[In] the process of grieving we wait in full knowledge that what we wait for will not appear..
–Charles Baxter, “Stillness”
It’s time to feel better. Shloshim is over, the thirty days when we can’t go to parties or clip our fingernails. I’m not observant but Nate was, so we’re trying it on. I am. Going through the Jewish motions. I shaved my thirty-day beard and got a haircut. My beard is gray though my hair’s still brown, most of it; I still have most of it. In the barber’s mirror I looked younger. Shloshim means thirty.
For the moment I am able to work. I meet my scheduled classes. In accord with Jewish law I went back right after shiva. But after three hours of studio I drive home as if I just woke up. As if all day there was another I out in the world, affecting people. Who came to my office hour? Was I helpful? Who in the hallway said comforting things? I try to imagine how I look, zombie-ish, probably. Before I shaved, someone said I looked like a hippie. Thea says I look shell-shocked.
Not that my job is in danger. People are kind; I have what is called leeway. Praise ye the tenure system. But where my emotions reside, or are said to, I don’t care. I’m trying to be accurate. The sheets are off our mirrors, and I look at myself to see what’s left. I must care about some things. Thea; Dylan. I don’t want to lose my job. I want to do my part for my abridged family. But when Dylan tells me a stupid, funny thing his gym teacher said, and I know he won’t always be twelve years old wanting my attention, I get heavy in the gut, like I’ve eaten too much. Thea and I keep to our sides of the bed like there’s a hole in the middle. But when I think of holes, all I see is Nate’s open grave and the basketball his friend threw in for him. It bounced on the casket and bounced out and I started to laugh. O God.
I never thought he would die. Not when he was diagnosed. Not when the cancer came back. Not even as he took his last breath, because who knew there would not be another? His breaths were unusually slow that night, far apart, and I lay beside him reading to him from Dave Barry and doing some cheerleading in my mind. Come on, breathe a little faster. Deeper. He exhaled once, harsh and loud, in his bed at home—not a hospital bed, the same futon he’d slept on since he left the crib. He was walking, going to the bathroom on his own. He was not in hospice care. With a spurt of hopefulness I waited for his next, yet-more-vital breath, and it didn’t come. It didn’t come. I waited, putting off full comprehension. Then something must have thrust me through and past, because for no reason that I grasp even now (my unbelief having just been reaffirmed), I rolled over to him and murmured in his ear,
Hear, O Israel. The Lord our God, the Lord is One.
Blessed be God’s name and glorious kingdom forever and forever, the mandated last words on a Jew’s lips. I hope he heard. And that it made his light glow brighter, if there was light. Now, though, I wish I’d held him. Maybe his mind was still chugging away in there (according to the Tibetan Book of the Dead the soul lingers by the body for three days). His neck was warm. It’s been two months, spring is here, and I’m freezing cold.
The Jewish Way of Mourning
Today V’ad Chesed called. There’s a retreat in the fall for Jewish parents who lost children to cancer. At Camp Osher Hanefesh where Nate went in remission. It’s free, even the plane fare. Thea thinks we should go. I don’t know. Being with all those believers. At Camp Happiness.
Before he got sick we were happily secular. I was, yes, a Son of the Covenant but had no such plans for the boys. We joined a temple only because my father begged, in honor of his father. Bet Hashemesh, House of the Sun, called by Nate (haha!) House of the Rising Sun (not that he necessarily understood the joke). It was Reform, tolerant and inclusive. Rabbi played the guitar, God was unisex, called God and not He/ Him. But the main sanctuary was domed like a church, a big bubble for genderless “God” to bob around in. In Exodus, Jews prayed in a tabernacle, 45’ x 15’ x 15’ (multiply by 2/3 to convert back to cubits), long and low like a Frank Lloyd Wright house. The kids had their own complaints: Sunday school didn’t count (as did their grammar school). It took up time better spent on basketball. When Tuesday-Thursday practice with the cantor was added to the program, Nate threw a fit.
