Grieving the baby I lost, twenty-two years later

close-up of a fire, the flames sending sparks up against the night sky

Toa Heftiba via Unsplash

I named her Séma. In Anishinaabe this means tobacco. It’s a strange name for a child and not a name I would give a living child, but this little one died before she could be born, and tobacco is our most precious offering—a gift the Anishinaabe received from Creator. There are many stories. Stories about how this plant was special, about how it unexpectedly began to grow, how it started as a dream and a secret, how the medicine was not shared at first. And now it is our plant of offering. We give it to the fire, along with our prayers, before ceremony. We place it on the ground along with prayers for protection when we travel and prayers of gratitude when we return. We say, “prayers up and tobacco down” when we want family and community to know we’ve placed offerings on their behalf. We leave prayers in the form of little tobacco piles all over the place—in fires, beside plants, in rivers, and oceans. Séma. Our most precious offering. 

There is no way for me to biologically know the sex of my child. I lost the pregnancy so early. I didn’t even know I was pregnant, but I feel the spirit of my baby. I have felt her for a long time. And my Séma, my offering, was a girl. She has been with me for decades. I didn’t understand who she was. I thought she was my future child. I thought, One day I’m going to have a daughter. I have seen her. This chubby-cheeked brown baby with big brown eyes who looked so much like young me. I would see her face while I walked through the woods, when I was out on the boat with my parents, while I made dinner. I saw her wrapped in a lavender blanket. Then in my thirties, I stopped seeing her, and I thought my opportunity to have my own child was behind me. 

For years I have been going to doctors. For pain and fatigue and inflammation and thyroid and blood sugar and on and on. Doctors, massage therapists, physical therapists, nurse practitioners, reiki masters, energy workers, Indigenous healers. And I am routinely asked, whether on a form or in person, “Have you ever been pregnant?” And I would always respond, with confidence, “No.” Once a massage therapist asked a second time, her hands on my lower belly, “Are you sure? I feel scar tissue.” And I laughed and said no, because wouldn’t a person know if they had been pregnant?

Then my current therapist, a somatic therapist, repeats to me what many before have said: “I feel like I’m working on a pregnant belly.” Here we go again, I think.

“There is some big trauma,” she says. “A cord thick like a carrot that attaches to you, but I can’t see what it is or what is at the other end.” 

That night, lying in bed trying to fall asleep, my mind going and going, I wonder about this carrot. It reminds me of my birth mother, Karen, who loved to cook, who (I’m told) could cook up a masterpiece meal with whatever odds and ends she found in the refrigerator. I imagine her cooking a stew full of carrots. Then my mind flashes on a memory of me around age twenty-two. This was twenty-two years ago. 

I was in bed with my boyfriend at the time and woke up in the middle of the night covered in my own blood. The room was dark, but I could feel the wet around me. I was wearing a T-shirt and cotton underwear. I didn’t know what was happening. Why everything was wet. I had that dazed, middle-of-the-night feeling. I pulled back the covers and saw blood. There must have been some light in the room because I remember the red. And there was a lot of it. Under me, around me, on me. Soaked into the sheets, spreading out close to my boyfriend, who was still asleep. I had never seen so much blood. 

I had only been free from an eating disorder for one year, maybe less. It began at age fourteen, sometime during my freshman year of high school, and lasted into my first couple years of college when I finally managed to heal myself at age twenty-one. Up to that point, anorexia was the hardest thing I had handled in my life. I did not have body dysmorphia. What I know now is that I had an undiagnosed, untreated anxiety disorder. And when panic overtook me, which happened often during high school (new people; peer pressure; boys; changing hormones; an introverted, sensitive, and feeling nature), I couldn’t eat. If I managed to swallow any food, I would gag and gag, which was embarrassing and created more intense panic and sometimes led to vomiting. My mind made sense of this nausea by telling me food made me sick. I thought, I won’t be sick if I don’t eat. And very quickly, anorexia took hold.

When people with uteruses go long enough without food, they do not bleed. At the age of twenty-two I was not very experienced with my own menstrual cycle. I had begun bleeding at thirteen and a year later had a full-blown eating disorder. For seven years there was not enough weight on my body to maintain a regular cycle. I was lucky if I bled once a year. By the time I was twenty-two and about a year free of anorexia, my doctor had been trying to kick-start my cycle with birth control pills. It hadn’t worked yet. I would not have noticed a skipped period because there was no regularity to my bleeding. So when I woke up with blood-soaked sheets, a pool spreading around me, fresh and red, my first thought was not miscarriage; it was I guess I started my period. I didn’t know what was normal for me and what wasn’t. 

