Rinse and Repeat

It’s all a blur and we are so very tired. The demands and needs are endless and cyclic, and we either forget or don’t have time to pay attention to ourselves. But regrettably, it’s not an adorable newborn baby we are caring for, where the beauty and wonder of a new life compensates for the sleep deprivation and fatigue. Neither is it managing the care and hope and life for a child, which, incredibly, I deeply miss all the time. This chapter is about the painstaking, daily effort to meet the needs of an elderly person, someone who sometimes knows where she is and fiercely defends herself, and sometimes believes that her son is her husband.

Rinse and repeat: We drag ourselves out of bed in the morning, act responsibly and professionally at work because other people are counting on us there, too, make calls on behalf of mom, and take hours from work to tend to her doctor appointments and other critical, sometimes emergent needs. At home we collapse, rinse, repeat and do it all over again the next day. Yes, we manage to insert meals and errands and exercising, and sometimes manage a night out with friends. But when the evening plan was filing or ironing, and instead becomes a trip to the ER or a quick visit to say goodnight, or a series of phone calls trying to explain who we are and where she is, there is simply no energy left for anything else.

We have been here before, transitioning to end of life. And maybe we’ll get better at it; perhaps I’ll stop complaining like my wonderful friend who lovingly takes of her mom without uttering a word. After all, this is a woman who deserves every ounce of care and attention she gave to others. But at the beginning and end of each day, my husband and I look at each other, bleary-eyed and weary of the heart, and wonder what happened to our life.

I am spent, and cannot begin to explain to others that my baseline of life changed irrevocably with our son’s final journey. Sometimes I fear (I know?) that no one can bear to hear about our loss anymore because it’s in the past, and we should simply move beyond it. We’ve had our stint of warm meals delivered to our home, unnecessary treats and gifts bestowed upon us, unrelenting awareness and attentiveness towards us, and prayers for the well-being of our son, our family. All of that faded along with Gilad, and sometimes I feel that we are expected to simply be as normal as everyone else. But the raw truth is that my entire perspective on life – and the hope life holds – was beaten and pummeled along with my heart. I don’t believe in anything the way others do or in the manner I used to. We expend conscious effort to be positive, and it takes significant planning to weave goodness and pleasure into our rinse-repeat cycle. My baseline is that life is heavy and it hurts and is arduous and too often hellish and it’s so damned unfair, and I wrestle with those overwhelming emotions every single day.

We are in our mid-50s and should be enjoying the freedom from tuition, the absence of child-care responsibilities, and simply revel in the quiet of an empty nest. But we have have aged and feel so much older than our years, so drained and worn out and diminished from everything we have been through and continue to face every day. We are emotionally exhausted from doing so much for others, going to and fro, getting this and that, rinsing and repeating.

Over 30 years ago I met the kindest man who I hoped to spend my life with. But it is not the life I ever imagined it would be. I understood that my choice of being a stay-at-home mom would have its downside; I knew that moving across the country would have its issues; I learned how to deal with the challenges of marriage and family. I accepted and appreciated those typical trajectories, but I continue to thrash at my fate. Yes, I have the blessings of children and grandchildren, but I am greedy and it’s not enough. I wanted to live to see every single one of my children grow up, take hold of their independence, marry, and continue the cycle of life and our family’s legacy and traditions. And I am forever struggling with that disappointment. Underneath my well-dressed armor, I am piggish and resentful, and I have coveted what others have and what I feel I deserve. And that, my friends, is that backdrop upon which we care for our mothers, one declining and the other still healthy and independent, but she will not live forever. So we spend our days rinsing, repeating, and endeavoring to find and recognize and savor the kernels of goodness and happiness and satisfaction in each moment, each day, each chapter.

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Inspired to Pray or Praying to be Inspired?

It’s the eve of Yom Kippur and we are knee-deep in our holiday season. We menu-plan and shop and cook and freeze; we invite guests and polish the silver and iron the white tablecloth. As we welcome Rosh Hashana, there’s the tradition to gather new things for the upcoming year: a new fruit to introduce unique flavors, chic fashions to recharge our tired wardrobe, fresh flowers to bedazzle and grace the table.

But with all of that holiday prep, let’s not forget that the new year has meaning beyond the sumptuous meals and calculating vacation days at work. When it’s still summer-warm, the shofar reminds us to peek around the corner, guiding us to more somber days. The late Saturday night first selichot prayer forces us take notice that something momentous is about to happen. Back-to-school is not just for the children; an educational experience is in the air for us all. The little ones come home with projects, excited about what will unfold at home, but we owe it to ourselves to do the same.

This is the time of year to take a step back before we step foot inside the synagogue. We expend unusual time and effort to wish each other a good year, sending cards and posting messages; we reach out and call those we are not in touch with on a regular basis. The words slip off our lips easily, as we express our hopes for a good and sweet year, a successful and healthy one, as if wishing makes it true. But how do we get from the apples and honey to financial success, good health, and disciplined children? The shofar and the pomegranate and the squeaky patent leather shoes set aside for yom tov are but signals for us to pay attention to our lives, to heed the sounds, and think about the universe and who might be at the helm while we are busy running, doing, chopping, mopping.

