Our beautiful boy Judah was so very lost. אִבֵּד את עצמו: our Hebrew language gently conveys; he literally could not find his way. On Tuesday, December 22, 2015, at the age of 27, my son surrendered to the torment that had been slowly destroying him.
Our family had been working together for years in a private challenge to help our struggling Judah. My husband took 36-hour missions to Berkeley whenever he detected a certain pause in Judah’s stride, our other children rushed to cheerlead him into the next day each time they saw their brother falter. And Judah worked too—the hardest of all of us. הוי דן את כל האדם לכף זכות was his mantra; he never judged, and he insisted that we always grant others the benefit of the doubt. He had great faith in humankind. In fact, one of Judah’s favorite quotes was Anne Frank’s: “In spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart.” He would share with us that if she could say that about her situation, he could say that about his.
But ultimately his reality was incompatible with life in this world. In his very complicated brilliance, Judah understood that his journey on earth had ended. And in the final test of unconditional love, we accepted that our son had no alternative but to rescue his misplaced soul.
My father, who spent six insufferable years in German concentration camps, often spoke of his indefatigable determination to live, in spite of the miasma of omnipresent death. Judah was the grandson who most resembled his Opa, who inherited his baby blue eyes, insatiable curiosity, and razor-sharp intellect, and also acquired his tenacious fight to survive. But the odds were impossible. Judah struggled valiantly, never sharing his pain beyond our immediate family, wearing an enormous smile while displaying profound sensitivity to everyone he encountered. And while my father refused to let himself die, my son could no longer sustain life.
And I am the bridge between them.
I am named for my father’s mother who died on an unknown date, in an unknown way, in an unknown place, after she was boxed on the deathtracks in late 1943. And because of all these unknowables, my father adopted the custom encouraged by the post-Holocaust Jewish world to use a designated yahrtzeit day. And that date, the tenth day of Tevet, was always marked by the candle lit atop the kitchen refrigerator, as the memory of the grandmother I never knew flickered in the Philadelphia home where I was raised. Just five days before his 28th birthday, 72 years later, I lost my son on this very same day: the tenth day of Tevet, a day of Jewish communal suffering, now a day of intense personal anguish.
When we lose someone we love dearly, the resulting enormous vacuum exerts actual pressure that threatens to splinter our hearts into shards. It is as if their physical essence is reversed into an imploding emptiness that suctions out our own energy. We are bereft, our broken selves attempting to reconfigure to accommodate the person we can’t let go of, as we incorporate their souls into our very own so they are not completely and forever lost. The grief process is the relocation of our loved one from their body into ours, as we absorb their spirit into our go-forward existence.
If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes an entire nation to bury him. “We will go on with living, not dying,” I repeated and repeated, my salty tears softening my crisp words, to the choreographed rows of overflowing shiva visitors who rearranged vacations to offer words of comfort. And despite the proclamations that “there are no words,” it is the bounty and beauty of kind human language that continues to help us breathe today.
It is more difficult to drown in self-pity when friends and relatives stand by to rescue you. It becomes impossible to feel isolated when you are surrounded by people who don’t stop calling, who bring flowers and tins of cookies and teddy bear hugs, who text daily even when you don’t respond, who show up at your door laden with overflowing bags of groceries, who open your closets to set your table with china and silver because they know it tastes better when it is not served on paper, who memorize your Starbucks preference, and who—nine full months later, my reverse pregnancy complete—continue to help us grapple with the loss that would otherwise paralyze us. Our sorrow is diminished, spread out, shared. The power of our people is the engine that pulls us forward.
On Rosh Hashanah, as we read the Sacrifice of Isaac story, we are reminded that, in place of the son, a ram was offered instead. This very animal gifts us the shofar, whose piercing blasts this High Holiday season beacon us to find perspective and faith in the face of adversity and horror, as Abraham demonstrated in his challenges. And on this divine Day of Judgment, I will forever hear Judah’s voice calling on us to never judge our fellow man.
It is my father’s legacy that guides me in the march from death that I have been navigating since December. I have chosen to manage my personal tragedy, as my Holocaust surviving DNA dictates: by choosing life. Because if the Holocaust survivors lost their entire families and homes and towns, their freedom, and belonging, without ever losing their dignity or hope or grace, and then sailed alone across foreign seas to strange lands to master new languages and form new families, and learned again to love and laugh with lust for life—then how can I just let myself fall?
None of us knows what the coming year will bring. Who shall thrive and who shall perish. While we may have no control over what happens to us, we have control over how we respond. And this High Holiday season, the first since we lost our son, we pray for the continuing strength to together embrace our destiny.
May the memory of Judah Aaron Marans be a blessing.