I gently nudged my boyfriend. “Wake up. There’s blood.”

“What?” he said, opening his eyes. 

“I started my period. There’s blood.”

He was angry. Really angry. He was always angry. A mentally and emotionally abusive partner. We had been together two years at this point. I don’t remember anything else he said, only his rage at being told to wake up. 

“We have to change the sheets,” I said. And we got out of bed. He didn’t let me turn on the light, and he refused to help with the sheets. I changed them in the dark while he watched, his eyes on my back. The weight of his glare between my shoulders, on my neck. He said nothing about the amount of blood. I don’t remember if I did either. I was scared by it; I thought it was strange and unusual, but I didn’t say anything. Did this happen to other people when they got their period? 

When I look back on that night I think about how any reasonable person, any caring partner, would have suggested a trip to the emergency room or at least insisted on seeing a doctor the next day. But my boyfriend only wanted fresh sheets so he could go back to sleep.

He was back in bed before I was. Asleep by the time I returned. What had I done in that time? I must have cleaned myself up, changed my underwear and maybe my T-shirt. I would have put on a pad. Was I still bleeding? And what did I do with the bloody sheets? Did I put them in the wash? Did I take them to the trash? I wish I could remember. I wish I knew where she had ended up. 

Remembering that night at age forty-four instead of twenty-two—I now know I had never bled like that before and have never bled like that since. In more than three decades of having a menstrual cycle, this type of hemorrhage, this rush of blood has only happened once. Lying in bed, unable to sleep, thinking of the conversation with my therapist, the knowledge comes over me in a swell. My whole body knows, remembers, realizes it had never been a period. It was a miscarriage. A pregnancy lost. For a brief time, I was a mother. For a brief moment in my life, there was a baby who was part of my body. A baby who belonged to me. 

One of the biggest sorrows in my life has been never having children. What I have wanted most, since I was a child, was to be a mother. Maybe I have wanted motherhood because I am adopted. Because I have longed for biological connection and belonging. Longed to see my own eyes staring back at me. I have grieved long and hard that motherhood has remained elusive. Suddenly remembering—twenty-two years later—that there had once been a life, once been the potential for motherhood, broke me. Now, everything I thought I knew about myself and who I am in the world has shifted. Like the plates of the earth after an earthquake. Everything has moved over a little. And maybe the people at the surface can’t see it, but I feel it. The world is different. I am different. 

When I close my eyes at night there is Séma. My little Indigenous baby. The continuation of our story, my family’s story. My little girl, taken from me by the ancestors. I believe they looked at twenty-two-year-old me and said, “Not again.” They saw the abusive relationship I felt trapped in, the self-hatred, the chaos and fear in my home and said, “No.” They were not going to let another one of their daughters grow up in violence. And they saw what I was dreaming for myself. They saw my efforts in school, they saw my dreams of writing, they saw my deep love of spiritual life, and they wanted me to have the chance to follow my purpose as far as I could take it. So they took her. They took my baby as an offering. A sacrifice that had to be made for generational healing. A sacrifice for their own healing. A sacrifice on behalf of all the daughters in my family who have not had our mothers. They did not ask me. They did not give me a choice. Did they know I would never have another chance to have a child? 

Séma was not raised by me, then, but by my ancestors. By her ancestors. They know each other in a way I do not know any of them. And my body, my chronically ill, chronically tired body, has known both life and death. Both are part of my DNA. Maybe someday, when I am living at those ancestral fires next to my mother and grandmothers and my daughter, it will make better sense. For now, I grieve the loss. For now, I am angry they took her.


3 comments have been posted.

thank you for allowing us to know her and you. And to the 22 year old- May she know, she is deeply cared for and loved so many. Held by all the aunties, sisters, and beloved people in a warm bed, with a hot pack, settling soup, soothing tea, and someone braiding her hair. Knowing that the sheets were hand washed and the water poured into the earth near a place she can find you and you always come back to. loving you & baby girl Séma.

Sheena | January 2024 |

Gorgeous. Profound. Thank you for sharing. '

Saundra Goldman | January 2024 |

so beautiful and moving. thank you for sharing a piece of you with the world. a warrior.

PM | January 2024 | L.A.

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