When I first heard about this story, I cried. It is so profound, so significant, and yet so basic. An Australian mother who has just given birth to twins is told that one of the babies, the baby boy, did not make it. He stopped breathing and could not be revived. As is hospital policy, the mother and father are allowed to hold the baby, spend some time with him and say goodbye. So this grieving mother puts the dead baby on her bare chest, the tiny premature head resting over her heart.
Finally, after two hours of this, the doctor comes and verifies what Mom and Dad already know—the baby is alive.
I love that the Australian culture encourages this kind of mother-child bond—in life and in death. In the video, you can see the mother massaging the babies back. You know that their bodies are connected, that cold little body being warmed by his mother’s. You see the father hovering over baby as close as he can get. They are whispering. They are holding his teeny, tiny bluish hand. At some point, the baby’s heart joins the beating of his mothers. Incredible.
In the hustle and bustle and overwhelming life schedule that we all keep, we can forget about the power of the human touch in general and in particular, the life-saving, life-giving touch of mother to child. Every time I attend a baby shower, I am amazed at the money spent on devices and contraptions that, by their very design, keep baby away from her mother—the ornate cribs, the bassinets, the carriers, the exorbitant strollers, the walkers, the bouncers. My personal feeling is that a new mother really needs some diapers, a few onesies, a chest carrier and if you really want to splurge, skip the designer stroller and fill her freezer with meals —that’s it. All the rest of the stuff is superfluous! And a new baby only needs his mother, really!
I am reminded of the Harlow experiments from college where researchers removed young primate babies from their mothers, but provided all of their needs for nourishment and warmth. They even gave them blankets and soft stuffed animals to hold. Without their mothers or any contact with another living being, the subjects became extremely disturbed and permanently dysfunctional.
As our children grow older, we spend so much time trying to train them up and in the effort to avoid “spoiling” them, some of us increase negative contact in the name of discipline and at the same time, withdraw and limit our affection. Many of us do this, too, in order to toughen them up.
In the name of affluence, we get bigger houses with more rooms and more technology, which only means greater separation and greater isolation. True success, we think, is when each family member can have his very own room with her own T.V. And then when they are teens, we expect their pulling away. We anticipate and accommodate it, even though we mourn the loss of affection. And then our children grow up and move away, some far, far away. And we accept all of this as the way life goes.
But this story about the mother and the precious baby that was alive when he was a part of his mother, but then was separated and died, only to be reconnected to her and thereby brought back to life…reminds us of the power of contact. The incredible, life-giving, life-affirming, life-changing power of human skin-upon-skin, hand-in-hand, arm-in-arm— the kiss, the caress, the embrace. We are reminded that we ALL don’t just want it, we need it– the preemie, the child, the adolescent, the man, the woman, the elderly–we need it at the beginning and we need it in the end. Yes, even the end—where birth and death and re-birth converge and become one thing.
So now in the midst of commemorating the anniversary of 9/11, when thousands of our friends and neighbors may regret that fateful morning when they may have been in too much of a hurry for a goodbye kiss or a quick hug for the loved one they never saw again…And in these difficult times, when we worry about what needs we are (and are not) able to provide our loved ones, we can remember that there is always something we can afford—to hold each other, to share our touch. There is always time for what is, and will always be, the universal cure.