I am an ordained interfaith minister, and have spent years working as a hospice and hospital chaplain.
Before that, I attended dozens of births as a doula or home birth midwife’s apprentice. This year, as I entered my own first pregnancy, I was called more and more to the side of those young parents who were facing their own deaths or the deaths of their children.
I’m sharing three of these profound stories with you below.
This Spring—during my own first trimester of pregnancy—Rebecca (above) was diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer.
She was seven months pregnant at the time, and felt perfectly healthy, but went in to see an optometrist when she discovered a little blue light in her eye.
The tumors had spread all the way into her vision.
Rebecca and her husband Dave had been raised Catholic, but had left the church years before due to discrimination against women, gays, Muslims and Jews, and a history of war. They longed for a direct experience of God in their everyday lives. The couple discovered Celtic Christianity, which incorporated stories of Jesus into earth-based practices, and it seemed to meet their spiritual needs.
When Rebecca was diagnosed in San Francisco, they wandered back through the doors of St. Columba to participate in their first Catholic mass for over a decade.
In that sacred place, Rebecca called out to Jesus, “Jesus, I know you can heal me. Will you?” And Rebecca heard “Yes,” three times. Rebecca asked, “What is our medicine?,” and she heard: “Our medicine is faith.” When Rebecca could no longer walk, could no longer lie down flat without her lungs collapsing, and when she had begun seeing double and triple, her son Solas was delivered via caesarian section.
With Solas safely outside her body, she could finally begin treatment.
For them, that treatment was a miracle.
Rebecca could eventually walk to the beach with her baby boy. Though she still had advanced cancer, she had received the gift of time to enjoy her son.
Rebecca’s story was both beautiful and terrible: the living wouldn’t want her life, but the dying might wish for one of her days.
In my second trimester, I was called to perform a funeral for a four-month-old girl named Viv (above).
Her parents, Nathan and Alicia, were healthy.
Viv was beautiful and growing, but one morning her heart stopped, and by the time it was restarted, her spirit was gone. Her parents removed life support and donated her heart, which—on the night before her memorial service—was successfully transplanted into another five-month-old child in need.
They were overjoyed and devastated in equal measure.
I worried that at Viv’s service, my own growing belly would grieve the parents more deeply. Instead, they celebrated the evidence that life continues. They were not religious people, and asked me to come dressed not as a minister, but as a friendly person—in a color their daughter would enjoy.
We lit candles for her, and told stories of the world she had loved so deeply.
We celebrated the gift of her in their lives, and the gift of them in her life, and the gratitude they felt for her conception, and birth, and her beautiful, short life.
I am now in my last trimester.
Big and round, I’m beginning to slow as a new life prepares to arrive.
Between naps, I’ve begun to cook meals for a friend of mine. With his two-year-old son at home, a young father spends half his days at Oakland Kaiser, being treated with chemo for an aggressive form of lymphoma.
I married he and his wife years ago—a Catholic-Jewish affair we put together in the fields above Fort Mason, overlooking the Bay. She looked like a cloud as she floated in the wind toward the chuppa, but these days she is a rock: creating stability for their son as they spend mornings and evenings in the hospital together; napping at home in the afternoons.
When my friend is too sick for further treatment, they send him home on a gurney and he lies in a hospital bed in their guest room, facing a 20 percent chance of a cure.
When I was able to find his wife, she explained the three roads they might go down: he is amazingly healed and they return to life together; he does not survive and she and their son must build a life on their own; he continues to struggle for years, and their child grows up in this limbo of the unknown.
Before I left, she reached out and felt my baby kicking the sides of my belly. We both cried at the pain of their potential loss, and smiled at the beauty of what remains: her son nursing and laughing, my child about to emerge into this mysterious world.
We have embarked on a journey whose end we cannot predict or time. When I married those two, they agreed to support each other through thick and thin. But their imaginings never included what has come to pass, just as the other families could not have imagined what has happened to them.
They continue to walk together no matter what. I continue to walk with them. We are simply here to love one another. If we can love well, we can die well, no matter when.
I am counting the days until the emergence of my own child, grieving these losses and knowing, above all, that I can’t know our future or fate. But I am grateful to have learned so much from these brave pilgrims, facing the mystery step by step. May they be loved, may they be healed, may their faith, whatever it is, grow and grow in this life.
To contribute to Rebecca’s miracle fund, see photos of her and Solas, or to send supportive messages, please visit this website. To donate to Children’s Hospital of Oakland and support care for children like Viv, please visit here.
Author: Rev. Moana Meadow
Editors: Catherine Monkman / Renee Picard
Photo credits for photos of Rebecca, Solas and Dave: David MacAi-Bolger, Sophie Macklin.
All photos and information used in this article provided via the author and used with permission.