Three days after my last blog post, one of my dearest friends was killed in a car accident. Any words I write feel insufficient. Briana and I talked on the phone that afternoon while she and her brother were driving home for Easter. Within the hour of our conversation, she was gone. Her broken body left on the side of the highway.
I met Briana on a beautiful April day in 2008. Tess, my favorite botany study-buddy, insisted I meet her sister—a young single woman my same age—who had just become a midwife. We decided to celebrate the end of the semester by lounging in the grass, soaking up the warm sunshine. When Briana arrived, she sat tall in a cross-legged stance. She looked me in the eyes and listened as I told her about my interest in birth. After a few questions, she tore a page from her notebook and began writing: the best doula course to take, the essential books to read, the websites to reference. On our second visit she gifted me a copy of Ina May Gaskin’s Spiritual Midwifery. It was my first birth book. Months later Bri invited me to witness my first homebirth, to inspect my first placenta, to perform my first newborn exam.
Saturday, April 16, 2011. Briana had an apron tied around her waist and a phone cradled between her ear and shoulder when she came to the door. Her counter tops were crowded with scrumptiousness she’d spent days creating, in preparation for the “Momma Party”. I helped put together a blood orange salad and placed the shortbread batter into the oven. The house was flooding with women and babies who Briana had, or was, serving. I loved looking at them all, and hearing them talk of their birth experiences. Bri asked us all to introduce ourselves; she expressed that when she looked at each of us, she saw powerful women. She encouraged us to share with one another our thoughts on true power and womanhood.
The hours of good conversation and delicious food passed quickly. As people left, Bri took photos with the women and children and sent the families home with platefuls of baked goods. In preparation for moving, she was pairing down her belongings and had items for the taking: books, a child’s easel, plastic dishes, napkins…
By mid afternoon, Bri and I were the only ones in the house. It was an uncharacteristically warm and sunny April day, and so we decided to soak it up by lounging in her back yard. She grabbed John’s childhood blanket—the one she always chose—and we spread it across the grass. Bri sighed a deep, relaxing sigh, and said how happy she was with how the party had turned out, but said it was hard to have everyone all together only because she wished she could have spent more individual time with each momma and baby.
Our conversations that afternoon bounced from topic to topic, as we drifted in and out of lazy summer sleep. We laughed at the love-struck quail that lived in her bushes. We talked about her family and her excitement at spending the upcoming Easter holiday with them. We talked about relationships. We talked about the value of change. I asked her to describe her ideal birth experience, and she explained how it had transformed over the course of her midwifery experience. She used to want the midwife with the most knowledge and skills. Now, she figured, she just wanted to be accompanied by those who had the most compassion.
I remember watching her as she lay there, eyes closed, grinning up at the warm sunshine. She was bathed in light. I remember her saying, “It has been such a perfect day. I just feel so full.” She repeated it with a soft smile. “I feel so full.”
Saturday, April 23, 2011. I played phone tag with Briana that morning. She called while I was at yoga. I called while she was busy with pre-travel plans. When she called back, she asked if I could do her a favor. She wanted to pay her tithing before our church boundaries changed. She explained that she didn’t have a tithing slip, but had left two checks in her house, and asked if I wouldn’t mind filling out some slips for her and delivering them to the Bishop. She was only going to be gone a week, so I thought it was a little odd, but of course it wasn’t a problem. I asked for Candice’s number so I could call and make sure someone was home when I went over. The phone conversation was brief.
A few hours later, when I called Candice to ask if it was a good time to pick up Bri’s tithing, I learned the heart-wrenching news. Briana was dead.
That Easter Sunday I handed the Bishop the most meaningful tithing slip I think I will ever touch in my life.
I know I am not alone in missing Bri. I only knew her for three years, but she absolutely changed my life. Two weeks after her death, I started school to become a midwife. Briana wrote one of the letters of recommendation for me, and it was because of her that I had sufficient birth-related experience to enter the program. But more than that, she was a kindred soul. Few days go by without me wishing I could just call her, to hear her voice, to ask her advice, or to share a story that would make her laugh.
Looking back, I am struck by the similarities between the first day I met Bri, and the last day I spent with her. They were both gorgeous April days, full of sunshine. They were both spent lounging in the bright green springtime. They were both days that felt full of goodness. That is how I will always remember her.
