Sunday, June 27, 2004

Shadow Anniversary

June nineteenth was our twenty-seventh wedding anniversary. Ariel's Yahrzeit was the next day. To wake up in the morning, gaze across the bed and say, "Happy anniversary," is not our first impulse. In fact, more than anything, Karen and I wanted to quietly acknowledge our years together, and then quickly move on. You cannot be happy when your child is dead.
Quick digression: several wonderful parents who read these pages and write touching letters to me, have said that in their house, there is a single word that is never used: dead. They do not ever say that their child has died. They say, My child is gone, my child is with Hashem, my child is away. They tell me to use this tactic. They insist that it is not a word game. They suggest that death does not exist.
I wish I could get with their program. These parents seem to have achieved some measure of peace that, I am quite certain, will never be part of my life.
If I say that death is not real, then I must also say that birth is not real, and, well, you see the problem.
So: It is our anniversary, and by all measures we are a happy couple. I have loved Karen since the fourth grade. Essentially I have loved a child, a girl, a teenager, and finally loved a woman -- loved one person for most of my life. (A friend suggested that I am the world's most patient and successful stalker.)
We cannot exchange gifts. To do this would be to make Ariel's death a side show, an unfortunate occurence in an otherwise happy life. In fact, Ariel's death has ruptured our world. From the moment we wake in the morning and hope that it is all a dream, that maybe he's downstairs, safely in his bed, in his room, safe, safe, alive and breathing. From that twilight moment until the night, when we desperately try to sleep without crying sheer floods, every moment of our lives is in variance with what has come before. A veil of distortion has been drawn over every action we engage in. The most simple task is invested with Ariel's presence, with his absence. It takes a great deal of energy to remember how happy we used to be. Even when Ariel was sick, tortured by cancer and cruel theapies, we felt chosen for a unique kind of joy. Ariel may be sick, we told ourselves, but, he will recover. He will lead the life he desires. He will continue to study Torah. And we were grateful. We are Jews who have studied Torah. Thus, we do not take happiness for granted, for Torah teaches you, right from the beginning, that life is unfair; there is much cruelty in this world, and man has to work hard to achieve goodness.
But we are prisoners of ritual, Karen and I. Our lives are defined by one religious observance after another. And so, we improvise an appropriate way of marking these years together. Karen gives me a wonderful new book about grammar. It is something of a joke in this house that I, a professional writer, have only a passing notion of where a comma belongs. My passion for the semicolon is unnatural; my ignorance of the mysterious hyphen is sad - my misplaced apostrophe's are a scandal. Tucked inside the pages of the book is a note. In truth, the book is merely a prop to convey the real gift: Karen's words.
Karen writes a letter to me before every Shabbos. After I recite the kiddush, the blessing over the wine, I reach under the challah tray for The Note. As the girls wash their hands, I read Karen's note. It is the highlight of my week. Each letter is a gem, a clear and ardent precis of whatever we have been through that week. I have several thick volumes of these notes; they examine the emotional architecture of our lives. And so this note, this anniversary jotting, is about Ariel; it is about us; it is about our core.
To Karen I give a shadow box. In it are Ariel's glasses and two pictures. In the first photo, Ariel looks at us and smiles. It is a glorious and open smile. It is how we like best to remember him. The other picture was taken on the day we delivered Ariel to Ner Israel Rabbinic College, in Baltimore. To leave him there was one of the hardest things we have ever done. You can see the tension in Karen's body as she hugs Ariel, saying goodbye. She does not want to let go. She wants to hold on to him... forever. But she cannot.
But here in the shadow box, Karen's wish is finally achieved. Here, mother and son embrace for all time. In the shadow box, Karen does not have to let go. They are melded together for eternity.
Our anniversary is not a happy one, but it is ours, and it is what we have left, and it has a light that does not seem to be unnaturally luminous.


Blogger Esther Kustanowitz said...

What a beautiful, and heart-wrenching, post. I know the emptiness you feel can never truly be filled. But it is my wish for you that, when it comes, you are able to recognize and experience happiness in your lives. Your sadness will undoubtedly be with you forever. But I hope that you, your wife and your daughters will also be able to hold each other close, to look at each other, and appreciate the blessings that remain in your life. There's really nothing I can say that will help. So instead, I am sending you my best wishes and hoping that the writing will help you find healing.

June 28, 2004 at 11:14 PM  
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