On Shavuot, we read the Book of Ruth. There are many fantastic interpretations of this story – some of them ask if Ruth and Naomi were lovers, others explore the nature of the relationship between Ruth and Boaz, and others focus on Ruth as the paradigmatic convert. In reading the story and a number of articles about it last month, I found that no one had really explored Ruth from the perspective of grief and loss. Her husband died before she left Moab, and Boaz’s wife died the day Ruth and Naomi arrived in Bethlehem. The widow and the widower marry each other. As a grief counselor, I often invite people to write letters to the people in their lives who have died. Below is the letter I imagine Ruth would write to her late husband, Mahlon.
I don’t know if you’ll ever read this. I used to be certain there was nothing but nothingness after death. But now there are days when I swear I feel your eyes upon me. Before we left Moab, every laugh I heard by the water where we skipped stones made my heart skip a beat. I’ve seen you in dreams but not only in dreams. Since you died, the doorway between life and death has cracked open, leaving me with more questions than answers. I don’t know if you’ll ever read this. But I have to try.
When I found you dead, there was so much screaming. I only realized later that the voice was my own. How could you leave me, Mahlon? After a night of gentle warmth, I woke with your cold skin resting on mine. I don’t remember much of what happened next. Orpah found me shaking you, sobbing, begging. It was too late.
Soon, your mother was all I had left of you. When Naomi held me, I felt you in her arms. She told Orpah and me to stay behind, to return to our parents. But losing Naomi would have been losing you all over again. So I gave her the same vow I shared with you on our wedding day: Wherever you go, I will go. Where you lodge, I shall lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God, my God. We walked together to Bethlehem.
I never planned to marry again. But two women can’t make it on our own in Bethlehem, or anywhere else for that matter. When Naomi told me to go to Boaz at night, your voice was in her mouth, telling me to take care of her. To take care of us. I’ll do what I have to do. And…there is one more thing.
Boaz is a widower. His wife died the day your mother and I arrived in Bethlehem. He’s grieving too. He never expected to find me on the threshing floor. Boaz didn’t want to make love to me. His heart breaks for his dead bride, just as my heart breaks for you. We stayed up all night talking about you and about her. Maybe, just maybe, we can mend our shattered hearts if we hold the broken pieces together.
My dear Mahlon, I don’t know what happens after death, and I don’t know what happens now that you’ve died, but I know Boaz is asking the same questions. The doorway between life and death has cracked open, and Boaz is standing in the doorway with me. I hope you know I’ll never stop missing you, even though I am marrying him. I hope you can forgive me. I hope I can forgive myself. I don’t know if I ever will. But I have to try.
And I will take care of Naomi, Mahlon, just as she takes care of me. Our stories are one and the same, and my vow to you – and to her – remains. Wherever you go, I will go. Where you lodge, I shall lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God, my God.
I knew I shouldn’t have done it. I know I’m supposed to live into my uncertainty, trusting that God will meet me there. Others seem to be able to do this – they experience time as a straight line, a narrative as cool and clean as an autumn breeze. My bones have always known that time is a circle, or a spiral. We are not the wind, we are the leaves as they spin, in an endless pursuit of beginnings chasing endings.
I am Lot’s Wife. You don’t know my name because they never asked my husband. People wonder now, reading my story. Back then, they didn’t think it mattered. And even now, I’m not sure it does. I’m one line in your Bible story – “And his wife looked behind him, and she became a pillar of salt.” One look back. That was all it took.
You know what happened. Avraham argued with God, saying that God should spare us all if there were even 10 good people in Sodom and Gomorrah. We were judged to be the righteous few, and they told us to flee. So we did.
As it says, “God rained fire and brimstone on Sodom and Gomorrah, and God turned over these cities and the entire plain, and all the inhabitants of the cities, and the vegetation of the ground.”
We were running forward but I had to look back. It was my last chance. What else could I have done? It wasn’t perfect, but it was home, and it was burning. I wasn’t perfect, but I’m only human – or was, until I became salt. Ramban wrote that I was looking to see if my daughters were following. He’s not wrong. But that’s not the whole truth either. I wanted to make sure they were with us – but I also had to say goodbye.
