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by Alice Radosh
From the Summer 2015 issue of Jewish Currents
ALMOST A HUNDRED CARDS jammed the narrow box in my rural post office the first few months after my husband’s death. Another hundred greetings were posted on Bart’s memorial website. Messages came from close friends, from his former students, from members of the volunteer rescue squad on which he had served for many years, from community people like the couple who run the garage where Bart took our car and pick-up truck for eighteen years.
Their observations ran the gamut. How kind and patient he was: Bart was a kind, gentle man who always cared about others through action and deed; how principled: He set the bar for what it means to be political and principled and thoughtful and just plain nice. Some spoke of the extraordinary relationship he and I had, and some spoke my feelings at a time when I could barely speak at all: I feel all the constellations have shifted, changed shape since Bart has died.
Very few included a reference to spirituality or anything supernatural. A few cards tossed in a phrase along the lines of “You are in my prayers,” but even those were few.
It does not surprise me that people did not reach for religious references and images. That there are even two or three in the mix was the surprise, for Bart was dismissive of anything that came close to religious belief. Sugar-coating it or softening it by conflating God with a deep love of nature, or calling it spirituality or any other New Age term, did not change anything. It was simply not who he was and, on this topic, he was not going to bend in order to consider a different point of view. Not an inch.
Notwithstanding the ‘OMGs’ that occasionally creep into my e-mails, I am as clear as Bart was that there is no spirit that looks down on us. Nothing happens in this world because of a presence that is gently — or sometimes not so gently — guiding events. There are amazing coincidences and amazing things happen that we cannot explain, but neither Bart nor I would jump to a ‘God’ conclusion.
Not long after Bart’s death, one of his closest friends admitted to having “religion envy.” I understood what she meant. It would be nice to think that Bart was smiling down on me and that death would reunite us. How could you not be envious of such beliefs? But such beliefs are unavailable to me. Nothing — not foxholes and not Bart’s death — brought me any closer to embracing these comforting thoughts. I am stubbornly and, yes, proudly stuck with my atheism.
How to explain, then, the condolences that arrived from Bart’s mother three weeks after his death and thirteen years after hers?
I LOVED IDA.
She had embraced me and my children from the first time Bart “brought me home.” At first she loved me because she loved Bart, and she could see how happy he finally was after a ten-year failed marriage. At first, too, I loved her because I still needed a mother’s love — something I had not gotten enough of as a child. Over the next thirty years, a genuine and deep love developed between us. We could tease each other; we could listen to and confide in each other; we could comfort each other.
The first weeks after a death are consumed with administrative details. This serves as a useful way to hold off a total emotional breakdown. There are insurance papers to find, health-care bills to decipher, certificates of car ownerships to be transferred to one name only — and where is our marriage certificate? Do I have an original of Bart’s birth certificate? I was constantly running to the filing cabinet. Then, in one of its drawers, I saw a folder labeled, in Bart’s careful script, Parents Memorabilia.
Towards the back of the folder was a paper I had never seen before. Typed on the front was “Rhetoric 12B, Theme No. 26, May 3, 1929, Ida Bush.” Below that was a grade, A-.
In 1929 Ida was a 17-year-old high-school student.
The topic for the rhetoric paper was “The Most Effective Short Sentence I Ever Heard.” Ida had written about a talk she attended in the high-school assembly, and about her inability to listen to the speaker because “Certain circumstances had conspired during the past few weeks to place me in a state of utter dejection. A cherished dream had been shattered.”
Dejected and shattered myself, I read on. “Suddenly there penetrated into my consciousness, never to be erased, the words of the speaker, ‘You will not always feel this way.’” Ida had underlined that sentence: You will not always feel this way.
As I stood stunned, holding the paper, she continued: “The sentence took on animate power and offered me consolation and hope. Truth whispered in my ear, ‘Do not deceive yourself by your mental anguish of today. Tomorrow you will have forgotten a little.’ Many times since I have drawn on the power of those words to help me face the realities and disillusionments of life.”
