Ancestral energy lives in the stars above us, the stones beneath us. Their memory gathers in oceans, rivers and seas. It hums its silent wisdom within the body of every tree.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

More on Midwifing Death

When babies are born into the world, expected, they are greeted with great fanfare. There are many people supporting them- doctors and nurses, doulas and midwives, expectant parents and grandparents. Everyone is rooting for them and calling them into the world. Mothers push them out as others coax and pray the newborn into the world. And someone is there with hands to catch them.
This is how we begin. No matter what detour life takes after that first breath, in that last moment we are willed and wanted into the world. That is how we begin. But how do we end? In what manner do we leave the world? There is a growing movement of people who are interested in that very question. There have always been midwives to help babies into the world. What about midwives that help people out of the world?
This is not a new concept. In fact, I think in a world bereft of funeral directors religious leaders, our instinctive bodies would intuitively lead us to tend to the dead and dying. We would see the shadow of death coming, and rather than open the door to fear or denial, we would let time stand still to savor those last days. We would sit vigil and ward off the loneliness in our loved one’s last moments. We would save our grief for when breath had ceased and we would walk with our companions as far as possible- until their journey ends. 
Think about funerals and the purposes they serve. One is to honor the deceased’s life and tend to the disposition of their physical body according to their spiritual or religious beliefs. The other is a model that hopefully facilitates an outlet for the grief of those left behind. They are about the dead, but cannot be for the dead. In cases where there is any measure of forewarning to death’s approach, those last moments could be about what the dying person wanted, or what the dying person needed. And a person who acted as midwife could help oversee that.
As a disclaimer, I’m not talking about assisted suicide, though our cultural views on that would likely change if the way we handled and viewed death did. Most people who are supportive of assisted suicide, are not talking about doctors killing people who decide to die even though they’re healthy. If a person knows they are facing death, and the doctors cannot help them anymore without extreme or invasive measures, why shouldn’t they get to decide how their life will end? Why shouldn’t the dying get to decide what their last moments are like? When their last breath comes?
We welcome newborns into the world. Why shouldn’t we also celebrate the endings, and bid our beloveds a bon voyage? Perhaps that is already happening, beyond our perception and vision? Maybe there are spirits on the other side of this world, known and unknown, encouraging and rooting the dying on, waiting for them as they cross over. I know that while we sat at my Grandpa’s bedside and told him it was all right to let go, my Grandma’s spirit filled the room in the instant that his heart stopped beating. I believe she came to claim him. For my Grandpa, my family and I acted as midwives to him, keeping him company, telling him whatever he needed was okay. Telling him how much we loved him. Not everyone, in that moment of their own grieving, can be that person to the dying. And that’s all right.
Someone who acts as a midwife would help ease the disconnection of the spirit from the dying body. Then, when the person was truly ready to open that door, and embrace the end that comes to us all, they would be free to do so. I don’t have a lot of experience with shepherding living beings to the other side, but I have some hard ones. I sat in the hospital room with my Grandfather when he passed. And he waited until the moment we were turned away to die. I held the faces of both of my beloved pets at the moment of their death. I hold sacred the mystery and truths of their last moments.
When Bella began to struggle, I swallowed my tears and told her it was okay if she was ready to go. Even while we were crying in disbelief, we told her we would be okay, that we would take care of each other. We were her family and acted as her midwives into whatever was to come next. We didn’t know what that was, we just knew her time here was done.
It was the enormity of our love that moved us to let go of our feelings and do what must be done for her. Her peace was greater and more sacred to us than our grief. We felt the spiritual calling to keep her calm and at peace and ease her transition so her last moments would not be fraught with pain. That’s part of what it means to be a midwife, I think. We saw the need and we answered it.
We saw the shadow of death. I know the minute I saw it in each of the three cases I have experienced. There’s a quality of it that some people can see. And we can open that door. It takes faith and trust. And should you ever find yourself staring into the face of death, you will know it. And you will be able to let your loved one go, with all the love and grief in your heart, and you will be able to whisper to them to go. That it’s okay.

