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To Life


February comes. I see tulips in the supermarkets. I hear Van Morrison singing “Coney Island.” I think about T.S. Eliot’s “Marina.” And I am back at the birth of my second daughter, a child scrupulously scheduled to arrive in May.

But February came.

On Valentine’s Day during my first pregnancy, my husband gave me money for fabric since I had planned to (and, foolishly, did) sew all my own maternity clothes.

The Valentine’s Day I was pregnant with my second child he gave me Van Morrison’s Avalon Sunset. And misanthrope that I am, all I could hear from the songs was “Have I Told You Lately That I Love You?” To which I wanted to pout and answer no.

A week later the amniotic sac broke. My midwife ordered me to the hospital. The birth center plan was scrapped.

I was terrified and mystified. The midwife had waved away my every concern during this pregnancy since the first one had gone so well—I was born to give birth. But my body had known something was off this time, though both my brain and my midwife wanted to deny it.

I was put in the labor and delivery room since there was every likelihood labor would begin.

“Be honest,” I said to the doctor, “will the baby live or will the baby die?”

“The baby will live,” he said. But his face was grim. Since I had been working with midwife I had never even met him before.

“Listen,” I said, “I don’t want my child in a life-long vegetative state. I don’t want a show of technical prowess. I want my baby to have life and to have it abundantly.”

“Kids are different than older people,” he said. “We don’t have DNRs for preemies.”

I was supposed to sleep. They gave me a sleeping pill. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t pray. I called my sister. Pray, she said. Even if you don’t believe it.

Finally I slept—serendipitous blessing. And in the morning I was brought to a hospital room in a wing with mothers in their rooms nursing and cooing with their newborns. I was waiting and talking to the baby.

The Baby Under the Hill, I’d come to think of him/her, the “hill” being my belly.

Stay under the Hill for awhile, I cajoled, trying to channel calmness through the umbilical cord.

I rubbed the Hill. Beneath the Hill amniotic fluid leaked daily, a little geyser of life, sweet-smelling, not gross at all (surprise!). And a cadre of seminary students, anxious to prove their pastor’s chops, lined up to visit me as if I were the Mona Lisa. Faces came and went. Some wanted to pray for and or with me. I did their bidding. I wasn’t actually there, anyway. I was in exile with the Baby Under the Hill.

So I nodded and bowed my head. Or I shook hands. Or I praised my classmates for driving all the way out the mainline to visit me.

All week I lay on my left side (better for our combined hearts) looking at a basket of tulips the color of bruises that a friend had sent. I listened again and again to Avalon Sunset. I read C.S. Lewis’ A Severe Mercy, which everyone should do their best to avoid reading (along with Surprised By Joy). I tuned out the ground war in Iraq which, when my water broke, had just begun. Desert Storm. There are different, and private deserts.

Then I read T.S. Eliot’s “Marina.”

It’s not a very well-known poem. And it reads like an elegy—Eliot’s own. It reads like an homage to his daughter—though he had none.

But something about it spoke more to me about what it means to be a parent than anything else ever has:

This form, this face, this life

Living to live in a world of time beyond me;

let me

Resign my life for this life, my speech for that unspoken

The awakened, lips parted, the hope, the new ships

When the seminary students had gone back to the dormitory, when my other child was brought home to go to bed, when the hospital was quiet and the room was dark and I was alone, I thought of “Marina:”

“Living to live in a world of time beyond me.”

I don’t know for sure what it was that I learned from that poem. Maybe it was the obvious and the simple: that giving birth really is giving life, a life to go beyond the end of my own life.

The Baby Under the Hill came out just fine. When I look at her now, 17 years later, her amniotic exile seems like a dream.

But when February comes and I see tulips in the supermarket, hear Van singing “Coney Island” in my mind, I feel a strange and inexpressible gratitude. “Wouldnt it be great if it was like this all the time?” (from “Coney Island”)

—Jo Page

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