November 19, 1998
Out of the Shadow
Life is strange. Death makes better material.
Look at the best-seller list. Leon Wieseltier's "Kaddish" and Naomi Levy's "To Begin Again" are selling thousands. "Tuesdays with Morrie," No. 1 for more than a year, is now a classic: Nice Jewish professor teaches student about dying.
I know this territory well. Without death, this space might have emptied long ago.
When I began this column 12 years ago, my family was young, my daughter was still in preschool, and my husband played tennis. I hesitate to wonder how long I could have kept at it, had we stayed in one piece. Happiness makes poor copy.
But I had no time to worry. After the first year of writing, my husband died and the column I thought I was writing -- about women's spirituality and baby boom family issues -- dramatically changed course. In a flash, I was indoctrinated into a new discipline of tragedy, with its own vocabulary of regret, bitterness and self-loathing.
Although many of the subjects I have written about these dozen years -- Middle East peace and American politics; women's issues and Jewish spirituality; raising a child through the teen-age years and coping with aging parents -- could have been handled by anyone, the fact is, they were written by me, a young woman shocked by loss, filtering life from within the shadow of death. The crepe and the kriah are in my signature and stamp.
The shadow transformed everything, colored every story, from the developments in the former Soviet Union to events at hearth and home. Death, the great teacher, had its own ideas of what course was best for me.
Without my husband's death, I might not have needed to make peace with my parents and brother, to build the structures of love and joy into my home; Samantha and I would not have clung so earnestly to Shabbat; her bat mitzvah would have been less a victory for me if not for her; I would not have found meaning in Torah, pleasure in baking challah, joy in the full-moon picnic of Sukkah; I would not have savored homemade gefilte fish and boasted that my mother's mandelbread is the best in the world. Vulnerability has become my beat, family my headquarters, and, through my specialty, I have come to know what I think of as "the real" Jewish community, a place where national history and personal tragedy converge, as we dance and struggle through our years.
Last month, I felt the change. The shadow, finally, was gone.
What made it lift? Three things: First, I compiled my columns into a book. It is my bat mitzvah year writing "A Woman's Voice," and I wanted it all bound, for my daughter and for those who care. My anthology recalls a journey into sadness -- the shiva and "Kaddish," the mourning and community -- and out again into the life passages and recipes, of dating and loving, of holidays and simchas, celebrated with and by my parents, my family, my readers, my friends. Through it, I see the arc of change and the deep grooves that have been my trail from defeat back to life. Reading my own story makes me see how writing has become as necessary as breathing, and how much this column, and my readers, have meant to me.
Second, I met Sandy Banks, the Los Angeles Times columnist who has somehow taken up where I left off. Banks is a wonderful writer, and we are like sisters in our pride, experience and pain. Yet I admit: It's eerie to read, in her twice-weekly entries, the echo of what I, too, have endured -- especially the tensions and pleasures she experiences while raising her own three young daughters after the death of her husband five years ago. When Banks describes the scent of her husband coming off her daughter's skin, I know I've been there, but long ago. And if her loss is so present, that suggests it is time, indeed, to let other subjects call to me.
Finally, I attended the fund-raising dinner for Our House, a bereavement center for young families who have suffered the loss of parent or spouse. At that dinner, I met scores of women and men whose losses replicate mine -- unique, sad and solitary, even when shared with 300. For them, the shock, so fresh and overheated, is still palpable. And my loss, by comparison, seems gilded and cool.
I want to say this to those whose loss seems endless: Feel it all. Take life's measure. Find friendship. Hold nothing back. In due time, and not a minute before, the shadow will be gone.