Sunday, October 11, 2009

Bring the Torch, Come Swiftly Run

"In me thou see'st the glowing of such fire,/That on the ashes of his youth doth lie," -Shakespeare from Sonnet 73
When my daughter told me she was pregnant, I expected our relationship to grow closer. That isn't exactly what happened.
Valerie and I had always enjoyed a close relationship; we were the two girls in a house full of boys. From the moment she was born, it was clear that she was right with me in heart and soul. When we had company coming, she took extra long naps so I could get the place straightened up and dinner made. She stayed healthy when the boys were sick and if she did succumb to illness, she was cheerful, never demanding about her needs, her patience a blessing and a real help to me. She stood beside me in family concerns: she was careful about Eric’s diet restrictions, laughed with me at Joe’s jokes and adored her baby brother just as I did. When I had a headache, she would put her wee hand on my arm and pray for me. I always felt better. We survived 18 years of baseball games, together endured losing millions of board games, enjoyed Anne of Green Gables, Pride and Prejudice and munched on olives and Fritos and hot tea together. When she was young, Valerie was quiet. Silent at the dinner table, she listened to her father and brothers discuss ethics, sports, movies, literature and correct points of grammar. Content and imaginative, she played happily. For most of her childhood, I didn’t see the unique and brilliant personality God had created in her.
I started to suspect that she was cut from different cloth than me when I tried to teach her first grade curriculum in home school. School was easy for me and though I may not prefer to do so, I can learn through reading. When it came to learning letters and reading words, Val wasn’t interested. Here’s how it went. I’d say, “Time for your lessons, Val.”
“I’ll be right there!” she’d sing out.
Five minutes later she staggered to the sofa her arms bulging with every stuffed animal and doll she could find. She’d set these up on the sofa and the coffee table, then plop down beside me. I sat beside her, opened the book. Then I’d feel little, plastic doll feet on my arm; the doll was walking up my arm and onto my shoulder. “She’s listening, too!” Val would exclaim proudly. “She’s been so sick, she needs a nice story.”
Next sentence the doll was kissing my nose or dancing on the book. Valerie had created several story lines for her dolls. They had tragic histories! Orphans and wars, escapes and mystery! Her little Raggedy Andy, (an underappreciated gift to one of her brothers; Val rescued him) was re-christened “Moses,” and helped her act out the story of Moses’ mother’s bravery resulting in his subsequent rescue in the basket on the river. She played with “Moses” until his hair rubbed off and his hands and knees showed tufts of cotton stuffing. When the American Girl dolls debuted, I wanted to buy the pioneer doll for her. Oh, no! She loved the doll with the red curly hair whose story did not interest me. She cherished her dolls with imagination and passion. I knew that one day, despite our different learning styles and tastes, she would make a wonderful mother. My daughter’s gifts are extraordinary ones and in recognizing them, I also recognized the differences between us. She has a color sense that puts mine to shame. A natural designer, she also has the spatial intelligence to see – immediately and imaginatively-- how best to arrange furniture or set a table or position pots of flowering plants. These tasks take me hours of agony, graph paper and pencils with erasers.
Valerie is blunt, original and funny. She is brave and strong and steady in her affection. Her creativity is a vein of gold; her determination is made of fine marble.
I was astonished to hear her lovely singing voice; she didn’t get this from her mother who cannot even clap in a straight line. Though I love poetry and have taught it with great passion and joy, Valerie’s poetic gift was a surprise. While she was in college, she’d call and lament the fact that she hadn’t written a song or a good song. I could not understand why she wanted to write a song – I though her voice was her main talent. I remember thinking she should just sing “Dream a Little Dream of Me,” or “Bobby McGee.” I did not envision what she could really do until she did it and now I stand in awe of her gift and vision made exquisite by that incomparable voice. Even with all the gifts, callings and strengths that separate us, I had thought that her being a mother would draw us closer. This seemed to be happening during Valerie’s pregnancy. I treasured the times we spent together. We talked about everything from the nursery decorations to the experience of giving birth. She showed genuine interest in my own experience and I loved talking with her about what God had done for me. We prepared together by recovering the rocking chair, sewing for Clare and the nursery, praying together, taking walks, looking through the books side by side, giving thanks for Andrew together, wondering what the baby would be like. When I was visiting her toward the end of her pregnancy, I actually experienced sympathy cramps!
I wanted Valerie to have as good an experience as I had. Being pregnant and giving birth were to me a fountain of life and faith. The difficulty of trusting God for the child, trusting Him to bring the child to birth has been the source of life and inspiration to me. I was worried though; she began to lose weight at the end of her pregnancy; she looked pale. I realized how terrified I was of losing her. I worried that her experience would be horrific, I feared that she might feel abandoned by God in labor, I feared a thousand tragedies… once again I had to trust God for this child. I might be having sympathy cramps but I could neither make labor start, nor bear the difficulty and pain of labor for her. I also couldn’t make her trust her life and child to God. I had said all I had to say, done all I could think of to do, sewn all I could imagine to sew, bought all I could justify and in the end, I really could do absolutely nothing at all. Her need was beyond me.
This is what happened when her time came: after a couple of days of intense but irregular contractions, Valerie and Andrew went to the hospital but were sent home. “Doc says it could be days or hours,” Andrew texted me.
Valerie called me 24 hours later to say that her contractions had gotten so strong “she couldn’t sing through them.” She and Andrew had tried to take a walk but she could not walk and actually felt like she was holding something in. “Mom,” she said, “do you think it’s too early to go to the hospital? I don’t want to be sent home again.”
“No. It’s time.” That’s what I said, understanding with excitement and dread more about those three words than I knew Valerie yet did.
Valerie was admitted and found to be more than half way to her goal! I was allowed to visit her briefly in the labor room. There was a giant red ball for use somehow during labor. Andrew was smiling and Val’s cheery expression and happy eyes even during her contractions said all was well. Her labor continued its slow, steady pace and after two hours and just a bit of progress, the resident physician “broke her waters.” Andrew texted this news and I felt compelled to see her again.
The atmosphere of labor room had changed. Andrew, two nurses and the resident physician attended Valerie who was sitting at the side of her bed with her feet on the floor. The lively scent of salt water met me. Val waved her hand saying, “the water’s all over the floor, Mom,” before a contraction took her attention. Andrew came close and Valerie held onto his arms with her neat, strong hands. She leaned her head on him and breathed deeply enduring, giving herself to the labor. I saw that the bulge of her stomach had descended and I also saw that she was shaking.
Deep inside I started to shake.
When she lifted her head at the end of the contraction, her physician said, “We’re going to start a pitocin drip.” Val said, “What if there’s more progress since you broke the waters?”
The physician explained that they didn’t like to check more than every 2 hours after the water had broken due to an increased risk of infection. But Valerie wasn’t listening. Another contraction was upon her and it was intense. Holding onto Andrew, leaning her forehead on him, she reached one hand out for me. I took her hand and held it. The physician left the room saying the word pitocin again.
When the contraction ended, she said, “Mom, it doesn’t seem like I have a choice.” I asked her what bothered her about pitocin (a hormone to speed up and intensify contractions). Before she could answer, another contraction came.
Finally able to speak, she said, “If it gets more intense with the pitocin, I’m afraid I won’t be able to handle it.” Wide-eyed and pale, her determination flickered within. I admired her with all my frightened heart.
Still holding her hand, I said, “These contractions are so close and so intense, I think you’re in transition.” (Transition is the most intense stage of labor that takes the mother to the point of birth).
The nurse told Valerie, “I can try to buy you an hour before we start the pitocin.”
After the next contraction, Val let go of my hand. She looked up at me and said, “I’m okay now, Mom. I’ll be fine, now,” and I knew she wanted me to go. I tore myself away because I wanted to help her. I fled because I could not bear to see her in the throes of labor, because I was so impressed with her and loved her more than it’s possible to love. I returned to the dim waiting room trembling with unshed tears, waiting and praying for God to give her strength I could not reach her to give. Leaving that room was one of the hardest things I have ever had to do. When I closed the door behind me I felt a sudden chasm yawn between Valerie and I. She was on her own in what was the most beautiful and terrible of moments. Even if I had been in the room, she would have been beyond my reach, now. In a weird way, when Val reached for me and I took her hand, unwittingly, irresistibly, the torch of motherhood passed to her.
She grabbed it and ran with a swift and inspired beauty.
The hour that the nurse “bought” for Val was just what she needed. She was ready to give birth! There were times, she said later, when she thought she couldn’t go on, but her head would clear and she knew she had the strength she needed. Andrew said that Val concentrated with her entire heart and body to bring her child to the separation of light and breath. She struggled, lost in a concentration so fierce she could not hear or see, but the moment Clare emerged, the moment the nurse held her up and away so Valerie could see her, Val cooed, “Oh, hello there, sweetheart!” her voice a melody of delight. The tensions and paradoxes of life are the things that bring tears to our eyes. Opposites equally true, at the same time contradictory and confirming, seem to be where truth hides. Connected to me in a new way, Valerie moves ahead where I can no longer go. Once the miraculous honor of bearing life, of giving birth was mine, now it is hers. May she run the long, lovely race of motherhood with the grace, creativity, humor, compassion, patience and faith that have so delighted me while we have walked side by side.