No one ever gets to say goodbye in the beginning. Adam and Eve are cast out of Eden. Noah and his family got on the boat as the world they knew was swallowed by water. God told Avraham to leave his father’s house and his native land, to go, God says, “to a land that I will show you, to a place you do not know.” The stories of our people are marked by loss. All of them left something or someone. And yet, no one ever asks if Adam and Eve were homesick, if Avraham yearned for his father, or for the culture and religion he left behind. Did Noah dream of the people who drowned? Maybe he did…maybe not. But he trusted God. I’ve never understood it. The past is so knowable and the future, intangible. How does anyone learn to trust?
I knew I shouldn’t have done it. But time is a circle, and the leaves on the wind are torn from their limbs before they’re ready to die. This is why I needed one last glimpse of what we left behind, even as we ran forward, away from our lives, our homes, and our stories. I couldn’t leave without saying goodbye to everything I knew. Noah’s world was lost to the salty sea, but I’m the one who is made of salt now, dissolving at the mere touch of water.
The first time I saw you, you were nothing but light.
We were in the ER because we were worried about you. I’d had an allergic reaction and even though I was mostly fine, everything mattered more with you inside of me.
The doctor told me that we may not be able to see you, because you were only seven weeks old at the time. But we watched the screen, breathless, until the doctor said “Your baby is safe. That flickering light? It’s your baby’s heartbeat.”
Heartbeat. My body created a heartbeat and now it had two hearts.
A voice rose inside me like smoke from a flame: “All this time, you were capable of creating this miracle? I’m so sorry.” My eyes burned. So many years of pushing my body to the breaking point. So many years begging my body to be thinner, stronger, better. I had no idea what it meant to create life with my body, to create a heartbeat that depended on my own. I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, my own voice repeated within me. I didn’t know you could make miracles or heartbeats that flicker. I love you. You’re perfect. Thank you. Gratitude, at last, for this body, this baby, the miraculous light inside.
Four weeks later, the spotting started. At first, I was confused. Spotting? What? Googling. Could be normal. 11 weeks pregnant, almost 12. It happens to some people. Really, it could be nothing. But it could be everything. Blood test #1. Waited all weekend. More spotting. Probably nothing. No need to jump to conclusions. No need to ask what if. No one needs to know.
Finally it was Monday. Blood test #2. When will the results come in? This afternoon. I refreshed the browser. Again again again. Could be nothing. Cramping, bleeding, but maybe it’s nothing. They say this happens sometimes. Results came late at night. HCG levels dropped in half. In half. Didn’t the doctor say a drop meant something is wrong? My heart sank. Something must be wrong. This isn’t nothing. I am not ok. What do we do? Should we go to the ER? We called the advice line. “Could be normal,” she said. “It’s almost second trimester, after all. HCG levels drop at the second trimester. Only way to know for sure is an ultrasound.” Why didn’t they have me get an ultrasound to begin with? Ultrasound was scheduled for Thursday. I called the next day and moved it to Tuesday, their first available appointment. At least if there’s something wrong, I’ll be able to go to camp and my brother’s wedding in September. At least we know we can get pregnant. At least.
On Tuesday, I wanted to see your flicker on the screen again, to know you were safe. It was the moment I’d envisioned so many times: the ultrasound picture. Holding hands and waiting to see. Except it was different now, the anticipation mixing with dread. I saw you, and you were nothing but light. A crescent moon against the dark sky of my womb. So small, and this time there was no flicker.
I read the radiologist’s face. He was trying to figure out how to tell us. I know what it’s like to tell someone that someone they love has died, so I helped him out.
“I started bleeding on Friday. My HCG levels dropped. We know something might be wrong.”
He let out a breath. “Yeah…I’m not really getting a heartbeat…” Beat. Heart. Beat. I’m not really getting a. At least we know. No more uncertainty.
