Today, one year ago, was the last time I saw Eitan. I pondered adding “alive.” But it was the last time I saw him, ever again, because I did not see him dead. Tho I picture him that way in my head often enough. Not him. The body that housed his soul. The rabbi said it would be a decision we’d have to make, down in Florida, whether or not to see him, and either way, we’d have regrets about the decision. My mom and Gabriel needed to see his body, and Jeff accompanied Gabriel. I absolutely could not, I want to remember him alive and breathing.
Eitan was home for the month-long semester break, staying up late and sleeping in later. Often he’d have friends over. Once, I got home from being out and called down to him in the basement. I remember the image of him, coming up the steps, his eyes bloodshot red. “Jeezus,” I said. “I told you no smoking of any kind in my house!” And he responded, “It wasn’t in the house…” Where? The driveway. Had to modify the instructions to “my property.”
I discussed this with Larry. Overall, I’m more relaxed with my kids than my parents were, in terms of curfews and such. But I didn’t approve of Eitan smoking pot, and didn’t want to convey tacit approval by allowing it in my home. Larry, a former hippy, had smoked heavily when he was in high school (and beyond), and he said he thought his parents should have been stricter with him, that they had to have known, and too easily bought into his excuses. He advised that I should stick to my principles with Eitan. Perhaps pot helped his occasional migraines (he claimed), tho I don’t think that was the primary reason he smoked. He smoked because he liked getting high. Duh. The result of my modified rules was Eitan hanging out less at my house. Always a challenge to find the right balance as a parent.
I wish I could remember clearly the last time I saw Eitan, but I don’t. It would have been Wednesday, Jan. 2, because Gabriel and I left very early Thursday morning (driven to the airport by Larry) for California. Gabriel was off to a two-month internship in Mountain View, but first we went to Los Angeles to visit my 94-year-old grandmother. I had asked Eitan if he wanted to come too, knowing he’d say no, since he didn’t care for family travel. She’s 94, I said, you don’t know how long she’ll be around. Still, I didn’t insist, in part because of the cost. Now she’s 95, and he never did see her again.
My grandmother lost her younger brother when he was in his 20s, killed by a drunk driver just after he got out of the army.
It’s likely Eitan came home late Wednesday night, because that was his vacation MO. It’s likely I stayed up all night, or close to it, because that’s my leaving-on-an-early-flight-in-the-morning MO. It’s likely he called out, “Good night,” somewhere around 2 or 3 in the morning, when he went to bed. And it’s likely I poked my head in his bedroom on our way out, just checking for the telltale subtle rise and fall of the blankets, to make sure he was breathing.
That’s the absolute beauty of the mundane, of family life, the day to day, no grand finale. Did I hug him? I don’t remember. The beauty of the living, breathing presence of those we love, simply there, nothing exceptional, so very damn gorgeously, preciously ordinary.
I yearn for the animated body and flesh of my son, but thoughts of decomposition disturb me. I had a discussion with people who have lost children, and many had had their child cremated. The Jewish tradition is not to cremate, but to bury as soon as possible. Either, both, are difficult to think about. And yet think about it I do, like picking at a scab, like taking another whiff of the something rotten at the back of the fridge before throwing it out. Thoughts of the body’s natural decay are as disconcerting as thoughts of the body burning into ashes, the physical essence distilled into a box, an urn. It’s winter again, and Eitan was buried on a frigid winter day. After the burial, I kept imagining him being all alone in the cemetery, freezing in the cold ground, even though I knew intellectually the soul of Eitan, the Eitan of Eitan, was no longer in that body.
The Eitan-ness than transcended his body – where is that? And the Larry-ness? I talk to them, Larry more often because he was my partner, the one I spoke to daily; Eitan in college I talked to weekly at best. And we were not at a stage of having frequent deep or confiding conversations – we would, eventually, I knew, as he became more comfortable with himself; he was already on that path. But not yet.
So I wonder, do they listen when I talk to them? Is Eitan, in whatever form he’s in, hovering around, waiting to hear my words? Do I have to say his name for him to know I’m talking to him? I call out his name, loud, louder, and it scares me because he is not answering, and it is too chilling to remember when I would call out to him, downstairs, needing to tell him something.
Can he read my internal thoughts, or do I have to speak them aloud for him to hear? I don’t want him, or Larry, to be reading my internal thoughts, like I imagine God does. Can Eitan listen to multiple people simultaneously? When I’m talking to him, is his dad talking to him too, or Shoshi, Gabriel, his friends, acquaintances? Can he be everywhere? Are there times when we do feel his presence? I only have in dreams or sort of visions, and I don’t know how much of that comes solely, souly from me. His friend Michael from college, at the memorial at UMiami, said Eitan lives on in our hearts, and maybe bits of his soul are somehow in each of us who love him, so that he can hear us each whenever we talk to him.
When my grandmother Omi passed away in 2000 she had recently turned 91. I had been very close to her, she was a role model to me in life, but I never spoke to her after she died, it just wasn’t something that I seemed to need to do. I was very sad she was gone, but she had lived a full, happy life, and had been slowly declining. Eitan, Larry, were too sudden, their lives did not feel full yet, were unfinished. Now I wonder if Omi was there to greet Eitan, show him the ropes, is that something our ancestors do for us, familiarize us with the next place?
