Enough Grace for You and Me

I go down to the shore in the morning
and depending on the hour the waves
are rolling in or moving out,
and I say, oh, I am miserable,
what shall—
what should I do? And the sea says
in its lovely voice:
Excuse me, I have work to do.

—Mary Oliver, A Thousand Mornings

This is the exact way the world moves forward:

How three weekends ago we were in Tampa—a trip booked the day we discovered our babe had no heartbeat and begrudgingly changed our pregnancy-announcement-to-dad weekend into a spring getaway with lots of booze.

How two weekends ago, we had planned to surprise my mom on her birthday with our 12-week announcement, but instead shopped and ate and celebrated with regular old birthday gifts.

How the week of Mother’s Day— during which I had planned to anticipate all the complex feels and process them in advance—a school I work at experienced the sudden death of a teacher and I spent the week scooping up wailing 6th graders, in addition to my own regular caseload.

How on Mother’s Day weekend we had planned to share the news with Jeff’s family, which would have been so precious on Mother’s Day, but instead carried out business as usual with birthday celebrations and brunch and stories around the table of our own moms.

How a handful of cards and two perfect ultrasounds are tucked into the top drawer of my jewelry box underneath a pile of bracelets and watches I’ve worn since then, underneath the laundry card and the Hartman Inn & Sweets sign we use for visitors—evidence of all the life that has happened since.

How I’ve walked back into the apartment every day since our loss to the same old prayer card sitting on the kitchen table from a dining out group we joined back in January during which each person wrote their prayer onto an index card and passed it to the person on the right. The card I recieved? “Prayer for my friend to get pregnant and have a healthy baby.” OK God, her baby.

How friends who have made it to their own 12 and 13 and 14-week marks are posting their baby announcements and belly pics online with my same due date, holding a mirror to our exact loss.

Life goes on, yes.
But death goes on, too.
A person who is dead is a long, long story (Elizabeth McCracken).

///

In four years of infertility, I’ve always been able to separate my life from other people’s lives, making sure my baggage didn’t make others feel uncomfortable. For me, other babies were other babies. Other moms were other moms. Nobody’s anything cost me mine.

Also, I have a pretty durable sense of humor.

Elizabeth McCracken writes in her memoir An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination, “The frivolous parts of your personality, stubborner than you’d imagined, will grow up through the cracks in your soul.”

Yes. So many cracks. So much humor. Enough grace to feel undeservedly happy about life 95% of the time.

Also, like her, I felt a strange responsibility to make sure everyone knew I was not going crazy with sorrow. NOTHING TO SEE HERE. EVERYTHING IS FINE.

My biggest fear (put into words by my friend Kim) has been the assumption that the heart is a zero-sum game, capable of holding only so much emotion—that if our hearts are split between happiness and grief, there must be less happiness. But it’s not true. It’s possible to hold both all the happiness for others and all the disappointment for ourselves in the exact same space. God grants us that gift, somehow.

Kim once wrote about “living in the tension” as sitting in the discomfort of two conflicting thoughts or feelings and refusing to try to rationalize one away or reconcile them dishonestly.

I manage almost all the tension almost all of the time. But on Mother’s Day this year, as McCracken put it, grief came unexpectedly knocking, compounded with interest. PAY UP, it said. I didn’t know what to do. The sadness actually got me by the throat.

It all came down to the one question I couldn’t definitively answer: Was I a mother or not? Did I count or not? Was this day for me or not?

On the one hand, I wanted to tell myself: Of course you’re a mother. These lives are never ours to make or keep. We are not in charge of whether we have them for days or weeks or months or years. In fact, when I first discovered we were pregnant, our odds were so precarious I thanked God for 3 days with that little embryo inside, and then 15 days, and then 25 days and 50 days, because I understood it could be gone at any moment. Even after the kid is born, nothing is guaranteed. Anyone with living children knows this fear.

One of the hardest things for me to accept is that while Jeff and I were laughing about the ridiculous things we’d name the baby and saying goodnight to it and trying to figure out how we’d fit another person into our 700 sq. ft. one-bedroom apartment, our baby was already dead, and our hearts were already broken. We just didn’t know it yet. I’ll never know what happened. The chromosomal analysis came back normal. “I just wish we had something to hang our hats on,” the doc had said.

