The hours run into each other, exhaling and inhaling in the echo of the oxygen machine beside Grandma's bed. Shadows move across the pink carpet and melt into the summer twilight. I hold my siddur in my hands and say the same prayer over and over again. Can she hear me at all? Does she know that I’m here? Her face is changed, like it is journeying away, fading into the layers of her soul. Her eyelids flutter open, but her sea green eyes are blank like she is in another world altogether. Is she?
I call her name, but I don’t think that she can hear me. I’m not ready to let go. I’ll never be ready to let go. How does anybody let go? Maybe you are holding her here, they say. Maybe go out of the room for a minute, so that she can go in peace. I don’t know what that means. All I know is that if I say goodbye, I will fall apart. I will be lost. I won’t know who I am or where I belong. How does anyone do this? And why does everyone else seem to be able to go on?
In the cemetery I stare at the deep blue summer sky and the way the branches of the surrounding trees reach upwards, like they are reaching for something they will never touch. The sound of the shovels of dirt falling into the open grave tears through me; they close a door that has been stubbornly still open inside of me. Why is the cemetery so achingly beautiful? The rainbow of roses and soft chirping of the birds seem so out of place. Where are the darkness and the rage? Where is the protest?
They say that she is in a better place. But all I can think about is how you can’t breathe in the earth.
The miles of headstones seem to slumber in the sweet, warm morning air. They say that the dead are resting now. I don’t know what that means. They say that she is in a better place. But all I can think about is how you can’t breathe in the earth. How frightening it must be to be left all alone in a wooden box where you can’t see or speak or be. I know I have to think about the soul. How it goes on to the next world, how she can see us all standing here. But I don’t know what that means.
I find myself sitting on her soft, lavender carpet, hours before my flight back home. Take something, they tell me. But it is hard for me to move. Her clothes, her scarves, even her beautiful, laced handkerchiefs that she brought to shul every Shabbos hold her scent still. It is the scent of my childhood. Of warmth and comfort and love. I don’t want to move anything. Maybe if I leave everything in its place time will somehow stand still. But I need to go and walk out the door even if I don’t want to.
I press one silk scarf against my face and let myself remember how it felt to be held when I walked into shul on Shabbos morning. How her face lit up, how her eyes shone. I hold it all the way home.
For months, I dream of her. She tells me things that I can never remember when I awaken, and I try desperately to go back to sleep so that I can hear her words again. But it never works. And I hear the faint echo of the oxygen machine everywhere I go, as if life itself is struggling to breathe. But I don’t fall apart. I work. I care for my husband, my children and my home. I pray the way I always have, and sometimes I even feel Grandma’s presence hovering on the edges of my life. As I light the Shabbos candles and think of how she wept before her own myriad Sabbath lights. As I say the Shema with my children at night and remember how she kissed her mezuzah each night, whispering these same words. As I give tzedakah to the withered women around me at the Kotel, and remember her blue and white charity box that sat on her kitchen counter.
But no matter how much time passes, there is a fissure in my heart. I have lost my connection somehow to the past. With all of my faith and all my values, sometimes I feel I don’t know where I belong. I try to believe in all of the ideas that have held up my life for so many years, and I do believe. But sometimes I crash into doubts. Like I am turning on the GPS but keep forgetting to put in a destination. And I start questioning my decisions. Am I leading a life that is too intense? Maybe I shouldn’t have moved to Israel? Maybe I shouldn’t be home with my children? I think about how I stood in my cap and gown in the enormous, football stadium of my Ivy League school, gazing at all the doors that were open before me. Did I open the right ones? And what about the closed doors that recede behind me with each new life decision. How do I know I’m going in the right direction at all?
When the Temple stood, we knew with absolute clarity our life's purpose.
This is the loss that weaves through me in the Jewish month of Av. I don’t really know what the Beit Hamikdash, the Holy Temple was or what it is supposed to be in the future. But I know that when it stood, we knew with absolute clarity what our purpose in life was. We knew where we were coming from and where we were going.
When we lost the Temple, we lost the anchor in our lives that centered us. We lost clarity. Now reality and illusion run into each other. Now doubt creeps into even the most committed among us. When we move forward, a part of us constantly looks over our shoulders. I can’t imagine a world where there is the kind of perfection and sense of arrival that is described in the times when the Temple stood.
But I can cry for it. I can yearn for it. I can believe that soon the destination will become clear, even if today I can only see the next turn. And as new souls enter this world and other souls journey onwards, I can make a space inside of myself that is like a miniature Temple, untainted and unbroken. And on the dawn of Tisha B”Av, when the birds of Jerusalem do not chirp at dawn, I can hear my grandmother’s voice in the thickness of the silence. Anytime I fell she used to say, "By the time you become a bride it will heal." And I hear it now as grief pulses through the Jewish nation and through my own confused heart: "By the time you become a bride, it will heal."
One day we will all be brides again and all of our collective pain will vanish into the stunning beauty of a perfect, Jerusalem sky. Even if he is late, I will wait. Even with all that is lost, I believe this. Inhale. Exhale. There is life in the end.
In loving memory of my grandmother, Gittel Rochel bat Miriam. May her name be remembered for blessing. May her neshamah rise through the deeds and faith of her grandchildren and great grandchildren. May she bring comfort to all of am yisrael in this month of her yahrzeit.