Just as I began serving as a congregational minister in Strathroy, an elderly woman in the congregation was dying. She and her husband had both served as elders while they raised their eight children. She was beloved by many and a pillar of the church community. I visited her right away, going to the hospital room where her family was keeping vigil. I read scripture, prayed and offered support to those who were there.
As I sat by her bedside (still nervous, since it was the first time I had done anything like this except as a student) I noticed the smell. It was a soft, soapy smell… familiar… antiseptic… clean…like babies. Wait a minute, I said to myself: it smells like babies?!
It took me some time to figure it out, and even then it struck me as odd. There in that hospital room with Mrs. G., I smelled birth. I smelled institutional clean sheets and soap–smells that I immediately associated with the birth of my first child only a year earlier. It may have been a different hospital, but there was no mistaking it. There I was at the bedside in a muddle of memories and feelings. Death and birth were all tangled up together. It seemed strange.
This morning when I was out watering the vegetable garden I pulled up the last of the finished bean stalks. They are now withered and yellow so I tidied up, taking the remnants to the compost. With the nights getting cooler and back-to-school ads on TV, the end of some crops is to be expected–summer will soon be over.
Then, as I turned to another part of the garden, I saw the carrots. The seeds I planted have sprouted tiny and green, their little shoots shouting of fresh new life. How strange to see what is usually reserved for the spring season just as I was thinking about autumn. And then I thought of that hospital smell: life beginning and life ending, all muddled up together.
Most of us would prefer that life was tidy and compartmentalized. It would be easier to simply feel one thing at a time: to deal with grief or joy each on their own. The truth about life, however, is that emotions and experiences often run together so that even birth and death overlap. There can be no denying that we are complex creatures in a complex world.
Since that day in the hospital room with Mrs. G I have encountered that same smell time and time again. I birthed three more children of my own and visited other new mothers who were joyful and exhausted. I sat by the bedside of those who would recover from serious illness, and those who would pass from this world to the next. I talked quietly with family members overcome with grief, and watched as families welcomed a new son or daughter. I cannot go into a hospital without beautiful and awful memories tugging at my heart.
I have come to the conclusion that those memories belong together. Birth and death are intertwined. Only God knows when life will come into the world, and only God knows when life will go out. Those moments–those powerful and sacred moments–may be confusing when they run together, but they are the very essence of what it is to be alive.
Today in my garden I found beans and carrots, life just beginning and life coming to its end. I finished watering and smiled to myself. It may be all muddled up together, but that’s OK. Everything is just as it should be in God’s complicated world.