Finding solace from grief in life's small, perfect moments
BY: Lisa Schamess
Editor's Note: On Saturday, January 29, Gil Schamess died at his home at the age of 34, just six months after learning he had metastatic liver cancer. Before his death, Gil & Lisa wrote a column for Beliefnet about their struggle to live with his illness. Now, in this solo column, Lisa explores her new life with their daughter, Mona.
At summer's American beginning, I went to Northampton, Massachusetts, to be with Steffi and Gerry, Gil's parents. They have adopted me in no uncertain terms: They need a second child, and I need second parents. Since my mother and father died in 1992 and 1997, and my sister and brother live in Texas, I've found it a blessing to have this old house nearby to come home to some weekends, a room of my own and the familiar routine of family. In a sense, the Schamesses have adopted Mona too, lending more than a hand all these months, buying nearly all her clothes so far, feeding her and changing her and keeping her overnight sometimes, shepherding her to museums and parks while Gil and I made the rounds of the healers and hospitals.
On Saturday morning, we sat on the porch of the Edelsteins, the Schamess' neighbors across the street. Hy Edelstein had a new, special recipe for bubble soap, and a great big wand that fascinated Mona. He stood on the steps with his tall mayonnaise jar of bright blue stuff, blowing huge, ungainly bubbles that wobbled skyward for an eternity in bubble time. When they popped, each burst into wispy fragments that floated and stuck to our clothes. "The secret ingredient is corn syrup," Hy said. He has a voice like his bubble potion, bright and sweet and slow, that makes me want to hug him all the time.
Sally, Hy's wife, sang a line of an old standard, "I'm forever blowing bubbles.." Like Steff and Ger, the Edelsteins excel at just being available, making you feel there is nothing special that has to be done except this, whatever this happens to be. After only a handful of visits, Mona already goes to the door in the morning to ask for them. If there were a school for grandparents, the Schamesses and Edelsteins would be tenured faculty.
Hy poured more soap into his metal pan and dipped his magic wand several times, very precisely. "Another secret is to get a lot of soap to adhere before you start," he explained. He opened his arms like Prospero and eased more bubbles into the air. They were curiously oblong, their edges wavering constantly, never quite giving in to the perfect sphere shape we expected.
"Do small bubbles wobble like this, and we just can't see them?" I asked. We'd been peppering Hy with questions. A chemist, he knows all sorts of arcana about the hidden ways that substances mix and materialize.
"Possibly," he said. "These are heavier, and their skin is so thin, it's hard to say."
We watched the bubbles rise and burst and their remnants fall. I remember this arc of hope and disappointment from childhood: the quest to mix better bubble stuff, to make bigger bubbles that last long enough to float up all the way to God's eye. It makes me think now of all the prayers Gil and I sent up last year, always working to find the secret recipe, the perfect admixture of hope and acceptance that would give us back the keys to our old life. Night after night, I prayed when I rocked Mona to sleep, thinking, "This night I won't mouth a word, I will only listen, and maybe if I listen hard enough I'll have the answer." Or "This night I will pray only to be strong, only to have what I should, and by being so mature I will earn Gil's safekeeping." Some nights, I gave up the charade and just wept and begged. Toward the end, when I spent so much time alone in hospital parking garages, leaving Gil behind, I abandoned praying. I spoke aloud but had no more questions, requested no more strength. To the echoing concrete walls and stained pavement, I shouted that it was going to be over, and it would end badly, and no one was listening.
All along, Gil and I knew that prayer isn't really about asking for an event. Prayer is an action, like blowing bubbles, an act of faith in the face of the world's strange brew of physical logic and unexplainable coincidence. It's simply the middle moment between what wasn't and what will be, a frail awkward orb containing the empty space of longing.
Watching the bubbles, I thought now that prayer wasn't cumulative at all. There was no bank of prayer on Gil's behalf or anyone else's, no vestige of all those nights except the barest remnants of memory, which dies with the last one who remembers. That Gil lived at all was the miracle, that our lives even touched amazes me still, that he got to grow up sitting summers away on the Edelsteins' porch, was the answer. And it came and went before we'd framed the question.
So I live and will die. You do and will too. Who knows where God's eye really is, much less God's ear. To continue to re-create hope out of things you find in your kitchen, to continue to believe that this time, this particular bubble is so perfect and strong it won't burst, is to spend a moment, and a prayer, as wisely as you can.
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