If I showed you what’s going on under the covers, would you still love me?
It’s been far too long since I put my head outside into the world and no one is to blame but me. I’m sorry.
My novel, the one I’ve been promising forever, the one about a levirate love story (yibbum), is finally starting to come together. I’m excited, I think it’s going to be good!
Would you like to have a look at the opening scene? Please keep in mind that this is pre-edit and that things may change, but I wanted to share it with you…
They had only been sitting shiva for a few hours; the first hours of a week-long formalized period of mourning that Abigail expected would seem like an eternity. She already felt as though she had been sitting for days on this low mourner’s stool. As was if she brought with her a cumulative sensation, the feeling in her body after weeks of sitting by Ben’s hospital bed. That same stiffness; the numbness she experienced after waking up in a chair – another set of hours in the same unnatural position, waiting for Ben to wake up.
She wanted to stand up, stretch a little, walk around the room – or better still, to walk right out the front door but the Jewish rituals of death were to imprison her in this apartment with her dead husband’s family for the next week. It was easier to sit still and quietly, set her bones into a single posture of mourning, to try to disappear into the corner, under the blanket that someone had kindly draped over her in this absurdly cold air-conditioning. If she stayed still, perhaps everyone would stop looking at her, stop the endless glances, the sad nods. Already, at the funeral, she had had her fill of sympathy. Now, all these people would be coming into her home, watching her like a museum exhibition piece, a cultural curiosity: artefact one, (beautiful) (religious) young widow of (brilliant) (religious) young man (from renowned wealthy family – the brother’s a billionaire, you know) (yes, and on the cusp of making a fortune himself from his own scientific genius) who died tragically young (strange – he seemed so healthy).
Someone, she did not know who – had her mother told her who? – had moved the furniture around in the living room, pushing tables back against the wall: apparently, the sofas had been moved into storage by someone, she didn’t know where exactly. Now the room was filled with the mourners’ stools on which she and all her husband’s family sat.
For all that Abigail’s in-laws, who were sitting shiva with her, tried to be discreet, she could feel them watching her. They turned with her every moment, as conscious of her actions as she was of theirs. It still surprised her how much they annoyed her collectively – except for Ella, of course. Abigail looked across at them. There was Susie, Ben’s mother – she looked stiff and pale, the perfectly well-presented, smartly dressed parent of a dead son. A particularly beautiful black sweater had taken the hit for Ben. Abigail had been concerned about getting the kriah right at the funeral – when the family rent their outer garments in a show of bereavement. A tiny, quiet woman named Rivkah made the incision for them and they each pulled at their clothes until it ripped. Susie’s sweater would not rip. She had pulled at it cautiously over and over but all the incision would do was stretch; the fabric lost shape, but refused to tear. Abigail, triumphant in the decisive tear she had achieved on her own blouse, had turned away to hide her smile.
On the other side of Susie sat Daniel, the super-star older brother. His long legs stretched out in front of him. He was pale, his dark hair looked a little fluffy and unkempt. Beside him, her father-in-law Max sat heavily; his large mass barely contained on the stool. Abigail looked at his tired worn, face; eyes cast down on the floor. Max wasn’t so bad, but since his accident he had little autonomy, he did whatever his family bid him. Ben’s little sister Ella formed the buffer between Abigail and her in-laws. At times, Ella felt as much Abigail’s sister as Lily and Sophia. Ella and Sophia were the same age and had been friends for years. They were the bridge that had brought both families closer together in the first place because although the parents had known each other for years, they had never been close. Abigail wondered if things would change with Ella now that Ben had gone. Already, there had been some signs of distance since Ben’s collapse, when Abigail had found herself at odds with her in-laws. It was no surprise that Ella might struggle with loyalties. Abigail hoped that whatever happened with her, Ella and Sophia would go on as before.
Looking back at her hands, sitting heavily in her lap, Abigail glanced at the large-faced clock on the wall. It would soon be time for ma’ariv, the evening prayers. People would stream into her home wanting to talk to her, to her family – to her in-laws. Ben’s parents had wanted to make their home the shiva house. Their house was bigger; parking was easier. But Abigail’s mother, God bless her, had argued Abigail’s case for her. This was Ben’s home, this was where they would sit shiva. Abigail doubted she would survive a week in the Simmons’ sparse rooms, with strangers and friends coming to grieve and pray with them. Voices and bodies coming to her and offering their condolences even when she barely knew them. She tried to be grateful. They meant well. They all meant well.