And then, before we know it, we are seating on chairs labeled with our names, the white velvet cover is on the ark, the machzor is in our hands. And we realize that we forgot to take the time to prepare for this. How should we go about praying for long life, for the resources to pay our bills, to find a soulmate, to get along with our family? How do we daven for our own, personal good year, or simply to interact honestly and well with each other? What happened to the individualized thoughts that were swimming in our heads a year ago, ones that we vowed to pin down on paper and tuck into the siddur for next year?

When we flip through the machzor, where do we find those special words and how do we pray for that good year which we so desperately seek? Have you noticed that the tefillot on Rosh Hashana are not about us? Aside from Netana Tokef and Avenu Malkenu, the focus is actually not our hopes and wishes.

So, what is prayer, and what is the purpose of Rosh Hashana davening?  The tefillot have been standardized, but sometimes the printed words feel distant and hollow, the words as elusive as Gd Himself.

Our forefathers organically reached out to Gd, as people in pain are wont to do, and our daily – read formal – prayers today echo those conversations. Later, prayer ensured the continuity of connection in the absence of the holy Temple, which had afforded the community the opportunity to gather, celebrate life cycle events, or atone for sins. Traditions of animal sacrifice in the presence of Gd’s holy spirit was thus replaced by communal prayer.

Generations have passed since the oral word was scribed, and the written word became expansive when printing became wildly popular. But in the process we have lost our personal signature. With prescribed tefillot we don’t own the words, and our connection to them can be tenuous and diluted. For some there is a language barrier, for others reciting animal offerings feels culturally foreign to us. Perhaps we don’t want to thank the Almighty for being benevolent or healing the sick when that has not been our personal experience. Or maybe it’s that we are so intent on our own agenda that  praises to Gd don’t come naturally to us.

When we borrow someone else’s words we run the risk of sitting passively and waiting for inspiration, for the letters to be infused with meaning. Is prayer a vehicle for inspiration or should we naturally be inspired to pray? If we each have a unique kinship with Gd, shouldn’t we be creating our own moments, crafting our own personal tefillot, even alongside others in a communal space? We have every right to substitute our own words or tears, to pray in whatever form or language our heart takes us.

Yet, the machzor, our guide to these exceedingly important high holidays where we spend time in the synagogue for hours on end, is really about the fact that our life is not in our hands.  Pages and pages and paragraphs and more declare Gd as King of the universe and the Master of all beings. And who is making those statements? Why it’s us, of course.

I believe that the purpose of the high holidays is to set the tone for the rest of the year. We have been placed on this earth without our consent, and we exit with nary a choice. In between those fateful days, our life is ours to live with free choice. Or is it? The raw truth is that we are given not only guidelines from the Torah – as other religions have theirs – but the laws of nature direct us, as well. We have no control over time and space, or weather or sickness, or the genes that dictate our physical and emotional well-being. But in between the raindrops of those constraints is where we are free to live our lives. We can choose where to live and who to marry and what profession to pursue and how to dress or speak or eat. Our options are a thousand-fold for each minutia of life, but we need to be reminded by the shofar and the prayers that we are orchestrating only a tiny slice of life that resides layers below the glass ceiling. I believe that our Rosh Hashana is the acceptance that, although we can live with every fiber of our being, every passion to its fullest, and avail ourselves of every alternative, we are still but mice running in a maze designed especially for us.

During our son’s illness and in the aftermath of his passing, I probed within and without our religion, and demanded and wailed and begged for the meaning of life. A mere two weeks after we got up from shiva we found ourselves in the community synagogue, drawn there as we have always been and continue to be. And what I know is this: My life is but a speck in the sand of the universe, past and future. There is something beyond all of us and all of this, and only Gd knows what it is. This knowledge is etched in my soul, borne of burying my son. I see and understand things in a way I wouldn’t recommend to others.

Our season with Gilad, from the time of his passing at the end of the summer to his birthday in the fall, forms the bookends to our High Holidays. This season of holidays are enmeshed with our personal sorrow and no soul searching is required for us to think deeply of life and wonder at Gd’s presence in it, for that is our inner, daily battle with Gd.

Yet, prayer still leaves me confounded. I know that the power of prayer isn’t all that I want or hope it should be, and I’m disappointed and disillusioned by that. My life has not turned out the way I expected, and I struggle with the standardized words of prayer. But at least I am still in a conversation with Gd.

My Rosh Hashana moment in shul came when I heard my husband’s voice leading the congregation. That, and that alone, can move me to believe that connection and inspiration through prayer is possible. Whether I follow along with the written word or hum along with his father’s melodies, I am finally present for tefillah.  I may choose to mouth my own honest, no-holds-barred, sentiments to Gd or I may have the courage to join in the group prayer, chanting together as our single notes form a powerful cacophony that surely both Gd and Gilad can hear.