Jeff once asked if I felt attached to that specific baby, and I said no. I never even knew that baby. But I miss that baby’s ghost. There’s a hole. It’s person-shaped and it follows me everywhere, to bed, to the dinner table, in the car (McCracken).

Maybe on November 4th, I’ll miss that exact baby. In November I’ll think about how everything in our life is supposed to be different. On Thanksgiving and Christmas, it will be me, Jeff and the baby that was never born.

On the other hand, I tell myself (word-for-word from McCracken’s painfully accurate memoir) I’m sorry, no, it’s tough luck, he died before you met him, people keep track of such things, and if we call you a mother, then where does it stop?

I never physically cared for the baby one could argue, not really- though every decision I made about what to eat or drink or exercise or sleep revolved around the protection of that life for a short time.

Sometimes I wonder if it was even real. If there was really life in those first ultrasounds. If I’d really puked and had heartburn and stopped eating bananas and coffee and chicken.

But then people in my life—many who have suffered their own losses, living babies, pre-term babies, husbands, parents—reached out on Mother’s Day and made it real, offering proof.

They said Happy Mother’s Day, and I’m thinking of you, and I’m so sorry—words that will always lift some of the weight. To know that other people were sad made our baby more real.

One friend right after the surgery, understanding the feeling that the whole world was spinning and I was just standing still said simply, “I am stopping right now with you.” The sentiment took my breath away. I imagined the two of us in two different cities standing still together.

This is why you need everyone you know after a disaster, because there is not one right response. It’s what paralyzes people around the grief-stricken, of course, the idea that there are right things to say and wrong things and that it’s better to say nothing than something clumsy (McCracken).

Saying nothing is the worst thing.

But even for that, there can only be grace. You would not believe how many times I’ve shied away from someone’s intense grief because I couldn’t understand it, I didn’t want to make it worse, and I had no idea what to say.

If that was you, I am so sorry.

///

Last night after a long break, I started back on meds in the hopes that we’ll try again at some point. Miscarriage after IVF is so complicated and exhausting. It took us four years just to reach this point.

I cried the entire time I was laying all the meds out because I am terrified. I am terrified the exact same thing will happen again. I am already right now afraid for next Mother’s Day.

And it’s in such stark contrast to the same journey’s beginning last December, when we felt excitement and hope and thrill. But as I’m going through the process with docs and nurses and techs like I have for the last several years, my history has changed. This time when they ask, will this be your first pregnancy? I’m like, No. I was pregnant once before.

McCracken writes, after the stillbirth of her son, “I want a separate waiting room for people like me, with different magazines. No Parenting or Pregnancy, no ads with pink or tawny or pearly smiling infants. I want Hold Your Horses magazine. Don’t Count Your Chickens for Women. Pregnant for the Time-Being Monthly.”

I get her.

My impulse here is to spare your feelings, the twelve of you who are reading this, by ending with a bright and hopeful redemptive point. Something more than The Hows and Whys of Losing One’s Shit on Mother’s Day.

But sometimes sharing our own story is the point.

*Much of what I reference in this post is from Elizabeth McCracken’s memoir An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination. Her thoughts and sentiments after the stillborn death of her son put such accurate words to my own feelings and confusion, I’ve incorporated them into my own sense-making. Suffering can be so poetic when transcribed, and then the poetry so healing.

 

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On and On and On It Goes

Hey guys.

I keep waiting for inspired, insightful B to pop out and organize all my thoughts and experiences about our last two weeks in Rwanda. Instead, famished B jumped out and ate 5 million pastries for a week in Europe, and then exhausted B slept it off, and rain-logged B wasted all our time outside planting flower boxes when we came home and it was 85 and sunny, then bug-hating B felt compelled to clean all the floors so we could spray for spring bugs, freezing B just wants to drink hot chocolate and wear sweatpants and shiver since it’s all 55 and rainy, and professional B is preparing to leave for Cambodia in less than a month.

Indulge me in this very public form of therapy while I go in there and find her, okay?

Part of the tucking-away is that we spent the last two weeks in Rwanda in a fog of institutionalized mourning. You might think you can imagine this, but it’s really hard to describe. It was entirely opposite of all our other bright, cheery experiences in Rwanda up to that point, and the somberness of it all moved in quickly over the country like the shadow of a storm front. Literally the skies turned to rain and clouds, the streets emptied, everything closed—businesses, grocery stores, restaurants. Music was not played during memorial week and TVs remained off in public places. Armed guards appeared at roundabouts and other random places.

