Fragments: digital ghosts, gratitude, and grief

Ripple

1. Digital ghosts

Modern life is full of digital ghosts. Like the google cal popup that appears on my laptop screen to helpfully remind me of "our anniversary!" My ex-husband or I must have input that into google, and for reasons I don't understand, I can't make it go away. As though I could ever forget the date, what it was, what it meant. I didn't need my calendar to poke me in that bruise.

Or the first time I shared a photo of my mother on Facebook after she died. The algorithm startled me by recognizing her face and tagging her in the post. "With Liana Barenblat," the post proclaimed, and the words took my breath away. Facebook thought I was "with" my mother. I will never be "with" my mother again -- not in body, not in life. That preposition made me cry.

 

2. With and without you

I try to experience these automated algorithmic responses as a gift from the universe, a reminder of connections that have shaped me, even when relationships or lives are over. Still, sometimes being surprised by these reminders feels like a gift, and sometimes it feels like a wound is re-opened. Grief is a scar that sometimes unexpectedly becomes an open wound again.

Our online spaces can connect us in profound ways, but they can also isolate us, or activate us, or evoke our grief. So often we perform happiness in digital / social media spaces: look how beautiful my life is! As a result, we're sharing a skewed vision of who we really are. We're erasing or eliding the people who are missing. The aches of divorces and deaths and endings.

 

3. Making waves

I understand the appeal of the carefully-curated digital footprint. It allows us to share the life we wish we had, a life of only sweetness. I try hard to cultivate gratitude, for this recipe or that sunset, that moment or this friend. I like sharing glimpses of those kinds of things, in part because doing so helps me cultivate mindfulness and a heightened capacity for gratitude.

But I also want to be real. I don't want to pretend that life is picture-perfect, and I don't want to use spiritual practices as a crutch to help me in that pretense (or any pretense). Life is beautiful, and life is painful -- both of those are always simultaneously true. And grief is not a linear journey. Sometimes a stone gets tossed into the heart's pond, and makes waves.

 

4. Its own reward

So how can I react to these digital ghosts and the griefs they awaken: online reminders of my wedding, or of my mother who has died, or of friendships that evaporated or hopes that didn't come to pass? The only answer I have is to feel whatever I feel -- the sorrow, the wistfulness, the regret -- and to thank my heart for its capacity to feel both the bitter and the sweet.

And I can choose to be real, even in digital spaces. Even when what's real is a hurt or an ache, a memory or a sorrow. Because I think being real with ourselves and one another is what we're here for in this life. Because I think spiritual life asks our authenticity. Because life is too short for pretense. Because being real comes with its own blessings, its own reward.


Dance class

Parent observation night
at the dance school.

I caught my son with my camera
in an idle moment

running his hands through his hair.
He looked like a teenager.

When I was nine
I still threw my arms

around your neck, but by fourteen
I kept my distance.

We no longer spoke
the same language. Maybe

I'll be spared that: we're not
mother and daughter, he and I.

(As far as I know. Yes, Mom,
his gender expression is up to him.

Don't roll your eyes. Like God
he's becoming who he's becoming.)

But if he grows
to mistrust me, I hope

I live long enough
to make it to the other side

as you and I made it
to the other side

even though I know
you'd be relieved to know

he's not the only boy
in his dance class this year.

 


Trivia

The envelopes would arrive at random:
filled with clippings, sometimes

highlighted in yellow, with a Post-It
reading "Trivia From Mom." Dear Mom:

here's some trivia from the living.
I refilled a prescription today, and

picked up the dry cleaning. I've been
wearing your cashmere shawl

on cold days -- believe it or not
we still have those. My son

practices the Four Questions nightly
before bed, earnest and sweet.

Do you remember typing them
on your IBM Selectric for me,

transliterated -- one of my brothers
must have sung them to you --

so I could sing them before I knew
Hebrew? You'd be proud of him.

For a while I was afraid
we'd left one of his dress shoes

in Texas at your funeral, but
it turned up at his father's house.

