On Grieving for a Lost Loved One

It is a vast, empty space; the markers of other memories all around, names of other lives and the small stones placed there by the survivors, by the ones whose fate is it to remember

Shadows in Winter - COVER IMAGE_corrected.jpg I didn't know it then, but those moments before the seizure would be the last time I would speak to Leah (at least when she was conscious) -- and it was the last she would speak to me. From that instant, she would never regain consciousness. Remembering it now, I wonder what her last thought was before slipping under: Was her mind thinking clearly enough at that point to harbor any organized consciousness, or was it just the moving slides of fleeting perception? Did she intuit that these would be her last moments of awareness and seeing? Was she thinking of Aderet? Was she thinking of me?

The doors to the CT scan room open; the team of doctors emerges. It is Dr. A. who speaks to me first.

"Mr. Fishbane."

The haze of my waking dreams drifts out and passes over me again.

"The scan shows a large mass in your wife's brain. From the CT we can't tell whether it is a tumor or a bleed, and we'll need to do an MRI to determine that."

Again I am outside of myself. The odd sensation of unreality.

Did he actually just say that? Did I imagine the whole thing? I suddenly understand that each moment of terror on this otherwise ordinary Tuesday has led to this, each step leading us with an inexorable force to the worst-case scenario. Now falling, falling -- into the emptiness of the nonexistent, of disbelief, into a story that is not mine. Not mine...

"So it's bad either way," I hear myself say.

As before, I am not really asking.

"It doesn't look good," Dr. A. replies in a soft voice. "All we can do right now is pray."

He places his hand on my shoulder in a gesture of healing. My chest and abdomen rise and fall with the heaviness of breath.

I feel the blood receding from my face -- fear rising slowly in me from an unknown interior space.

I can't believe this is
I can't

I can see how they are all looking at me now -- the critical-care specialist, the high-risk obstetrics people, the radiologist. Suddenly I am that person -- the recipient of the news the physician dreads delivering, the one standing in the inner circle of tragedy.

When the tears come I can feel the threads of my world unraveling -- no more barriers, just an abyss of darkness underfoot, like the recurring dream of falling, except this time I don't wake up.

Crying never came easily for me -- the feelings there hidden out of sight, in the silence of my insides. And that always frustrated you -- wanting to know I could weep, that I would weep for you, if it ever came to that.

It has come to that.

"If I ever go, you'd better cry for me," she said to me in her playful way.

Can you see me crying for you now?

* * *

Aderet wakes wailing and crying. It takes me a while to realize what she is saying, but gradually it becomes clear. She is crying out for her Imma:

I want you... I want you...

I come into her bedroom. She is so tired that she has already fallen back asleep, but when I go to fix her covers she wakes for a moment.

"Did you see Imma in your dream?" I ask her.

She nods. Her thumb in her mouth, her voice soft and sad.

"What happened in your dream?"

"Imma was falling off a cliff! She was falling and falling to her death!"

My God.

I shake inside for my baby girl. Powerless to stop her falling mother. The terrifying sensation of dream-fall becomes the slipping away of her protection, the center of her world. I could hear the terror and the fear in her first screams. That was it. Dead. Gone.

In the morning I ask her again about her dream; I need to know that she is okay. In the meantime she has added a new element to the story:

She was falling almost to her death, but I flew like Tinkerbell, and I caught her and she was in my arms, and I gave her some pixie dust and she flied with me! I was almost to death, but I gave her pixie dust and brought her up to the top. And then she never fell. I was being safe with her.

Abba, can our dreams ever come true? 'Cause I wanted to save her for real. I wanted to save her for real, Abba.

* * *

I am relatively okay for large stretches of time. I think part of my old self has returned. Then, with the force and suddenness of a slamming door, I am back in the throes of it -- the hollow, sinking ache. My first impulse is to call Leah. To pick up the phone, or to walk in the front door ready to unburden myself into her presence. To enter back into the space of home.

The places we inhabit end up shaping our imaginations, our dreams and reveries of what was in our past, of what secrets lie concealed within drawers and closet doors. The couch where she would sit, the kitchen where she would cook, the backyard where she would play on summer days with Aderet. We re-create the world through the naming of spaces as chambers for our things and our daily routines; they become the vessels of memory's formulation. Houses whose interiors were markers of intimacy and hope, the new house that was the realized dream of togetherness, suddenly becomes the interior of solitude, the marker of our future's deconstruction and banishment.

It is the emptiness of the bedroom closet and the drawers; the spaces where her things were neatly and casually placed, ready to be recovered and drawn out for one occasion or another, ready for her to wear, just as she left them. Upon returning from out of town, I discovered that our well-meaning housecleaners had gone through these drawers and removed all of Leah's clothing: all re-placed in organized bags in the next room. I remember feeling overwhelmed with the desire to riffle through the bags and put the items back in their rightful places. Her things needed to remain in the drawers; they needed to hang as they were in the closet!

I feel Leah's living presence in the softness of her remaining clothes. When I finally found her blue checkered pajamas, I remember feeling an immense relief -- I could still hold those bits of clothing to my chest at night. I suddenly understand the power of Aderet's desperation when she cannot locate her special pink blankie. Holding it close takes the edge off the fright of loneliness and the terrors of darkness.

* * *

I finally found you there, your corner of space in that crowded terrain of death.

This way, 'migo, the cemetery gardener says to me. Over there.

It's warm today, and the sun is bright.

Three and a half months it took me, but today when I woke I knew all of a sudden; all at once I was filled with the desire, with the need, to visit your grave.

It is a vast, empty space; the markers of other memories all around, names of other lives and the small stones placed there by the survivors, by the ones whose fate it is to remember.

Your space there is so much smaller than I remember -- on that day, with so many other people standing beside me, with the space expanded by the tent overhead. Now I kneel beside you, and the earth still looks so fresh: a mixture of soil and gravel-rock; the tiny patches of grass struggling to form themselves over the rupture in the expanse of meadow. And all that stands to distinguish your place amid this massive city of the dead is a low marker, placed there on the day we buried you, after the grave was filled in:

Leah Levitz Fishbane

September 7, 1974-March 1, 2007

Your dad told me that he would like to put up a headstone as soon as possible, and I understand now what he meant: it's just so fragile there, and so fresh. You've been left there untouched since our parting -- not even the top layer of your earth-blankets has been moved. And I think of all the weather that has passed since that day -- snow and rain and stifling heat.

I have brought letters to read to you, to your presence that hears and does not hear. As on the day of your burial, I hold a pinch of your grave-soil between my thumb and forefinger; I hold a tiny piece of rock and then I return it to its place. There is no one else here on this hot Friday afternoon, and I lie down beside you on the grass, imagining that we are once again lying next to each other in our bedroom, or in the sun of an outdoor picnic. In this place I listen to the quiet of speechless lands -- all these markers of remembered love, all these routes of return into the regions of living memory.

Again I say the Kaddish, my words now audible only to this quorum of graves -- spoken only to you as my substitute for speech, as the slow hew of form in the limitless quarry of silence.

TEMPLATEReadMoreBookExcerpts.jpg Excerpted from Eitan Fishbane's Shadows in Winter: A Memoir of Love and Loss (Syracuse University Press)