We noticed when we first arrived in the country that almost nobody used the word genocide. Most people spoke in terms of “the event” or “the tragedy” or “our country’s history”. Nobody refers to a differentiation of any ethnic group ever and, in fact, doing so can be considered genocidal ideation and is cause for arrest depending on context.

But during the memorial period, which lasts 100 days beginning April 7th, the phrase Genocide against the Tutsi was everywhere. Banners, signs, ribbons, etc.  It’s almost like the entire country functions as normal 265 days of the year and reserves all of its collective grief for the months of April, May and June. Even the weather follows this pattern, as the genocide occurred during the long rainy season, and each year the rains and gray skies come in April as they always have.

During the first week, the government hosted country-wide memorial conferences facilitated by local government and church leaders. People were off work, kids were out of school, curfews were enforced, and everywhere we looked groups of people were huddled in buildings, parking lots, tents, schools, soccer fields and parks. Most were listening government leaders speak on different topics like justice, forgiveness, unity, and self-reliance, which (we learned from survivors) was difficult for some. The people who facilitated the genocide were the government. And although this is an entirely different government, the fact that the government is facilitating reconciliation can be a trigger in itself. It’s institutionalized programming. It must sometimes just feel eerie.

Foreign involvement in the different local services is tricky and requires special permissions and security, considering varying feelings of foreign abandonment and the fact that the country continues to process in the presence of such an international community.

Amazingly (as we were initially told this would not be possible) the country director of ALARM obtained special permission from the government leaders in our neighborhood to bring us to one of the memorial services in our district.  We understood in advance there would be no pictures, no translating, and the service would be entirely in Kinyarwanda. We would be flies on walls there, and we agreed.

We pulled up to an empty field and parked under the solitary tree. There were four sections of benches forming a square around two giant speakers in the middle of the field and a microphone. There were 500-600 people sitting in all the benches and crowded in rows behind the benches. People hardly made any noise, even the kids. It was 3pm in the blazing sun. Quiet, calming genocide music played with an airy woodwind instrument and lyrics that said things like: Never forget the genocide of the Tutsi, as people sat and listened reflectively.

We approached the set-up from across the field, and as people turned to look at us, I can say with certainty: I have never felt so uncomfortable or out of place in my entire life. What are we doing here, I whispered to Jeff. We should never have come. This is not our memorial! But as they ushered us to a seat and we waited for the program to begin, it occurred to me that attending an event that commemorates the violent killings of a million people should probably not ever feel comfortable—no matter who I am or whether or not I belong there.

The service was 4.5 hours long and in the blazing sun. The site was surrounded by four armed guards, and the first speaker was a Commander in full uniform speaking about security, followed by the Vice President of the Senate and the former coordinator of the Civil Society in Kigali City. The theme of the 19th Commemoration was Self-reliance, and the speakers encouraged each individual person, family and village to be responsible for their own security—food, shelter, safety—in their own villages and homes. Poverty leads to dependence and reliance on others, both at a personal level and as a country on an international level, which leaves everyone vulnerable. Rwanda is on a fast track toward development post-genocide.

The VP of the Senate directed her talks toward the youth. She reviewed the history of the country and she narrated events leading up to the genocide from 1959 on, compelling the youth toward resilience and unity. She reminded the crowd that not all Hutu were involved in the killings. For the Tutsi to even have survivors, it was because there were moderate Hutu who fought tirelessly and courageously to rescue others and refuse involvement. She also reminded the youth that 100 years had passed (1894-1994) that Rwandans were not themselves. Prior to colonization we had a solid leadership, she explained. But colonization divided us. That was not who we are. The VP then challenged everyone to see everyone as human. Both sides. All we need to be human, she said, is to value each other.

We knew all this not because we understood it as it was happening, but because we got into the car when it was all over to a hearty round laughs and back-pats from our friends who said, Brooke and Jeff can now write a paper on how to persevere! Almost five hours in a field under the sun listening to speakers in another language on a tricky topic in the middle of a questionably welcoming crowd. And how to communicate in a language you don’t understand, another friend chimed in. They laughed and said something about praying for the gift of tongues, or at least the gift of interpretations.

