I know better than to expect good customer service from an airport rental car agent, but it was past 1am on Father’s Day 2018 and I really needed her to find that Dodge Challenger I’d reserved. I was on my way to see my dad, who had received an out-of-the-blue terminal brain cancer diagnosis a few weeks prior. I had a “Brain Surgery: Been There, Done That” mug in my luggage - the last father’s day gift - and a lump the size of a watermelon in my throat.
By some small miracle, that graveyard shift Hertz agent scrounged up my Challenger. I drove it rumbling in the night to the north suburbs of Atlanta, to my dad’s empty house, then to the hospital the next morning. His physical therapists helped dad to lower himself into the Challenger, and we listened to it purr in the summer sun.
Those physical therapists were nice, but they told us they’d get fired if they let him come with me for a spin even just in the parking lot. After a few fun minutes of sitting in that car, dad hoisted himself back out of the low seat and we returned to the chilly sterile hospital. Apart from a few rides in medical transportation vehicles, that was the last time my dad, a lifetime car nut, ever sat in one. I tried not to cry when I had to back his Corvette into a storage unit later in the summer, but I failed.
I’m not much of an optimist, and I always knew my dad was going to die. Sometimes it seemed absurd to me, providing a terminal patient with thousands of dollars worth of physical therapy whose gains were bound to be erased by the tumor in a matter of months at best. I wanted to scream at all those cheerful nurses and ask them if they’d forgotten that my dad was basically dying. Maybe they’re just all emotional labor-ed out. But maybe they just understand. You’re alive right until you’re not. Sure, in some pedantic sense, ~we’re all always dying~. But you can also die slowly enough that it’s more like living alongside death.
My first experience with death was when dad accidentally stepped on my first pet, a tiny hamster named Zippity, over 25 years ago. In my mind’s eye I can see him sitting on our back porch, head hanging, with the tiny lifeless body cupped in his large and careful hands. He shielded the death from my sight while my mother frantically dug a grave. But I knew it was there.
Later, when I was about 10, my grandfather died — I asked some questions and was gobsmacked to learn about cremation. Another decade and a half later, my grandmother died. At the time, I was shattered to learn that she’d broken a second hip trying to get out of her bed unassisted while at rehab for the first broken hip. They tried to operate on her, but she (wisely) declined and headed to hospice instead. Now, I realized she died a rather good death. At 94, what better could wait in store for you, other than going to sleep and never waking up?
Sometimes as a kid, I’d lie in bed at night, listening to my own heart and fearing it’d just… stop. Things seem different to me know. Truly good health feels fragile, because many of our body’s compensations and near misses go unnoticed. But it actually takes a lot to kill a person. You can have a walnut or even orange-sized tumor in your brain for a while and not know it yet. You can have two broken hips and still have to starve yourself to death.
I wasn’t surprised when my abstract obsession with mortality followed me into my first pregnancy. My first completed pregnancy, that is. I conceived and promptly miscarried a baby in my first month of marriage. They call this a “chemical pregnancy” because there’s never anything to see on an ultrasound, that increasingly powerful eye into formerly unknown gestational depths. There’s only a line on a pee stick, maybe some blood test results on your computer screen. A pregnancy like this is real enough, yet still essentially unreal. It made my uterus a confirmed site of death before it ever hosted tangible life.
When the next pregnancy stuck, and kept sticking, I often thought about how this baby was bound to die either inside me or outside. A terrible pair of options. Probably I qualified for an antenatal anxiety or depression diagnosis, but I’m not convinced that (manageable) existential angst is inappropriate. Stop asking her if she’s “so excited” and let the pregnant lady have her malaise.
Birth and death are two sides of the same coin, as we are often reminded. This doesn’t mean that death is eclipsed by birth. Instead, we are brought even closer to the edge of existence by reproductive undertakings — both literally and metaphorically.
I am interested in the idea of transformative pain, and curious about laboring the way our foremothers did — completely without medication. But in the end, I’ve never done it. (For what it’s worth, many of them didn’t really want to, either).
My first baby was delivered surgically after a failed, stalled labor that had begun to stress her out. The other two were coaxed out the old-fashioned route with most of the medical tricks in the book. I wasn’t having an unmedicated grief – until I got pregnant, I drank like a fish. Why would I needlessly subject myself to an unmedicated birth?
On the basis of experience, I simply refuse to rehearse the mantras and “affirmations” about birth that are supposed to motivate you through an unmedicated ordeal:
“I have everything I need”
“My body knows what to do"
“Birth is safe for me and my baby”
"My baby trusts me and I trust my body."
"Waiting for the birth of my baby is an experience of serene joy.”
“I am reasonably safe, as far as safety is possible and even desirable” just isn’t mantra material, but it’s the closest I could honestly come.
Still, people just love mantras, whether they’re pregnant or not, whether they work or not. My father repeated his own throughout his brain cancer “journey”:
“we’re going to get through this.”
It was the last thing he ever said to me, in February of this year. I visited again in March just in time to say goodbye, but I don’t know if he heard it. I felt baby boy wiggling in my belly while I sat by dad’s deathbed. So, that was a lot.
Reproduction is littered with misery and waste. My uterus is a dud. The same medical technologies that delivered my three babies safely prolonged my dad’s death, and I don’t know if it was worth it — even to him.
Now dad's gone. The grandson he never met is mortal, and so am I. Birth doesn’t redeem death, I didn’t trade my dad in for a son. But this is all that’s available. You can ignore it or you can get used to it — or neither, because life just marches on anyways and your growth is not assured. As it happens, we’re not so much “getting through this,” dad, as it’s getting through us.