“Its size is about nine weeks, and you said you’re at twelve,” he said.
“Is that when it died? Nine weeks?” I’m not really getting a heartbeat.
We were still holding hands. We found the tissues. The radiologist stepped out to give us some space. I called my mom. When the doctor came in, I asked what will happen next, since this dead thing was still inside of me. “It’s not your fault,” he said. “Most conceive again and have a healthy child.”
My OB called me later that night. The next available appointment for a D&C was the following Tuesday. My womb would be your coffin for a week, unless my body chose to release you on its own. My OB tried to be helpful. “At least we know you can get pregnant. This happens to a lot of people. One in four.” ONE IN FOUR?! I was shocked. Why doesn’t anyone talk about it? I’m not really getting a heartbeat. I’m not really.
Sunday night I was in the worst pain of my life. It woke me up at 1am. I’d been sleeping a lot. My body was confused and sore. I doubled over, it hurt so much. Within hours, you were outside of me, over a week after you started to leave me. My body was different. Lighter, because it was empty. I was no longer carrying something dead inside of me. At the ultrasound appointment on Tuesday, they gave me medication to clear out anything that was left. At least I didn’t need the D&C. At least.
“You will probably feel the hormonal change,” they told me. “And some grief.” They offered resources. They were so kind. I thought about the medical students I know, as the residents answered my questions. I know a lot about grief. And I know a lot about hormonal depression. I don’t know anything about this empty space. I know that I want it to be over.
My body wasn’t ready to release you completely. For a full two months after that, I bled pieces of you. I bled the emptiness you left behind. I bled the lining from my womb that became a coffin. You took so much of me with you when you died.
I went to work the next day. I kept up with my rabbinical studies. I was fine, I said. I even believed it. We grieved on the first day, and I grieved with dear friends who came to visit, and then I told myself I was done. I gave a presentation in my history class the weekend after we found out. Studying Rebbe Nachman of Breslov was an unbelievable blessing, getting to know a rebbe who taught that suffering can be transformed into meaning, and that meaning can become joy.
And then your almost-birthday was approaching. Your projected due date fell on Rosh Hashana, the birthday of the world, the Jewish New Year. It’s also when we read the story of Hannah for the haftarah portion – Hannah, who was barren, and cried and prayed for a child until God gave her one. Two weeks before Rosh Hashana, I was at grief camp, supporting a cabin of teen girls who transformed in 48 hours, from closed to open, their light shining through as their stories unfolded. They were writing letters to the people in their lives who had died, and I was seized with an urge to write to you. The harder I tried to ignore this desire, the more I wanted to do it. The words tumbled out in 25 minutes, covering two and a half pages. I don’t remember writing any of it – all I know is that I had to write, so I did.
So hineini, here I am, on Rosh Hashana, revisiting what I wrote, in a coffee shop of course, remembering, and sad, but grateful too. I’m not sure how to miss you because I never met you. But some part of me knew you, and all of me learned from you, because your heartbeat lived with mine. You were only with me for twelve weeks, and yet you alone could teach me the miracle of my own body, the wonder and awe, the mystery of my own power to create the light and the life I saw, flickering on that screen the first time I met you.
If you taught me something this enormous after only twelve weeks, I can’t imagine what I might have learned if you had lived. I can’t wait to find out what I will learn from the next life that grows inside me.
The first time I met you, you were nothing but light. You were amazing, extraordinary. I already loved you. And now that you’re gone, I can’t ever thank you for using the twelve weeks of your own life to teach me something about mine.
I’ll never forget that, my flicker, my heartbeat. And even when (or if) I’m fortunate enough to have children, I will never forget you.
Happy New Year to the life that’s no longer inside me. And to all of the life that’s yet to come.
Another piece of older writing, but one that returns to me every fall, with the leaves, new students and the new year. New writing will be here soon, I promise!
