On Loneliness and Grieving.

Seven summers ago I sat shiva. It changes you. People say I have a strange relationship with death; they’re usually people who thankfully haven’t had any relationship with it at all. But I don’t think that comes from losing a parent. I think I was always aware of the idea that people might not be there the next day. That trust was a hard gift to give when you considered the likelihood of being left alone at any minute without warning.

So when, indeed without warning, a matter of hours after happily hanging up the phone on one of several daily calls to my father, I was summoned almost wordlessly to his already dead body, no chance to say goodbye, I can’t remember feeling shocked. The often quoted feeling of  ‘this cant be happening to me’  never even crossed my mind. It almost made sense, somehow.

Back then, for whatever reason, I chose to focus on the positive in the situation for the most part. I felt grief, I tore my clothes, I cried what must have been buckets of real tears, don’t get me wrong. It was probably the saddest and most difficult period in my life. But I’m not sure I ever complained. I’m not sure I ever shouted and raved about how unfair it was. Anger didn’t come into the equation for me.

Not then anyway.

I’m angry today. With a lot of people. I’m angry that you didn’t phone me, even though I told you in advance what day it is. I’m angry that I had to tell you what day it is in the first place, and that I have to explain (even though you’ll never understand) why it’s important to me. I’m angry that you are allowed the immense privilege of not understanding, and I have to go through this, distancing me from everyone un-scarred and whole in my life.

I’m angry with you too. I can’t understand how you can let this slip your mind. How you can marry someone and have a child together, and never think she might end up in this position. And I’m so frustrated that now I’m here dealing with it, you can’t remember something as important as today and phone me up and see how I am. How can you tell me that this is all harder for you than me, if this day hasn’t even crossed your mind, in a fraction of the way it’s taken camp in my own these last few weeks?

I’m even annoyed at my family. For reaching milestones that he never will, for taking for granted relationships he will never experience, simply for not being his sons, his wife, his nephews, nieces, parents, siblings. Mostly for leaving me the only one who feels this, and giving me no outlet to satisfactorily share it, and in most cases for hardly trying. I can’t pick up the phone and ask for a memory that’s slipped just out of reach, because no one else shares it, or worse still, because the risk of blank faces is just too frighteningly painful. I just have to wait while it fades further out of mind, losing the very puzzle pieces that made up a man’s life. I can’t pop round anywhere to reminisce, because no one shared our relationship.
Ironically, this was the very fact I so eagerly clung to while I sat shiva at 19.

It was only me. I was so proud to alone walk my Dad out of this world with dignity, to do the customs and laws that a family member does according to Jewish law, all on my own. I felt I was really making a difference, really proving that our relationship had always been him and me, and that was no different in his death, no intrusions. It was almost sacred- just the two of us.

But now it’s the one of me.

So I’m angry with You most of all. Not for taking him away from me, that’s too easy, although as I grow up I realise just how cut short his years were, taken at 63. But it’s the way of the world after all, a child losing a parent. But mainly for the way You left me here.
My mother wasn’t his wife, my brothers weren’t his sons. My husband and my son never knew him, I have no uncles or aunts, no grandparents. To make things slightly crueller, there could have been a lifetime companion to share this grief with, miscarried at seven weeks. At one year old, I was destined to be entirely alone in this, and I didn’t even know it.

So I sit here, writing mainly to myself, the only person who has been feeling this day approach with a heavy heart, and the only one who woke up this morning remembering, and wondering what might have been.

Today would have been my Daddy’s 70th birthday. Not old, not really, but seven long years gone. My life is truly so changed since he knew it, that I wonder if he would recognise me at all. And yet the people in my life now, have moved on from even the memory of ‘him and me’ to the point where they can’t remember the importance of today even when I’ve told them directly, let alone out of care of me. It’s not their fault, why should they? It’s only me who is stuck in both times. Missing and living simultaneously. Both getting on with life, and coping with death.

Still, I cant help but wonder whether the burden would be lighter to bear if there were anyone else to share the load.

Holocaust Memorial Day 2013.

We will never forget.

These words have been everywhere the last few days, commemorating Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Memorial Day.

Amongst the six million Jewish souls who were brutally extinguished by the Nazi’s, were 1.5 million Jewish children, only one of whom I know the name of.

Edith, my namesake, was just a young child when her life was taken away from her, along with her mother Sabina, (my grandmothers sister) and my great-grandparents Chaim and Malka. And of course, countless others.

Edith was my mothers first cousin, the only one she would ever have, and yet her death came before my mother was even born. The easy family rapport that spans oceans and forgives absences and long silences was therefore never my mothers to experience. The large family gatherings of shared memories and relatives and marking anniversaries and birthdays together was just a fantasy to stand on the outside of, looking in.