I so want there to be a next place, somewhere for Eitan’s soul to soar.
Thursdays are the hard day, the weekly marker. I was born on a Thursday, so I suppose my own life week starts with that day.
Thursday was established as a transition day for me in the summer of 2005, when my marriage ended. My kids were always with their dad on Thursday nights, whether it was part of their midweek time with him, or their weekend time. That’s the night I would schedule to do things out of the house – take classes, dates with Larry, dinner with friends. And, while I enjoyed my evenings out, I also had an almost visceral physical reaction to the separation. Sometimes I would feel on edge or irritable, and it would take me a little while to realize oh, it’s because of the transition away from my children, because the house will be empty of their needs and demands and simple presence. I envied intact families, unbroken marriages, parents that had the luxury of complaining of needing a break from their kids.
It halved the number of days I had with Eitan. And that, for me, is the absolute worse fallout from the divorce.
But wherever our children are, whatever age they are, we are always, forever their parents. I will always be Eitan’s mom. I am lucky enough to have pretty wonderful, loving parents, and I know they feel that umbilical connection to me, even though I have not lived with them for 33 years.
A few days ago, I finished a box of Cheerios (OK, the Trader Joe’s knockoff) that was in the pantry. At first I thought, the box must’ve been close to a year old, because Eitan was the one who ate them, then remembered, Gabriel lived here last summer after he graduated, before moving into his own place (so, only five months old!). I used to eat Cheerios daily until my 40s, but changed to other things, and Shoshi never was a cereal and milk person. But Gabriel and Eitan both were, and Cheerios was a favorite (no sugar cereals allowed, that was for vacations only).
In fact, Gabriel established a breakfast tradition that both he and Eitan loved: Cheerios flour. This is the powdery stuff at the bottom of the bag, the stuff I’d throw away because I disliked the dusty texture. But Gabriel loved it, and somehow came up with the idea of making our own. Yes, pulverizing Cheerios in the food processor to a fine powder. I think Shoshi even jumped on the Cheerios flour bandwagon when she was young, following her brothers’ lead (“the brothers,” we used to call them). Grinding up a box of Cheerios is not the most economical use of the cereal – it takes several servings of Cheerios to fill one bowl with Cheerios flour. So this became an occasional weekend treat. They’d pour milk on it and make a kind of Cheerios paste. To this day, I do not understand the appeal, but Gabriel and Eitan demanded it for years.
When Eitan was in second or third grade, he took a cooking class at Schechter afterschool, and became enamored with experimenting in the kitchen. Ever the food professional, I’d write down his recipes – he envisioned certain cakes and what he wanted in them. I would do my best not to overly interfere, because of course I know the Right Way to do everything in the kitchen, and it would take great self control not to just grab the spoon, mixer, whisk and take over. In fact, often I’d leave the kitchen because I could get too bossy.
But, when Eitan was 8, he still needed a modicum of supervision. One creation was Yum-a-tums, mini cupcakes (I think he originally wanted to call them Yucky Cakes, to throw people off, but I nixed that name). He created raspberry and chocolate variations, and they were pretty good.
One time, Eitan decided he wanted to make smoothies, on his own, so he could add secret ingredients. I actually did trust him not to make too big a mess. After noises of tinkering and blending and fridge and cupboard opening and closing and more blending, he announced his masterpiece was ready. He brought the blender pitcher into the dining room and poured us each a glass of the thick, grayish purple concoction. There was a gleeful twinkle in his eye as we each took a sip.
I detected raspberries, blueberries, a tang of yogurt, perhaps a little bit of chocolate, honey… and, “Are there Cheerios in this?” I asked.
“Yes!” he giggled, slurping from his glass. “It was a little thin, so I added Cheerios to make it thicker.”
I never thought of Cheerios as having a particularly strong flavor, but they overshadowed all the other ingredients. His siblings and dad took minuscule, polite sips. Eitan took another swallow. He put down his glass. “I don’t really like it,” he confessed.
I think we all let out a collective sigh of relief. “Me neither!” we all agreed, practically in unison.
“Do I have to finish it?” he asked.
“No! None of us do!” I said. “Live and learn. Sometimes recipes succeed, sometimes they don’t. Now we know for future reference. Cheerios don’t really go very well in fruit smoothies.”
Years later, in high school, Eitan didn’t cook often, but he was quite competent when he did. I even had him test a sweet potato-pecan pie recipe for the magazine I edit, when I needed a last-minute retesting – his name is on the masthead as a recipe tester for that issue.
Just over a year ago, on December 30, I posted here: “Life is good: all three of my kids were home tonight, from Israel, Miami, and Worcester. Happy Ema.” And, smartphone to the rescue, took these photos, the last of my trio together. Innocent times, reveling in the joy of having all three of my kids home. I think of them like kites – flying high coasting on the wind, traveling their independent paths, still connected to me through gossamer strings, barely visible, but strong as the love that spun them.