I will spend my days on this earth trying to understand what life is supposed to be about. But whatever form it takes, prayer is always a possibility.

Gmar Chatima Tova.

Summer: Past and Present

If it’s the pain that forces the pen to the page, does my absence here indicate a semblance of normalcy in our lives? Maybe. I admit that it does speak to a healthy level of functioning in the face of 5-year-old grief, but August is also the time of the year when I want to shout from the rooftops and announce to every single soul in the world that my son dies every year in August, every single August 26.

Yes, we are incredibly busy, but I know full well that raw pain permeates even the most active of lives. Over time we have carved a routine for ourselves in the absence of Gilad: meticulously scheduled days that have me running from work to errands to exercise to exhaustion, caring for our mothers, running to the grandchildren, socializing with friends with pot-luck meals when the thought of making even a cup of tea for someone else leaves me confounded. We are hurried and harried, a form of distraction which in turn begets sanity and functioning. And what slowly happens is that while the grief sits alongside one’s heart, the fluff of life begins to surround it, and the joys soften the pain. Thankfully that happened to us this summer, and honestly, it was a welcome relief.

As the weather warmed, and spring and then summer appeared, we were blessed to celebrate a few special occasions, moments in time that encapsulate what life is truly about. In the middle of June our daughter welcomed a son into this earthly world, the first boy born to our family in decades. I still harbor a hope that in some magical way the baby’s soul convened pre-birth with Gilad. Eight days later our grandson joined the tribe as Gilad Akiva; in the words of our son-in-law, writing a new chapter for our family, carrying on Gilad’s great qualities, and calling forth the sage Rabbi Akiva’s independence, creativity and passion that the elder rabbi brought forth in his second wind of life. What brilliant children I have: a second chance at life.

A few short weeks later, my niece, a promising, intelligent, loving human being, a young woman whose beauty goes beyond her features to a soul that one feels lucky to have encountered, transformed from bride to wife on a glorious Sunday afternoon. My tears were bittersweet as she, bedecked in wedding white, eyes sparkling at her soon-to-be-husband, found the time in her heart to whisper to me that she misses her cousin. Four months older than she, Gilad is still only 19 to her 24. His life stopped 5 years ago, and watching her approach her moment under the chuppah was joy tinged with sadness, as she rightfully celebrated her life yet to come in the shadows of mine whose life will never be again.

Our family has chosen to take the high road, to take notice of our blessings, and embrace them with all the love and fortitude we can muster. This is what we consciously choose to focus on, instead of the pain and grief. But don’t be mistaken: the grief is still there in every breath and movement. We simply allow life’s beauty to enter, to blend and temper the joys with the challenges.

This summer we danced and cried at weddings, and celebrated a birth with tears and laughter. We helped my mother move from her home of 54 years, and we initiated a heavenly, splendid family weekend in the Berkshires, the first since our Make-A-Wish trip. During our family barbeque on Sunday, before we all went our separate ways towards home, I stood on the deck and observed our family: Yocheved was nursing the baby; Shua playing guitar; Eddie, Ariel, and Ezra started the fire with paper and twigs; the girls were running across the lawn following Elana on a flower and crab-apple hunt. I felt the glaring, missing presence of Gilad and it hurts still to recall the moment.

Gilad will always be present in our lives, but it is in the form of memories and fleeting emotions and lessons he left us with. I long for something tangible, to really feel him and see him and hold him and love him as I once was able to. While August used to be the bittersweet close of the summer months, now it is filled with dread and sadness and a wistfulness of a life not fully lived. As everyone is putting the last touches on summer, embracing the free spirit of the season, splashing, laughing and enjoying the last moments of a changed routine, I know that August is when my son died.

But then I force myself forward, riding the momentum, knowing that soon we will herald fall, the holidays, and October, when we celebrate Gilad’s entrance into this world. And in a sleight of hand that only he could have managed, Gilad bequeathed his special day to his niece and his name to his nephew, so that we would smile in spite of it all. He might have been daring us to keep our promise to live, and live well, guiding us to blend and balance our family’s past, present and future.

Generations Unfolding

We are the last stop on the train. Our life, our presence, our hearts, is where you want to land when the last phase of your life may be happening. We love, pay attention, facilitate the particulars, meticulously coordinate, are kindly and patiently concerned, and always painstakingly vigilant. We gingerly and carefully make things happen, and when necessary, we move and shake.

Time swishes this way and that. Generations unfold and change, care is swapped, and roles are reversed. Hands on the clock have cycled at cartoonish speed and the time has come for us to care for those who lovingly raised us when we were small and helpless, the ones in need. What one does for the other comes echoing back back years later.

