The Resurrection of Hannah

Rebecca and I spent the last six hours between two rooms, back and forth like tennis balls in a frantic game of life and death. We went to wherever we were most needed, providing comfort, hoping somehow to ease the transitions for our two dear friends. I was in Melissa’s room at the end of the hall, trying to make childbirth more bearable when Thomas, our appointed messenger, popped his head through the door, mouthing the words, “Sammi, it’s time.” Rebecca signaled me to go ahead, knowing I wanted to say goodbye to Julie, which she herself had done only minutes before.

I turned and followed on Thomas’s heels, hurrying down the corridor to her room. The priest had just performed the Sacrament of the Sick with Julie’s family and friends gathered round her bed. I joined the circle, standing between Thomas and my boyfriend, Todd, holding hands as we sang some of Julie’s favorite songs, wishing to usher in a joyful and serene journey home. Her breathing had quickened, becoming noticeably shallower in the last ten minutes. I stood close by her side, and brushed the hair from her forehead, running my finger lightly over her cheek and the red birthmark she had tried so many years to hide. She scoffed when we said that it looked like a heart because she was so full of love. The lids of her eyes were at half-mast, creating a fixed, hollow gaze that belied the bounty of life they once contained. Suddenly Julie lifted both arms toward heaven, a trace of a smile gracing her barely visible lips. I bent down close to her, hoping to hear perhaps the most significant words she would ever utter. “I’ll see you soon,” she whispered to me on that late golden August afternoon.

There was a sudden tap on Julie’s door. Her mother answered it, and then was shortly by my side, reporting that Rebecca was requesting my immediate assistance. I quietly took leave, and hauled ass back down the hall. When I entered the room, Melissa was straining to lift her head. A mass of red curls were matted against her face, and, without notice, she released a nail-biting scream. It nearly knocked my socks off, as I stood there helpless, not knowing what to do. I was amazed that Melissa had the guts to pursue natural childbirth and stood aghast as her pain became unbearable. She writhed in agony, perspiration clinging to every available inch of skin, a look of terror in her eyes.

“Melissa, please focus on your breathing. The way you learned in class. Come on, you can do it!” I said, trying to mimic the techniques we had been taught. But it wasn’t working, for I failed to remember what we had spent all those weeks learning. Some coach I turned out to be.

       The veins in her neck pulsated; her eyes bulged in their sockets. Something isn’t right. This can’t be normal. Tears welled up, but I blinked them back, not wanting Melissa to see my fear. Our friend Rebecca scurried about, rearranging the bedding, playing relaxing music, attempting to find a way to lessen her pain. Melissa’s pale, bloated belly was stretched to its limit. The midwife peered down between her legs. “The baby’s crowning,” she said calmly. “Stay close by, assist with her positioning, remind her to breathe from the abdomen.”

       Concentration was challenging, but I stepped up to the plate, forcing my mind to clear. Finally, the knowledge I had gleaned from our birthing classes flooded back. Stooping forward, I held her hand, whispered soothing words and helped to guide her movements. The midwife seemed in total control, doing what she had done so expertly a hundred times before. I had promised my dear friend that I would be there for her, and I was trying tenaciously to uphold our pact.

       Melissa let forth with a bellow, pushing so hard I thought her head might pop off. It was then that I noticed within me a growing tide of panic, as I witnessed a pinkish fluid escaping from between her legs. Be cool, Sammi. You’ve got to be strong. The midwife directed her every move, telling her when to push, which Melissa proceeded  to do with all the strength that remained. Her head thrashed to and fro as though on a fulcrum, and with teeth clenched, she let forth with one final push, squeezing my hand, hanging on for dear life. Melissa then fell back against the raised half of the bed, limper than a dishrag, the color of her face a horrid reddish-purple.

The room was filled with a heavy silence as the midwife gently pulled the baby from her womb, holding the lifeless form in her arms. It was in that horrible, frozen moment, in the space between the still warm baby’s entry into this world and her mother’s recognition that her dear Sarah may have been born dead, that I, too, ceased to breathe. Thomas was suddenly tapping on the door, which served to knock us into action, and in an instant the midwife was all over the tiny girl, doing whatever she could to get her breathing. Thomas and Rebecca fought to keep Melissa calm, but were hard-pressed to contain her, as she cried out repeatedly for Sarah. As Melissa tried  to get to her baby, the midwife worked desperately to clear her throat of mucus, breathing into her nose and mouth, pressing gently on her frail chest. Thomas was losing his grip, causing Rebecca to become hysterical right along with Melissa. All I could think to do was call 911, which was unrealistic since we were many miles from the nearest medical facility.

It was during this heightened state of frenzy that the baby let loose with the largest wail I had ever heard. A large, life-grabbing, beautiful wail. Certainly to be cemented in my memory for as long as I walk this earth. All the craziness stopped in that instant, as Thomas let go of his ward, and we rushed to the infant’s side. As we peered down at the petite fighter, the survivor of one hell of a mighty birth, the midwife checked her vitals and looked for any other signs of a problem. She then cleaned Sarah, placing the baby in her mother’s welcoming arms. “Oh, my gosh. She has a birthmark on her cheek, and it’s shaped like a heart,” Melissa said.

