Lament in the Season of Lament

A father carries his youngest child, an infant daughter. Her elder sister walks just steps behind him, her hair caught up in a ponytail. My dad, me, and my older sister, Suzie.

It is a season of private loss for me, one inescapably colored by the season of my people’s lament. This weekend marks the start of the three weeks of mourning that lead up to Tisha B’Av, a date which records repeated planned assaults on Jews. The destruction of the First Temple and the destruction of the Second Temple, the expulsion of Jews from Spain, the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto — all these happened on Tisha B’Av. I could add to that short and devastating list. Those who wanted to hurt us sometimes purposefully chose that day to harm us again.

We remember Tisha B’Av, our past, in order to build our future. We remember so that we can know ourselves.

During this season, my father died. My beloved mother-in-law, Evelyn Thiede, died a few years later in a shocking mishap on the surgery table — just days after my dad’s yahrzeit. Ruth Kingberg, once matriarch of my spiritual community, died in a different year, but also during the same week.

Mourning them, inevitably, calls up my greatest loss — the death of my elder sister, Suzie. Suzie died from breast cancer that had metastasized to liver, brain and lung. She died at 42 — the mother of five children. Her youngest was just three.

Suzie at 13, me at 8.

I was sewing, this past week, listening to Chicago’s Saturday in the Park. I grew up knowing Chicago’s Lake Shore Drive, and the beaches that border them. The picture of my dad holding me, with Suzie walking alongside shows Lake Michigan in the near distance; we were at my grandparent’s apartment and my dad was taking me and my sister down to the beach.

Hearing the song, I was suddenly living my childhood. My dad was playing drums while the music played. “Listen to that brass section!” he’d call out. My dad was fully alive in the moment he picked up his drumsticks.

For weeks Suzie had been appearing every time I looked in the mirror.

A month ago I decided to stop coloring my hair. As I watched a thin white line emerge on my head I remembered how my sister, back in the 1980’s, stopped coloring hers. She was in her early thirties at the time. We had both seen our first gray hairs appear in young adulthood. Our mother handed us the dye that would hide them. In those days, going gray early was kept secret — no one found out your actual hair color until you were a grandparent.

I kept seeing Suzie lying on her hospital bed just days before she died. Her hair was just growing in from the waves and waves of chemo she’d been subject to. It was sparkly silver and sat short and close to her beautiful skull. I imagined it long and thick — a crazy, silvery, curly cascade that would be the right replacement for the mane of red-brown hair she’d never tried to tame in our youth.

I looked in the mirror at my own hair and wanted, badly, to have her back. We could be white and silver together, sisters grown old in each other’s company. In my mind, I told her: “Had you lived, maybe I would have had the courage to do this thing so much earlier, to become myself.”

Suzie in her early-thirties; me in my late twenties.

Had she lived, I would have seen that silvery, sparkly hair grow out, be all curly and wild again, rest on her shoulders, get loose from her braids.

My dad and my sister walk to the beach, with me in my dad’s arms. My own hair in that picture is that of an infant, but it was, even then, as blue-black as my father’s. When I was a child, people stopped my parents on the street to tell them how amazing my hair was. I remember the embarrassment and the pleasure — my hair was my only beauty, I thought then.

During my lifetime, I will have had my dad’s hair and, in a way, my sister’s. I will travel a path my sister never had the chance to complete herself.  Remembering them, do I become more myself?

Lament opens up grief and loss and sorrow. And truth, too. So we learn, all of us, who we are.

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