I can go hours at a time, forgetting
that it hurts that you're gone.


Request

There's a lot of death
in those poems, you say to me.
How about something
a little brighter?

Isn't it spring yet where you live?
Talk to me about tulips
like the ones that nod
in bright even rows down Fifth Avenue.

Talk to me about
department store windows,
or that lime-green bag
you took from my closet.

Your friend who's divorcing:
what's her new house like?
Tell me about the red buds
on the tips of the maple

or my grandson's new haircut
that makes him look thirteen.
Tell me something about the world
that will make me miss being alive.


Jetlag

When I come home from the cemetery --
tradition says put a pitcher and basin
outside, so when the mourners return

they can wash themselves clean. It's not
about the dirt. It's emotional, it's
spiritual, like washing that man

right out of your hair. When I came home
from burying you, those first hours were
like jetlag: what day is it? where am I

again? I remember the silver pitcher
we placed outside dad's front door (your
front door, but not yours any longer.)

But when I come home from the cemetery
not as a mourner but as the rabbi
I take the hottest shower I can stand.

I anoint myself with honey and lavender,
breathing deep. This is being alive, scent
and sensation. I let go everything

I've been carrying. It's still
a kind of jetlag: the soul catching up
with where the body has already been.

I wonder how long it took for your soul
to release from your body, that empty
shell we buried in the Texas earth.

When you wake in olam haba and finally
feel you've arrived, is it like
the first morning a new time zone is home?

 


Reminds me

2019: the year I did back to back funerals after we buried you.
How long will it be before those words stop feeling strange?

This time the day was wet and raw, like your funeral was.
This time there were two daughters grieving, but I wasn’t

one of them. Except I still am, sometimes. It depends
on what song comes on the radio, what phase the moon.

Today when we read psalm 23 aloud I remembered my sister
leaning over to whisper, "'my cup runneth over,' Mom used to

say that all the time!" It made me smile. You
make me smile, even at a funeral that reminds

me of yours, reminds me — everything reminds me —
of you.

 


New friend

Today I thought of you
as I listened to two women
tell stories about their mother,

a tiny woman
with a spine of steel
who was always "put-together."

I imagine the two of you
meeting at a mixer
for newly-arrived souls.

In my vision you're both
young again, glamorous,
coiffed and manicured.

You're both carrying copies
of the handbook to the afterlife
but you'd rather sip vodka tonic

and make a new friend
than read it. That's okay:
you'll both learn the ropes.

How to be "there" (it isn't
a place exactly) while also
keeping an eye on here.

How to visit our dreams
and tell us everything
you couldn't say in life

or maybe it was we
who couldn't hear, but
Mom, we're listening now.

 


Birthing

Four days before the end.
Morphine under your tongue.

You kept asking,
"When will it stop hurting?"

Reminded me of labor:
how the contractions kept coming.

I pleaded, "I can't do this."
When the epidural brought relief

I apologized to the nurses
for being boring.

How we learn to say sorry
for what's not ours to carry...

But Mom, I still carry this:
I'm sorry I said no

to your presence
when my son was born.

I wanted it to be intimate,
"just the two of us."

I understand now how it hurts
to be far away

when someone you love
this much is suffering.

You could have
witnessed the moment

when they placed him
wide-eyed on my chest.

Your pain is over now
but when I remember

shutting you out
I ache.

 


Challah, Take Two

It started during winter break.
A snowy day, with nightfall too soon

and no playdate in sight: I said
let's bake challah!

Can you make it round
like Rosh Hashanah? he asked.

Instead I tried a six-branched spiral
meant to evoke the returning sun

(though my son saw a star
of David there instead.)

When it emerged from the oven
golden and gleaming

he gasped, and after motzi
proclaimed it so much better

than what we buy at the store,
and that sealed it:

the next Friday I found a way
to start the dough

when I poured his cereal,
to knead it while he watched

YouTube before school, to pop
home at lunchtime to shape...

