When it’s the time for my parents’ yahrzeits—the anniversary of their deaths—I always light a memorial candle, as per tradition. Within its glass container, the golden light swirls, a reminder of those once a part of my life, though no longer in this world. As the flame flickers, the soul is comforted by its light and warmth.
Yet how should we observe the yahrzeit of one never born, who never quite entered this world? Yet, if he had lived, my baby would have been a part of our family no less than his older siblings.
We had been blessed with four children, three sons and one daughter, for whom we were deeply grateful. But as our daughter grew older, she longed to have a little sister. I shared her dream.
Once, like many women, I’d taken my fertility for granted. Now I was older, an “elderly multipara” in peculiar medical terminology. Each month I tried not to hope, fearing I’d face yet another disappointment.
When I discovered I was expecting again, it was early spring, an auspicious time for starting a brand-new life. Tremulous hope began to stir.
Though far too early for maternity clothes, and too soon to choose a name, we had a feeling this baby would be a boy. Despite my longing for another daughter, at this point I no longer cared about the gender. “As long as it’s healthy.” We repeated the words of all expectant parents and meant them.
One shiny April morning, I had a sudden vision of a smiling baby who resembled the photo of my husband as an infant. However, there was something deeply disturbing about the image. The baby was in a garden, but instead of resting on the grass, he hovered a few inches above it. Though very close to being in this world, he did not actually touch it.
And, sadly, he never did. One afternoon I began spotting and crawled into bed, gripped with fear. Maybe if I kept very, very still… I prayed desperately, trying to assure myself that all might still be well, but it was not to be. Our little soul slipped away.
The doctor in the emergency room confirmed that I had “lost” the baby—a strange expression, as if I had simply misplaced him somewhere.
I had never even held him in my arms, yet our potential child, who would have been welcomed with such joy and love, was gone. We could not sit shiva for our loss and be comforted, but a loss it was nonetheless. No one had even known of his existence except my husband and me. We had to mourn alone, in silence.
The year went by slowly; the passage of time finally helped me to heal. The idea of lighting a memorial candle for our “little neshama (soul)” on his yahrzeit appealed to me. But when we asked our rabbi, he told us, regretfully, this was not the usual custom for a miscarried baby. The following year, the yahrzeit date came out on Shabbat, so I lit an extra Shabbat candle.
The year after that, I did nothing but feel a wistful heartache. Then, as the time approached once again, while striking a match to light the stove, I had a sudden revelation. While a candle is solid and burns for a while, the tiny flame of a match flares for just an instant and is gone. Somehow this felt like a fitting act.
So carefully and reverently, I lit four matches for his fourth year. As each match blazed up, then quickly died down, I recalled the beautiful poem “Blessed is the Match” by Hannah Senesh, a brave young woman who was killed in the Holocaust:
Blessed is the match consumed in kindling flame
Blessed is the flame that burns in the secret stronghold of the heart…
When I see a little boy of the same age, I wonder what mine would have looked like, who he would have been. Might he have had his oldest brother’s curly hair, his father’s large brown eyes, his sister’s smile? Would he have been precocious, talking at an early age? Would he have been spoiled? Probably. And loved? Completely.
Sometimes I feel his presence as I walk along, his warm little fingers curled into mine. I bend to kiss his small scraped knee, making it “all better.” I feel his sleepy weight resting on my lap, his hair beneath my chin. I see his loving gaze looking up at me, eyes aglow with that sweet innocence only young children have and then all too quickly lose.
What did I learn from my little neshama’s wisp of a life which brushed my own like a butterfly’s wing? To better appreciate the children with whom we have been blessed. To have more patience and compassion. To share the sorrow of those still longing for a child. A reminder that all of life is precious, no matter how fleeting or intangible it may be. In the secret stronghold of my heart, his tiny flame forever flickers.