[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