The Heart Rebels Against Absence
Grief is a strange thing. Just like when it first rains and you feel the drops unevenly, at different intervals. My 95 year-old Opa, Naphtali Rosenfeld, I believe the last of 7 brothers, died yesterday. The night before, he had a heart attack and went into the hospital, only to be pronounced “stable” and told he could be released in a couple of days under hospice care. Several hours after, my father called back to say, “I’m sorry I have bad news.”
People die all the time. Every day, in natural and tragic ways. People too young, people with unfair illness, people in unfortunate accidents. Ultimately, the death of a man who lived 95 years and died peacefully is less a thing of sorrow and more a thing of rightful endings. We should all be so lucky.
And yet. The heart–it is a notoriously illogical organ. It does not care about time and space. It loves. It goes on loving after the person is gone, even rebels against the notion of absence.
One Christmas years ago, my husband put five photos into a frame for me. Each photo is of me perched at a typewriter, from about the age of 7 up to adulthood. All but the last photo is set in the same place: the cottage Oma and Opa rented in Shelter Island, New York, where I spent my childhood summers. The typewriter is my grandfather’s.
While I will take most of the credit for the hungry little spark in me that has always needed to write, I give a great deal of credit to my Opa, who saw a fellow lover of words and nourished/nurtured it in me as though it were a rare and precious plant that needed special care and he was the gardener tasked with the job.
My Opa and I came from vastly different life experience. He grew up in a large, orthodox Jewish family in Germany, presided over by a fearsome and affectionless father. But when the family couldn’t afford to feed all their children he was sent to a children’s home, where his world bloomed open. Out from under the thumb of that oppression his intellect and curiosity began their first urgent explorations. Just as the first tiny tremors of Hitler’s plans for Jews began to ripple in his community (and others), he left with a youth group to Palestine, to a kibbutz, where he eventually married Tamar Weingarten and produced two sons, my father, and my uncle. He fought in the war that resulted in the State of Israel. And then, upon pressure from my Oma, he eventually immigrated to New York when my father was six.
And that’s how I could come to be. I think often of the great work of chance involved in my father coming to the United States and meeting my mother–and every time I thank my grandparents for making that enormous journey.
My Opa dearly loved me, even though he showed his tenderness in a removed and intellectual way. I spent most of my childhood summers visiting them, and during the year he wrote me monthly letters, sometimes as many as 10 pages long, in a handwriting that required study to read carefully. I’ve been looking through some of his letters this morning (my heart clenching at the sight). Here is a choice line I found from a letter in 1994, when I was in college: “When I read your class work I feel moved back half a century to the time when I grappled with the tantalizing questions you so vividly describe in your work.” He was a steady and constant presence. Reliable, sturdy.
He regarded me, I always felt, with a tiny bit of bemusement and awe. I had all the independence and freedom to live my life that he had not. I was probably a rash and self-righteous teen, but he listened to my rants. I was a girl, but not a quiet and subservient one. I challenged him. He challenged me. He interrogated me lovingly. He was always, always there.
And now he’s not.
Not physically. He’s permanently lodged inside me, of course, and in my words, his hand linked with mine, even now, as I type.
There’s so much more to say, and maybe I will continue saying it. For today, simply: Opa, I love you.