In the end, when the VP and other government leaders, along with many of the people attending, came up to shake our hands and genuinely thank us (in English!) for our interest, attendance and respect despite all the barriers, we didn’t even know what to say. We had been a mix of fear, embarrassment, grief, sweat, and confusion. But it meant a lot to attend, for both sides, and we were so thankful to have been granted the opportunity. J and I breathed sighs of relief and looked at each other like, Did this really just happen? Such an intimate event in the lives of the friends we had met, and so hot!

In the car on the way back, along with the jokes about tongues and interpretations, the speeches were translated and our friends also explained that the attendees were a mix of ethnic groups, with more Tutsi than Hutu. Among the officials there were no Hutu.  I thought this might be good, but our friend explained that when all the talks are led by one side (Tutsi) they sometimes have difficulty, even though it would make sense that the oppressed side would facilitate the memorials. Doing that is how the whole system was maintained in the first place, though.  It’s better for all when the officials are a mix of both groups.

So. After memorial week, the rest of the 100 days is typically spent caring for the survivors around the country, visiting some of the other memorial sites, and for us, visiting the country’s pre-genocide historical sites, like the Kingship Palace, the National Art Museum and National Forest—these are the things that make Rwanda Rwanda.

And this is where I started to get a little bit lost inside.

I consider myself to be mostly aware of my limits, and I function with a relatively high emotional IQ, but seriously. I’ve been all confused and jacked-up ever since our last [death-defying] trip to the National Forest* wherein we didn’t actually see the National Forest, but the Murambi Memorial. Murambi: 900 bodies preserved in limestone exactly as they fell at one of the most horrific massacre sites in the country. About 45,000 Tutsis were killed at the brand new technical school, which sat on a beautiful and isolated hilltop, first lured out of hiding by the Bishop and the Mayor with promises of protection by the French Army, and then days later, two hours after the French Army left, locked inside and killed. Here’s where it gets crazy. The French Army returned after the attack with equipment to dig mass graves, buried the bodies at this site, then BUILT A VOLLEYBALL COURT ON TOP OF THE GRAVES AND PLAYED VOLLEYBALL to hide their negligence.   I’m sorry, what?! And in the nineties? How does this happen?  And how have we not all decided that a) we shouldn’t probably kill each other or allow others to be killed in our presence, but in the case that we do b) it’s totally inappropriate to play volleyball on top of the graves of the people we just implicitly killed.

Anyway.

We saw the graves, the actual bodies—two entire classrooms of children—the clothes, the glasses, the pens, the tufts of hair.  And we saw the equipment. We saw these things on the exact date the Bishop and Mayor beckoned the community to the school nineteen years ago under the pretense of safety.  You can imagine how eerie it was to walk from room to room to see the bodies and to read the storyboard of events with dates like April 16thon April 16th!  We also came home after the first church memorial in Ntarama to hear news of the Boston marathon bombing, which got all mixed up in the shadow of the horror we had just seen and would continue to see during the weeks at the memorial sites and services.

Even harder was traveling to and from the sites and the forest with our friend who described how he had fled on these exact roads, hiding with his wife, infant daughter and two-year-old for eleven months, because although the institutionalized genocide lasted 100 days, attacks continued for a decade before and after the actual genocide! In 1997 a girls’ school was attacked, and 17 girls who wouldn’t separate into ethnic groups were shot and killed. We’re all Rwandan here, they said. A month before that? A primary school. It wasn’t until about 2000 or 2001 that many Rwandans felt safe and secure from Hutu insurgents sneaking across the border.

This was a very bad roadblock here, our friend would say as we drove toward the forest, or There is the house that sheltered us. Other friends told us from time to time, That river there was red from all the blood.  We learned at the Murambi site that the pastor who married our friends was killed there along with his family. I wondered as we walked from room to room if any of the bodies we saw belonged to the pastor or his family. A genocide looks totally different when dealing with a specific face or name. This is why an entire room is dedicated to photos of each victim a the Kigali memorial. A million people were not killed during the genocide. One person was killed. And then another person. And another person. And another person.

BRK_3054

I remember thinking after that week: I don’t have any words for this. I don’t have words for the 900 bodies I just saw OR for an 8-year-old who was bombed. I don’t feel like I can share all the thoughts or pictures or the things I read. But I wished I could take the banner from the memorial site and wrap the entire globe in it:

If you knew me, and you really knew yourself, you would not have killed me.

