By Robin Roger
By the time Leona took a seat at the back of the cavernous, cathedral-ceilinged sanctuary, it had been the subject of congregational conflict for a number of years. Prominent members of the congregation who had clashed over whether it should be radically altered during the much needed renovation of the synagogue or reverently preserved in its minutest details, were now greeting each other across the central aisle that divided the massive room along its main axis. The president of the congregation, Ben Pollock, his expression alternating between subdued rage at opposing congregants, and evident pleasure at recognizing allies and friends, positioned a kipa over his bald spot and clipped it in place. Clusters of eminent physicians, high-profile lawyers, affluent retailers, and academics-turned public intellectuals acknowledged one another while waiting for the widow and three children of Nate Grand and the rest of their families to file in behind the rabbi and the cantor. Were it not for the presence of the casket, incongruously draped in a log cabin quilt, it would seem to be a High Holiday, so quickly were the rows beginning to fill. Leona was relieved that she had arrived early enough to secure the least conspicuous aisle seat in the very last row, so she would be able to leave quickly, possibly unobserved.
She had always found it difficult to settle down and focus on the service when the sanctuary was full. There were just too many faces to be scanned, identified, reacted to, interacted with, and mentally filed in the appropriate family networks. She had not been aware, when she became engaged to Victor, that she was marrying into a dynasty. But at her first Rosh Hashanah service at Sacred Stars Synagogue her mother-in-law, Gilda Grand, elaborated the lineage. As the granddaughter of Adolf Klein, one of the founders of “the triple S,” Gilda was a prominent leaf on the fertile family tree that was rooted in her Zayde’s union with Razel Lerner, daughter of Rabbi Hyman Lerner, the esteemed first rabbi of the congregation and prominent leader of liberal Judaism during its early years in Canada. From then on, services Leona attended with Gilda were punctuated by her whispered commentary about every other person’s status relative to the Klein dynasty. Given that Hyman and Razel had begat thirteen children who in turn generated over fifty first cousins, it often seemed to Leona that everybody in the sanctuary was a small part of the Klein quilt, as she had come to think of Gilda Grand’s worldview. Human beings were just tiny remnants of fabric waiting to be stitched into place in one of the elaborate quilts she generated from her sewing room, and the cloth from which each person was cut was apparent from where Gilda would fit them into her patchwork design. Being the offspring of Winnipeggers, Leona knew that Gilda would not have wasted her thread on her but for her marriage to her eldest son.
It was not the repetition of the family lineage that discomfited Leona, but Gilda’s intensity as she recited it. Her mood seemed to elevate from cheerful to euphoric, while Leona felt hers drop, particularly when she was repeatedly introduced as Victor’s wife to people who gave a perfunctory nod while continuing to talk to Gilda. She imagined herself being transformed into a contact entry and added to their social databases, yet not being mentally registered at all. It was as if her own vital fluids were being pumped out of her so that the Klein-Grand identity could be pumped back in.
Over the years, the feeling had only intensified, so that even when she stood on the bima to be installed as an officer of the board of the temple, and even when she had stood at the lectern and delivered her tribute to Yael Gold, the first woman rabbi at Sacred Stars, and even when she had paraded around the sanctuary, holding the Torah and extending it with a smile to the congregants who were reaching forward to touch the spines of their prayer books to its velvet cover, she felt as if she’d been transformed into a hologram that others could see but within which she did not really exist. It was bewildering.
Especially so because the feeling vanished within moments of her departing from the synagogue. After driving two blocks she would begin to hum along with her CD, and she would experience a spontaneous urge to do something celebratory—to sprint around the schoolyard track she was driving past, or to pick up a bouquet of freesias at the green grocer’s, or to take a bunch of balloons to the park and let them go so she could watch them float away. Her mind became a kaleidoscope of colourful images satisfying to behold even though there remained a persistent, barely detectable puzzlement over what spell she had been under, leaving a gossamer residue she could feel but not describe. It was as if an alarm ringing at a pitch that only she could hear was alerting her to a danger she could not define.
But after Victor left, that alarm was like a forgotten dream: she knew it had been there, but she could not evoke it. She just gradually became aware of the new stillness of her mind. Especially in the morning, when she sat in the alcove off the kitchen sipping her coffee, enjoying the rich sensation of a pond without ripples inside her head.