  1. I loved this Loris! Thanks for sharing your continuing "letting go" journey. May God bless you all in this exciting new phase of life! What a blessing for you to have your daughter (and granddaughter) living so close. I will see Liz and Caroline this weekend at Wheaton - it's a Chicago rendevous for Caroline's Fall Break! God bless! Janet

  2. I am in awe...of Val's journey to motherhood and the ability of both of you to write about it so beautifully and eloquently. Keep it up, BOTH of you, as I genuinely look forward to each new posting.

  3. This is beautiful, so beautiful it brought tears.


  4. This piece is unspeakably beautiful, Loris. It perfectly portrays the depth and intensity of the feelings we have both with and for our children. You have a gift. -Kathy Green Wenerick-Bell

  5. Mom, this is beautiful as a tribute to Val and to Clare. I know she will read it proudly one day long from now. I am so proud of you for being able to let Val go without bitterness. You are truly a remarkable woman!

  6. Oh Loris this is so beautiful....the memories of raising Val, the expressions oflove as a Mom and the photo's of candles....all so beautiful.

    thank you so much for this essay.

    Fenway is licking my tears :)


  7. Mrs. Nebbia, it was such a pleasure to read this! I am so excited for both you and Val. What a beautiful gift Clare is to you both. :)
    -Liz Graves