I can’t say we tried that hard to return him to Yahweh. Why make a kid recite mishmash, not to mention what the party costs. Then our personal bomb drops; someone hooks us up with V’ad Chesed, the Jews’ Make-a-Wish. And instead of Disney World or lunch with Bret Favre, Nate gets a Hassid “big brother,” to visit him in the hospital and take his mind off of bad things when he’s home. And maybe convert him too, but so what? Whatever his brand of Judaism, this young man was just plain good; seemed to enjoy hanging out with a sick kid. Seriously ill. He took Dylan on too, took them places we avoided that they loved—horror films, laser tag, a huge, crowded video arcade called Dave & Busters—and suddenly Nate was a Hassid. We went to a dinner for cancer families, sixty or eighty people at a kosher restaurant in Skokie. We ate in a private hall, and afterward there was dancing and singing, the cancer boys and their Lubavitcher mentor-pals circling the tables. It was a bit disconcerting since the girls didn’t dance and the men we met wouldn’t shake Thea’s hand, but the sick kids were into it—teenagers in baseball caps or openly, exuberantly bald, hopping around like I never would have at that age, some of them older than Nate. And suddenly in and out of the hospital Nate was studying Torah. Life beckoned sacrosanctly. His shrunken tumor was removed, scans showed him cancer-free. One steamy July morning he became a bar mitzvah, impressing us all with the clarity and length of his recitation.
I was developing a mild, grudging affection for Judaism. My firstborn son and I, Sons of the Covenant. Now Dylan’s is coming up. I cringe at the sound of his Torah CD. Please shut the door.
The one part of Judaism that still makes sense is shiva. Not the food people bring, or even their heartfelt sympathy, but the fact that Thea and I had to sit on low stools for a week. Our friends and family sat on chairs and we sat at their feet on footstools, meaning we had been downed, Cast Down in Fortune and Men’s Eyes, down on our luck, down and out. We were. How right, to enact it.
But shiva lasts only seven days. Shiva means seven. Shiva is long gone, and I still want to sit on a low stool. I could sit on a footstool the rest of my life.
Who I used to be
A reasonable man. A happy man, shy lover of women (too shy to take full advantage). Passionate lover of Thea, who accepted me despite my advanced age. Now I look at my wife and see she is pretty. I look at the young women in my classes: Pretty. So-so. Not. I attach names to faces, but to what end?
Denise Lockhart came to see me today. She’s the student you love to hate, or at least I do. Streaked yellow hair, big breasts, big confiding smile. She might have run the show in her high school, and she could draw after a fashion—horses and children’s faces with big, sad, eyelashed eyes; here she can’t understand why she isn’t at the top of the class. Some teachers are good with plodders. They remember how they came to know what they know and guide the student there step by painstaking step. For me, if there were steps in my learning I’ve forgotten them. I’m not a bold thinker but that’s what I’m drawn to, quick, inventive students like Thea was. Although I try to be patient with Denise, in the end she’s near tears. She dumps her model bus stop on my desk and half yells, “What’s wrong with it?” and can’t or won’t recognize that the painstakingly glued flower boxes on her plexi walls block the view of an approaching bus. I show her Brian Donleavy’s model, an L-shaped plexi front to block the wind, but she’s relentless. She spent all weekend on it, the semester is ending, only one more project, she needs an A on it to get a B in the course, she doesn’t know where to start!
A cramp starts in my heart and travels the length of my arms to my hands, which curl with a bizarre rage. At this girl for whom tragedy is a C in Design II. Maintaining, however, the required professional distance, I suggest a tutor. I recommend someone, a graduate student to help her develop her ideas, but she’s out the door without even a grudging thank-you. Without her model, which sits grumpily on my desk confirming the badness of my teaching. Fuck me.
Persistence of memory
Nathan’s former violin teacher sent us a CD of Nate’s last recital. Bach’s Sonata in C for solo violin. It’s complicated, fast music. I listen with my eyes closed, picturing, grateful for the clarity of my memory: instrument tucked under his chin at the front of the room his teacher rented at the Three Arts Club. He’s pretty good, I say to myself, although in truth I believed he was very good, gifted, his sure, agile fingers, and his heart for the music that governed how long he held certain notes. On the third or fourth go-around Thea comes into my study, goes straight to the radio-CD player and turns it off.
I threw my coffee mug. Not at her, but in her direction. In truth, I wanted to slug her.
“How can you stand it?” she says.
I can’t even look at her.
“I’m sorry,” she says, “but it goes all through the house. It goes into my bones.”
He’s already in your bones, he’s in our bones, I think but don’t say.
Of course I apologized too. The cup didn’t touch her, and luckily Dylan was out of the house. She got a broom and swept up the mess. She kissed my cheek. “Allan, I miss you.”
By every criterion my wife is doing better than me. She wrote thank yous to everyone who tried to help us these two years, to people who did no more than send cards. A card for a card. Now it’s bar mitzvah plans. We do for Dylan no less than for Nate. She’s right. She hasn’t started traveling again but she goes to the office, comes back with groceries, makes dinner. She talks on the phone a lot. She wants to go to Europe next summer, the three of us, with the Rosenthals or maybe just Kevin Rosenthal. She started taking karate. I don’t think she loved Nate less than I did, or that her feelings are shallower than mine. But she seems to want to forget him or at least allow forgetting to take place in her.
