By Bill Willson
This is a Personal Essay published in the Spring 2007 Issue of Segullah magazine. Segullah is a feminine Literary Magazine, and in this issue they asked for pieces about the sacredness of the human body. Most of the articles were submitted by women but they have a section called `He Says.’
My first close look at an umbilical cord was in 1965 when the nurse called me to poke my head into the delivery room moments after my second daughter Ruth was born. She was a little bundle of angry red flesh, kicking and waaahing in protest of her sudden emergence into the bright lights and cold air of the world which she had been protected from in her mother’s womb. As the doctor severed the cord and tied his knot, I remember wondering if my daughter would have a pretty little “belly button.” The knot seemed rather ugly to me, not at all what I thought a proper knot should be.
The next time I saw an umbilical cord cut was when my third daughter was born five years later. By then fathers were invited to witness the births of their children, unless there were serious complications. I remember thinking, what a blessing life is, as I saw my daughter transformed from a dull bluish lump of lifeless clay, into this marvelous reddish pink, kicking and screaming, little baby girl. Again I looked on while the doctor severed the cord, and the glistening tangle of cord and afterbirth was tossed unceremoniously into a plastic bag marked “Biological Waste.”
From time to time after these two experiences with umbilical cords, when I was contemplating the meaning of life and death, I considered the fact that almost from our first moment of mortality we begin the process of death. The very root of the word mortality means death. I wondered if the remnant of the umbilical cord, which is cut from the newborn, removed from the womb and tossed aside to wither and decay, was merely leftovers from the birthing process. Was this special life support device no longer a part of life? I did not know. The cord is what connected my child to her mother. Her navel is a permanent scar which is a constant reminder of her physical connection to her mother. Could this be part of the meaning of life? Is the navel a clue to our connectivity? Is the navel and the spiritual essence of the severed cord some sort of a physical/spiritual link to immortality?
Matter cannot be destroyed. Albert Einstein gave the world his famous formula E=MC2– this formula expresses that fact. Matter can only be changed to a different form, e.g., energy. Most forms of energy cannot be seen with the naked eye but can be measured or detected with instruments. Spirit is defined in dictionaries as an animating or vital principal held to give life to physical organisms. Plants get energy from sunlight. All life depends on this energy from the sun. This light, which is a visible form of energy, gives life to all living things.
To answer all my questions about life and death, and the severed umbilical cords and navels as they relate to spirit, I had to go to a dark place where I wasn’t very comfortable. I thought of living things, then of dead things. Living things and dead things look different. What is it that makes them look different? Some people can’t really see or maybe just refuse to see this difference.
I didn’t see either of my parents after they were dead, they were both cremated immediately. I did go to the funerals of my wife’s parents. I watched helplessly as my mother-in-law slipped away little by little. I wasn’t with her when she died, but I felt she left life behind her long before she breathed her last. I was with my father-in-law when he passed. I remember, as I stood looking into the casket viewing the body of my wife’s father, hearing one of his friends say, “He looks so natural, just as if he might wake up any moment and ask for supper.” I didn’t see that. I was at his side as he breathed his last. He looked up into my eyes, one moment pleading silently with me to look after his widow, the next he was gone. When I saw his dead body there in the casket, I knew he would not be getting up for supper. I watched him pass from this life to the next, I saw the change at the onset of death. One moment he was alive, the next dead. It was almost as if the light was turned off. I believe the reason this change occurred is because his spirit left his body.
Scientists have done some research by doing before and after weighings of individuals at the moment of death, and found a body still weighs the same, yet something is missing. I believe the missing entity is the spirit, the spirit which animates and gives life to the body. Scientists can measure this missing element, they call it electrochemical impulses. The physical transmitting system for this life-giving force or energy is diagramed in detail in physiology books. The presence of the ‘The Force’ can only be detected with scientific instruments. No one knows what this energy looks like, it is invisible like electricity. The instruments can only tell if it is present, or if it is not. For the sake of this discussion, I have chosen to call this form of animating energy Spirit because this word fits well with my own personal subjective belief system.
The more I thought of this, the more I began to think that when part of our physical body is severed from the rest it is still there spiritually. If you don’t believe this, try telling an amputee he can no longer feel his missing body part. Scientists and doctors will explain this away as a neurological phenomena. I believe that spiritually the missing part is still present. We can’t see or touch it, but it’s there.
