This story, though it is about and primarily for my niece Brenna and her little man, Connor David, is also dedicated to: Jonathan, Morgan, Joshua, Ashlee, Joseph, Jordan, Sarah, Tyler, Sydney, Sophie, Jake, Estlin, Lucy, Layla, Rory, Lunna, Kira, Bruenn, Penelope and our little girl on the way… though I do not see any of you as often, or even know some of you as well, as I would like… you have a piece of my heart, ALWAYS.
My niece Brenna was born when I was 15. I remember specifically when she was born because I was taking my first road trip with my high school boyfriend – who would, not later enough, become my first husband. We drove up to Frankfort, Michigan together in my parents’ car. Or rather, he drove, because I didn’t have my license yet. And we stopped in on my brother and his wife who had just had their second baby.
And there she was, the tiniest little thing. Just a few days old. Curled up on her belly with a shock of black hair and that odd dark red color some newborns have – as if they have always just gotten done screaming a moment ago.
I had other nieces and nephews. I loved them all. But my age was probably just right to begin to understand (and still not understand at all, of course) the magnitude of babies, of mothers having babies, of birth. I was in awe that her mother, my sister-in-law Beth, moved around as though she hadn’t just pushed this child out of her body days before. I was in awe of the sweetness and quiet and… I don’t know… kind of “holy” feeling that seemed to settle on the house where this newborn curled and cooed.
Mostly, for the first time ever I think, I really marveled at how tiny they are – newborns. How fragile they seem. When Beth let me hold Brenna, I felt terribly unworthy. I felt scared that I could hurt her. Because I knew – you just know this about tiny newborns – the last thing in this world that I would ever want to do was to hurt her.
Then… luckily…that tiny baby began growing into a sturdy and pretty amazingly spunky little kid. My life moved the way it did. And sometimes I would see her. And sometimes when I wanted to see her, or when I maybe should have seen her, I didn’t. And, from afar, I remained fascinated by the entire process of her growing up – just as I did with my other nieces and nephews.
Then… very suddenly I was grown up (or mostly) and I had a child of my own and I lived back in Michigan – after years and years of exploring and running and working and trying to find myself in many other places – and my phone was ringing.
My sister-in-law Beth was calling. Beth and I didn’t talk on the phone that much but I loved her very much. I had known her since I was about eight or nine years old and she was absolutely sweet to me – as she was to most people. She always made me feel well loved and heard and seen and I loved that about her. I think she had that effect on most people that she met. So, though we didn’t talk on the phone much, I always loved it when she called.
On this particular day, she had something very specific that she wanted to discuss with me. Her daughter Brenna. Beth called to tell me that she thought Brenna was a lot like me and that it would probably be good for both of us to spend more time together, to get to know each other better. It was a bit of an odd thing to be told. But I didn’t question it much. By “like me,” Beth meant Brenna was a pain-in-the-ass kind of kid, a firecracker who couldn’t be told what to do or how to do it, who was going to figure everything out for herself. Of course, I thought this was pretty much nothing but awesome but I knew Beth wasn’t so sure. As an older mother now, I think this call, this decision to ask me to spend more time with her daughter, was such a wise and intuitive and brave move on Beth’s part. Her reaction to the fact that her daughter turned out to be “like me” could’ve been to keep her away from me as much as possible – but I think Beth wisely knew that people like us have to figure ourselves out, that we keep being pains-in-the-ass until we fit all the pieces of our own puzzle together, by ourselves. I think Beth was hoping that seeing me do this would help Brenna do it too.
I called Brenna and asked her to come stay with us for the weekend soon. And she did. And we began to really get to know each other. And it was true that we were very much alike. And I worried about that. And felt sorry about that. Because… remember, Dear Reader, it has taken me a long time to love who I am. I wished, for her sake, that she wasn’t like me. I hoped, for her sake, that this like-ness wasn’t something she despised or wished were not so. But despite all these worries, our closeness grew quickly and Brenna became an important part of my pretty much everyday life.
