Learning the Language of Life
by Khouria Faith Potter
In late summer 2018, a few days after my husband and I had moved to our new home, we went to an ultrasound at 11 weeks pregnant and found out that our baby was dead. Before pregnancy, I had no idea how quickly I would become attached to my growing child and how devastating a miscarriage would be. I had experienced the loss of a number of family and friends, but this death felt so different. It happened to my developing baby inside my own body. My life plunged quickly from nervous, otherworldly joy to feeling numb and split open. As a trained counselor, I was surprised to find that I was exhibiting PTSD symptoms. I have never felt more broken than I have in the months following my miscarriage. There were so many little, new griefs popping up all the time, like happening upon the baby aisle in an unfamiliar store and holding a tiny, soft-bristled brush and a pacifier and grieving how I’d never know the color of my baby’s hair or get to hear my baby cry. I counted the weeks since the miscarriage in the same way I had marked the weeks of my pregnancy. Time felt like it was just taking me further away from my baby, whom my husband and I named Olive.
The week after our loss, my husband was ordained to the priesthood. I had pictured taking time and space to pray and prepare well for this big step for us, but my grief was so fresh and heavy; I didn’t know how to pray in the dense fog of it. I just felt crushed and empty. When I would try to pray, I would end up weeping and just trying to turn my heart towards God, asking that He would keep it open and soft. Looking back now, I see those raw times with the Lord as incredibly beautiful and fruitful. I was too tired to pretend I was doing things in my own strength. I don’t say that to be self-deprecating, but to say that I see now that there was no better preparation I could have had for the new role in the Church I was stepping into than that brokenness before the Lord and sorrowful rest in Him.
When my husband and I returned from the hospital, there was a lovely greenery dish garden waiting for us that my parents had sent. It became such a bright spot in our home. Eventually, to keep the plants from dying due to overcrowding and lack of drainage, I realized I would have to repot them all, but I knew nothing about gardening or plant care. Whenever I had been given plants before, I felt panicked because I knew I’d just eventually kill them. This time, though, I took time to familiarize myself with the individual plants and their specific needs. I learned how to carefully transfer them to new pots, and at first as I felt the soil on my hands and then as I watched my plants adjust to their new homes and begin to sprout new leaves and buds, I felt joy gently resuming its place in my heart in ways I hadn’t anticipated. I became so thankful that God had this deep and rich language of life He was speaking to me when I was grieving the loss of it. St. John of Damascus said “The whole earth is a living icon of the face of God.” Gardening has become a way for me to experience more of God and understand the wisdom of seasonal living. It’s also made me feel more awe for the mystery of new life and realize what a grace it is. There was one plant that was done flowering for the year and seemed to be dying, no matter what I did for it. As a last effort, I set it outside and left it alone, and a few weeks later it was green and growing and even began to bloom in full again with its dozens of tiny, yellow flowers, though it wasn’t supposed to bloom again until the following year. I moved that plant to my prayer corner for a while, because it spoke so eloquently to me of God’s goodness and my inability to control or predict it.
One evening in autumn as my sweet husband and I were cleaning up from dinner, I set aside an avocado pit. Out of curiosity, I cleaned it and placed it in a glass of water and set it on the kitchen windowsill. For the last several months, I have watched as the knife marks on it slowly healed and as the seed itself began to gradually split open. Over the last month, a little sprout has been growing in the middle of the broken place.
That growth is happening slowly, because it’s winter, and we live far north. The light now is dimmer and shorter than any winter I’ve experienced before; the darkness seems so prevalent. The lack of light is hard on the plants, and I’ve watched them struggle. I’ve seen how they’ve prepared for this, though. Most of them have stopped growing new stems or leaves for now, because they know that this season is about conserving energy and surviving. I thought one of my plants was dying when it suddenly shed a number of leaves at once, but I looked closely and realized it had shed all but one leaf on each stem, and those remaining leaves were all healthy. It knew that for this season it couldn’t support more than that. The plants know though that they won’t have to live like this indefinitely; they know spring will come eventually with its warmth and ample light.
Winter is hard. Dormancy isn’t death, but it’s not easy either. In this season though, I have found that if I listen, I can feel gentle nudges towards seasonal wisdom and the things that will ultimately lead me in the direction of health and growth and life. It’s often hard for me to not judge where I am, to further complicate difficult and confusing times by piling on top of my pain a layer of guilt, being upset with myself for being where I am in my healing. My confessor has often gently reminded me of the futility of this, while also reminding me the Lord can handle wherever I am; I just need to be honest with myself and Him about where that is. Wounds take time to heal.
I have balked against synthesizing what I have learned from my miscarriage, because no matter how rich and beautiful the growth experienced because of it may ultimately be, I would always still choose to just have my baby instead if I could. I know this broken-openness isn’t going to waste, though. It’s still pain, but it’s not that only. In time, even plants that die will ultimately turn into fertile soil for new growth to take place in; everything ultimately contributes to life. I love how the Church also gives us examples of this. We offer to God what we have, and He makes it something greater. Every Liturgy, we give Him our bread and wine, and He gives us the Mystery of His Presence. It’s so beautiful to me how, at least in the Northern Hemisphere, both Nativity and Theophany, feasts that show us how Christ renewed all of life through His life, happen in winter. He doesn’t leave us alone in our darkness; He is in our midst. He is and ever shall be.