Between Birth and Death

"Baby Boom" is a reality television program that follows couples as they come into the hospital to have their babies. I watch the show religiously, and every time, every single time the birth happens, I cry. Well, if I am honest, it's more accurate to say that I sob. Something about the moment the baby is born moves me deeply. The energy, the mystery, the awe of it is palpable. This is remarkable given that I am a passive spectator watching on a screen far away from the action.

Each time I wonder about this emotional reaction. I am a critical scholar unmoved by kitsch or melodrama, and yet, something about witnessing this moment unhinges me. Paradoxically, the feeling I have watching births is the same feeling I have witnessing death - something beyond words takes over and I understand that I am in the presence of a force that transcends language and rational thought.

The New York Times published a remarkable article this week about dreams at end of life. People in the liminal space between life and death often have visions of those who have passed before them. Dying people may see their parents or grandparents, a child who passed away decades before, or in some instances, even pets appear. In my work researching people at end of life and in my personal life with my mother who died more then a decade ago, this phenomenon rings true. People in the last stage of life, or in the 'in between' world have blurrier boundaries than the rest of us.

In her novel, The World To Come, Dara Horn describes these boundaries as non-existent. The world to come is both the world we go to after we die and the world we come from before we were born. That feeling of awe, mystery, and power - the intensity of the mysterious 'here' and 'not here' is the same for birth as it is for death. Where did these babies come from? And where do the people we love go after they die? We can rationally understand the biological process of gestation and bodily deterioration, but we cannot entirely provide answers to the mysteries of life and death.

As with birth and death, love and grief also mirror one another. As I have argued here before, one is inexorably linked to the other. We feel grief for those we have loved; and in some ways, we love each other best when we are aware that our time with them is finite. These emotions share a lot in common. When I was little, I used to feel love for my family and my dog so intensely in my body, I thought my chest was going to bust with the intensity of the emotion. Grief too can feel this way - suffocating, overwhelming, physical, and all encompassing, passing over us in waves. Both love and grief connect us deeply to the people we love. They are anchors -- an invisible umbilical cord made up of small moments of kindness and affection when we love, and tears and memories when we grieve.

To be sure, as a motherless daughter, it is possible that births move me in this way because they remind me of the intense relationship I had with my mom who is no longer here. For motherless daughters, birth and death are linked. We birth life and are reminded of our mother's deaths. For most women, mothers are in them as they become mothers themselves, but for the motherless daughter, the mother is physically, literally absent linking these two powerful events of present and absent together. Even so, I suspect that the parallels between birth and death transcend my own personal story and can be felt and seen -- for those who care to pay attention and are not afraid to look -- by all.