the shadows crossed the line this week. the equatorial line that cinches the earth’s belly at the waist. those of us on the upside of that line, we’re in shadow now. minute by minute, inch by inch, we’re tipping away from the sunlight, into the deepening, lengthening shadow.
it’s autumn, season of molasses light. season of hauling out the sweaters, putting seed back into the feeders, hauling out cook pots we’ve not seen maybe in months. it’s the season when deep-down parts of me come humming back to attention. everything about it — the scents, the slant of light, the goosebumps of early morning — seems to me a call to begin the in-burrowing.
i was home alone all week so autumn’s call had little distraction. i did as instructed: sifted through the bins of bulbs, cut back the ramshackle runaway garden, plucked the last of the bright orange tomatoes off the vine (it’s a game of where’s waldo, really, rummaging through the tangled vines in search of the ones so certainly orange, i know their time has come). inside, in the kitchen where i ply my alchemies and my otherworldly ministrations, i glugged olive oil, chopped fennel, carmelized onions. i invented things to do with figs.
today i amble to the airport, to fly back to the corner of the jersey shore, tucked between a pond and a river, where my husband is sifting through the decades of his family’s home, the 19th-century house where untold stories are being resurrected every day: a wedding album never seen (not by me or my husband, anyway), a dashiki worn on a south american concert tour, a baseball bat commemorating willie mays’ 600th home run. i am eager to be alone in the house of the woman i am very much missing, while my husband is out attending to the thousands of things on a list when you are closing a chapter of lives fully lived.
my job is to sift through her kitchen, to pull from the shelf the mug she always shared with her husband of sixty years, each one taking a sip of the morning’s coffee, passing the mug back and forth across the maple table, all to the quiet tune of news pages turning. the sort of sacramental moments that unfurl across the span of a lifetime, of a marriage of decades. i will sift, too, through her cookbooks, the ones i hardly think she ever cracked, for cooking to her — a woman who came of age as the feminism of the 1960s was tearing down the eastern seaboard — was pure distraction, and dinner was apt to be a thawed-out Tastee burger (bun and all tossed in the freezer after a run through the drive-in, especially if selling on discount, and i’m told the pickle never really warmed in the toaster oven that served as her main kitchen appliance). i hear there’s a Settlement Cook Book, circa midcentury, i’ll add to my jewish cookery shelf. i’ve reason to believe it will be in pristine condition, not a single splatter of schmaltz (unlike the one already on my shelf; one given to me when i married my jewish beau). there will be pangs that hurt, and moments that make us laugh till we cry. and moments, too, that do both.
all of it — the days home alone, really alone, and the somber-toned trip to new jersey, where a for-sale sign is now staked in the yard — has drawn me deep down more swiftly than in most autumns. i’m finding i need to work a little harder, tread more vigorously, to keep from going under, into the darker shades of the shadow. once again, there’s little to distract me. so i’m listening to the wisdom of the season. i’m surrendering to the call to burrow in, to put the garden to bed, to stock the cellar for winter. to batten the hatches, throw a thicker blanket onto the bed. to not get in the way of the work of the lengthening shadows.
i thought i was fine this week, the week we marked the day and the hour when my dad died 40 years ago. but then, as the hour grew nearer and the twilight grew dimmer, one of my brothers started a chain of emails, everyone chiming in, adding a snippet, a gesture, a frozen moment in one of our minds. my brother michael, in four short lines, haiku of the heart, conjured a moment that pierced me, one that keeps looping round in my head. he wrote how he’d driven down from milwaukee in a blizzard, in a borrowed car with a bag of sand tossed in the trunk—just in case. my other brother, two years younger and all of 19, was riding shotgun. when they got to the hospital parking lot, walking toward the entrance, they saw an old family friend. the man, always stern, must have been wise enough to station himself out in the cold, on the sidewalk beside the gliding glass doors, where he’d been waiting, on the lookout for two sons not knowing, maybe sensing, they were on their way to their father’s deathbed. wordlessly and from a distance, the man shook his head, a gesture simple and somber, a shorthand for the grief soon to come. a sad shake of the head, that’s all, letting them know, before the question was asked, did we make it in time?
