Sweetbitter

My word of the week is sweetbitter*– not really a word, but it should be (like these non-words and these). More apt than bittersweet, “sweetbitter” places the joyful before the sorrow.

We are in Pennsylvania for a yartzheit, a year since my father-in-law died. How can it be a year already since the world stopped, a harbinger of the whole world stopping as if in sympathy? Come Wednesday, we will go to the cemetery and face head-on the abject missing of someone so loved, so central. Come Wednesday, there will be the output of tears, reckoning with what was lost.

But before that there is snow (a thrilling gift to California boys who have been watching the weather reports and praying for this for weeks). There are borrowed sleds and a hill. There are snowballs and dogs romping. There is the ridiculous cake Aunt Jessica created — sweet with some bitter chocolate — to celebrate two January birthdays weeks gone by, because life is for celebrating even belatedly.

We are here, we are together, and we are missing. An exquisite yearning.

Death always takes us by surprise. We are never ready. We bury our heads in living. But would you want it any other way? To be asking each morning, will this be the day? We live and play and we mourn and grieve.

To be clear, it matters that a year has gone by. We have passed through every season, every birthday, every holiday without him. Each painful. “Just wait,” Jessica warned Christopher on her birthday, the first without their father. In the first days and weeks and months, the bitter won out often.

Now, out in the snow, Christopher wears his dad’s jacket and pelts the boys with fists of powder, and runs away from their response. His sister and mom see the familiar jacket and think his father is here.

In the living, in his grandsons, in the dogs galloping over to join them, he is.

Peter Heisen & Bumper, 2011

P.S. Full disclosure. I threw some snowballs, too.

* I am not the first to crave a word more sweet than bitter. “Sweetbitter” has been used by poets and podcasts and authors before me, to whom I offer thanks and credit.

Comfort

Close your eyes and let the sound float around your mind. Comfort.

The word itself feels like something. Like the softest sweatpants you have been living in for months, and the fuzzy socks that keep the hard floor and the cool morning air at a cushioned distance. The couch you sink into after dinner with your belly full, blanket pulled over your knees, the sleepy dog coming to nestle against your hip, its head on your lap, your fingers combing fur. Comfort, as a thing, is tactile.

But the action, to comfort, is harder. How to give comfort? How to heal a dear one’s wounds?

When my father-in-law died almost one year ago, we were inexperienced in loss. I tried to drip words like a salve over my husband’s grief, but grief is a place too deep for words to reach. “Tell your wife you need a lot of hugs,” the grief counselor said. The act of comforting is tactile, too.

I have read that it takes 20 seconds for a hug to release oxytocin.

Yesterday my friend held a funeral for her father, and we gathered online to comfort her, to offer the solace of our virtual presence. We could not comfort with our touch, only our faces and the awareness that we were present. But we are adaptive, we humans, and I think over the past year of virtual connection we have learned to imagine that last comforting mile, to bridge the gap between screen and actual togetherness. To feel the effect of connection.

During the virtual funeral, the rabbi read a poem, “Epitaph,” by Merrit Malloy. Maybe you’ve heard it too, this year? The moment came when the rabbi recited these lines,

And when you need me,
Put your arms
Around anyone
And give them
What you need to give to me.

and I leaned against my husband and took his hand, knowing how deeply he wished he could hug his father.

Hugs may be hard to come by in these days of isolation, but there is some comfort to be found in other places: in the sound of a friend’s voice on the phone, much richer than a text. In sorting through old photographs that spur buried memories of your babies’ smiles, a trip with friends, a dance floor moment resurrected. There is some comfort to be be found in playing the song that reminds you of your first kiss, or in cooking the meal your loved one loved best.

There is some comfort to be found in sitting quietly, intentionally, and recalling the of sensation of loving and being loved. In knowing that, although we cannot touch their love, we can feel it.

May we find the comfort we need, and be the comfort for others.

___

The complete poem is lovely, so I’ll share it here.

Epitaph, by Merrit Malloy

When I die
Give what’s left of me away
To children
And old men that wait to die.
And if you need to cry,
Cry for your brother
Walking the street beside you.
And when you need me,
Put your arms
Around anyone
And give them
What you need to give to me.

I want to leave you something,
Something better
Than words
Or sounds.

Look for me
In the people I’ve known
Or loved,
And if you cannot give me away,
At least let me live on your eyes
And not on your mind.

