Early this morning, on what promised to be an incredibly balmy Vermont day, I read with intense fascination a few pages my father had emailed me. The pages were from Sherwin Nuland’s How We Die, about a horrific and bizarre murder of a young girl. Having two daughters myself, I read with agony. In this excerpt, Nuland clips in a lengthy written piece by the child’s mother. She described her own sensation of warmth at the murder scene, and a calmness in her dying child’s eyes, as though the actual event of dying had been cosseted – or eased– in some inexplicable way for the child and the mother present at her violent death.
While I have been fortunate beyond measure never to experience that kind of trauma or grief, three times in my life I have had a wholly mystical experience at pivotal junctures.
At the caesarian birth of my second child, lying prone on the table, I had a forceful urge to rise up and leave the room, that I would suffocate imminently if I did not move. With the anesthesia, of course, I couldn’t do more than raise my arms and head, and then abruptly I was external to my body. With a clear understanding that I was drifting towards the ceiling, as if I were a helium balloon, the voices of the operating room lessened, words receding into murmurs. I had a profound sense of calm, and I had no regrets about slipping away. Then I heard an infant crying, a thin, plaintive wail, and I thought (this seems quite odd now), Whose baby is that, crying and alone? I thought how cold it was in that room for a baby. Later, I thought I had pity for that baby, but perhaps, more accurately, it was empathy. Abruptly, I realized that crying baby was mine, and instantaneously I was back in my body in the OR, begging to hold my newborn.
I first met this daughter through sound, not through the flesh of a vaginal birth or a wet and squirming infant laid against my bare breast. Yet the bond between the two of us is impermeable. My impulse to nourish and protect this child – to mother her – is as mighty as any universal law, consistent as gravity pulling falling apples to earth. Repeatedly over the years, I’ve thought of that Shakespearian line There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,/Than are dreamt of in your philosophy. Those wonders, certainly, are far more faceted than simple pleasure, in our world filled with such joy and such incredible grief. And yet, reading this morning, again I realized how wide is our universe, infinitely wiser than its players.
As a confirmed skeptic, I am bound by the conviction that we imust not only question all things but be willing to believe that all ithings are possible.
– Sherwin B. Nuland, How We Die
Photo by Molly S./Burlington Airport, Vermont