Loss

Zada was sitting at the huge mahogany dining room table in his suit and tie. I crossed the room and went to sit with him to wait for everyone else to be ready to leave.

I was wearing the same dress, brown with white polka dots, cinched at the waist, that I wore a month earlier to my grandparents’ 40th wedding anniversary party. That party, with its frivolity and craziness (there had been a belly dancer of all things) seemed ages ago.

Zada looked at me and said, “Nana would be so happy to see you looking so pretty,” and his voice broke; he made a strangled sound. His shoulders heaved as he sobbed. I didn’t know what to do. I had never seen a grown man cry. I stood up and ran back down the stairs to my bedroom with the sounds of his grief following me. I was eleven years old and I didn’t know how to comfort him or myself.

Two days before I awoke to the sound of Uncle Mike calling to my mom. “Feige, it’s mommy. She’s sick.” I heard his panicked voice in the hall outside my bedroom. Then I heard rustling sounds as my mom got out of bed, “I’m coming!” the slap of her slippers on the linoleum as she followed him upstairs. I pulled the covers over my head, trying to block out any more sounds.

I couldn’t help but hear the voices calling back and forth, the frantic phone calls being made; they were trying to decide if she needed to go to the hospital.

Despite my growing fear, I got out of bed and slowly climbed the stairs to see what was going on. I stepped into Nana’s kitchen and my Dad stopped me.

“Nana would not want you to see her like this,” he said.

“Can I make her some tea?”

“Okay, why don’t you do that.”

I did and when it was ready I wanted to bring it to her, but an ambulance was just arriving. I put the cup down on the marble kitchen table and retreated to our apartment. When I heard movement on the steps, I went back out into the hallway to try and see Nana. I couldn’t see her face, just her wavy white hair as they carried her to the ambulance.

All the adults piled into cars and followed the ambulance, siren wailing. It got very quiet in the house. Mark, my 14 year old brother, an unbelievably heavy sleeper, had finally awoken in the tumult. I explained to him what was going on. Steven, my oldest brother, was away working at a hotel in the Poconos.

After what seemed an interminable amount of time, though it was still only early afternoon, we heard people at the door. My Dad came in.

“Come, sit with me,” Dad said. He ushered Mark and me to the couch in the living room.

He took a deep breath. “Nana died,” he said quietly.

She was 56.

“What happened?” I asked, “how??……”

“We don’t really know – maybe a burst blood vessel or blood clot.”

Mark immediately burst into tears. How did he do that? How did he understand it so quickly. I was numb. Dad patted Mark’s shoulder and put his hand on mine. “It’s okay to cry.”

I don’t know if he said that for Mark’s benefit or mine. I’m sure he offered words of comfort but I don’t remember what they were.

I learned a lot over the course of the next week. I learned about sitting shiva – the Jewish ritual surrounding death. I watched the mirrors in the house get covered with sheets; Mom, her siblings and Zada each wore a black pin and ribbon to signify their loss; mourners used small hard stools instead of regular chairs. Each morning my uncles walked across the park to the nearest synagogue to say kadish. The house was filled with people, day and night; sometimes it felt like a party. Nana loved a party.

I learned that grown men do cry. Uncle Jack, Nana’s youngest brother, was sitting quietly one moment and then was overcome the next. I didn’t shed a tear, not then, not since. Nana was my comfort and heart, I felt a deep sadness, but tears would not come. It was my first experience with profound loss, but not my last. I learned that I don’t shed tears of grief and I still don’t understand why not.

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Nana and me on the porch on East 91st Street in 1969 or 1970

14 thoughts on “Loss

  1. April 18, 1971. The day our lives changed. Nana was remarkable for you, me and so many others. I think 45 years later our nana would be proud as to how you have emulated some of her best traits and how she has played such an important role in our lives.

    As to the question you have raised, I have no answer as to why tears are not shed by you. My conscience is clear, however, in that I did all I could over the years, without success, to solve that problem.