You can love me most
By letting
Hands touch hands,
By letting
Bodies touch bodies,
And by letting go
Of children
That need to be free.

Love doesn’t die,
People do.
So, when all that’s left of me
Is love,
Give me away.

More Lessons from Lilli Diamond: good for what ails you.

I hear my grandmother’s voice almost daily. And some days multiple times.

This day I am standing at the kitchen counter on a winter Sunday, just past noon. She is not yet two months gone.

I’m in my bathrobe, showered, after my ritual Sunday cardio-funk dance class. Dance class is usually good medicine. I usually feel happy with the first bar of music blasting from the speakers, the first stretch, the beginning of movement, and downright exultant by the last breathless bow. But not today. Today it didn’t work. I am a little depressed.

I am at the kitchen counter, and I have just sliced a mango into a white bowl with a tiny chip at its rim. When did I get these? Post-engagement, pre-marriage? Twenty-plus years? I used to remember details like these. I have cut open a pomegranate and sprinkled pomegranate seeds onto the mango. It is beautiful, orange and red. I pierce the fruit with a silver-plated fork embossed with an elaborate script H. H for Heisen, for Selma & Aaron, my husband’s grandparents. I rescued them from a hidden box of silver last week, rather than let them continue to sit, tarnished and untouched.

I take a bite of my fruit, and it is a sweetness like no sugar, no cookie, no cake any human could make. A ripe mango is proof of divinity, if nothing else. The pomegranate seeds burst with juice, and yet more sweetness. I give gratitude for this deliciousness. I congratulate myself for buying them, for not forgetting about them until they are brown, for not being too lazy this time to cut into the pomegranate and confront its greedy, intricate design, trying to keep its seeds prisoner.

And I think, how can anyone be depressed eating mango and pomegranate, on a sunny winter afternoon, while wearing a bathrobe? It can’t be sustained.

And then, like a reward, I hear my grandmother’s voice. As I slip my fork again and again into the chipped white bowl, putting bite after bite of sweetness into my mouth, my redheaded guardian extols the health benefits of my snack in her distinctive style: “Pomegranates have lots of antioxidants, they are SO GOOD FOR YOU!” It’s a voice that could be saying, “You just won tickets to Disneyland!” This is a celebration.

I exhale, and try to release the dregs of whatever has its teeth in me. It’s always the little things that bring me back. I wrap my soft robe tightly around me. I appreciate the counters I’ve decluttered and wiped clean, my transparent effort to bring similar order to my mind and soul, and I nod to myself, thinking, “Grandma, you are so right.”

 

We Always Root for Overtime

The car clock says 7am as I turn right on PCH, Aaron in the passenger seat next to me, on our way to school. We are tired from sleeplessness related to this unconscionable heat wave, and to Grandma Lilli dying.

He says, “I don’t know why I haven’t really cried since the first night,” the first night being Sunday, October 22, when he walked into my bedroom to say he couldn’t sleep because he kept thinking about Grandma Lilli, his great-grandmother. We had been with her earlier that day, and we knew she was on the threshold of death. He did not yet know that I had just been on the phone with my sister Marni, who had told me that she was now gone.

When I told him, he cried out and crumpled onto my bed. I put down my journal and pen (once again Lilli was acting as my muse), and we talked about life, and about death, this experience bringing mortality to his mind.

“I can’t believe I’m already 16,” he said. “It goes so fast.”

I know, I said. I told him that when I felt panicky like that, I ran through the chapters of my life – way back to pre-school, then little kid, pre-teen, high school…and on and on. “So many chapters and each so full… all before I even met Daddy!” We did the same for him. I wanted him to feel how much a life could hold, even one just 16 years long.

We turn onto Topanga, the temperature deceptively, temporarily cool, the day’s promised heat still to come. “There’s no right or wrong way to feel,” I tell him. I am telling myself, too.

My sorrow has been less intense than I expected it would be. I wonder aloud about the reasons for that: Gratitude for her long life, I think, and for its quality. Her recipe: show up with joy and enthusiasm; believe you can do anything; see miracles everywhere; laugh a lot, and love unabashedly, and loudly. One tiny example of “love unabashedly, and loudly”: Every time I called her, and said, “Hi, Grandma, it’s Laura,” I’d receive an effusive, “LAAAAAAAAAAUUUUUUUURRRRRAAAAAAAA!” in response, as if nothing better could have happened in the world at that moment than a phone call from me. (And I know she had the same, authentic response when any of her family called.)

