In the earliest days of Beliefnet, Lisa and Gil Schamess launched a joint column about their struggle to raise a young daughter and live with Gil's cancer diagnosis. Gil died shortly after that column began, in late January, 2000. For the next year, Lisa wrote of her solo journey through grief and young motherhood. With this essay, she marks Gil's second Yahrzeit, the anniversary of his death.
Here's me, barreling down 16th Street a half-hour late for my own daughter's birthday party, 44 kosher cupcakes on the passenger seat beside me. In the right world, the repaired world of my imagination, you'd be here, probably you'd be driving, and I'd be the one with the cupcakes in my lap. I'd be fatter, I bet, and certainly happier, not feeling hollowed out and unwilling to go on, not dreading the sight of a simple preschool room decked out in streamers, full of 15 kids and their parents. And your parents. And Mona. And me. And no you.
Because there's been no you for two years now, already I forget how deep the hurt goes. Day to day I live with it, shift it around, grow to love my life again, the hassles and worries too in a way. Because I manage them. I manage. And I have new friends, plus I have kept our old friends, bless them. They call me anytime, not just now when Mona turns a year older and so does our grief.
There's room for my life now, see. Room in my mind for all sorts of details-bring empty tissue box and rubber bands to Mona's school next week, need to get her lead test renewed, drier is broken again, grad school application due on Friday, big meeting at work same day-and room for writing, for getting sleep sometimes, and for new love. So I forget, because I don't stumble through every day helplessly blank and wishing I could turn off the world, that there will be days (and sometimes days and days) of such stumbling and wishing.
Yahrzeit, we call it. "Yeartime," in Yiddish. It is the ritual time of year for a Jew to return to the origin of mourning, to recall the first day of the beloved's loss and reenter a period of sorrow. We mark this sorrow, characteristically, paradoxically, by singing life's praise through the Kaddish prayer, attending synagogue to receive the blessing of our fellow Jews when we speak of God's greatness. Yahrzeit creates a frame for what will happen anyway: the slant of light, the change in weather, the simple trigger of a birthday or other nearby anniversary throws us back in time anyway. Yahrzeit is the permission to stay and feel the hurt of love's death, but also a time to act on the gift that love was in the first place, to restore our joy in life if we can, to celebrate and commemorate, to give, to light a candle's flame.
This is a time when the surface of my life seems cleared of everything I have learned can matter instead of you. This is a time when what matters is the underlife I lead without you.
And with your daughter. Her babyhood, so delicious, so arduous, is certainly over. She is an extraordinary, if still small, person. Growing by the minute. Every year for the rest of my life I will have to celebrate her thriving without you.
I can't go in there, Gil. I really can't. I can't put these cupcakes on a big plate and light three candles for her and carry them out to her, smiling and singing. I can't see the daddies in that room, the ones I see every day dropping off kids or picking them up, the ones whose legs are for hugging and shoulders for riding on. I can't let your parents see me alone like this. I belong with you. And you belong beside them, with the camera, or cupping Mona in your arms like a precious treasure about to get away. You belong here.
But I am here. And the worst crime for a survivor is not to survive. So I park the car and kill the engine and open the passenger door to lift the cake out myself. I carry it in and I set it aside and I go to our daughter's big birthday. It's your dad with the camera, catching it all on film. And Mona is in her grandmother's arms, wearing a purple tutu over her birthday clothes and listening rapt with the other kids to a story Steffi's making up about a monster under a bed.
I am listening too. And it turns out the best way to cope with that monster is to saw the legs off your bed and keep sleeping there. So that's what I do. I stay put, and I throw this big party, our life, without you. And it turns out okay.