it’s an angle of the story i never knew before, or if i did, i’d long ago buried it. it slayed me, that simple short story. ripped me in bits. i thought until then that i was okay. but then i crumbled…..it all came tumbling back, that awful abyss of a night, and the way the grief spread like a shadow, one by one across each of our lives, changing us all forever and ever. i ached all over again for both of my brothers, out in the cold, absorbing the subtle but certain shake of the head. grief comes in so many layers.
because i’m writing up a storm for a book that is taking immense and total concentration, because i’ve been underwater for days, squinting at the screen and hoping no one notices if i never get up from my chair, i am re-upping this tale written 14 years ago. how can that be? when my little one sat on my lap watching his grandpa for the very first time. how can it be that that snowy blizzard-y night was 40 years ago?
measuring life in 8 millimeters(from 2007)
it seemed fitting, on the night, at the hour, that he had died, a whole 26 years ago now, to bring him back to the screen. to huddle my children, to wrap up under a blanket, to watch grandpa geno, a grandpa they never met in the flesh, a grandpa the little one says he remembers from heaven, to watch him come quite back to life. on a screen.
it was remembering for me, discovering for them, a life unspooling in frame-after-frame, a life confined to 8 too-narrow millimeters.
i hadn’t hauled out the home movies in such a very long time. they dwell in the dark under a cabinet under the not-so-big screen where eventually we watched him.
but something was roused, something stirred deep inside me. to not just remember the stories, but to watch them. to take in the gestures, the smile, the laugh. the way he threw back his head and woke the whole world—or my world, at least—when he laughed with the whole of his belly.
mind you, home movies at my house are old enough, date back to the day when there was no sound. only the clicking of film, the spin of the reels, as frame-after-frame rolled rapidly past the blinding white beam of the aqua-and-silver projector.
it was the first thing my little one noticed. where’s the sound? how come i can’t hear grandpa geno?
it’s the same question i ask, the question i ache for, when i watch him but can’t hear a word. can’t hear a sound of the voice i swore i would never forget. it’s a game i used to play, in the weeks and the months after he died. i’d try to imagine how he would sound if i picked up the phone and there was his voice, there was some audible bit to hold onto.
if smell never forgets, i think sound might be the first to go. i cannot, for the life of me, conjure the sound of my papa.
but i can see him. i can watch once again as he tickles me with my little stuffed dog. as he crawls on his hands and knees after me, all around the living room, a study in brown, the beiges and browns of the late 1950s. or at least that’s how it looked through the blur of the film now 50 years old.
as is always the case when i watch the home movies, i found myself studying each frame as if leaves in a teacup. searching for clues that made me, that scarred me. realizing this was the slate of my life when it was clean; the id untarnished, the script not yet scripted.
as the whole of my youth swept past, one reel at a time, i eyeballed the aunt, the first woman i knew to actually wear hotpants (and actually look, well, rather hot), now lost in an alzheimer’s fog, and the cousin i worshipped and now cannot reach, no thanks to a near-lethal cocktail of chemicals.
i saw how my papa, in frame after frame, was tucked in the corner, a book or a newspaper held up to his face. saw how he’d drop it, put down the paper, when someone, my mama perhaps, made mention that this was all being recorded for posterity (a word, by the way, that he tossed with abandon). posterity, i realized as my papa swept by, was now, was what we were watching, the title of this untitled film.
not all was so sweeping. sometimes what leapt from the screen was only a prop, not a player. but it echoed from deep in my life.
in a pan of one christmas morn, i spotted my papa’s plaid robe, the one thing that i took when he died. for a long time, on cold empty mornings, i’d slip my arms through the sleeves of that robe, and cinch it quite tight. then i’d sit and i’d rock as i wiped away tears for my papa.
i watched the whole narrative unfold, right up to the months before he died. i was hungry, have always been hungry, for a look at the last possible frame of his life as i knew him, i loved him. one last frame to hold onto. one frame to freeze. but, alas, that frame never came. no camera was rolling. posterity, lost.
it wasn’t long, i soon noticed, before i was the only one left in the dark, the only one watching the screen. it’s hard to hold interest in a life shot in silence, even when that life is a life that begat you.
but a night or two after i watched, as my little one spooned bedtime cheerios into his mouth, he looked right at me, out of the blue, in that way that 5-year-olds do, and mentioned that when he grew up he was going to get a tv and watch all the movies.