Edith would have one day had favourite foods, books and games. She would have had teen romance and best friend quarrels and anxieties. Perhaps at her batmitzvah, in the forties, my grandmother would have been holding my aunt in her arms just a baby herself, dancing with her sister, Edith’s mother, and sharing the closeness that she would in reality only see secondhand in her own girls. Maybe my own mother and her sister would have been bridesmaids at Edith’s wedding, all dressed up in meringue dresses with giant bows in the dated style of the sixties. Maybe they would have been too old to be flower girls, instead dressing in modern gowns that my granddad wouldn’t have approved of but never would have said for embarrassment and fear of female confrontation. The cousins would have danced together excitedly, maybe best friends or maybe not, but family nonetheless.

My brothers and my cousins were born in the seventies, and never had second or third cousins to play with or visit. I have spent Jewish festivals since i was 8 years old, and many a happy memory, with my second cousins on my fathers side of the family, and I assure you, the words may sound distant, ‘removed’ or ‘third’ but they couldn’t be more kin to me than my own siblings.

Our walls are covered with the ghosts of photos which could have been. The unborn children who should have played and fought together, the hastily snatched dinners of her generation all together when babysitters or favours could be taken advantage of. Me, a little girl in the late eighties, celebrating Edith’s 60th birthday, perhaps covered in cake and smiles I would never remember. The six of us, our mothers children, surrounded by more blurred faces, our second cousins, maybe Edith’s own nephews and nieces had they been allowed a chance at life. As the decades go on, more colourful digital snaps, less spontaneous because we can now try as many times as we need to get it right. Edith, standing with her arms around our mothers at our wedding, me dancing dutifully with her and her children; aching to finish so I can grab my own friends. A shiny image of her holding our own R, her great great nephew a few days after his birth. She would be in her eighties now, vibrant and strong, unscarred by tragedy.

Every memory I’ve listed had the potential to exist. They aren’t fantasy, they should have been our history. They were stolen from her, and stolen from us as well. We will never know the make up of our family had Hitler not decided to murder her innocent soul, before she even took her first steps or said her first words. She was one child, one person, one story. In our own family we have half a dozen more stolen lives, and in our community countless more. As a nation, six million stories and lifetimes were brutally snatched from those of us left behind. Never forget? The true tragedy is that we were never given the opportunity to remember the memories which were rightfully ours.

May God ensure that their perfect souls are resting in everlasting peace.

Yizkor Etiquette (FYI)

There is a prayer in the Jewish holiday services, to honour the memory of people who are no longer with us. The widespread custom is that it is not said by people who still have both of their parents living. In many communities, those people do not even stay in the synagogue while the prayer is being said.

If I’m honest, I don’t really understand why that latter custom begun in the first place. When prayers are said by other parts of the community that I am not included in, (Men, Kohanim, those in mourning etc) I find it pretty self explanatory just to stand quietly and wait. After all, there is plenty of the prayer which is relevant to everyone, including a prayer for our soldiers and one for the victims of the Holocaust, something we all could benefit from being a part of. Surely it is an odd action in itself to get up and leave the building, basically abandoning everyone with the misfortune of having lost a parent or both.

Superstitious or not, I can however appreciate the reasoning behind it. And if your parents would rather you left the synagogue for those five minutes, or you yourself feel uncomfortable being there, then leave by all means.

But I do have a couple of small requests.

Given that we were standing having a perfectly normal interaction or sometimes even conversation 2 minutes previously, please don’t suddenly act like I have the plague. Yes, you’re being given a reminder that I once lost someone dear to me. I can understand your twinge of awkwardness. But not looking me in the eye? Stumbling over your words? Feeling the need to look apologetic as you leave the room? Bizarre. I do this four times a year, and sometimes it’s harder than other times, but I am in the same mood I was 4 seconds ago, I don’t suddenly need special treatment.

Which brings me to my second issue. The mad scramble for the door. This is different at different places, but in every congregation, there are the people who start gathering their bits and pieces together a good ten minutes before the guy shouts ‘Yizkor.’ They are standing by the door as soon as the Haftorah has finished, and they are pushing past everyone in their way to make it to the coridoor before heaven forbid, someone starts reading from their memorial booklet with them in the vicinity. What are you afraid of? That you might catch my dead parent virus? If its your custom to leave, then leave. In a normal manner. Exactly how you would regularly walk out a door, in a line, at a normal speed. Even if you disagree with me that it’s rude to leave in the first place, it’s certainly not polite to canter out the door virtually shouting silently that we shouldn’t confuse you with one of us.

I’m probably coming across kind of bitter, and it really isn’t that at all. And it certainly isn’t the fault of the people who leave. The custom should never have begun, because it feels to me almost anti what we stand for. Surely the very best part of Judiasm is that we are all accountable and responsible for one another, we share in each others joy and pain and we certainly don’t leave one of our own when we are in need. So where did this custom start, that we should segregate ourselves, even for twenty minutes a year into orphaned and not orphaned? Speaking for myself, and I only say one small portion of the service, it is a very lonely feeling to watch everyone hotfoot it out of the room at arguably one of my most vulnerable times. How must it be for the older members of the community who have so many dearly departed to remember and miss?

I don’t know where it started, and I hope that those who don’t mind either way, would start to make a point by staying in and standing quietly with their prayer books firmly closed. But even if you can’t, or simply don’t want to, I hope you’ll think twice before you push me out the way in your eagerness to leave.