Then… my small family, which had grown by one Lucy by then, was staying in Brooklyn for the summer. And, Brenna was planning to come stay with us for a few weeks. And I was walking around Smith & 9th with my one and a half year old in an umbrella stroller. My mother had died two weeks prior to this moment so the dark shroud of that sadness was still heavily upon me. But I had also gotten some difficult phone calls that morning and I was waiting for updates. My sister-in-law, Beth, who had been very sick, was possibly dying. This news felt impossible, surreal, wrong, quite literally unbelievable. I walked up and down the street with my baby. I couldn’t sit still in our little rented house. I walked and I felt like a ghost. I walked into shops and bought random things and paid too much money for them and didn’t even know why I was buying anything. I felt like I could see myself walking but I was gone. I couldn’t think straight. I walked aimlessly. I couldn’t smile. I was aware that I probably looked a little crazy.
Then… Lucy and I ended up at a busy, noisy playground and I was helping her toddle over a little stairway and trip her way down a tiny slide and Brenna called my cell…
…and through her tears and ragged breath she said, “Can you come here now? Right now? Please. I just need you to come here now.” “Here” was Traverse City, Michigan. And I knew that Beth had died. And I said, “Okay. I’ll be there as soon as I can.”
I scooped up Lucy, put her in my stroller filled with bags full of this weird days’ purchases and her diaper bag. I walked out to the street and began looking around wildly for a taxi (but taxis aren’t a dime a dozen in Brooklyn the way they are in Manhattan). I must have looked absolutely desperate and bereft because this couple walking toward me said, “Do you need a cab? Can we help you?” And, within a couple of minutes, during which I told them as much of the story as I could allow myself to tell, they somehow flagged down a taxi for me and put me in it and I asked the driver to take me to the airport – with a brief stop at my rented house first. My husband and son were travelling up to New Hampshire that weekend to see his mother so I was alone with my baby. I rushed in, packed a bag, rushed back out and we were on our way to LaGuardia. Then what seemed like an eternity of waiting, then a plane to Detroit, then a rental car to Frankfort. Then, I was home.
Rather than waiting for her scheduled trip, Brenna came to stay with us in Brooklyn right away – and she stayed the rest of the summer. And the two of us, like the rest of our family, spent that summer dazed by the loss of these two women; these two women who were two of the brightest lights in our family. To say these losses were devastating would be a gross understatement.
Then back to our lives. My job, which I fumbled through that first semester back. Her school, which she put on hold for a semester to stay at home with her Dad and her younger brother. And all the other stuff that happens in life. My husband left me and eventually came back. She met a young man she could love. And a lot of stuff was really good.
Then… along with her sister and her brother and my sister and my brothers and several other members of our family… we held vigil over her father’s last days. I watched as that young man that Brenna could love had a private conversation with my brother on his back porch. I knew he was asking for my brother’s permission to marry his daughter. I knew my brother loved this young man and that he was glad to give his permission.
Then, I was walking into the laundry room where Brenna was keeping herself busy, loading and unloading the washer and dryer and I said, “Brenna” and I just looked at her and she knew her father had died. And she went to him.
And in that first year of having lost him, of -- along with her sister and brother -- being orphaned, this unstoppable force of a young woman completed graduate school, got her first big job, and married that young man.
Brenna and I weren’t really speaking much when she found out she was pregnant. We had had a bit of a falling out. I hope, Dear Reader, you have been paying enough attention to understand when I tell you that this “falling out” caused me unbelievable hardship and many many sleepless nights. How HOW could I just go about my business every day being estranged from someone I love SO dearly? I couldn’t. So… eventually, I called and just simply asked if that’s the way she wanted it – for us not to be in each other’s lives. And she cried. And I cried. And we said many things that we both should have said much earlier. And we realized and admitted out loud that our bond is a strange and special one; that I feel quite motherly toward her; that she feels daughter-ish toward me. We had been behaving that way for a long time but without stating it out loud so that we both knew that we both knew. Because of this lack of communication, there were moments, like her wedding and her call to announce her pregnancy, where our roles were not clear and expectations went unmet and feelings were hurt. We left that conversation with a renewed understanding of each other, of ourselves and I could sleep again.