“i want to see the one where grandpa geno sneaks the peanut butter,” he said, of a story he’d heard told time and again, a story that’s nowhere on film. it was the tale of how, like a mouse, before bedtime, my papa would hollow the peanut butter jar, leaving the sides unscathed, no one suspecting. until my mother, poor thing, opened the jar one eventual morning, to make pb & j for her brood, a brood, she discovered, who would be left with just j for the bread she would smear for their lunch.
in my little one’s mind’s eye, it was all on the roll. every last bit of the life he’d not known. like magic, he figured, you put in the disc, and every story is there.
a whole life resurrected on film. oh, if only, i thought, as i sighed. if only we could curl up and watch any frame of a life that’s now only on film. and too many frames, they are missing.
how do you remember the ones you have loved, and now lost? how do you pass on their soul to the hearts of those who never knew them? the ones you love now, who were not in the past, the ones you ache for them to know?
our house is blanketed in sadness. layers and layers of sadness. landscapes of uncharted sadness: a son without the father he adored, grandsons without the grandpa who told them knock-knock jokes and reveled in their every triumph. and all of us — since sunday, when news of one death tumbled atop another — without a lifelong friend who, across the decades, animated our dinner table, our hearts, and taught us fearlessness in the face of whatever life hurled our way.
in five short days, we lost two of the dearest souls in our deepest closest orbit.
and so, at our house, sadness ebbs and flows, one minute casting shadow dark and dense; the next, scuttling off, clearing space for light to fill the room. we are wrapped in varied textures of mourning — we mourn a life lived long, and another one snuffed out far too soon. grief catches us by the heart, not letting go. grief leaves us gasping. grief, as it so often does, so especially when it’s just cracked open once again, plays tricks and mind games; we snap our heads and imagine the voice, the someone we love, tumbling through the door, calling on the telephone, springing back to life inside our nighttime’s tossing and turning.
so the candle burns. it burns till the last one of us tiptoes off to bed, and from the moment one of us shuffles into the pre-dawn kitchen.
in its mystical flickering, no matter the shadow cast or beyond the snuffing out of sunbeam at day’s end, it holds me, presses its light against my heart, and reminds me, hour after hour, moment after moment, that souls burn on. that the essence of who we loved still fills the room, is still here to brush up against, to illuminate and magnify the beautiful and the broken.
i’ve never before had a shiva candle burning in my home. and i have found unexpected comfort, caress, in the faint light it casts, hour after hour.
the minute he tumbled in the door from the airport sunday night, my husband pulled from his pocket a small glass jar that held a candle, a yizkor candle, one his mama had handed him as he kissed her and said goodbye in the old white clapboard house by the pond in new jersey, where we had just been joined in a circle of prayer and poetry and remembering.
the candle was a jewish observance of death my husband intended to observe. he didn’t wait before reaching for the kitchen drawer that holds the matches. he struck the match, lit flame to wick, and began the prayer of mourning, the mourner’s kaddish.
the next day, a gray and misty morning, i called the synagogue to ask if they might have another candle, since this short squat one he’d carried home was only meant to burn for 26 hours. and i knew — in that way you know without words spoken — that my husband wanted longer, wanted flame to burn as long as it might light the darkness.
the synagogue had plenty. and so, with rain spitting down on me, i climbed the synagogue steps and stumbled into the embrace of our rabbi, who could not have been kinder, in handing me the candle, the prayer card, the book for the house of mourning. and, that night, when my husband with the heavy heart came home, we lit the seven-day shiva candle, the one that now is burning, that could be burning round-the-clock (except that we’re afraid — despite rabbinic insistence otherwise — of our house going up in shiva flames).
every time i swirl through the kitchen, there it is. flickering. when i’m alone in early morning darkness, there it is, casting golden glow across the maple table, illuminating one small corner of the room. so, too, after nightfall, when i’m the last one up the stairs, when darkness shrouds us once again.
