I was sweating in the parking lot of a Wal-Mart in Independence when Tamika called me on a swampish July afternoon to ask me a question. She wanted to know if I would photograph her daughter’s birth. “I don’t know how you feel about that,” she laughed; I didn’t know how I felt about it either. There are several factors my mind quickly went to that could have kept me from saying yes, for instance, gratuitous pain or bodily fluid, both of which I’ve long assumed I have a low tolerance for. But Tamika has me wrapped around her finger and she makes everything in life feel beautiful and celebratory. I’ve known her for over three years now but only in the last year have we built a firm friendship and have become ingrained in each other’s lives. She’s taught me how to celebrate the mundane. She’s shared her family with me, her dreams, her precious tea. She laughs with me a lot and gives me a sassy look -a look I can’t help but imitate regularly. I trust my life with this woman. She is quiet, she is fierce, and she loves Jesus. She is also very intentional with her life and friendships. I didn’t understand fully why she wanted me there but when someone like that has loved you so well, a big question slowly turns into a simple answer: absolutely.
Close to a week before the birth I dropped by her house to talk through the details surrounding Tamika’s delivery. It should have been no surprise to hear the plan entailed being just as quiet and chill at seven centimeters dilated than when she’s sewing a peplum top sipping on hot tea. She wanted a peaceful and subdued atmosphere but I doubted this projection. I was leaving for Atlanta for a conference a few days later and texted her to suck that baby in until I returned. Baby obliged and they went to the hospital half an hour after I returned to Jefferson City. That’s what I call perfect timing.
I joined them at 10:20 PM on a Saturday night, a weary traveler who hadn’t showered in two days and smelled like beef jerky (Let it be known, I erased this sentence twice before I resigned to full disclosure) I anxiously walked through the deserted halls of Saint Mary’s, finally forced to face my small anxieties I previously squelched of what would happen that evening. The nurse buzzed me into the maternity ward. I could hear a fresh baby crying in a room down the hall; I smiled and breathed deeply as we entered our room. It was dimly lit, smelling of lavender and peppermint. Tamika curled up on her side in the hospital bed, smiling between contractions, happy to see me.
Labor was less stressful than I had braced for but I imagine Tamika could tell a different story there. There wasn’t any drama. There were minimal monitors and beeping. Ryan wasn’t stressed. Nursing staff wasn’t rushing in mid-contraction to see if it was time to push. No one rushed anywhere. I’m not entirely sure why I was expecting these things. Too many episodes of Offspring, I suppose. Tamika labored quietly. Her friend, Louise, tended to her every need and encouraged her as she progressed in labor. I sat back quietly with Ryan, my camera always close. I’m one of those sense-ers, the people who can walk in a room, lick my finger, hold it to the wind, and come back with pretty accurate readings on tension and drama in the situation. Being in labor and delivery was a constant sense check, especially when you’re capturing someone’s pain. An hour into that room I came to the definite conclusion that there will always be something inherently awkward about sitting on a couch with your legs crossed sipping on a cup of coffee while watching someone agonize a child out of their body, or even worse, taking pictures of them. There’s just no way around it.
That evening reminded me that, like most things I’ve experienced in life, is experienced individually, but is done best together. It’s good to lean in the uncomfortable circumstances of life and stay with loved ones even when you feel incapable of healing or helping. Sometimes our presence and our attention can be enough; not enough to change people or pain but just enough to remind each other that we don’t have to be alone when we hurt; that when we absorb the desperate squeezing of a hand our willingness to sit with the suffering produces the courage to keep on. Tamika has sat with me as I’ve cried over heartbreak or confessed sin in my life or probably more commonly, where I’ve been unwilling to see the next best step. Andy Crouch says that persons created in the image of the triune God do not flourish unless they are placed in community. As I’ve flourished, this past year I’ve learned a healing community looks a lot like a delivery room; waiting, anticipation, and continual prayer. And when the time comes, change happens.
In the wee hour of Sunday morning, it was time. The doctor walked in followed by two nurses who stood in the back ground, waiting. The doctor asked me to help her tie her scrubs and she casually sat down on a roller chair and asked Tamika, “Are you ready to have a baby?” Ryan, who appeared relaxed all evening, crossed his arms expectantly. As Tamika readied herself, we all rose to our feet, like a palace waiting for their queen. The room grew quiet, Tamika’s pain the only thing heard. When she bore down to push, I looked around the room at the seven of us. I thought about each generation before us, who labored out the next, and on and on, that brought us here, to a darkened hospital room to bear witness the birth of this little one. Tamika grabbed Ryan’s hand and I thought of my own mother’s soft tan hands gripping a cold hospital rail and my dad’s arm, as if it eased any sort of pain. It is crazy how humans can love each other that much without the slightest clue of who they are bringing into the world and the heartache tethered to them. It is crazy knowing my mom –like many others- would do it all over again if she had the chance. It’s even crazier to know paradoxically, that even that sort of love leaves the deepest part of me wanting, aching and lonely to be filled with an even holier, perfect love that only God himself can satisfy.