I admit that often it is simply too much. My days are full, my plate is overflowing, and some days, too many days, my energy is so depleted that I feel like I am drowning, losing it. I have been here before, I tell myself, in a place where someone’s needs are greater than mine, and can be intensely overwhelming. I have already journeyed through the end of someone’s life, the doctor visits, the compassionate but exhaustive care, the endless and unremitting details, the follow up and follow through, the tending to every need to ensure the quality of life, the quality of days. Yet somehow it’s our turn again, this time to tend to the wonderful women in the family, matriarchs who gently and lovingly took care of us. So I try to put forth the best of myself even when I feel short-tempered and impatient. It’s draining and frequently makes me feel invisible, but I listen to their stories and solve their problems, all the while navigating my way through a life that never should have turned out this way, bereft of spirit, stripped of my son.

I am at work, students knocking on my office door, documents open for revision, files layered on my desk. A call comes in that there’s a test result I must deal with, or an appointment that needs to be made. Or my mother-in-law just wants to chat or needs to give me her grocery list as she slowly checks the inventory in her pantry and fridge. My patience comes from an unknown source, the multi-tasking now second nature. “Do you have time for this now?” she sweetly asks. “Yes, Mom, no problem. Just tell me what you need.” Or she tells me about her dream or the drama in the dining room yesterday evening or the pain she has in her fingers, her hips, her life. Scenarios I never could have anticipated arise; the minute we crossed over the border to Canada for a few days rest was exactly when my husband’s mother was admitted to the hospital.

She often accuses us of treating her like a baby, but when I help her on with her clothes or strap the seat belt around her shoulder in the car, she does not complain. And now another parent – albeit active and healthy – will be moving here soon, living the last, and hopefully long, phase of her life close to us.  While my mother is fiercely independent, she believes she will help me more than I will support her, but I am the wiser. I have already rearranged my schedule to preview condos for her, to inquire, pave the way, make sure that her transition here after 50 years in one city will be a smooth one. My sister and I are helping her in new ways, explaining options, clarifying, simplifying, being there for her as she continues to live and age.

It takes an inordinate amount of patience to take care of my husband’s mother, and I know my mother will demand a part of me, too, a fragment of my broken self. I somehow draw from an unknown well that is deeper and wider than my life, the patience coming from an inexplicable source, likely something my sweet boy left me in the aftermath of his demise.

Life is not simply about the choices we make, but speaks to the power to handle the ones we are faced with. It’s all good and well to cautiously plan which path to take, but often the journey takes you to place where there are no forks in road, where the route is windy and unpleasant and tenacious. Sometimes the only alternatives are bad or worse, and we need to choose between what is least offensive or distressing.

How is it, I wonder, that this is what we are now good at? There are many ways to be successful in life, whether it’s the achievement of fame or attainment of wealth, or the realization of one’s hopes and dreams. Ambition is not only realized in manifestations of possessions or titles; sometimes it’s the ability to lovingly care for those who come into your life and stay until the end. This would not have been my choice, however. I did not need to be baptized by the fire of my son’s illness to teach me kindness and forbearance, but it is a welcome outcome that serves us well. I enter this stage of mothering the mothers already depleted, not from years of caring for children and then putting a career in order, but from a disillusionment of a higher order, my hopes dashed when I slogged backwards and buried the young before the old. This next phase of caretaking is indeed in the natural order of things, and I pray for the strength not only to endure, but to learn and gain from giving back to those who gave us life and breath.

Reverberations and Aberrations: Tefillin Laying Fallow

During a year when the land lays fallow, as it rests from owners planting, threshing, and sowing, there are religious items that are gathering dust in observant families’ homes. For generations, age-old and sage-scribed religious objects, natural parchment encased in leather boxes embossed with shiny letters and images, have been donned each morning as a gateway to the spiritual realm. Thought to imbibe us with the ability to transcend the physical world, the tefillin  are bound to the head and arm, long straps are wound in a specific method and pattern, hopefully intertwining our hearts and minds with something, with Someone.

Yet, I know of too many families whose sons’ and husbands’ tefillin now lay dormant. The excitement of the pre-Bar Mitzvah gift has long worn off, the thrill of the bo bayom first official day of wearing phylacteries is only present in photographs of the smiling young, hopeful man. And then life happened.

I think of the concentration camp inmates who yearned for any religious object to connect to their tradition in the face of irrational existence, in a culture devoid of the natural order of the word. But upon liberation, although many survivors embraced their faith, wrapped themselves in familiar, worn tallitot, and donned tefillin, others spit on God and religion, and never reclaimed their tefillin.

A month of holidays are behind us on the last corner of the calendar, and my husband’s voice leading the congregation on Yom Kippur reverberates in my ears.I picture him as a young boy, restless in the back of shul or with his friends playing in the hallway, half-listening to but absorbing his father’s melodies and tunes. Known in liturgical terms as nusach, the traditional melodic prayers passed from one generation to the next, my husband carries his father’s repertoire with him and presents it to us as a gift at the close of Yom Kippur. But how my husband, the father of our most precious and valuable souls – including the boy we lost and buried together  – still manages to pray to God and lead others boggles my mind and rips at my heart. His father survived the camps and chose to continue to believe, as did mine, so maybe we are genetically programmed to hold tightly to faith, and to keep those straps and boxes close by.