it’s a simple remembrance, yet profound. once again, a quiet nod to the psyche and the soul. a timeless knowing that with death comes darkness, comes a time when one’s whole landscape shifts, and for a time, you cannot find your way. there is no compass out of grief.
not a night has passed in this long last week when our tenderhearted boy, the younger one, the one who’s never known death to brush so close against his heart, not one night that he’s not shed tears upon tears. he has sobbed. and shaken with sadness. so have i. i find myself awash in tears. out of the blue. unstoppable. there is no compass out of grief. no torch to light the way.
and yet, i catch a glimpse of the soft pure incandescence burning from the shiva candle, and i feel as if some tender soul has brushed up beside me. whispered. squeezed me by the hand.
we are cloaked in shades of sadness. we are re-charting the landscape, finding it filled with deep dark holes, ones we tumble down, ones that catch us breathless. we are reaching for the light. we are remembering. we pore over pictures, over words typed and texted just weeks ago. we riffle through our memories, our hearts.
the absence is vast, is limitless.
the soft glow of flame to wick — reminding us that the soul, like the flame, strives heavenward, brings light to darkness — it is constant, and it does not dim.
nor does our love for the ones we lost. may their memory be a blessing. forever and ever. amen.
i’d wanted so very deeply to write a love letter to my beloved friend now gone. but privacy was everything to her, and privacy i will preserve for her. i will, though, post a few pictures — ones already seared in my mind and my heart. two from years and years ago, the first time she came to meet little teddy, just newly born, and one she sent me just this past summer, from sunrise at the shore of lake michigan, where she’d gone for sunrise salutation. finally, because it’s out in the world, an audio tribute to my beautiful friend, from her dear friend, the brilliant writer, alex kotlowitz. savor these moments with my friend, and if you’ve a spare, offer up a prayer for her dearest tenderest circle, her beloved husband of 21 years today, and their two beautiful children, one of whom is the curly-haired beauty at the elbow of and cradled in his mama’s arms in the photos below.
a beloved, bespectacled man died this week. my husband’s father. the original mensch. a man i most remember with his face crinkled by the folds of a smile that enveloped from chin to forehead, and, best of all, with a single tear trickling down his cheek from behind his tortoise-rimmed glasses. i see him at the dining room table, holding up a short glass of wine, as we sit down to bless shabbat — the sabbath — and i hear him reciting the Shehecheyanu, the jewish blessing for those rare anointed moments in time, when, as the prayer says, we thank God for enabling us to reach this sacred occasion.
my father-in-law — a man so tender to me you might never have guessed how hard it was for him, early on, that his only son was in love with and marrying a catholic, even an irish catholic — died on the eve of Yom Kippur, the holiest of holy days, the day of atonement, of fasting, the day of judgement. a day when jews (and those who love jews) wrap themselves in their deepest prayers, and the prayers are laced with unflinching references to death, to dying, to lives well lived — or not. who shall live and who shall die? who shall perish by water and who by fire? who by sword and who by wild beast? on and on the prayer pulses through the litany of life’s endings, not a one of them softened for easier going down.
the prayers, some of them this year, made the raw ache of this brand-new death even harder. they stung, some of the words, so i squeezed my husband’s hand as tightly as i could, and i kept watch. i watched his face, in profile, through the hours of prayer; kept watch for tears in his eyes, for that faraway look, for the moments when he swallowed hard. i kept watch on the visage of grief, and imagined the landscape inside.
but there came a moment in the day of atonement prayers, toward the end of the day, when the sun was setting, and the shafts of light streamed in from the west, turning the sanctuary from blinding gold to rosy. it’s a part of the day of prayer called the memorial service, and tradition has it that children are kept outside — too sorrowful. the words and the prayers are tinged with mourning, with longing for lives lost. but amid the sadness, there is a prayer i have always loved, a prayer that wraps its words around me like the softest afghan, a prayer that makes me feel the brushstroke of God, quite honestly. it is pure embrace of a prayer. and it has never held me more tightly, nor more tenderly.
it doesn’t seem to have a name, but the refrain is “we remember them,” so you might call it the “remember-them prayer.”