Shortly after her death, I saw Briana in a dream. She was beautiful. I was struck by how radiant she looked, fully cloaked in light. She didn’t say anything, but just looked at me with soft compassion. As if she recognized my pain, but wanted me to know that she is ok. Her face was full of peace.
A few weeks later, in another dream, she knocked on my door. “Briana!” I gasped. I pulled her into a tight squeeze and whispered, “I have so many things I’ve wanted to ask you!” In my dream I asked, “Have you seen God?” She looked at me with smiling eyes and laughed as she responded, “Of course I have.”
Briana still exists. This has become a familiar mantra to me. I look forward with hope to the day when I can again embrace her in my arms and share stories that make us both weep and laugh. Until then, I am trying to be a better doula, midwife, sister, daughter, teacher, friend, and woman because of her.
This is a photo I copied from Briana’s website: http://www.fernmidwifery.com
May 11, 1983-
“I have been doing everything possible this past week to encourage you to be born. I’ve cleaned the attic, the basement, attempted digging out a stump in my garden, stacked wood, and today I mowed the lawn. I have the freezer full of homemade pizzas to feed your dad and brothers while I am away. Everyday I do laundry to stay ahead. I’ve organized my genealogy, cleaned cupboards, windows, and drapes. I’ve run out of things to do, or rather things I can do. I have painting and wood refinishing to do, but have to wait until you’re born, because of the fumes… The neighbors and families are all waiting. I’m running out of clothes to wear. It’s time! Please come join us.”
May 17, 1983-
“Decided to plant my garden instead of waiting until after your birth. Who knows when that will be….”
May 18, 1983-
“Your brothers went to Dotty and Glenn’s while dad took me in for a check-up. The leakage showed up to be amniotic fluid so they admitted me at 10:00 a.m. and induced labor. The lady in my room [name] was induced at the same time. It was a race to the birthing room. About 3:00 p.m. they stopped her I.V. and started to prepare for a cesarean at 6:00 p.m. I had dilated to 4-5 cm so I was moved to the birthing room. The race still wasn’t over. Who’s baby would be born first? Your daddy was a terrific coach. Helping me with controlling my breathing, hugging me, and keeping everyone in laughter with his jokes. Your head was crowned, could see you had lots of hair. I was pushing and you too had your legs straight, pushing off my diaphragm. That was uncomfortable. At 6:01 p.m. Dr. Midthun announced you were a girl. … You weighed 9 lbs 5 oz. Identical weight to your brothers! That must be a record. Your dad says my body must be programed that once the baby reaches 9 lbs 5 oz, it ejects the baby.
“You were coated in lots of cream. Looked just like a girl covered in night cream. They laid you on my chest and there you stayed for the next 45 minutes trying to open your eyes. Dad made phone calls to local people. You’ve got strong jams for nursing. Didn’t have to teach you – you latched right on. Such a pretty girl. So round, black hair, and such pretty features. Your hair isn’t as dark as your brothers, but you look like you came from the same mold.
“The [other] baby was born at 6:36 p.m. A 9lb 7 1/2 oz girl. They named her Aundra Marie.
“We had three names chosen for you. Matthew wanted Heidi, dad wanted Gretchen, and I preferred Analiesa….
“Once we decided on Analiesa, next was to choose the middle name from a list of Ann, Ila, Fern, or Marie. My sister who died was Ann, Alan’s mom’s name is Ila Marie, my mom’s name is Fern. My middle name is Marie, so was my grandma’s (Hedwig Marie Bach). You have a long name to learn to spell — Analiesa Marie Leonhardt — All the nurses love your name. A pretty German/Austrian name for a German/Austrian girl.
“You were only 2 hours old and hadn’t been washed up yet when your dad brought your brothers to see you. They washed their hands, put on gowns, and held you. Benjamin hugged and kissed you, laid next to you on your bed and stroked you gently. Matthew hugged and held you.
“You wake up every 3-4 hours to eat. After nursing you, you get 1/2 to 1 oz. of water. You drink it like you just came off the desert.”
