Underground orchid

by Deborah Southwell


A year before the birth of my first child, a farmer in Munglinup, Western Australia, turned over a mallee root and discovered a species of orchid that hadn’t been seen since 1928.

Within a year, 26 more specimens were found. Rhizanthella gardeneri is a beautiful orchid, the only flower in the world that lives, blooms and dies completely underground, each a tiny spot of beauty under the earth.

In a world where everything, to my mind, should have a reason and a purpose, I was struck at the time by the strangeness of a flower that was created and existed in a form that no one would ever see or know, that had probably existed for an eternity and only found by accident.

What was the reason for its existence? What was its purpose?

Last night, Beth told me that her niece’s unborn baby had died. Only eight weeks old, curled in her womb, so few people who knew of its existence or its death. No heart beat. Tomorrow she goes into hospital for a ‘D & C’ (dilation and curette), her womb scraped clean.

But not her heart.

No, her heart will carry this little one for eternity.

They will tell her that one in four pregnancies end in a miscarriage, that it is nature’s way of dealing with a malformed group of cells, that it is better to lose it now rather than later. All having some truth of course, but when has truth and rationality ever soothed emotions?

My first pregnancy ended in a miscarriage. I had wanted a baby for so long. I was so excited that I was pregnant. I grinned over the red bucket as I threw up each morning so delighted to have morning sickness because it meant I was going to have a baby.

I noticed a change at eight weeks. The nausea had died off. I thought it was strange – according to all the books morning sickness dropped off at 12 weeks. Still, everything continued on. Then I awoke one night, a dull ache in my belly. I sat up and started bleeding.

My husband drove me to King Edward Hospital for Women. I was born there. I lost my baby there.

On arrival I was given an injection. I assume that it was pethidine or morphine. I reacted, heart pounding, temperature rising, dizzy. I thought I was going to die. The doctor said I wasn’t built to be a junkie.

We waited. Contractions started. Something burst inside me. The nurse was with me, one arm around me, the other holding my hand, as I pushed out my hopes and dreams.

The next day I went home.

There is no death certificate with a miscarriage. No funeral. No recognition that a little life has started and ended before it has been known.

I was unprepared for the grief, the depression, the anger, the jealousy of another woman’s swelling belly. I hadn’t known of anyone who had had a miscarriage or lost a baby. My husband seemed to have no grief at all. He was glad that I was okay. Okay. Maybe physically but not emotionally. His lack of grief made me feel even lonelier, crazy, as if I was over-reacting in some way.

I struggled to make some sense of what had happened. Why did it happen? Why me? Would I ever have a baby?

Six weeks later I met a woman who had also had a miscarriage. She now had three healthy sons. It was her acknowledgement of the pain and grief of miscarriage that set me on the road to some form of recovery. That she had sons gave me hope that I would one day hold my own baby.

I chose to believe that the brief existence of the little life inside me was not a cosmic joke.

I drew great comfort from the fact that a creator, the universe, whatever force one might believe in, might have created the Rhizanthella gardeneri orchid for no other reason than pleasure in its beauty. And that, although hidden from me, there was also some purpose for the brief life of my unborn baby. I still draw comfort from the fact that such things are beyond explanation and understanding and that there are some things, many things, that we humans cannot make sense of, and were never meant to make sense of.

Awe. Mystery. Serendipity. Tragedy. All part of the mix of being human – of learning to live with the unknowable.

I lost my unborn baby on 7 December, 1980. I gave birth to my daughter on 7 December, 1981. I celebrate two precious little hearts, two precious lives, on 7 December.

One little life, I have been blessed to see grow and blossom and bring her own baby into the world. The other I carry, a precious underground orchid that lives on, in my heart teaching me still about the unknowable.


© Deborah Southwell

“A gender-equal society would be one where the word ‘gender’ does not exist: where everyone can be themselves.”*

I’ve always been aware of gender conditioning and actively tried to combat any lingering prejudices or stereotypes in my own parenting, even down to encouraging dolls with my boys when they were little. It’s great to read people writing about gender issues they’re experiencing with their kids. For too long these subjects have been discouraged or silenced. I’d love to publish some more creative writing on this topic, especially if you are struggling with a child who actively tries to move away from gender normative preferences. A society where everyone can be themselves thanks Gloria for those aspirational words.

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* Gloria Steinem