On Being a Midwife

egg nest-843231_1920Today is a special day. April 18th. The anniversary of David’s death.

But this year, it’s especially meaningful because that date falls on the same place in “time” that it fell on the day David passed. Easter Saturday.

Knowing that this sacred season is filled with special graces, I’ve been taking it slow, going within. Paying attention. And I’ve received one heck of an unexpected, insightful gift. From an unlikely source. The popular Netflix series “Call the Midwife,” based on Jennifer Worth’s memoirs of midwifery in 1950’s poverty-stricken East London

First off, I should explain that I’m always behind when it comes to watching anything on TV or otherwise. So, you’ll understand when I say I’m only on season 1. Last week I was watching episode 7, a Christmas story about a newborn being abandoned on the convent steps by an unwed teenager. But it was the scenes around the tragic life of Mrs. Jenkins that held my unexpected gift.

Years earlier, newly widowed with five children to feed, Mrs. Jenkins had made the excruciating decision of turning herself and her brood over to the “care” of one of England’s notorious workhouses. All of her children had died there, malnourished and mistreated. Now she lives in abominable conditions, neglecting her health and hygiene, and the midwife/nurse Jenny Lee is sent to care for her.

In one particularly moving scene, Nurse Jenny, joined by Sr. Evangelina, comes to her home to bathe her. Like a silent intruder, I watch as the two women attempt to remove Mrs. Jenkins’ shoes, stuck to her feet after all these years, and tenderly disrobe her for her bath. With her thin, naked back exposed, O Come, O Come Emmanuel plays over this intimate undertaking. Surely this is God dwelling with us and in us, so evident by the love and care with which these two women lower Mrs. Jenkins into the bath, cover her frontal area as they sponge her back so that she will not feel any shame or discomfort. She appears wide-eyed in disbelief over what they are doing for her.

I cry easily. This selfless act strikes my heart open. No doubt because it’s achingly beautiful.

But it’s something more.

Something deeper that I can’t yet express or identify. The removal of Mrs. Jenkin’s shoes, the tender touches the two women applied to her body. The water and washing.  The one who had difficulty accepting and receiving such care.

It’s all so familiar.

It takes a few days before I understand this scene’s personal significance. Before another tender scene involving water and washing surfaces in my memory.  A scene involving someone who also had difficulty receiving. My husband.

It’s January 2009. David is cashing in on a silly gift I’d given him for New Year’s Eve: a handwritten, magic marker-colored I.O.U. for a foot bath and massage.

David was the serious one in our relationship. I was the let’s-find-some-new-adventure half of our marriage. While he provided stability and focus, I dabbled in creativity and wonderment. Knowing that he would ignore this holiday, let it pass without any fanfare, as he would have so many others if not for me and Davis, I decided to come up with a novel idea. Create a stack of I.O.U.’s, each one a personal treat: a free backscratching, dinner at his favorite restaurant, homemade breakfast any weekend. He chose the foot bath and massage first.

foot-massage-2133279_1920It’d be an understatement to say I was surprised. David – agreeing to such indulgent treatment? David, the guy who could barely handle receiving attention on his birthdays?

But I was grateful. Grateful for this opportunity to lavish him with care.

And months later, I would be grateful for this memory.

As I prepared the footbath, David sat waiting quietly in his favorite easy chair. He wore his terrycloth robe – the one article of clothing I would hold onto longer than anything else he’d owned, as if his scent would never fade. I placed the footbath on the carpet before his feet. And now, this man, this devoted husband who’d given me so much through our years together, allowed me to kneel before him and lovingly wash and caress his tired feet, to gingerly massage his toes, bent and inflamed with diabetes, to rub lotion on his calloused heels, hardened by years of neglect. In giving this to him, I received in return his humble appreciation, visible in his moist eyes as he simply said afterward, “Thank you, honey. That’s the best gift you could’ve given me.”

It was the last gift I would give him. And it turned out to be his gift to me.

Less than three months later he would die unexpectedly. A heart attack taking him too soon on that glorious Easter Saturday morning. A morning not unlike the one I experienced today.

Call Jennifer shell broken

In the Midwife episode, after her bath, Mrs. Jenkins appears to be renewed. Wearing the new coat Nurse Jenny obtained for her, she walks upright, no longer carrying the weight of shame. She’s recognized something in herself through the eyes of love. Through their tender attentiveness, Nurse Jenny and Sr. Evangelina had practiced a different kind of midwifery.

