At seventeen



My kids are not the first ones I bathed as infants, held as they toddled, hoisted on my back for a romp through the woods.

Today would have been my oldest nephew’s seventeenth birthday. It still is his birthday. Who would he be? What would have become of all of us, had he seen seventeen? Verge of manhood. He barely reached ten; did so with more courage than many show over the course of a lifetime, or so it seemed to me.

The magic show at his tenth birthday was an experience, like so many others from that time, that I can never forget.  So much so that I approached my son’s recent fifth birthday party, at which he had asked for a magician, with no small amount of dread. This magic show came and went, buoyed along by the sound of a half a dozen small children’s laughter. No hospital bed in the family room; no ashen-faced parents of his friends, both afraid to look and too saddened and full of love to turn away. Back then, seven years ago, I positioned myself behind my nephew at the head of his bed and waited ’til the moment when he ran out of the energy to open a gift, then I gently lifted it up from his hands, so he could assay another.  Every single one of the adults in the room knew what would happen with each of those boxes (partially opened science kits, unopened Legos; the lot of them: what is anyone to do? what are they to do? these were loving offerings to this boy, and to their own children, his friends, and also to some capricious volcano god, little squirts of water in the direction of an inferno; what, really, can one do?).

I made it through my son’s recent birthday party okay. Impossible to lay the two moments side by side in the same mind, but there they both are, no choice but to try to coexist.

I won’t say that time heals all wounds, or that it even heals some. I will say that it tends to transform wound into scar tissue. Sometimes that tissue softens, sometimes it hardens. My family of origin was ultimately sundered by this cancer, or rather the calcifying scar tissue in its wake (an iceberg between the shoulder blades, as poet Mary Oliver put another moment). Others may see it differently. I’m trying to see it from the vantage point of a satellite orbiting the earth, which is about as close as I can get on this one.  Also, that’s where I see him.  The wee, faint light, gliding gracefully, nightly, watching us from just underneath the static stars.

Tonight after dinner the kids were in their pajamas, and cleaved to either side of me as they always do when we read on the couch; tight parentheses. My daughter began to delight herself by reading the picture book we’d just finished–only backwards this time, word by word, right to left, page after page. Because I was tired, with work to do after they went to bed, I was ready for it to all end after just a few such pages. But of course her brother let out fresh peals of laughter with every new page, which only redoubled her zeal to read all the way back to page one. Not many moments after had I become aware of my irritability I remembered my nephew, this being his day, after all. Looked to a picture of him on my living room mantle, felt the weight of my children’s bodies against mine, and the gratitude that they were here on either side of me, every bit as alive as I was, probably more, loving and needing me every bit as much as I loved and needed them.

gam zeh yaavor, this too shall pass


10 thoughts on “At seventeen”

  1. As March approaches I have been thinking of you and your nephew. Although I didn’t know him, I have been reading LD for many years, and feel as though I have gotten a glimpse of who he was through your writing, as well as a sense of the hole that he left. Thank-you as always for your beautiful and poignant words about him, and your descriptions of grief and loss. I think it is particularly important to recognize as the years go by that time does not get rid of the grief, but as you put it, just creates scar tissue. The pain doesn’t go away, but perhaps we learn to live with it better. And yet, in my experience, there isn’t a wide cultural understanding of this. I have often felt as though people were waiting for me to move on, and yet, I can’t imagine ever getting over some of my own losses, even as it gets easier (in many ways–or at least in daily survival/coping) with time. I appreciate you creating a space on your blog where loss is acknowledged and public and where people have felt open enough to share their own grief in the comments.

    • Thank you, jvoor. Both for the reading over time, and the kindred spirit. And yes: it is of paramount importance that we create some space, anywhere, for grief to work on living out its lengthy, often camouflaged half-life. I don’t think I ever felt so alone in life as I did in the year after my mother’s death (had been broken up with the month before she died; lived in the midwest, far from my Northern California friends and father; sister as far away as I could imagine, in Norway). What I learned mostt fiercely during that time was that there is precious little space in the culture I saw around me for evident, authentic grief (a friend invited me, a non-Jew, to her Hillel where I could hear someone sink Kaddish weekly; it was a revelation), and that the few people one encounters who cope or feel in kindred ways are like oxygen tanks at the depths of an ocean trench.

      Again, thank you for the fellowship along the long, slow swim to the surface.

  2. LIke jvoor, I’m a long-time reader, and your nephew feels so real to me, and I’m so sorry for the gaping hole in your family. He couldn’t be more lovingly or fiercely remembered, and I’m glad to be an reader for your stories–and company on the way of moving through a world that gives us such a stunning combination of gifts and losses. We remember him, too, through your stories, and stand by you as you grieve and remember and celebrate.

  3. It’s like circling a giant feature in the landscape, sometimes it looms, massive and insurmountable, and sometimes it appears manageable and human-sized. But it’s always just as big as it IS. Or so it seems to me.

    You’re the one who taught me, and continues to prove it, that we are not alone in that landscape.

    Escribó Neruda:
    “Es una casa tan grande la ausencia
    que pasarás en ella a través de los muros
    y colgarás los cuadros en el aire.”

    “Absence is a house so vast
    that inside you will pass through its walls
    and hang pictures on the air.”

    Thinking of you, querida amiga, and of your family, and especially of your sweet nephew, from all the way over here in this vast house.

  4. I have not been a long-time reader as others above have noted. In fact, this is the first of your blog posts I have received after subscribing a few days ago. I feel moved and honored that this poignant and compassionate piece is my inaugural post to LD. Your words on grief have struck a chord with me for their honesty all-too-real-ness. I believe that some grief is never meant to heal because the life and love that informed it is so big and full that it can only leave an indelible mark on those who were touched by it. I am sure that there is far more I could say on the subject but a jumbled mind and fear of triteness stand in the way. I wish you and your family strength, love and comfort, and I thank you for your heartfelt words.

  5. Thank you for this lovely post! I too have read for over a year but finally registered for the site. Oh this post made tears come to my eyes. I will be thinking of you and your family. So glad you are surrounded by love. Your words are always beautiful- there is always such imagery. This line caught me “Tonight after dinner the kids were in their pajamas, and cleaved to either side of me as they always do when we read on the couch; tight parentheses..” Perfect.

  6. Your nephew is what brought me to you, and your blog, now over four years ago. I love the way you write about him, and I feel you so acutely when you do.

    I know you’re a busy bee, but would love to see you write more. I’m still here. Still listening.

  7. Dear Polly, this is artistry, truly.

    My family was sundered by the cancer of someone much older, the original loss more normal, I suppose, age-wise, but no less harmful for so many, nonetheless. I feel solidarity there, in this piece. There is so much to lose in people, really. When any bit of the center holds it is a blessing, and twenty-five years later, I still piece together the shards.

    I’m glad you have the comfort of those small bodies and minds, physically and emotionally. What a gift, both ways.

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