Having a woman’s body seems to mean special tutoring in life and death. I have been pregnant five times. Each pregnancy ended in a surgical procedure. Four times, my stomach and uterus have been cut open to retrieve in all their bloody splendor, Julia, Christian, Seth and Adam. Each time I have entered the mother’s valley of death, bringing my body under the knife, to lie still as someone cut into my flesh to release the life from my womb. What should be a joyous moment is full of fear for me. I lie on the operating table trying so very hard to be brave. But I am always petrified, and my body knows it: my pulse races, I hyperventilate and vomit in an allergic reaction to first the anesthetic and then the latex gloves. My eyes fill with tears. I really just want to run away. Yet I have no other choice if I want the life within me to live. (I don’t go into labor because of a tipped pelvis.)
As I lie on the table, my mind fills with the image of Annie Dillard’s tomcat, who would jump through her window at night covered with the blood of his kill. When she awoke, she found herself “covered with paw prints in blood; [she] looked as though [she] had been painted with roses.” She would ask herself, “What blood is this, and what roses? It could have been the rose of union, the blood of murder, or the rose of beauty bare and the blood of some unspeakable sacrifice or birth.” She never knew exactly how to read that midnight canvas.
And I never know when I am on that table exactly what is happening to me. Am I the site of some unspeakable horror or some unspeakable joy. Paradoxically, I am both: an open womb, a uterus pulled out of my abdomen; an immense pressure, a sucking rush, and an indignant cry. Only after I place my swollen, reluctant body on the table can I hear those first sounds of life. And no, the recovery is not swift in return for my heroism. My stomach is still bisected, the nerves endings are still cut and need to learn to stop screaming. My bowels are sluggish from the epidural, my head still pounds from the reaction I knew was coming.
As I battle these symptoms, my body begins to make milk for the child who needs to be fed. When I am barely coherent, unable to sit up, the nurses bring him to me. “He’s hungry,” they say. “Put him to the breast.” So I struggle upright, ignoring the burning incision that bisects my abdomen, to cradle the little body that was so recently inside me. I turn his mouth to me and do for my son what he cannot do for himself. But, in my insignificant bodily suffering, my spirit is tutored somewhat in that messianic admonition: Love thy neighbour, love thy son, the flesh of thy flesh, more than self. I come to understand, a little, how the Saviour would take upon him death, that he may loose the bands of death, which bind his people. At times, the demands and duties of this life take precedence over the travails of the body.
The other pregnancy ended in death. It was a long November Monday morning when I labored for ten hours, knowing that the end would produce only a misshapen fetus, that my body knew in its wisdom to expel. While my body tried to perform the labor it knew was necessary, my spirit keened. Medicine calls it a spontaneous abortion, but I called it . . . Actually, I don’t have a name for that desolate feeling that covered my spirit as my body labored. I only knew my baby would not be born the same time my Emperor tulips were scheduled to appear. I knew I could put the baby name books back on the shelf and stop doodling “Nicholas Kevin Santiago” on old receipts. I knew my sister-in-law and I would not give my parents their twelfth and thirteenth grandchildren three weeks apart. But most of all, I knew I wanted with all my heart to have another child, and I grieved for what was not to be.
But I did not grieve alone. In that valley of desolation brought on by physical travail, I believe I was sent angels to succor me in my infirmity. My sister who rubbed my back, changed the bath water and who, while I was at the hospital, cleaned my house, did my laundry and fed my children. A nurse who looked at me with compassion, said, “dear, sweet Tess . . . how sorry I am you are here.” A doctor who, sensitive to my pain, chose not to make me endure a surgical procedure in the sterility of his office. Rather he gave me anesthetic and blissful ignorance as he cleaned my womb of what had been the promise of a child. Women who knew, who had labored in a similar manner in vain, their eyes looked at me with a tenderness. Mostly, I was given a husband, who held my hand and stood by, waiting and watching, feeling helpless to stop my pain, wishing he could endure it for me. Who waited for me in surgery, and whom I found sobbing in his office three days later: he too had lost a child. Faced with all my pain, no one had noticed his. We felt the healing arms of the Saviour around our hearts that week: our neighbors’ tears, faint whisperings of another child in time, lessons in patience.
Could I have had my heart so broken another way? Probably. Would I have come so heavy laden and willingly to the Saviour? I don’t know. I do know that the death of that small, misshapen body ultimately brought light to my soul.
I cannot help but think as I remember those births and misbirths, that this body that makes us human also can make us most divine; that the peculiar pains of a woman’s flesh teach her exquisitely, intimately. What they teach she cannot know before hand, or even know that she needs to know. But when the pain subsides (or is grown accustomed to), she realizes sometime during the darkest of nights, or mundanest of mornings, knowledge has descended upon her like the dews from heaven and enlarged her soul.
Unfortunately, it has probably also enlarged her hips and thighs. If she’s anything like me, she bears the physical scars of that battlefield. The burst blood vessel on my left cheek appeared during labor with Julia. It still spreads spidery-red fingers across my cheekbone. The root canal brought on by Christian’s pregnancy left me with a porcelain crown. Two seven-inch scars bisect my lower abdomen (two children per scar). Stretch marks ornament my breast and hips like silver ribbons. My hips are wider, my feet an actual size bigger. My very bones have expanded in response to my mothering. Some of the effects are, blessedly, temporary, just for the moments of pregnancy: the bleeding gums, the weakened bladder, the hair that falls out in clumps, the aching hips. These pass in their time, but the memory remains.
In that memory lies the glory of this earthly body: though we may be resurrected in a perfect frame, the lessons taught me by my mother-body will rise with me. The sacrifice, the pain, the fear and faith of my mothering will sink into my soul and remain with me in the eternities. My spirit and this woman’s body inseparably connected constitute my fullness of joy. Time writes its messages on all of us. For me, (and for all those other middle-motherhood women for whom ruffled-skirted swimming suits have become de rigeur), our very bodies have become our books of life, an account of our obedience or disobedience written in our bodies.
And to what have we been obedient? To the purpose for which we were made: to provide a body and a safe haven to the spirits entrusted to our care. If we mother well, we wear out our lives bringing to pass the lives of others. Of the physical fruits–our wider hips, our flatter feet, our sagging breasts and rounder buttocks–we need not be so ashamed. In a better world, a kinder, more saintly world, a mother’s body would be kindly regarded, with respect and honor, for what she has given, for what she has done.