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Year of Loss, Year of Return

by Erica Holmes Starks

I had been nervous about my pregnancy, since I'd had a miscarriage nine years before. After holding my breath the first trimester, my pregnancy was uneventful. All of my blood work was consistently fine. The measurements showed she was growing proportionately to what she should.

As we made it safely through those nine months, I felt like any other first-time mother. Are we ready for this? Shouldn't we be married? Shouldn't I finish my master's program before we had kids? However, I was equally excited at the idea of leaving Maidenhood and delving wholly into the Mother. I adopted health-filled practices in my daily life as I never had before. I was about to join the ancestral women in what seems to me the expression of Woman at the most simple, biological, earthly level. I expressed my love for my daughter and the Mother in the cleansing and blessing of the nursery. My coven held a ritual in which we called on Demeter to protect me and guide me to find the balance in raising my child, as Demeter was forced to learn through Persephone's absence. I felt prepared knowing the that Goddess, the ancestors, and my coven sisters would be with me emotionally through my rite of passage.

On Friday, November 5, 1999, Daniel and I went into the Labor and Delivery Ward because I had not felt her move in a while. On the ultrasound, I saw the most beautiful and clear image I had ever seen of her. Savanna had her pinky raised as she sucked her thumb. Her curls were loose and floating in amniotic fluid. Ever the perfect little lady, she was living up to the nickname we had already picked for her: Savvy. The doctor said she was okay. Her heart was beating in a regular, steady rhythm. I wish I had asked for a picture of what we saw on the monitor. Nevertheless, it is distinct in my mind — for that is the last time I saw my sweet Savanna alive.

By Wednesday, she was gone. Her heartbeat had faded and then stopped — no movement in my womb. This life that my family and I had been anticipating for the last nine months was gone. The doctor couldn't do anything. Savanna had died in utero three days before her official due date. As they induced labor that evening, artificially beginning my rite of passage, I knew that I would not bring my daughter home. I would not be the one to place her in her crib, to feed her or demonstrate the love I felt for her. I was going into an agonizing initiation of the ancestors whose children had gone to Isle of Apples before them. I am a childless mother. On Friday November 12, 1999, Savanna Oshun was stillborn, 11 pounds 5.6 ounces, 22 inches long.

My coven came to bless her and help us take her to the Isle of Apples. My partner, Daniel, presented her to the sun and the earth from the hospital room balcony. I could not bear the thought of her never experiencing Nature and being transfixed in the hospital's sterility. When it came time, the three of us, our small family, sat on the hospital bed in trance as though we were the family in the Six of Swords: on a journey, in a passage to a distant place. When I placed Savvy in my grandmother's arms, I wanted to stay. I certainly did not want to leave her, although I knew it was not my time to stay. The journey back to this world was as difficult as the previous four days had been.

It was months before I was cognizant and could articulate how I had felt abandoned by the Goddess. Losing Savanna was the first of loss upon loss. Six weeks later my great-grandmother crossed over; she was the woman who moved in with our family when I was born in order to take care of us, the great matriarch of the family. Faust, my familiar of the past nine years, did not return home on Cinco de Mayo. We were delighted to find in mid-May that I was pregnant again, only to end in miscarriage two weeks later. There were moments I collapsed in grief and uncertainty. These losses obliterated my convictions and understanding of how the universe worked. My connection was severed. Ultimately, I asked my coven if they still wanted me to participate with them, since I knew I no longer felt one with the Goddess. I was no longer sure I could meet them in perfect love and perfect trust — not trusting Nature, my body, and, therefore, the Goddess. Without hesitation my sisters came to my side, held me, and have not let go.

Once I began to recognize my emotions, beyond despair and the quest for understanding, I knew my relationship with the Goddess was forever changed. I was an initiate to a form of womanhood that most women do not endure — a rite of passage that I had not chosen, but that had chosen me. Shortly thereafter, I started a relationship with Ereshkigal to understand the relationship of life, death, and transformation.

My relationships and relating to all things have altered. I look from a different angle. One that says I must make each day special, not just the sabbats and esbats. One that tells me it is imperative to embrace those closest to me and tell them how I feel often. Daniel, now my husband, asks why I tell him I love him so often. My response is always that I have to. My students, some of whom I have had for three years, see my expressiveness as odd. But they never wonder now if I am in a good or bad mood or why. I refuse to hide behind a facade of making other people feel better or hiding my feelings because they are inappropriate. My practice is no longer just observing the seasonal changes or being in community; it is also being in myself and honoring me. I am still learning and changing from my experience. There are more steps in my rite of passage that I have yet to walk.

This November 12, my coven and I had a birthday party for Savanna, complete with dinner, cake, presents and party favors. We held her party in the room where her altar is, an altar that is unique from my ancestors' altar. We took a trance journey to the Isle of Apples where my great-grandmother embraced me with Savvy on her hip. The three of us, mother, maiden and crone, made our way down the beach with an overcast sky. Granny walked a few steps behind us, observing and supporting as she always had. As we rounded the bend, Savanna was no longer a toddler, but grew taller than I. We talked about what had happened. She said that she had not meant for me to suffer as I had been, but that she had not been ready. She had not finished her work. We continued on a path over a knoll and came upon a field of light growing like thick, tall wildflowers. It was a place I had never been to before in trance. It was perfect love and perfect trust growing. She said, "this is what I had to do, cultivate this garden; but I will be done soon and will come back through you." As we walked arm in arm back to the boat launch, Savanna grew to her toddler size, again resting on my hip and Granny holding fast to my arm. I lingered longer than the other travelers to say my good-byes, but I felt as I had not felt in over a year and a day. Complete, hopeful, and trusting in the Goddess.

As I approach a new November, I am filled with the hope of a new life to come in January. I have come full circle with Ereshkigal, transformed by death, and now receive a new life. I am hopeful and trust that I will become a member of the tribe called Mother.

Erica is a Witch and Special Ed high school teacher. She is finishing a year of walking with Ereshkigal.