He wakes at 5:47 every morning, drawn from his bed at that exact moment day after day as if summoned by some raucous alarm heard only by his tiny ears. The click of my bedroom door unlatching, a sound normally so faint, slices through my sleep like a gunshot, and I sigh a mumbled curse into my pillow. The moment of waking, always too early for my taste, is harsh and grating, but my young son stands by my bed steadfast in his mission to pull me into the waking world. Sleep claws at me with the urgency of a desperate lover, and I must rip myself from its embrace forcefully and remind my feet how to swing down and greet the floor with the clumsy thump of the half awake. The light in the bathroom is abrasive, my pupils shrinking so fast it makes my head hurt, and my hand comes up instinctively as if to block the sun itself. It hurts, waking up this early.
And perhaps waking is always painful in its way. It is always passing from one stage to another, and for a breath of a moment we are in both places at once, still walking the halls of our dreams even as our eyes bring the room into focus.
When I think of what has woken me up, really woken me up into my own life, it has always been heralded by the sharp sting of pain. I found God again in childbirth, when all the distractions and breathing tricks were eclipsed by the intensity of the pain, when I retreated inside myself, willing it to stop, and found myself calling out to God with a faith so raw and so unyielding I almost forgot the pain. My husband repeats, when I mention this hospital bed redemption, the quote that says "there are no atheists in foxholes." I have never been in a foxhole, but I have come to the end of myself and found more. I found an awakening at the cross street of desperate and out of options that has dug in and built itself a cozy home in my life. I can't unbelieve what I discovered in that moment of surrender.
Childbirth is an awakening I cannot get past, cannot get over. As a visceral experience, it is mind-boggling, and as a point on the spiritual journey, it is like scaling Everest and then continuing on to what suddenly feels like a sloping, grass-covered valley. I remember the day after my oldest was born, I was in the hospital room with my father. I began to nurse my newborn son, barely knowing what I was doing and clumsily throwing the blanket over us in an obligatory nod to modesty. My father stood, I assumed in an attempt to flee from an awkward moment, but instead of leaving he stood over us and said a few simple sentences that healed decades of old wounds.
"You know how much you love Nico?" he said to me. "You know how already you feel like you would do anything for him, give your life for him if you had to?" I looked down at the hungry, suckling, restless baby boy in my arms and nodded. My father said, "That is the way we have always felt about you. Even when we didn't see eye to eye or it seemed like we were punishing you, it was always because we loved you this much."
And just like that, every argument, every punishment, every rigid parental declaration became the best guess of two people who loved me fervently, unflinchingly. No matter how many times they had said over the years that they were doing something difficult because they loved me, it always felt somehow punitive and unfair until I understood love as they meant it, love as I now felt for my son. Even if I didn't agree with their approach, I instantly embraced their intention in a way that I could not have without the awakening of birth and motherhood, though I was but hours into the journey.
Motherhood woke me, in ways I just didn't expect. It often feels as if it multiplied me, stretched me, moved me outside of myself.
The one who wakes me at 5:47 every morning, our youngest, has always been my biggest awakening. When he came squalling into this world, unwilling to resign himself to his own awakening, I saw only a beautiful, scrunched up little face and a frame smaller than I remembered any baby could be. But the air went out of the room and I think, in hindsight, Sam and I were the only ones who didn't hear the silent something's wrong vibration. The team from the NICU was somber, and baby boy number two was whisked from the room in a hushed flurry of procedural efficiency. The doctor was sewing up the hole she had just opened in my belly, telling me to stop laughing or crying or whatever was shaking the suture sight, and I was telling Sam to go with our baby boy and watch over him now that I was unable.
It all felt different from the first time, but as I waited in the recovery room for so much longer than I expected, I chalked it up to a scheduled c-section. I was so much more aware this time, I told myself. But, as it turns out, I was in that painful in-between state, no longer asleep and not yet awake. Finally, Sam came and told me the words I will never forget. "He is perfect and he is beautiful and the doctor thinks he has Down syndrome."
It was the confirmation of something I had known for months, something I had felt but not understood. And at the same time, it was a shock that woke me with insistent pricks and stinging nettles. I pulled the pillow I didn't even know I had out from under my head, thrust it over my face and cried. Sam pulled it away and asked, "Why are you crying?" with the innocence of one whose love has eclipsed his fear. And I told him each selfish fear I had, slipping each one from my mouth like slipping one link after another onto a chain that this son would wear around his neck.
And the whole time my nurse stood there, stationed like a speechless soldier at the palace of my sorrow. She remained still and quiet beside me, until I sent Sam back on his mission of watching the boy I could no longer monitor by counting the kicks he lobbed against my uterine wall. And then my nurse asked if she could pray for me, and she held my hands, and she prayed over the lives of my young, confused family. She was supposed to leave then, her shift was over, but she didn't want me to be alone. So, she stayed with me and never let go of my hand and told me that this boy was lucky to be born into our family because we were all meant for each other.
I chalked that up to mumbo-jumbo, to not knowing what to say in the face of tragedy, until I saw the awakening this child would engender in me. He comes to me at 5:47 in the morning, and I am ripped from the laziness of sleep again, day after day. He comes in every day, wearing his Down syndrome all over his face, speaking it in the babble that is only sometimes words, and I awake again at the miracle of his life. I stir, deeply, at the sight of his perfect body loping into my room, at the sound of his husky voice calling "ma, ma" at me. This is the person who expanded my love beyond the selfish bounds of family to all people. I look at my Lincoln, and I remember my capital-a Awakening.
I look at him and am reminded that I have been commanded to love others first and foremost. I am reminded that I am not commanded to love them despite their flaws but that, if anything, I am commanded to love them because of their differences and imperfections. I am not commanded to find the most worthy and lavish them with God's love; I am commanded to find the least worthy and shower them with glory.
I wake into the young years of my motherhood every morning, and with each day my eyes are opened wider and wider to the changes this experience has woven into my existence. Every leaky sippy cup, every dirty diaper becomes an act of grace, a ritualistic washing of the feet of the people who have come here to shake me out of myself and wake me to a world beyond own selfish demands. And though each bit of awakening is painful and jarring, it is also good, and somehow sweet and unspeakably welcome.
This post was inspired by the September theme AWAKE over at SheLoves Magazine. Be sure to click over and read all the other stories of awakening.