You know that instant alarm you feel when a loved one’s normal voice on the phone is not normal? I knew something was wrong by the way my daughter said, “Mom?”
A mother’s mind races in a thousand directions at that tone. What happened? What happened was indeed tragic, horrible, unbelievable: Her friend May had died in childbirth.
In a hospital. In the United States. In 2019. May had gone in with her husband to have a baby, a routine event even if it feels like the most amazing thing ever to the expectant couple. But something went wrong. Only the father and the baby went home.
She is a baby girl, a tiny, perfect, beautiful brand-new baby, whose birthday is always going to be the day her mother died. Tragic, horrible, unbelievable.
I am wondering, questioning, silently: Where was God in that labor room? Why her? Why a young first-time mother?
And I am wondering, questioning, silently: Where was God in that labor room? Why her? Why a young first-time mother? Why not take an old bird like me? Can I go back in time and volunteer to switch places?
I know that is not how God works. Not that I know how God does work. Not that anything I think I know about how God works or does not work is necessarily true.
A lump of disbelief, a railing at injustice and a stunned sadness sit in the hearts of those who knew this bright and vibrant woman. We do not know what to do. We can try to channel our desolation into researching the facts: According to the Centers for Disease Control, each year about 700 women in the United States die from pregnancy or delivery complications. The U.S. maternal death rate is higher than any other developed country. This risk of death is three to four times higher for African-American women than for white women. Here we find plenty of outrage, both for the numbers and the racial discrepancy. May is now counted in this ill-fated group of 700: As with any mortality statistic, however, one is too many if you know her. If she is yours.
We know about death—we have experienced its very real, cavernous loss—and yet we are caught unawares by it.
We can sandwich our sorrow into educated action that might tackle the causes of maternal death or into advocacy for safer conditions for childbirth, for better access to prenatal care, for wider support for pregnant women and single parents, for something, anything, good to come of tragedy. We can contribute to the GoFundMe account for the young family or drop off nutritious meals or offer our time to help get stuff done or pray, pray, pray, even as we know that whatever we do will not change the past. Whatever we give will not be enough.
We can focus on the kindness of community, by the way folks far and wide have come together to support this family of two. We can be touched by the way disaster can bring out the best in people and for the way we are momentarily mindful of the fortune we enjoy and of the need to tell our loved ones that we love them. These are small comforts. But they are not nothing.
May was hugely loved, by her family and friends and co-workers and acquaintances. She is just as hugely mourned. She died on what was supposed to be one of the happiest days of her life. I say one of the happiest because a mother counts the days of each of her children’s births as among the happiest. I push down a wave of guilt for the extravagant, unearned blessings of my four daughters and my decades of bursting-with-love motherhood. May should be here to have more babies. She should be here to nurse and swaddle her daughter, to change diapers and lose sleep and fret and worry and marvel and sing tender songs in the middle of the night and feel overwhelmed by it all and delight in every first thing her little girl does in life. She should be here. We all think it: It is not fair.
I like to think of God mingling among us, sad with us, holding us up, loving us, even if we do not comprehend or agree with God’s will.
It never is.
It is also not easy. It is not easy to hug a new father who is awash in the deepest grief and the loneliest joy of his life. It is not easy to fish around for the good and right words to say, even as we perceive there aren’t any. It is not easy to see a husband without a wife, an infant without a mother. None of it is easy.
But it is rich, this life we are given, rich in complexity and sorrow and gladness and challenge and change. It is rich in unexpected turns and unbidden burdens and sudden, astonishing grace. We do not anticipate young mothers dying at a moment devoted to birth, and yet we know it happens. We know about death—we have experienced its very real, cavernous loss—and yet we are caught unawares by it. We count on life—we take for granted another morning, another cup of coffee, another chance to make love—and yet these terrible things that happen slap us awake with the reminder of the ephemeral nature of us on this earth. We can all disappear just like that.
I imagine May living on in her child, in the way her daughter might one day tuck her hair behind her ear or laugh at a ridiculous dad-joke. May is gone, but her D.N.A. remains. Her gift to posterity remains. Her powerful love remains. I like to think her spirit remains. I like to think of the fierce unseen presence of a mother watching over her daughter. I like to think of God mingling among us, sad with us, holding us up, loving us, even if we do not comprehend or agree with God’s will. I do not know if anything I am thinking is true. I am thinking it anyway.