I am standing outside his office when I learn that his ex-wife has died in a fire. He is in Israel for six weeks—doing business, visiting family, and G-d only knows what else.
I thought I knew him, when he left.
But there were things he left unsaid—for example, he’d continued to pay her cell phone bill, four years after their divorce had become final. I understood their divorce to be a function of irreconcilable differences, but I did not know that her drug addiction was the difference that could not be reconciled.
I did not know why he ultimately felt so responsible for her welfare and her unraveling. I did not know why he worried in the particular way he did, about everything. I did not know why he blamed himself for her demise. I knew the sound of his breath and I knew the particularly luminous shade of brown that must exist elsewhere but I had only ever seen in his eyes.
So really, I did not know him at all.
But when he left for Israel, I did not know this, could not know it, and had I known, I would not
have been entirely concerned. And so, I give none of it the slightest thought. Until one morning, about halfway through the trip, he asks me to check on his office, to ensure it is in good order. I comply. And as I thought I knew him, I thought I was ready for anything that could come between or had come before us.
I was not prepared for this.
When I saw his name flash across my phone on that unseasonable December morning, I smile broadly at what I think is a happy coincidence. But my body knows or remembers something my mind doesn’t, and I pause before I answer.
You can call it a sixth sense, or intuition, or grief aforethought. You can call it the threshold of revelation, if you’d like, or nothing at all. In retrospect, I call it love (fleeting), and loss (inevitable), and grief (the midpoint, the intersection, the merger). Before I hear the rupture of his cry, the labor of his breathing, I recognize the sound of grief caught in his throat, and realize that something terrible has happened. I understand that I am about to assimilate someone else’s trauma. I try to write about it immediately, but I can’t. There is more story forthcoming and this is not mine to tell.
Precisely four weeks prior to the fire that turned out to be something worse, on the eve of his departure, I dreamed that someone he loved died. And so, I tried to shake the dream from my consciousness, and I wake in my bed weeping, tears flying from my face like blood or bullets, like memories of violence or pain. My first conscious thought is this dream is irrational, born of an anticipatory sense of sadness at his impending departure. I thought I simply wanted him to stay.
“I can’t leave you when you’re like this,” he said as I writhed like a wounded animal in our bed, “I’ve never seen you like this, I don’t even know what’s going on.”
I didn’t know, either.
“You must,” he said.
I said nothing, hoping that through silence he’d hear me. I could not say the thing that made absolutely no sense: if you go to Israel, something terrible will happen.
“Something terrible always happens, does it not?” my Bubbe said when I told her. “This is Israel.”
On the morning of his departure, he wakes early to pray.
He wakes early most mornings to pray.
“I’m not religious,” he says, but the phylacteries and yarmulke and prayer shawl tell a different story.
“It’s not about G-d, Ad,” he insists, “it just connects me to the world.”
I believed him, even if I didn’t understand. I was not religious, but I admired his commitment to prayer, a practice internalized in childhood and repeated daily for decades. And as I strove to offer a semblance of privacy during this morning ritual, I found comfort in hearing the Shema or the sound of tefillin wrapping around his arm again and again. He prayed the morning of his departure, and I shook the thought of violence from my head as we drove to the airport in unseasonable rain.
I don’t remember much about that day, but I remember feeling uncomfortable. The rain was unsettling; the heat was unsettling; the lack of traffic as rush hour approached, also unsettling.
“You can still come with me,” he said, but between work commitments and personal obligations, we both knew I could not.
“I’ll see you in six weeks,” he said, “okay?” I don’t believe him, but I nod my head. I thought about all the time we spent together in our daily lives, cooking and hiking, watching movies and tangled up in bed. Six weeks would pass in an instant. “I love you, Ad,” he said, squeezing my hand before he walked away. But when I kiss him goodbye, I don’t feel sad anymore. I don’t feel anything, and it scares me.
The first weeks of his annual trip to Eretz Yisroel were busy for me, with the end of the semester and everything that went with it, teaching and grading and meetings and team retreats. I needed to study for a bar exam I didn’t want to take, and it was easy to stay occupied.
We talked most days, via cellular devices, and I marveled at the ease with which we communicated, despite great geographic distance between us, seven time zones separating our bodies, my longing mapping the length of the earth. He sent pictures of his beautiful sisters, adorable nephews, and his mother, possessed of a regal beauty in her seventies, her face that of a matriarch descended from a long, unbroken line of Yemenite Jews. “You are going to love my mother, ADee,” he says, accenting the first syllable.
He is the only person in my daily life to pronounce my name the way it was intended. Of course, this is a lie: I am of the diaspora, the galut, and my people have naturally and from the start pronounced my name uhDEE. Sometimes I think he is the only person who can truly see me; that too is a lie.
