Of Birth and Life
To know God as the Source of all that is effects awe, as well as a deep sense of our inherent human dignity as creations in his image. We are contingent beings who by grace alone interact with the ultimate and transcendent, developing individual and shared relationships with the Lord of the universe. An unimaginable privilege, and a very real responsibility.
In joyful anticipation we prepare to celebrate the miraculous birth of Jesus. He comes to be with us. We go to him in adoration.
What gift will I bring? Do I allow him to claim me?
I retired this year from a lifelong career in health care. I wish I could say that I chose years of education and more than forty years of work in critical care, nurse midwifery, and high risk case management as a ministry of service in the name of my God. I was eighteen when I resisted the pressure to choose medicine over nursing because others thought my potential would be "wasted" as a nurse. Certain that my primary vocation was to marriage and family, I knew even then
that medicine would be the more serious competition for family life.
I have shared professionally my own gifts in countless ways, with many, many thousands of patients and families through the years. The unborn coming toward the light and into my hands for a first-ever breath. Those who drew their very last breath in my presence. Others, lots of others.
Here I reflect on what has been shared with me, even when those who gave were unaware of it - of what I saw, heard, touched, sensed, and took away with me forever. They taught me about life and the dignity of the human person, and showed me again and again and again Whose gifts these are.
My first position after college was as an RN in Neonatal ICU. Our babies were too early, too small, too fragile, physically imperfect in ways we could help, and others in ways we could not. I fell in love with some of these babies, and with their families.
I cared for Brendan for several months before it was finally clear he would not survive. His parents consented to remove respiratory support, but in their grief chose not to remain near. I held and rocked him for his last hour, praying with him and asking him to tell Jesus that I too would follow one day. I had kept a sort of journal for this little boy. At his funeral a few days later I gave it to his mom and dad.
Christopher was with us for a year, and he loved me as I did him. I could make this silly sound to which he would smile and wiggle and try to laugh. One morning I came to work to learn that he had arrested and died during the night, soon after his first birthday. I was inconsolable not to have been there for him. Our head nurse allowed me to prepare his body, but she insisted on carrying him to the morgue with me as escort only. She intended kindness, but didn't realize what I needed then. O dear Lord, is this truly all about me?
A year or two later in the Medical-Surgical ICU I cared for Yolanda, a woman with psychiatric issues who had set herself on fire. Despite the terrible pain she endured as I cleansed and dressed her burns, she would tell stories, sometimes laughing strangely and (I thought) inappropriately. It hurt me so to see her wounds and to think how difficult her life must have been and would continue to be. We liked each other, but I couldn't at all understand this entire experience for her or for me. Were I with her now I would listen more attentively and much more respectfully. Just listen Kathy. Maybe no one else ever does?
In Cardiac Surgery ICU Herb was not recovering. His chest was infected and open, exposing his heart and lungs. His wife actually asked to help irrigate and pack the massive wound so he'd know she was there for him as she'd been for forty-five years. A stroke had affected his mental status, and we weren't sure how much he understood. Jean smiled cheerfully, held his hand, combed his hair, kissed his cheek, and talked to him about everything. After visits I would walk her down the hall toward the door as she visibly deflated. We both knew Herb would soon leave her a widow. I was not yet married, but this small woman's big heart taught me something very important about sharing a sacrament.
After six years in several different critical care specialties I entered graduate school for Nurse Midwifery, and practiced for over twenty years. Vivid images of birth remain with me – intimate, familiar, yet each primordial and unique. Simultaneous continuity and new beginning.
Birth is extraordinarily and exquisitely sensory. A narrowly and intensely lit flood of color on a draped periwinkle field in an otherwise softly shaded room. Usually rather quiet – low-volume fetal heart tones, muffled and visceral sounds from mom, whispers from dad, my soft-spoken encouragement, clicking of shiny instruments as the nurse prepares a table. So much is tactile - my leaning against the bed, the hot lamp, warm blue gown and ivory gloves, mom's right knee brushing my shoulder or her foot propped against my left hip. My own strong hands gently ease passage for mom and baby, unwind an umbilical cord, clear an airway, and ensure first breaths. As he grows pink I place him skin-to-skin on mom to reassure both, for cuddling and a detailed inspection by all. He is alert, eyes open, murmuring, maybe crying a bit after a few coughs or sneezes as he is toweled dry. When it no longer pulses, I clamp and then offer to let dad cut the cord. Aromas are distinctive and earthy. The placenta comes, and as needed, we manage post-delivery care and help mom settle the small, precious one on her breast. How does anyone not see God in every moment of this?
At times I have shared an unexpectedly urgent baptism. There are little ones whose brief lives cannot accommodate white garments and joyful gatherings, or even the summoning of a priest or deacon. Parents in crisis ask on behalf of their infant, or nod through tears when offered this sacrament of our triune God.
As I relive these memories of birth and life, of death, of Brendan (son of Robert and Ellie), Christopher (son of Dave and Maureen), Yolanda (I knew nothing about her family), Herb and Jean, and so very many others named and unnamed, I am certain that this particular life was chosen for me.