I Believe: A Mourner’s Manifesto
Everyday I’m counting. Today it’s 71 days. When my mom first died, I started counting minutes. Then hours. Time stood still, and now it’s slithering slowly across the floor, hissing like a constant reminder of what has happened.
Yet it is invisible. No one else hears it but the ones who have been hit the hardest. Sometimes it’s quiet and there is laughter that echoes through the house. Sometimes it’s loud and there’s nothing we can do to fight it but cry and scream loudly about how we wished it would go away.
I don’t believe this has happened. The hallways are empty, and I expect to hear her voice coming across the floors. It never comes. It will never come again. My father swears he sees shadows through the house. But I’m not sure if it’s her. I’m not sure of much of anything anymore.
I’m trying to transition to counting weeks — ten weeks. I’m just beginning to transition into counting months. It’s almost like with every step it should be less difficult, but it’s not. There were over 33 years with her. Now there’s only 71 days without. My father’s lost. My sister and cousin are both lost. I’m lost, and no matter how strong they tell me I am, it’s not something I can navigate my way out of.
The crowds of people who shuffled through the rooms here are gone. The deli trays that were delivered have disappeared, the flowers have wilted and the consolation cards from people ranging from beloved family members to my ex-husband are stocked away in a box somewhere. There is a fear that creeps in with the silence, and you try to shoo it away. But the future is uncertain, and while it is there is no way to kick the fear out of your realm.
Some days I’m completely normal. I can tell the stories about how creepy it was for the mortician to keep smiling and winking at me during our consultation the day after, not to mention my inner monologue (“Knock it off, buddy. I’m not that pretty today and I don’t have the credit cards”). I can talk about how he showed me the bonnet that he wanted my mother to wear, and I started making jokes, becoming hysterical (“She’s Sephardic, not straight out of shtetl”). My friends and I drank wine, played trivia or hopped around flea markets laughing over the weeks. These were great days.
But in this time there are even exchanges. For every good day there is a day where my body feels like it’s been kicked and dragged on the ground, soreness popping up in different places due to stress. There is an endless list of things to do, hard tasks that must be completed but still make you feel like vomiting. There are enough tears to raise the oceans. And as you try to collect the pieces, the heat rises and the vultures begin to circle. They don’t care about the pain, and can never hear the desperation.
They hold pieces of paper with long columns of numbers about the big decisions you have to make RIGHT NOW in the midst of crisis. Or they hold up the words you write as indictments, yelling you down as you look over your mother’s autopsy reports, the tears flowing from your eyes as they abruptly hang up on you because you’re too emotional.
They don’t believe either. And if they do, they believe you should be over it by now. It’s just a death, after all.
I made promises to myself during this time of mourning that I would take care of myself. I broke almost all of them. I promised myself I would observe shloshim, or the Jewish customary 30 days of mourning. It meant refusing to shave my legs and go on massive job interviews, yet doing so anyway because you felt like there was nothing else to do, and the thought of not moving made you want to scream. It meant not celebrating birthdays, yet putting on a brunch for my father’s.
I made mistakes. I became overly emotional. I did things I wouldn’t normally do, ignored people who normally would never be ignored. You want to stop feeling this way, feel like you’re not acting completely out of selfishness. There’s something inside of you that believes that you are better than the rest of the world when it comes to mourning, when in truth you’re not.
You hear the voices from those around you — buck up, get going, get moving. The quiet is setting in and all you can hear is the ticking of a clock, tick tock, you’re running out of time because the only thing that’s really certain in life is death and the pile of taxes and bills that have been left behind.
It’s time to grow up. Find a job, find your path, find everything right now. Move on, but keep your chin up. Now, when the world has taken away your normal and has given you a new reality, act like a human. But you’re still crawling across the floor like a child. You’re a ship without a captain, with no sense of direction and no sense of future.
You want to believe that this will end. All of it. But yet there is no end of the tunnel in sight.
There were calls never made, errands never run, things that I left open ended when I shouldn’t have, like my dating profiles. I wasn’t ready for it. Wasn’t ready for the life changes when I already had enough. And yet, as I believed even before my mother died, I believe that fate sometimes intervenes.
When he contacted me on my OK Cupid, I thought he was cute so I indulged it. After everything that happened, the emptiness of my life was consuming me. Two years of obsessions with medical tests and hospital visits were catching up with me. I was lonely and just really wanted to get laid. I had been through enough without having to deal with dating.
We started talking, and the conversations switched from minutes to hours and playing footsie under restaurant tables. We went out several times. I almost ran out on him for ghosting me for a short period; instead, there I was, standing my ground, confronting him. He apologized for his behavior, offering to take me to a nice dinner. We began talking again, with the sex put off to the side at his request.
“I really want to get to know you, the real you,” he said. “I want to see if we can hang out and be together normally, without sex in the way.”
It was a whirlwind. I danced with him across courtyards and ventured through art museums and bookstores with his hand in mine. We lamented about Maureen Dowd’s insanity and discussed Charlie Parker’s genius sitting on benches. I kissed him on subway cars and laid my head on his chest as he ran his fingers through my hair told me stories of late nights discussing Nietzsche. We would lie on his bed, but coupled with the standard fooling around were intimate details shared and a unique sensuality of the mind.
I love looking into his soft brown eyes that were shining behind his glasses and smiling at him with a giant goofy grin. If I was getting sad, he would call me sweetheart and kiss my forehead. I’d continue talking for a little while longer, but when it got to be too much, he would then cup my face, press his sweet lips against mine and tell me that I’m beautiful. No one I’ve dated has ever told me that. And when I look at him, I know he’s not lying to me.
He listened to me as I described what it was like to read my mother’s autopsy, heard me lament about the piles of temporary tattoos she left behind and how horrible I felt for my cousin. I cried and he cried with me, not even imagining the pain. I told him of the past two years and the present mourning. And yet he didn’t run like the others. He grasped my hands tighter instead.
“You’re a treasure,” he said to me one night standing under fluorescent lights in his kitchen, looking me in the eyes. “You know that, right?”
It’s something I was unable to believe, even though I know that he says what he believes and doesn’t hide. Yet in mourning, sometimes you feel like you’re suffocating under the same dirt that buried the person you love. That soil that you tossed in their grave lives inside of you and you’re fighting it every day to just breathe. The anxiety can be all consuming, and I’m confident he has felt some of it in dating me, rubbing against his own fights with the universe.
Yet in those moments where we were quiet together, with no one else around, I wasn’t a mourner. I was a shimmering diamond, just happy and twinkling in its natural state, at peace in a way that my heart hadn’t known in a long time.
“I don’t know where this is going,” I said to him one evening as we were driving from dinner into the setting sun. “But you’re the best thing that has happened to me in a long time.”
He nodded in agreement and clasped my hand as we moved forward along a path towards G-d knows where. In mourning, you never know where you’re going to land, just that the days are laid out before you and they will be challenges. He can’t solve everything, but even if it is just for a little while, the comfort will be something that I hold on to forever.
I have to believe that things will get better, that I won’t be incapacitated from mourning for the rest of my existence. The belief that there will be joyful occasions and more happy days than sad ones has to be my driving force; otherwise I will feel the madness creeping in. Yet somewhere in these 71 days I’m discovering hope again.
In the darkest moments, I have to remember the sun in the sky, and that every day goes from sunrise to sunset just as it did before. That the phone calls and constant text messages aren’t just imagination, but love in words. Although they can’t completely repair the hole in my heart, they can help me patch it up, brick by brick. And right now, that’s all you can ask for. I believe that.