Until the day before, when the alarm returned unbidden. She was sitting in the alcove, looking through the obituaries for details of Nate’s funeral, when she felt something like a violent thrust to her solar plexus.
“Something wrong?” Hart called from the kitchen island, where he was scooping spoonfuls out of an avocado. She handed him the obituary.
“Listen to this!!!” he said to Honey, then read aloud: “Dr. Nathan Grand is survived by Victor and Violet and his grandchildren Hart and Honey.”
“They said Violet is our mother?” Honey asked, reaching for the paper, which Hart whipped back from her and spread out on the island where they both stood scanning it.
Leona returned to the alcove. A bizarre feeling that her body was intact but somehow she no longer existed, was overtaking her. Her face felt flushed, and there was a ringing in her ears that was growing louder as her face grew warmer. Hart slid open the door to their deck, as if he too was sweltering, and threw a ball to the far end of the yard so their dog would go scurrying after it. Honey ripped the obituary out of the section and began tearing it into small pieces.
“How could they insult you like that? You and Dad are still married!!” Her voice mixed protest and confusion. “They made it look like Violet is our mother.” Her voice grew heavy with tears which she paused to blink away. Hart added his thought: “Grandpa died a natural death, but they killed you.”
“That’s why I call her ‘Violent’,” Leona wanted to reply, but could not speak. But while groping through her thoughts she also realized that her children’s tone precisely echoed the bewilderment and distress that had been inside her head.
That night she had the dream she often had before Victor left. She is sentenced to death, but allowed to choose between execution by firing squad or being buried alive. Choosing the latter, she lies in her coffin, listening to the dirt landing on the lid, telling herself that she still has time, there’s a chance that someone may come to unearth her before her last gasp. The trick is to conserve life by using minimal supplies. Breathe less, shut down sensations. Survive long enough and you might escape, she tells herself. Act dead in order to live.
Even though the warmth of the Indian summer day could not be felt inside the ever chilly sanctuary, the brilliant light illuminated the vivid colours of the stained glass rose window, casting rainbow scars over the congregants’ faces. Leona extended her foot into the aisle, reaching for the colourful shaft as if dipping her toe. It gleamed on the reflective surface of the black patent flats she thought of as her sanctuary shoes: delicate enough to wear with a dress but sturdy enough to stand in during long stretches of prayer, or to securely mount the flight of steps that ascend to the ark.
The play of colour on her toe reminded her that the Hebrew name for the three pilgrimage festivals could also be literally translated as The Three Feet. She loved the way body parts were embedded in Hebrew words: baruch, the word for blessing, came from the word for knee because the knee was bent when praying. The word for mercy contained the word for womb, the original shelter. A Jew’s reverence and a Jew’s body were one and the same, grounded in bone and tissue and blood. As long as she was embodied, she told herself, she was real, no matter how she was discounted or ignored. “I refute them thus,” she told herself, tapping the floor with her rainbow-shod foot.
But at the same time, she wished she could be disembodied to spare herself the awkward scrutiny of the sanctuary full of people who had read the obituary. It was not news that she and Victor had separated, but the substitution of Violet as his wife exposed her to an onslaught of unbidden phone calls, voice messages, texts, e-mails, and face-to-face comments and questions. In the cereal aisle at the grocery store, Kathy Brown wheeled her cart up to her and asked if she was surprised that Victor had a girlfriend. Her neighbour Paula Diamond called to her from her front door when she walked by with the dog, to say that she couldn’t have been surprised given how much Victor travelled. Their real estate agent put a note through her door saying it was a good time to separate, it was a seller’s market. Even Rabbi Gold sent an e-mail exhorting her to attend the funeral despite the circumstances, and going forward, to be sure to register for JDate. Only after two surgeons’ wives left voice mails saying they’d seen Victor with Violet in the Maple Leaf Lounge on the way to several meetings, and her sister-in-law reported that she’d noticed them at the same Broadway show two years before, did Leona realize that Victor had been indiscreet to the point of indifference to her privacy and dignity. Fragments of unsettling encounters in the previous years occurred to her: the averting of eyes by some, the demeanour of pity she thought she had detected on the faces of others. With this came a re-assembling of her reality in the previous twenty-four months, and another wave of incomprehension that Victor had deceived her in their private sphere but exposed her so flagrantly in the circles emanating from it. The rest of the day she felt as if she had turned to brittle glass, that she could be shattered by the merest force, even a thought.