“You reap what you sow,” I explained to a friend who marveled at our family’s devotion to Lilli when she learned that my sister, my cousin, and I each gladly spent a night in the hospital with her a couple months ago. Lilli planted the seeds of our devotion with her own.

So I tell Aaron, a basketball player, my theory about why my sorrow is tempered: “We left it all on the court with her.” The showing up with love for birthdays, graduations, his basketball and baseball games, his brother’s MMA classes, his cousins’ plays and dances; the enjoyment; the I love you’s. We left little room for regret, and maybe regret is where sorrow lives.

Aaron is quiet, then adds his own sports-related observation. “I think Papa loves overtime and extra innings so much because it’s like a little bit of immortality.” My heart catches, thinking about my father, my son, their relationship as close as mine with my grandmother. My dad has much in common with his mother Lilli — the showing up, the love for his family, his youthful exuberance, his dogged pursuit of his favorite pasttime (for her dancing, for him football), long past the time many of his peers have set theirs aside. He always roots for overtime. More important than the outcome, even, is the chance for more of what he loves.

“I feel like all the time I had with her, my whole lifetime, was her overtime.” I think of my husband, whose own beloved, incredible grandmothers died, respectively, twenty years, and more than thirty years ago, way too soon, so much time left on the clock.

Oh my child, yes. With intense, outrageous, cheer-at-the-top-of-my-lungs gratitude for the miracle of Lilli Diamond’s overtime. All the while knowing with a touch of melancholy, that even overtime comes to its bittersweet end.

 

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Words Meant to Be Shared

It may have been the glass of red wine with dinner. Or the 3-hour time change. Or my mother’s delicate snoring in the bed next to mine in our hotel, that kept me awake our first night in New York. Yet, as I pulled the pillow over my head, planning a Duane Reade earplugs run, I was grateful to be able to hear that sound, to sleep near my mother, still.

Our reason for being here: the Jewish Book Council (JBC) and its author networking conference, aka the “Pitchfest.” In those wakeful midnight hours, I ran over and over my two-minute pitch.

You get two minutes. Two minutes to summarize seven years of writing, revising, abandoning, and returning to a manuscript that represents your most personal ideas and emotions. You sit in a filled-to-capacity sanctuary (thinking everyone here wrote a book, too??), waiting for your turn to tell the savvy book festival planners from around the country why they must choose your book for their communities. And you pinch yourself because you’re one of the authors, and everyone in this room loves books as much as you do.

When it was my turn, I left my written notes on my chair, I looked out at the audience, remembered that they wanted me to nail it, and took a breath. I talked to them like I was talking to my mom, telling them about my labor of love. And instead of two minutes it happened during a single encapsulated, time-not-passing, bubble of a moment.

Here’s what I said:

One of the most beautiful commandments in our tradition is to take care of the stranger – the vulnerable and powerless. This always resonated with me, but even more so after I became a mom. I began to see everyone – even a homeless person on the sidewalk – as someone’s child. But like many people, I struggle with wanting to help and not knowing how.

In my novel Shelter Us, Sarah, a mother of two who is grieving the death of an infant, sees a young homeless mother and child, and she can’t stop thinking about them. Remembering her late mother’s many examples of caring for “the stranger,” moves her to reach beyond her comfort zone and try to help them.

Writing about Sarah’s journey allowed me to explore the difficult question of how we respond to the need we see every day. But even more, it was my way of wrestling with a mother’s universal fear that the worst could happen to her child. Sarah, who suffered that loss, sings a Hashkivenu prayer to her children at bedtime, asking for God’s sheltering arms to keep them safe. The song she sings, “Shelter Us,” I first heard at Jewish summer camp, and its primal yearning has stayed with me all these years.

Shelter Us raises some wonderful questions to explore together:

Who are today’s strangers and what are our responsibilities to them as Jews? 

Can helping others heal our own wounds? 

What are the values we want to pass to our children, and how do we communicate them? 

In what ways did Torah study impact my thinking and writing? 

How do we move beyond our fears, to savor the small, beautiful moments of parenthood that are all too fleeting?

And then it was the next author’s turn.

As soon as I sat down I was thinking of what I’d wished I’d said: This book has great blurbs by brilliant bestselling authors! Library Journal recommends it for book clubs! You’re gonna love it! You’re absolutely gonna love it!

But, like life, there are no do-overs. There are words you will wish you didn’t leave unsaid.

