I interviewed Roma Van der Walt from her apartment in Brooklyn, New York. Her dog Zola sat quietly on her lap for our entire conversation. Although I could only see Roma from the shoulders up, she informed me that she was eight months pregnant and anxiously awaiting the birth of her son. We explored many topics in our time together, but we spent the majority of it discussing the mysteries of birth and death—the moments in life that are often unexplainable. It is often in these moments when we attempt to make sense of the nonsensical, the unknown.
When this interview is launched, her baby will be born and her life will be radically different.
Roma grew up in Germany with two immigrant parents that got divorced when she was very young. Her father passed away when she was 15 years old. When she, her mother, and her sister received a phone call from the Kenyan government informing them that her father had died from tuberculosis, Roma didn’t feel surprised by the news. Although she hadn’t predicted that they would receive such tragic information, there was something inside of her that instinctively knew what the call was about. Despite the news, she decided to go to school that same day, scoring high on her math test and returning later in the afternoon to her grief stricken family.
At this point of our conversation I am utterly fascinated. Over the last few months, I have been face-to-face with grief after losing a close friend who was 32 years old and my grandmother at 97 years of age. I have attended two funerals in less than a month. I have been trying to make sense of death and what it means to be alive. I am so drawn to what Roma is saying because she expresses the experience of loss with a sense of calm steadiness and immense inner knowing.
I never mention this to Roma during the interview, but I overwhelming believe in the power of instinct and intuition in relationship to death. When my friend first got sick and before his diagnosis, I had multiple dreams that he had died. On the night that he passed, I dreamt that he sent me an e-mail telling me that he loved me. The next morning, I awoke to a text message from his wife letting me know that he had passed. Then, forty-eight hours before my grandmother died, she was being picked up by my father to be moved to a nursing home in Arizona. Although old, her physical health was in relatively good condition for being 97. She was extremely scared to move anywhere unfamiliar and had a heart attack thirty minutes before my father arrived to take her to the airport. She had never had any problems with her heart.
When I ask Roma about other people’s reactions to how she handled her father’s passing, she notes, “People don’t react well to calm. I’ve dealt with my grief in other ways. I have times where I want to talk about it and times where I don’t. And I’ve created little rituals for myself.”
Death is incredibly elusive. It’s uncertain and unknown and therefore elicits an immense amount of projection as to how dealing with it should look. We live in a world that likes to be in control with sensical answers, but there isn’t a guidebook on death or grief. Listening to Roma’s depiction of how she dealt with her father’s death I can’t help but explore the connection and comparison between the methodology and predictable nature of science with the unpredictable essence of loss. In the book When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalathini, the late author writes:
“Yet the paradox is that scientific methodology is the product of human hands and thus cannot reach some permanent truth. We build scientific theories to organize and manipulate the world, to reduce phenomena into manageable units. Science is based on reproducibility and manufactured objectivity. As strong as that makes its ability to generate claims about matter and energy, it also makes scientific knowledge inapplicable to the existential, visceral nature of human life, which is unique and subjective and unpredictable. Science may provide the most useful way to organize empirical, reproducible data, but its power to do so is predicated on its inability to grasp the most central aspects of human life: hope, fear, love, hate, beauty, envy, honor, weakness, striving, suffering, virtue.”
This idea makes total sense to me. Whenever someone experiences tragedy or trauma, we expect that person to fall apart. And sometimes, many times, that is the appropriate response for that person. However, there are innumerable ways to handle grief. In a world that honors outward expressions of inner experiences, I feel inspired by Roma’s sense of privacy. It isn’t that she has avoided feeling the immensity of losing her father. Rather, she has chosen to keep her memories of him sacred and for herself. She has chosen to use that experience as a guide for her own truth seeking. What she feels to be unexplainable or uncertain may be the truth. And truth is never something that we choose or have control over. It has already chosen us; we just have to get quiet enough to hear it.
Also during our conversation, Roma shares with me small slices of her experience being pregnant. As a physical trainer for new and expectant mothers, she is surrounded by a strong community of women that now get to share insider tips and tricks on the process of pregnancy. In my listening, what I hear is insider tips and tricks on how to let go of control. What I hear is how to give oneself over to the ritual of birth, allowing the innate knowing of the body to serve as a guide rather than the voices inside of one’s head.
When I was young, my mother used to have a quote taped on the filing cabinet of her desk. It read,
“To have a child is wondrous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside of your body.”
Chatting with Roma at such a unique point in her life and in her pregnancy (her baby was due within weeks of the 20th anniversary of her father’s death), I felt the magic that comes from being alive. Each moment is interwoven to what came before and what is yet to come. Our experiences, our relationships, and how we show up in the world are constant tests of letting go of our attachments to who or how or what we think we should be and instead can be opportunities to surrender to that which we really are.
Toward the end of our interview, I ask Roma to define how she engages with her intuition. Without a moment’s hesitation she says, “There’s a low humming that is always there and sometimes you choose to listen to it or not.” Later, she goes on to say, “I’m not a subscriber of the “we always have to be happy” model. You can’t force happiness but I think you can get to a point where your base level is contentment.”
I think of Roma now. I think of her new baby on her hip, slowly getting herself back into her high-level of athletic shape and I can’t help but smile. In life and in death and in everything in between, the low humming is what keeps us going. It’s what brings us back to our true selves as we navigate our way through the cycles of life.