Looking at the casket at the front of the sanctuary, Leona realized that to her, Nathan and the rest of Victor’s family had all died as soon as Victor announced that he was leaving. It was as if they had all been on one fatal plane crash and the accrued history, the baby-namings, brises, seders, bar mitzvahs, funerals, shivas, and countless Shabbat dinners had left no residue whatsoever. She wondered what it felt like for them, for her to be missing from the spot she would normally have held in this grieving circle. Was she as dead to them now as Nathan was?
Being in the same room as her former father-in-law’s mortal remains gave her no sharper sense of loss than she’d had since their contact had been severed when Victor left. She retained some vestigial fondness for his irreverent humour and unabashed curmudgeonry. “You’re looking at a man whose greatest regret is the discontinuation of the debtor’s prison,” he once told a Marxist who was ranting about credit card interest rates at their dinner table. All bubbles were enthusiastically burst by Nate, with mischievous glee, even his own. He loved to reminisce about the self-evaluation he’d written during his psychiatry rotation in medical school. “In short,” he would recite, “I see little room for improvement.” He ended the anecdote with a beat-long pause followed by the dry comment, “It’s best for all concerned that I elected to become a surgeon.” So long as you kept your own delicate aspirations to yourself, it could be fun to watch Nate lancing the inflated egos of others. Nothing was sacred, least of all death, which was just part of the occupational risk he faced in the operating room.
Instead, with his gallows humour, Nate often joked about puncturing the solemnity of his own funeral with a recording of spectral howls, dragging footsteps, and laboured groans. And the old joke about how to break the news of his death by beginning with the phrase, “Dad went up on the roof,” was guaranteed to bring the whole family to tears of laughter. But Leona had seen his buoyant style turn to surgical precision when his mother died. Returning from the emergency ward, he arranged a graveside service for the same day, instructing Rabbi Schneider to omit a eulogy. The rabbi urged him to reconsider. “You have the wrenching obligation to watch your mother’s casket being lowered into the grave and then shovel dirt over it. A brief eulogy will bolster you.”
“I don’t need bolstering,” said Nate.
His mother’s remains were interred without any words of homage.
“I wasn’t going to let Schneider babble about Ma when he didn’t really know her,” Nate declared afterwards at the shiva. “And I don’t want him pontificating at mine, either. Just say something brief,” he commanded his children. “Step up, do the job, and sit down.”
“Short and sweet,” his daughter Simone responded. Victor added the phrase that put fear in the heart of operating room nurses and residents alike: “Anticipate, anticipate, a dog can fetch. Let’s write the eulogy now.”
The murmur of people exchanging muted phrases of condolence created a mood of mild apprehension. Leona felt as if her breath was more laboured, her thoughts slower and darker.
That their courtship began with the death of her father, and their marriage was ending with the death of Victor’s, seemed to put morbid brackets around the entire epoch. She would not have even met Victor had it not been for the fact that he was doing his palliative care rotation on the ward where her father had spent his final days.
Victor had even been in the room on the last day of her father’s life, when he had emerged briefly from a morphine haze to command: “There is to be no eulogy!!” with a stridency that seemed to trumpet through his waning voice and breath. Simultaneously Leona, her mother, and her brother Brent had all fervently assured him that they would observe the dictum. During his few remaining moments of lucidity he prohibited every act of grief. “Don’t sit shiva,” he said next. “You’ve mourned enough.” And for his final stipulation: “Nobody has to be named Herschel,” delivering unborn grandchildren from the trace of ethnicity.
Throughout that day, Victor had entered and exited the room, silently pulling the curtain around her father’s bed to inject the morphine. She was surprised when he appeared at the shiva, claiming that he’d promised her father to look in on them. “What you need,” he told Leona in the final moments of the shiva, “is a good laugh.” She thought that he of all people would know that what she needed was her father back. Nonetheless she accepted his invitation for coffee and dessert the following week.