My mom is sitting behind me as I write these words to you, and she’s about to leave to spend a day in the city with cousins, while I go do more book stuff. “Mom,” I call out before she leaves. “I have to tell you something!” She stops, a  look of concern floats across her face. And I try to tell her what she means to me.

 

 

Afterlife, Ashes…and a Kickline for Al Diamond

Today as I stepped out of the shower, my mind turned, in that untraceable-to-first-thought, how-did-I-get-here way that minds work, to the subject of cremation.

If I could tell you why I was thinking about this, I would. But let’s just start here.

Would I be cremated? I asked myself. There are a couple considerations. First, there’s the afterlife. I mean, what if there is a there there, and what if we really do need all our parts — what happens if I’m all dust and gone? I wouldn’t have a hand or a forehead to smack it against, no mouth to say “Doh! Mistake!” I wonder, would I be able to get a loaner? Could pick a different body type? Could I be taller?

But if, as I suspect, there’s no need for the body once we’ve expired, what reason is there not to return to the cosmos all dust and ash? The only other reason I came up with was so that whoever’s left behind has a place to visit.

In my family, that kind of visiting does not happen. It’s not our thing. But boy do we remember. I think about my late grandparents often. I think about them when my son’s expression reminds me of my dad’s dad; or a word my mom says sounds just like her mom; or when a terrible joke with no punchline reminds me of my mom’s dad; I think of them at every Bar Mitzvah, Shabbat and Torah study when Kaddish is said.

And I think of them at anniversaries. Today is the fifteenth anniversary of my grandfather’s death, his Yartzheit. I was lucky to have him as long as I did. And though I do not visit the cemetery where he was buried, he visits me quite often.

Like today. I went to a dance class, and the teacher chose a campy, Vaudevillian routine. I thought, my grandfather would love this. Under the music, I said to myself and him, “This is for you, Grandpa.”

Then, I decided to say it louder. So often I live in my mind, not sharing the good thoughts I am having about others, whether it is how much I admire them, or how they have inspired me, or how beautiful or kind they are. Lately I’ve been trying not to keep those thoughts so private. Besides, since I’d already invoked his presence, I thought it would be polite to let my fellow dancers know someone was watching. So I shared what had been silently percolating in my brain, “Today is fifteen years since my grandfather died, and he would have loved this number.”

“What was his name?” a friend generously asked.

“Al Diamond.”

“This one’s for Al,” she said.

The teacher cued the music, turned up the volume, and shouted “Sell it!” It was stunningly easy to feel him there as we danced and hammed it up, with a kick line to bring it home.

I don’t have any answers about an afterlife, whether spirits roam or visit us, whether we will be able to come back and visit once we’re gone – believe what you want, I say – but I do know that for those 8 bars of 8, he was there with me.

“Good Grief!” or How to Be a Friend (Grief Haven, Part 2)

I’m not trying to bum you out with all this grief business. But it’s life, right? And I didn’t quite finish what I wanted to share in the last post.

And that’s this: Sage advice for friends who want to help, but aren’t sure how.


I was a third of my way through the first draft of Shelter Us when I discovered/decided that protagonist Sarah Shaw, a mother of two boys, had had an infant who died. Up until then, she was just a woman struggling with an unnamed loneliness.

I decided to make Sarah­­ virtually friendless. (Okay, I admit that part of this decision was connected to the fact that this first-time novelist wanted to juggle as few characters as possible. This may also explain why Sarah and her husband are only children, with one living parent each).

But a weightier part of the choice to make her friendless was my intuition that a mother who had lost an infant would lose friends, too. It was too easy to see living examples of this situation. I could look at myself to understand a person who, in the presence of great loss, did not know what to do or say, who shied away from facing another person’s pain directly.

While doing me the enormous favor of reading my manuscript, GriefHaven founder Susan Whitmore confirmed this phenomenon. When, in the story, a neighbor withdraws from Sarah, Susan wrote in the margins, “Sadly, this is so common. We lose friends – they think ‘it’ is contagious or it makes ‘them’ too sad to be around us. Another huge issue of anger and loss we deal with. It is very sad.”

Susan made sure that GriefHaven would not only offer resources to grieving parents, but to the friends wanting to support them (as well as these resources for children.).

