical and unapologetically painful, bound in a soulful mystery.
Today it only resides within memory.
And maybe that’s the best way the body has to tell a story, really, and so I try to write it down as I go, breath to breath, remembering.