The only whole heart is a broken one.

-Kotzker Rebbe

I don’t want to go to San Francsico.

The family of the girls’ I nannied for a lifetime ago offered to fly Vesta and I down there to see their youngest daughter, who I spent most of my time with from when she was 2-8, become a Bat Mitzvah. When she heard about our break-up, the mom, who was a mother-figure, dear friend and amazing boss to a much younger me, wrote to me to check in to see how I was managing. She also called me the weekend Harvey was alive. A practicing pediatrition, she knew lots of specialists in Portland if there was anything she could do to help us. I remember listening to her message after we already knew that he would die and part of me enjoying the hope in her voice, that for her there was something that could be done. It was also devastating at the same time to know there was nothing to be done. No specialist on the planet could save our boy. She called me again several days after he died and before we knew what had happened. I lay in my bed stunned and in pain and she was the third or fourth doctor who told me “We just don’t know. Babies just die sometimes.” and she was the first one I believed. I had thought they were all just saying that to me because they were failing at figuring out what happened to my son and they were mad about my having him at home. But when she said it, I believed it. And now, after spending time with other greiving parents, I know it’s all too true. Losing a child is impossible no matter what but as curious animals who need answers and explanations, those who’s babies died for no known reason have a unique struggle. I said to her, “I feel like Job.” She laughed a little and said, “well, maybe just at the beginning.” After the last year and half, I wonder what she would say now.

She wrote to check in with me, to tell me how sorry she was to hear about the divorce and to lend her support. We went back and forth a couple times and then she invited me to E’s Bat Mitzvah. I told her that I probably couldn’t afford to come, what with the financial stress the end of my marriage creates but that I hoped to make it happen. She offered to fly us down if I could take the time off work. I burst into tears. I was so touched to read her words and to see that she wanted me to be there as much as I wanted to myself. That she understood how important it would be for me, how important it was to her and her family, that I be there to witness this important rite in our dear E’s life. I immediately accepted and we would work out the details later. Later came and they so generously made it possible for us to attend.

The next day I thought, “but wait, that means I’m going to San Francsico…” I hadn’t been back in almost 2 years.  I was 6 months pregnant with Harvey when we were there last. Relationship intact, as far as I knew, and full speed ahead into the life we planned. Last year, we didn’t go back because Harvey died and then by Thanksgiving our marriage was reeling, so I stayed home to have a break and some space while Danny and Vesta went down without me. This past August, I went home to New York to decompress and relax only to find the grief for my son and my husband overtaking me. Our relationship developed in San Francisco, it solidified, it grew. We moved in, we married, we had our baby, we chose each other, again and again, in that city. I was never there without him there. When I go back, I want to hit my favorite spots, drive past our old apartment,  reminisce and notice the new buildings and businesses. How will I go back there without my boys? Alone with my daughter, our family of four, three, and now just two? Navigating the streets I have forgotten but he would surely remember. Being there without my person. How do I navigate the overwhelm that so often accompanies the new me alone? How do I do this whole life without him?

The anxiety begins to creep in. It starts at night in dreams and half-awake terrors. It sinks into my stomach and the nausea returns during the day. Toxic blood even. Nothing like after we broke up but recurring none-the-less. I try to think of a way out of it. Why did I agree to this? I was swept up in the moment of being wanted and wanting to be there. I thought how nice it would be to go home to San Francisco after such a long time away. To see friends and family. I went about the business of trying to find a place to stay that would be comfortable for me. I thought, I didn’t take care of myself making this decision to go, it is not the gentlest way to treat myself right now, so I must do so in how I am, where I go and what I do while there. I count the days and begin planning them and find it’s a short trip and I can manage. I set myself up so I feel comfortable, happy even, about my plans. I can’t let this family down that did so much for me and continues to. So I go. I pack our things, I haul us to the airport and we fly back home, home to where our family began.

We get off the plane and it’s familiar and unfamiliar. Rarely have I landed in San Francisco and then went to get a car. But I’ve done it and of course, I’ve only done it with my husband. Only ridden this train with him, only stood in this line with him, look down there, that’s where we three waited for the shuttle. I am breathign and gathering our things and corraling Vesta. As we walk to the car, there is a sign for “Marina’s Cafe” and I stop in my tracks and I actually breath. My dear friend’s child who died three motnhs after Harvey is named Marina. So, here she is with us. Guiding us out into the crisp, sea air.

We leave the airport and I get lost and therefore take a route to the city I never have. We are visiting friends who live closer to the ocean than we did and so we don’t take the road I thought we would, that we always took to our little apartment on 25th Avenue. No, we take the Great Highway with it’s dunes and low beach brush, with it’s incredible view of the vast Pacific ocean and the sun through the fog. I am driving and we are singing and I remember. And I give myself a talking to: this was my home, too. Not just ours. I built a life here for myself, not just our life together. I began a career here, found my center, created community, learned to live in a big city all for myself, all on my own in the day to day out in the world. This is my city too. So buck up, buckaroo! And enjoy this fucking city that you love, that is a home where you left a good part of your heart.