“Death matures you fast,” he told her as he poured half of his jumbo coffee into two smaller cups. “You realize that if you’re still alive, you have no choice but to carry on.” His words brought to mind Rabbi Kirsch’s exhortation at the funeral: “Choose life!!!” So instead of observing a year of mourning, the year after her father died was a year of dating Victor.
What would Victor say now, she wondered, if she told him that what he needed was a good laugh. As callous as such a statement would be to most people, she really wasn’t sure how he would respond. There was an upside to everything; in Victor’s view, the glass was always half full. Even the e-mail he sent to her to end the marriage contained the chipper observation that “on a positive note, it’s time to embrace change.”
Pure devastation enveloped her when her father died. It seemed to her, in the first days after the funeral, that she learned something that she hadn’t known before his demise, that her father had, in fact, been a part of her, like an occult organ, that helped her operate, without her being aware of it. He had partly inhaled and exhaled with her like an invisible ventilator, partly linked one thought to another like an invisible supplementary brain, partly, invisibly, exerted the strength she used in everyday life, like a system of muscles and sinews. Unbeknownst to her, she had been in a partnership so subtle and seamless she didn’t recognize his half of it. How had he been physically within her when she’d had no sense of it, and what was left of her now that he was withdrawn? A vital organ had been removed but there was no substitute ready to be transplanted. There was no substitute for her father. There never would be.
How, she wondered, had the adults around her all endured this? Why did they appear as if they were completely intact, not remotely diminished? For decades after that she held a private knowledge that most of her peers had yet to learn: that the agony subsides, but you are never the same. Even when your life resumes, even when fully engaged, a voice whispers that another loss will come. You will dwell in annihilation again.
For all his experience with dying patients, Victor had not crossed the threshold of parental loss until now. Ever since she had stood beside Victor at Sadie Grand’s gravesite, she had wondered whether losing his parents would change him. Despite his air of command, when the time had come to hurl the first shovel of dirt over Sadie Grand’s coffin, Nate’s collapse had been shockingly dramatic, requiring Rabbi Schneider to remove the shovel from his grip and guide him to the chair the undertaker had quickly unfolded when he began to shriek, “Don’t leave me ma, don’t leave me. . . .” Victor’s eyes had bulged, and he had clutched Leona’s forearm as if he needed to grip her flesh to ensure himself that what he was watching was real. It struck her then that the purpose of marriage wasn’t only to create new generations, but to withstand the departure of previous ones. A sharp jab pierced her as she watched Gilda stroke Nate’s back, remembering herself standing alone at her father’s grave.
Now she wondered what it felt like for Victor to share Nate’s death with a woman whom his father barely knew, instead of with the wife who was the mother of Nate’s grandchildren. Would he have even a tinge of yearning for the partner of his adult life? Despite their severed bond it felt as if there was an unfinished task, as if by being at Victor’s side at his grandmother’s funeral, she had made a commitment to accompany him through the losses to come. Fulfill it though she could not, a commitment it remained.
Leona recalled what Rabbi Kirsch had said when her brother Brent informed him that there was to be no eulogy at their father’s request. He nodded with a neutral expression and said that he would just say a few words. Brent began to protest, her mother began to plead, but the rabbi raised a placating hand and said firmly, “It isn’t Hesh’s call. Nobody dictates from beyond the grave, no matter how beloved.”
So they had sat mutely while Rabbi Kirsch made mention of Herschel Diamond’s devotion to Natalie, his pride in Brent and his delight in Leona, adding that he was undefeated at table tennis, and still spoken of with reverence at the Brotherhood bridge tournaments. The entire room laughed softly when Kirsch admitted that he still owed Hesh the money he’d lost to him playing cards in the back of the lorries that transported them all over Europe during the war. The laughter seemed to float over her like a breeze of warmed air. It amazed Leona that such trivial details about her father felt like a magical balm. The intense surge of delight at hearing of him spoken of by someone else seemed to lift her completely out of her body, and delivered a magical certainty that he wasn’t really gone.
