Perspectives: This is the time of year for remembrance

Faced with the isolation of coronavirus, I receded into the memory of our daughter and her husband’s coping with the chain of her confinements due to a different plague: acute myeloid leukemia.

WEDDING DAY: Talia walks from her childhood home in the Jewish Quarter.  (photo credit: COURTESY ABRAMOWITZ FAMILY PHOTO COLLECTION)
WEDDING DAY: Talia walks from her childhood home in the Jewish Quarter.
It’s that time of year: a time for death, a time for life.
Faced with the isolation edicts of the novel coronavirus, I receded into the memory of our daughter and her husband’s incredible coping with the chain of her confinements due to a plague of a different sort: acute myeloid leukemia, a cancer of the blood and bone marrow.
This young bride and groom taught us everything we needed to know about being in isolation. She was cheery with a huge smile whenever not overcome by her illness. Both so well-suited in temperament, their optimism was contagious both exuding and believing that all could only be good. Often it was they who encouraged their visitors, and not the reverse.
We learned to cover our street clothes with gowns when visiting in twos to their hospital homes. We learned to cover our shoes with disposable booties during her two failed bone marrow transplants. Alco-gel was the constant perfume lacing the air of our visits.
We learned to make a full Passover Seder in a hospital corridor alcove with a new guest at the table, our daughter’s chemotherapy drip stand. It stood tall by her side with its (potentially) life-giving umbilical cord stretched into her vein.
We spent one glorious Seder in our family home under the illusion that she was recovering. That held just long enough for her and her husband to enjoy their cousins’ gift of a much-delayed five-star honeymoon. They and we were abruptly crashed back to Earth within days of their return to the hospital routine when her blood count numbers again climbed.
The next spring, we were grateful for her hospital furlough, for the bittersweet privilege of what turned out to be making Seder together one last time in their tiny flat (now seemingly enlarged in comparison to the isolation rooms), with Talia propped by pillows on the sofa, participating b’mesubin, reclining from weakness rather than as a nod to the dining style of Roman nobility.
Back to the present. Many of our life’s default guides have been set aside for the time being.
As of this writing, mourners have sufficed with virtual minyans, balcony minyans and surrogates in their stead saying kaddish where rare minyans are functioning in COVID-19 hospitals.
It is a visceral thing to say kaddish for a parent – for a child, perhaps even more so. Beyond the ritual requirement, there is a sense of needing and wanting to do one more thing to connect to that soul.
The desired flattening of the curve that is so sought by health officials is also a great flattener of life. We have learned to reduce our needs, desires and ambitions and make myriad necessary adjustments to less. My faithful correspondent writes nearly every day reminding me that I have no events on schedule. Thank you again, dear Google.
Indeed, this post-Passover week my calendar has been cleared of making an informal brunch for our faithful friends and relatives who helped us through that storm. This, too, I have let go.
Talia now rests in her smallest dwelling. This year, it seems, her Jerusalem stone-hewn eternal home will remain as quiet as all other days. This year, the pine needles will not be brushed away, the pile of stones placed as a sign of visitors’ presence will not increase.
The memory in my mind of my inability to continue our custom will soften: to everything its time.
The following essay is dedicated to the memory of Talia Efrat Abramowitz Zwebner (1988-2015).
Ode to a Napkin
My shopping list this time of year includes buying paper goods for what has become an annual event, one burned into my spring calendar.
It goes like this: Purim. Countdown to Passover. Gotta start the serious cleaning, track down the lists, find the recipes, count participants for the Seder. Finalize shopping. Unpack my Pesach. Seder night.
Take the paper wrapping off a remembrance. On my mind is that my mother’s family were taken on their one-way train to Auschwitz at this time of year; her selection facing Dr. Mengele; her never-spoken-about sense of guilt/responsibility for unwittingly sending an aunt to premature death.
She lost her mother, for whom I am named, and that aunt and all who were pointed to the direction of no return.
More unwrapping. My mother passed away four days before Passover. Buy a yahrzeit candle.
Pick up the next package. Peel away the layer. Her brother survived Auschwitz only to fall at age 17 in Israel’s War of Independence; his death coinciding with the last day of Passover. Buy another yahrzeit candle.
Passover Yizkor, another candle. Counting the Omer of a different kind, my personal count. The deaths of Rabbi Akiva’s students are foggier associations than once they were.
Clean up from Passover. Wrapping back up. Returning to regular utensils, attempting normalcy.
Shopping lists made immediately after holiday ends. Get the house restocked. Order bagels and spreads, etc. and buy another candle.
Trip to the party supply store.
The napkin is the key element in an event, the detail that sets the theme and ties together the color scheme. I read that somewhere in a magazine.
No one ever tells you, though, how to pick out a napkin for your child’s yahrzeit brunch.
Over the years, I’ve made many visits to the store; reminders are all around, each a little dagger. The baby-welcoming items, candles marking yearly growth, bar/bat mitzvah achievements, graduations, engagement banners and wedding cake couples, the silver and gold sets for milestone celebrations that will not ever come. This time of year, there are blue and white choices for next week’s national grill day; the wonder of a country born from a harsh and scary labor that is now getting to a ripe age.
There isn’t a display for this occasion. Should I go with gray and somber? Geometric and abstract? Maybe a zig-zag as a nod to that symbolism for life? Polka dots to recall the circle of life? No, too Disney. Perhaps something a little more feminine and upbeat, like her. Stick with the old standby of blue? Change the default color and make it something that brings her to mind?
Standing in front of the napkin stand, I pick up and put down a dozen napkins. The staff doesn’t ask if I need help. I need help. Can you show me something to remember my dead child by?
Ok, so burgundy. Like the accent stripe in your bedroom desk. And the color of your bat mitzvah invitation, I think, or was that a different child? Go back and switch the plates and cups to match.
There are times when I have a sense that nature is trying to talk to me, when I see a sole butterfly flitting nearby, when I hear a singular bird song overhead at unusual moments, when two different stubborn orchid plants blossom a single flower each during the week of her yahrzeit two years in a row in two different homes; all seem to be secret codes I alone need to decipher.
Nothing too childish. Nothing too somber. Nothing too silly. But upbeat. Has to be upbeat.
The higher shelf above my eyeline. A napkin in shades of dusky rose and burgundy with orchid flowers and a single butterfly. And taupey gray.
Into the cart.
The yahrzeits line up like a trilogy on a bookshelf enclosed in glass, reaching in entails shattering the careful enclosure.
Too stark to have napkins in black.
The writer is a multidisciplinary artist living and working in Jerusalem. She is developing an artist’s book with the working title: One Mother’s Kaddish.