As I sat under the glistening tent I nervously fingered the blue Yizkor booklet a kind elderly volunteer handed to me moments before the service began. Yizkor is the public memorial service shared 4 times each year during significant Jewish holidays. As a child I remember looking forward to Yizkor services because all who were not saying the prayer were ushered in to the hall. It was a break and as I got older I always hoped the young man I had a burning crush on would talk to me for a few minutes. He was tall, blonde, handsome, charming and I was madly in crush with him. His name was Michael. Not the same Michael I am married to today, but I always had a soft spot for boys with the name Michael. Even my first real boyfriend was named Michael, yet another in my line. But I digress. It is much more fun to talk about my Michael’s then to remember the emotion I wish to share today.
As a child I also remember that I played a very significant role following the Yizkor service. I was there to comfort my mother. My mother lost both of her parents within a year of one another. The first time you say Yizkor, and for many the only reason to say Yizkor, is to honor and raise up the spirit of the parents you have lost. I am so blessed to have all of my parents but this year I lost one very dear to me. I lost my baby boy at 15 weeks gestation.
Monday. July 22nd. In the afternoon. I stared at the screen of the ultrasound machine as the kind woman running the machine with deep sadness in her voice said those words, the words that play over and over in my head, “Oh honey, I’m so sorry, there is his heart and it’s not beating any more.” My own heart felt like it stopped beating at that moment and the weeks that have followed have been focused on grief, mourning and learning how to move toward the future. Our story had taken a twist that I did not want to recognize.
This particular Saturday as I sat under the tent was the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur. The most revered holiday of all for many in the Jewish faith as it signifies the culmination of the year behind us. We pray for forgiveness of the wrong doings of the year past, we take stock in a year well lived, or a year we may have done more with. We reflect on all that happened to us and we hope, in unison as a community around the world, that each of us shall be inscribed in the book of life for a year of piety, progress and plenty. It is also a day which for many in the Jewish community a 25 hour fast – no food, no water, no substance passing your lips – is observed. It is a solemn day.
I have always loved this holiday because on this day 30 years ago my first sister was born. It was, until that point in my young life, the best thing that had ever happened to me. I celebrated the day and even today felt joy remembering what a blessing came to the earth on a Yom Kippur another life time ago.
8 weeks. 8 weeks ago, I was full of joy and anticipation. Today I sat empty. My body has begun to return to a pre-pregnancy shape but my heart remains shattered and empty, longing for the little baby growing inside of my body. I have been seeking a closure of sorts. I have been seeking a way to feel that I have honored my son as a member of my family who is respected and who has made an impact just like his brothers and sister. I decided that saying the Yizkor prayer would help me elevate a soul who’s physical presence was felt solely by me.
Before the holiday I agonized about whether my participating in the prayer was disrespectful in some ways to my parents and to the others in the service. I know that so many women have suffered the loss of a pregnancy and I knew of no others who had participated in the ritual of Yizkor. Was I making a mockery of the prayer? I agonized over my decision all the way up until the Rabbi began to prepare us for the service. I figured to myself that no one knew for whom I was saying Yizkor and it could be a personal private moment. That was until the Rabbi asked us to take a few moments to turn to our neighbors and share a special memory we had of the person or people for whom we were reciting the prayer. I began to panic.
The people in my row began to share about their parents long gone, their spouses who had passed too young, the woman next to me lost her spouse the year I was born. Everyone in the row had spoken and my neighbor turned to me. “Who are you reciting the prayer for dear?” I looked at them, grateful for an outdoor service providing me the opportunity to hide behind my sunglasses, and started to speak.
“This is my first time saying the Yizkor…” was all I could get out before I began to sob. The group began to comfort me, telling me it would get easier and all I kept thinking was that they did not know why I was here and would they feel I was less than, or did not belong here. I had chosen this particular service to attend on purpose. The gathering of community was brought to the Denver Botanic Gardens by Judaism Your Way. Their mantra: Wherever you are on your Jewish journey, we will meet you there. I knew that I was welcome by the organizers to say whatever prayers I needed to say to heal, but how would the “congregants” feel?
I gathered myself together enough to finish my sentence, “I’m here to say Yizkor for the baby I lost just shy of 8 weeks ago.” I was shaking, the chest shaking that happens when I am trying so desperately to hold back the sobs. It occurred to me that I had not cried about losing my baby in over 2 weeks.
The women in the group looked at me with deep caring and concern, half smiles of knowing on their faces. The man asked me what the baby’s name was. I was almost embarrassed to tell them. Since I did not have the opportunity to bury my baby because of the way my procedure was handled I never gave him a name. I answered shyly, “We called him Peanut…” I had so much I wanted to share about this baby I loved and wanted so desperately but all I could get out was to share a dream I recently had about him. In this dream I had died and for the first time I met Peanut. He was an adorable and happy little boy. He came up to me and hugged me and then, the first words out of his mouth, “Ma, Peanut? Really? You couldn’t come up with a better name?” He was definitely a child of mine!
We all had a nice chuckle and then the women in the group shared their own pregnancy loss experiences. They too had been there, or their parents had. They comforted me. They welcomed me. And as I sobbed through the words of the prayers I knew that I was safe to pray for peace for the little soul who left too soon.
One prayer we read from the prayer book On Wings of Awe was particularly poignant for me:
“It is hard to speak of oneness when our world is not complete, when those who once brought wholeness to our life have gone, and naught but memory can fill the emptiness their passing leaves behind.
But memory can tell us only what we were, in company with those we loved; it cannot help us find what each of us, alone, must now become.
Yet no person is really alone; those who live no more echo still within our thoughts and words, and what they did has become woven into what we are.
We do best homage to our dead by living our lives fully even in the shadow of our loss. For each of our lives is worth the life of the whole world. In each one is the breath of the Ultimate One.
In affirming the One, we affirm the worth of each one whose life, now ended, brought us closer to the Source of Life, in whose union no person is alone and every life finds purpose.”
As I read the words “We do best homage to our dead by living our lives fully even in the shadow of our loss.” I understood what I must do and the marching orders I have. Throughout the services in this beautiful tent surrounded by the waterfalls and flowers of the vast gardens an orange and black butterfly flitted in and out around my seat. A message, perhaps, from Peanut that all is well and beautiful for him and will be for me as well.
Yizkor. I remember the feeling of his presence in my body. I remember the excitement and ecstasy of seeing his little heartbeat on the screen. I remember how he waved to us and hiccuped during his ultrasound appointment. I remember the sheer joy he brought to me, his father, his siblings and to all who learned about his existence. I remember, and hold strong, the love and connection we forged as he grew inside of me. In honor of his memory I move forward, I seek joy and I work to make an impact.
Written with exceptional gratitude to Rabbi Brian Field and to Don and Sue Sturm, the founders of Judaism Your Way, for creating a space that is safe for all who wish to express their Judaism.