The year is supposed to start anew, but it has begun with a vengeance. It’s not unusual to have a flood of deaths after a month of holidays, and we can often accept the graceful end of life of a great-grandparent, however painful and life-altering. But it’s the tragic accidents, new diagnoses, and disquiet in Israel that are senseless and cause suffering and pain and torment. How do we rationalize a healthy fun-loving 20-year-old who slips and hits his head on Shmini Atzeret and is gone a few days later? How do we understand a 3-month old baby in a stroller who is thrown from her precious parents and sweet life?  What do we possibly do when our core beliefs are shaken by a community leader who falls from grace, shrinking from the pedestal of ethics he created for himself (and possibly we bowed to), whose personal demise is inextricably linked to the status of conversions which drowned in the mikveh waters along with his ego. All of this on the heels of a summer of fresh-faced boys EyalGiladNaftali ripped from their lives in a stolen car on the side of a road that could have been ours. These are more than just the simple stresses of life and I am honestly not sure I can bear it. Yom Kippur echoes in our psyche, and our modern day sukkah huts may still be standing in our yards, but the days are already awash with tears.

Several years ago, the community prayed along with us for the health of our son. I watched and cried as he was chosen to open the Aron, the Ark of the Torah, so that in the merit of that holy deed his scans the following day would be deemed good. It was the culmination of the annual audit of the Book of Life, with its tally of deeds and a glimpse into the future. The congregation was with us, we were a single but communal voice praying, pleading, beseeching, and how could the outcome be anything but good? My husband was at the helm, my son at the sidelines, and the congregation was alongside and behind us shaking the heavens. But the scans the following day showed the cancer had spread. Say what? What, then, was Yom Kippur all about? What does any Yom Kippur or holiday or religious observance mean?

Somehow my husband continues to lead and pray, and my hair remains covered. We welcome Shabbat, keep a kosher home, observe to the best of our ability, but sometimes we are hanging to our beliefs by our fingernails. The tefillin no longer speak to all of us, the chain that bound us to them is loose, and that saddens me deeply. They are lost in luggage and unclaimed, forgotten in the washing machine, or simply sitting on a shelf in the closet. I walk over to my son’s tefillin knowing he is gone from his world and can no longer wear them. But my heart knows that he stopped donning them when he was still alive. I am wise enough to know that each person’s religious observance is not and should not be the same, but I childishly want everyone to hold on as desperately as I do. I am afraid that if enough people dismiss the traditions that have bound us as tightly as the tefillin on our men’s arms, then I too, will unwind.

Rosh Hashana: And His Name Shall Be Called

The weighty and lofty days High Holidays are upon us. The beginning of the Jewish New Year heralds us to pause from the mundane, from our ordinary daily lives, to take stock. Are we doing okay?

Our pockets may be full, but what about our souls? Goals from last year may have been reached, but were some downgraded in importance or did anything slip through the cracks of convenience? Are we self-aware enough to to honestly assess, and more importantly, to look towards the future with prayer and hope? Do we need to dig down to find the conviction to make the most and the best of life while conforming to the standards carefully and skillfully handed down for generations?

When one’s life has been interrupted, however, when life’s dreams and hopes have been shattered, these critical holy days take on other meaning. How can we pray to the Entity who partnered with us to create the spirit of our child, but who then turned around and snatched him back? A fistful of our future died along with Gilad, always our child, but in reality no longer counted among our offspring. Our legacy was supposed to be in the form of the children we assumed would outlive us.

So we adjust, and we deflect. Occasionally we step out during the prayers that speak of life and death, especially the one that reels off unnecessarily, and in gruesome detail, ways one may exit this world. Other times we find books to read that speak to our broken spirit and our spiritual challenges. The machzor is full of praise to Gd, and while we don’t always agree with the liturgy, we pronounce those that are innocuous. And sometimes we take a step back, albeit away from the prayer book, and look around the synagogue at the larger picture of community, the remaining thriving family, the health we certainly don’t take for granted, the bills we are able to pay. Through tears and frustrated emotions, and – dare I say – with envy towards those around us who seem satisfied, we check our disappointment at the door and focus on the good that is present in our life. Our survival plan is the kit bag we carry everywhere.

We are but infinitesimal cogs in the great wheel of life. Earlier generations were unaware of their future in us, and, in turn, we’ll be unknown in the centuries to come. But the key is to live our life so that we can leave a piece of ourselves behind, so that we can be remembered. In that way life becomes an amalgam of all the souls who have ever treaded, lightly or with great commotion, upon this earth.

