A hundred and fifty-six weeks.
I was driving on a highway Thursday morning when I started to cry, suddenly. Slight tearing up rapidly shifted into outright bawling, full throttle, from the bottom of my lungs, from the depth of my being. And then I realized the time, it was right around 10:35am, 156 weeks almost to the minute since I got that phone call informing me my son Eitan was gone. Cellular recall, the heart, the soul, remembers before the mind does.
I’m on something of a journey this week. This has been my week of rabbinical yechidut (a one-on-one meeting where a rabbi takes a glimpse into your soul). Three rabbis, profound insights. Soul invigorating, comforting, expanding. Much to ponder and incorporate. And it has been a week spent in a state I was not sure I’d ever return to.
Since Eitan left, Florida has been persona non grata to me. Because he died here. Yes, it was necessary to step foot in this state in order to get to the Caribbean, where I’ve traveled with my daughter for the past two years to spend Eitan’s angelversary somewhere warm and beautiful and not remotely like the frigid February of his funeral. But I had no desire to spend any time here ever again.
In 2014, with the approach of Eitan’s first yahrzeit (the anniversary of his passing, according to the Jewish calendar), my parents decided to sponsor a Shabbat dinner in Eitan’s memory at UMiami Hillel, and planned to sponsor one for each year Eitan would have been at the school. Because in 2013, when Eitan passed away, the Hillel staff at the time, chaplain Robyn Fisher and Rabbi Baruch Plotkin, were amazing (as was everyone at the university). Rabbi Plotkin performed the mitzvah of shmirah, a tradition in Judaism that someone should always be with the body that housed the soul of our loved one until burial. Because Eitan was young and his death sudden, they couldn’t simply transfer him right away to the funeral home (which often provides this service), and Rabbi Plotkin remained by his side in Eitan’s dorm for hours.
A few weeks before he left, Eitan had been pledged into the AEPi fraternity. Chaplain Fisher helped organize the brothers, and others who knew Eitan, into a powerful memorial service – anyone who had an Eitan story shared it with us, a moving way for me to learn more about my son in the place he had spent the last six months of his life. One friend said, “Eitan is gone. But he lives on in our hearts.” A simple thought, perhaps, but one that has stayed with me and still gives me comfort.
In 2014 and 2015, Eitan’s AEPi brothers attended the memorial Shabbat dinner, again sharing stories and memories. This year would have been Eitan’s senior year, and will be the last dinner. As it happens, this year Eitan’s yahrzeit falls exactly on the date of the dinner, starting in the evening of February 12, through Saturday February 13. And Sunday, February 14, is the Gregorian calendar date he was taken.
And this year, my parents and I decided to come to Coral Gables and participate in the Friday night Shabbat service, and share the meal with his AEPi brothers.
Deciding to come here, to travel to Florida, the state that took my child, was not an easy choice. Initially, the idea terrified me. But I also thought it would be a strengthening way to connect with people who knew my son at the last part of his life.
I have special friends in Florida, who have issued repeated invitations to visit. I decided to arrive the week before, which would give me time to study with two rabbis here, thanks to my friend Kim Wiederhorn Lerner. This would also give me a chance to ease my way back into being in Florida, a state I had loved visiting before February 14, 2013.
It was raining when I arrived last Saturday night, as it had been then. My heart contracted as the plane landed, ripples of fraught memories. Then, Tuesday I visited Lauderdale-by-the-Sea, and had lunch with my friend Irit Prize, with whom Eitan and I had stayed when we visited UMiami in April 2012. Waves of happy memories came, of walking around the beach town, contemplating T-shirts to buy, places we shared a meal. More memories emerged as I spoke with Irit. How Eitan slept, deeply, on an inflatable mattress in the living room. Of going to the beach with him, where he stretched out and napped in the late afternoon sun while I walked along, beachcombing.
The day after our lunch, Irit sent me a gift. While transferring old photos from her phone, she stumbled on a pic of Eitan at my house during Passover, about six years ago. One she had no recollection of taking, but it popped up in her photo list that day. Divine arrangement, my mom would say.
Three years ago, when Eitan left, I was so angry with God. And then, after Larry left three months later, I was simply numb. My losses made me aware of how much I talk to God, just little exchanges here and there throughout the day. Because after Eitan, every time I found myself starting to talk, I would cut myself short, asking, what is the point in talking to you, God? You don’t listen to me. And that further underscored my losses, because I felt I was losing my relationship with God as well as losing my son and partner in the flesh.
Except, I missed God too much, missed that relationship, that connection. I did not feel I could forgive God for letting my son die, but then, also felt that it’s not up to me to forgive; is it more can I live with knowing Eitan died, and that no godly miracle occurred to save him. Sometimes God steps in, and sometimes God doesn’t. And we, or I at any rate, cannot possibly understand motivations or reasons behind either in this life, at this level of my existence.
And so I began, three years ago, to speak with rabbis and other spiritual people, trying to reconcile loving God with anger and numbness. This week I’ve been blessed to speak with three rabbis, along with other thoughtful, contemplative, spiritual people. One rabbi said people who have experienced loss, devastation, can choose to dwell in the mystery of beauty, or in the mystery of evil. Of sadness. And I choose beauty, because the slant of light through the trees on a Florida evening makes me say Wow, feel grateful to witness it, while not understanding why such glory randomly catches my eye. There’s no more logical reason for me to be able to experience beauty than there is for me to have experienced tragedy.
Another rabbi spoke of God as the intellect of the universe, and the heartbeat pattern of prayer. And another talked of a transcendent God coexisting with an imminent God, ein sof, without end. Prayer is within us. I am soaking in these words, absorbing, feeling their resonance.
This much I know now: I am grateful for the ability to feel grateful.
Tuesday night, on Rosh Chodesh, the day that marks the beginning of this new Hebrew month, Adar 1, I met a woman who said she loves her father’s yahrzeit, which falls in Adar, because she gets to spend the whole day with him. I would like to love Eitan’s yahrzeit in that way. I am not there yet, but I love the idea of celebrating the gift, the treasure, he was in my life, for 18 years, 10 months, and 11 days. Or, for always.
Just before the sun sets Friday, I will light the 24 hour yahrzeit candle for Eitan with my parents. And I will say kaddish for my son.
For those who know Eitan from me, or from their own time with him, please honor him especially this weekend, perhaps light a candle, tell a friend an Eitan story, be kind to someone just because, connect with those you love.