On the yahrzeit of my grandmother, Rivka Keyndl bas Tzivia.
Sometimes, I am uneasy, walking in haunted places. Perhaps not literally haunted, but places that carry memories – intimate memories of birth and death.
Every morning, I wake up a foot away from where Gavriel Zev was born. A foot. It’s not always an easy or comfortable place to be (even on different sheets!). Those are weird, mixed-up, surreal, intimate memories. And sometimes, you just want to get up and put one foot in front of the other, but the place is haunted and the memories come.
And then, there are our Sunday dinners, in the dining room of my mother’s house, ten feet or so from where my father died. I could measure the distance, but I know it well already – about four good quick strides, like when he was in the bedroom dying, and we were in the dining room gathering for dinner as usual.
My mother, of course, still sleeps there every night, although in a brand-new bed. Her old one, which wasn’t very old, has gone to a grateful new owner. My father had a hospital bed in their room, which has likely gone to several grateful “owners” in the years since his death.
You can certainly see why people would want to sterilize these passages – to cleanse our homes not through some superstitious smudging ritual, but with a more thorough exorcism: the hospitalization of birth and death.
I was born in a hospital, and so were both my parents. That’s just where babies came from. But two of my four babies were born at home – they came from… well, me.
Four of my grandparents died in hospitals. That’s just where old people went.
But one of my two parents died at home – he went… well, partly, he stayed. Is he more present in the house because he died there? I don’t really believe that, but I do believe something. I believe it left an imprint, just as birth does – and it doesn’t always let you just get on with your day.
Growing up, driving on the 401, every single time we passed North York General Hospital, we’d point and say, “there’s the hospital where Eli was born.” After a while, it was also the hospital where Sara and Abigail were born. I was jealous - “my” hospital is in Montreal, and I’ve only passed by it a few times in my life.
And my grandparents? In my head, quietly, secretly, I point those out as well -“There’s Toronto General, where Grandma died.” “There’s Mount Sinai, where Papa died.” Out loud, I say, “There’s Mount Sinai, where Yerachmiel Meir was born.”
When YM came home after Naomi Rivka’s birth, his first question was, “you didn’t have her in MY room, did you?” Like babies pop out just anywhere. Like I might have been partying in his room, or straightening his sheets, when – hello! – a baby. I said no, she wasn’t born in his room.
A friend posted today about women who fear birth, which is a huge concern, though not necessarily something we’re in a position to do anything about. Doctors are the prime offenders: offering women a backhanded message of fear and reassurance - “don’t worry about giving birth; you’re in good hands with me.”
Which strikes me as somewhat hypocritical, when all it took 100 years ago was somebody telling the menfolks to WASH THEIR HANDS AFTER EXAMINING CORPSES for women to stop dying of childbed fever. Midwives didn’t do autopsies, so they had never spread the disease; only doctors.
But of course, there are so many positives of a medicalized delivery: Schedule your own birth! Take control! Maximize maternity leave! Avoid pain and unsightly "stretching" (and they don't mean your belly)! And why horrify your husband when you could just sigh and lean back comfortably in his arms with your nice epidural?
(yup, I had two - they're very nice!)
But there’s something more here – there’s something about HOME that is exactly and totally the opposite of the kind of control that the medical establishment offers.
At home, if you can, you wear your own clothes, eat off your own dishes, rest on your own pillow, wake to your own clock radio or the buzzy hum of insects in your own backyard, and in some way you are strong, even if your body is weak. Even if you are bleeding, fainting, dying.
The only REAL solution to women’s fear of birth is HOME.
Midwives here in Ontario have mandatory guidelines for transfer to an MD’s care. If your baby is breech or your placenta is in the wrong place, for example, they must transfer you to an OB for care.
What we need is the reverse: we need to force OBs to tell some women; many women, "Look, your pregnancy is normal, totally low-risk; go home and have your baby."
And at the other end of life, force doctors, perhaps sooner than they would like, to tell patients, “Go home.” It’s not always giving up; sometimes going home is about taking back power, even while relinquishing control.
So “haunted” is probably not exactly the right word – because there’s nothing to fear, and tremendous power in these ancient ways. In having our family, friends, music, objects, love, surrounding us in these moments that we slip in and slip out of this world.