A few days later we were talking about me being present at the birth of her baby, about being her doula for what she hoped to be a natural birth. And, as you would suspect, I was crying.
To say I was honored is not enough. To say I entered into a long period of prayer that I could rise to this occasion, that I could be everything she would need me to be is not enough. It is a strange place where you feel so unworthy and so humbled and yet you must be so strong and so sure of yourself. To say it is difficult is not enough.
Then… my car was packed for my small family’s road trip out to Connecticut for my niece Sophie’s high school graduation… and I called Brenna the night before we were set to leave just to check in one last time before we left. We had already discussed this trip and its proximity to her due date. We had already decided that it was early enough to be okay. But, if you know anything about the timing of birth…
Brenna said she had been having Braxton Hicks contractions all day. No bigee, she thought, but hmmm…. maybe she would keep a closer eye on things and see if this was really the beginning of something. And I thought, oh my goodness, wouldn’t it just be murphy’s law for this to be the beginning of something. Then I went to bed and left my cell phone in the kitchen, far out of earshot.
I woke early and realized that there was a possibility she had called or texted through the night – then marched quickly to the kitchen to check. Sure enough. She was headed to the hospital. We had talked at length about staying away from the hospital for as long as possible. Brenna is a researcher. She had read every possible thing she could find about how to give birth naturally in a hospital. Everything and everyone says to stay at home until you obviously can’t stay at home anymore. She knew this. So, when she said she was going to the hospital, I knew it was time.
After phone calls and apologies to all the right people, I changed plans and hopped in my car, where my hospital bag was already packed and ready to go. I had a two and a half hour trip to the hospital. Let me tell you how I used it:
I talked to my Mother. I talked to my Brother. I talked to my Sister-in-Law. I asked them to be with us today. I asked them to keep her safe. I asked them to keep her baby safe. I asked them to fill me with strength. I asked for my mother’s fierce courage in difficult situations. I asked for my brother’s humor and laid-back-ness and cleverness. I asked for my sister-in-law’s tenderness, gentleness, sweetness. I meditated on the image of these angels lending me these qualities so that I could be what Brenna and her Chad needed; so that I could be more than just myself. And I fought LIKE HELL to stop worrying about being unworthy. And I told myself to re-channel all of that worry–energy into confidence-energy that Brenna and her baby would be safe and happy and healthy because THAT was all that mattered on this particular day.
And… in between these prayers and meditations I took deep breaths and re-read all of the pertinent chapters in the book Brenna gave me to read about Natural Hospital Births. It turns out, you can really get a lot done on a two and a half hour drive when you are alert and wired with intense anticipation.
When I arrived, I was sure that Brenna and Chad had made the decision to come to the hospital too soon – as a lot of first-timers do. They were still laughing and watching TV and talking normally and arguing mildly about where to put stuff. They had clearly not entered the oh-my-god-this-is-really-happening-right-this-minute phase. Brenna was sitting down or lying down. She was having contractions but they weren’t the eyes-popping-out-of-the-head, breaking-someone’s-hand-while-you’re-holding-it kind yet. But they were regular and they were getting stronger.
I encouraged her to eat a little bit, if she wanted to. Eventually, I encouraged her to stand up for her contractions to let gravity give her baby a little help and to walk around to get everything moving. She did, Chad and I rubbed her back, we reassured her quietly, we stayed out of her way, we did whatever we could do to make her comfortable. There were many moments where I just stood or sat quietly in the corner of the room to give them their space.
It was not just beautiful. This young woman and this young man huddled together, holding hands, leaning into one another and whispering softly to each other – through contractions, between contractions. Despite the real-ness of her increasing pain, her increasing discomfort, some of the unpleasant side effects of birth, I kept thinking the word “Communion” and watching the two of them go through this together seemed… Holy. I can’t think of a better word for it.
