~ written by Carla Berger Ransom
I took a little journey to the unknown
And I come back changed, I can feel it in my bones
I f*%#ed with the forces that our eyes can’t see
Now the darkness got a hold on me
Oh, the darkness got a hold on me
From Meet Me in the Woods Written by Ben Schneider
When did I embark on my journey to the unknown? This is a question I ask myself. Was it at the time of my son’s conception? The onset of labour? Did my journey to the unknown start with his birth? Or perhaps it was minutes later upon his death. Born alive at 23 weeks 4 days gestation – life on earth beyond 94 minutes was not meant for Leo John.
Today marks 5 years since the birth of my son, Leo, and tomorrow marks 5 years since his death. Experiencing birth alongside death was not only unexpected, it was not even in the realm of possibilities that I could conceive of when I became pregnant.
As per nature’s marvelous choreography, a harmony of hormones released during labour support a woman’s mind, body and soul through the arduous and glorious experience of bringing a baby earth side. These hormones are responsible for a myriad of life-affirming functions. They enhance deep connection and bonding between Mother and Baby in the moments and hours after birth. They entrench in her a fierce desire to love and protect her infant while inducing an all-encompassing instinct that nothing else in the world is more vital than the survival and thriving of this miraculous being. So how strange it was, then, to have these same hormones surging through my veins and be experiencing the elation and euphoria of having just given birth while at the same time holding the conscious and devastating knowledge that this wondrous event would inevitably end with my son’s death.
There is no feeling like leaving the hospital after giving birth without a baby in your arms. The same back seat of our vehicle where we safely placed our other children for the journey home after their births, was now cold and empty. The changes in my breasts as my body brought in nourishment for a baby who would never receive this loving and warm nurturance were further reminder of a living relationship that would never be.
In the aftermath of Leo’s birth, death and my own recovery from birth, a ruptured appendix, serious infection and surgery, in my mind’s eye I observed a shattering of my inner self. It was as if I were a plate dropped onto a hard tile floor, not the kind that breaks into a few larger pieces, but my Grandmother’s finest piece of china, the kind she served dainties on. I was broken into a thousand tiny pieces, the pretty flowery print indistinguishable from the debris that scattered across the entire house, many fragments never to be found. Not one single piece large enough to resemble the original. Even with a few morsels laid next to each other – it was impossible to tell the original shape. A plate? A bowl? A tea cup?
Perhaps on the exterior I appeared the same, but deep within I was unrecognizable. Like a mental photograph, I could recall the image of who I had been, and, because I could do nothing other, I attempted to portray that image for my own sake and for those around me. But with that photograph fading and the pieces of myself in disarray, I entered into the unknown. I was taken deep in the forest where nobody but me resided. It was my forest–deep and dense –without a map, not even a path.
My world before Leo – a safe, secure, predictable existence where I was able to sense ‘lightness’ and emit ‘positive’ energy was now a place of brokenness, pain, chaos and spiritual darkness. Unconsciously, I shouldered the great weight of it all.
“Being taken to the edge of death is a gift.” These were the words of a wise woman and healer who I met a number of months after Leo was born. I’ll never forget the inner whirl of thoughts when she voiced them. My head was screaming with a jumble of thoughts… ‘Are you fu*#king kidding me? This experience was NOT a gift!!!!’ ‘She must be crazy to have the boldness to suggest holding my dying baby in my arms is a gift!!!’ ‘Has she ever experienced closing in on her own mortality? It was miserable and terrifying!’
Even as I raged, I felt a flicker deep within my heart and soul. A flicker of knowing–deep knowing–that, indeed, becoming Mother to Leo was a gift, a miraculous gift to be unearthed and discovered in its due time.
We are meant to be changed by that which we cannot change – Gordon Neufeld
Would I ever have wanted this? NO! Is it something I would have planned for? NO! And at the same time – do I hold gratitude for the gifts Leo’s life has delivered? Absolutely. The extraordinary experience of simultaneously holding new life and imminent death in my arms changed me forever. I cannot alter the reality of this life experience, but I have seen firsthand the ripple effects it has had in my own life.
