Last month, we invited readers to share their responses to a writing prompt inspired by Beth Winegarner’s essay Birth Meridian. We asked readers to tell us about a book that prepared them in unexpected ways for birth or parenting. Below is Elizabeth Read Morris’s response.
by Elizabeth Read Morris
The first coherent thought I had after my son was born was that I could not imagine a universe without him. It exhilarated and terrified me all at once, for in celebrating my son’s existence, I was forced to acknowledge his impermanence. As I stared down at his tiny, squished face that looked a bit like a baby turtle, I assigned this wave of emotion to the Big Profound Feelings that all new mothers must experience and got down to the business of learning my first child. Six weeks later, I found myself searching for guidance on how best to love him in the memoir of a dying man.
When Breath Becomes Air is the late Paul Kalanithi’s memoir, written in the face of a terminal lung cancer diagnosis at the peak of his career as a neurosurgeon. He charts the upward trajectory of his education and profession in parallel with his own fading existence. He articulates the complexity of hospital and healthcare systems with the skilled eye of a practitioner, along with his grasping search for perspective as a patient. He documents the bittersweet reality of welcoming a new daughter he will not witness growing up. Through it all, he reminds his reader (and himself) that, despite the progress of science and the best intentions of people who love each other beyond measure, we humans are, infuriatingly, not built to last.
An irregular newborn blood screening forced me and my husband to acknowledge this more directly than any parent should have to. When my son was three weeks old, after a harrowing emergency hospitalization, we were informed that he had a rare, life-limiting genetic disorder. I stopped reading the paperwork from the genetic counselor when I got to the sentence that ended in “. . . can be fatal.” I knew then that I had to learn to live with the specter of loss. If not loss of life, then loss of an imagined future. Loss of my son’s physical and cognitive function. Loss of my previous self, who so far had been spared from soul-shattering grief. I knew that, in order to love my child well, I had to acknowledge and embrace that loss as my own birthright. When Breath Becomes Air provided a direct and gentle path for me to begin to surface from my grief. To continue to celebrate my son, not in spite of his impermanence, but because of it.
Elizabeth Read Morris is from the Seattle area and views writing as a form of community building. She refines her writing practice through venues such as Hugo House and volunteers on boards with her local public library and children’s hospital. Her work has appeared on The Mighty and Courageous Parents Network.