Believers Life and Breath: On Pregnancy and the Spirit World
“A life had ended, there in the water, quickly, without warning.”
It wasn’t the first dead body I’d seen. It was the first one since I’d become pregnant, though, and it was the first sudden, violent death I’d ever witnessed. As a child growing up in a rural village in Alaska, I’d known how to be around death. You could not live on the edge of the Arctic Circle and not feel how intertwined death is with life. But I’d forgotten, separated as I had been for decades from the place I call home. On the verge of bringing a new life into the world and feeling far away from the life I’d known in Alaska, I lingered, hesitating, on the threshold between worlds: the living, the about-to-be-born, and the newly dead.
Many cultures and religions have taboos around pregnant women and corpses: There are beliefs that the unborn child might want to rejoin the spirit world, that the spirit of the dead might call to the child, that the sight of death might endanger the pregnancy. These fears may be ways of expressing concerns that stress, particularly the hormones that an expectant mother’s body might release in response to it, may impact the developing fetus in unhealthy ways. They are also ways of saying, collectively, that we want to live, we want to continue as a species, even while we know how hard life can be.
I was alone at a waterfront facility owned by the college where I teach, staying in one of the private camps on the property, weeks away from giving birth for the first time. It was a sunny, breezy afternoon. Four college students, boys, took a canoe out. I had looked up from my book and watched them paddle across the lake to a small island, watched them swimming, I thought. I heard laughing. But then it was shouts, not laughter, and a boy was scrambling up on the end of the dock in front of me screaming “911!” Their canoe had capsized in a sudden squall, a darkening of the sky that I’d hardly registered. One of them had tried to swim for shore and disappeared.
Sirens in the distance. The three who had managed to swim were now clustered on the dock, shivering in the mid-afternoon light. One of them had his hands on his knees, shuddering “ohmygodohmygodohmygod” in deep guttural breaths.
A gust of wind had rolled the boat over, dumping the boys into the water. They were not wearing life jackets. Kyawswar (“SHO-swah”), nineteen and from Myanmar, had panicked and tried to swim rather than staying with the canoe. The others had tried to help; one was a lifeguard, but Kyawswar yanked on him, pulling and pushing him under in his desperation, and he had to kick himself free. His eyes searched mine, for my reaction, for my understanding that he didn’t have a choice.
First responders flooded the space around us, yelling for information about where Kyawswar had gone under. Divers ran into the water, inserting mouthpieces, reaching down to pull on their flippers before disappearing below the surface. They set up operations in the camp where I was staying; I brought the shivering boys inside and grabbed blankets off the beds.
There were divers searching within a half-hour of the 911 call, but as we stood there, the time Kyawswar had been under was forty-five minutes, then it was an hour, then more. A diver popped up maybe twenty yards out, close, yelling “I got him! I got him!” frantically waving one arm. His other arm, I realized later, was holding on to Kyawswar, down below. There was an explosion of activity from the ambulance, people running, scrambling into a rubber raft that had been waiting at shore. The diver was holding Kyawswar in his arms, cradling his head.
My parents were missionaries in a small Alaska Native village, there to offer what services the church could: baptisms, confirmations, weddings, but mostly, when we lived there, burials. And before the burials, there was the sitting, in the immediate aftermath of a stabbing, a drowning, a house fire. There was nothing to say, nothing to be done. When I was a child, I knew about tragedy; I knew the violent ways people died and I listened to their families cry. I had once understood the silence, but it was foreign to me now. I left home at age eighteen, and made my way in a world where death is sanitized, where yellow police tape and white sheets and barricades and funeral homes keep death from intermingling with life.
Kyawswar was hauled into the raft by his Hawaiian-print shorts and white T-shirt, his limbs hanging over the side as it raced to shore. I looked at him as they carried his body up. I knew he was dead, but I believed that some part of him was still nearby. I wasn’t afraid of his spirit; I did not believe that it would do harm to the baby inside me. I believed that he was closer to her now than I was. The ambulance didn’t pull away. It just sat there, lights flashing, around and around and around on the trees, inside the walls of the camp, over us as we sat and stood and stared at nothing.
I was thinking about the line between life and death, about the moment that a heart stops beating. I was thinking about how the average college-age person is still in the throes of feeling immortal, about how death can feel theoretical when you’re young. The distance between shores, of land, and of the beginning and end of our lives, are both farther and nearer than they look. I didn’t know what to say to the boys who had been left behind, as we say. I didn’t remember that there is nothing to be said. It was the time to just be.
The diesel engines on the rescue rigs shifted up from their guttural growls. They had been idling, filling the heavy, wet air with a blue-tinged exhaust that hung in the trees. Wheels crunched slowly against gravel; rocks flew as the trucks tried to gain traction up the steep hill from the lake. The rear doors on the ambulance closed from inside.
I had ordered pizza in a frenzy of not knowing what to do. It was delivered amid the confusion of the lights on the emergency vehicles that remained, the dozens of responders who show up and mill around at scenes like this, the game wardens bursting in and out of the camp asking courteous but determined questions the boys, in their shock, could barely answer. The warm smell of the pizza forced itself through our consciousness as we understood that Kyawswar had died in the water before the divers could get to him. We had known it standing on the dock, just the four of us, with the sirens in the distance, our lungs filled with air instead of water: Ohmygodohmygodohmygod.
As the boys ate, reluctantly at first, then quickly, I saw that it was raining. It had been raining when the divers ran into the water, while they were down below, searching, a light rain that had been held up in the leaves over our heads, but I remembered now that it traced circles on the flat water of the lake. This small, quiet rain had come behind the wind that had swamped the canoe.
Then someone from the college arrived, as the sun began to set, and took the boys away. They all left: wardens, EMTs, sheriff’s deputies, divers, volunteers. Outside, voices murmured, car doors slammed. When the last engine faded into nothing, I was alone in the darkened room, the lamplight reflecting off the windows, flames licking the glass of the woodstove, waves from the lake lapping against the shore. The sirens, the lights, the people, the chaos: gone, over, done. A life had ended, there in the water, quickly, without warning, and now I was as I had been before, alone in a day dimmed by sudden clouds. A different darkness had reached up and pulled Kyawswar down into depths from which he could not return. Death was a power unseen except for the damage it did, like the wind.
I believe in the spirit world and other things I feel and cannot touch or see, but I wasn’t afraid for the child in my body when Kyawswar drowned. I gazed into the night. Where do we come from? I wondered. Where do we go? As I sat, still for the first time in hours, the baby began to stir, rolling gently under my hands, rippling my belly, breathing, the way unborn babies do, lungs full, underwater, alive.