Instead, I wrote a status requesting an antidote of baby monkeys dressed as humans. The baby monkeys never came (which is weird, because when I asked for one million cute puppies on a different bad day, people posted piles of adorable puppies on my wall for days…?).

What came, though, was so much better. It was a song, which confirms my theory that God moonlights as a DJ. At least in my life, God speaks to me in that way. I was at church the following weekend, a non-denominational service with a 50/50 mix of Rwandans and ex-pats, which means half the songs are in Kinyarwanda and half are in English. I’ve heard this song a million times, but for some reason it gave me a brand new hope that Sunday:

Higher than the mountains that I face
Stronger than the power of the grave
Constant through the trial and the change
One thing… Remains

Your love never fails, never gives up
Never runs out on me

And On and on and on and on it goes
It overwhelms and satisfies my soul
And I never, ever, have to be afraid
One thing remains

In death, In life, I’m confident and
covered by the power of Your great love
My debt is paid, there’s nothing that can
separate my heart from Your great love…

.

As Rwandans and ex-pats lit 19 candles in remembrance of the genocide while simultaneously worshiping with each other—many alongside nationalities that not only didn’t help, but literally and figuratively played volleyball on top of their graves—I felt like I was witnessing a miracle. Humanity is a crapshoot, and God loves us anyway. Through His love, we somehow manage to love each other.

His love never fails, never gives up, never runs out.

It doesn’t run out after a genocide. It doesn’t run out after or a bombing. It doesn’t run out after a drug binge. It doesn’t even run out when you leave your 2 y/o on a porch at 4am (left field, I know, but it’s what a friend was dealing with on that day).

ON and ON and ON and ON it goes
ON and ON and ON and ON it goes
ON and ON and ON and ON it goes
ON and ON and ON and ON it goes

Did you know that?!

God’s restorative love is moving. Sometimes in Rwanda and sometimes right here inside. Sometimes like a torrent, sometimes like a trickle, sometimes in the survivor and sometimes in the offender, sometimes bright and sunshiny, sometimes quiet within the rain and tears, sometimes so intense it shreds us to pieces and splays us out there, and sometimes so tender it carries us and tucks us away.

***
For the feature article Life After Death, written about our entire experience in Rwanda before, during, and after memorial week, click here.

For a personal narrative of the Rwanda’s history as I understand it click here. It’s the very next post, and it’s in my own words, so nobody quote me! It’s important to include for the many Rwandans who long to be known for more than the country’s tragic history and do not wish to be defined by the genocide as the nation continues to develop and grow. Rwanda existed before and after colonization.

Footnote
* You know, the 12-hour Lampoon-type trip where we were stuck driving inside an actual cloud up and down mountains around Nyungwe Forest in 50-degree pouring rain, our driver manually wiping his side of the windshield with one hand while driving the stick shift down the slope with his other hand, stopping every 15 minutes to ask a roadside stand for a screwdriver to fix the wiper. Every time we stopped the battery died, because it was disconnected every single car-swallowing pothole we hit- Jeff on one side of the backseat holding my neck steady to mitigate the nausea that started on our way up the mountain, and me crunched on his side too, because it was raining inside the car on my side. For the last two hours: pitch black with thick fog, driving through densely populated areas (a refugee camp, for example) with no visibility. Yes, that trip.

Take Two

Things I learned this week:

When you don’t really know what to do or where to go, the best thing sometimes is to just go home. And if you don’t have a home, you could just go to the last place you felt completely happy and useful and competent and loved, and if that happens to be on the couch with your decade old tie-dyed sheets, a stack of books and your best friend, in your old apartment in Fort Wayne instead of Europe, then fine. It’s not the end of the world.

If you begin to have fleeting moments of worry that maybe “home” is some guy popping the question with a ring from Zales in front of a fire next to the Christmas tree, or two kids and a house instead of grad school and Europe, you’re probably just homesick and approaching 30 in the Midwest at Christmastime, and home can actually be chili with your best friends or lunch at Las Lomas or Starbucks when it snows for the first time or even Wanda Sykes standup comedy and chicken noodle soup.

Someday in my life, maybe God will speak to me directly in the form of Morgan Freeman or a burning bush, but for now, I can only make the best decisions I can with what I have at the time, and trust that God will meet me there. My prayers at night usually go something like this: helphelphelphelp…sorrysorrysorrysorry…helphelphelphelphelp… thankyouthankyou.