I discovered this when I had a disagreement with my father-in-law a few years before he died. He was a hard-headed, hard-fisted construction worker. When you didn’t agree with his point of view the only way to settle it was with a fist fight. Several years before we had this disagreement, Bob lost his four fingers, part of his palm, and over half of his thumb on his right hand. A steel cable wrapping itself around a take-up drum on a crane gobbled them up.
When this disagreement came up, I knew things were going to get ugly so I edged toward the door and said, “I’m going home.” He followed me out the door, swearing and ripping off his glasses and wrist watch. I said, “I don’t want to fight you Bob, why don’t you just go back in the house.” My words made him even madder; he began to press in on me with his fists flying. I fended off the blows and only defended myself, hoping he would tire himself out. I heard a stifled yelp as he tried to swallow the pain like his own blood. He backed away gripping his injured right hand in his good left. I knew he wasn’t hurt badly. I had felt the stub of his half thumb break as it connected with my forearm. If it had been the physical fist he thought he still had, I’m sure it would have left a serious bruise on my arm. I left him standing there in the darkened driveway; his pain and confusion covered my departure. I knew he would get over his anger, and we would still be friends after he cooled down.
The way Bob engaged in the fist fight that night, I knew he could feel his spiritual fist’s presence. This epiphany has led to my belief that our spiritual umbilical cord is still present. We just don’t feel this presence, because we never felt it after we left the womb. The only evidence we have of its existence is the navel.
I believe the navel is a spiritual bond between a mother and child. This tie between a mother and child is so strong it can never really be broken. We may make a break physically and emotionally, but we never can break the spiritual tie. This is one of the ties that bind us together into one great spiritual family called humanity.
I hardly noticed my navel as a curious little child discovering the world around me. As I began to notice and become fascinated with various body parts and their functions, I seldom considered the navel. It was just a tiny depression in the center of my tummy with apparently no function. Sometimes grownups would tickle me there and I learned to call it my “belly button.” Eventually I began to call it my navel.
Years went by and my navel was scarcely given another thought. Sometimes I thought about why mine goes in and some others– I had noticed– went out. Then the issue of “innies” and “outies” came up occasionally in casual conversation, but still the navel was no big deal. At least not like the other more erogenous areas of the body.
Some people, as they pass through various stages of growth, develop a fixation with navels. In some circles of fashion ornaments may be fastened to the navel. Some cultures teach their women to “belly dance.” Some women think it is attractive to bare their navel for the world to see. Some men consider this very alluring. I believe these fixations are because the navel is the tie that binds. Navels are the trace of the severed connection between mothers and their children. The navel is visual evidence of our connection to the womb. When we get down to serious questions regarding humanity, the navel can become a focal point from which an interesting dialogue dealing with the spiritual-connectivity of all humanity can be considered.
As I look at my navel, I think of the birth process. I revisit the births of my children, newborn, emerging from the birth canal. I see the umbilical cord connected to the mother. In the first few seconds of life outside the womb the cord is cut. No one I know of remembers any pain from this cutting, but I think the effect of the cut lasts forever. For the rest of our lives the spiritual connection of the severed umbilical cord is a part of our psyche.
Then I looked beyond birth. My mother is connected by the spiritual remnant of her umbilical cord to her mother, as my father is to his mother. My mother’s mother to her mother, and so on and so forth back to the first human mother. My tie to my mother through the spiritual umbilical cord is not the only tie that binds.
My mother and father were bound in the ties of love, marriage, and otherwise physically bound through sexual union. Sex was not a permanent connection, but this tie remained as an unbreakable spiritual tie when they had me. This is just as valid a spiritual connection as the umbilical cord that binds me to my mother. Thus a child has a spiritual tie that connects it to its mother, and also a spiritual tie to the father, by way of the mother.
Now I imagine all these spiritual ties holding me, connecting me to humanity. Although humans may be separated by time, distance, and other geographical, political, intellectual, and ethnic boundaries, we are still spiritually connected. Not only are we spiritually connected by the tie that binds, we are all, no matter where we were born, no matter when we were born, no matter what race or culture our progenitors came from, no matter what subjective information we were taught, we are all made of the exact same material, the exact same elements, in the exact same general configuration. This spiritual-connectivity and material-uniformity gives all of us a common bond to the rest of the human family.
Because of human genetics, we may look different. We may have different pigmentation, hair and eye color, and different physical attributes. Because of environment, experience, and education we may think or believe differently, but there is one thing we cannot deny. We all belong to the same human family, and in reality to the same source of spirit, material, and the intelligence which caused our existence. We may not agree about what to attribute the cause to, but it is difficult to deny our common connectivity to it. We all come from the same source. Consider your navel. Everybody has one.