what i love most is that, like so many jewish prayers, it pulses with a deep interiority. it rustles through the soul. it captures the quiet of the human heart. it breathes into the crevices of our consciousness. it understands perfectly how it is to be alone with your grief, with your longing, and to feel your heart swell and spill, as that rising up of love and loss, intermingled, so defines grief. and it grasps for breathtaking pauses in the beauty of the passing year, in the turning of the seasons, and it anoints those moments, those unfoldings, as vessels for remembering, for loving, for stepping bravely into a world without the ones who have defined us from the beginning of our time, or for as long as we have loved them.
i offer here, the “remember them” prayer:
In the rising of the sun and in its going down, we remember them.
In the blowing of the wind and in the chill of winter, we remember them.
In the opening buds and in the rebirth of spring, we remember them.
In the blueness of the sky and in the warmth of summer, we remember them.
In the rustling of leaves and in the beauty of autumn, we remember them.
In the beginning of the year and when it ends, we remember them.
When we are weary and in need of strength, we remember them.
When we are lost and sick at heart, we remember them.
When we have joys that we yearn to share, we remember them.
So long as we live, they too shall live, for they are now a part of us, as we remember them.
—Text by Rabbis Sylvan Kamens and Jack Riemer from Gates of Prayer, R.B. Gittelsohn
grandpa art with first two of five grandsons
the truth of today is that i am holding tight to prayer for one other someone i love tenderly and dearly. someone with whom i have shared deeply sacred moments, and hours of animated conversation over the decades. hours curled up on a couch, afghan covering our feet. hours in the kitchen. hours at the dinner table. hours walking in the woods. hours cradling our newborns. hours adoring our growing and nearly-grown children. hours marveling at her energy, her spark, her heart that knows no bounds. she is still here, but already i am remembering. and loving till the end of time.
AZK at the Reagan White House, pen poised, question ready to pounce
and this just in, my beloved father-in-law, the son of an immigrant baker who rose to become editor and president of a new jersey newspaper, the one that covered the news of the jersey shore, read the forward, the legendary jewish newspaper every day for years and years (it was originally written in yiddish). so my husband, who wrote a beautiful obituary for his father, rewrote one with a yiddish twist for the forward. and it runs there, as of minutes ago. the headline: Arthur Z. Kamin, Trailblazing New Jersey Journalist, Dies at 84. for my tenderhearted newsman of a father-in-law, this is the much deserved trumpet blast at the close of his most beautiful life.
this day, i send deepest love first to my beautiful beautiful mother in law, and to my blessed sister in law who i will soon be with. their loss is vast and without borders. hold them, and my sweet blair, and will, and especially little teddy whose tears will not be stanched, in your whispered prayerful hearts.
and here’s the question of the week: what words bring you comfort when you are aching in sorrow?
i was late getting to the old maple table this morning. late, because i was drawn to another kitchen table before i could get to my own. some mornings are like that. some hours are like that.
i was drawn to a table where a mother i love wanted to talk. fueled on fresh-poured coffee, the tears soon enough flowed. the mother to whom i was talking buried her beautiful daughter just 20 months ago. we talked about grief, and the state of the heart after the dying. she talked about her blessing, the blessing of her daughter having had the time to wrestle her demons, and make peace before dying. she talked about another mother’s absence of blessing. a mother whose daughter was knocked dead in the dark of night, at a bitter cold bus stop, when a drunk driver — one who forgot to turn on the headlights of her car when she tumbled out of a tavern and slumped behind the wheel — drove into a tangle of college kids on the snow-piled side of a road, and so the mother of the beautiful girl who died — a “songbird,” my friend called her — never got the chance to have the last conversation you’d have if you knew in your heart this was the last. she worried that the last conversation between the other mother and child might have been more of the sort that mothers and children so often have: “did you remember to make your reservations for spring break?” “don’t forget to check your mailbox, i’m sending the boots you left under your bed.” or, maybe: “oh, sweetie, why don’t you just tell your friends how tired you are, and stay in and catch up on sleep tonight?”
