Last year, I acted on a long-time fascination of the rite of childbirth and completed a volunteer labor doula program with the University of Vermont Medical Center. One of the most fascinating things I learned in the training is that after a child is born the flood of oxytocin released by the parent’s body makes everyone present a little love-drunk. Our trainers told us, with dreamy voices, how after a child is born there is a palpable shift in the room. The air thickens. The mood softens. Everyone falls a little in love with each other.
Last year on the eve of my own 27th birthday, I attended my first birth & experienced the love-drunk haze of post-birth hormones for myself. It was thick, sweetly sticky like honey. I felt elated, almost high. Even now my body remembers the particular flavor, the unique felt experience of this family’s rite of passage welcoming another child. It was beautiful, awe-inspiring, humbling.
Now I am attending a different yet equally beautiful rite of passage: my father’s final rite of passage. Like birth, tending to someone who is dying requires deep, deep presence, full awareness and attention to their needs. Like birth, comfort is key and care measures are directed by the person in process. The flavor of this rite is more like molasses than honey – thick, rich, dark, and slow. Or perhaps it is like the salt-water taffy my dad would buy on the wharf – warm, gooey, elastic, and oh so sweet. The rite of passage of dying moves at a much different pace than birth.
As death approaches, time twists and bends in ways that normally occur only after far too little sleep for far too long. Weeks and months may pass in steady, straightforward routine of simple care – a snail-pace of decline, inching along through days that feel gentle and endless. For perhaps a long time, this is what is.
Tending the journey of my father’s final rite of passage has been a soft haze of noticing and responding. Always paying attention, always adapting. Routines swell as he declines from sitting in the backyard storytelling while holding hands to days filled with moving, washing, dressing, feeding, and assisting with basic functions. It has become so much more than before.
The past week has felt like a month. It is only when I lift my gaze and look at the calendar do I realize how rapidly my father’s pace has quickened.
When I lift my gaze I feel for a moment like a deer in headlights, wondering where has all the time gone? As my gaze falls back to my heart and the tending at hand I wonder How could it be – how did so much change in so little time? And, how much time is left? The wondering is fleeting – it does me no good to dwell. It draws me away from the sweetness of holding my dad close, of giving him my strength so he may stand a while longer. It is beautiful, awe-inspiring, humbling. It makes me feel love-drunk, accompanied by a comforting density in my belly and heart that I didn’t feel at birth.
As with birth, so with death. Caring, honoring, tending, listening. Sticky sweet, elastic and mystical. One rite welcomes life, the other bids a loving bon voyage.
My mission within tending my father’s rite of passage is to let myself fall even deeper in love with him. Instead of a lifetime ahead, there is a lifetime behind. And yet, this rite of passage stretches time in such a way that moments can carry months. So in each moment I show up with love. I express my love not just in meeting his basic needs but going beyond them – using my voice to explain what I am doing as he can’t lift his head to see; massaging his legs & feet with oil infused with lavender from his garden; turning our transitions from bed to transport chair to couch into opportunities to waltz. I swear, just today I was transported to a dancefloor with him. I was wearing a beautiful dress and we were smiling at each other through tears.
I won’t be able to waltz with him at my wedding, so I dance with him now – again and again while I can.