I wasn’t supposed to be at the cemetery.
Jewish tradition dictates that pregnant women should not go graveside for a funeral. It’s not an outright law—you won’t see it written down anywhere—but it’s customary. It is considered bad luck. Very bad luck. Even if it’s the funeral of a loved one. Even if it’s the funeral of your father-in-law.
I was always a superstitious person. I never opened an umbrella indoors. I wore a red string around my wrist to ward off the evil eye. And I didn’t have a baby shower for my first child. We didn’t even set up his nursery until after he was born.
These superstitions comfort me, they make me feel like I have control over a chaotic world. And for the most part, they’re harmless. Easy to follow. That is, until my father-in-law died.
My husband and his father were close. They spoke often. Doug relied on his father for advice, or sometimes just to have someone who would listen. My father-in-law loved and valued his family. My fondest memory: him, pulling me onto the dance floor at a family party to tell me how happy he and my mother-in-law were that I was a part of their family.
No one ever wants to go graveside at a Jewish funeral. More so than the part in the funeral home where condolences are offered and eulogies are read, going to the cemetery is where you truly pay your last respects. Where you actually bury your loved one. At a Jewish funeral, you watch the coffin slowly descend into the ground, and then, as a sign of respect, help fill the grave with dirt. Mourners take turns removing a shovel from a huge mound, dropping piles of earth on top of the coffin.
I couldn’t see skipping that part. I wanted to show respect for my father-in-law’s memory. I wanted to help bury him. I would shovel dirt onto his coffin, along with the rest of the family. I would be there to hold my husband’s hand.
Also, I didn’t want anyone to know that I was five weeks pregnant. Superstition dictates you don’t tell anyone about a pregnancy until you’ve passed the 12 week mark. Surely, if I skipped going graveside, people would talk. A staple of shiva—the week-long mourning period where friends and family come to the home of the bereaved—is gossip.
I found out that I was pregnant days before my father-in-law died. Fifteen months earlier, he had been diagnosed with brain cancer. What I didn’t know at the time, but learned quickly enough, was that brain cancer is not really a diagnosis. It’s a death sentence.
With our first child, we didn’t tell anyone that I was pregnant until I’d passed the 12 week mark, out of superstition. But now, that seemed silly. We didn’t know if my father-in-law would still be alive by the 12 week mark.
Doug and I gathered around the hospital bed a few days after taking an at-home pregnancy test. We’d told his mother our news after taking the test, and she’d relayed it to my father-in-law. When we arrived, he couldn’t really keep his eyes open because of the pain. My mother-in-law asked her husband: Do you remember what I told you? His father’s eyes remained shut, but then, for the briefest of moments, he opened his eyes and whispered: New baby.
It was the last thing he said to us.
Two days later, he died. Jewish funerals happen quickly—my father-in-law died on a Monday and was buried on Tuesday.
“You could go back to the house to set up for shiva,” my mother suggested. “Someone has to do it, and as the daughter-in-law, it would make sense that you’d go.”
“Or you could just forget about some silly superstition and honor your father-in-law.”
Doug and I consulted the rabbi. “That’s just a bubbameister,” he told us. “An old wives’ tale. Nothing bad is going to happen to you if you go to the cemetery.”
I decided to go. After all, it was just a silly superstition. Nothing bad was going to happen to me.
But then something did.
Twenty-eight weeks into my pregnancy, my water broke prematurely and I was admitted to the hospital in pre-term labor. I was terrified—I had no idea what would happen to the baby I was carrying. I was lonely—I missed my almost 2-year-old son and my husband, who was home taking care of him. I stayed in the hospital for three weeks on bed rest, forced to lay still in an uncomfortable hospital bed, unable to even sit up straight for fear of bringing on full labor.
I thought a lot about my father-in-law while I was there. This baby I was carrying, the one destined to carry his name—would he die, too? Was I being punished for angering the gods of superstition? For holding my own wants and needs over what generations of Jewish women had done in the past?
I went into labor in the middle of the night, 31 weeks into my pregnancy. The mood was somber. I didn’t know if I was giving birth to a live child or a dead one. Even if he was alive, I didn’t know how long he would live. If he did live, I didn’t know what problems he would have. Blindness, deafness, brain damage. I’d been told to prepare for any or all of those scenarios. I hadn’t.
After my c-section, my baby didn’t cry at first. “This is it,” I thought. “I knew this would happen.” But then he did cry, and my doctor had to give me valium just to calm me down.
I woke up in recovery and my husband had already visited our baby boy in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, where he was doing much better than expected for a 31 week old. He wasn’t blind. He wasn’t deaf. He didn’t suffer brain damage. After a 33 day stay, he was healthy enough to come home.
We were lucky. I know that now. But back then, I didn’t. And I thought that I was being punished for failing to follow superstition. But I now see that although something bad happened to me, something good happened as well. My son is now 4 years old. A healthy child. A happy child.
I don’t believe in superstitions quite as much as I used to. The way I see it, you don’t have to follow them, or you could follow them to make yourself feel better. To convince yourself that you’re protected from some force beyond your control.
I had no control over whether my father-in-law would live or would die. Nor my son. Life unfolds despite us, and no amount of keeping umbrellas closed while indoors is going to change that.
Still, I wear my red string around my wrist just in case.
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