Forgetting for me is a new death.
I’d nearly made it through the semester without calling negative attention to myself. On the weary last afternoon of the last class, my Design IIs delivered their final projects and piled out undifferentiated. I’m straightening the chairs, a task that helps me leave one room and enter another, and I fix for a moment on the churning dust in the slanting sunlight from the high oblong windows, dust to which I will one day to return, and there’s Denise in front of me. Her face is pale, her gaze neurotically intense. Under her paint and glue-daubed T-shirt there is no sign of a brassiere.
“Can I help you?” I say, a statement I’m pretty sure isn’t actionable. I gaze beyond her nicely formed breasts like a teacher zombie, wondering why she’s paying so much attention to me when most students don’t seem to know my name. She fidgets with a plastic bag in her hand. Digs her toe into the floor tile. Then she opens the bag and hands me a disc, looking hard at me like I’m supposed to understand something. The disc, home-made, is titled in the handsome lettering of one who has taken graphic design, Stress Relief in the Age of Anxiety.
Denise is eighteen but looks fourteen, there’s nothing she can give me, and the idea that she doesn’t know it starts me breathing hard. I grope for a mask of courtesy. “Thanks, that’s kind of you,” then, I don’t know, I indulge myself: “But I’d rather you’d brought me an apple?”
She looks at me for a second while the full nastiness of my words blooms inside her. And inside me too. I’m wondering whether or not an apology would make it worse when she’s out the door.
When friends visit, Thea entertains them. “It’s right to grieve,” they say to me, “it’s only four months.” Weeks later: “Not even a year.” I try to think when he died. It seems long ago, it seems like yesterday. It was January 6. In an ice storm, broken branches on the streets. It’s May now, new leaves on the trees. To Thea they say, “Are you going back on the road or is it too much now?” To me, “Are you seeing someone?”
“Yes, though it’s pointless,” I tell the first one who asks. With the next I don’t bother to elaborate. “Yes.” There’s dead silence, a void, familiar to me but probably not to my consoler.
My mother calls with advice. “Do something new,” she says. “That you aren’t used to. It’ll put your mind in a new place.”
“How about Sudoku?” I say. Every morning I do the Sudoku in the Tribune. I’m pretty good at it.
“How about tennis? Or yoga? Men do yoga these days.”
“You know what’s really sad?” I say. “He died without ever having sex. I think about that.”
“Honey,” she says.
The Hassid brother calls to say that he and a group from Chesed are saying prayers for Nate’s soul. “Thank you,” I say, meaning, Is that all? Meaning, What for? Meaning: Oh yeah? Well, I’m playing Sudoku!
I asked for and received a leave for the fall. My shrink says I’m depressed. Well, duh, as Nate used to say. But, according to Diane, until my depression lifts I won’t be able to feel grief. Ah, motivation? But she has her MSW. She says I’m mired in guilt. She thinks I think I failed Nate somehow.
Obedient client that I am, I’ve addressed the question. I don’t say Kaddish, which may delay Nate’s entry into Jewish Heaven. As a Jew, I am obviously half-assed. Half-hearted. I can’t magnify and sanctify anything, let alone Whoever’s running this show.
But sincerely, Diane, with all my flaws, when it comes to Nate I find no other fault in me. I was with him in the hospital, and at home I slept in his room. Beside him on his futon. Thea was in and out, so it was up to me, but I wanted to. If I stinted someone it was Dylan, all those nights at the Rosenthals’. They, if anyone, deserve a thank you. And despite everything, in the face of shit (it’s true!) Nate’s final year was happy. We hung out. We laughed, a lot. We had a pact. No tears.
He was afraid, of course, when his cancer came back, and though I was freaking out I didn’t lose it. The test—of my adulthood, my self-control—came after the second scan. The doctors mentioned new tumor growth and we were trying to absorb it, trying to climb back toward hopefulness. There were second-line drugs. Nate, who had played basketball the previous day, sat on the hospital bed in his street clothes, awaiting the first round of what Paul jokingly called Chemo Lite: wouldn’t even touch his hair, which had grown in thick and curly. Nate felt fine. Then the Bad Doctor laid it all out right in front of us and Nate too—may Someone forgive her (because I won’t)—the five new tumors she saw in the scan—five—and a spot near his heart. Spot? I wanted to strangle her, but it was too late. Nate’s eyes widened, his chin wobbled, and I can hear his voice, suddenly high and thin and helpless: Does this mean I’m going to die? Such a wee voice. When I think of that woman, my hands still clench. Later Thea and I would sit in the car in the parking lot and weep, but Nathan got only our strength, such as it was. I sat down on his bed and took hold of his hand. “Look at me,” I said. “I will not let you die, do you hear me?” I outlined all the second line drugs for his treatment, and angiostatin, which cuts off the tumor’s blood supply, and then herbs and acupuncture and as final assurance a Brazilian faith healer. A trip to Brazil, him and me. “My grand finale?” he said, a riff. He felt better already. I loved him so much at that moment I thought I’d fall to my knees.
