Editor’s Note: Good morning. Deepa Upadhyaya is here with a personal look at birth and death and similarities found between the two. As always, a story that will touch your heart and leave you thinking. Enjoy.
In nursing school we had to gain experience in all fields of nursing. We tried our hands at obstetrics, orthopedics, pediatrics, etc. The last rotation I had was in geriatrics. I was on the path to becoming a midwife, so I wanted to increase my chances of getting a position in an obstetric unit after graduation. So, I started an internship at a labor and delivery ward at the same time that I was working in a nursing home. Then, my days alternated between birth and death. I vividly remember seeing unmovable, dying patients with bed-sores the size of cantaloupes one day, while the next day I would learn about labor and witness the miracle that one never tires of experiencing. How odd it was to see life’s most profound start and finish all in the same week.
The beginning of the life cycle and the end of it has strange parallels. I worked briefly as a nurse when my daughter was under one. I would feed her pureed avocados and bananas at home, and in the hospital it felt strange to be feeding an older adult with a bigger mouth and teeth (sometimes false) similar food.
That got me to thinking about how we actually leave the physical world much in the same way that we arrived. I once had aspirations of creating a photo book showing these parallels. For example, one page would display a toddler pushing a walker and the other page an octogenarian using a cane; one page a baby in a stroller and the other page an older man in a wheelchair; one page a potty and the other page a bed pan; one page a baby in a bath and the other page a post-menopausal woman getting a bed bath. The final page, of course, would have to be a photo of a new born diaper held next to an adult’s bladder control panty shield.
In a way the birth of a child is also the death of part of the mother and father’s previous life. Of course, so many are able to continue to follow their heart’s desire even with additon of children. However, some dreams just don’t happen simply because life is no longer all about you when you have babies.
I had the fortune to work with many different cultures as a nurse and a midwife. I delivered a Cambodian woman’s child once. She was unusually interested in where and how the umbilical cord was wrapped around her baby. She explained to me that they believed if the cord was wrapped around a limb at birth, then the child was a reincarnation of one of its ancestors.
All of this talk of birth and death leads me to this month’s story.
I have been truly blessed in many ways in my life. One way is that I was raised in North America, land of endless possibility. Another way is that I am a first generation East Indian. From that I have language, culture, spirit and a lot of stories from the old country. My mother has an extremely good memory (almost as good as mine… just kidding mom). Back in the days of long car trips without DVDs, mom would tell us all sorts of stories. The ones we loved best were about our family.
My mother’s father was a gentle man. I had only met him a few times in my life. Thankfully I can close my eyes and see him – a wise presence with slick, grey and black hair, a mumbled laugh and the kindest eyes you’ve ever seen (just like my mom).
There was one distinct trait that separated papaji (literally means father with respect in Hindi) from others. His middle and ring finger of both hands were joined, and his second and third toes of both feet were also joined. I remember the cold February day in Minnesota when the call came from India that papaji had died. That winter lasted longer than usual. Mom had to go back to India for a few weeks while dad took care of us for the first time on his own for an extended period. We missed mom, but came to realize that when dad cooks runny hard boiled eggs they still taste good.
Exactly a year after papaji died, my mother’s sister gave birth to her second child. That must have been a tough pregnancy for my aunt who had just lost her father. She had a beautiful healthy boy, who was the only one of all the grandchildren to have fused toes like papaji.
The theologian and philosopher John O’Donohue wrote significantly about death being a sort of birth of spirit. He stated, “At birth you appear out of nowhere, at death you disappear to nowhere.” He wisely argued that if you live life to the fullest, death will have no power over you.
Sounds like a solid plan.