We’ll do it, when the need arises, because we have it in us to meet the challenge of it. We’ll do it, not because it’s easy, but because it’s hard. Because these passages are what define us, and because love should be the legacy we leave behind. Love and kindness should be the way we both come into and out of the world.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013


(But) this love will carry. This love will carry me.
I know this love will carry me.
~ Dougie McLean

This chorus has been the ticker tape thread running through my heart this last week. It buoyed me through the days of tripping into unknown routines that Bella had been a part of. It held me every time we started games we’d play with her, waiting for her to say her line… cue the crickets and silence. Then the remembering that she was gone. Is gone.
In my grief, I say a prayer for every parent, and every ancestor of mine, who has ever lived to see the death of a child. I cannot imagine that pain and I intend no comparison. But I feel like I have a small window of insight into that kind of loss. I have no human children, but ten years ago we brought home a sick, dying kitten...
You take a living being in. You raise them. You care for them. You watch them explore the world and you hold your breath when they take their first steps. Their first wounds. Their first joys. And you become a family. Then, one day… they are gone? What words can describe such loss?
I am the kind of woman who sees life as life. A part of my family is missing. Again. But the difference is tangible this time. Both of the young cats died before their elder, who spends most every minute sleeping on a soft cushion. Now, the house is still. Disquieted. There used to be a foundational layer of energy in this home, made up of small feet padding around and about, patrolling and getting into mischief.
That is what death took from our house, literally pulling the energy-rug out from under us. Well-worn pathways feel abandoned. Haunted. Gone are the backdrop noises that made me wonder things like, where did she just jump down from? Already, I can see the need for new life in this house, but it will wait.
I spent most of the week in a weird fog. I was numb. The days seemed unchanged to me and I was aware enough to note that the thought was odd, since our world has changed. I would stumble into the list of things-that-will-never-happen-again and would cry for a moment. And then move on. I was thinking that I was doing much better than when Luna died, which unnerved me. Because deep down inside my heart, I could feel the small child holding back tears with her hands across her ears singing, “la la la la!”
I’ve been in denial. It’s normal. I just didn’t think it would be so easy to do when the physical evidence of her death surrounds me.
This morning, the Veterinary Hospital called us to let us know that Bella’s ashes were there for us to pick up. I suddenly felt deadened, like weights had just been piled on top of me. And I started to feel the grief climbing up through my belly and my throat for my mouth. We were bringing Bella home. We were bringing what remained of Bella home. It was very real. It is very real.

There’s no timetable for grieving. It’s different for everyone. As routines change and time passes, the daily pangs ebb and healing occurs. We move forward because it’s in our nature. I let myself trust that it will come. Bella’s ashes are home now, awaiting transformation for when my heart is softened and not so raw.

Listen to Dougie McLean sing This Love Will Carry from 2010.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Midwifing Death. Goodbye Bella.

Bella Marie, April 1, 2002 - June 11, 2013
The death of our middle cat, Luna, was one of the major catalysts that prompted me to start this blog and share my work. I realized that yesterday, when I went back into the archives to see what I’d written about then. Only I hadn’t. This is the first time I have tried to write from a place of fresh grief.
Today, we had to put another little family member down. It was unexpected and a quick turn. Our hearts are broken for the loss of our youngest cat. Like many people, we found ourselves in the position of having to choose whether or not we could put an end to Bella’s suffering, whether or not we could decide to open the door for death.
It wasn’t easy and it took us a day of going back and forth to come to an agreement. All the while, our darling girl faded more and more, and we could see it. Still, it was hard to make that choice. It’s supposed to be. We shouldn’t ever be able to choose to end a life easily. It was a sacred choice. A human choice. A necessary choice. Bella was sick. She was only going to get sicker. It was important to us that we be able to make that choice, before she was in distress. We waited too long with Luna and her final moments were not peaceful.
This kind of grief is feral. It threatens to loosen itself at every moment of habit that you realize is suddenly altered-for-life because of the absence of a loved one. This was the second time we have had to make the choice to end a life. When we took Luna to the vet, we thought we were taking her in to get better, only to discover there was only one option left. This time, we hoped the vet would tell us there was some miracle way that Bella could be okay… but we understood we were taking her to the vet to be put to sleep. Put down. Killed. Nothing sounds right, even though it was the right choice. It was not the choice we wanted to make. It was not a choice easily made. But we had learned from the first one.
While waiting for our appointment, we put on Bella’s favorite music, Yo-Yo Ma playing Bach on the Cello. We followed her around the house and cooed over her. We sang her every silly song we had ever made up for her. We snuggled with her. We brushed her with her favorite soft-bristled brush. We told her how much we loved her, over and over.
We held her head and promised her some peace as she died. I told her she was the best girl ever. Just like I did with Luna. And I meant it again. She was our baby. To be able to stand in that space with her… it’s a strength I didn’t know I had. Luna was gasping for air and it was an easy choice in the moment. This one was harder, maybe, because that other loss is still so painful. If you want to know what your places of fear are, if you want to know what you’re made of, the first time you sit a death bed vigil, you will.
She died in seconds, maybe less. I wrapped her in the purple blanket we bought her when she was a kitten and held her to my chest. My heart needed to feel that her heart was no longer beating. I needed to feel the rhythm-less weight of her in my arms before I could leave her body behind me, in the room.
One of the last photos I took of her.
It has only been a few hours and my head is dizzy from the interlocking layers of memory, from the feeling of where the spirit world met this physical world at the moment of her death. I can look in the kitchen and see Bella where she sat just this morning, and I know that moment can never happen again. Won’t ever. But both exist for me simultaneously in this grief. She is here and she is not here. To have had such a friend that my soul is so deeply grieved will be a blessing in the days to come, I am sure.

