Content warning: pregnancy & pregnancy loss.
The first Jewish holiday that my wife and I spent together was Passover of 2018. We weren’t wives yet, we were still dating long distance Portland to Oakland, but like good lesbians we had fallen for each other quickly and wanted to spend as much time together as possible. At that point in my life I hardly practiced my religion anymore aside from the occasional major holiday. But no matter how far I veered in practice, my Judaism was always a huge part of me. Introducing Jamie to the traditions I was raised in and the community that shares that with me felt like sharing a slice of my childhood, of what grew me as a human.
We were having a small but mighty group of queers over, some Jewish and some not. Jamie and I both love hosting friends, and we’ve been known to go to great lengths to make things feel special. Jamie worked her flower arranging and table-setting magic. I sewed a quirky afikomen cover and set out the seder plate. We prepared a proper Passover feast — I made brisket and homemade gefilte fish like my mom always did. Jamie made a very delicious first batch of matzoh ball soup, an initiation in its own rite. When our friends arrived we all cozied up around the table, shoulder to shoulder. We lit the candles and read from our homemade feminist haggadah zine, and said many prayers over many glasses of wine. Our dog Isaac hung out loyally around the table, cleaning up crumbs of matzoh as they fell. When it was time to look for the hidden afikomen, people began searching excitedly under couch cushions and in random drawers, filling that big old room with belly laughs. Later, when everyone had left and the dishes were mostly done, Jamie and I curled up in each other under the covers, exhausted but enjoying that buzz of a really great night. The kind that leaves your cheeks sore from smiling.
When the pandemic first came around, when we began our quarantine thinking it would be two weeks, then two months, then finally realized it would actually be indefinite, something odd began to happen in our house. I started regularly craving something I hadn’t really craved in a long time. I wanted to be surrounded by ritual, specifically Jewish ritual, after many years of moving away from those very same traditions. It wasn’t just Shabbat dinner every week with my wife, though we clung to that one immediately. It was listening to Hebrew songs, to different shuls across the country doing Shabbat services over FaceTime to empty congregation halls. It was Zoom Passover with friends and Zoom Rosh Hashanah with my family. Those days were marked by a particular anxiety that held a tight grip on me, and the comforting lulls of the prayers somehow gave me some room to breathe.
For us, the hardest part of the pandemic was postponing our journey towards parenthood. We had worked extra hard — as all queer conceiving people do — just to get to the point of trying. I would be turning 40 in July and we had already waited longer than we felt comfortable with. There were blood tests, period tracking, ovulation tracking, having to wait another cycle to get this test or that test, coordinating with the sperm bank and our doctor. And of course we needed to have the money to allow us to try. After all of that, when we were just on the brink, Covid brought our plans to an immediate halt. Every month that went by had us feeling farther away from our dreams of becoming parents.
Meanwhile, the restaurant where I was a chef had all but shut down, and the entire season of weddings Jamie was scheduled to photograph were canceling one by one. So we stayed home, which we were lucky enough to do, diving hard into nesting as two Cancers are already prone to do. By summer Jamie and I had fallen into a sweet rhythm, making breakfast together in the mornings and spending our days coworking in our tiny cottage in North Portland. The dog and cat grew so used to having us home that they showed genuine disappointment when we would leave to grab groceries. On warm afternoons we worked in the garden, dirt-stained and sore from all the bending over, then made elaborate meals with our harvests. Jamie tackled the art of fresh pasta, and I perfected my homemade pizza dough.
Quietly accompanying us throughout all of that was the dull, persistent pain of missing the baby we wanted so badly. Jamie and I are both born parents. We are the aunties who spoil our niblings as much as possible, the two moms who threw our dog Isaac a Bark Mitzvah on his 13th birthday. Over the years we’ve looked on longingly as our friends grew their families, hoping our time would come soon. I’ve watched as my wife — the baby whisperer — has calmed those crying babies, and envisioned her calming and comforting our own child, knowing how safe they’d feel in her arms.
As my 40th birthday approached, our longing shifted to determination. Who knows how long this pandemic will last, we thought. We can’t put our life and dreams on hold forever. We thought about how many babies had been made accidentally this year by people who didn’t have to rely on science, didn’t have to buy sperm from the internet. We were reminded of the resiliency of birthing people and babies — how babies had forever been made during the most stressful and scariest of times, during war and famine and pandemics too. So we decided to try.
Queer baby making is as much magic as it is math and science. The math is everywhere, since everything has to be so planned out. The magic you have to remember to sprinkle in throughout the process. The evening we went in for our IUI, our box of frozen sperm sat waiting in the car for us to take to the doctor, while inside, we lit several candles on an altar my wife had put together. We closed our eyes and held hands and I sang the shehecheyanu, the blessing we say to give thanks before doing something new for the very first time.
