Denver, CO — I may have killed my mother, my kombucha mother that is. As I left town, my friend gifted me a honey jar with a little starter juice and a slippery wax-colored slab of a bacteria and yeast colony, otherwise known as a scoby. This mother kombucha, if I took care of it, could be used to make a fermented sweetened tea good for digestion. I carefully placed it between my tent and a geranium. It’s funny what we choose to take when we transition into knew phases. The geranium in a pot from a close friend and the affectionally-dubbed booch were my only live companions. I bequeathed the geranium to a friend in Denver before heading off on the rest my road trip; the kombucha jiggled in the backseat. Through some odd initiative, I decided to see if I could drive through Wyoming without air conditioning. I suffered cold rain in Quebec and then hundred-plus degree heat in Georgia. My little colony of kombucha sloshed on only to be placed in the refrigerator upon my return to Denver. On a whim and feeling guilty about neglecting a gift, I decided to try making my own brew. It would be hit or miss as to whether or not I would soon see the kombucha colony feed off the sugars and reproduce, the old slab sloughing off a newly formed layer at the top of the jar. I nestled the jar quietly in a coat closet, expectant.
Around the same time, I was thinking about a friend who’d had a miscarriage earlier in the year, actually on her birthday. She’d waited the requisite weeks to tell people they were expecting. I was astonished to see an email from her asking for words of wisdom from other women. The women I’ve known who are expecting seemed adverse to any more advice. Another friend commented that, unlike natural disasters, there are emotional milestones in life – weddings, births – which we will never have the opportunity from which to properly debrief, namely, to name what we would like to do next time.
I admired the friend who was pregnant for her grace in putting herself into a position to accept opinions. She made plans; we made plans. Then it ended.
“It’s crazy,” she told me over the summer. “No one asks you about it. It’s this life-changing experience. People ask me how I’m doing but that’s it. That’s all they ask.”
I was noticing the kombucha wasn’t eating the concoction of tea and sugar in the jar. I turned it a little in the closet, wondering if the brown scum was new life or rot. I feared that I had a serious case of failure-to-thrive on my hands.
“People don’t ask me about the details,” my friend continued. “They tell you they’re sorry but they don’t ask me anything. It was so sad and we don’t talk about it. There wasn’t even that much information online.”
It is appalling, really. We ride the wave of excitement with our best girlfriends but then when things don’t work out, we fail them by pretending things are okay, or simply by being quiet. My friend and I attended a meeting right after her miscarriage. Everyone asked her how she was doing. She shrugged and said she was as okay as could be expected and the meeting went on without further questions. She sat alone with her experience, trying to concentrate while the conversation whirred around her.
What is it about our society that makes us feel like it’s okay to stifle curiosity into how a friend is doing when times are hard? Are we afraid of the bloody details or are we worried that a dear friend will show a negative emotion? Why do we fail to ask how far along someone was with their plans? Was the nursery set up? How is your partner taking it? How did you tell your family? When do you let yourself feel sorry? Another friend told me that the delight of having a baby is lost and, while they are excited if they get pregnant again, there is always a shadow. Why don’t we ask about the shadows?
Miscarriages aren’t new. And we aren’t experts on why they happen. If we were, people wouldn’t spend thousands of dollars trying to figure it out. One friend explained it like funnel. When you find out you are pregnant, your life narrows. You know how the next 20-plus years of your life will be. You will forever add “mom” to your identity. You can look out and say, yes, this is what I will be doing for a very long time, some longer than others, with all the successes and foibles along the way. Then, in a few hours, it’s over and you’re left with an emotional hangover. There was a glitch in the matrix, possibly not for the first time, and the funnel spits you back out into the open. Now what will your priorities be? Should you adopt? Or should you try harder? And how do you deal with the grief when no one will talk about it?
I researched kombucha and found out that the mother scoby should not go in the fridge. I was supposed to use filtered or distilled water. I’d used water out of the Brita only to find out later that my roommate never replaced the missing filter. I had such high hopes and now it was likely that I was not expecting.
When things don’t work out, we pause. In this pause we feel disappointment, possibly anger, definitely sadness. It’s natural. In other cultures, it’s okay to talk about miscarriages. My neighbor kids who are from Mexico regularly tell me that their mom always wanted ten kids. Before the last and tenth child, she had a miscarriage. She would’ve had twins. The family was there. They know how sad their mom was and they know there are a missing brother and sister who are part of their story. In a family that shares three rooms between 11 people, privacy doesn’t exist. I’ve seen parents hang out in their minivan after the kids go to bed just to drink a beer and listen to music in peace. The kids know exactly how much (or little) money their parents have and that they will probably work in the fields to contribute to this until they leave home. Do they feel pride? Or do they feel shame?
More attention is paid to the children of migrant farmworker families these days than before. This piece of their identity is recognized and there is a pride in the hard work of balancing school and work, being stigmatized the whole time for moving, and marginalized in the media and in our neighborhoods. They are working jobs that would break many of us. Over and over, I’m stunned by the questions the kids ask, as if it’s perfectly normal to ask how much someone makes or question if I’m lonely living alone. I have a feeling their mother sent them over to give herself some peace and also because she worried about me. But there is no fear in their culture to ask the hard questions. Even the babies who have died have a place in their story.
When you live close to each other, you have to ask questions. Are we living close with our girlfriends? Healthy curiosity is different than nosiness. My friend who described her miscarriage experiences like a funnel said one moment that struck her was when a friend said to her, “I heard you’ve been having a hard time and I’m sorry.” He’d gone through a miscarriage with his partner earlier this year. He knew how hard life felt. He recognized how difficult even little things, like her seeing his wife pregnant again, would be. They wept and my friend experienced someone knowing where she was in the world.
Teachers say the only dumb questions are the ones you don’t ask. Do we believe this? If so, when will we take this to heart and ask our girlfriends more than just how they are doing after a miscarriage? When will we bravely travel out of our culture of fear and try sitting with someone in their pain? We can pray and send good thoughts their way but what about using our words to ask someone their story?
I check the kombucha after a week. Brown strings hang off a growing layer of hardened slime. I’m not sure but maybe I haven’t killed the kombucha after all. I email my friend, I’m expecting! The booch lives! She shares my joy and writes back, congrats mama! And I feel a small success in the world. Another friend writes that she is pregnant again and telling everyone because she wants as much good energy as she can get – screw waiting through the required first trimester. Another friend has a child now and another is considering adoption.
In a world where, even with all medical expertise, things inexplicably go wrong, tragically wrong, we still have our humanity. I am here and so are you. The least I can do is say something. Our words are not lost and we can always say sorry if we say the wrong thing. If it’s your best friend, can’t you say, I feel awkward and I don’t know what to say but how are you? Mostly it’s about the questions; about taking time to be kindly curious. And, when there are no words to describe the pain, being comfortable with no answers.