Tuesday, November 12, 2013

The Dance Of Life & Death

Time can be such an elusive creature. Just when you think that you finally have a grasp of it, you lose your control as it wriggles free and speeds away from you. It has been over five months now since I've even made an honest attempt at writing and composing my thoughts… something that I used to do so freely and frequently. Life has cemented me in place. I indeed seemed to have lost my grasp of time, but what I gained in return was even greater, time to grow with my family… with my beautiful five month old daughter. The perspective that my time and creativity was lost or wasted is only one side of the story. The truth is that my energy and my focus was elsewhere, it was on something even greater than my love of writing. During these past five months (and beyond) some of the most wonderful, awe inspiring, and emotional events have occurred in my life, good and positive as well as sad and heartbreaking. For certain, my silence was not for a lack of something to write about. In fact, I felt overwhelmed and unable to properly pay tribute to what I was experiencing. Perhaps these moments were too potent and expansive for me to capture at the time, but now looking back I can see a pattern. So, now I break the silence to tell the tale of these voiceless months, the tale of life and death.

Even before I became a father I felt as if I had tuned in to some mystical frequency only afforded to those who truly can grasp the significance of life and the loss of life, a preparation for parenthood. I think that as human beings we have the ability to ponder life, which is remarkable in itself, but for the most part we tune out in order to have a sense of normalcy. So rather than having some uncanny realization, I believe that my sense of experiencing life was heightened. The truth is that the speed of life (and my practice of recording it in writing) had changed even before my baby was born, and occurred during the nine months waiting for her. The feeling of excitement and the sense of urgency was ubiquitous. I worked twice as hard, thought twice as often, and ate twice as much waiting for this due date on the calendar looming ahead in the distance. It was during this time that I first keenly observed the balance of life and death in action. 

Months into our pregnancy (I was guarding the belly, she was pregnant), my wife was able to bring home her mother from Ghana. It was a joyous occasion, this reunion between mother and daughter after many years living apart. It was during this same month, the day when students at the high school where I teach were to go on their Thanksgiving break, when one of the students tragically drowned in the school pool during a gym class. He was a recent immigrant from Ghana, which had a strange antithetical parallel to the new beginning that we would enjoy in our own family. As one mother mourned her son, a daughter celebrated her mother. This congruency between life and death was only just beginning.

I remember that it was about one month later when my wife was about 17 weeks through her pregnancy, and the terrible news of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut broke. I was thinking of the parents of the young children who had sent them off to another regular day of school just before the holidays, and who had no idea that they would never see their children alive again. It struck a chord deep within my soul as I was anticipating and joyfully expecting my own child in the months to come. It also struck me that this tragic event unfolded only a week before most of Christendom celebrated the birth of Jesus Christ, filled with the symbolism of innocence and unconditional love. The irony was disturbing. I could only think about the loss of life that a mother or father had nurtured and protected, even before that life came into the world, and then to have it whisked away without any warning. My wife and I didn't know the sex of our baby growing in the womb, but we knew that we were parents, and we knew the human worth and the love that we had for our baby even though we could not see her. 

The following month, a former student of mine who had graduated from high school the year before had sadly died from complications after becoming ill. It happened suddenly and unexpectedly. I had seen this student almost every day during her time at the high school. She was my pupil, my teacher’s assistant, a member of my after-school club, she was a young friend. I had proudly watched her graduate the previous summer, and I was able to congratulate her happy family. My wife and I were greeted by her in surprise while shopping in a store only a few weeks before she had shockingly passed on. I can remember how she was so excited to see our baby growing in my wife’s belly. The next time I would see her was when she was lying in a casket at her funeral. It was one of the most heartbreaking things I had ever bore witness to, the death of someone I cared about who had their whole future in front of them. Someone that I had just seen and spoken to could smile and speak no more. The same family members that I had hugged with congratulations less than a year before, I now hugged with condolences. It was difficult to accept. Yet two weeks later one of my good friends had welcomed his baby son into the world. And all throughout this time of waiting and anticipating our own baby child, I clearly saw the dance between life and death, the interplay between its miraculous and joyous beginnings and the tragedy and the suffering of death.

Without a doubt, the greatest moment of my life so far, and the most definitive, was bearing witness to the birth of my baby daughter. Nine long months of waiting… not knowing whether we were having a boy or a girl, we were ready to greet our child into the world. After her safe and smooth delivery, I had the honor of introducing our daughter to her mother and calling her by the name we had chosen for her. The emotions running through me and the significance of the moment could not be captured in words as I cut the cord and held my daughter close to me for the first time. Unconditional love! Anticipating fatherhood had changed my life in many ways, but of course actually becoming a father changed my life in an unfathomable way. I instantly became conscious of the fact that I was now a family man and that my wife and my daughter were the most important people in my life and I would do anything to protect them. My eyes were open to an awareness I had not known until then.

Our daughter was only two months old when my wife and I took her on a 2,000 mile road trip to visit my grandmother, and meet her only great-grandmother for the first time. The summer pilgrimage was a beautiful one. Precious moments were spent together as we traveled and enjoyed our family vacation, but the greatest was when my Grandma was able to hold her great-granddaughter and watch her as she learned how to smile. Four generations were united together, beholding one another in love and wonder. It was a true testament to life. Life that seemed energized with the promise of tomorrow. After spending a couple of weeks with my grandmother and the rest of our family, we made our way back home. My grandmother stood by the door and waved goodbye to us, the same way she had always done since we were children. I left with the confidence that we would see her again the following summer. Life had a response to my presumption. Three weeks later, my grandmother passed. She had been healthy, happy, and buoyant when we saw her. She died in her own home after having a stroke. Though it was sudden and sad, my Grandma had made peace with her mortality. She had outlived her husband, she had seen my brothers and I get married, and she met her first great-grandchild. She had a spirit of love and genuine acceptance of life and the promise of heaven. She was ready to go, she wanted to go, I can only imagine that she felt fulfilled. I traveled back to say goodbye to the last grandparent I had left, and watch my Dad say goodbye to his mother. Once again, I watched the familiar dance between life and death.

As I write, outside my window I can see brown leaves crackling in the chilly wind, falling to the ground… in character of a typical autumn. Just as nature has its seasons, so too does the cycle of life. During this past year I’ve silently watched the dance between life and death unfold in several acts, a performance that was woven through awful tragedy and heartbreak, wondrous joy, and finally acceptance. It opened with conception and with hearing the first beat of my daughter’s heart during the last autumn. It concluded with our family saying goodbye during the euthanasia of our beloved family dog just a couple of weeks ago and hearing his heart beat for the last time. This dance is incomprehensible, it is natural… it is mystic.  It is something witnessed but not truly captured. In the end, I can say that I have seen it, I have studied it, and yet I am none the wiser. However, I do know the steps to the eternal dance, and now I am free to fall back into it, accept it, and find my muse. Life goes on, and I must write on.