It has always been mysterious to me why God came to us as a baby. I have wondered why he didn’t show his power by parting the sky when John was baptizing and instead a dove, drop a grown-up Jesus down then (or any other time and place, for that matter). But there, in that hospital room, I couldn’t help but think of Mary and how quietly the world changed when she gave birth and about how much the world that Jesus was born into desperately needed him as much then as we do now. Christ lived, died, and conquered death for that world and this one, with a promise to return. And so we have waited. At twenty-six, I’ve sat in front of enough television screens riddled with mass shootings, missing planes, abducted children, oil spills, and beheadings that at times life can feel so heavy that I’m sure it will split in two. Some days the goodness of life can be overwhelmed by the senseless viciousness of it. The earth has pretty much always been broken, as it has always been round. While Tamika labored to bring her little girl in the world, another friend’s days old daughter died that night in a NICU; the same night we stood in joyful anticipation of life, another room sat in grief. When I hear of these paradoxes, the wars and slavery, sometimes they just get called ‘life’, a pat answer for the worst kind of realities and confusion we live with. It has been difficult to look at the state of the world and not ask God what the heck is going on, what’s the plan here or ask ourselves, why can’t we just get it together for a second and stop killing each other? Over the years my trust in God has wandered in every direction–to his very existence to whether he’s even good to us. It’s inconceivable to me that God still wants me–the doubter, the naysayer of his love and kindness–and yet, I’ve felt his kindness in spite of my disbelief over the years. It’s wounded me in the best way; a wounding that has cut my pride down to size, picked me up, and loved me in spite of myself. There is so much in life I do not and will not understand but my prayer is that I, like Paul, will always say,
“How great are God’s riches and wisdom and knowledge! How impossible it is for us to understand his decisions and his ways! Or who can know the Lord’s thoughts? Who knows enough to give him advice? And who has given him so much that he needs to pay it back? For everything comes from him and exists by his power and is intended for his glory. All glory to him forever!”
So when my dear friend cried out in pain as the child that she’s hoped and loved and labored for came, Jesus spoke to me in that room, in the still small voice recounted in Isaiah. He spoke the very words he spoke to his disciples in Matthew 24, “You will be hearing of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not frightened, for those things must take place, but that is not yet the end. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and in various places there will be famines and earthquakes. But all these things are merely the beginning of birth pangs.”
And then he comes back.
And with one incredible push, a tiny Contessa Grace was welcomed into the world, quietly and wide-eyed on a dark Sunday morning. Her eyes moved about, as if she was taking in the new world and upon assessment, let out a pitiful grunt of approval. All seven of us chuckled quietly. It completely took my breath away. For the first time in my life, I understood pain and suffering in a whole new way. We can exist in a world of pain and still rejoice because we know hope is being born. It is all light and momentary affliction in view of the glory to come.
Half an hour later, I sat on the couch holding Contessa in all her un-bathed curly-headed, slender fingered, baby-grunting glory, pushing back tears. Tamika looked over at me at one point and just raised her eyebrows and gave me a half-smile, like we’d both experienced something crazy. We had. I will always be grateful for Tamika and Ryan inviting me into their sacred space and entrusting me with the honor of telling Contessa’s birth through my camera. I laugh thinking about the doctor looking at me before Tamika pushed and asking me, “Are you good?” –I can’t imagine what my face was saying. I can’t ever get it to shut up. Mostly, I’ve come away amazed at God’s design and how he is found at the start of every life, how he holds and tends to each one so carefully. I’ve seen his kindness and blessing in the face of suffering.
I’ve thought a lot since then about what I would want Contessa to know about that night if she ever finds herself leafing through those photos. I would want to tell her that when she was born all the lights in the hospital shined brighter that night because that’s how it felt, as if her birth charged the earth’s battery by two hundred percent. I would tell her that her mama laid her on her chest and locked eyes with her and just smiled and said, “Well, hello there.” like they had met before and her daddy looked her over a thousand times like the Sistine Chapel. There was a small party with nurses who cooed and a doctor that smiled and Louise who giggled and Bri who took pictures. God smiled and the angels rejoiced. And more than anything, I would want her to know that even though life is a struggle, we all count it a privilege to be here in a world with her, to live, to discover, to love, to yearn, to live life together, imitating the Creator.
Keep growing, little Princess. We are so happy you’re here.