Then I Smelled Poppies

I closed the car door
And gazed at the hospital
Then I smelled poppies

I went to the hospital yesterday, where I’ll be working during the summer, to complete some final tasks before my internship starts. I parked on the street, and as I was inserting the quarters into the meter, I smelled it: poppies.

I have only one memory of ever seeing a poppy in real life. We were in Greece, hiking up the hill at Delphi, and I spotted the papery red flower all by itself in the grass. Amidst the mighty ruins of temples and stadiums, here stood this poppy: delicate, defiant.


As part of our goodbye ritual for our first due date, we burned a wild poppy scented candle while listening to a song about ruins and death. The wild poppy candle from Method is actually pretty hard to find, so I bought a few just in case Method discontinues the scent. I burn the candle every morning when I sit down at my desk, partly as a way to memorialize what would have been, and partly as a flame of inspiration for what I’m sitting down at the desk for. The candle burns as I write this.

Because of the frequent burning, I know the smell well, and so when I exited my car, thinking about where I needed to go once I entered the hospital, I stopped in my tracks at the smell. I knew that smell anywhere. I looked around at the patches of grass next to the street for poppies, but I didn’t see them. I looked up at the trees and wondered if there were such things as poppy trees, and if so, were these it?

I still don’t know where the smell was coming from or if my candle is even remotely accurate to the smell of actual poppy flowers or the scent was just similar to something nearby. But I smelled the poppies even as I looked up at the multi-floor hospital in front of me.

It wasn’t this particular hospital, but it was medical enough to remind me of my hospital visits. I went to the ER for my first miscarriage, panicked at the sight of blood in my underwear—so much blood—unsure of what was happening, confused by the many people who came in and out of my nook of the ER. Blood work, physical examinations—humiliating examinations—all to be told that yes, you are having a miscarriage, I’m so sorry, it’s just tissue at this point, it’s okay to cry.

Two other times I went to the hospital, but not in a traumatic, blood-soaked frenzy, but rather in a stoic, solemn procession. I was far enough along that the doctor gave me the option of going to sleep pregnant and waking up not pregnant—no angry cramping, no unexpected blood stains. I said yes to those options without even thinking because if I had learned anything about pregnancy, it was that I didn’t have any control over what happens. This was a way I could have control.

I didn’t think about the irony of me working in a hospital this summer until yesterday, until the poppies.

I had thought about helping people in grief, sitting with tears, listening to the ramblings of a person in shock, but I didn’t think about the setting.

My first semester at seminary, I kept thinking, “I am at seminary because I didn’t have a baby.” And that’s true. I won’t rewrite history. But I stay at seminary not because I continue to be childless, but because the minister in me has awakened after a long sleep. Her growth has been stunted by such long suppression, and she needs tending to. Maybe I am birthing a new life, a life that has been part of me but I didn’t know until physical birth seemed such an improbability for me.

I stood in front of the hospital yesterday with nothing in my belly except fire. There was no unforeseen blood, but there was the smell of poppies. I wasn’t filled with dread and sorrow, but rather hope and expectancy. Maybe it was a coincidence. Maybe I don’t know my scents like I thought I did. But I prefer to think with a little magic. My life has been filled with too much of the destruction of imagination these past two years that I am wary when hope springs up like a lone flower in the midst of ruins, but here it is: delicate, defiant hope.

Part of me wants to jump to conclusions and determine what the smell of poppies means as I entered the hospital to begin a new phase of my life. Another part of me wants to leave it be. Let the poppies and the hospitals coexist without having to mean anything to each other.

I have talked a lot about being hesitant to make any sort of claim on miscarriages and the good that has pushed its way out of the anguish, and I still hold fast to this hesitation. But I am comfortable saying one thing. When I got out of my car yesterday and smelled the poppies, I did not feel sad. I did not feel like I was making a mistake or betraying the memory of the babies-that-would-have-been (a feeling that I have had often). Instead, I felt warm and hopeful and light. I don’t know what that means or if it means anything. But I will take feeling warm and hopeful and light. It has been so long since I felt that.

The flame flickers soft
Scents of wild poppy rise
Fire: Burns and births


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