When he calls me three weeks later, there is terror in his voice.
Through tears, he tells me the news.
Though his ex lived alone, he clings to the selfish and irrational and understandable hope that she was untouched, and it was someone else in the house, a guest or a friend or a man, asleep in her bed. I don’t say anything. I know she is dead.
As he tells me what is happening my arms become numb; my breathing stunted. I can feel a pallor come upon my skin. I experience a surge of anticipatory grief, once removed; I am aware, on some level, of what this man and everyone who knew and loved this woman are about to walk through. I think I do, anyway. Every loss is different, or so I remember. He tells me he’s getting a flight, he needs to make arrangements, that I should go home, that he’ll call me when he knows more. I hang up the phone and get back in the car. Only then do I realize I am crying.
When we next speak, things are worse. His ex-wife’s death appears a homicide, drug-related; the arson came after. I marinate in questions for which there are no answers and that in any case are none of my business.
“Is there anything I can do?” I asked.
“Be at JFK at 3pm tomorrow,” he said, “I’m on the first flight.”
I drive to the airport early the next afternoon, full of sadness and anxiety. I dread waiting. Beside me a middle-aged woman is crying. I watch as she and a younger woman, perhaps her daughter, reunite in a fierce and tearful hug over the dividing line. As I stand at the waiting crowd, on the outskirts of the velvet rope, I imagine walls and checkpoints and what it means to be in danger, in flight, in freedom and the ways in which we cross to safety.
The presumptive mother and daughter remain in the clutch of each other’s grip for a full minute, during which time they are both trembling and crying, during which time I gawk through sunglasses and begin to cry inconsolably myself. I think of my own daughter, inexplicably dead at five weeks old. I think of the many dozens of relatives who perished in the Shoah, whose faces I’ll never know, and I think of the last thousand years of Jewish history, the fear of Israel’s obliteration made real as I await the ticker to indicate that the latest El Al flight has landed. I think unclearly, and mostly in the subjunctive: it is essential that you be supportive, that you not be demanding; would that I were in mourning for the woman that he loved, I would understand. I
think of this man and I think of his murdered ex-wife, but mostly I think of her mother, who will never get to hug her daughter again.
It is not clear in those first days that grief will breed uncertainty, followed by clarity, and yield ruptures violent and inevitable. In the weeks to follow, he will weather the burden alone. His relationship with his ex-wife’s parents deepens in shared grief as he draws further away from me. It is not clear if our own relationship will survive this suffering, whether he or we will make it out of this misery. I have no way of knowing that the wheels will come off the bus, he’ll go back to the skeleton of the house they once shared, digging through items lost and surrendered, salvaging old jewelry and burnt photographs for her mother, gathering and reconstructing memories out of the remains. He serves as a reminder and a messenger, a mapmaker and a map, a cartographer of what never was and what little might have remained. I can’t stop imagining this woman I never met, half heartbroken, half filled with irrational jealous rage.
In my worst moments, I am an asshole. I tell him I hate her art; it’s ugly and adolescent, prurient and a reflection of a disturbed mind. Silently and to myself I say worse things. I call her an overprivileged crackhead who needn’t have died at all had she not been a drug fiend. I worry about the 25-year-old African American man charged with murdering this upper middle class white woman; what would the future hold for him? I am angry with her for having the poor sense to cop for blow on Christmas, inviting a drug dealer into her home after midnight.
“What did she expect?” I hurl at him. “If she’d cared a bit more about anything but her habit she’d still be alive now, wouldn’t she? And if she hadn’t been a middle aged white woman—”I trail off.
I am not upset at her for having the poor judgment endemic to active addiction; I am angry at him for the way in which his grief has overtaken our lives. I am looking for a reaction, and the surest way to receive what I am seeking is to speak ill of his dead.
He cannot believe that I could hold this innocent victim in such open contempt. I am not proud of myself for my judgment, but there were moments, I swear to g-d, it was all I had left.
In my more compassionate moments, I too am a mourner. I, too, become a cartographer of ghosts, of memories, of dreams.
As we lie quietly in his bed together that first night back in the country, I am not angry yet. I am empathy personified, at least for a time. He loves me, I am confident, and I love him. And I realize that because I love him, I must bear witness. It’s possible I lack the constitution: I can’t be there for him in the way he needs, which requires a certain subversion. He has not slept since he heard the news. He is exhausted and bereft and shouldering far too much for any one person to carry. I want to give him whatever comfort I can offer. I recognize certain things about him, elements common to mourners everywhere, the things we share. And with certain categories of loss, there is an etiquette commonly understood. But here, cartography fails. There is no map, so I become a mapmaker instead.