Our sweet precious Gilad Hillel left us before he was fully able to make his mark on the world. Or did he? Gilad did not receive a university degree, yet he learned more than others do in a longer lifetime. He did not have the opportunity to reach professional or financial success, but he certainly possessed a remarkable self-assuredness and was surrounded by a constellation of friends who utterly loved him. And now we have entered the era of his peers naming their children in his honor and memory. Even in one’s absence, there are ways to distinguish a life.

Eli Langbaum was one of Gilad’s dear friends, and a few days before Gilad passed away, I was sitting next to Gilad as he was saying yet another goodbye to a friend. It was heartbreaking to witness him telling Eli that he loved him and asked Eli not to forget him. (Sigh. Breathe.) In July, just a few months ago, Eli and his wife Elianna named their newborn son Yehoshua Raniel. I instinctively knew that Eli would remember Gilad with his son. Eli told me that they were looking for a name derived from the meaning of either Gilad or Hillel, and found that in Raniel, which comes from the hebrew shoresh (root) reish-nun, or Ran, primarily meaning joy or happiness, similar to Gil in Gilad. Ran also has a secondary meaning, to sing, which fits nicely with the name Hillel. Eli would have gotten one of Gilad’s infamous half-smiles for the notable deed of producing a child, and for the kindness of remembering Gilad.

And this morning, another one of Gilad’s close friends, Shaya Katz, along with his wife Rikki, named their baby son David Menashe. I was crying when Shaya told me that last week, on the 16 of Elul, he received a text from from his wife informing him that her labor was starting. He was in the exact same place at precisely the same time 4 years earlier when Adam Neuman texted him early in the morning, also the 16 of Elul, that Gilad was gone. It’s not only the cycle of life; it’s what you choose to with your journey of opportunities.

Shaya shared with me that long before our Gilad was born, Gilad was a geographical location in Israel, given to the 2 ½ tribes, Reuven, Gad and half of Menashe. Apparently 2 of the brothers, but not Menashe, requested this particular plot of land. Gd assented, but also gave Gilad to Menashe to to fill a void that Gd perceived among the people, in order to sustain the other 2 tribes. Incredibly, thousands of years later, a new Menashe was named to fill the empty space that has been echoing with what used to be Gilad’s existence. These are Shaya’s words at the bris of his son: “Menashe was filling the void of Gilad, the essence, the soul of the region. They inhabited the void of Gilad. So too, our hope is that our Menashe will join Yehoshua Roniel Langbaum in filling the void of our own spiritual landscape, one which has been lacking in our lives for the past four years.” Shaya would have gotten more than just props from Gilad.

As a way for Sarit Rothschild to bring Gilad’s spirit into her wedding last summer, she chose to use Gilad’s kiddush cup under her chuppah, drinking sips of wine from the same vessel Gilad used since his Bar Mitzvah. Sarah Kraut, one of Gilad’s friends of his heart since preschool, recently married. Her favorite movie may still be The Lion King, and when she was young, she spent quite a bit of time with Gilad watching the movie, singing the songs, and playing with the action figures. What strikes me is how years later we are enacting the cycle of life with the weddings and babies of Gilad’s friends. He may not here to experience or enjoy or be a living part of it, but his friends are taking Gilad along with them. They are living their lives remembering him, thinking of him on their wedding days, and naming their children as a legacy and tribute to Gilad. It is priceless; it is heartwarming; it is what I add to my survival kit.

Rosh Hashana is waiting for us just around the corner. This year when we think about who we are and what we want to be, please remember a sweet boy whose legacy is us. Gilad left all of us behind, and it’s our responsibility to live well, and to do what is right and good in Gilad Hillel’s honor. I may answer to Gd, but I am accountable to my son Gilad to unequivocally ensure his legacy. Shana Tova.

 

Marking Time

16 Elul 5774

We have arrived, emotional baggage and cloaked hearts in tow, at Gilad’s fourth yahrtzeit. It’s beyond my human ability to comprehend that 4 entire years, 1460 days, have passed since Gilad has breathed air in this universe, more days than that since we’ve heard his voice. Everyone else is growing up, moving on; they are graduating from college, going to grad school or work, getting married, and the next generation has begun to arrive. Gilad is missing all of that, gone at 19, no longer present, not part of our daily lives anymore.

Time is confounding, an invention which measures a continuum between one event and the next. Based on the lunar counting of 354.37 days per year, however, it is only 1417 days (less than 1460 days) since Gilad left us. We endeavor to live our life in harmony, yet these numbers are anything but synchronous. Instead it gives credence to my belief that the earthly world we live in is inexplicable and baffling. How can we can mark time in 2 different – and possibly equal – ways and days?

Time moves on whether we are mindful or fail to take notice, sometimes imperceptibly, often whizzing past. The concept of past, present, and future directs and moves us, and we are inextricably bound and perplexed by it here on earth. I imagine we are like mice running an intricate, puzzling, endless maze.