I would have told you this story
that last Shabbat of your life

but that morning was a fog
of morphine and anxiety

and when you emerged that evening
miraculous in your wheelchair

it wasn't the right time.
I should have known

there wouldn't be another.
But I can tell you now

that even in weeks when grief
is more than I can bear

there is comfort in kneading
this silky egg dough,

singing healing songs for all
who will eat, for all who ache.

 


Goldfinch

Mom, I bought a new piece of art
I wish I could show you.
There's a goldfinch, encircled
by crocheted six-pointed stars.

It makes me think of home,
of nest, of tradition's weave
that comforts me. I wonder
if you'd note the bird's alone.

Yes, I feel alone in grieving.
Maybe we all do, in the end --
even when a crowd gathers
for a memorial like yours.

Surely as Pesach approaches
everyone in the family feels
your absence, like the empty space
surrounding this one little bird.

There's a lot of empty space
surrounding this one little bird.

 

with gratitude to Heather Robinson

 


Dirty laundry

When I'm chastised
for not focusing

on happy things
as you instructed

shame swamps me,
a sunken rowboat.

Failing you again:
airing in public

the dirty laundry
that is my heart.

Why persist in
feeling so many

feelings, especially all
the ugly ones --

grief that lasts
for hours, leaving

me gasping, spent
on a rocky shore?

Wouldn't everyone be
happier if I

stopped?

 


Kintsugi

Today a giant cardboard box arrived.
Ceramic plates that once were yours,
adorned with hand-drawn faces --

service for six, in theory.
But inside the bubble-wrap,
one plate's in pieces.

You'd shrug and throw it away, but
it's such an obvious metaphor.
I look on eBay but there's no replacement.

There's a space in my china cabinet
where a pair of women's faces should be
in conversation. I try to glue it

though my son rolls his eyes: "Mom, you know
there's no repairing a broken heart."
He's right. It can't be what it used to be.

What can I do but paint broken places
gold? I can't hide my cracks.
All I can do is make them gleam.


 

kintsugi is the Japanese art of adorning broken pottery with gold. I've written about it before. (See also Everything breaks. It's what we do with the pieces that matters at The Wisdom Daily.)


Beauty

At Olmos Beauty Parlor 
I made a dragon from foam curlers

(from big red to small purple)
while you tipped your head back

in the shampoo chair, relaxing
into the scalp massage.

You went platinum blonde
in the sixties. Hair like that

needs maintenance. Not to mention
your nails, which were never bare.

Even the week you died
they were sleek, cream-colored.

Mom, you'd be pleased: in my 40s
I've finally found a stylist.

You'd like her: she knows
everyone in town, she's got panache.

After your funeral, one of my brothers
gave up shaving for 30 days

(I'll bet you can guess which.)
And I went without a haircut

until the door of that first month
was closed behind me. Today

my stylist gave my hair shape
and trimmed my cuticles

and gave one nail a little sparkle
in memory of you. I emerged

with new hands, ready
to build something beautiful

in the world, ready
to hold my head up high.

 


Empty

My phone buzzes: a text
from a sibling, a photo
from the last Shabbat.

A wave of heat passes through,
blood rushing to my face
and hot tears

you were still there
you were alive
it's unbearable again.

How can I make dinner
when you died
when dad's going to die

when someday I will need
to bury all of my siblings
the way we buried you?

The agony passes
but I can feel the hole
where your presence used to be

alongside echoes
of all the empty places
that are to come.

 


Texts from the hearse

When you have a rabbi for a daughter
sometimes you get texts from the hearse.
You must have known what I was doing:
reminding myself that I still had a mother,
bracing against -- well, now: not being able
to reach you to talk about purses or friends
as the cemetery's energy slowly drained.

Dear Mom, I'm wearing the same black suit
I wore to your funeral. As for purses
I'm carrying the one you gave me last year,
bright yellow like the forsythia flowers
that are curled now in hidden potential,
waiting for the time to bloom.
I wish you still had time to bloom.


Uncomplicated bereavement

At the doctor's office
a questionnaire
about sadness.