No one moved, as one thought invaded our minds. We looked over at Thomas. “Julie just passed away,” he said hesitantly. “That’s why I’m here, to let you know.”

So Julie was gone, gone forever from our lives. Or was she? I ran my finger like a feather over Sarah’s birthmark. “She’s got this because she’s so full of love,” I said. Everyone stood huddled together, nodding in agreement, overwrought with the emotions of the day, knowing how truly blessed we were to have said goodbye to a dear soul on the same day we had welcomed in a new one.

Later that night, hours after Todd had fallen fast asleep, I lay awake in the quiet, reflecting on how I had come to find myself in this most curious state of affairs. It was something I have asked myself a dozen times in the past nine months. At the start of it, with Melissa barely pregnant and Julie’s cancer worsening, I had found myself with little choice than to help my two friends in need, offering them rustic, albeit free, lodging at my newly acquired wellness center. I hoped that residing in such an environment would provide nourishment for their spirits as well as their bodies, while searching for whatever answers they hoped to find. Julie and I had become inordinately close through the months since she flew to Florida to visit with Rebecca, when she first confided in me about her unfortunate health status. Her attempt to live whatever time she had left with her parents bordered on a fiasco, being way too stressful for all concerned. There was too much history between them for it not to repeat itself. Thus she found herself down and out, with little emotional reserves to fall back on and a dwindling bank account. I had also made a promise to Julie that I would be by her side as she made her transition to whatever world awaited her, surrounded by those who loved her most.

On the other side of this picture of unhappiness I found Melissa, plagued with a sweet- and-sour pregnancy. For years she had longed for a baby, but it wouldn’t be too far from the truth to say that her husband abandoned her soon after hearing the news. On top of that, her family resided eons away in Canada, and the salary from her counseling job offered minimal financial support. Florida had been Melissa’s home for too many years for her to flee back to a country where she now felt a stranger.

I remember the day our pickup truck rolled into the patch of secluded woods about fifty miles outside of Saint Petersburg, Florida. I climbed out of the truck along with Todd and two of several friends who had invested in my dream. We kicked up dirt while carrying bags of peat moss and cords of firewood, stacking them in the back of the Welcome Center. I had recently signed the final contracts, giving me ownership of eighty-eight acres, close enough to nowhere as I could find without moving too far from my beloved St. Pete, the place I’d called home for the past sixteen years. Several months prior, my mind had actually expanded enough to take in the concept that most successful business entrepreneurs have spouted: “You have to think big, to make it big. Big risks make for big lives.” So I did it. I jumped in with both feet, leaving behind at least some of my small-town ways of thinking. When I bought the land, it already had the existing structures needed for our start-up operations, which were slated to begin in two months. Between my own financial reserves, some friends and colleague’s personal investments, a few donations, and community assistance, my goal of an independent wellness retreat and counseling center had become a reality. Never in a million years would I have imagined undertaking such a complicated business venture – then again, never would I have imagined the twists and turns my life has taken.

Rebecca, Julie, and Melissa moved in the first night. I moved in a week later. Todd was never far from my side, breaking his back to make the center a haven for any who sought spiritual and emotional support. He quit his job, throwing himself totally into the venture, our love growing in exact proportion to our burgeoning campus. Other friends helped in whatever ways they could, providing business plans, organizing workshops, teaching classes, whatever they could do in their areas of expertise. 

Being a daughter of a minister and a nurse, I was taught that helping others is why we are here, and I still  try to live up to those ideals and values. Years ago, I moved down south to escape the bitter, gray days, just like almost every other person I ever met in Florida. A few years after finishing graduate school and my clinical studies, I became a licensed psychotherapist, managing to build a thriving private practice, catering to a comfortable, egocentric crowd in the Tampa Bay area. No real challenges or surprises, but busy enough to keep skipping along, hanging out with various friends in trendy establishments or on the beaches that dotted the western coastline. My boring and sometimes self-indulgent lifestyle was certainly a form of self-asphyxiation, just dolled-up in pretty clothes so it could sneak by undetected.

But I think what helped open my eyes was the dawning realization that I was too fixated on outward appearances, mine included. Others often said, “You’re still really cute,” or “You’re holding up well for being almost forty.” I’ve tried to maintain my slim figure through regular exercise and by sticking pretty much to a healthy diet. I guess keeping my blonde hair long has lent itself to that “youthful” appearance. I’ve kept my exterior polished, buffed, and shined, and bedecked with rather fashionable duds, hanging onto my sporty convertible so I can buzz around town looking cool.

Beneath my veneered facade, however, was a person who cared much more deeply about what really counted in life – a caged bird hungry for flight. Becoming disenchanted with my predictable lifestyle and safe existence, I began turning inward, which I knew was what every great religion and mystic has taught for thousands of years. Perhaps you could say that I started searching for that elusive “deeper meaning to life.” And guess what? I found it, as they say, right in front of my very own eyes. And the finding was an adventure that I shared with those around me for a good part of a wondrous and strange year. Here is how it all began.






First Chapter