A woman who looked familiar brought Susie a coffee in one of the mugs from the kitchen. Abigail hoped that someone was looking after her kitchen. Not everyone who came to pay their respects understood what it meant to have a kosher home. She didn’t want anyone left unsupervised in her kitchen if they didn’t know which was meat and which was dairy. Abigail couldn’t bear the thought of getting through the week only to find out that someone had ought up her dishes. She wondered whether she ought to check, to see if everything was all right, but the light was fading outside; people would be coming now and she should stay where she was for the moment. Abigail hoped the davening, the recitation of prayers, would not take too long. Then perhaps she could go to bed.
There were sounds of people coming up the stairs. Abigail went back to her stool and braced herself for the influx. They would see Max first when they came into the apartment. Next to him was Daniel, then Susie, then Ella, and then Abigail, at the end in the corner. Abigail was glad of the comfort that the walls on two sides provided. Three men came through the door with the same wide-eyed, uncertain expression that she remembered having when she had entered shiva houses in the past. She wondered whether the relative suddenness of Ben’s death, his youth, meant they were expecting visible, audible grief; whether the quiet sombreness of this home would seem strange. “HaMakom yenachem etchem betoch sha’ar aveylei Tziyon viYerushalayim,” the first man said to Daniel and Max, uttering the traditional words of comfort offered to Jewish mourners. “May God comfort you among the other mourners of Zion and Jerusalem”.
He repeated the words as he moved down the line towards her. This stranger, perhaps a friend of her parents-in-law, stood before her with eyes so sad they halted her breathing. But Max and Daniel were walking with the men, moving into the dining area, away from the women. The number of new arrivals continued to swell so that soon Abigail, Ella and Susie were almost pressed against the wall by the line of women packed closely into the relatively small space. Abigail stood with everyone to say the Amidah for Minchah and again when it was time for Max and Daniel to say the mourners’ kaddish. Silence emerged from nowhere; their low and strained voices wending through the crowd towards her.
“Yitgadal v’yitkadash sh’mei raba.”
Abigail wondered again, as she had done at the funeral, how they could open their mouths and produce sounds that confirmed the death of their son and brother. When their words were greeted with a unified “Amen”, Abigail felt a shock of tears spring forth, trailing down her cheeks as she too mouthed the words of Kaddish to herself.
“B’alma di-v’ra chirutei, v’yamlich malchutei b’chayeichon uvyomeichon uvchayei d’chol beit yisrael, ba’agala uvizman kariv, v’im’ru: amen.”
“Y’hei sh’mei raba m’varach l’alam ul’almei almaya,” the gathering answered them, the swell of women’s voices mixed with the tenor of the men’s. And so they continued the davening, their earnest tones reaching out to every person in the room. When it was over, Abigail fell exhausted to her seat. She turned to the kaddish translation, pulling the blanket tighter around her shoulders and unconsciously swaying as she read in English.
Glorified and sanctified be God’s great name throughout the world
which He has created according to His will.
May He establish His kingdom in your lifetime and during your days,
and within the life of the entire House of Israel, speedily and soon;
and say, Amen.
May His great name be blessed forever and to all eternity.
Blessed and praised, glorified and exalted, extolled and honored,
adored and lauded be the name of the Holy One, blessed be He,
beyond all the blessings and hymns, praises and consolations that
are ever spoken in the world; and say, Amen.
May there be abundant peace from heaven, and life, for us and for all Israel; and say, Amen.
He who creates peace in His celestial heights, may He create peace for us and for all Israel; and say, Amen.
Abigail must have heard mourners saying kaddish thousands of times throughout her life, but never before had she truly looked at its meaning. It was not a pray for those lost, but a glorification of Hashem, a call for peace in the world and blessings. The words were beautiful, painful; they were about more than this moment, but about the grand glorious plan of the Creator.
Abigail thought of all the people throughout time who had recited these words at the loss of someone they loved. She thought of all those who had perished in the Holocaust who had no one to recite kaddish for them. And she thought of Ben for whom these words had now been said. Abigail closed the book in her lap and cried. She cried for Max and for Susie who had lost a son. She cried for Daniel and Ella who had lost a brother. She cried for all those who were bereft and lost because they too were mourning. She cried for Ben for a life cut short. She cried for herself for the husband she had lost and a life that had not gone to plan.
Ok, I know it’s sad, but what do you think?