We rest in the bed, in the dark, his body articulates itself around mine. Muscle memory is activated; I remember how good it feels to be so close to him, his frame solid, breath warm, the hair on his face harsh against my skin. His arms encircle me and it feels like a sort of prayer. I turn my face toward his to watch him breathe. His body is calm, but he struggles to sleep. He is too tired to talk and there really are no words, anyway, in Hebrew or in English or in any other language either or both of us know, and so in lieu of statements of comfort, I stretch my arm behind him and begin to rub the back of his neck. His breath softens and grows heavy, and I cannot provide much, but I know my touch will help him rest. It is a small consolation, a booby prize, really, but it is the only thing I have to give.
As his body relaxes, a fire truck goes by.
“May God comfort you among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem,” I whisper. We are close enough now that my mouth brushes his cheek, and I repeat these words for him in the original, this ancient language and the language of his birth:
המקום ינחם אתכם בתוך שאר אבלי ציון וירושלים
I am not sure if he hears me, if my voice is audible against the backdrop of city traffic, the din of fire sirens, the hanging curtain of grief.
“Sheli, sheli,” he begins, calling me the Hebrew word for mine.
The truth is more complicated.
“I want her back, Adi,” he whispers, his arm circling me tighter as he begins to drift. “I just want her back.”
A year goes by and that seems to be the resounding truth in our relationship: he wants her back. So, we both drift. I think I will lose him, sometimes believe that I have lost him, as if his body is here but just a shell, and the rest of him has migrated elsewhere, returned to Israel or a Jewish afterworld, the burnt shell of the house they briefly shared or somewhere else entirely beyond. There is love between us, and more importantly, there is life between us. And so, I remain.
But for many months, we live with the rupture, taking great pains to move around it, settling back into the routines. We worry little about the present and never talk about the past. We are quiet with one another, sometimes gentle, sometimes harsh, somehow committed. To each other, and to never, no matter the circumstances, saying the things we need to say. We are our own and each other’s ghosts, and minimal though life may be, we are resigned to rest among the living. He gains weight and he has given up on religion; my hair falls out in clumps; age creeps upon my face.
“I am being punished,” he tells me repeatedly.
“If that isn’t the most narcissistic thing,” I say many times, until one day I say the equally narcissistic thing that I have been thinking all along, which is: what about me?
We are together in this, and eventually I come to accept. This is how it is now. The more time that goes by, the less I expect that things will change. He will eventually return to a new version of wholeness, he will recuperate, he will visit his family in Israel again and return to our converted schoolhouse with a ring. We may be too far gone to recover, but I am not worried about any of that then, either.
What is paramount to me is bearing witness to the struggle, to stick around until grief fades into the rearview, a backdrop for the scene rather than the scene itself. It is hard to know when the feelings will recede. I could go, I think, I should leave, I promise myself.
After most of a year, I understood what I had not seen before: there is a certain courage in bearing something out, in seeing it through to its natural end, whenever that may be. I was less concerned with the outcome of our relationship or my own emotional wellbeing and more invested in the need to ensure that he, eventually, would be okay. For a long time, I wondered and contemplated and doubted. For a long time, it seemed far too much to ask; it seemed that we’d always be dealing with the devil and the dead.
I loved him with an ache and a wonder, but it was not love that bound me to him. I needed to bear witness to this story. It was story that led me to look at her oversized fairy self-portrait every day for a year, until I eventually moved it from its central spot in the living room to the staircase. It was story that led me to audition for a local community theater’s production of Blithe Spirit, six months after the fact, a farce in which a man and his second wife are haunted by the ghost of his first wife. I was cast as the second wife, and that was cathartic and pleasurable and of course made for a story you couldn’t make up, a story you’d have to see to believe. What remained constant: the months wore on and I did not expect him, myself, or anything else to change.
But one day, a summer morning about eight months after the incident, he got out of bed, seemingly as normal. But instead of heading to the bathroom or checking his cell phone, which had become his morning routine, he walked over the shelf on which his siddur and phylacteries were usually placed. He pulled his prayer items down from the shelf, pausing for a moment to examine them. I usually aspired to offer privacy, but not on this particular morning. I watched on that day. I watched as he carefully bound his arm, opening a tiny prayer book that had remained closed for nearly a year between his hands.
Almost as an afterthought, he pulled a crumpled velour yarmulke out from between two books and placed it upon the crown of his head. It was less an act of faith and more an act of teshuvah, of return. He took a long breath, and oriented his body in the direction of Jerusalem. He then began to pray.
Adina Giannelli is a writer, educator, and nonprofit director who lives in western New England. Her essays have appeared in publications including Role Reboot, Salon, and The Washington Post. An aspiring marathon runner, stand up comedian, and chef, Adina spends her spare time reading books, buying silk shirts, and arguing about Stevie Wonder’s best song (“As”). She is currently writing a memoir titled Ghosts That Haunt Us.