Today I did something I’ve been putting off for 47 weeks: I called Eitan’s neurologist. Didn’t actually speak to him yet, not sure what I will say when I do, would have liked him to reach out to me, months ago… when I asked to speak with him, the receptionist asked, “What’s the patient’s name?” When I said “My son was his patient, he passed away last year, Eitan Stern-Robbins,” she did not say, “I’m so sorry for your loss.” She said, “Could you spell that?”
But I think I was poised to be indignant. The need to assign blame; I’ve tried hard, especially in those early weeks, not to visit Coulda Woulda Shoulda Land, or the country of Ifonlyifonly.
But they’re nearby, hovering.
The precious precariousness of a teenage life was close to the heart this week, with the Jewish boy who went missing. Email after email from my connections – synagogue, day school, CJP, facebook – Missing posts appeared picturing the bespectacled, bekippahed adolescent, and all I could think, pray, was Dear God, let him be safe, warm, alive. It was so frigid on Tuesday when the announcement first came. The possibility of loss is so near the surface for me, so real, more real than the possibility of not loss, of safety, I thought, he looks so vulnerable to the cold, he’s tall, but so thin, the cold would just cut through him. He’s gone, I know he’s gone, I don’t know it, don’t say that, negative vibes, let him be alive, alive, alive. Because I do not want any family to experience the world of loss, to join this aching club.
The boy is a junior, the age of my daughter, grown but not grown up, not there yet, emotions, personality, sensitivities so vulnerable and real and heightened. Today he was found, hundreds of miles away seemingly of his own volition. Prayers were answered, people commented. They held a prayer vigil the other night.
I wasn’t given the opportunity to pray for Eitan’s safety. I mean, I did, always, but not in a moment of crisis, just general, watch over my children and keep them safe prayers. And that had been, has been, part of my issue with God right now, that he could have kept him safe, but didn’t. And yet, this unknown boy, made real from a picture, from his connection to the Jewish community in Boston, I still prayed, to God. Were MY prayers the ones answered? Was it the collective voice? Did my added voice make a difference? Part of religion is communal prayer, but those are general prayers and prayers of praise, for the most part, not individual requests. Was it the prayer of his father, mother, aunt? His younger brother reciting Psalm 121, as his father posted on Twitter?
Today Psalm 121 made me angry, specifically the lines:
The sun will not harm you by day, nor the moon by night.
The Lord will keep you from all harm, he will guard your life.
Because God did not come through for Eitan, he did not protect him from the moon at night. And yet, we chanted the first two lines of the psalm in Hebrew at Eitan’s unveiling, and at Larry’s Shloshim:
I will lift my eyes to the mountains: from where shall my help come?
My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.
So I simultaneously pray to God, and feel God’s impotence, and feel God’s strength, power, and feel God’s presence, and feel God’s absence. And believe, and question.
I feel like I’m heading into some sort of homestretch, the approaching year, like it’s a milestone to be achieved, when truly it’s a milestone I want to avoid, suspend its arrival, freeze time.
January 10 is a year since Shoshi last saw her brother. She had a few weeks off between spending a semester in Israel and the second semester in Cambridge. I was in California, visiting my friend Jill after dropping Gabriel off at his internship. Shoshi was taking a train to visit friends New York and needed to be dropped off by someone 18 or older; Eitan accompanied her to the station, then took the Silverline to the airport for his return flight to Miami. I called him that day from California, to make sure everything went as it should.
I wanted to verify that I did call him, and I checked my phone records. Well, that opened the floodgates. Seeing Eitan’s number, Larry’s number, the numbers I’d call, this month, this final month. God.
A vein regret: That I got Eitan’s return flight for January 10 and not 12, because I would have seen him again. I had bought a ticket for him for the winter break based on the dates he gave me; it turned out they were from the previous year, and we needed to change both the departure and return, since he’d be leaving before finals were over and returning after the new semester started. I was particularly irritated because I resented having to pay the change of date fee, negating the smugly good deal I had gotten on the ticket. And I thought like a grownup, that he’d probably want to get back to school a few days early to settle in. Except none of his friends were back that early, so he said it was pretty quiet; he could have easily returned that Sunday, there’s wasn’t much settling in he needed to do. If only, if only. I returned on Saturday, I would have seen Eitan one more time… as I said, vein regret.
