josie on my dad, olav hashalom

Here’s another old East Village Mamele column from the Forward, where it’s no longer online. I wrote it when Josie was about 11 months old; I’d had a miscarriage before we had her, and the piece is about how I — and Judaism — struggled with marking and mourning such a loss. These days I have more friends who’ve struggled with infertility, and more friends and family members who’ve adopted, and I think I sound a little self-absorbed in this piece — Marjorie, jeez, everyone has problems. And now I have two kids and my misery 8 years ago seems so long-ago, so temporary, so privileged. But hey, I offer it up anyway.

The Invisible Baby

I love Josie’s smell. It’s the most divine mish-mosh of vanilla bean, warm cat and tomato plant. Her smell is as vivid as her laugh, which is deep and startlingly un-baby-like. She sounds like Phyllis Diller, or a velour-jogging-suit-wearing pack-a-day smoker in Boca. When you take away the toy taxi she’s just stolen from another baby in Tompkins Square Park, she flails and screams in mortal agony. When she sees a bus, her entire body goes rigid with joy. Her legs stick straight out, her toes splay, her eyes widen and she lets out a deafening yell — “BUS!!!” — of pure existential joy. Her favorite game is this: You build a tower of blocks on the other side of the room. She spies it and scuttles over (crab-walking on quick little hands and feet, tukhes in the air) to knock it over. You try to stop her, by any means necessary. She loves to be body-blocked, stiff-armed, hip-checked. She will climb over you, push you, launch herself over and over, laughing maniacally, until she succeeds.

As my mother-in-law is fond of exclaiming, “She’s such a person!” She is. But sometimes I think about another baby, a less immediate, less colorful baby, but one who is no less real to me. In July 2000, before there was Josie, I miscarried. I was 12 weeks pregnant.

I’d imagined slow-dancing to the blues, late at night, with this baby. I’d imagined patty-cake and baths and nursing. I’d imagined this baby a little older, playing with homemade play-dough we’d just whipped up in the kitchen. I’d imagined this baby older still, going to public school in the city, making friends with different accents, learning to cross with the light. But instead, this baby left me too soon, in a gush of blood at Saint Vincent’s hospital. When we got home, I immediately threw out the ultrasound pictures on the fridge and the little plastic stick with the clear blue line.

I didn’t know I’d have a healthy baby 15 months later. I only wanted my invisible, now-gone baby. Objectively, I knew there’d been something chromosomally out of kilter with this little being. I knew I’d done nothing wrong. I even knew that one in five pregnancies ends in miscarriage. We could try again. We were young. I knew this too.

My husband Jonathan was caring and sweet, but he didn’t understand the massive wave of grief that swooped me up and tumbled me around and dragged me along the bottom of the sea. I felt crazy. I felt self-absorbed and messed-up. I wasn’t entitled to be this sad; it was only a miscarriage. People with dead children were the ones who should be allowed to grieve. I didn’t know the baby’s gender. I hadn’t named him or her. I should get over it.

Historically, Judaism agreed with the voice in my head. For generations, babies who lived for less than 30 days were not given funerals or attended with the rituals of Jewish mourning. Maybe back when so many babies died, this made sense. Why pin your hopes and dreams on someone so fragile? Why get bogged down in sorrow? Just get pregnant again. Some of those babies you conceived would probably live to adulthood. Like the well-meaning people telling me, “Don’t worry, you’ll get pregnant again,” Jewish liturgy focused on moving on.

