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

Pieces of My Heart

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David would have been 65 today. There was a time I could not have imagined he wouldn’t make it to 65. The fact he didn’t even live to see 60 seems outrageous. Or at least it did.

Now I wonder, what does age mean? And what are years? They all meld together to create this wonderful expression of our short lives on this earth. Because we really are here so briefly. But if we live with our hearts open, it’s an amazing life. And who we are lives on through the hearts of others. That may seem like a worn-out phrase, but I can vouch for it. Love, in some mysterious way, connects two beings beyond the threshold where two worlds meet.

Rumi-lovers-love-Meetville-Quotes-165214

I know that I carry David in my heart. Just as vividly and lovingly as I did while he was alive. And sometimes, just as I did when he was alive, I take for granted the incredible support and influence he has had on my life. Yet the effects live on.

He was the first to recognize my inner strength and courageous spirit. He showed me my good qualities and, thankfully, my faults and weaknesses, too. I changed and grew because of our relationship. Through David I experienced God’s unconditional love. And that’s enabled me to risk leaping into the unknown, to leave behind my home, and to take others into my heart along the way.

But in the intimacy of living with an open heart lies another risk — the risk of feeling the sadness of the heart connections I’ve left behind. It seems I’m leaving pieces of my heart everywhere these days. But, just as I leave pieces of my heart behind, I take other pieces with me.  I’m learning the language of the open heart on this journey. My heart opens wider with each lesson.

It happened in San Antonio.

Especially that short month I spent serving Women’s Global Connection. Transitioning to WGC proved to be a grace-filled decision. A decision that brought me closer to what I came here seeking and that blessed me in so many ways. Located on the extensive campus of the University of Incarnate Word and The Village, a retirement home for many of the Sisters, WGC exposed me to the larger Incarnate Word community. To deeper connections with some of the Sisters and with the WGC staff so committed to its sustainable projects in Tanzania, Zambia, and, my special favorite, Peru. To the peaceful, prayerful oasis of the campus chapels. And to an awareness that “everything is a spiritual experience,” as my new friend Sr. Mary T. taught me.

When I packed up and headed north on I-35 last Tuesday night to spend Thanksgiving with my cousin Joyce near Austin, I was already missing these heart connections. People like Sylvia, Sr. Brigid, Sr. Mary T., Sr. Carmelita, Sr. Alice, Tere and Terrie, and many others who found their way into my heart and made my brief time with Incarnate Word Missionaries so special.

Although I expected to be at Joyce’s only a few days before heading on to El Paso, that changed when I got some surprising news. The house for volunteers where I’d planned to live won’t be available until December 15.

Once again I find myself waiting in this “in-between” place. My mind scrambles to come up with ideas for where to live in the interim. I start to feel anxious. So, I do what I know I need to do.

I go off by myself to be quiet and listen for guidance.

In the stillness I feel the loneliness of not having a place to settle. I’m tired of traveling with my belongings packed in my Subaru. I feel like a homeless child, wandering and wondering where she belongs. I question. I pray. I wait.

A book lying on my bed attracts my attention: Legacy of the Heart, by Wayne Muller — a gift from Sr. Brigid. It opens to this:

“…the journey to our new home need not always lead to a separate country or place. Sometimes it leads us to a still, small voice within our souls, a place of belonging as sure and quiet as our very breath…

Belonging begins in that deep, quiet place where our spirit lives within us. ‘Take sanctuary in me,’ says the voice of God. Do not depend on circumstances to create or sustain your place of belonging, but rather make your home in the unchanging breath of the spirit that lives within. Claim your home, claim your belonging with each breath.”

A stronger, and higher, part of me knows this truth. Home doesn’t rely on physical space. My true home lives within me. In quiet moments, I have touched that place. A place where Love connects all the heart’s pieces.

And then I know with certainty that I can never truly be separated from anyone or anything that I have ever loved. No matter where I find myself.

heart wide openII
A special card from Sylvia