I answer honestly, then
backpedal: my mother died.
This is just grief.

Later a friend gives me
the medical billing lingo:
"uncomplicated bereavement."

I almost laugh. Find me
a daughter mourning her mother
without complication.

I think of the photo
on your bathroom mirror
from what you called

the best days:
"when Dad was thin, and we
were rich, and Rachel was easy."

For years I was convinced
you wanted a different daughter,
one who stayed

in Texas, pledged
the right sorority,
married up.

We got better
at being mother
and daughter by the end.

But I hate the fear
you might have thought
I wanted a mom who wasn't you.

 


Four weeks

Dear Mom: it's been four weeks
since we sat in flimsy folding chairs
beside a gaping rectangular hole.
The morning was raw, too cold

for my son's summer-weight suit.
Someone gave him a navy-blue blanket
-- the funeral home? the limo driver? --
and he curled up in it, half in my lap.

At the end, when most people returned
to their cars, he wanted to stay
and keep shoveling earth onto the box.
He brought the blanket home on the plane

and sleeps with it every night.
Maybe it feels like a last hug from you.
I haven't asked: he doesn't want
to talk about the sad things now.

You'd applaud that, but I don't know
how to live without looking back.
At the end of shiva I wrapped myself
in your monogrammed sable stole

and walked around my neighborhood,
blinking like a mole bewildered by sun.
Like my child, still wrapping himself
in the plush blanket from your funeral

carrying you with him from bedroom
to living room sofa and back again.
As I prepare to leave this first month
I'm still learning how to carry you.

 

 

 


Manicure

No haircuts during shloshim: once you died
I called the shop to say postpone my trim.

I don't know the rules on manicures, but
it felt right to leave my nails unkempt.

This winter I came down after you fell
and called the beauty shop for both of us.

You said sure, but when time came to go
just getting yourself dressed had wearied you.

You rallied, pushed your walker to the door
turned down the visor mirror and then frowned

"How can I go to the beauty shop like this?"
I tried to turn it then into a joke:

we go when we don't yet feel beautiful?
When we arrived at Holly's, the bombshell:

the pedicure chairs were up a flight of stairs.
You hadn't gone up stairs in years. You made it

step by awful step and then collapsed
into a chair and closed your eyes. Your calves

were bruised, your tiny ankles swollen tight.
They were so gentle when they washed your feet

I thought despite myself of taharah,
the way we wash the bodies of the dead...

Before you died I got a goodbye manicure
but now my nails are chipped, my cuticles

as ragged as my heart. Soon I'll let
my stylist bring repair, rejoin the world

still feeling strange without you there to see
my nails that look like yours again at last.

 


 

shloshim - literally "thirty," the first 30 days of mourning

taharah - literally "purification," the holy work of washing, blessing, and dressing the bodies of those who have died (see Facing Impermanence, 2005)


Fine

Dear Mom, today I was fine
until my son played piano

and crowed "make a video, send it
to Nonni" and then his face fell.

When hospice began you told us
to stop moping. You'd tell me now

to make hay while the sun shines,
suggest that I hire a sitter

and go out with friends --
just dab a little concealer

so no one can see I've been crying.
Mom, I'm trying. But nothing

feels real without you here to see it
and I just sang my son

the lullaby I sang to you
as you were dying.

 


To the Management

I would like to register a complaint
about grief. Whose stupid idea was this?

Whichever angel was in charge
of giving human beings capacity

to move through sadness and then
feel better -- they screwed up.

Even after four weeks, grief is a wave
that hits sometimes at chest height

and sends salt water up my nose.
To make matters worse, it's

an ocean wave that swamps me
at the grocery store -- I'm not even

at the goddamn beach. Grief is
a pane of glass two feet thick

that crushes me like a pressed flower.
Grief is the same menu over and over.

Grief is banal as a crayon drawing
by someone else's kindergartener.

I would like to exchange this grief
for something that fits me better,

in a more flattering color.
I would like to set it afire, kindled

on a bed of crumpled tissues
and return it to Sender.