The reason it’s so hard to tell this story is because it’s a story I don’t want to tell. I want to talk about everything around it until the space where this story lives is a tiny white dot, surrounded by circling black sentences. Every time I add another layer of writing, the white dot grows more visceral, and its silence, louder. I’ve written about goodbyes, graduations, new homes, and final resting places. I’ve called them “rituals,” hoping to lessen the finality of endings. Rituals are predictable; life itself is not so patterned.
It was September, and everything was beginning. September brings autumn breezes and new books. Old friends reunite with excited cries, while new students grow younger every year. When I was a child, I rose at five in the morning, even though my first day of second grade would not begin until eight. I couldn’t wait to see what second grade would bring, and this was the start of it all. In college, September still brought the familiar rush of excitement and nerves, and a fresh sense of purpose…which always faded by midterms. Longing for September’s optimism soon became part of the ritual as well.
In September 2005, I had just returned from a National Historical Park on the East Coast, where I worked as a historical re-enactor for three months. I barely had time to recover from my colonial adventure before my senior year of college began. That September, I began writing my history undergraduate senior thesis, after eighteen months of research. I wrote my first few blurbs as a new intern for the Santa Cruz Good Times, a local weekly newspaper, and I discovered that I loved writing literature features. I studied for the GRE’s, enrolled in my last two literature courses, and I began applying to history graduate programs. Everything felt enormous as I prepared to finish college, and took my first steps toward the unimaginable territory of graduate school.
Then, on September 20, my friend Randy died. He was 25 years old, and he had graduated in June with a degree in politics. I remember his bright orange “party shirt,” and sharing cold drinks on his porch. I remember that everyone sat up straighter when he started coming to Kresge Student Parliament meetings. By his senior year, Randy was the Parliament chair, and I was the secretary. I gave him Robert’s Rules of Order for his birthday. He made me feel like I was the most important person in the world. Randy had worked on Ryan Coonerty’s mayoral campaign for the city of Santa Cruz. He was going to go far.
When I found out that he had died, there was a scream that started in my stomach.
The only poem I wrote that school year was about his funeral. I wrote it without meaning to, sitting at my desk in the Good Times office in September, waiting to hear back from a possible interviewee. I called the poem “Twenty-five,” and when I went outside to get some coffee, I read it to my mom over the phone. Meanwhile, leaves scattered on Pacific Avenue, and students huddled together in coffee shops. Somehow, it was still September.
The day after his funeral, I tried to read Clouds by Aristophanes. It was inconceivable. I asked for my first extension on a paper in my fourth year of college, because I was so overwhelmed with grad school applications, the GRE’s, my burgeoning thesis project, and Randy’s absence, which made everything else seem trivial. How could the leaves fall?
On September 20, 2006, I was a busy new graduate student. I spent the entire day reading, and trying not to think about anything. But in the middle of the night, I blew a tire right in front of his old house, and I heard him say “Sweet pea, if you don’t slow down, you’re going to blow a tire too.” I stumbled out of the car and cried “I know, I have to slow down, I’m sorry! I love you! I miss you!” It was the one-year anniversary of his death. I hadn’t forgotten. I was just tired of remembering.
Each September, I start another year working at a university Hillel. Autumn arrives with its familiar markers – leaves and books, new students to meet, High Holy Day services to plan. My sense of memory is stronger than my sense of present – the past is vibrant, finished, and contained, while the moment is gray and intangible. Rituals provide an imagined structure, the illusion that I can order the present because I can count on new students. I can rely on September.
In 2005, Randy’s death disrupted autumn. Familiar rituals seemed insignificant, cruel in the face of shattering change. But over the last few years, I’ve learned that life is not ritual, and that rituals change based on life. I never wanted September to mark an ending, but I didn’t get to make that choice. I can, however, choose the way I want to remember, now that Randy is part of the autumn landscape. Like books, like leaves. Like new beginnings.
This is an “oldie-but-goodie.” I wrote this in fall 2005. I have performed it on stage and on live radio and I find that its message keeps coming back to me because I work with young women and I am always considering the way we talk about our bodies. Enjoy!