A midwife is an intermediary, someone who meets you in the middle of what you’re expecting and assists you all the way through it to the other side. Hadn’t that been what I had done for David, without even realizing it? Holding that in-between space for him? Helping him to receive and accept the selfless, abundant love that awaited him over the threshold he would soon cross?

The irony is that David had been an arbitrator, a labor relations mediator. He had been the one who’d calmly held this in-between place for others, the place between what is and what is possible. He had taught me how to be that for him.

Eleven years is a long time. I no longer grieve as I once did, no longer fear that the well of grief is bottomless. It isn’t.

I have learned that love takes many forms. That it truly is stronger than death. That every act of self-giving love, of selfless service, brings us closer to the threshold of waking up into who we truly are. The Beloved in God.

Maybe I did walk David home.  Maybe I helped him cross that threshold.  And maybe once again, it’s David who’s given me the real gift.

walking each other

Global Lamentation

Wailing wall
A young girl leaves a prayer at the Wailing Wall

It seems we are collectively standing on a threshold. One that places us in the spiritual arena of liminal space.

A space in which there is much lamentation. Isolation. Confusion. Uncertainty. A growing frenzy of fear and helplessness.

A space, also, of much selfless giving. Willingness to be vulnerable. Suffering for and with others.

And a space of dying alone.

All of this strikes me as we enter Semana Santa. The holiest of weeks commemorated in the Christian tradition. I see how what is currently unfolding in our world, through the coronavirus pandemic, runs parallel to the growing fear and foreboding taking place in the life of Jesus, a life that will soon end in a brutal and humiliating death.

This is the path of descent. The path of kenosis. A self-emptying love that, far from making me feel guilty or fearful, is life-giving. It promises me freedom. Freedom from the fear of death. Freedom to love fully and extravagantly.

Poised on this threshold, I ask myself, am I willing? Am I willing to sit in the tension of what is present in this current reality? Am I willing to wait here in the place of not knowing? Of not yet fully understanding?

Yet willing to do whatever is mine to do?

Although I am not someone who is “on the frontlines,” able to physically serve others in the midst of this pandemic, I have a role to play. I can choose to be relational in my self-isolation. Just like so many of us are doing: choosing to stay home for the greater good.

I can stay connected, through prayer and meditation, holding the suffering world. I can hold the pain and fear of those living so close to the effects of this pandemic. Lamenting with those who will lose loved ones this week and cannot be with them as they die. Lamenting with the doctors and nurses and all healthcare and hospice workers who will experience these deaths, and have to steady themselves enough to go back into it again and again.

Coronavirus Sacramento
Mural for healthcare workers in San Jose, CA

I can do the work of remaining faithful to my daily spiritual practices. By remaining spiritually grounded, I am adding to the loving and healing energy being offered in the world at this moment. That seems particularly important.

I can respond to the injustices being played out behind the scenes. A particularly disturbing example is the continued incarceration of asylum seekers, nonviolent non-criminals, in detention facilities, putting them gravely at risk, while we release nonviolent criminals from our prison systems.

And there is something more asked of me.

Can I also face myself in the “other”? Those whom I find harder to love? Those who would support such injustices? Who choose to live in denial as the suffering from coronavirus rages on? Can I hold with love those living with blindness, refusing to see what is before them?

I am reminded of what Jesus did when he couldn’t change the hearts and minds of those who refused to see, who chose their comfortable blindness. He wept. He wept for what could have been. He wept for those who had closed themselves off from the voice of Love.  Jesus wept

Jesus wept.

Can I go down into the place where Jesus experienced that poverty of spirit?

Can I shed tears for those who are blinded by their own fears and illusions? And this includes myself. It can be painful to “see” my own blindness in this. But it’s here.

The Holy One reminds me that this Love laments with us, through us, and in us. As my teacher Cynthia Bourgeault says, “Where suffering exists and is consciously accepted, there divine love shines forth brightly.”

Divine love is shining forth in this moment. Through all the lamentations. All the pain and all the perceived darkness. Come Maundy Thursday, in the midst of our lamentation, we will again be shown how this extravagant “eucharistic love” desires to manifest in us. I want to surrender to it. Again.