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A time for birth, a time for death; a time to mourn, a time to dance

On celebrating the most joyful of Jewish holidays while mourning a stillborn baby birthed just days earlier

We rushed into┬áthe emergency room. After telling the nurse at the entrance what the problem was, the attendants sat my wife in a wheelchair and took her to a side room for an ultrasound check. A few minutes later a doctor came out with my wife and a nurse. Approaching grim faced, he said “Your wife is fine but there is no movement in the womb. I’m sorry to say, but your baby is already dead.”

Both of us broke down and cried.

On Succot the birth pains began. Since this was my wife’s fourth pregnancy, she was not overly concerned. From her calculation she had anywhere from a day to two before the birth. It had been an extremely windy day on Succot. Our succah had been literally blown into our neighbor’s yard and destroyed. The whole house shook furiously and it rained most of the day. Between the weather and the worry of us getting the kids packed to go to Jerusalem, my wife failed to notice that the baby had ceased to move.

Upon arriving in Jerusalem at my wife’s parents’ house we unpacked the kids and suitcases and went for a walk in the nearby park to calm down. I asked my wife how she felt and if she was still having labor pains. She replied, saying that the labor pains had mysteriously ceased. I then hesitantly inquired if she had noticed any movements lately. She said no and I said “we have to go to the hospital now”.

Now we stood with a doctor and what turned out to be a social worker. Our options now were to have the doctor give my wife an injection to induce “birth” or a C-section. My wife was weeping, I was devastated. We chose to go through the birthing process knowing that there would be no miracle and no baby. The social worker gently escorted us to a room where we could be alone. There a nurse helped my wife into a bed and attached an infusion to her arm. We were told that the process could take several hours. We were a husband and wife and our shared grief.

This would have been our first joint child. Both of us had been married before, both of us had experienced the joys of seeing a child born. My wife had three children in quick succession: a birth each year three years in a row. I had two daughters by a previous marriage. My ex-wife and my daughters were now in the States and I was in an ugly struggle to insure that they came back to Israel. I met N after my divorce through mutual friends. Our first date was on “New Year’s Day,” by Purim we were engaged and by the end of the month of Av we were already married. By the time of the “birth,” we were married just over two years.

Alone together in the room we did not yet know the cause of death of the baby. Eventually the doctor would examine the placenta and the umbilical cord and we would know that the cause of death was a full knot in the umbilical cord that “strangled” the baby when the cord was “pulled” as the baby progressed down the cervix (birth canal). More pressing to us was the “why us?” We would never know why our baby died.

Faith is, perhaps naturally, not something that can be discussed rationally. To know that cases of stillborn death due to true knots in the umbilical cord occur very rarely doesn’t help you deal with why your baby is stillborn. The best we could do was to make the “birth” as easy as we could. So I massaged my wife, hugged her or held her hand while the birth pains became more frequent and sharper. We also talked about about our fears and hopes, about the children and our dreams. I even remember sharing, within our grief, moments of laughter and thankfulness for being able to forge a new family out of two “broken” ones.

As the moment of birth arrived, a midwife came to help my wife with the final push. Out came a small girl with a full head of dark hair. We held each other and wept.

The next day I, my brother and my father-in-law accompanied the hevre kadisha (burial society) from the hospital to Givat Shaul and the cemetery. Since the baby never lived, there was no ceremony. I held my daughter in my arms, hugged for the first and last time and placed her gently in a small shallow grave. There she is buried, in an unmarked grave, near a set of stairs looking over the barren hills of Jerusalem.

That year, we spent Simchat Torah at my wife’s parents’ synagogue. From mourning to the joy and dancing that is the signature of the day. I danced most of the day, most of the time with one of our children on my shoulders. Our youngest boy (then), L (then he was six years old), stood on my shoulders while I danced, circling around the room. My shoulders, might not have been so broad nor my legs so strong, but I would have to be a support for the children I had through hard times and good times for many years to come.

King Solomon in Ecclesiastes writes that there is a time for everything. To live and to die, to mourn and to dance. We do not know G-d’s calculation, but our faith helps us understand that life isn’t a series of probabilities but runs on some higher accounting. Faith doesn’t provide all the answers, but it allows us to believe that the answers are there but they are beyond our understanding. N and I would revisit the same hospital two years later for the birth of our son M: another son would be born two years after that. Still, we will always miss our daughter who was stillborn, amongst the joy which is our share.

Live joyfully with the wife whom thou lovest all the days of the life of thy vanity, which He hath given thee under the sun, all the days of thy vanity: for that is thy portion in this life, and in thy labour which thou takest under the sun.

Bad things happen, but to our limited abilities we can still choose life. We can still join the circle and dance with joy.

About the Author
Shlomo Toren has been a resident of Israel since 1980, and a transportation planner for the last 25 years. He has done demand modeling for the Jerusalem Light Rail and Road 6. He is married to Neera and lives in Shiloh.