Some of Brenna’s unpleasant side effects were vomiting and preeclampsia. The doctor and nurses recommended a mild pain medication. Chad and I had been given strict directions (from Brenna) to try to talk her out of getting pain medication so it took three really good contractions of us saying, “well, just wait one more contraction and see if you still want it…” until after the third contraction, she grabbed Chad’s arm, looked us both in the eye strongly and growled, “I AM ONE HUNDRED PERCENT SURE THAT I WANT PAIN MEDS.” Of course I didn’t laugh out loud but damn, I wanted to. I ran and got the nurse and pain meds were on their way.
Again… I worried… I worried that the meds and the fact that she had to lay down (because of the preeclampsia) would slow down her contractions and lead to other interventions which I knew she wanted to avoid. But again… I consciously refocused, re-channeled that worry-energy into confidence. Total confidence. And, gratefully, the contractions kept coming and they kept getting stronger and I watched my niece…
Oh Reader, have you been listening to me? Have you heard this story from its beginning? Do you understand that I held this young woman in my hands when she was a tiny baby? Can you understand what was happening in this moment?
…I watched my beautiful niece slip into that absolutely animal place of birth. Her eyes closed. She became so quiet between contractions that it was eerie. When the contractions came, she became so low and vocal and growly and deep and wild, she grabbed Chad’s hand and arm so tight, she grabbed my hand so tight… occasionally she would cry… she would cry out in a whimper, “I can’t do this” she would say and I would steel myself utterly and I would look into her beautiful face and say, “Yes, you can. You are. You are doing it.” We both did. Chad and I. We reassured her over and over. And in between reassuring her, I tried to reassure him that this was all good, it was all normal. And in between reassuring her and him, I reassured myself that I could do my part. I saw in Chad’s face several times how difficult it is to watch someone you love feel so much pain, go to that place you can’t touch, you can’t help at all. I turned away several times briefly to fight my own tears, my own difficulties with watching this young woman I love so much go through this world-rending process. And we carried on this way for some time – and I became almost as lost in time as Brenna was, as Chad was.
Then, the pushing started. Brenna was positioned semi-upright on the bed, Chad and I at her sides, holding her legs, her hands, constantly, continually reassuring her. And the quietly moaning, growling animal she was through that dilating part of labor was replaced by a ferocious, roaring animal and it felt like the entire world was (as it should be) revolving around this moment as my amazing niece did the hard work of bringing forth life. Reader, if you think my verbiage is overblown here, you have not been present at a birth and you are underestimating its raw majesty.
They don’t call it labor for nothin’.
Though birth is an entirely natural and normal process, a woman’s body and mind have to WORK together to make it happen fully. A woman has to open herself completely (If, Dear Reader, you think there is something gross in this statement, I’m wondering who you are and why you are reading my blog). As I was saying, a woman has to open herself completely. And this is the part I wasn’t entirely prepared for; this opening. To see this happen – to see a woman open her body up so that life can come through – do you hear what I’m saying to you? THAT is the miracle. The body taking over then the willful strength of the mother consciously, purposely opening herself up so that life can come through. I can’t imagine I will ever witness anything as mind-blowingly miraculous as this moment.
And then, we saw the top of the baby’s head! If a woman, as women usually are, is exhausted at this point and finding it hard to muster the energy to open completely enough, sometimes a doctor or nurse or midwife will suggest that a mother touches her baby’s head. This gets the mother so anxious and excited to see her baby that she finds renewed strength to push. I saw this happen for Brenna. It is so frustrating to be in that place for what seems like so long – even if, relatively, it is not that long – opening and opening and opening and it seems like it will never end. And then you touch the top of your baby’s head and you see the light at the end and you sprint through the last few contractions of that tunnel. Though it probably felt like an eternity to Brenna in the moment, in just a few minutes, where there had been no baby, there was a baby. Her body opened so completely that he slipped through. Chad and I got to see it happen. Both of us overwhelmed to tears, beaming from ear-to-ear.