We fell in love with our baby the minute we knew she was growing inside of me. We aren’t the type of people who can stay unattached to anything for too long. In Judaism there are superstitions surrounding unborn babies — we don’t buy things for them ahead of time, we don’t even say the usual mazal tov when someone is pregnant, we say b’shaha tova, “in a good hour,” until the baby is alive and well in the world. Because I had subscribed to these superstitions for so long, I thought I would be more quiet about our pregnancy. But I wanted to shout it from the rooftops, we were so ecstatic. We shared the news early with our loved ones because we needed their joy as much as they needed ours. We daydreamed about taking our baby to the coast and all the other beautiful places that are so important to us. We had names picked out, and in the evenings we scoured the internet for nursery furniture. Our world became centered around “when the baby’s here,” because we’re Jamie and Risa and that’s just how we are. We were already deeply in love with our newest family member. We called her Birdie.
And now, everything is broken. Three weeks ago we found out that our baby, who would have been 17 weeks gestation, had quietly died inside of me — and I had no idea.
The thing about miscarriage is that the word itself does no justice to the great tragedy that it is. It is often told in such a clean and tidy story that there is not even a mention of blood. But I am here to tell you that there is nothing clean and tidy about miscarriage. Miscarriage is more blood than you can ever imagine, for so long that I wondered many times if I was dying. It is laboring and having contractions for hours knowing that at the end we would not be walking away with our baby. It’s my wife staring at me in the ER, taking in every gory scene with palpable fear in her eyes that she might lose me too. At midnight on November 26, as we were fumbling to grab our things and get to the ER, I saw a glimpse of Jamie through the open bathroom door as I breathed through a contraction which ended with something bigger passing through me. I had just birthed our dead baby while squatting on our toilet, surrounded by blood and fear.
I knew that miscarriage was common, but I had no idea that 1 in 4 pregnancies ended in one. That made me feel slightly less alone, until I learned how incredibly uncommon it is to miscarry in the second trimester like we did. Only about 2% of miscarriages happen that far along, which made me feel even more alone. I didn’t know how consuming the grief would be, or that for weeks after I would have such strong phantom pains in my vagina from all the bleeding and passing of tissues that I would be scared to use the bathroom. Miscarriage is an invisible reminder of all the dreams that will never come to fruition, and sometimes simply breathing under the weight of it is the most I can manage.
In a brief moment of respite throughout that long night in the ER, Jamie was able to leave the hospital quickly to cover the blood-stained seat in our Subaru, and clean the bathroom in our home. She wiped the blood from the toilet and floor, and threw away the stained bath mat and towels, the physical reminders of what had taken place there. In the dark, early hours of the morning, while I lay in the hospital stable and preparing for surgery, she gently wrapped our baby Birdie in her hands and held her to her heart. This part breaks me most of all. The grace my wife showed me by sparing me having to come home to that scene. And the tender love she gave to our daughter, from both of us, showing her how deeply missed she already was, saying hello and goodbye to her at the same time.
Judaism is not a religion that shies away from darkness. The stories of our most horrifying and challenging times are retold over and over again, year after year. We are constantly reminded of all that we’ve overcome, of our resiliency. Maybe that’s part of why I feel so pulled to tell my story: the generational prayer that with every telling I will feel a renewed layer of strength or hope or trust — or any number of the things I lost in the aftermath of losing Birdie. That we will forever be reminded of how brave we were just to make it through these days.
There are very few things I know anymore, but I do know this: Birdie will always be a part of our Hanukkah story. We will think of her with each candle we light on our Hanukkiah, not just this year but for always, and we will hold her in our hearts as the flames grow brighter each night. I know that I will sing the prayers and be comforted by the familiar cadences and words, and that I will close my eyes, letting them wash over me, cleansing me in the way that I so desperately need. I know that I will dive into cooking and will make huge batches of latkes that will stain the house with the smell of fried potatoes. I know that I will make little packages of Hanukkah treats to deliver to my friends who we miss so much during this holiday, because caring for my community brings me such joy (and it’s not Hanukkah without latkes and the applesauce versus sour cream debate). My wife and I are even giving presents for the first time this year, because we want to spoil the shit out of each other in the wake of the hell we are currently surviving. I told Jamie that I’ll be making sufganiyot — the jelly-filled doughnuts so special to Hanukkah — even if it’s just for the two of us. I want to be bathed in all the familiar tastes and sounds and smells. I want it to bring us moments of solace even if they are met with moments of sadness.
Hanukkah is taught to us as the Festival of Lights. It emerges in the darkest, shortest days of the year providing a reprieve with its celebration of miracles. Growing up, we would always turn off all the lights before lighting the Hanukkiah, so we could see the flames more clearly against the dark of winter around us. And now my family is moving through a darkness like none we have ever experienced. As we mourn, so many friends and loved ones have told us that they are holding us in the light. I had never heard this expression before, but I feel it so viscerally now. I feel the warmth and the ease that it brings about. I feel it as we lean in harder to Hanukkah this year, not because Hanukkah is the most important or holy of Jewish holidays, but because we need every ounce of comfort we can find. Every parcel of light we can manage to hold alongside this deep darkness. Not that it will cure any of the pain, because nothing can do that. But because it will bring some temporary comfort so we can somehow, eventually, make our way through.