I had been asked to be a guest speaker at the University of New Hampshire’s nursing course “Making Babies.” This is a wildly popular class, probably due to the number of topics that explore sexuality. This current class was huge, about 250 students, and they were all present on this day before the Christmas break because they were getting double extra credit just for showing up. Most of them were texting during my lecture, which I found to be unspeakably rude; but I guess that’s just my age showing. I pressed on with my spiel about the history of midwifery in NH and in the US, trying my best to ignore the glare of smart phones illuminating the kids’ faces.
As I was packing up to leave, a very smiley young man came bounding up to the podium and handed me a white envelope. He was adorable in that scruffy, rumpled “hipster” look (god, I really am showing my age). He was grinning from ear to ear. In the envelope was a photo of me—20 years younger—holding a tightly swaddled newborn. I have a very distinct look of triumph on my face. The young man gave me a huge bear hug and said, “That’s me! My name is Sam Carpenter and you delivered me when I was born. I don’t know if you remember my birth or not but I wanted to give you this picture of us.”
I looked at him with his impish smile, in his tee shirt and thrift store black suit coat, and said, “Oh, yes, I remember your birth all right.” How could I forget? I wondered how much he knew.
I had delivered Sam’s older brother, Nick, twelve years prior to Sam’s birth. His parents were lovely people. His father, Bud, was a farrier and his mother, Jane, was a rodeo queen. She gave birth to Nick in the winter of 1981. Jane was a quiet, strong, no nonsense woman, and Nick’s birth was just as straightforward. It was a pleasure to be there with them and I got a year’s worth of free shoeing in the bargain. Baby Nick grew into a strong and quiet young man. Apparently, Nick had a gift with horses in his own right, and was becoming locally known for his ability to break and train green horses for riding. He was learning to become a farrier like his dad.
When Nick was twelve years old, he and a group of his friends were swimming in Northwood Lake. Their mothers were standing knee deep in water on the shore chatting and sharing neighborhood gossip, when a drunken motor-boater from Massachusetts came speeding too close to shore. Jane watched in horror as the speedboat plowed into the swimming kids, killing Nick instantly with the propeller.
When I heard of Nick’s death, it seemed intolerable to me. My heart was breaking for Jane and Bud. The pain of losing a child was inconceivable to me, a grief too deep to comprehend. I felt as though I had bonded with Nick. As his midwife and the first to greet him at birth, I was forever connected to this child. And now, I could envision only too well the long and impossibly slow road of healing that was ahead for his parents.
What Jane didn’t know at the moment she was standing on the shore, witnessing her son’s tragic end, was that she was—unexpectedly—one month pregnant. The shock of this realization registered only mildly, as Jane was so engulfed in her grieving and mourning for Nick, she couldn’t shift her focus. It was too soon. And as the weeks and months passed, it would continue to be too soon.
As her pregnancy progressed, Jane asked me if I would again be her midwife. She felt that I could relate to what she was experiencing, as my late husband had also died in a violent manner only a few years earlier. I was only too familiar with death and the grieving process. We did a lot of grieving together, and truthfully, going through the pregnancy with Jane was incredibly healing for me. We pushed on together through our pain.
The steps and stages of grieving can be painfully slow, and instead of abating, Jane’s sadness seemed to increase along with her pregnancy. She was a stoic and wonderful woman, but toward term, Jane’s family and friends were concerned that she was not acknowledging the child she was carrying, that her emotions were too deluged with loving thoughts and memories of Nick. I personally thought she was doing a remarkable job of holding up, considering the circumstances, but I did feel it was time for Jane to shift her attention toward the new baby, at least a little bit.
During a prenatal visit a couple of weeks before her due date, I led Jane in a guided visualization to help her bond with her baby. Through guided imagery, Jane tried hard to acknowledge her child within. But although she was very appreciative, she found she still couldn’t make the shift. In her lingering grief, she simply could not fully embrace this new life.
Jane went into labor soon after that visit. Driving to her home, I thought, “Either this is going to go really well, or it’s going to be really, really bad.”
Their house was a converted Shaker schoolhouse that they had renovated into a stunningly beautiful home. When I arrived, it was just Jane and Bud and Jane’s sister. The three of them were sitting on the bed, quietly waiting. Jane was obviously in very active labor, but she never did fuss much. I sat at the end of the bed and observed the laboring trio. Bud held Jane, and then Jane’s sister started singing to her. Her sister’s voice was so clear and true, it sounded like a flute. She sang to her sister without stopping for two hours, a haunting, loving melody. She literally sang the baby out.
As Jane’s sister sang to her with all her soul, Bud cradled her in his arms and Jane pushed her new baby out into this world. I received the baby and handed him up to his parents. Jane’s reaction to her new child was astonishing. At first she stared at him in shock, as though in complete disbelief and surprise at his presence. Then as she acknowledged him and integrated his being, she gathered him to her tightly and began weeping tears of sorrow and also of the greatest joy. Two decades later, Jane would say to me, “I think Sam saved my life.”
I was crying as well. It was a holy moment, and I was deeply thankful to be able to witness such a miracle. Jane had worked so hard, through grief and pain, and now baby Sam was here and her life was to begin anew. I sat back and watched their meeting unfold. I think my eyes were transfixed by the candlelight because I swear I could see a soft white glow around the four of them. My tears were from a boundless love of this sacred moment—the entering of a new life.
Now, as my reverie ends, I look at this wonderful, exuberant kid, so friendly and engaging, with his mop of dark hair and the requisite two day old stubble of beard on his smiling face. I say again, “Oh, Sam, I certainly do remember your birth.” He grins and tells me that he plans to become an art teacher in high school and a farrier in the summer. Our picture is taken in front of the classroom blackboard. He gives me one last hug before we say goodbye.
Sam says, “I told my roommate as I was leaving for class today that I was going to meet the woman who first touched me.”
My heart is melting. MERRY CHRISTMAS TO US ALL!
Postscript: The brave mama from this story, Jane Carpenter, is now currently teaching Rhoda and me how to do “SKIJORING”—training Rhoda to haul my fat butt around on cross-country skis. Rhoda is a natural born sled dog! GEE! HAW! HIKE! WHOA! STOP! STOP!! (dammit…pleeze) Here is the link to a short video of Rhoda and me skijoring for the very first time!