Now it was the custom for family members to deliver eulogies instead of the rabbi, and she wondered what it was like to put together words and sentences in the hours after their parent’s last breath. Writing the memorial speech she gave for her beloved academic mentor, Abe Ravelstein, many weeks after he had died, had been difficult enough
Composing that eulogy, she had discovered that gathering words in the fevered state of recent loss was like a radical treatment for a desperate illness, threatening the limits of endurance so that the healing truth would pierce through the memories in the form of coherent words. The tears that drenched her face and blurred her view of the computer screen flowed thick and steady, like a sweet, replenishing syrup. Little by little, the memories crystallized and Ravelstein returned, waving his unlit cigar, rubbing his bald scalp while he thought, hopping on a single leg when a point excited him, stammering with a contorted grimace when his speech got tangled, scowling when a stupid question was asked. Delivering him to his bereft students, she discovered, was an act of mercy. The unanimous delight and relief seemed to lift the entire room into a hopeful state of mind, as if Ravelstein was not lost, but simply disembodied and redistributed into their memories.
This was the eulogizer’s task, she discovered: an urgent, healing task.
The door beside the bima opened. Rabbi Schneider and Cantor Weill, their silk robes swaying, led the file of mourners into the sanctuary. Even the emeritus Rabbi Solomon, only seen at high-prestige synagogue events, walked solemnly into the room, causing a low murmur to swell in unison, like a spontaneous prayer.
Gilda was the first behind them, supported on one side by Hart, her eldest grandson, and on the other side by a cane which Leona had never seen her use before. After settling her into her seat, Hart stood by the aisle, waiting until the rest of the grandchildren had taken their seats. Standing calmly with his watchful expression, her son reminded her of a benign security guard; she could imagine him protecting heads of state. He was over six feet tall, and the competitive weight-lifting he had been doing for the last several years had broadened his shoulders and strengthened his stance. He even scanned the room with the neutral expression of a bodyguard, and when his gaze reached her face, she could not resist the impulse to lift a tiny wave, as she had done at every recital and commencement throughout his childhood, but his expression remained impassive.
When Honey appeared at the end of the procession of grandchildren, Leona saw Hart put a hand on her shoulder and whisper something, so that they both turned and looked straight down the aisle, and gave an almost imperceptible nod in her direction. Honey’s utterly despondent expression did not brighten, but she held her mother’s gaze while she stepped sideways into her seat.
Next Victor’s two sisters with their spouses took their seats. Then Victor sat down beside a tall, blonde woman wearing a gleaming white shirt with a white lace collar and a matching bow in her hair.
Rabbi Solomon strode to the lectrn, the buzz of the congregation subsiding. He soberly scanned the sanctuary, before beginning to recite: “Birth is a beginning and death a destination.”
The familiar words soothed Leona. She completed the phrase in a whisper to herself: “But life is a journey.”
So is marriage, she thought. She married Victor when she was twenty-six, and they separated when she was fifty-three. Surely the major part of her journey was over.
“Marriage is a beginning,” she paraphrased to herself, “divorce is a destination.”
Lifting her eyes to the casket that contained her father-in-law’s remains, she gazed at Gilda’s quilt. Draped over it that way, it appeared as if they were burying their marriage as much as Nate’s corpse. Only weeks before, there had been an elaborate celebration of their sixty years of marriage. Leona had been at the thirtieth, fortieth, and fiftieth anniversaries, and Nate had said the identical thing at each one. “Gilda and I are blessed. Fifty per cent of marriages end badly. The other half end in divorce.”
It was Nate’s wont to insert lavish assertions of his love for Gilda Grand in routine contexts. If stuck in a traffic jam, he would announce to the passengers that for him it was the journey, not the destination, as long as Gilda was in the seat beside him. When his birthday cake, ablaze with candles, was placed before him while his grandchildren commanded him to make a wish, he always said, “With Gilda as my wife, what more could I wish for?”
It puzzled Leona that nobody else seemed to detect the way that Nate’s mildly facetious tone seemed to undermine these sentiments. The phrase she found most dissonant was the one Nate uttered every time Gilda served him a beverage. “That splashing sound is my cup running over,” he would say with a chipper but slightly mocking edge in his voice. Leona found it jarring every time. It was one of her favourite lines of scripture, evoking in her mind a gleaming goblet with abundant fluid that was never depleted. Nate’s irreverent quip seemed to convert King David’s cup into a bottomless mug of coffee in a shabby diner.
