On Independence Day, 4th July, my brother’s wife felt her waters break in Greenwich Park, where she was picnicking with her mother and daughter. It was a lovely sunny day. Her second child, a girl, had been due the previous day, and we were all anticipating the new arrival with great joy and excitement. And that afternoon became, as some days unexpectedly do, intensely and entirely focused around the family Whatsapp group. We were like excited birds, chatting and chirruping together. The news began to dribble in. First that there was a yellow tinge to the waters so the homebirth was off – they were straight to the hospital. Then that the baby was breech, which they hadn’t known, so a caesarean was being arranged for that afternoon. Then that my brother, who had had trouble parking, arrived breathless to find my sister-in-law already anaesthetised and prepped in the operating room – he shared a picture of him in gown and mask ready for the off. They would have their new baby within half an hour. I happily put my phone down and continued with life, part of me alert and expectant for the ping of an incoming message. Right now, at this very moment, a baby was being born and joining our family. A joyful, important day! But the phone stayed silent. Two hours later, still nothing. The children and I had been saying to each other, well it’s so busy when the baby’s born, and you’re feeding for the first time and cuddling and all the caesarean clearing-up stuff, it’s all still fine, the news will come. But nothing came for nearly three hours, and by then I knew, deep down where you just know things, that this wasn’t good. I kept tuning in to this place, somewhere in my gut, asking it whether it was all going to be ok, and the message that kept coming back was no. No. It’s not ok.
This is the life we are given to live. This is the human experience. It is a sunny day, and an already-adored baby is coming into the world, and it will surely go well because their first birth was normal and – for God’s sake – there are seven billion of us walking around so we can surely assume that it tends to go well. But as a family we have form in this area. Four complicated and traumatic births in our immediate family have taught us not to make these assumptions. We are not unfamiliar with resuscitation, and the incubator, and with the watching and waiting for days for tests that sometimes come back positive. So the silence from London was also triggering past traumas, both for me and for my husband, for my other brother and sister-in-law, and for my parents. It was a sickening feeling, both a sinking of hope and a rising of horror, and somehow those opposing forces could co-exist with equal strength and force. The family Whatsapp group was now a huge void of silence and fear. We weren’t even talking to each other. Eventually my other sister-in-law and I exchanged a few confused messages. Finally I called my mum, who I thought would probably be the first to know anything.
It had not gone well. My niece was delivered lifeless and unresponsive – the cord wrapped five times round her neck – and my brother and sister-in-law saw her immediately whisked off for emergency resuscitation, a team of people working frantically on this tiny still body. My brother watched in agony and thought that she was dead. My sister-in-law later told us that while they were waiting she was praying to the baby, calling to her: I am here, Mummy is here, come to me, come to me. My brother joined in too, shouting the baby’s name, begging her to breathe. And after God knows how long of not breathing her chest suddenly started to move. She had come back. The news was not good, though. They were concerned about oxygen deprivation and brain damage. She was rushed to special care. Her kidneys and liver had shut down so that any oxygen would go straight to her brain and heart. They were going to lower her body temperature to 33° for 72 hours in order to minimise any damage to the brain, and then would slowly bring it back up to normal over 16 hours and start the raft of scans and tests.
I went over to my parents’ house, finding my mum shaken and tear-stained, and we looked at each other without speaking. The agony of waiting and walking through each day braced for the periodic ping of the phone had begun again. When another beloved niece was born in even more traumatic circumstances eleven years ago, I was pregnant and about to give birth to my second child in a few short weeks. I think because of the imminence of my own birthing my consciousness shielded me to a certain extent from the immense pain that was being lived out only one step removed. I felt it, but as if from a distance somehow. But when their third child was born, and again there were problems and fear of profound disability, I felt a tsunami of pain: it was as if everything I had buried from the first birth came back in full force on top of the terror of it happening again to this precious family. I truly don’t think we ever escape these things. We might bury them, but the body stores every last drop of it and it can all come surging back up to the surface as if the years that have passed are just a moment. As if the body keeps time in a non-linear way. As if it is all happening simultaneously.
