Usually when people find out that I work in hospice and at a birth center they say something like, “Wow, both ends of the spectrum. What is that like?” Either that or they start singing The Circle of Life…
I haven’t figured out a complete answer to that question yet. But, it’s a little bit like this.
Remember the days when you were a child swimming in the ocean and its blue infinity captured all your senses? Momma Rowe used to tell us to keep our rainbow beach umbrella in sight so that she could count our heads as we bobbled up and down in the waves and whitewater. But when we were IN the water we usually had our eyes turned out at the great never-ending horizon rather than looking back for the rainbow umbrella. Our attention was focused on the rhythm; sand beneath feet, approaching wave, duck under, power rolling over you, push off the bottom, take back your breath in the open air, shake stinging salt from your eyes to watch for another wall of water, feel the sand beneath feet, start again. You never knew if the wave coming at you would be powerful and crushing or soft and tender. And usually we forgot about the shore behind us. Some time would pass. Then, we would suddenly come to our senses and realize that we were covered over in gooseflesh and wade out of the waves- careful not to turn our backs to a big one- look around for the rainbow umbrella, and realize how far we had gone. Returning to the umbrella and the burning sand of the shore we would find that we had been gone an hour. Starving we would throw ourselves onto the sand, roll around in the warmth, and then ask for a sandwich.
Being there when babies are born or when people are dying feels very similar to this.
It seems to take you outside of time. I usually leave a birth or death shaking myself at how much time has passed. Although I’ve been looking at my watch the whole time to write down times and events, it’s always disorienting. Time has a different feeling. It is broken down into hours, minutes, and seconds, but they don’t mean the same thing. Time means drops of water, a few breaths, and a galloping heartbeat. Just as we lost ourselves to the rhythm of the waves, now we loose ourselves in the ebb and flow of moments.
It is unpredictable. There really is no telling what is going to happen when you leave your home in the morning (or in the middle of the night for a birth). It could be something big, something scary and powerful, or it could happen so quietly and peacefully that you wonder… Did that really just happen? No one can say what kind of wave will curl over us next, of if it will it push you all the way down to the sandy bottom or float you up into the sunshine.
It puts things back in perspective. In the face of life and death, life’s problems retreat and get smaller. Sometimes, I’m able to completely forget all of my outside problems and just be there. One of the midwives that I work with calls this feeling “Feeling the floor beneath your feet.” I call it being in the room. It’s drawing all of your attention to this present moment and situation. Whether watching someone take his or her first breath or the last, the ocean is deep and powerful and full of things I do not understand. The mystery takes my attention off of myself.
I like to think that St. Paul was talking about something like this when he wrote about decreasing so that God may increase. That area of our mind/heart/body that is caught up in insecurity, doubt and anxiety and preoccupied with ourselves has to get smaller. We must feel the floor beneath our feet, breath in, breath out, and face the circumstances in front of us. When we are completely there in the moment, when we have quieted the voices of fear, we can act with a clear purpose. Once we stop thinking of ourselves and how we are perceived, we can fully be Love to one another.
My work right now is like being in the ocean, and although that is not always comfortable, I still love the challenge and excitement. I love the awareness it brings to just be in the room.
A caveat. I have noticed that sometimes the hardest rooms for me to completely BE in are those where the people know me best. With my family and friends it’s often hard to unlearn the old patterns of insecurity. Plus, I sometimes come home tired, hungry, dirty, and ready to fall apart. The only room I want to be in at that time is a dark room with a bed, or in the shower. Shower = Magic. I hope that I am learning to be more present to them, even as I learn to be more present at work. Work should be a training ground for life and not the other way around.
And another. My mommy friends talk about these moments too, but I think we probably experience them differently. I think that once you have little babies you always keep the rainbow beach umbrella in your line of sight, at least until your little babies are grown up babies. I like to think that my mommy friends have lots of little “in the room” moments spread throughout their day, but they cannot disappear out of the time-space continuum for 10 hours because -Helloooo- their babies need them right there, right now.