The miracle, I have realized—the exception, not the rule—is that we are alive. That our skin comes together and holds everything in. That our blood flows and our hearts beat. That we breathe in and out and are given a certain number of days to complete a certain task in the world, and that we think somehow all of this is our doing. That our lives belong to us. We are created, and we exist so long as our creator continues to breath life into our frail, fragile, pile of bones and skin and muscle. Each time we breathe in and out, we are experiencing a tremendous, fantastic, unbelievable miracle.

When you hurt someone, you say you’re sorry. And when someone tells you they’re sorry, you forgive them. We have this crazy weapon, this powerful tool against all the ugly and darkness and hurt in the world, called redemption. Hardly any of us use it, and it’s our one chance in the world to actually undo something. To undo something. An excuse to stop hating someone, and to offer someone else the same chance. Did you guys know about this?

We have to protect each other. We always have to protect each other, and I am the worst at remembering this, but it’s so important. I am doing my best to make the list of people who hate me in the world shorter, to become less harmful and more protective.

There is no timeframe for how life is supposed to go. Deferring is okay. It’s not a race and I don’t have to prove anything to anyone. I can do whatever I want whenever I want to.

Things happen, and we adjust. I am going back to Germany tomorrow.
Katie’s funeral was beautiful.
We are heartbroken.

avelut: mourning

Excerpts from Mudhouse Sabbath
Lauren Winner

…What churches often do less well is grieve. We lack a ritual for the long and tiring process that is sorrow and loss. A friend of mine whose husband recently died put it like this: “For about two weeks the church was really the church—really awesomely, wonderfully the church. Everyone came to the house, baked casseroles, carried Kleenex. But then the two weeks ended, and so did the consolation calls.” While the mourner is still bawling her eyes out and slamming fists into the wall, everyone else, understandably, forgets and goes back to their normal lives and you find, after all those crowds of people, that you are left alone. You are without the church, and without a church vocabulary for what happens to the living after the dead are dead.

Mourning, maybe, is never easy, but it is better done inside a communal grammar of bereavement. Christianity has a hopeful and true vocabulary for death-and-resurrection. It is Judaism that offers the grammar for in between, for the mourning after death and before Easter.

Judaism understands mourning as a discipline, on in which the mourner is not only allowed, but expected, to be engaged. Rather than asking the mourner to paper over his grief, the Jewish community supports him in mourning. (My priest, who is always urging me to pray the despairing Book of Psalms, says that Judaism mourns well in part because Jews understand lament. “Christians,” he says, “do not know how to lament.”)

Jewish bereavement marks the days, and then the months, and then all the years after a death. The first space, called aninut (literally “burial”), comprises the days after death and before burial. During these days, mourners are exempt from the other requirements of Jewish law—they are not obligated to attend prayer services or visit the sick or welcome guests, because they are devoted entirely to the one commandment of preparing the dead for a funeral, and that preparation is all-consuming. Rabbi Margaret Holub says that mourners are exempt from other commandments during aninut because only the living are obligated by God’s law, and in those first days after a death, mourners “border on death themselves.” The community is not obligated to visit or comfort or feed the mourners, explains Rabbi Holub, because until the burial, “the death is still happening,” so the work of comforting cannot yet begin.”

Then the counting starts. The next demarked days are shiva, or “seven,” the first week after burial. In that first week, mourners “sit shiva.” The expression to sit shiva is enacted literally—after the funeral, you return home to sit on low chairs, as Job’s friends did; “they sat down with him toward the ground for seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him.” All the mirrors are draped in black, and the mourner lights a memorial candle, and she does not wash her hair or wear perfume or put on lipstick. Mourners do not have sex, or listen to music, or wear shoes. They do not leave the house the whole seven days, except on Shabbat. Their neighbors bring food. At the first meal after the funeral—called the seudat havra’ah, or the meal of recovery—the mourner is meant to eat an egg, whose obvious circular fertility is to begin the slow work of reminding the bereaved that she will live.

The next unit of mourning time is shloshim, thirty, the first month after death. After thirty days comes the full year of mourning, a period designated especially for those who mourn their parents.

