A new year, a new season.
On the penultimate day of fall, at Shabbat services with a minyan congregation in New Jersey, a goldfinch flew into the room. Not quite clear how, as windows were not open widely. And, although we propped open a door, and did open windows wide on the hazy day, the bird stayed – flew near those means of exit, but circled back into the room and settled on a coat rack during the services, as the Torah was read, as I read the haftorah, the seventh and last haftorah of consolation. “…You shall no more be termed Azuvah, Forsaken… but you shall be called, Hephtzibah, My delight is in her…” A congregant lead a discussion, we put the Torah away, and then the bird flew across the room and straight out the open door.
When I’ve spoken with other parents who have lost a child, many of us have felt visited by animals, birds, insects, some kind of connection. And perhaps this bird was there for me, or for a man there who lost his father, or the woman who had just lost her ailing mother…
After fall began, and I got ready for the Jewish new year, I formed challah dough into spiral rounds instead of the usual braids, for a smooth new year, and my home was filled with the scent of honey and vanilla beans. I have multiple honeys in the cupboard, from farmers markets in California, and a bushel of Honey Crisp apples from a farmers’ market in Cambridge. All elements for a sweet beginning to a sweet new year. Symbols and wonders.
And there is sweetness now. A few weeks ago I got back from an amazing trip to Iceland with my mom – first mother-daughter trip we’ve taken together since the college visit jaunt we took when I was in high school. We flew there, then semi-circumnavigated the island by car, with ever-changing awe-inspiring scenery, a mobile museum with revolving sweeping exhibitions. Lava fields! Cairn cities! Horses! Waterfalls! Mountains! Sheep! Fjords! Gravel roads! Sheep! Steaming bubbling sulphuric pools! Swarms of midges! Glaciers! Sheep! Geysers! Icebergs! Rainbows! Lots and lots of rainbows. Zocher habrit; since the unique brushstroke rainbow that appeared in the sky at his burial, for me, rainbows are a smile from Larry. That the rest of the world near me gets to see too :)
I am discovering the sweet sounds of the clarinet, especially as woven into klezmer music. And rediscovering LPs, that scratch of static leading into “Helplessly Hoping” and “Closer to Fine.” I am appreciating ceramic artists, gradually replacing my chipped and cracked wedding dishes with custom-made plates in shades of blue, green, orange, purple. Enjoying the easy thrill of eating a roasted red pepper and arugula pesto sandwich off a gorgeously crafted dish made by an artist who shared a meal, the first Shabbat meal with guests since Larry passed away. And I am cooking for others again, challot, the chickpea dish Eitan liked, corn chowder, birthday brownies.
It is a release, a relief, to savor all the senses, the cacophony of crickets on a New Jersey end-of-summer evening, the touch of cool sun-drenched air on a stunning fall day, the smell of changing leaves, the taste of corn so sweet you’d think it’s dessert, the sight of the pink-hued predawn sky over Central Square as I walk through the emerging day to yoga. Breathe, just breathe.
Fall is officially here, going into the second season of chaggim with Eitan gone. Third, really, since he was in college not particularly observing them in 2012. But still, I sent him chili-infused honey and When Pigs Fly apple bread as a taste of Rosh Hashannah. He couldn’t have raw apples, he’d developed an allergy, but cooked were fine.
I read the haftorah in shul on the first day of Rosh Hashannah, about Hannah, who couldn’t have children, and prayed for a son, promising to bring him to the Temple to dedicate his life there once he was weaned. The price to pay for a few fleeting years of active motherhood. This boy was the prophet Samuel, Eitan’s middle name, named for his great great Uncle Sam, a lifelong bachelor who lived into his 90s, seemed an auspicious ancestor. I always shared the holidays with Larry, and I saw his daughters this year and his namesake granddaughter Ariella, and shared the chag with friends of his who became mine. Legacy.
I see Eitan’s friends starting their junior year in college, and I think, look at these no longer teenagers, no longer quite kids, they are exploring and growing into their lives, and I envy them, and I admire them, feeling a maternal-by-proxy pride in how they are developing, with wisps of what if and if only tugging at the corners of my brain, my heart…
Sitting in Eitan’s park, the second day of Rosh Hashannah, after early morning yoga, before shul. A woman is there with two Weimaraners, who look at me curiously, slightly suspiciously, but then relax as I sit on a bench inscribed with a permanent marker, EITAN REST IN PEACE. Because I now like dogs, I chat with the woman about hers. “This is our favorite park to come to,” she tells me. “It’s just so, so beautiful.” I agree, it’s an urban oasis, I say. Another dog owner stops by the entrance to the park, asks if her dogs want to say hi. “They’re not really say hi kinds of dogs,” she apologizes. They don’t seem to be barkers, I observe, they didn’t bark at me when I walked by them. “That’s because they like you,” she says. And then I tell her, this park was named for my son. “Oh, that’s so wonderful,” she says, “Such a beautiful place to be named in his honor.” I tell her the quote at the entrance is from him, and she realizes, and she says, “I’ve read that so many times. And, oh, that makes me sad.” And I say that it is sad, but still nice to have this place for him where he hung out with his friends in high school, and she says, “I can feel his energy here.”
It is only after she leaves, when another dog owner comes in with a beagle blend (who has a good long pee by a tree), that it strikes me – Eitan always wanted a dog, so how truly meaningful that dog owners frequent this park, that they find it peaceful and a favorite place to be with their pets. Eitan would like that. Eitan likes that.
A friend called. She had lost her father a few years ago, and sought contact through a medium. The medium reached her father, and a few other people dear to her, and then said, there’s someone young trying to contact you too – a boy in his late teens or early twenties, who died suddenly, a friend of your child’s, perhaps. Now this could be a charlatan medium act – general enough terms. Or it could be real. I have no way of knowing, and it was disconcerting to hear this, because all of us who have lost someone consider this possibility, have the desire to talk directly, beyond our own internal conversations, with our beloved. Was this some kind of bullshit? Was it real? According to the medium, he wanted us here to know that he’s “OK” – whatever that means on “the other side” – whatever that means. It’s not a message a whole lot different from the one I got in my snippet dream a couple months ago. Tho the choice of messenger was odd, and I expected to be more disconcerted by this message than I seem to be. The Rules of Contact from the Afterlife. Physics?
I know I will continue to appreciate the blessings given to me by my son, by Larry, for the rest of my life. And I reflect on the blessings given to me by every single person I’ve met. Perhaps this may sound sentimental, but it’s that time of year. There’s something to be learned from everyone, and I especially thank you all here for listening, and reading, and responding to my reflections during these heart-wrenchingly challenging times.
5774 has come to a close, Nachamu, nachamu, a year of grieving, of seeking comfort, and gaining strength through comfort gained.
5775, as my friend Joan Epstein pointed out, is a palindromic year, the only one this century. And, there is comfort in numbers, in symmetry. The year written in Hebrew letters, תשעה, can have various meanings in Hebrew, depending on the vowels used. Pronounced tish-ah it means the number 9, 3+3+3, a number that feels significant this year. Because I have three children, multiples of three feel important to me right now. Pronounced tish-eh, from לשעות, it means take heed, pay attention, regard, consider. As someone who looks for meaning in the mundane and every day, I like this translation – take heed, pay attention to that mundane. Signs are there if we choose to see them, signs are there if we choose to see them as signs. Signs of what? That’s up to us to see as well.