In my head… while the rush around the baby happened, while Brenna held him to her, while this beautiful little family huddled together and cried together and laughed and smiled together and the doctors and nurses moved around the room doing everything they need to do… in my head, I just kept saying Thank You, Thank You, Thank You. I really was. All I could think was Thank You.
The Universe has given me many gifts, none of which I am worthy of, including my own two wonderful children who were born of two absolutely wonderful births – but watching my safe and happy niece bring her healthy son into this world, at this part of this story, after ALL of the story that came before… do you hear me Reader?... watching this happen is one of the greatest gifts the Universe could ever possibly give me. And I will be grateful for this gift to the end of my days.
Chad and Brenna are well-loved by so many people. That is as it should be. It didn’t take long for the room to be swarmed with folks wanting to see the baby. My niece Ashlee was the first to arrive. And again… seeing Ashlee with her sister, her brother-in-law, her new nephew… it all started to be a bit more than I could take.
So, I offered to pick up food somewhere and bring it back to the room. You know, in MoJo’s Kitchen, food is ALWAYS a good thing to offer. And I used the opportunity of being in my car to bawl my eyes out, to just cry and cry and cry and laugh and smile and cry some more and to talk to my angels some more too and to say Thank You some more.
I picked up food, brought it back to them, made sure Brenna and Chad didn’t need or want me for anything else at the moment, held my new nephew and kissed him as many times as was humanly possible, told Brenna how proud I was of her, told her what a great job she did (all of which was ridiculously understated), gave a round of hugs to everyone in the room – including a couple of people I had only just met! – and made my way home to my own babies, crying and thanking and laughing and howling the entire two and a half hours home.
And during that drive home, I became acutely aware of how there was yet another piece of my heart living and breathing out there in the world now. In just moments, this new little baby was here and I loved him unquestionably.
Reader, I have two children, twelve nieces and nephews, and now seven – almost eight! – grand-nephews & nieces! Here is the miracle of the human heart! It expands with each birth of a child we love and then it immediately partitions itself into their hearts, their lives. I don’t know any other way to think about it. This is why, somewhere along the way, what happens to/for these children, these people, is every bit as important as what happens to/for us. They are a part of us – a part we can’t live completely without.
Which is why, the next morning, with my husband’s car still packed for our Connecticut trip, we got on the road so that we could be with my amazing niece Sophie for her high school graduation. While we were there we also got to see my badass niece Morgan and her beautiful son Bruenn, my awesome niece Jordan; my super-sweet niece Sarah; my wonderful niece Sydney and her two adorable baby girls, Lunna and Kira. And, also while we were there, baby Penelope was born to my nephew Josh and his wife Anna, back in Michigan. Oh, there were seemingly unlimited reasons to celebrate that weekend!
When I got back from that whirlwind weekend, a lot of my friends and colleagues here kind of marveled at how crazy it was to drive all the way up to Frankfort and back in one day then all the way out to Connecticut and back in three days. Admittedly, I was tired. But, I was so happy. So happy. And mostly, I think what made me happy was knowing that I’m not the only one – by a long shot – in my family who drives long distances for the chance to see the people they love for a few hours. We’ve got a lot of those in my family. How could we not? We’ve got a lot of little pieces of our hearts scattered all over creation and people will do incredible things to keep their hearts whole and all in one place!
To understand the dénouement of my little story, you will have to understand what the song Wagon Wheel, PARTICULARLY as played by Jake Frysinger out on the patio of The Roadhouse on a Wednesday night, means to me and to some of the members of my family.
To celebrate Brenna’s birthday this year, we found ourselves on this patio at The Roadhouse on a Wednesday night while Jake Frysinger was playing guitar.
And then… I found myself with beautiful little Connor David, all dressed up in his best little plaid onesie, in MY arms. And the two of us were dancing to Wagon Wheel.
And I can’t tell you in what sense exactly I mean this because I actually do not think it matters in what sense I mean it but I could FEEL my brother with us, I could FEEL my sister-in-law with us, I could FEEL my mother with us.
And, honestly, a person has no business asking for ANYTHING better than that.