This calendar of bereavement recognizes the slow way that mourning works, the long time it takes a grave to cool, slower and longer than our zip-zoom Internet-and-fast-food society can easily accommodate. Long after friends and acquaintances have stopped paying attention, after they have forgotten to ask how you are and pray for you and hold your hand, the mourner is still in a place of ebbing sadness. Mourning plateaus gradually, and the diminishing of intensity is both recognized and nurtured by the different spaces the Jewish mourning rituals create—the harrowing shock of aninut, the pain of shiva, the stepping into life and world of sholshim. (The rabbis would be quick to point out that we do not observe the calendar of mourning because it is psychologically beneficial, but because it is commanded—and that is true, but why should it be surprising that God commanded something that therapists might now applaud?)

Whenever I have paid shiva a call…what has always struck me is the sheer crush of people. People in the den, people in the kitchen, people crowding out on the terrace and pressed into the hallway. The mourner who wants to weep in his cups alone is out of luck. On those days when he desires nothing more than to crawl back under the covers and shut out everything that breathes and has three dimensions, people pack into his home.

Not only is the community present for one’s mourning, God is present too. God is ubiquitous in Jewish bereavement because of the Kaddish. Countless commentators have observed that the Kaddish is a curious mourner’s prayer, because it says nothing about mourning. It is rather a prayer about God, describing Him as magnified and sanctified and worthy to be praised. It is not a prayer of rent garments and commemoration, but rather simply four verses of praise to God. “Blessed, praised, glorified, exalted, extolled, mighty, upraised, and lauded be the Name of the Holy One, Blessed is He, beyond any blessing or song.”

Even in the pit, even in depression and loss and nonsense, still we respond to God with praise. This is not to say that the mourner should not fee what he feels—anger, disbelief, hatred. He can feel those things (and shout them out to God; God can take it.). You do not have to feel praise in the intense moments of mourning, but the praise is still true, and insisting upon it over and over, twice a day every day, ensures that eventually you will come to remember the truth of those praises.

I can still number in single digits the funerals I’ve attended, and only one of them really mattered to me, the funeral of my nearest and dearest in England, just shortly after I became a Christian. Her name was Clementine…and she was driving on those swirling roads outside of Oxford and was killed by someone who later admitted to drinking seven or eight highballs before he got into his car.

It was sudden, of course, and horrible, and Clementine’s friends and family and all the people who loved her bricolaged their way into grief. We prayed the rite for the dead. We held an all-night vigil. We sent checks to Mother’s Against Drunk Driving. We sang her favorite hymns, and wore the sweaters she had loaned us and not yet reclaimed. And we put our pictures of her in picture frames, and were sad.

“Like all mourners,” I wrote to my friend in New York, “none of us who mourn Clementine really know what to do. It is all so shocking and unexpected and ridiculous and awful.”

I was not blood or marriage kin to Clementine, so according the particulars of Jewish law, even had I still been a practicing Jew, I was not a mourner, one who would sit on a low stool or say Kaddish. But I was reminded of the rhythm of mourning. I found, in the weeks after Clementine’s death, that I did not want to listen to music, that I could not, in fact, tolerate celebration of any kind. I even found it faintly annoying when a passerby whistled or hummed. Then, perhaps three months after Clementine died, some voice in my head told me that I was overdue, that I had been sitting sackcloth for far longer than the thirty days of shloshim. So that night I went to hear the choir performing at St. John’s College.

I have not said Kaddish. On the anniversary of her death, I will send another check to MADD. I have purchased a yahrtzeit candle and closeted it away in my linen closet, and on October 19 I will pull it out and find some matches and remember my dead.

For Katie and Chase, for their families, for our friends, for all of us:

Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”

John 11:25-26

Four Skinny Trees

Four Skinny Trees

They are the only ones who understand me. I am the only one who understands them. Four skinny trees with skinny necks and pointy elbows like mine. Four who do not belong here but are here. Four raggedy excuses planted by the city. From our room we can hear them, but Nenny just sleeps and doesn’t appreciate these things.

Their strength is secret. They send ferocious roots beneath the ground. They grow up and they grow down and grab the earth between their hairy toes and bite the sky with violent teeth and never quit their anger. This is how they keep.

Let one forget his reason for being, they’d all droop like tulips in a glass, each with their arms around the other. Keep, keep, keep, trees say when I sleep. They teach.

When I am too sad and too skinny to keep keeping, when I am a tiny thing against so many bricks, then it is I look at trees. When there is nothing left to look at on this street. Four who grew despite concrete. Four who reach and do not forget to reach. Four whose only reason is to be and be.

Sandra Cisneros
The House on Mango Street

Our good friend died. I came home.