Each year Gilad’s yahrtzeit precedes the approach of Rosh HaShana. We mentally review our year, are thankful or less than satisfied, and we look towards the next one with hope and prayer. But bereaved parents are more than frustrated; we are disappointed in what we thought our life could and should be. We have lost a critical piece of our future, and it is extremely challenging to pull ourselves up and regain the standard of hope and promise we once possessed.

I used to think that the meaning of life lay in the seeds we plant here in the form of our children, the next generation. They are our legacy and purpose. But I am disheartened and am no longer sure that is true. It is challenging to celebrate the holidays when I am not certain of myself or what my purpose is, and whether I am grounded to a shaky or stable terra firma. The yamim noraim, the High Holidays, are difficult to face. Yes, bereaved parents are aware – intensely so – of life’s joys and blessings. We have experienced the deepest of all losses, and our wishes and hopes and prayers for the future are tempered and less lofty, truly reflecting our imperfect reality.

As I write this, I realize it’s more about me than Gilad. Hah – Gilad would have smirked at that! “Oh, Ima,” I can hear him say, “This should be about me.” Gilad would be right, but sadly, I have no news or updates to share. But I can leave you with a few sweet memories of our special boy. Hold onto these stories, and continue to remember Gilad Hillel ben Eliyahu Mordechai and Bracha Mirel.

From the time he was a baby, Gilad had an iconic smile. As a little boy he’d smile at everyone; as a teenager his smile wooed the girls and warmed new friends. Gilad was headstrong and passionate; sensitive and funny; caring yet sassy at times. When Gilad played guitar his stance was so cool and nonchalant, and his fingers flew effortlessly across the strings while the rest of his body didn’t flinch. 

Gilad moved past Target and Macys clothes, favoring Gap, J Crew, Abercrombie. I think we saw hints of that when he refused to wear the shoes I bought him as a toddler, preferring the more expensive pair, or the time getting dressed in the morning for school was an issue until I bought him new tops (only 2!) from Nordstrom.

He did his best in school, and sometimes it seemed too easy for him. Gilad had a head for Gemara and Calculus and more, and it’s such a loss for the world that he was unable to contribute to any discipline or profession as an adult. Gilad wanted to live, to become an engineer or a philosopher; he hoped to fall in love and get married.

Gilad was warm and sweet and good and made us crazy and happy and life was real and good when he was part of it. He fought the fight well, he did complain, but really not much, and we all know that he should have survived and lived a long life, long enough to bury us. But that is not what happened, not what G-d wanted, and so here we are. 

I am not sure if it’s 4 years or 1460 or 1417 days, but it feels like a thousand days and a million miles since I’ve held him, breathed him, heard his voice in my ear, felt his spirit in my soul. Yehi zichro baruch.

 

Fall Semester

Spoiler Alert: Contains emotions which may cause heartache. Written August 19, 2014

Another semester begins for me at work, yet I am counting the days. Eight, then seven days to go until August 26 . My mind and heart alternately remember the days; if one is remiss, the other reminds with a flash and a bang.

Gilad – I remember too well your last days: no longer moving around the house, no longer eating meals with us; your mind along with your body transitioning to an unknown place, the inevitable last stop on life’s journey. We wished you would be able to begin your sophomore year at University of Maryland, and you were registered and ready to go, but we somehow knew it would never come to be. You understood it as well, and it was heartbreaking to watch your acceptance of the inevitable, to see the result of years’ battle with disease fade into reluctance and acquiescence.  But our hope remained, even until your last breath. Miracles can always happen while the heart still beats.

At the end of each summer, the point in time when you left us, I begin another semester anew, always thinking of you, forever taking you with me on an academic journey with other students. I guide them instead of you, I see their progress and graduation in place of yours. I observe their frustrations and successes as they make their way through a 4-year collegiate experience that you never had. Your picture is in my office, a locket with your smiling face is over my heart, and my passwords contain your name. I take you with me forever and always, a poor substitute for your own life, but it provides solace to me nonetheless,and helps me maintain the yin-yang balance of life which my grief therapists have encouraged me to find.

Another year begins, another year gone.

 

Should I Wear Mascara?

It’s the anniversary of my son’s passing and I am standing in the bathroom, my hands mindlessly reaching for this and that to get ready for my workday. I glance at myself in the mirror with the wand of mascara at the ready, and I think, seriously? Mascara? How can I possibly wear mascara and lipstick if my son is dead?? 

I continue with my morning routine as if it’s any other day, rearranging my face to make it presentable to the world, to myself. I continue with the mundane, making the bed, taking down laundry, fixing a sandwich for lunch. I deviate only by treating myself to the largest latte at Starbucks, tears dripping from my eyes unnoticed. Should I tell the barista about my special day and ask for a free drink as if it’s a birthday? 