A Letter to Bella (April 1, 2002 – June 11, 2013), from your Momma
You were the nameless one. When we adopted Zami, they were calling her Beth, and Luna was named Sandy. But you were a blank slate in a cage in a mall pet store. And we wouldn’t take you home unless we could feel out your name the way we had found theirs. You were turd-colored in your young tortoiseshell mottling. You were so sick, they were considering putting you to sleep. So, of course, we brought you home.
In plumper days.
            Your first nickname was Brutus, because of the way you slapped your feet on the floor. We could hear you coming from three rooms away. You were more bear than cat at first, very roly poly and surprisingly ungraceful. Do you remember when you were small enough to sleep across the top of my head? How many times did I wake to find you gently kneading my eyelids?
You were a good kitten. I love that you spent your formative years living under the bed, or burrowing caves into folded up blankets. I loved the unpleasant cry that we came to learn was your sweet sound, and the way I would sigh and say, “Ah, the dulcet tones of Bella.” I loved making up songs to sing to you to coax you out of your persistent skittishness. I still think “catnip-stuffed purple moo-cow” is the best lyric I ever wrote.
Bella was fluent in Squirrel and learning Cricket.
I miss the jumpiness of the days before we knew how bad your eyesight was. I miss the way you would armadillo-jump into the air at any sudden movement around you. No wonder you spent so much time under the bed. And if anything about a room changed, like a purse was moved, or shoes were where no shoes had been before, it took you forever to slow-stalk your way in, while you pieced together what was different. While I loved the fat bear-cat who would come out at night and sit in my lap, I did love you best when you stopped living under the bed, when you stopped living like a shadow in our lives.
We shall not soon forget your exploits with your Arch-Nemesis, the Evil Yellow Vacuum Cleaner and his sidekick, the Dreaded Swiffer. Who will defend the dust bunny tribes, now? You evolved over the years from Brutus to Peanut (in the very last moment, I called you Nutter). I can’t imagine my life without you.
I will miss your company, and the lengthy conversations we used to have. I loved that you were a talker. I will miss understanding every nuance of sound you made. I will miss you pawing me in the face in the morning so that I would let you under the covers. I will miss the bullying moments when you would slap my knee with your paw and demand lap, right now, mama, damnit! I will miss giving into you. It was an important lesson for me. You were right, by the way. Ten minutes of lap time a day was not a lot to ask for.
            Little girl, who will be our great Moth Hunter now?
Thank you for being part of our family. Thank you for telling us you were sick. Thank you for trusting us enough to do what was best for you. I realized you had not left the door of the house since you were spayed ten years ago. I am glad you got to see the mountains and green fields before you left us. Before Luna came to greet you. I know you weren’t ready to leave us, but you needed to not be in pain. It’s okay that you wanted out of your body more than you wanted to stay. We understand.
You really were the best girl ever, Bella-bear. I love you. I will miss you forever, and remember you always.
Cave-Bella has left the building. Good night and sweet dreams little girl.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

