The first time I became pregnant my husband and I were living in a Native American fishing village. Scott, a physician, was serving a two-year stint with the Indian Health Service, while I, a nurse-midwife, was consulting and writing. Our backyard was the Strait of Juan de Fuca off the tip of Washington state’s Olympic Peninsula. It was remote and beautiful.
Early in the pregnancy, during a visit to Portland, I decided to go to the mikvah (ritual bath). I had gone twice before in my life, once after recovering from surgery and once on the eve of my wedding. This time it was particularly special to float in the mikvah because I felt new life spreading within me, floating in its own waters. I stepped out of the mikvah really believing I was pregnant in a way that was different from before.
During my thirteenth week I began spotting. Terrified, Scott and I drove down to his clinic to listen to the fetus’ heartbeat with the Doppler stethoscope. There was the soft swish-swish of my steady pulse, but where was the tat-tat-tat-tat we longed to hear? All we heard was a silence.
Going home, we climbed into bed together and cried. Scott, who is Unitarian, asked me if we were supposed to rend our clothes. (In the context of our home life, our traditions are Jewish; besides, no Unitarian rituals came to mind.) Scott’s question gave me pause. Why were there no formal Jewish ways to mark this sad passing? Until 40 days of pregnancy, a loss is considered inconsequential in Judaism, but what of after 40 days? Was miscarriage so common through the ages that women simply accepted it as a given? Did my Jewish foremothers somehow keep themselves from becoming attached to their fetuses? Or did they simply learn to suppress their feelings of loss in the context of a tradition which did not acknowledge such loss? Regardless, Scott and I felt primally attached to this pregnancy, and now we were utterly desolate. We lay in bed and clung to each other.
The following day, to confirm our diagnosis, we drove 90 minutes on serpentine roads to Port Angeles and the nearest ultrasound machine. I turned my head away when I saw the unmistakable fetus on the ultrasound screen, but Scott kept watching. “I could see his little arms. His poor little arms held up against his face…” Scott blurted out on our way back to the car. Scott’s voice cracked as he mimicked the gesture of the fetus.
Though we are both vehemently pro-choice, we decided we could not bear to have this pregnancy concluded by medical technology. Instead, we went to a health-food store, bought up all the potions, teas and tablets I knew of to stimulate uterine contractions, and went home to Neah Bay to wait for my body to pass the fetus.
For five days I picked yarrow flowers and brewed them into a vile tea. Yarrow is a time-honored abortifacient (which, by the way, must be used with extreme caution) that grows wild in Neah Bay. Like the mikvah, which reaffirms the relationship between women and water, harvesting yarrow became another reclaimed ritual for me. I knew that Indian women had forgotten about the use of this herb, so I felt like I was rekindling a relationship, almost a covenant, between nature and womankind. Meanwhile, I continued to drink tinctures, massage acupressure points, visualize and pray that my body and spirit could let go of this fetus.
I questioned the Jewish custom of shiva (mourning surrounded by other) because all I wanted was to be alone — inside myself and with Scott. Through the grapevine we let people know not to call us for a while, but we began to receive wonderful, warming cards from friends and family.
In the midst of all this, I thanked God that my body was getting a chance to ‘prove’ itself. If I couldn’t maintain the pregnancy, at least I was getting a chance to know my body might be ‘right’ enough to pass this fetus. For me, waiting gave me time to finish with this pregnancy, to savor our last connection, gain closure and grieve.
Finally, on the fifth night, my uterus began to contract. Strangely, I went into the altered state I often tell my patients is “the labor planet!’ I found myself not being able to talk in full sentences, getting hot, then cold, needing to move constantly, snapping at Scott for his audacity in not being inside my brain to anticipate my every need….
Soon it was over, and Scott put on his gloves to ‘deliver’ the fetus. “Good work, Diane!’ he whispered gently. “You did it. Everything is here!’ The tiny fetus was attached to cord and placenta, and all delivered at once. It was just past midnight.
I took a shower while Scott opened a bottle of saline. He poured some of the fluid into a plastic bag to keep the fetus moist until morning. She (like her mother) would feel at home in the waters. Our fetus had a hint of a smile, but it was clear it also had severe anomalies. My body had done the right thing, and our sadness softened a bit with that knowledge.
Scott brought out a bottle of wine that we’d received just ten months before at our wedding. We both felt a great need to say a bracha (blessing), and so we said one over the wine. Suddenly, we felt released. We had made it, we could let go of this tiny being that we loved, mark this wrenching passing and go on.
“You have to tell me what to do, Diane!’ Scott said. “This baby is Jewish, after all” Scott’s words welled up inside me: He was confirming his commitment to our Jewish family — a new entity.
“You’re not supposed to wait more than 24 hours to bury a body;’ I said. I felt strongly that I wanted to follow this particular Jewish injunction, though I knew how willing I was to ignore others.
The next day I prepared a tiny box that once contained a rose quartz bolo tie that friends had given me as a gift for ushering their daughter into the world. Somehow that was the right receptacle. Scott took the tiny form out of the fluid and placed it gently within the cotton padding. With a shovel, a siddur (prayerbook), my journal, a bundle of yarrow, and a rose, we drove to the nearby Indian tribal graveyard, the only cemetery in Neah Bay. A tall totem pole marked the entrance.
Choosing a cedar tree at the back, we dug a hole beneath its protecting branches and choked through the kaddish. Scott read a poem of mine from my journal, then I placed the yarrow on top of the box. We both said a few words to the fetus, and cried.
“I think we toss some dirt on it now, Scott;’ I said, adding awkwardly, “but I’m not sure if that’s Jewish or not” Suddenly I realized how unconventional our path was. We had consulted no one — seen no specialist, phoned no rabbi, read no books. We knew enough to maintain power over the physiology of this process, and now I saw how I’d used this same approach with our spiritual journey. Where there was no set custom, we wove our own.
Finally, we both threw in a handful or two of soil and a sprig of cedar as we thought the Indians might do. It felt serene and right in their cemetery in Neah Bay.
Walking down the hill, we gazed back again and again to the spot beneath the cedar marked with a rose. Before we moved away from Neah Bay we came back often, to sit and sometimes say kaddish.
“Someday you’ll have brothers and sisters;’ Scott had said during our little ceremony. “And we’ll be sure to tell them about you.”
The kaddish page in our prayer book is permanently wrinkled with rain and salt water, and that feels just as it should be.
Diane N. Solomon is a certified nurse-midwife and writer who lives with her husband in Hood River, Oregon.