I knew from the date of the essay what cherished dream Ida was referring to. But now it felt as if she were talking directly to me about the reality that I was being forced to face. She was adding her voice to those of family and friends who were trying to reassure me that time would make the pain manageable. Hearing that message from a woman who loved Bart and me so much was deeply affecting. Tomorrow you will have forgotten a little.
It was also a bit creepy. Her words had been written almost ninety years ago. Bart had not yet been born, and here she was consoling me about his death.
I called my friend Naomi and read her the essay. Similarly amazed by the paper turning up now, she laughed and asked if my hard line on spirituality was shaken. No more than hers, I assured her, but I could not stop marveling at the coincidence of hearing from Ida when I most needed her comfort. I taped a copy of the rhetoric essay to the refrigerator, where it encouraged me to believe that I would not always feel this way.
Other consoling notes have appeared unexpectedly — from Bart, not his mother. We both occasionally left notes for each other — a note under the pillow if we were going to be away for any length of time, a note on the kitchen counter if one of us was going out before the other came home. Since Bart’s death, notes have popped up in socks and under- wear drawers, desk drawers, and various baskets and files where they had been tucked away over the last forty years.
By nine months after his death, I assumed that I had found them all. But one suddenly appeared just when I was spiraling into the dangerous territory of ‘this is unbearable; life without Bart is worthless; I am worthless,’ and so on, downward.
This note had the ‘strange coincidence’ quality of Ida’s paper. I had just come home from seeing a moving documentary about Henry Paulson, George W. Bush’s Secretary of Treasury. I e-mailed a friend about the film, stating that Paulson’s wife, Wendy, was its real heroine, and that everyone in power should be married to Wendy Paulson.
‘Heroine’ is not a word I use often. ‘Heroine’ was not a word Bart used often. The film focused on the Paulsons’ life together navigating difficult times. My permanent loss of such a partner felt unbearable, and I went up to my bedroom, in tears.
Before leaving for the movie, I had upended a basket onto my bed while looking for a scarf. A small square of white paper now lay on the cover. I turned it over and read: “Honey, dinner is on top of the fridge. I think you are a heroine.”
A heroine? The note had been written twelve years ago. I have no idea what prompted the note at the time it was written, but the odds of reading “I think you are a heroine” at the very moment that I was imploding and despairing of ever again having a help-mate who might consider me a heroine amazed me. “Nothing happens by accident” we are told by people who believe such shibboleths — but what were the odds of accidentally finding this note, containing this word that we rarely used, at the very moment that I needed so badly to read it?
Actually, the odds of such fortuitous accidents are the focus of numerous scientific and psychological studies. Carl Jung coined the word “synchronicity” in the 1950s to label the simultaneous occurrence of events that appear related but have no discernible causal connection. Jung assigned great significance to synchronicity events.
But I do not. While I was startled, I cannot say that chills went up and down my spine. I did not feel Bart’s presence as a breeze in the room. Still, brakes were put on my collapse into despair. Bart was right: I could stand up to the grief dragon — maybe not slay it yet, but not be crushed by it, either.
The heroine note has been added to the front of my refrigerator.
HERE IS THE LAST story that might tempt one to be a believer: the story of my mother-in-law’s cherished dream, shattered.
Ida, a very bright woman, was brought up in Washington, D.C. in a large and very poor family. Each year, every public high school in Washington — or, as Bart would remind me, every white public high school — awarded a full, four-year scholarship to George Washington University to one girl and one boy. Ida won the scholarship for a girl from Business High School.
That same spring, Business High’s baton twirling team won the city championship. The scholarship was then taken away from Ida and given to the captain of the baton twirlers. Ida never went to college. Twenty-five years later, her son Bart was awarded the same four-year scholarship from his high school. He graduated from George Washington University, and went on to receive his Ph.D.
I think maybe on January 27th I will light a yortsayt candle.
Alice Radosh, a member of our editorial board, is a retired research psychologist living in Woodstock, New York. She can be reached via email.