It works. These little pep talks often fall short of the big and complicated emotions I experience now. But that ocean and that sun and that singing and that pep talk and that little girl letting me know she was with us, that turned it all around. I was myself again. I went to my in-laws and to my friends as me, or at least the best me of this new version I could muster.

And then, I went to see my first little girl, become a Bat Mitzvah. We got up.  Vesta’s uncle fed her and her cousin breakfast while I got ready, so that I could then get Vesta ready. I GPSed my way to the synagogue and when I got there we drove around and around for parking. E’s preschool was right next door to the synagogue and I used to drive around and around looking for parking nearby when I would pick her up, Monday through Friday for 2 years. And here I was with my little girl, driving that same neighborhood, telling her all about E, while I happily and nostalgically looked for a place to park to go see E cross this threshold.

We parked, hiked up a hill and then down another to the entrance. We climbed the stairs and entered what must be one of the most beautiful synagogues on the planet. Incredible domed architetcure, intricately painted biblical scenes, a coziness, a sense of being held in a sacred space. I see the family and their extended family and family friends who are still in their lives these 11 years later. We sit and we listen. I sing along when we I can. I let these ancient songs, in this ancient language, uniting an ancient people, wash over me. I don’t know what the words mean but I can feel them reverberate in my chest. I feel the energy of this very moment and its connection to every other moment when Jewish people came together over the millenia to sing and pray and be together. I am in tears to feel such beauty. To have been invited into this sacred space I know very little about. To bear witness to this beautiful family who are swimming in the love of their extended family and their wide community.

Person after person, teachers, aunt and uncle, siblings, the rabbi, come to the front and sing E’s praises. All the things I saw in her at 2 and 5 and 8, come to fruition. Compassionate, smart, insightful, diligent, funny. She’s grown into this wonderufl young woman I thought she would and it’s a blessing, a miracle, to be able to be here and see her celebrated.

I look across the room to where her parents are sitting, her sisters and her brothers, her grandparents, her aunts, uncles and cousins and I catch my breath. A big full family. Of course they have seen death, they have lost mothers and fathers and grandparents. Of course they have seen divorce or gotten uncomfortably close to it. I don’t know their whole stories but what I do know is that they flew from all over the country for this day. What I do see is that not everything, not everyone’s family falls apart. For once, in this long journey since Harvey died, for once, I find solace and even joy in being among people who ahve not be devastated. It gives me hope to see them all there together. My kid’s milestones will never look like this, intact families all the children present, and usually that gnaws away at me like the dog to his bone, hard and rough and bone scratching bone. But not now, not in this ancient celebration, under this amazing dome, engulfed in the love of this family. Now, I feel a part of something normal. Something that lasts. Something that just keeps going despite the hills and valleys I can’t see from my distance.

E come to the front to give her teaching. And it’s amazing. Later, she says she was nervous, but I had no idea. So poised and thoughtful. A unique take on Genesis. A feminist perspective. How are differences may be there so that we learn to overcome them. So that we learn to love each other anyway. I cry more as my heart swells with so much pride and love that I think it might burst. And then she reads her Torah portion and see her studying for months, learning Hebrew for years, all to come in front of us and fold herself into her ancient history, her family’s ancestoral passage. I find that I can breath as she reads. I close my eyes and I listen for the voice of that little girl I took to the playground and chased on her scooter and placed a snack in front of. And I can hear it. I can hear her among the chorus of angels, the millions who have stood in front of their community and read from their sacred book. I feel connected again. I find meaning again. I am human in her presence, in her family’s presence, in her synagogue’s presence. I cry tears of joy.

Her father and mother join her and her father says that something that surprised him about parenting is that he would come to admire his children. That these little people, each their own individual, would not only strike a chord of love and pride but also of admiration. That he looks up to his children and he admires them, and E in particular on this day and for her unique brand of comapssion and empathy that he has seen in her always. I saw it, too. And I too admire my first little girl.

We are gifts to each other and we never how or why. I wanted to bail for my own fear of my grief rearing it’s ugly head as we sped toward San Francisco. I was afraid our city would feel like a ghost town to me, would haunt me, would take me out. But it did not because of the gift of this family. Of being themselves, of everything it took for them to get to this moment, each one of them with their unique roles in each other’s lives and the variety of roles they play in their own lives. That they made such an effort to include me, so broken and lost and sorrowfull, to envelope me in their normal lives of extrordinary love and give me some moments, some time to feel connected again. To feel held in that house of G-d. To be seen and remembered and hugged and inquired about by their extended friends and family. To give me the opportunity they had no idea they were giving me: time to be alive, moment after moment of feeling deep connection to other, of finding meaning in my own live while spending one more afternoon in theirs. We are gifts to each other and rarely do we know how profound and how essential we are to each other.

I am so grateful to this family who let me in over a decade ago, who helped me along the curving bumpy road of my 20s and who include me now, just as I am, and walk me that much closer to the light at the end of my tunnel.

1 thought on “Mitzvah.

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