Over the past five years, my hair has made a stunning transition from bronze to a full head of gray. The corners of my eyes have deeper lines, and I clothe my body in threads a size larger than before. These are changes indeed! However, they just indicate the passing of time. It is in the ways eyes cannot see, that I have changed the most profoundly. I didn’t have a choice in this matter. For better or for worse, change was forced upon me.
It started in the minutes immediately following Leo’s birth. As I held his tiny warm body in my arms, a message came loud and clear. These words. Repeated over and over…“You are here on earth to live your best life!!!” Again and again. “YOU ARE HERE TO LIVE YOUR BEST LIFE!” An unmistakable presence with a clear message had descended upon my consciousness. “You are here on earth to live your best life. This is my gift to you” As real and as tangible as the nose on my face, my Leo brought me this message.
That message in cosmic coupling with by my inner shattering was the birthplace of the great changes I was meant to experience. Since that time, I’ve been on a journey of collecting the shattered pieces of myself and assembling a new form, perhaps one that is more beautiful and radiant than the original. That flicker of knowing that ‘Being taken to the edge of death is a gift’ is no longer just a flicker. It is something that shines steadier and with more brilliance as time passes and as my own healing unfolds.
So if it’s true that being taken to the edge of death is a gift… and if I am here to live my best life … and if I am meant to be changed … then Leo was the bearer of those gifts.
A gift is not a gift until it is shared. These words leapt out from a book left open in my home this morning. If I had any doubts, I am now sure that it is my duty to share Leo’s gifts! This raises the question, ‘How does one share gifts of this nature?” As I’ve said before, my son unequivocally brought me the message ‘You are here to live your best life.’ So it is that when I, Carla, live my best life–I bear and share Leo’s gifts with the world.
Ever the questioner, I ask myself…What does my best life really look like? Is it even attainable? Can I reach it? Or is it far out in the future? Perhaps my best life can be found in another city? Or another career? Where does my best life reside?
The answer is quite simple. My best life is here and now, accessible at any moment in time / space / experience.
I find it in the pause I take to FEEL the warm tight squeeze of my daughter before she skips off to school or in the moment of taking notice to the goofy grin of my son as he delivers a clever and witty remark. My best life is literally stopping to smell the roses on my walk home from the kids’ school – and not only taking in their fragrant essence but also having a chuckle to myself as a small white spider suddenly emerges from the petals just as I inhale! Nothing like that to jolt one into the present moment! It happens when I slow down enough to savour the amazing sensations of something as simple as sipping my morning coffee, enjoying the warm, smooth flavors lingering on my tongue even amidst the bustle of the kids readying themselves for their school day.
My best life is entering a room with a smile, something I unconsciously did for much of my life until the habit fell away at some point during my journey to the unknown. Now, as I feel myself returning from that place, the smile has also returned. My best life resides in how this smile makes me feel and in perhaps how the person receiving it feels, even if their softening is just for a moment. My best life is found in pausing to feel the emotions of sadness and disappointment when they arise rather than suppressing or avoiding them. When anger arises, my best life is lived when I hold myself with self-compassion rather than judgement and criticism.
My best life is definitely found in taking a moment to notice the warm feeling I get when I hear Leo’s name – even if it is the shout from a pet owner to call out to their labradoodle ‘Leo’ or the more profound feeling of synchronicity that I once experienced when my eyes were guided to rest on a license plate of the car ahead of me which read ‘LEO JOHN’.
And so it is, that I can live my best life in the here and now. Contrary to past efforts that now seem rooted in desperation, I proceed now with the knowledge that I don’t have to go searching for my best life in another house, career, relationship or in a later season of my life. What a marvelous gift that it is already here!
More questions! Are there times I retreat back into the familiarity of the dark woods to hide? Yes. Are all moments or days of my life easy? No. Do I still have times where I doubt that being taken to the edge of death is a gift? Absolutely. Am I feeling less shattered than before? Thankfully, yes.
I have received the gift of holding my head a little higher, standing a little taller and knowing myself a little deeper. This is the gift born with my beautiful son and one I now share with the world.
There’s no knowing when my journey into unknown began, perhaps decades ago, but after years of being lost in the dark woods, it was Leo who shed the light to help guide me home.
Deep into the night with the moonlight as my guide
I go wander through the pines and make my way
To nature’s shrines
And I look up to the sky and I know you’re still alive
From Frozen Pines, written by Ben Schnieder