Two Deaths, One Answer
After my brother died, I was frozen with grief—until author Harold Kushner helped me rediscover community
My grandparents told me more than once that “life is about suffering,” and that the better I got at handling it, the stronger my character would be. So I have never been one to ask why, let alone why me, when life gets tough. I have always understood that bad things can happen to all people in this chaotic universe, regardless of individual beliefs or accomplishments.
In other words, shit happens.
In June 2011, I received a phone call that would change my attitude. My father’s family was on a trip to Yosemite National Park when a semi-truck smashed into their car. My father, my stepmother, and my youngest brother escaped uninjured, but my 14-year-old brother, Eli, lay in a coma. He had been such a presence, with a brilliance that far surpassed his years, that I was confident he’d figure out a way to fix this, much like any other puzzle to which he set his mind. But his injuries were too severe. He never came out of the coma, and three days later doctors finally pronounced him dead.
Over the next year, I began to accept the reality that this was not a dream from which I would awaken. Eli was gone. I found little solace in that acceptance, though—no comfort in knowing that such an accident was common on that stretch of highway in Fresno, no relief in my intellectual understanding that there was never any safety net to keep those dear to me safe. Even with my rational grounding in the simple acceptance of that reality, it seemed an impossible challenge to figure out how to move forward with my life. Should I keep doing what I’ve been doing day to day, living in New York and working as an artist? Should I drop everything and move closer to the family in California? I felt lonely at home but knew I should stay and try to be productive; then I felt selfish for being far from the family and berated myself for that. I didn’t know what to do. I only knew that I was alone in my grief.
Then I met Harold Kushner, the famed author, and came to see things in a new way. Talking to him, I found that we had traveled similar paths: I’d lost my 14-year-old brother, he’d lost his 14-year-old son, and we were both grappling with our grief and searching for connection. Reading his books, I rediscovered community, learned to see God’s presence, and began to move forward again.
When my mother left the Soviet Union for America in 1988 to join her parents and her sister—who had gotten permission to emigrate the previous year after eight years as refuseniks—my father did not join her; they divorced, and he stayed behind in Kharkov. At age 2, I settled with my mother in Chicago, where her parents and her sister had moved. A few years later, my father and his new wife Katya moved from Ukraine to Israel with their new daughter and had two more sons. I barely knew anything about my father’s new family until he and I started exchanging letters when I was 10—his in Russian introducing me to his life and my siblings, and mine in English relating the charmingly banal interests of a preteen. Before long, I was visiting my father’s family on monthlong vacations, enjoying the novelty of getting to know them. Disregarding the dramatics that led to my parents’ split and his new life, I knew that my siblings—in Chicago, and in Israel—had become the most valuable treasures in my life.
In 2002 my father’s family moved to America—to Boise, yet. The time zones between me and mine were disappearing, and I couldn’t have been happier. I saw more of them at the warm home my father and Katya built. I accompanied them on family camping trips to various state parks, the weeks that I felt most comfortable during my awkward teenage years. That’s also when I grew closer to Eli.
They moved to San Diego, where a young Eli cultivated an impressive garden, cajoling fruiting trees and flowering plants from the earth. Eli oozed life from every pore, already envisioning and planning the sustainable farm he would live on with his wife, animals, and children—as many as his wife would let him have, he’d explain to the family. The realistic practicality with which he approached these dreams made us certain they would inevitably come true.
And he and I started to become real partners in crime: I started editing his school papers, and he became a trusted critic of my artwork. The fact that he believed in me and brought me up in art-class discussions on pop art motivated my work.
In 2010, I moved to New York, leaving behind my friends and family; within months, I unveiled my first exhibit on the East Coast at KGB Bar in Manhattan’s East Village. I pursued my individual success, quickly accelerating into my future as an artist in this urban jungle, feeling like a mogul on track to build an empire. It never occurred to me that it was the strong network of people in my life that was the foundation of all that inner strength, and I didn’t realize how powerless I could feel without it.
After the car crash in 2011, I made my way to California. I did what I could, helping my sister with decisions regarding the press that was eager to cover this local tragedy, inviting Eli’s schoolmates to the funeral, and arguing with the rabbi who insisted in his eulogy that “everything happens for a reason,” even if we don’t understand God’s motivation. I spoke at Eli’s funeral, addressing his peers, describing his lightness and urge to do good for others that would now be their responsibility to do on his behalf. Over the next days, friends filtered in and out with food, the unspoken language that expressed the comfort they wished to transmit. The only words that brought peace were when we told funny stories about Eli, a practice my father proposed, and that I admired.
I returned to New York on autopilot, unsure what to do. In addition to my job, I had made myself available to contribute to a range of art projects around the city, though I was finding that I could not meet them with the same animation I had before. I returned to California for a month to find comfort with family, even entertaining visions of going bicoastal for a while. But family dynamics were shifting, and it seems that I had idealized my ability to patch up a hole too big for any of us to fill. It would be a while before I realized that while it was true that I wanted to help strengthen others, I was the one who needed to find strong people with whom I could be vulnerable now.
David Nahmias keeps a family tradition alive by making mahia, a Moroccan fig brandy, in America