October 5, 2020
We placed stones on the headstone of my grandmother, Bessie and my grandfather, Benjamin. It is a Jewish tradition to signify that we had visited. I couldn’t remember having been there before. I was fascinated with the beautiful old cemetery, in which each synagogue, or community had their own section. My grandparents were buried in the Koretz section which I learned was established in 1935, for the needy or distressed and in memory of thousands of Jews murdered by the Nazis in Poland. My father Bernie’s father died when he was 48, and in the middle of post-depression years, leaving his wife, ten years younger, and three children, with little money and dependent on welfare. My father took out his prayer book and began reading Yizkor, which translates to “remembrance” a special prayer to honor the deceased.
Daniel and I stood by his side. Only recently have I had the time to spend with this man in whose life I have become more and more interested. I wonder what I missed, because his memory is not as sharp is it was. I ask him a lot of questions about our family and relatives I have never heard of, or maybe I had, but I wasn’t paying attention.
There is no one else there. This section is peaceful, eerily beautiful and quaint. The leaves in the surrounding woods are changing colors. I peek around at the graves and read the names and dates. Daniel does the math. Some died young, some older, but all have this unique, shared resting place.
Daniel asks if Bernie remembers his father or knew him very well. Bernie replies that he was only nine when he died and no, he didn’t know him well or remember much about him.
They have that in common, they both lost their fathers. Daniel’s father died when he was 18.
I am no stranger to loss, but fortunate to be there with my father now 90. I wonder if we will ever return to this cemetery together.
It makes me think of this time we are in- the six months we have journeyed from March when New York City and its surrounding suburbs began closing down, falling into the strange abyss of quarantine from a disease we knew little about, to now, waves of it still erupting in different parts of the country. It reminded me that grief and its manifestations is not linear. It is complex and weaves a tapestry of emotion and memories- asking what have we lost and what we have found? What do we miss? There is an ambiguousness to it.
I have struggled to name it, within me, to discover how to describe whatis different when everything is changed. Maybe for this, there are no words. It is similar to the way I felt when my sister died, knowing there would forever be a hole in my life, and nothing would ever fill that void but that I would go on, and find ways to honor her shortened life and knowing mine is precious.
When I think of adjectives that describe me, I think of resourceful. Yes, I am that. I am strong and always seeking inspiration. But even armed with those powers, I feel daily, I am no match for this thing- the largeness of it, the toll it is taking, the forever of it- and in that I believe is real grief.
To face the demons of it, and to wonder how I will get to the other side, knowing the only way is not around it, it is through it.
I put my arm around my father, and we walk away. I am happy I am closer to him now. I am happy we can go places together, we can go on walks and talk about his life, living through the depression, and polio, and smallpox, and world war II and losing his father – his 65 years of marriage and how he has taken care of my mother, all that and so much more. We talk about what it feels like to live 90 years, to be in the middle of these times and how it is the same and different from other times in history that have been crushing to humanity, and times in his life that have been crushing to him.
At dinner one night I said I didn’t think anyone at our table had ever gone hungry, and he said it wasn’t true. He remembered visiting a friend and not having enough money to eat, but he found a hot dog vendor who sold him a roll for ten cents. I tried to imagine that. It is all around me and yet, unimaginable. I feel both blessed and guilty. I have given money and food to food banks and City Meals and yet suddenly, it doesn’t feel like enough. I will do more.
There is that too, in the midst of all this, where to turn, when will I have felt or given enough? There are so many forces to reckon with. I don’t have the answers. Maybe that is why the cemetery felt so peaceful. I could have sat on the ground and stayed there for hours, because in the finality of death, and that place where there was no noise, and no other people, there was just us, and peace and love.