So I remembered on that evening the awful fear and distress I had suffered seven years ago, the powerlessness, the rage. How dare this be happening to them? To us. And I realised in that moment that the only power I had over this situation was my choice of response. I could not make this darling baby well, immediately and totally. I could not avoid the journey we were about to walk together or the pace at which it would unfold or the course it would take. All I could choose was my reaction.
There is a particular quality of pain to family crisis, to the suffering of those nearest you. It is yours, but it is not yours to bear, not entirely. Watching people you love in the fires of their own suffering you feel the ferocious heat of the flames on your skin but you are not actually burning yourself. Instead this heat becomes the background for your days. You have to continue going about your business because it’s not happening to you; you’re not in the intensive care unit with your seriously ill baby, you’re picking up the kids saying ‘Fine thanks’, you’re in the supermarket, you’re in assembly as your son leaves primary school. But the heat sits sharp and heavy on your body – in your jaw, on your shoulders, in your hips, at the back of your skull. It is tangible. It is physical. It makes you want to step back at times, move away from the fire. But this time I had a decision to make. How to stay connected and empathic, and at the same time stay strong and in tune with myself. Neither a weeping, flailing mess, nor shut down and waiting to wake up again when it was over. I was reminded of Mary at the foot of the cross. Do not turn your face away. Sit there in the dirt loving him, holding his gaze. A few months ago as part of my training I was given a Japanese Zen koan to contemplate. It read: ‘Enlightenment is an open-eyed man falling into a well.’ I let this stew inside me for some weeks, and it slowly taught me about a quality of surrender that is not in any way a denial of experience but rather a deep and determined encounter with the breadth and truth of the moment. It is all there: the falling, the terror, the darkness, the open eyes, the still-aliveness, the not knowing, the uncertain outcome. Might die. Might be ok.
So I turned again to Sophrology to help me fall this time with as much grace and awareness as I could muster. Staying in the present was, I knew, absolutely key. I returned to the yoga-based exercises of level 1, which are all about releasing physical tension and anchoring you in the present moment. I returned, over and over again, to the breath. The faithful breath, reminding me with each rise and fall that all things pass, and that there is something to be sensed in the journey of each movement, and in the brief moment between them. It is all my life and it is all precious. Keep your eyes open. If a message came in that was frightening: a lumbar puncture, possible meningitis, the MRI scan of her brain, the waiting, another infection; I came consciously back to myself, to now, with whatever exercise I needed. At times I jumped up and down shaking the worst of it off. Moving was important. I felt myself wanting to run (I am not a runner), and I started the Couch to 5k course on my phone, jogging painfully and slowly over the fields with the dog. Keep the experience moving through you. Above all I stayed resolutely focused on uncertainty. I did not know how this would unfold, but surely I would somehow have the strength to handle it – just not in advance. And maybe I wouldn’t need that strength anyway. Maybe there would be a big mattress at the bottom of the well. So stay in the moment.
The days passed and the baby pulled through. Tiny and astonishingly determined to live, she came home with a clean bill of health. Fourteen years ago after my first child was born I sat in the GP’s office and confessed that I was worrying about having harmed him during the birth: I had been pushing against a closed cervix. I was worried about his head. The GP, a lovely man with five children, looked kindly at me and said: ‘My dear, birth is a high risk activity. But babies are very resilient. We seem to really want to be here.’
Last week, a month after the birth, we celebrated my sister-in-law’s fortieth birthday on the beach. The baby was sleeping peacefully in her father’s arms as my sister-in-law and I stood on the edge of the sea, our feet in the water, and breathed together. I guided her in the briefest of Sophrology practices, a body scan and some breath awareness, and then stood next to her as she breathed deeply, her face turned up to the sky. I could almost see the winds of pain blowing through her and disappearing into the dusk, off somewhere over the sea. It was the start of her homecoming. A new decade, a new daughter, a new awareness wrought in the furnace of that pain. Really, would we change any of it?
And as for you, little baby – youngest and smallest of our clan – we welcome you. This life is a place of terror and beauty, but then you already know that. There was the peril of your birth, but then there was the skill and tenderness of the unknown nurse in the middle of the night when no one else was there. And now there is only the warm breast of your mother, and her smell, and her arms around you. Surely all is well.
Wishing you resilience, and open eyes.