Before and After

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Grief is like a fish bone stuck in the back of your throat. You feel it–uncomfortable, scraping–all the time, and wish it could be plucked out.

When I was a kid, after I took a bath my mom would wrap me in a towel and muss my hair quickly to dry it, creating a birds nest of damp hair. I always hated it. But then, when I was taking care of my mother in her final months, after she bathed I would wrap her in a towel, and think of how I wished I could muss her hair. She had no hair at the time, so I would hug her through the towel, annoyed that hugging my dying mother somehow felt cheesy. (The great crime of irony is that it has robbed us of the ability to genuinely feel anything without a tinge of self-loathing.)

For the first year after my mom died the memories that came back most frequently were of bathing her, or otherwise taking care of her. This was horrifying, but unavoidable. They were both the most recent memories, and the most jarring, so it made sense that they recapitulated so often, even if I never really got used to it. It seemed such an insult to her life–she spent more than fifty years constantly doing things and just a few months deteriorating, but it was the memories of deterioration that tugged at me most often as I went about my days.

Suddenly, in the past few months, the memories of deterioration have lifted and I can remember more of the other things, of the hazy happy past. Whenever I used to dream about her it would be of her dying again (and again and again in a thousand freshly horrifying ways) but recently I’ve dreamt of her when she was healthy. In one dream she snored loudly, and laughed when I made fun of her. In another, she told me she didn’t approve of the men I’m dating, but invited them to the house for a barbecue. Last night I dreamt I was looking over a text from this week’s parashah, and she was helping me brainstorm ideas for an essay.

But the thing about grief is that it isn’t a slope, it’s a jagged mountain range. If things are getting better now, one can assume they will dip precipitously as the second anniversary of her death approaches.

Judaism, I think, has a profound understanding of grief, and so even happy occasions like weddings are tinged with a reminder of tragedy. And a few times a year there are moments of intense public grieving as the community gathers to acknowledge a loss that occurred centuries before we were born. We can barely access the communal memory of life with a Temple. It feels foreign and strange to us, though we may read about it in ancient texts. But as we focus on the day of destruction we are forced to recognize that there was a time before the destruction, when there was not a veneer of tragedy over every Jewish experience.

To honor the loss is to remember the presence of love before it was gone. That is also the challenge.

Posted on July 14, 2010

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