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Remembering Ash Wednesday

Carmel Mission Basilica

As I was walking through the hospital yesterday after one of Olivia’s routine appointments, I saw a sign for Ash Wednesday services. The memory of last Ash Wednesday came rushing back. I was in a hospital. We still didn’t know when Olivia was coming home. My body was still healing from her birth. My spirit was pushing away the trauma of her delivery – a trauma that wouldn’t have happened if I had had a doctor that hadn’t panicked- probably to keep the momentum of my adrenaline. It’s a trauma I still hold, buried deep down. A trauma that I know needs healing, but to address it means I have to re-live it in a way that I just don’t have the energy to do. A trauma that has very little to do with Olivia’s diagnosis and everything to do with an unplanned hospital birth with a doctor that panicked. A doctor that did not listen to my body. A doctor that made me question myself. A doctor that embodied the very reason I had sought out a home birth in the first place – and why many women choose home birth over hospital birth.

Last Ash Wednesday I attended a service in a conference room in a university hospital. Casey and Oscar had briefly gone home. It was Valentine’s Day and Casey sent me pictures of Oscar naked playing on Carmel Beach with a heart drawn in the sand. I thought a lot about death that day. Actually, last Lent I thought about death a lot and I’m still thinking about death. I’m thinking about that thin veil between life and death. The thin veil that is ever present in any intensive care unit. That reality is one that I have become familiar with in the last year and a half: “From dust you came, to dust you shall return.” And in that time I’ve also come to realize that our Western world has a very disconnected understanding of death. We fear death. We fear our death and we fear the death of those close to us. We leave death behind closed doors so that none of us have to experience it until we have to. And it’s a shame because if we are truly the Faithful people we claim to be than we shouldn’t have this fear of death because it isn’t unknown! We have been told of the promises of the Resurrection. But we have little faith, don’t we?

Having a mom who is an oncology nurse, I always heard her talk naturally about death. I heard stories about how it could be beautiful and peaceful. Stories about how at the end of life people never seemed to say they wish they worked more. But they often wished they had more time with loved ones. And, it’s true, isn’t it that accounts of people dying and then coming back to life always seem to be that whatever is in the beyond isn’t half bad. In the last year I’ve been thinking about how much our society misses out on by shutting our eyes to death. We force death behind closed doors to protect ourselves, but then when it’s our turn we are fearful of the unknown because we have never seen anyone else go through it. We won’t even talk about it. If we did talk about it and we did reflect upon it, maybe we would be better able to live. The Catholic faith is full of traditions based around death because much of the rest of the world sees and experiences death throughout a lifetime in a very real way. A way that most of us in the US have had the privilege to be shielded from.

Our fear is rooted in a lack of faith. A lack of faith that the 40 days of Lent bring to the forefront of our minds. So, as I figure out what my Lenten practice is going to be, I find myself trying to pinpoint where in my life I am lacking faith. Where in my life am I denying Christ three times? I know it’s my little faith that is keeping me from confronting the trauma that I keep buried because I don’t trust that anything will come of it. It’s my little faith that fills me with anxiety about money and the future. It’s my little faith that wants to take the map and stake out the route myself. When will I learn? Maybe this Lent.

P.S. If you are interested in getting more comfortable talking about and processing death there are some documentaries on Netflix about palliative care and death that may be a good introduction. One that I watched was called “End Game” – it’s short and well done.

P.P.S One goal I have this Lent is to read through my medical records from Olivia’s birth and craft a letter to the labor and delivery department of the hospital where Olivia was born. This is how I deal with trauma – by voicing the injustice and asking for change. I promise I’m not letting it stay buried.

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