Beyond which, Nate’s professions of devotion were usually followed by his departure to his workshop or his study, or, if at their cottage, out in his boat to go fishing. He cherished his solitude,and when he did emerge from it, he and Gilda plunged into group activities. Bridge, tennis round robins, the amateur theatrical society, the temple choir, multi-couple ski trips with the old gang from their summer camp, the monthly book club, bird-watching expeditions, and extended family gatherings filled their calendar. Romantic dinners for two or second honeymoons were not their style. Their time alone was dedicated to arduous do-it-yourself projects, executed while singing their favourite Gilbert and Sullivan songs. They reminded her of the unit heads at overnight camp, always enthusiastic, always rousing the enthusiasm of others. She loved Nathan and Gilda’s bounce and ebullience at first, the spring in Nate’s step, the lilt in Gilda’s voice. Victor bubbled with the same effervescence. Every night when he came through the door after work, he blew a two-beat whistle and began to sing the vaudeville magician’s tune as if announcing the entrance of a wizard who could perform magic feats. Then he air-played an imaginary guitar and thrust his hips like a rock star, lifting pinched fingers to his lips and taking an imaginary toke, after which he would shake and shimmy, with his eyes closed and his arms extended to the ceiling as if possessed by an ecstatic rush.
His exuberance utterly charmed her; it was like having her own private court jester. The giddiness it filled her with was a mood she hadn’t felt since she was tickled as a little girl. Victor could be so unfettered and silly, she felt a vicarious light-heartedness just watching his antics. But soon enough she became aware that she wasn’t sharing Victor’s euphoria, only being an audience for it. His celebratory mood needed no impetus, but she required a genuine event to elevate her. The mundane even keel on which she balanced during everyday life met with unspoken disappointment by Victor. When he asked, “How was your day?” the routine contours of her life flattened out as she searched for the elation that would match his and then regretfully settled for “Okay.”
“Just Okay?” he would ask, with a hint of distaste in his voice, as if she had failed the joie de vivre test. The mood between them would shift as palpably as a sharp drop in temperature from sultry to arctic.
Rabbi Schneider announced that Dr. Victor Grand, The Honorable Justice Simone Grand,and Professor Eleanor Grand would each offer short tributes, then beckoned Victor to the lectern.
She knew which stories Victor liked to tell about Nate at milestone gatherings. He would start with the summers spent together transforming a decrepit fishing camp into an off-the-grid family compound; then the ski trips; the time they spent puttering in each other’s workshops, building bookshelves and wine racks; the comically failed fishing expeditions and canoe trip fiascos. He would be sure to mention the Grand Band, which made its debut at Victor’s bar mitzvah, with Nate on drums, Victor on keyboard, Simone on flute, and Eleanor on guitar. Hart had been introduced to the saxophone at age eleven, so he would be prepared to join the band at his bar mitzvah. He would also describe what it was like to become his father’s colleague, practicing the same branch of medicine, and the friendly rivalry they had developed, sending each other bogus complaints to the College of Physician and Surgeons, always signed by the fictitious Zoltan Spelt. Many people there would have heard them before, but they bore repeating and would be comforting now.
As he rose and approached the microphone, Leona looked hesitantly, seeing him in person for the first time since he’d left the house. The suit he was wearing looked a couple of sizes larger than she remembered, evidence of the reports that Violent was an accomplished chef.
“Even though this is a sad day, in some ways I have been looking forward to it,” Victor began. “Because I wanted to share with you all the wonderful memories of my father.” There was a show-and-tell note in Victor’s voice as he proceeded to list Nate’s achievements and awards: head of this department, chair of that committee, winner of competitions, recipient of trophies, medals, and scholarships, master of skills and hobbies.
