Thursday, July 26, 2012

On grief

I lost a friend last month. His name was Moshe and he was 38 years old when he died suddenly. I thought of him like a brother.

I hadn’t seen him in a while, and then I ran into him in the shuk a couple of weeks before his death. I had finished my shopping and I lingered for a minute by the displays outside a jewelry shop. He spotted me and came over to say hello. I was happy to see him, happy for the accident of timing that let our paths cross.

After his death, I kept thinking of things I had wanted to tell him. Small, mundane things. The little updates about our lives—things that happened with my husband and the kids. Each passing thought felt like a punch in the stomach. My friend Chana encouraged me to talk to him anyway, share my thoughts with his soul. That helped a little.

* * *

The funeral was on a hot day in June. A traditional Jewish funeral is a stripped-down affair under any circumstance, but Jerusalem funerals are even more so. We don’t use coffins—the body is placed directly into the earth. I find the simplicity comforting. No swelling music. No flowers. No illusions about what is taking place.

 Moshe’s body was wrapped in shrouds and draped with a prayer shawl and a covering. He was a small person. I watched the members of the burial society carry him into the funeral hall on a stretcher. It looked like they were carrying a child.

The hall was hot and smelly. Moshe’s father gave a wrenching eulogy. I stood with his other friends. We clutched each other and wept.

* * *

Moshe died a young man. Before his death, I imagined him getting married, flourishing in his career as an actor. He was so natural with our kids and loved his cousin’s children—I just knew that he would be a great father. The life stretching out in front of him seemed like a reality, like something actual, just waiting to be revealed.

And now he is gone, and I am gradually fitting my mind around another idea: He lived 38 years, and that’s all. He was a friend and a student and a teacher and a brother and a son, but never a husband or a father. I spoke to him as many times as I did and no more. There is no “rest of his life.” That’s all there was.

Of course, that’s obvious—people live until they die. But letting go of the fantasy of what might happen feels painful and unnatural. And it’s reflected in the way people talk about death: a life “cut short,” or saying a person would have been a certain age now “if she’d lived.” But there is no “if,” really, no promised lifespan to be cute short. We live until we die.

* * *

After Moshe’s death, I wrote and wrote about him—my memories, what I will miss about him. I shared some of it with his father at the shiva house. I spoke about him with our friends and with my husband. But I didn’t revisit what I wrote. I didn’t want to write anything else, either.

And now it is Av, the month of mourning. We count the days until we relive the destruction of the Holy Temple on the Ninth of Av. It’s a time of national grief and peril. The time feels right to return to my personal sadness.

* * *

Moshe loved the land of Israel. He immigrated by himself as a young man. He was strong and proud to be Israeli-by-choice. He wouldn’t accept being treated with condescension as an American immigrant. Once he was interviewing for a job, and the interviewer suggested that as an immigrant, he couldn’t really understand the Israeli mentality of his prospective clients. Moshe said that was racism and he didn’t want to work with a racist.

At the time, I thought he was being a little touchy and dramatic. But now that he’s gone, I miss his gutsiness and pride. I want to be a little more gutsy and proud.

Moshe wanted to get on one of those awful talent-search shows, like Kochav Nolad (Israel’s American Idol). He auditioned again and again, even though he found the process humiliating. He wouldn’t let his insecurities keep him from pursuing his dream.

He didn’t want to be alone in the world. He tried so hard to build community around him, to overcome his shyness and forge bonds. When a friend called to tell me he had died alone in his apartment, his body undiscovered for two days, she remarked with sadness, “That’s what he was afraid of.”

The next day, a different friend gave me another perspective. She gently pointed out to me how many of us have been left grieving Moshe’s absence. We loved him, and our hearts are broken. He wasn’t alone. He was a single man living in the necessary isolation of urban life, but he was deeply connected to other people at the same time. And we miss him. So much.

It’s easier a month later. It’s easier, less raw, all the time. What remains is my joy and gratitude at having known Moshe. Also, strangely, so much peace in the simple acceptance that he is gone now.

That’s the difference between a personal loss and The Loss, the destruction of the Temple. We don’t move on and we don’t heal. We don’t want to. We do what we have to do to build and live vibrantly. But for one day of the year, we give ourselves over completely to the brokenness and devastation at our national core.

* * *

A couple of days after Moshe’s funeral, I went to a concert with Ettti Ankri, one of his favorite singers. After his death, I kept thinking of lyrics to one of her songs that he liked, “Yetziat Mitrayim.” She sings, (translating here) “May the salty waters open in two, and we will pass through the center, all those who weep.”

May this be the year that we pass through, that that we don’t have to weep anymore.  And may the soul of Moshe Yeshayahu ben Yehuda Heschel ascend higher and higher.


C.G. said...

Amen Chaya. I spent the afternoon yesterday in Moshe's apartment. We were collecting books for my school and it wasn't until I got there that I realized it was Moshe's apartment. It was heart breaking.

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry for the sudden loss of your friend,its hard to loos someone close,and its even harder when it's so so suden being left with some unsaid things you may have said if you only could.
It was nice what your friend did encouraging you to talk to his Neshama giving you the chance for some kind of a closure which sims like you have found as you are saying:
"It's easier a month later. It’s easier, less raw, all the time. What remains is my joy and gratitude at having known Moshe. Also, strangely, so much peace in the simple acceptance that he is gone now".
I join the wish foe his Iloy Neshama : "may the soul of Moshe Yeshayahu ben Yehuda Heschel ascend higher and higher-amen!

PM said...

Hey Chaya, Glad to discover your blog - particularly today and this week and on this topic. Also, digesting a friend's death, just in time for TishaB'Av ... still raw for me now, but wanted to let you know your writing was "heard" and deeply appreciated.
Thanks sista, keep em comin ...

pam opper said...

It takes guts to move across the universe and begin a new, lovely life. What a profound observation that missing someone after they are gone affirms the fact that they were never alone, no matter how lonely life could be at times. I believe he is smiling down on you, my sweet daughter who is such a good friend. I believe he is finally being chosen for his Israel's got talent debut, and that he is chosen as the best of what any one can be, themselves. Moshe.

Chaya said...

Thanks, Mom. It was my friend Laura who said that, and I was really comforted by that thought.

Chaya said...

PM, welcome. I'm sorry about your friend. Hugs to you.

Chaya said...

CG, I'm so glad his book are going to your school. I didn't realize his apartment was still being dealt with--we should talk about that offline.

ESH Man said...

That was super moving. Thanks for sharing something so personal.

(We don't know each other, but I'm friends with Faitha.)

Chaya said...

Thanks, Jai. I appreciate it.

Anonymous said...

Hi Chaya
I"m reading this on Tisha B'Av and it is so spot on. A lovely tribute to Moshe A"H.

Chaya said...

Thanks, tzirelchana. It was good to be together at the funeral. Have an easy fast.

rutimizrachi said...

Just discovered you, thanks to Haveil Havalim and our mutual friend, Ima2seven. So now I'm reading some of your older stuff -- this one after just burying a friend, a"h.

You don't mention -- though I know that you know -- that we don't just live until we die. I look forward to seeing Nama again, the complete and whole and perfect Nama. I know you will see your friend Moshe again, too. And he will be able to tell you, in person (whatever that looks like then), how much he appreciated your undying love for him, and your tender words. ALL the words you wanted to say.

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