My body looks like Russia. It is immense. It spans a hearty portion of the Eastern Hemisphere. There is very little room for neighboring start-up republics on its borders, and when I was younger, I feared I was doomed to live like a frozen wasteland forever. Everything about me kept getting bigger. In fourth grade, my breasts resembled onion domes. By sixth grade, they were the size of St. Petersburg. These days, I think my breasts may be out to take over the world. You could hide nuclear missiles in there! I don’t recommend it though. You may not be able to find them again.
On the map of my body, stretch marks climb over my hips like rivers trying to reach both the Pacific and the Atlantic Oceans. The space between my legs, though not as barren as I feared it would be, seems to get lost between the snow-crested mountains of my thighs.
I inherited this Russian body from my foremothers. They handed it down with their recipes for matzo-ball soup and knish. I can still see my weight-conscious family members frowning around the table, examining my expanding waistline as they examined their own, while my great-grandmother, who sat on the other side of the table, encouraged me to take another helping. What, you should want to deny your heritage? This recipe was my grandmother’s! Eat! Enjoy! We are a zaftig (full-figured) people, that’s how we survived hard winters in Russia, and now, ha! We use food as a way to survive everything! We kvetch (complain) about how big we are, and then we eat more because we’re upset. Nu (so), it’s in our blood. What can we do about it but thank God that we have hearty appetites and big hearts to match.
I tried to listen to my great-grandmother’s words, but it’s awkward to be the largest country. I don’t mean to take up most of the space in Europe, but at least I’m nice about it. I only occupy the spaces no one else wants, the cold, lonely places where the nights are white and the darkness envelops the day. I’m clumsy about government too. My immensity gets in the way, and I seem to trip over everything.
You’d think I would do something about this. I’ve tried. I stopped eating for awhile, in hopes that I could slim down to the size of Italy, or maybe even Chile. It worked at first, but my heritage stuck out in strange places. My waist and hips lost their gargantuan dimensions, and my face took on that sexy angular look, complete with the hollow eyes and sunken cheeks that many people associate with third-world starvation. My breasts, however, never shrank down to normal size. Russia evacuated most of my body and the entire population took refuge in my chest. They threatened to secede and become countries of their own.
Eventually, I grew tired of trying to be the size of Switzerland. I could squeeze into smaller spaces, and at last I was pleased with the country staring back at me in the mirror. But the truth is, I never really fit into that shrunken frame. I was sick all the time, dizzy from my efforts to battle off sinister invaders like bread, cheese, potatoes, and even carrots, those dangerously carb-laden vegetables. I’d wanted to train for a marathon, but my body couldn’t seem to handle it. When I started to pass out after running too many miles without enough fuel, I decided that I couldn’t avoid my Russian heritage any longer.
I gently allowed my body the time it needed to grow again. At first, it was kind of fun – I enjoyed all the food I’d denied myself for so long, though I consumed a hearty serving of Jewish guilt with every bite. But after awhile, as my body regained its Russian proportions, I began to wish that there was anything I could do to abandon my genes – or squeeze into smaller ones.
My great-grandmother’s age finally crept up on her in the fall of my freshman year of college. She died at the age of 98, and I wrote poetry for her all morning, this woman who represented my past. She was one of my few family members who could tell me about Russia as she remembered it – a legacy far bigger than my body snuggled between the bodies of my foremothers and the daughters of our future.
These days, I still kvetch about my size. Having a Russian body means that shopping is devastating, my breasts hurt when the car goes over speed bumps, and every time I eat, I know that I’m feeding the Russian peasants who live in my thighs. Some days, I still look in the mirror and bemoan my figure, even though it is part of my past.
But other days, when I look at the curves of my breasts and hips, I can hear my ancestors laugh with full-figured good nature as they sit together over elaborate meals, passing the kugel and the stories across the table. This is where we enjoy old recipes cooked up and often exaggerated for flavor, this is where my own experiences collide with my history, and this is where my future will be – served up with a sizeable portion of memories, and shared with my zaftig, loving, Russian family.