As Victor paused and drew several breaths, Leona anticipated the anecdotes next. But instead he continued: “Most of all, my father was a model husband, and I want to tell you what a wonderful marriage my parents had and how happy he and my mother made each other—” Victor declared, lifting his arm and pointing at the quilt-draped casket—“every single day. Even his return from work was a special occasion for them. My father came through the door with his trademark whistle and called, “Where’s my first wife, the Glorious Gilda, light of my life, the joy of my heart?” And my mother would reply: “Here he is, home from the wars.”
While appreciative murmurs were uttered throughout the room, Leona felt the strange sense of a net dropping over her and separating her from the world around her.
In twenty-seven years of daily greetings, Victor had never once mentioned his parents’ homecoming ritual, but had only enacted the part of Nate Grand, triumphant husband, right down to the whistle. Leona wondered if she had fully understood what Victor had just said. Was she really discovering now, in the presence of the assembled community, something Victor had always wanted but had never asked for?
Victor continued: “My father always said that fifty per cent of marriages end badly, and the other fifty per cent end in divorce. But he was wrong about his marriage. It didn’t end badly, it ended sadly. When such a loving marriage ends, it is a harder blow to bear.”
While the rest of the congregation made sympathetic sounds about the loving husband and wife who were now torn asunder, Leona tried to put the chaotic fragments of thoughts bombarding her into order. Victor had deleted her from the obituary, listing his girlfriend Violet as their children’s mother, as if she’d never even given birth to them. He compared his parents’ triumphant union to their own failed marriage in front of her and five hundred other people. This was something other than blunt insult or attack. It was complete elimination. It was as if, for Victor, she simply had ceased to exist.
Then it occurred to her that she could only cease to exist if she had existed for Victor in the first place. She began to think back further, and recognized the feeling she had now, that he wasn’t aware that she was there. And she sensed other situations, social events where he forgot to introduce her, private moments when he used endearments that she’d never heard before, plans to meet when he hadn’t shown up, and then been puzzled when she’d protested afterwards, gifts that would be suitable for a long-serving secretary, such as coupons for the movies, a travel iron, even though she stayed home with the kids when he travelled; clothes in sizes that would never fit her. This was not exactly cruelty or neglect; it was sustained, subtle invalidation, as if the particularities of who she was were not worth knowing, and she lacked the significance to be taken note of.
Only now as she recognized how absent she had been from Victor’s mind did the strange quivering begin to diminish. Instead a dull, heavy weight seemed to sink into her gut. To live without understanding your life’s partner, and to live without being understood, is to be in a state of permanent exile. Her marriage was a strange land where she remained a permanent stranger. The same frustrated yearning to make herself clear to the man who hurt her surged in the same pathways that had throbbed for so long. It was followed by another thought that she had retrieved countless times since the day the marriage ended. “I do not have to try to understand anymore. He is no longer my husband.” She looked at him standing before the congregation, heavier, broader and utterly opaque. And she wondered for an instant if he had ever felt her incomprehension of him.
Her thoughts returned to the dream. She was not dead as she lay in her coffin; she was dying, gradually asphyxiating. And like her father-in-law, she was alone. When one partner dies, the marriage ends. But when it is a subterranean box of diminishing oxygen, death comes during the marriage.
Rabbi Schneider returned to the lectern after the eulogies, lifted his two upturned palms, and strode down the bima steps as the congregation rose. Behind him came Cantor Weill, his crystal voice carrying the consoling words of the Twenty-Third Psalm as the family followed him:
“Adonai Ro’i Lo Echsar.”
Leona translated to herself: The Lord is My Shepherd, I Lack Nothing.
Her mind raced forward to those very words that Nate used so formulaically: “Kosi Revaya”—my cup overflows.
She heard them differently this time, reverently uttered from the cantor’s mouth so they hovered over them all.
No splashing sound! Leona thought. Then, for the first time, she felt a moment of loss at her ebullient father-in-law’s departure from her world.
Copyright © Robin Roger 2012
Robin Roger writes fiction, essays and book reviews which have appeared in publications including The Globe and Mail, The National Post, The Literary Review of Canada, Moment Magazine and others. She is an associate editor of The Literary Review of Canada, and a founder of, and contributing editor to, Ars Medica: A Journal of Medicine, the Arts and Humanities. She is also a psychotherapist and the mother of two young adult children. She is a founding member of the recently launched City Shul. She lives in Toronto.