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  2. It’s unbelievable that she was 56. We were so young and she had white hair. How sad to lose someone so special so young!

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  3. First off what a great photograph of the two of you. Secondly, I remember coming back from my first week working at Ackermans in Mount Freedom, NJ, Dad had come to pick up me and some of my friends, I do remember him calling earlier in the day asking if there was someone else who could pick us up. We were 16 so one had their own car. The answer was no. So he came out and said not a word about Nana. After dropping everyone off, some of whom lived on our block he told me to stay in the car, that he had something to say to me. I thought Oh boy what did I do? Did word get back about something that may have happened at Ackermans, something that I was not even aware of? Nope, he drove around the block and told me Nana had died. It totally shocked me. I was numbed. I didn’t know what to do. How was I to walk into the house and could I look at Mom, Zada and my Uncles without breaking down. What would I say? This too for me was the first close death that I had experienced. I vaguely remember Great Zada dying. I remember having two maybe three class mates die but they weren’t close enough that it had a real impact like this did. I do recall the funeral and the days after where so many people came to our house. Looking back I remember it as mixed feelings of joy and sadness. But I do remember that period of time, it is seeded in my memory.

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  4. Beautifully written, Linda. It’s almost like being there. My mom’s parents were that young as well. It’s a very confusing time when you are 5.

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  5. I agree with Gary… lots of tears reading your piece Linda. I have grown up loving hearing the stories about my Nana and namesake. However, the stories definitely resonate with me differently at various stages of my life. Thank you for sharing and keeping alive our family stories. I also enjoyed the previous comments and individual perspectives.

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    1. Thanks, Ray. I’m really glad you’re getting something from it. I, too, appreciate when people share their perspectives – I do like the idea of it being a conversation about our history.

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  6. Thank you Linda for illuminating Nana’s last day. I never knew the details before. I remember when my Mom told me she died after getting off the phone with your Mom. I burst into tears and couldn’t believe I would never see her again. Like you, I had never seen a grown man cry and I was shocked and confused when I saw Zada sobbing at the funeral. I will never forget that sight of him at the open grave wailing as the coffin was lowered. It just ocurred to me that I did the exact same thing a few weeks ago at my Mom’s funeral. I guess the lowering of the coffin is the last contact with someone as they were in life and therefore, irredeemably final. I remember sitting in the funeral home during the service next to Mark and the both of us were crying. At 13 years old, I was embarrassed that I was not strong enough to present a stoic face like you, Steven or Ira. I did not understand that we all grieve differently. I know that the loss of Nana meant so much more to you because you lived with her and I am so sorry you lost her support and her love at such a young age, perhaps when you needed it most. I love the picture you posted. I’ve never seen it before and I think you both look beautiful. I agree with Mark that you are walking in Nana’s footsteps by keeping our family stories alive (as Ray said). I have always been proud to be a member of this amazing family, and your writings make me feel that even more, especially now when I am grieveing and appreciate (and need) the connection to all of you. Thank you Linda.

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    1. Thank you for your thoughtful comment. It strikes me that we are so harsh in our judgments of ourselves. I think we would all be better off if we could be kinder to ourselves. Again, thank you for your support in this endeavor. It is really very meaningful and appreciated.

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  7. I have just read Steve, Ray’s, Gary’s and Laurie’s comments–all of them so awesome; so revealing how we all have such different memories of this profound time. Your blog is a mitzvah.

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  8. I think this is my favorite post so far, not that I relish your loss (hardly!) but I connect with it the most. The most poignant for me is the question of tears and the confusion over the way you and others express sadness. Though you mentioned not being a “crier” thus far, I wonder if your reactions will change with time, or if they are a consistent instinct engrained within you. Thank you for provoking these questions!

    On an unrelated note, the resemblance of you and Leah in the photo you posted is crazy! 🙂

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