If you could stop time, would you?
'Close your eyes,' she says, 'and remember the happiest moment of your life. Now imagine yourself back in that moment. Now, imagine you have a choice. You may opt to stay in your moment forever. Should you do so, time will stand still. You will not age; anyone alive now will not die. If you are pregnant, you will stay pregnant forever. The weather will never change.
'Your other choice is, you may eat your apple, in which case you will move on from your moment, leave paradise. You and others will age and die, experience all varieties of weather, all aspects of life.'
Given the choice, I’d forgo my apple. I’d let time freeze on October 30, 1999, the day my friend Elaine got married. Here is a picture of the whole party: bride and groom in the center, surrounded by bridesmaids, groomsmen, and the obligatory kids, flower girl and ring bearer.
In our snapshot, Mary, the maid of honor, stands to the left of the bride. She is all smiles. She has all her hair. Five months after the wedding, Mary will be dead, her hair lost to chemotherapy. On that October day, she does not know she has cancer. If I could stop time, Mary would still be here. If I could stop time, Dan, the bridegroom, would not have lost his job and fallen into a severe depression three months after the wedding. He would be as he is in the photograph: grinning as he towers over his bride. The bridesmaid to the bride’s right is pregnant with her second child, just beginning to show. I am that bridesmaid, and if I could stop time, I would not miscarry two weeks from the day of this wedding.
This is the story of that child who was not to be.
It is late on a Friday afternoon in September. I am at home, preparing for our family’s Sabbath, or Shabbat. Although we are not Orthodox, my family and I keep Shabbat regularly. Tonight is Erev Rosh Hashanah, the eve of the Jewish New Year, as well as Shabbat. After dinner, my husband, Wade, and I serve our guests challah and apples dipped in honey, a wish for a sweet new year. Then we all go to temple to pray; afterwards, we hug our friends and wish them 'Shana tova,' a good year. We linger outside the temple. Although it is September, it feels like late May. The perfect night to conceive a second child.
I should explain, because I am proud of this. We Jews are not an ascetic people. It is actually a mitzvah, a commandment, to make love with your spouse, and a double mitzvah to do so on Shabbat. If a child is conceived in the process, what could be better? So after we put our son Gabriel to bed, I pray that God will bless us.
Two weeks later, it has happened: a positive pregnancy test. To say I am ecstatic would be a gross understatement. The next day Wade and I take Gabriel out to lunch.
'Mommy is going to have a baby,' Wade tells him.
'Good!' says Gabriel.
It is a hard pregnancy, harder than with Gabriel, but everyone says there is a much lower incidence of miscarriage among women who have morning sickness than among those who don’t. I repeat this as a mantra since I feel pretty green most of the time.
Then there is Elaine’s wedding to plan for. Mary drives Gabriel and me to the wedding, talking cheerfully on the way about her upcoming nurse practitioner board exams, her sister-in-law’s pregnancy. It’s a perfect wedding, a warm, sunny day. Perfect pictures: bride and groom kiss; bride embraces maid of honor; ring bearer (Gabriel) walks down the aisle. I do. Click. Freeze!
Freeze, goddamn it!
Two weeks later, I am storming through the house, kicking Legos and toy trains out of my path, yelling at my husband and son. 'I’m at the end of my rope,' I announce that evening. 'I’m happy to be pregnant, but damned tired of feeling sick all the time. And I can’t stand having this damn thing around my neck!'
I practically rip off the beautiful pendant Wade gave me for our 15th anniversary last year. It’s in the shape of a mezuzah, a Jewish ornamental prayer scroll used to remind us of the presence of God.
Twenty-four hours later, I need no reminder.
What I need is a new law of physics. When I was little, I learned the Law of Falling Bodies from a story about Galileo. In the story, Galileo climbs to the top of the Tower of Pisa, drops a ten-pound sphere and a one-pound sphere, and watches as the two land at the same time. Well, it’s just that: a story, both apocryphal and scientifically inaccurate. The two objects would have landed simultaneously only if they had fallen in a vacuum.
But now I need to account for falling bodies. I see blood, just a few drops. As a mother-to-be, I’ve never asked what holds the seed of new life in place in my womb, never feared the hold might be precarious.