Today, the Jewish approach to miscarriage is different. Women rabbis and laypeople are creating rituals, poems and prayers to help parents honor their grief, respect their feelings and mourn babies that might have been. Lovely ceremonies and psalms are listed on, a web site of contemporary rituals created by Ma’yan: The Jewish Women’s Project, and Kolot: The Center for Jewish Women’s and Gender Studies. The site reprints many poems and prayers from Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin’s book, “Tears of Sorrow, Seeds of Hope: A Jewish Spiritual Companion for Infertility and Pregnancy Loss” (Jewish Lights). An even more recent resource is a wonderful little book called “Talking to God” (Knopf). The author, Naomi Levy, was in the first class of women ordained by the Jewish Theological Society. Her book is full of simple, conversational prayers for everyday life — driving, losing a pet, moving into a new home, facing a challenge at work, caring for an aging parent, adopting a baby, abstaining from gossip…and yes, experiencing a miscarriage. The book is peppered with wry, funny, sad stories from the rabbi’s own life. It’s prayer for the real world.

Perhaps I shouldn’t be so surprised that there’s so much support available out there now from other Jewish women (and men). After all, many of us waited until we were older to have babies. We’re educated; we wanted to be further along in our careers before we had kids. High achievers always, we were shocked by our unexpected failure at this simple thing: Breeding. Luckily, Jews talk. We do therapy. We find sisters and moms and friends to support us. We share.

Two years ago, I didn’t know about any of these Jewish resources. Most of the books I looked at came from a Christian perspective and talked about my baby being happy in heaven. Others lumped miscarriage in with stillbirth and death in the first year of life. I wanted a book that dealt only with miscarriage (I still felt my sadness, intense as it was, was trumped by the loss of a live infant). And I didn’t want anyone trying to comfort me with visions of my baby nestled in God’s bosom. Screw God. I wanted God to give my baby back.

But I did find two books tremendously helpful: “Miscarriage: Women Sharing from the Heart” (John Wiley & Sons), by Marie Allen and Shelly Marks, and “Our Stories of Miscarriage” (Fairview), edited by Rachel Faldet and Karen Fitton. I turned to my chosen books again and again. I liked knowing that other women were angry. I liked learning that other couples did not grieve the same way, in parallel lines. I liked seeing where others found solace, even if I couldn’t quite imagine myself burying a homemade doll containing a sanitary napkin stained with my baby’s blood.

My body healed faster than my soul. Jonathan and I immediately began trying again to conceive. I bought ovulation kits and peed on plastic sticks every morning. Sex stopped being spontaneous and fun. I started ruefully referring to our journey as the Bataan Sex March.

Six months later, on New Year’s Eve 2001, I got pregnant again. I didn’t tell anyone until I was five months along. I was terrified I’d lose this baby too. And perhaps paradoxically, I felt disloyal to the memory of my invisible baby, my baby who died. I bitterly regretted throwing out the few mementoes I had of that pregnancy. How could I love this new potential baby, and forget my other never-was baby?

When I was three months along and still keeping my secret, I went to a spa in Arizona for a story I was writing. While I was there, I had a treatment called reiki. It’s very woo-woo. It’s supposed to move your chi around or unblock your meridians or balance your yin/yang. Something. Anyway, it’s supposed to offer stress-relief and clarity and insight. Woo woo.

I made fun of all this, but I secretly hoped I’d have a revelation. I actually wanted the not-baby to bless the now-baby. I wanted a specific vision of love and energy passing from the disembodied presence of my lost baby into the new life in my belly. Don’t mock. It didn’t happen.

Instead, a dog came into the room. A huge white Siberian Husky or Alaskan Malamute. It walked in the door and curled up next to the massage table and fell asleep. I thought, wow, there’s a dog here. It took me awhile to figure out there was not, in fact, a dog there. It was a vision. I blinked and the dog was gone. Now, I don’t believe in magic furry symbols or Native American spirit guides. But I suddenly felt less afraid of losing the new baby. Whatever the dog meant, I knew I was going to be OK. We were going to be OK.

Now I have Josie. I have my late-night blues dancing and my pattycake. But I also still have the not-baby, the memory of the life that wasn’t. That baby is softer-edged than my crazily vibrant daughter, but no less real. I’m glad I carried that baby. And I still miss that baby.

One Comment

  1. xtine September 22, 2009 at 7:34 pm

    love this piece, i wish you wouldn’t apologize. it’s lovely.

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