Hard is it to be born into human life. Now we are living it. Difficult is it to hear the Teachings. Now we hear them. If we do not enlighten ourselves in the present life, no hope is there that we shall be freed from suffering and sorrow in the ocean of birth and death. (from The Three Treasures of Jodo Shinshu Buddhism)
“Ooh, big storm coming in”, said the voice of our doula from the corner of the room. In the darkness her face was illuminated from the cool florescent glow of a smartphone. Her words were an unwelcome guest, a rude interruption. For the fifteen hours prior, my wife had been lost in the trance of labor, and I had been her focused attendant.
The contractions had become so intense that she reached a primal state. Feral, possessed by pain. Her wailing and low-center-of-gravity movements exactly mimicked our birthing instructor, who had demonstrated the same behavior a few weeks prior in her home, in front of us and six other expecting couples. After the instructor’s inspired performance I wanted to make a standing ovation. Now that my wife was the performer, I felt like her understudy who never, ever wanted to get the part. And I was starting to feel very sorry for her having won the role in the first place.
Our doula’s weather report had broken the spell of labor, and yet our vision was so inward that we couldn’t have cared less if an F5 tornado ripped through the buildings outside our hospital window.
Fifteen hours prior we ate at an Indian restaurant (spicy food is proven to induce active labor). The contractions at that time were mild and served as a curious topic for dinner conversation. We giggled nervously with each contraction, which visited us about as frequently as our waiter. The walk to the restaurant had taken fifteen minutes, yet the walk home was easily three times that due to frequent pauses. Fast forward fifteen hours in the dark hospital birthing room at 4am, the contractions were more than my wife, more than one person. They seemed to radiate from the core of the earth and course through her entire being, and as they did so all I could offer was a hand on her lower back and a deep breathing in time with hers. This laboring woman was my wife but also somehow not her at all. With her eyes clamped shut and body shaking she had stepped outside of herself, revealing a goddess force that was without modesty or ego. I dumbly followed her around the room in awe at each increasingly fierce contraction.
Truthfully I was terrified, exactly because I was helpless. She would later tell me that the support I offered – a sliver of ice between her teeth here, a hot towel there – was essential to her successful labor. But at the time I felt a profound sense of uselessness, and in fact would imagine her in a forest of yore, alone on a mossy floor, doing just fine without me or anyone else for that matter. The terror only became more acute when out of the blue she asked the question that returned her from goddess back to mortal.
“Am I doing this right? I feel like it’s not working. Am I ok?” I wiped sweaty hair from her face and told her that yes, she was doing just fine. Great, even. I worried that she could hear the hesitation in my words. Because in fact I had no idea if she was doing it right, despite every book we read and every class we attended to prepare for this event. I wished like hell that the doula or a midwife or a nurse – anyone who knew better than me – would have at that very moment chimed a ringing affirmation that yes, honey, you are doing everything exactly right. This is normal. But no such affirmations came, since these other players were allowing me to be my wife’s primary support. As a sickening panic set in, I took my mala beads from my neck and resorted to chanting the sanskrit mantra that my wife and I practiced for every day for months leading up to this night:
om gam ganapataye namaha: salutations to the elephant lord Ganesh, remover of obstacles. A wake up call to the root chakra, a clearing of the karmic path.
And yet the strength that I once found in chant had fallen away. Again my voice sounded small, unsure, and very, very tired. At the sound of this my wife began to quietly sob, which sent me to the edge of despair. I simply could not cope. And at that very moment I looked up to find once again the face of our doula, only this time she wasn’t a disembodied face behind a touchscreen. She was rushing to rescue me, not the woman in obvious need. She swiftly ushered me out of the humid room where I had been for nearly an entire day without real food or sleep, and gently ordered me to get some fresh air. Like a tag team wrestler, her arm was around my wife’s shoulder as I numbly backed out of the room and into the bright hallway.
I watched my slippered feet shuffle down carpeted hallways, past softly ringing phones, into an elevator, and down waxy linoleum hallways. I came to a glass door that led to a small courtyard. Once outside I became immediately aware of the air – fresh and aromatic – heavy with the pressure of an oncoming spring storm. (Hospital air by comparison is sealed, stale). The inkling of dawn light fell diffused into the square box of the courtyard, coating the environment with a grey-yellow haze. It was very quiet.
Small planter boxes were arranged in a pattern on the brick floor. My slippers shuffled among them and stopped at one box with a white sticker label that read “therapy garden”. I squatted and made a pillow with my forearms on the box, closed my eyes, and fell instantly into sleep.
A few seconds or an hour passed. I awoke to a sudden swirling wind, and opened my eyes there where my head lay. Before me was a tiny row of bean sprouts standing in uniform. With my bug’s eye view they were a miniature forest, all nearly the same height, all with slender green stems that shuddered in sequence with the breeze. Nearly at the top of the stems, a seed coat remained affixed and yawning open like a clam shell. I imagined it as a time-lapse film emerging from the soil whole, and catching an upward ride as the sprout rose into the air. At that moment I became aware of the struggle of the bean to become what it truly is. The bean is hardwired to wait dormant until the conditions allow for becoming, for ascending, for transformation. This ascension is not the story but part of the vast ocean of birth and death. The bean was teaching me to find truth in the present moment only, and it urged me to return to my wife.
Some time later, back in the birthing room, my hands were the first to support our son’s entire warm, wet body as he entered human life. I placed him on the chest of his mother and at that moment the three of us were joined in a state of becoming: becoming a family, becoming each other’s hearts as much as our own. When he took his first gasp of breath and released his first cry, we all cried with joy for him and for all the hours and months of becoming that led to that moment.
Now we are living it. Now we hear him.