Thursday, July 12, 2007

Tod und Verklarung

One of our sickest babies died last night. She was born with many congenital defects, and in her ten months of life underwent a number of surgeries to try and help her. She finally could hold on no longer, and as she was about to be coded, her mother stepped to the bedside and said, "enough." So they undid the many tubes, and let her lay in her mother's arms. The pacer wires were still attached, so her heart kept beating. After a while, her mother said to remove the pacer wires. Her heart stopped immediately. They sat quietly with her for a long time, and after the last of the various pieces of equipment was unhooked, they bathed her and dressed her and continued to hold her in their arms. It was a moment of terrible poignancy.

This is a ritual that often happens in this unit when a baby dies - and babies do die here frequently because we do the most radical of surgeries, the true last-ditch efforts - that the parents stay with the baby, bathe the child, and spend time quietly holding their little one.

In the case of the baby that died last night, for the past few weeks, the mother had often said, "I just want to be able to hold her." There were so many tubes and wires it was impossible for her to be lifted off the bed and into her mother's embrace. Last night, finally, she got her wish.

I wonder about these rituals of washing and waiting. Certainly Scripture speaks of them after Jesus' death on the cross. Joseph of Arimethea collects Jesus' body, lays it in the tomb, and the women come to wash and anoint the body.

I belive that some of it is to lend tactile truth to the death. When you have touched a dead person, child or adult, you know they are dead. You can feel there is no life in them. Some of it, too, is an honoring of the person by washing them, anointing them, preparing them to step away from this world and into the next. It is the last gentle act of love you can do.

I used to think that rituals like wakes (I grew up in an Irish Catholic family, and the wakes were Joycean) were barbaric. The number of times I heard someone say at the side of the casket, "Doesn't she look good?" is more than I wish to count. Spending time sitting with a body? Having the dead person dressed up and laid out for all to see? Awful!

Now I start to see the wisdom of ritual to lend reality to what has happened, although the embalming and making up of dead bodies still seems wrong to me. I wonder if we can visualize a going up to heaven without the rituals that bid the person, or at least the person's mortal body, farewell.

I believe in another place after this one, a place of peace and rest. I don't know what it is like - none of us do - but I know it's there. When I die, I hope my loved ones can bid my body farewell as gracefully as these parents did, knowing that I am well and truly gone from them, and know, too, that the "I" of me is gone on to that other mystery for which there are no words.

Rest in peace, little M. Rest in peace in that mystery place for which there are no words.


Towanda said...

poignant, painful, beautiful. thanks for sharing this.

David said...

Thank you for sharing this tragic, yet moving story. Death is hard by any means, but I can only image losing a child is the hardest. God gifts you to be there with those parents in their sorrow. Thank you for standing in the gap, and for being present. On a personal note, when I saw my Mother's body after she had died, I knew she was gone. God had taken her home. Peace.

Cathy said...

You have such a gift of sharing the stories -- and a gift you are sharing with us as you journey with these folks through some very difficult times. Bless you.