From the sadness grows a garden at Palo Alto JCC

Three days before David and Julia Popowitz lost their daughter, Sabine Gaia, in childbirth, David was in a garden-to-be.

Surrounded by weeds and grass, he and other volunteers were clearing a site at the Oshman Family Jewish Community Center in Palo Alto to get it ready for flowers, vegetables and fruit trees.

The site, next to T’enna Preschool, was special because their 2-year-old son, Anton, would eventually be learning, playing and digging in that garden with his preschool classmates.

But months later it would also become a sacred space for the Popowitz family to remember Sabine.

Julia, Anton (center) and David Popowitz with Zamby in the garden at the Oshman Family JCC. photo/nicole scarborough

Hours after Sabine’s death on Oct. 29, 2009, the distraught couple received a beautiful bouquet of flowers. Similar floral arrangements streamed in, along with cards, notes and e-mails.

The grief plaguing the Atherton couple had spread to their friends and family, who wanted to express sympathy but often didn’t know how. “I just don’t know what to say” was as common a sentiment as “We’re so sorry for your loss.” 

Recognizing their need for a long-lasting way to remember Sabine, David and Julia called the JCC not long after her death to see if anything needed funding.

Caren Gans, early childhood education director at the JCC, suggested the T’enna garden — the very same one David had helped cultivate. The JCC set up a site for online donations, and nearly 200 people ended up giving more than $50,000.

On May 22, approximately 100 adults and 75 children gathered in the garden and around its perimeter for the dedication of the garden to Sabine.

Julia and David both spoke, as did Gans. There were tearful moments and heartwarming ones. Children played in the dirt as remarks were read. The sun was shining. It was a perfect day.

“We wanted this to be a dedication, not a memorial service,” David said afterward.

During his speech, he said, “This is a happy day.”

“I was feeling that,” he recalled a few days later. “It was a happy day.”

Julia and David Popowitz speak at the garden’s dedication ceremony. photo/michael bruce

Added Julia, board member at OFJCC: “It was a really meaningful tribute to Sabine and a nice way to remember her. I was very happy with it.”

Gans’ remarks focused on the garden’s fig tree, a baby tree that grew from a cutting of the fig tree planted at the Cubberley Community Center, the former site of the Palo Alto JCC. She explained that children climbed that tree. Guests ate the fruits. Teachers rested under its shade.

“We brought that baby tree here to plant in our garden, only to find we had no garden,” Gans said at the ceremony. “Thanks to all of you, we have a home for our baby tree, the metaphor for our identity as a school. We have a place to grow herbs for Havdallah and flowers for Shabbat. We have a place where the children can work with the earth, a place to plant a tea garden to make T’enna tea, and most of all, a place that creates community.”

Log steppingstones dot the garden, which is elevated above the ground. To enter, one must walk up a few steps. “It’s like making aliyah,” said Debbie Togliatti, a teacher at T’enna who spearheaded the project.

A bronze statue of a little girl, carrying a basket filled with petals and staring toward the sun, stands in one corner, near a trellis with grapevines crawling up its sides.

Planted in various beds are corn, red bell peppers, cherry tomatoes and watermelon; a variety of herbs, including lavender, thyme, basil and parsley; and blooming flowers and fruit trees that attract bumble bees and hummingbirds.

A plaque in Sabine’s name will soon be added, engraved with the famous words of French author and philosopher Albert Camus: “In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.”

The quote is a lasting memory from a family vacation, a sort of therapeutic journey, taken just three weeks after Sabine’s death. David, Julia and Anton left the wintry Bay Area behind for sunshine and warmth in Argentina, where Camus’ words appeared at various locations throughout their hotel.

“When something bad happens, you find out how truly strong you are,” David said of the quote’s significance to his family. “It felt like it was meant for us to find.”

Also in the garden, there is a wooden bench and a small table with seats and an umbrella. Both beckon visitors to stay awhile and experience the garden’s serenity, even as cars whiz by on the street below and children play noisily at the nearby playground.

“We love gardens,” David said, adding that he, Julia and Anton tend to a thriving garden at their home. “This will always be a place of laughter, exploration and fascination with snails and worms. And, like Sabine, the garden will always be young.”

Julia said she had a “completely normal” pregnancy, with no complications. She had scheduled a Caesarean section for Oct. 29, figuring it would be the best option since Anton was born breech.

Too excited to sleep, Julia was sitting on the couch checking her e-mail at around 3 a.m. when she started bleeding profusely. She was rushed to the hospital, but by the time she arrived, Sabine had died.

The cause was vasa previa, a rare pregnancy complication in which fetal blood vessels from the placenta or umbilical cord cross the entrance to the birth canal, beneath the baby. It occurs in an estimated one in 3,000 births, according to the International Vasa Previa Foundation website.

In the months following Sabine’s death, the Popowitz family continued to talk about her. David found himself telling anyone who would listen, even a cashier at the local market, about the loss of his daughter. The cashier had simply asked him, “How are you?” David didn’t have the strength to say, “I’m fine.”

But today, he, Julia and Anton have a garden, a piece of land where the seasons inspire T’enna lesson plans and the cycle of life is ever present in the growing and withering of flowers, edibles and trees. Every year, the garden will be renewed, restored and young again.

Just the way the Popowitz family remembers Sabine.

 “We look at Sabine as our child, just not one who was here long enough to get to know and raise,” Julia said. “We still very much consider her our daughter.”