Wading through widowhood: Light a candle

Everyone says, and there may be something to it, that the first year is the hardest; time, goes the mantra, heals the heart.

Hanukkia 521 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Hanukkia 521
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Hanukka was never a big deal for us, growing up in the Diaspora. It fell during the summer holidays in South Africa, and we were at camp or on the beach during candlelighting time; somehow it seemed to pass us by. Even in Israel in the early years, I can’t remember eight days of doughnut delight… but that all changed once I met Martin.
Martin, in his wonderful way, made Hanukka yet another time of magical moments. A store-bought menorah was not my husband’s style; soon after our wedding he handpicked a solid chunk of stone from the side of the road up North, and painstakingly drilled holes in the surface to house his gorgeous glasses. He imported bags of beautiful wax – lime green, cobalt blue, crimson and vivid fuchsia – and taught the kids to layer it in the delicate cups, in an ordered, color coded manner. His artifact stood on the windowsill next to the children’s more basic hanukkiot, and everyone who gathered in our happy home got the chance to light a candle.
We moved the couch forward for the lighting ceremony, and for almost three decades most of the children in our extended family moved through the “tunnel,” past the glittering lights, to where Martin stood with an outstretched hand, clapping shekels into each kid’s palm in turn. We would all sing the first verse of Maoz Tzur, but Martin could belt out all six stanzas – and he did, each year, eight nights in a row.
Martin could turn a cup of tea into a festive event; real festivities, with him at our side, sparkled.
And exactly one year ago, on Hanukka, our sparkle sputtered and dimmed. For the first three nights of Hanukka we somehow sang the songs, and prayed for a Peled miracle from the God who could keep light going for eight whole days… surely, surely He could manage one more little feat? We sang “Banu hoshech legaresh…” and ached to banish the darkness that was falling on our lives.
A friend brought a megahanukkia of flowers and sweet-smelling white wax; the perfume brought a smile to Martin’s lips, and we said, “He’s smiling still, there is hope.”
But as we lit the second candle, and then the third, we found it harder to sing, and our hope dimmed as each day passed. Our darling died on the fourth day of Hanukka, the 12th of the 12th of 2012, just after 12 p.m., and in our despair we tried to find significance in the timing. Martin’s last hours were scented by the fleeting glow of his candles, and we are grateful that he died surrounded by light and love.
And now it is exactly one year that we have walked this earth without him. It is a challenge for us, day by day.
A year marks the end of a cycle; all the birthdays have been negotiated alone, a Seder has been spent without the head of the family, anniversaries and special family days have come and gone. Everyone says, and there may be something to it, that the first year is the hardest, the first time is the saddest; time, goes the mantra, heals the heart.
I’ve been thinking, recently, about my heart. What is the deal with breaking hearts? From earliest days man believed that our pump-like organ controlled emotions.
We can feel it for ourselves: hearts flutter, skip a beat and ache. Aristotle maintained hearts were the seat of the mind; until today we speak of having a “heart-to-heart.”
In his fascinating book, The Mysteries Within, Sherwin B. Nuland maps out the debate between Aristotle and his teacher; Plato located intellectual faculties in the brain. Even Shakespeare weighs in on the question in The Merchant of Venice: “Tell me where is fancy bred / Or in the heart, or in the head?” (Modern research reveals that brains are tied to hearts by the vagus muscle which, amazingly, can be exercised. Vagal tone stretches with each connection: be nicer to others and become happier yourself – and healthier too!) The Bible has endless allusions: hearts can grieve (Deuteronomy 15:10), and encourage – Isaiah commanded Jerusalem to “take heart” (11:2). The heart can stand, and faint, and become hard. It desires, and goes astray, and can be stolen, as Jacob stole Laban’s. It can melt, and take bribes, and tremble, as it did when God admonished Jeremiah.
There is no lack of purported purposes for our heart; ancient Egyptians even cited it as the seat of semen. Today we’ve heard of cardiac arrest and mitral stenosis, and most of us know people who’ve undergone multiple bypass operations and lived to tell the tale. But with all my research, I couldn’t seem to find how hearts heal.
And this Hanukka, that’s what interests me most.
As we light our ner zikaron this year alongside our candles, our memorial light will shine, as we sing together the only verse of the Hanukka prayer that we know: “My refuge, my rock of salvation! ‘Tis pleasant to sing your praises.
“Let our house of prayer be restored. And there we will offer you our thanks.
“When You will have slaughtered the barking foe.
“Then we will celebrate with song and psalm the altar’s dedication.”
I don’t know about slaughtering barking foes at this point. The song that beats in my brain has a different melody, and swings around inside my skull with the syncopated rhythm of Ray Charles at his best. “I can’t stop loving you,” croons Charles in his buttery voice, and continues: “They say that time, heals a broken heart, But time has stood still, since we’ve been apart.”
I don’t like to end a column in sadness, Mart. So as we light your hanukkia this year, and talk about your wonderfulness, I will try to focus on the good times we had and the good times ahead, and enjoy the doughnuts.
Hag Hanukka sameach to us all.
 Dr. Pamela Peled lectures at Beit Berl and the IDC. peledpam@gmail.com