During the week I sleep in my bed, ride public transit, sit at my desk, read in my chair, sleep in my bed… But come Monday night my small frame is converted into a living jungle gym. I’ve become good friends with three little boys who live just a few houses down from mine. Upon entering their home I am attacked by an onslaught of wiggling and giggling brothers. This is absolutely the highlight of my week. Could there possibly be anything more therapeutic in the world?
My mom cares for elderly. She recently kissed the forehead of a bald old man. His eyes shot up at her, glowing with surprise. His wife has been dead for decades. He has no family left. He lives alone. When was the last time anyone kissed him? On her next visit to take care of this aging man she found him lying on his bed, holding up a large tissue paper flower toward her.
Our first nine months of life, we grow to the beat of our mother’s heart; we are enveloped within another human’s flesh. Newborn babies who are placed skin-to-skin on their mother adjust more easily to life outside the womb. They cry less, have lower levels of stress hormones, breastfeed sooner, maintain better body temperatures and more stable blood sugar levels, and have an easier time breathing. Their mothers produce more oxytocin and bond more deeply with their babies, they produce more milk, and respond to their baby’s needs with more confidence than mothers who do not have regular skin-to-skin contact with their babies.
My sister spend last summer caring for children in a Romanian orphanage. Their drastic deprivation of human contact left many grossly delayed in physical and mental development. Some rocked incessantly. Others scratched themselves until they bled. Many were not capable of developing healthy attachment patterns with anyone.
Weeks ago I hopped on the train as a man was stumbling out, carrying a limp woman in his arms. “Does anyone have some water, some sugar? I just found her like this. I think she is diabetic. Can someone call for help?” I handed over my bag of black licorice, but wished I had something of another flavor when I saw her grimace at the flavor. He was supporting all of her weight, and rain was pouring down. I wonder how long they stayed like that before help arrived. Where had they each been traveling before their path’s crossed?
Last summer I found myself in a hospital room with a screaming woman who could not speak any English. The nurses and midwife had been struggling to communicate with hand signals and broken Spanish to this frightened Hispanic woman. I whispered in her ear, “Puedes hacerlo.” She squeezed onto my hand for the next 2 hours until her baby finally came and the pain subsided. After the baby was suckling at the breast, I left the birthing room, flexing blood back into my tingling fingertips.
“Sometimes we touch strangers. Sometimes no one speaks. Like clouds we travelers meet and part with members of our cohort, our fellows in the panting caravans of those who are alive while we are. How many strangers have we occasion to hold in our arms?” -Annie Dillard, For the Time Being, 135.
The day I read these words, I stopped by the house of an elderly neighbor I’d never met. I just knew her name and knew that she lived alone. She’d never married and never had children. She didn’t ask me very many questions. She had so much to tell, and I was happy to just listen. When she started to look sleepy I excused myself and slipped by her to the door, but then I stopped. I turned back around and wrapped my arms around her withered shoulders.
My article entitled “The Sacrament of Birth” was published today in Square Two. I think it’s a lovely celebration of Earth Day. (Particularly relevant to Earth Day is the section of the paper entitled “Another Mother” ).
This is how the editor of the journal introduced my piece:
“… one of the most beautiful essays we’ve been privileged to publish here at SquareTwo. It’s by Analiesa Leonhardt, who helps us to recast the international issue of egregiously high maternal mortality rates into the spiritual issue it really is. Leonhardt does so by providing a exegesis of scripture concerning the earthly ordinance of birth. We promise that you will never think about birth the same way after reading this eloquent article.”
Here is a link to the online journal, where you can read the paper that has been rolling through my mind and heart for the past year and a half. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the matter.
Happy Earth Day to one and all!
Can’t wait to see this documentary. Enjoy the trailer:
Link to interview with the filmmaker, Vicki Elson.
I am a great lover of analogies. I just came across one that made me smile: What SUVs Can Teach Us About Maternity Care. This post comes from one of the best blogs I’ve come across on Maternity Health Care: Science & Sensibility.
In my Google News feed I screen for any articles containing the words: midwife, doula, pregnancy, obstetrics, birth etc. Sometimes the articles make me terribly antsy to become a midwife. This morning the BBC published a slideshow of a ‘day in the life of a midwife in rural Congo.’
Oh, I cannot wait until I have the skills to be able contribute to this effort of empowering mothers and catching babies.
Enjoy the slideshow!