A P.O.W. from Tripoli

This week, I am honoring my ancestor Peter De Lozier, my 4x Great-Grandfather in my father’s maternal line. Peter De Lozier, also written as Delozier and DeLozier and d’Lozier, was the son of Oliver DeLozier and Eleanor Erkells, the grandson of Peter “Petrus” Lozier and Fytje “Sophia” Zabriskie, the great-grandson of Nicholas “Claes” LaSueur, the great-great-grandson of Francois Le Sueur, a civil engineer from France who immigrated to New Amsterdam, and Jannatje Hildebrand Pietersen.
Peter was born in Clinton, Connecticut in 1786. He was a marine, serving aboard the U.S.S. Philadelphia when it ran aground in Tripoli harbor during the First Barbary War in October of 1803. The Americans found it impossible to keep the ship afloat while under fire. The crew, along with their captain, William Bainbridge, were all taken and held as hostages. The U.S.S. Philadelphia was anchored in the harbor as a gun battery for the Tripoli.
According to a letter from Captain Bainbridge to the Secretary of the Navy, dated the first of November, the crew made every attempt to keep the boat afloat by offloading the stores of guns and water but the ship was still too heavy. They cut the mast but that was of no help as well. After four hours of fire from the Tripoli gun boats, and seeing their own reinforcements approaching, the Captain and Officers lowered their ship’s colors and submitted to the enemy. Just after sunset, the ship was taken and the men were carried to shore after dark.
In his letter he states that he and the Officers, and their attendants, were quartered within the American Consular House and confined there during their imprisonment. Bainbridge expresses upset over the confinement inside the walls of the house, despite having given their word, their “parole of honor.” He says, “the remainder of the Crew will be supported by this Regency.” Peter DeLozier was one of those men. He was 16 years old. The men were held in the dungeons of an old castle fort in Tripoli, where they were fed 15 ounces of bread a day.
On the night of February 16, 1804, a small contingent of Marines got into the harbor and set fire to the U.S.S. Philadelphia so that the enemy could not use her against them. My ancestor was still being held hostage. On July 14, 1804, an attempt was made to destroy the enemy fleet, but the ship to be used was destroyed before it achieved it’s goal, with a total loss of the Captain and the crew. And still, the crew was held hostage.
In April and May of 1805, Ex-Consul William Eaton, a General, and U.S. Marine First Lieutenant Presley O’Bannon led a force of 8 Marines and 500 mercenaries, made up of Greeks from Crete, Arabs, and Berbers, on a desert march from Alexandria, Egypt to Derna, in Tripoli. They captured the city and, for the first time, the U.S. flag was raised in a foreign land. This move led Yusuf Karamanli to sign a treaty to end hostilities.
According to Article 2 of the Treaty, the Bashaw of Tripoli agreed to return the Americans in his care to America as long as America agreed to return the captured subjects of the Bashaw to Tripoli. Tripoli held “Three Hundred Persons, more or less” and America held “One Hundred more or less” Tripolino Subjects, The Bashaw also required $60,000 in payment for the difference in numbers, which President Jefferson agreed to pay on June 10, 1805.
In this Treaty, the Jefferson administrative made a clear line between paying tribute as opposed to paying ransom. Some felt that buying sailors out of slavery was a fair way to bring end to a war, but General Eaton and others believed that the capture of Derna should have been used as a bargaining chip to obtain their release without payment.
At his release, my 4x Great-Grandfather Peter had been held in captivity for 30 months. Most of the captives had been used for hard labor in extremely foul conditions, exposing them to both vermin and disease. He was about 18 when he returned home in 1805.
He married Lucy Raymond four years later. The next year, their only child, Ordelia, was born in Whitestone, New York. By 1820, Peter De Lozier is listed as owning a cabinet-making business on Richmond Avenue in Lockport, New York.
From what we can gather, sometime between 1820 and 1825, at the age of 33, Peter De Lozier abandoned his family in Lockport and returned to life at sea. In 1825, Ordelia married Bailey Harrison Whitcher, her father’s apprentice in the cabinet-making business; it is likely that Ordelia married Bailey in order to keep the family business going as she was only 15. It’s also possible that Peter saw a connection between his apprentice and daughter and left feeling the family would be taken care of. And possible still that the engagement was already determined. The truth may never be known.
I don’t know what it would have been like to be a prisoner of war at such a young age, for so long, and then try to readjust to a normal life. We know enough about post traumatic stress disorder now that I can imagine the difficulty of surrendering to the expectations of a society that did not have to experience what you did. I don’t blame him, as some descendants might, for the darkness of what the family might have suffered by his absence. Sometimes life deals us hard cards and we do the best we can.

 Peter De Lozier died July 30, 1849 of cholera in Connecticut, where he was listed as a mason worker. He was 63. His wife Lucy lived with her daughter and son-in-law in Lockport, New York until her death in 1874.
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