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My grandmother taught me many lessons during her life, and one last precious one right as she passed away. But let me begin with a story …
Before my son John was born, two doctors remarked that once he found the right position for birth, head down, he waited there three months early, staying as though he knew there was something on the outside, and he’d find it.
This is so much like our experience of faith, and of belief in heaven. “Blessed are they who have not seen and yet believed,” Jesus tells us. A child in utero cannot see the face of its mother, and only hears echoes of her voice. A child’s world in utero is so very different from the world he’ll encounter after birth. How could he ever imagine what awaits? Yet, he senses there is something worthwhile waiting for him … and gets into position with great, pure faith that something exists beyond what he knows.
In a poem I wrote for my son, I described the child’s act of faith in utero and wrote, “Someday when you’re grown and faced with doubt because of grief or age―remember how you once moved towards an out you could not see. Wait―new life will begin. Feel God’s warm hand above earth’s starry skin.”
Imagine the cosmos of stars that surrounds us as a kind of pregnant belly, holding us on this side of heaven before we break through to the other side. Imagine God’s hand, beyond that starry skin.
When you’re pregnant, in your third trimester, you can gently press on your stomach and your unborn child will return the press. This touch is nothing like the close embrace that awaits once the child is born, but it’s a beautiful foretaste. There are ways that God touches us now, and just like an unborn child believes there is something beyond that they want to get to … we trust there is something beyond this world, too.
On December 26, 2018, my grandmother, Annabelle Black, whom we called “Nanabelle,” was born to eternal life. I was blessed to be holding her right hand as she passed, witnessing her move from earthly life to eternal life. As I watched her, I thought of the phrase, “born to eternal life.”
The final lesson my grandmother taught me is this: The process of dying is a kind of labor, akin to birthing a new life.
Something about the way she breathed that last hour, although waning, was impressive in its focus. The thing I can best liken it to is being in labor. I can attest that when you are in labor, there are moments you’d swear you were dying, such is the pain the body feels as it assists in giving new life. A mother must focus her breathing and ride the labor. Each time I’ve given birth, I’ve been astounded at how it feels like a veil between heaven and earth that opens above me, as though God and the entire communion of saints is very near. Nanabelle always said: “You’re never closer to God than when you’re giving birth.” Each time I was pregnant she’d say, “Pray for others in need, as you’ll never be closer to God in this life than when you’re in labor.” So when I held the hand and knelt at the side of this woman who had herself given birth six times, I recognized that she was again very close to God, as her breathing and extreme focus was like that of one in labor while God prepared to birth her into eternal life.
My son John once asked, “Nanabelle, who are you?” She immediately replied: “I’m a mother.” And, of course, a mother assists God in the nurturing of new life. My grandmother was a super-mother unto the end. As I watched her die, I was privileged not only to witness her faith, but to learn that death is a kind of labor, the kind that assists in bringing forth new life in God. My grandmother realized that she had to enter the labor of death in order to reach that new life. Surely, at her last breath she felt God’s warm hand above earth’s starry skin.
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