For 4 years we’ve continued with our life, just as we promised Gilad we’d do. We had a mutual lie-fest before he left us, and we assured him, as he did us, that we were ok and that we would be ok later. He insisted on honesty about his disease, but I admit that we completely and utterly lied to each other just to make it easier for all of us to let go. Our son slipped from us, dispatched with the knowledge – albeit falsified – that we could survive his death. It was a glaringly obvious lie yet at the same time hopefully true. 

Life will not stop in its tracks today as it did 4 years ago. Nobody official is coming to our door to declare or sign or take away anything. No one will rush from their day’s plans, from their places in all corners of the earth to help us say goodbye to someone who never should have died. The house will be empty; the hugs and wishes will be virtual this time. 

I am known to sleep late, even on workdays, and I warn others to keep their distance earlier than 7:00 am because it’s not pretty. But today I awoke naturally at 6:25 am without an alarm, as I do each year on August 26, because my body knows before my heart does. There’s some unconscious and mysterious process at work here, allowing me to sleep through the exact moment of Gilad’s last breath, but waking me just minutes after. I’d like to think it’s a wake-up call from my boy, but I know that it’s simply restlessness and the physicality of grief. 

But mascara and a latte? Why should I make myself look and feel better if my son is dead, if he remains dead day after day, year after year? What gives me the right to look pretty and feel good and act normal? 

Our minds and emotions whirl, back and forth, up and down, and sometimes we need to grab onto what comes our way or pull what we need towards us. If mascara and a latte is what must be summoned to help me with the pretense that today is just another day on the planet, then so be it. But to get through the rest of my life, I may need a massage. Or more grandchildren to love and and inhale and teach about pampering oneself with coffee and makeup.

 

…And I’m Back

After the rain falls and the tears fall, way after the sinking feeling has settled and claimed residence, somehow the fog slowly begins to clear. It’s just a sliver at first, but it’s palpable, real, and it’s a breath of air intruding upon a space that has been suffocatingly sad and grievously mad and worthy of hibernation. Just like that, a crumb, a snippet, a fleeting something appears on the horizon of my heart. This is my passage: I return from rock bottom and float back up to the surface, ready to inhale and accept life again.

It’s natural, it’s normal, it’s the cycle of life, but the return comes as such a jolt and surprise each time. I am ok, I say aloud to myself, feeling as though I’ve come back from the jungle, because that is where I have been. I can go to work today and I will wear that new skirt. Simple, daily, auto tasks unfold with no forethought for others, but not for us. If breathing weren’t involuntary, some days that would not happen, either. Each one of those thoughts register for us, click-click goes the brain. It is okay to feel good, it’s acceptable to put on lipstick, it is alright to go exercise. I will meet my friend for coffee and invite people over. Yes, I will. And it is perfectly fine to indulge in something wondrously marvelous even though my son will never know that thrill.

And I’m back. The clouds in the sky look lovely this time, and maybe today’s formation is a message. The song on the radio doesn’t bring tears but sounds good, even though my boy would roll his eyes at my choice of music. I see the rolling green hills and want to go hiking, go to the park one Sunday, plan that day at the glass blowing factory. Oh, the things that I could accomplish if I felt this way every day. I breathe and am grateful for the good days, following the same mantra we did when he was alive.

Sometimes I try to force the better days – talk to a friend, visit the grandgirls on video chat, eat forbidden chocolate. It works only if they are at my disposal, snap-snap of the fingers, but makes things worse when they are not available, for which they always apologize later. If they had known I was in a funk, would they really leave work to come hug me or drive down the turnpike to make me smile? Or do they just want me to know that they love me still, even if they cannot be by my side right then, right away, right when I need them? Chunks of cocoa with nuts and stuff have to do, or sometimes not. Sometimes the TV chatters on while the laundry sits, supper isn’t made. And that suffices, too, to get through.

But coming back is a glorious thing, when it happens. As a young girl, I used to experience monthly cramps that were larger than my life. My mother doted, the doctor prescribed. And when the fog of pain cleared, there was nothing like it in the world, feeling good, feeling untethered, feeling free.

Now I am wise, and I know what even when I’m back, I will fall again into that abyss of grief, over and over. But I also know that I will climb out and rejoice my life. I have learned that there is hell here on earth, threaded through our life for no apparent reason. But on a much deeper, visceral level, I understand that there are layers of hell, some softer, others biting. We descended with diagnosis, but ascended with scans; dropped lower still with recurrence and this crap and that, yet ultimately, finally we rise to breathe air again and again.

I understand that there is always hope, no matter how small, how inconsequential. There is even hope on a deathbed, trust me. If I can accept my starting point of teetering on the age of heaven and earth, heaven and hell, there is a way to lift myself, grasping and gasping, from that well, a hole so frighteningly deep. The existence I knew is gone; the life I hoped for has been replaced. But with the double edges of all the swords I have borne, I’ve learned a magnificent thing: We can come back. We can live in the face of loss. I can go on without my son in spite of the fight with life and G-d I wage still. I can live and love and smile and be happy, sometimes. And I’m back.