the thing is, if you bumped into my friend in the grocery store, if you watched her tossing bunches of kale into her cart, while tossing rejoinders over her shoulder, witticisms that made anyone in earshot break into giggles (because she is that funny, and most often in high animation), you’d never in a million years guess how much heartache she’s borne. you’d not know that, after four hellish years battling the rarest of cancers, she buried that daughter, and has a son who won’t ever walk, nor utter a word, and whose meals are zipped in a blender and poured in a tube that goes straight to his belly.
my friend is but one of the ones who carries a story, a volume of stories, close to the heart.
she’s not alone. we all have a story. every day, chances are, there is one something weighting us down, bearing against our chest in ways that make it harder to breathe. it’s not always life shattering, but it might be the sort of worry that infuses even your sleep, wakes you up with a start, spares you no break from its drumbeat.
this week, on one particularly extraordinary morning, i found myself amid a circle of women who, one by one, let on that they too carried a story. and that’s what got me to thinking about how many of the myriad souls we bump up against in the course of the day are waging some unspoken battle, the likes of which we’ll never know. never imagine.
and thus, as wise philo of alexandria, the greek-speaking jewish philosopher, instructed: “be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.”
there was, first, the woman i’ve known for years, though not too terribly well. i’d once written a newspaper story about the children’s choir she long ago ran with clockwork precision. then, years later, when i wrote about my own mother’s breast-cancer battle, that same woman reached out and wrote how she, too, had been diagnosed the very same week, and knew by heart the battle. when i bumped into her just this week, she was sporting two very black eyes. she’d fallen, she said, changing a light bulb. seems after three bouts with cancer, she’d developed some bizarre syndrome that left her numb from the waist down — and apparently, it hasn’t much slowed her. and it was only in passing that she mentioned something about her son, mentioned for the very first time that he was quadriplegic.
“oh my gosh,” i interjected, “you have a son who is quadriplegic? was it an accident?”
she answered, softly, but hardly a whisper: “failed suicide. he was a freshman in high school. thirty-five years ago.”
i inhaled a very big prayer as i soaked in her words.
and then, just minutes later, after eggs and coffee were served, after i’d turned to my right, continued talking to a lovely woman i’d met three months earlier, this woman mentioned matter-of-factly that her upper chest was sore, and she’d be heading home to ice it. i asked if she’d pulled a muscle. “no,” she said, “i was diagnosed with breast cancer just before christmas. i had a double mastectomy four weeks ago.” and all morning, i’d only been thinking how elegant a figure she cut, with her sleek gold-buttoned black suit, her streaked-blonde bob, and her eloquent animated conversation.
we never know the stories carried close to the heart.
we never know when we’re sitting next to a woman who, day in and day out, worries about a son who can’t move a muscle. and who got there from the depths of unspeakable pain.
we don’t know that from the time we last spoke to someone till the moment we’ve once again bumped into that someone, she’s suffered the full-throttle blow of life turned on its spine: being told she has cancer, weighing the options and outcomes, and being wheeled off to surgery that will forever alter her God-given life-bearing body.
when you’re listening, when you keep your ear to the heart, these stories come and come swiftly. the calls from the doctor. the unexpected email. the squawk from the bedside radio, first thing in the morning. the reminder, over and over and over: these hours are precious, are holy. live as if each moment matters. because, the truth is, it does. and walk in radiant grace because we’ve really no clue who in our path is shattered, and broken, and deeply in need of the life-giving love with which we might bathe their wounds. or embolden their march into battle.
oh, goodness. it was either write about what really stirred me this week, or count up the 50 ways to really, truly tell someone you love them (in light of tomorrow’s feast of love, valentine’s day). seems i went with the truly stirring. forgive the darkness. the point is the light: the instruction to hold each hour, each encounter, each blessed someone, up to the radiance. life will come without pause, without bumpers to soften the blow. the instrument of healing, of love, is ours and ours alone: we can choose to tend with tender loving care. we can choose to be ever aware of who among us might bear more than we can imagine. we can lighten their load, and pray to God the favor’s returned when the load that needs bearing is ours.
how are you stirred by philo’s instruction: “be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle”? or, alternately, might you tell a bit about the unwitting saints who’ve lightened your load at the very moment when it all seemed unbearable?