In How to support grieving parents, Susan guides, “What you can do is this:

Just “be” with the parent when they are grieving. Share your own feelings about the child’s death, such as, “My heart aches for you. I wish there were something I could do.” or “I care so much,” or “I miss Joey too. I remember him running down the street with his friends,” or “She will never be forgotten.” Those types of comments are real and come from your heart.

Also, just listen. Listen. Listen. Listen.

Also, cry with the parent. You don’t need to be stoic. Your tears will not upset the parent. Quite to the contrary, your tears show them that they are not alone. We often hear that crying with someone is healing for the parents and siblings. This also applies to grandparents and other family members.

As part of trying to help parents and siblings, avoid trying to help them see some kind of “silver lining” in their lives, such as pointing out all of the “blessings” the parents still have. For instance, you would want to avoid saying things like, “You have other beautiful children” or “At least you had her for seven years” or “She’s in a better place” or even “You need to be strong.” What is true strength anyway? We would say that it takes real strength to feel the pain, deal with it on a daily basis, and let it be expressed in whatever way works. That is true strength.

Word.

One more shout-out on this topic, then I’m done. The brilliant, funny, wise Judy Silk wrote a beautiful piece after her husband Dan died. She said, in a nutshell, “Please talk about him. Say his name.” As much as death is a part of life, we don’t really know what to do or say, what will help. So I am grateful for the wisdom, hard won, of two extraordinary humans, whose lives and words can shine a light down the darkened path we may all walk down one day.

How One Mother’s Grief Led Her to Create a Haven for Thousands More

I hope I never know what it’s like to walk in the shoes of Sarah Shaw.

Sarah is the protagonist of my novel, Shelter Us. We share some demographic traits: mother of two boys, Berkeley JDs, residents of Pacific Palisades, California.

But Sarah is also the mother of an infant who died. I have not known that pain.

When I was close to finishing the manuscript, I decided I needed an expert’s advice to be sure it honored the truth of the grieving parent’s experience. As a novelist and mother, I could try to imagine what life would be like after the death of a baby. But I was terrified of misrepresenting the emotional terrain of a grieving mother and inadvertently adding insult to injury.

I reached out to Susan Whitmore – grief counselor, founder of griefHaven, and mother of Erika – who unfortunately has walked in Sarah’s shoes, asking for her feedback on Shelter Us.

Susan graciously and generously read my manuscript. She confirmed the things I’d gotten right, added nuance in places that needed it, and told me “that would never happen” in one pivotal scene. I’m eternally grateful for her openness.

Susan’s openness is what led me to be sitting in a hotel ballroom yesterday filled with Sarah Shaws – mothers, as well as fathers, grandparents, and siblings — who had experienced the death of a child.

We were there in support of griefHaven, a resource for grieving parents. Susan founded griefHaven after her daughter Erika died of a rare sinus cancer, and she became frustrated in her efforts to find help. She decided to create what she felt was missing. As she explains on the griefHaven website:

As I began my personal journey, I discovered there were many support tools, but they were scattered everywhere, and finding them was a painstakingly arduous process….I needed one place where I could learn about a variety of support tools available and, ideally, what other grieving parents and family members found helpful as well. It was then I decided I would put together that web site–a grief haven–where parents, siblings, family members, friends, and specialists could come and find all that was available…a foundation from which you may start rebuilding your life.

The luncheon was emotional. We heard from an array of griefHaven supporters and clients: We met Molly’s mom, who lost her 21-month-old daughter last year, and who bravely told us what it meant to her to see that there can be light in life after total darkness. We heard from Billy and Carol’s dad, former L.A. Mayor Richard Riordan, who lost his son to a scuba accident and his daughter to a heart attack. We heard from Jared’s cousin, now an eloquent 16-year-old, who opened a window to her then-six-year-old grieving soul upon the death of a baby cousin ten years ago.

We heard from Polly’s dad, Marc Klaas, who founded KlaasKids to prevent violence against children, and Ron’s sister, Kim Goldman, who has written a book called Can’t Forgive, about her brother’s violent murder twenty years ago. “It only takes a nano-second to be transported to a place you thought you’d never be,” she said.

It wasn’t an easy afternoon, but it was meaningful. Little Molly’s poised and sorrowful mother said that in the aftermath of her daughter’s death, she wrestles with the meaning of life. She shared with us with words Susan Whitmore had offered her that have helped:

“Maybe the meaning of life is just to grow our souls.”

With admiration, love and support for all who yearn for a haven for their grief, and for all those who provide it,

Laura