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.

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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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Am I Thankful I Was Pregnant?

Awhile back at church, we sang a song that had the line, “The cross is the way to joy.”

The first verse talks about Mary, and asks whether she was thankful for being pregnant with Jesus even though she knew she would have to lose him to death. This got me thinking for the days that followed: Am I grateful I was pregnant even though they ended in loss? Would it have been better if I had not been pregnant?

I have hesitated to ask anything resembling this question because I did not want to enter the terrible theology that comes with responses to loss like “It was God’s will” (then God’s will sucks) or “Blessing in disguise” (wtf) or “God had other plans” (I prefer the first plan—I thought God was pro-life) or “God wanted to bring me closer” (surely God is smarter than thinking that killing the thing I love will make me want to hang out with God) or “God needed another angel” (God is God—make an angel out of something else) or “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” (what doesn’t kill you immediately can still kill you slowly, daily, with each new pregnancy announcement, negative pregnancy test, and fruitless trip to the doctor) or any of that other garbage. I say this lovingly. Theology that points to dead babies and says “God is in control!” as a first response is not good theology. I cannot stress this enough. But I am getting away from my question.

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Am I thankful that I was pregnant even though the pregnancies ended in death?

Am I a masochist if I say yes? Am I faithless if I say no?

Well, I am grateful for the sojourn that has resulted from the fruitless pregnancies.

I am grateful for the depth that has come from grief’s deep cut.

I am grateful for the strength that has come from weakness and despair.

I am grateful for experiencing the mystery and wonder that comes from a sonogram and morning sickness and two pink lines. It’s like a part of the universe has just been illuminated and opened up, and though I don’t get to walk in that part right now, I have seen it.

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I am grateful for the way that pregnancy and subsequent loss have made me think about the transcendent.

I am grateful for the way that pregnancy and subsequent loss shuffled things into different perspectives, though the shuffle was bloody and painful and not the dance I envisioned.

I am grateful for the way that pregnancy made me desire both motherhood and a career. I am grateful for the way loss has expanded my view of both of those desires.

I am grateful for the way that pregnancy has made me think about God’s womb, God as a mother, too, and God as a grieving parent. I read a piece of theology this semester that described the suffering of the cross as not just the suffering of Jesus, but also the suffering of God, a parent who lost a child.

I am grateful for the way loss has made me ask questions about providence, doubt, faith, and the meaning of life. The change and loss of an existence tends to prompt existential questions.

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I can’t imagine pregnancy without loss at this point. I simply do not know it. That experience has not been opened to me, so it is hard for me to say simply, “I am grateful that I was pregnant.” And I still cannot say, “I am grateful for my miscarriages,” and I’m not sure I need to.

But I do think that I can be grateful that beauty has come out the dark, formless void. When I was in Europe last spring, the phrase “watery grave” kept coming to my mind in regards to my womb. I held not only death inside me, but also a tomb, a deathbed, a haunted place.

As God’s Spirit hovered over the waters of the earth, so, too, God hovers over the empty, lifeless waters of my womb, my life, and is creating, is teaching me to create. Perhaps we are creating something different than I had always planned. I read somewhere that creating is “making something beautiful out of shit.” Maybe that’s what we’re doing.

God, having lost a child, comes beside me, and says, “This is how we do this, reckoning with loss.”

I am grateful for a suffering God, a mothering God, a God for those who leave and those left behind.

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I am grateful for a nuanced understanding of loss and grief and God’s (lack of?) role in it. I am grateful for the dissatisfaction that came with answers I previously thought were sufficient.

I am grateful for the cross of pregnancy and loss, for liminal space, for waiting room vibes.

So I suppose I am grateful I was pregnant.*

I wrote the following a few months ago as I was sitting in a church that was not my own, listening to a sermon about this passage in Philippians, a verse so often appropriated by sports teams and people who do not know what “all things” means, and I was grateful for the perspective that Christ is not so much an empowerer but a companion. Christ does not tell us to “Man up” or “rub some dirt on it” but rather gets underneath the cross we carry and helps us carry it and sits alongside us in the dirt when we get tired.

“I know what it’s like to be pregnant, and I know what it’s like to be not pregnant anymore. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.

I know what it is to desire pregnancy; I know what it is to fear it. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.

I know what it’s like to see the heartbeat on an ultrasound, and I know what it’s like to hear the words, ‘There is no heartbeat.’ I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.

I know what it’s like to feel joy when a friend announces her pregnancy, and I know what it’s like to feel envy, resentment, and sorrow. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.

I know what it’s like to barely get through the day because I have the ultimate secret, and I know what it’s like to barely get through the day because I carry the ultimate grief. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”

Philippians 4:12-13, my application

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*This is my own personal experience and reflection. I do not believe that one woman’s experience with reproductive loss is prescriptive for all women. If a woman has a different response to miscarriage, that is completely okay, healthy, and welcomed. We are all just trying to navigate life with empty wombs. There is no one right way to do so.