“Let’s just call her back-up,” I said, and he laughed. Yes, he died, but not in pain, not miserably.
Am I protesting too much?
In June my folks fly in from Florida. They are elderly but healthy, Dad a golfer, Mom a player of bridge. Mom, at Arrivals with tears in her eyes: “It should’ve been me and not him. I’d’ve traded places.” She said the same thing at the funeral but it’s true. She would have, if she could have. My father scowls, which means pain, not disapproval (it took me years to understand that). He sits in the passenger seat. We scowl at each other companionably.
“How’s Dylan holding up?” my mother calls from the back. “We’re so excited about his bar mitvah. And Thea sounds good on the phone. Are you taking care of yourself?”
“Don’t I look like it?”
I’m aware of their tanned, creased, concerned faces. They will die one day, soon maybe. All of us will die.
The next day all five of us visit the cemetery, Nate’s as yet unmarked grave. Tonight for the first time in years we will go to services. Dylan starts to protest then cuts it off, good boy. “You haven’t ordered the stone?” says my father. “You ought to, you know. Want me to take care of it?”
“It’s under control,” I say. It’s under Thea’s control. I don’t look at her but feel her shoulder against mine. We gaze down at the close-mown, unmarked sod.
If loss is measured by the mandated length of the mourning period, the most profound loss in Judaism is of one’s parents. I regard them, trying crazily to gauge my response to their deaths. Parents are mourned eleven months, till the stone setting, while official mourning for children ends at shloshim. My extended mourning, therefore, is unofficial. Perhaps that’s why it seems endless. A state of being.
In the Exodus days children of course died aplenty.
She’s back to work full time now, travel and all. New people, sights, sounds, smells. New, new, new. At home, less desperately lively, she attends to me. Today she brings me a second cup of coffee and a bagel from the good bagel place near us. She brings a chair into my office and sets it next to mine.
She seems to want to talk, which makes me nervous, as I have nothing to say. If I have to be with people, I want at least two in the party, so they can talk to each other. She puts her head on my shoulder. I smell her shampoo, which I’ve always liked. What did we used to discuss, the boys? Our work? Another stupid thing Bush said? The August sun burns through the window onto my keyboard. My hands feel ice cold. “I’m cold,” I say.
“So turn off the air-conditioning,” she says. “Put on a sweater.” She goes out and brings back a sweater. She opens a window. We’re swathed in hot air. “You seem—” She looks at me.
“How do I seem?”
“I don’t know. Angry? Lost?”
I shrug. “I hate Name-That-Feeling. It’s bad enough with Diane.”
“Allan,” she says, “do you love me? Or is that an ignorant question? I know it’s hard to feel it when you’re in pain.”
Her voice is barely inflected, but I recognize the question as one I’m not permitted to avoid. I try not to sound surly. “Nothing’s changed in that department.” Then, more gently, “I know I don’t show it these days.”
She leaves the room but not huffily. I sit and shiver in my sweater, wondering what she decided not to say. I want a divorce. Wondering when she’ll say it.
I’ve tried to remember what I was like before Nate died. Private. Gruff? An asshole? (But it wasn’t my job to please the world). I was also, I believe, easily hurt, though I don’t know how much of it came through. Humorless I may have seemed although Thea could make me laugh. She used to like that about me—that she, and few others, could make me laugh.
Is there sex after death?
Tonight is Friday and Dylan is sleeping across the street. Thea’s old silky pajamas slide her across the bed to me. Thea wants to make love. Why not, we’re alone? We can groan, we can shout with joy.
Obedient chap that I am, I give it a shot. Our lips come together. My hands commence what hands do in such circumstances. We tried it once or twice in the winter. Disaster. I’m glad she still wants to. But I may have transcended sex. I don’t even masturbate. She looks at me and I have to say something. “I’m sorry?”
With a whispered curse she rolls out of bed. She stands over me, punching out her complaints. “We have one child left. Do you know how much weight he’s gained? It’s like your life is over, it’s so—” she sifts for the word “—self-indulgent!” She takes her pillow and goes to sleep in Dylan’s empty room.
Alone, I try to explain myself: Nate was my boy like Dylan is hers. When I tried to soothe inf