You Resurrect the Dead
On a dark Thursday in March the telephone rang and I picked up the receiver to hear my youngest child say “Something terrible has happened,” and I knew that a family member was gone.
When death takes someone you love, there is no looking back. And there is only looking back. You can’t complain there’s been a mistake or argue there was no time for goodbyes. You can’t protest the life was too short, and you can’t negotiate a deal for a final conversation. When death takes someone you love, she has slipped off the edge of the world and there is no bringing her back.
So it was with my daughter Sarah, who was taken from us without warning in her forty-fourth year, leaving a wake of vacancy and heartache behind.
More than a day intervened between her collapse and the time police discovered her body on the floor of her apartment where it lay crumpled by her bed. Though we can never know for sure, it appears she drew her last breath on Wednesday, March 6, 2008. They had gone to look for her after she failed to show up at the school where she taught autistic youngsters, and did not call in sick. It was out of character for her to be unconcerned about her children, so the school called her mother, Elissa, who called my daughter Anne, who said, “We must notify the police.”
By the time I answered Anne’s call in Los Angeles, they had already located Sarah in the spot where her heart had stopped. For those of us who loved her, there was nothing left but to get on with our grieving and counting up our loss, and then to proceed with the arrangements for putting her lifeless body to its rest.
In the three days that passed before the funeral, I noticed how our conversations kept returning to the final words each of us had exchanged with her when she was alive. What was the purpose of these futile gestures that could not bring her back? Perhaps they could be understood as a desperate hope for the past to flow into the present as before. As though, after the pause, we might pick up the phone to hear her voice, or knock unexpectedly at her door and find her at home to open it when we did.
There were other dimensions to our helplessness during these watery hours—unnerving thoughts that had to do only with ourselves. I should have spent more time with you when there was time to spend. I should have told you how much I love you, or told you more often. I should have been less contentious when we had our disputes. I should have come up with more ways to protect you. How desperately now, when it is too late, I wish I could put my arms around you and hug you again, and hold you and hold you.
The reflections of a mourner are a relentless accounting, and there is no bottom line. What words of hers did I fail to understand when she was still there to explain them to me? What did I miss that her eyes were telling me when she fell into her silences? Losing her is too hard, and there is no way to end it.
There are odd synchronicities that appear in our lives when we least expect them. On the last day we can be sure Sarah was still with us, the literary website NextBook published an interview with her whose subject was life and death. A note by the interviewer explained, “Sarah died the day after this interview was posted. Our conversation had started with a discussion of how to deal with sudden, shocking loss, spiritually, and I know that the people who knew and loved Sarah are working to do just that right now.”
Indeed we were. The “sudden loss” to which the interviewer referred was the death five years earlier of Sarah’s aunt, Barbara, whom I had first met when she was only thirteen, and I was courting her sister, three years her senior. In an uncanny prefiguring of Sarah’s end, Barbara had collapsed from an aneurism while still relatively young in the New York apartment where she lived alone.
The interviewer’s name was Nelly Reifler, and she began by describing her connection to this curious turn of our family fates: “In 2002, my mother’s dear friend Barbara Krauthamer died at the age of fifty-eight. Though her death felt sudden and premature, it didn’t come as a surprise. For years Barbara had known that she had a congenital disorder, arterio-venous malformation, and that her tangled blood vessels could cause a fatal stroke or hemorrhage at any time. At the funeral, I met Barbara’s sister, Elissa and her grown children. All the nieces and nephews were dazed and shocked—but still, each managed to speak about their aunt. Later, at the graveside, Elissa’s second oldest, Sarah Horowitz, led the kaddish.”
Barbara was the relative to whom Sarah felt closest. The two shared creative sensibilities and talents, and a common hand that life had dealt them of struggle against great odds. Barbara was the costume designer for the television series The Sopranos, and late in her life had become an accomplished ceramic artist. The intertwining of their fates was a theme of several of the writings Sarah left behind. In the interview she explained: “During my aunt’s last years she lived with the knowledge that her life would probably be shortened. She took up pottery, traveled to Italy—just did all the things she’d always wanted to do, so I took that lesson from her. So now when I have an idea, like ‘I want to go to Africa,’ I don’t put it off until ‘someday.'”
Barbara and Sarah traveled to Mexico together, and Sarah wrote a poem about their trip:
The morning is full of you the dark
ceramic cup you bought me after a
trip to Oaxaca where we fell in love
with black pottery
The deep light brown bowl you
made solid and fragile as a heart
I walk past the cafe where we spoke
for the last time
We had each returned
from places we were warned not to go
We talked about Italy and Israel and
why people no longer fly
When, in accord with Jewish custom, the family unveiled Barbara’s headstone a year after her death, Sarah wrote a poem about the event:
One year later We pack up your
things Stand by your gravestone
Wrapped in layers of clothes
Still bone cold
Reifler noted that Sarah had turned to Judaism in her mid-thirties, and asked whether her religious practice helped her to deal with Barbara’s death. “I think it did,” she said. “I’m very comfortable with the fact that Judaism doesn’t have this highly developed idea of what happens after you die, like Tibetan Buddhism and Christianity.