Grief is a festering boil. Or, a tracking device, like the one implanted in the tributes in Catching Fire. No matter where I am, the grief can find me, zero in on my location, because the tracking device is the loss. And I want to lance it out of me, gouge it away, leave it on the ground somewhere to mislead the grief. Except the loss will still be there, it cannot be surgically removed. In the movie Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind (spoiler alert!!), to get over a breakup, people go through a procedure to wipe all memories of the person from their brain, so they therefore don’t remember or feel the pain of the loss. But it’s an imperfect system, and leaks happen. And I cherish the memories, collecting them and honing them, honoring those I love through memory.
More on the yoga front. The classes I’ve been going to have an element of meditation, one I find that I like. Decades ago, when I was in college, I had a boyfriend who brought me to a mediation retreat in Cambridge led by a guru from India. I just remember feeling bored, and then sleepy, and wondered if falling asleep was the same as meditating. But now, it feels peaceful, relaxing, to go into a zone (maybe because it’s just for half an hour or so, not all day long!) for contemplation. Tho it’s in these vulnerable moments my guard is down, and the tears leak.
Last night, the teacher told us to imagine a comfortable place we’d like to be, go to that place, and relax in that place. Invariably, in these situations, I choose some kind of waterfront property. When I was in labor with Shoshi and had a bumbling anesthesiologist (three tries for the epidural, ouch), Jeff knew I loved Banyas, the waterfall in Israel that’s the legendary site of the Garden of Eden. As the doctor jabbed me yet again in the spine and we waited to see if the medication hit the spot, Jeff calmly reminded me of the walk there, hearing the sound of the falls as we approached. “Israel?” asked the anesthesiologist. “How long does it take to get there?”
“I don’t think my wife wants to think about the flight,” Jeff replied.
“But is it expensive to fly there?” the dimwit responded.
Through a contraction still unchecked by the numbing medication, and gritted teeth, I said, “No plane! No plane!” and focused on the river, the water, the clear pool at the base of the falls.
I think of my in-law’s former house in South Wellfleet. I loved to walk the sandy path from the house to the small beach there, where there was an oyster bed we could see at low tide, where prehistoric helmet-like horseshoe crabs would wash up in early summer, where fiddler crabs would scurry back into the sand as the waves receded. Like many creepy crawly things, they kind of freaked out Eitan when he was young, and he’d grab my hand as we walked by, retreating to the higher ground of dryer sand. Around the bend the beach turned into marshlands, and I’d walk on the dried marsh grasses of the path. I loved the silvery green of the Cape grasses, and that shimmery light that’s unique to air near the ocean.
For three summers, when Eitan was 7, 8, and 9, we went to Elmhurst, a sort of resort in Keene, Ontario, known as cottage country – many Canadians in Toronto have weekend cottages in the area, which is riddled with lakes. We’d rendez vous with my parents there, and, two summers, my brother’s family. Eitan loved it. He relished the independence. We each had our own cottage on the lake, and there was a playground and life-size chessboard, which he’d play with his cousins. Because it was in the country, and contained, he could go on his own to the playground, which he loved to do. Plus there were sugar cereals, Wonder Bread with Skippy peanut butter, and undistracted parents (a desirable trait back in those days).
I like to watch the sunrise, and would wake up at first light, which happened about an hour before the sun actually rose. I’d go sit on the dock and watch for fish jumping out of the water and geese swimming by and the sun emerging at the horizon.
That’s another place I can go to relax.
But this time, yesterday, the place that came to mind was my bed, with Larry, feeling the comfort of his arms around me, feeling awed and blessed by love. And I thought, this is a place I can go, I can visit Larry here, in my mind and heart. Tho I protested when the teacher told us to come back, to surface from the depth of the meditation, I wanted to stay, so there was sadness at leaving. But at the same time, there was happiness at allowing myself to truly remember the feel of lying next to the man I love, soft conversation, drifting into sleep, caressed by tangible night.
It was a revelation to me that this could be a place I could visit, different from remembering and yearning. That I could do the same with Eitan, I can go back to the days when I brought him to college, a gift of time with him, having dinner together, the beginning of him feeling comfortable with that again, feeling so proud of him, missing him already, but joyful in his happiness to be entering this new stage of life.
I can’t actually ever have that time with Eitan, or Larry again, and first I thought, it is OK to have these be “places” I go to relax? But I can’t go back to Elmhirst, or the beach at South Wellfleet again, and these are all good places for me to be, and I hold them dear, in my heart, precious embers.
Elmhirst, Ontario, August 2003. Back when the kids would wake up by 7am. I think Eitan and Shoshi joined me for one of my early morning walks, exploring the docks, Eitan happy to be able to go for a walk in his pajamas, vacation luxury.