Is my baby falling? I am hurtling into space; I keep gulping, can’t get air.
'Light bleeding, Cora?' my midwife, Kelly, asks over the phone. Her voice is an oasis of calm. 'You’re probably okay, but for peace of mind, why don’t you come in tomorrow morning and we’ll listen for the heartbeat. All right?'
Sure, but should I lie down now? Put my feet up? According to Newton’s law, gravity pulls objects toward the earth, but can’t a mother prevent that by putting her feet up? That’s where my science turns out to be apocrypha; Kelly says if the baby has started to abort, it’s already dead. 'But you’re probably okay,' she reminds me. 'I’ll see you tomorrow, first thing.'
We’re probably okay. And now the bleeding has stopped. Reassured, I get a good night’s sleep.
But in the morning it’s back. Red flag. Hard to breathe. Wade holds me, helps me ready Gabriel for school. Breakfast, brush teeth, prayers. I try to thank God for life in my belly, but the words stick in my throat.
'Sometimes in this early phase it’s hard to pick up the heartbeat,' says Kelly, removing the Doppler from my stomach. 'Let’s go see what the ultrasound can tell us.'
A few minutes later, Kelly says, 'Cora, I see your little baby, and I’m afraid it’s not moving.'
Dr. Newman comes in, looks at the screen carefully, takes in the baby from different angles, and says, simply, 'No.'
Jews have a blessing for every occasion. You heard good news? Say, 'Praised are You, God, who is good and beneficent.' Someone has died? You say, 'El Dayyan emet,' God is a true judge, acknowledging the rightness of all God does, even what feels horribly wrong. Jewish law also mandates that a mourner tear the garment she’s wearing closest to her heart, to reflect the sundering caused by death.
I rip at my shirt and cry, 'El Dayyan emet!'
Like Galileo’s mythic spheres, we do not fall in a vacuum. A day after the miscarriage, Wade’s parents are with us, and when they leave my mother takes over, showing us that we are not alone in grieving the loss of our baby. Friends from temple make us a beautiful memorial service. Just when I decide I need a book of psalms in Hebrew and English, a friend brings one.
My friend Jean, a poet, suffered two miscarriages and never had a child. She knows grieving. 'It’s a very orderly process,' she tells me. 'You don’t have to do anything, just let it carry you.'
I do, and it is. There are times designated—not by me—to cry, eat, sleep, pray, write, wake up and cry more. Toward the end of that first week, I know the baby’s name: Ori, Hebrew for 'my light.' I do not name the baby but inexplicably learn the name, and then cry again, realizing whom I’ve lost. I go through the process, discover the truth about falling bodies: They need only surrender to the fall.
And here it is Friday afternoon. Normally, dinner would be coming along in preparation for Shabbat. But tonight I have no idea what we will eat; we have invited no guests. After dinner at a pizzeria, we go home and set up the Shabbat candles, cover the challah, say the blessings. I read Gabriel his bedtime stories, tuck him in. Then I change clothes for temple. I need time with God. My faith, while still intact, is tarnished by fear of what God can do.
I arrive home to find Wade and Gabriel asleep, the Sabbath candles almost completely burned. I put away the challah and its cover and plate.
So, Adonai, my God, who gives and takes away life: My family has made you a Sabbath, of sorts. A strange Sabbath, but I guess You’re used to that, what with people plagued by war, disease, and death. Tonight’s is not much of a Sabbath, but it is what we have to give You.
About that apple: I’m relieved no one has offered it. What if someone had given me that choice years ago? Perhaps I’d have frozen time before my father’s death and would not have lost him. But neither would my son have come into the world. And as for freezing time before my miscarriage, pregnancy is not meant to be permanent. Mary’s death is a harder one; she was a vital young woman, a wonderful friend. If I could keep her around by not eating an apple, I would.
How must Adam and Eve have felt, leaving the Garden after eating their apple? Cast out, naked, they did not know where to turn, or what would become of them. But then perhaps they tasted more apples and realized how delicious they were.
I step outside the wedding photo, into what comes next.
From Brain, Child (Fall 2001) Subscriptions: $18/yr (4 issues) from Box 714, Lexington, VA 24450.