I am sitting at the kitchen table, sorting through a cardboard box piled with papery contents of my old desk. What I keep will go into the new and beautiful desk in our repainted office. It is my first real wood desk, claw-footed, with drawers that slide, buttery and smooth.
I pick up a handmade Valentine’s card. The letters inside are rounded, large and childish. He took care, my boy. Some words are missing capitals; others have been given them unnecessarily. “I love you Dear mom and Dad Erik.” Was he five or six when he wrote this? I did not date it.
Sorting through a small stack of Erik-things, I rediscover a love note my little boy received from a very blond Jessica in first grade. I remember her bangs and blue eyes. I suspect my now twenty-year-old son does not remember her at all.
I find and I find. I find letters from my husband, Ralf, reminders of my good luck. I find a postcard picture he bought me of a lovely Rodin sculpture. A naked woman curls over and into rock as if it were sand welcoming her every curve.
I pick up notes scribbled in the night. One describes a dream. It is only partially coherent, like all dreams. I find laminated Torah blessings to lend to my students when they come to my house to study with me.
I finger finely-made bookmarks given to me by well-meaning friends. They do not know that I stuff Kleenexes or junk mail into my books to mark my place when I am interrupted in the process of reading, my heart’s joy.
I pick up the paperweight I made as a very small child for my father. It contains a picture of me dressed in a pink leotard and tutu. I am about as old as Erik was when he wrote us the note that lies on the counter nearby.
I reread a column I wrote in 2005: “Why become a rabbi?” In it, I explain that studying is an act of prayer for me. Then I point out that the love of learning is not enough to warrant becoming a rabbi. But people, and the love of people does. The rest of the piece describes the people of my little congregation. My descriptions are tender.
Then I find a picture from 1967.
I know this picture well. I have rediscovered it intermittently – repeatedly – over the last fifteen years.
My teen-aged sister sits on a flowered sofa. I sit on her lap. She is smiling in this picture. I wonder (again) at the miracle of that smile.
Suzie hated having her picture taken. When she died of breast cancer in 1996, she was only forty-two and her youngest child just three. No one could find a picture for the obituary – Suzie routinely turned away when a camera was clicking. In the end they found one of the two of us together, my arms wrapped around her. My son was not yet born. Neither was her youngest daughter.
Naturally, they cut me out of the picture.
In the picture from our youth, Suzie’s arms are wrapped around me.
The past is a source of longing and a well of anguish. Old wishes bubble into my heart. If only. If only we had known sooner. If only she had lived. How would it have been to share stories of our children into an old and fragile age?
In the dark of the year, sorting and cleaning and making sense of my history again, I find my husband’s love letters and our son’s first Valentine’s card and my sister’s picture.
Love and love and love. It lives ever on despite our frailty, our mortality. Grief does not die, either. No wonder: It is wedded to love, an expression of it.
I miss my sister.
Perhaps we celebrate festivals of light and hope in the dead of winter because the darkness outside reminds us of shadows inside.
My child is grown. I am a lucky woman – loved and free to love altogether, wisely, I hope, with the sweetness of years.
I miss my sister. It is not too long after her birthday, and almost Chanukah.
The tiniest flame of a little chanukiah candle casts widely, unexpectedly in dark windows. I anticipate the first night, each succeeding night with ever more candles burning, shedding light. I will put a chanukiah in every room, in every window that will hold one. I will sit before the tender flames, remembering my losses and holding hands with my joys.
I will open the drawer of my new desk and find Erik’s note there, and Suzie’s picture and the postcard of the Rodin sculpture Ralf and I loved.
The light of love is eternal, everlasting.