It was the end of September, and though I knew it was a foolish game, I was counting the lasts: the last autumn. The last Rosh Hashanah. The last middle-of-the-night drive home to St. Louis from Chicago, where we’d spent the last nine Rosh Hashanahs. My husband was asleep in the back seat, the two youngest overlapped in the seat behind, snoring. Next to me in the driver’s seat was my eldest son, Zach. He’d be going off to college in New York the following year, and I was the one who’d have to help get him ready and put him on the plane.
As I stared out the passenger-side window at a star-filled sky, I was thinking that we don’t get out and look at the stars enough. I was thinking of how, the previous summer, when Zach went off for eight weeks of camp, I wandered into his empty room and rummaged through the things that didn’t make it into his duffel in his frantic 1 a.m. packing: a love note scribbled on a sheet of blue-lined notebook paper, an essay for Honors Lit III replete with red-inked markings, a CD case stripped of its disc—the latest compilation from the Grateful Dead.
I was thinking that when my mom loaded me on a plane to go off to college, it was the first time I discovered I had separation anxiety and went to see a therapist because it was impossible for me to fly.
“What are you thinking, Mom?” Zach asked, a question I was always asking him.
I wondered what to say: Should I tell him that my New Year’s vow was to work on embracing change, a grasp of the constant unrolling of time, season after season, that eternal cycle of birth and death and renewal that the holidays hint at? Or should I tell him the truth, that I was counting “lasts,” cataloging the last high school open house, the last building of the sukkah, the last jazz band concert, somehow hoping that by adding it all together, I’d finally emerge at the end of the year with some impossible inner equation completed?
Instead, I told him about the new class I was compiling a syllabus for, and after we talked for a while, I stared out at the darkened fields on either side of Highway 55 and pictured the father I bumped into at the local grocery that July. He had a slump in his shoulders I recognized. He had just sent the bright spot of his life, his daughter, off to eight weeks at Camp Thunderbird. She would return for a brief time before going to college in the fall. When they mailed his daughter’s roommate questionnaire out, instead of sending it off to her, he filled it in. Are you generally a neat person? it asked. Of course, he responded, wincing only slightly as he pictured his daughter’s room, clothes strewn over the chair, high heels snaking a trail to the closet. Do you prefer someone quiet? they asked. No, he wrote, perhaps overhearing his own loneliness.
How are we parents to remain separate, when the training involves a mouth at the breast, and those primal yearnings of hunger, thirst, pain? How are we to retain a Buddhist’s sense of calm, of non-attachment, when nightmare cries woke us at 1 a.m.? When a thunderstorm’s crack sent pajama-clad feet hurtling into our beds? And what of, in my case, those basketball games, when, in the final seconds, Zach approached the free-throw line to take the final shot. Who was to say whether that was his heart beating or mine?
So I stared out at the darkened fields two hours south of Chicago and tried to recall what the Jewish tradition has to say, what its stories of loss and recovery are. There are, of course, lots of them, beginning with Adam, but I’m drawn to the women. And two, in particular, stood out.
First, there was Lot’s wife. When God threatened to destroy Sodom, Lot and his family were told to leave, but they were warned: Don’t look back. It was sage advice and something a man, like Lot, seemed to have no trouble obeying.
But, oh, that foolish nameless wife. Did she hear the cry of her best friend’s child?
Did she forget something—a letter, a postcard, a key? Did she pause before she turned, knowing she was about to risk everything? Did she choose to look anyway, because she needed that last goodbye, because one glance was all she needed to will her feet forward, toward whatever lay ahead? She remains there, frozen in salt, a pillar of tears, punished for feeling her losses at the desert’s edge. A warning.
At the other end of the spectrum, there was Hannah. She had to watch as others gave birth to son after son and she was left childless. But then she went to the temple at Shiloh and prayed so fervently for a child, with such unrelenting passion, that the priest who led the service thought she was drunk. But God, who—in this story, at least—is portrayed as a wee bit wiser and more discerning than his staff, heard Hannah’s prayer. Nine moons later, she gave birth to Samuel.
The catch: When Hannah prayed for the child, she had also promised him to God. So when Samuel was 4, she had to deliver him to the priest, who would train him in Temple service. She gave up the child she had wanted so badly and loved and nursed and taught—to God, to service.
At Rosh Hashanah services in Chicago, after they had chanted the Haftorah about Hannah, a woman added a kind of coda, singing Arik Einstein’s song “Uf Gazal,” about a mother bird releasing her young from the nest. I guess the song and Hannah herself had stayed with me on that starlit drive home, with Zach at the wheel. But it didn’t seem possible for me to embrace Hannah’s generosity.
And then a week later, during the Yom Kippur service at our other congregation in St. Louis, Hannah came to mind again.
Some of us had been fasting for nearly 20 hours. My head felt woolen and heavy, and I’d been alternately praying and counting how many pages were left in the siddur, and glancing down to eye the hunk of challah in a plastic bag tucked beneath the seat in front of me.
I had nabbed a chair near the front in the Khorrasan Room of the Chase Park Plaza Hotel, a humongous ballroom our congregation rents for the holidays. Three of my best friends stood onstage, in the choir.
Toward the end of Neilah, when all that fasting had opened a kind of space beyond craving, the choir began a song commissioned by my friend, Susan. She stood in a crisp white blouse, next to her mother. Deep altos, both, they sang the closing line: “Nothing is more precious than life.”
I’d heard the song and that line before, but this year it pierced me. A few years before, Susan really had given her 4-year-old son, Nathan, back: Nathan died of complications from epilepsy, and our rabbi, in Nathan’s last hours, had shown Susan how to open a window so that her son’s soul might return to God. Susan’s husband wasn’t having anything to do with all of this mumbo-jumbo religion. He was angry, really angry, at the whole idea of a God who puts children on Earth only to take them back again too soon.
But in the last few years I had watched as Susan slowly made her way back into the world. A kind of miracle, the way she continued to live her life, in spite of the death of her young son. She got up for work each day, and brushed her teeth and put on her shoes and sang, yes, even sang, at Neilah services to all of us.
I suddenly knew it would be all right. Because I’d raised Zach for some larger purpose. Something that can’t be counted. I had loved and taught him—and now I would release him. I would look back, like Lot’s wife, perhaps many times, but not too many.
As the shofar sounded, and we made our way out of the hotel, I rummaged in my purse for my keys, while chewing on a chunk of slightly stale challah. The sky above us seemed, in this particular Neilah moment, to stretch as far as New York City and even beyond it, and I had the feeling that Hannah never really finished her work on Samuel. Every year, the midrash tells us, she made him a coat, a little coat. Every single year, as he grew. Even after he was gone, she continued that work.
Did she tear out the old stitches or begin anew each time, selecting bright fabrics to match the changing seasons? I like to think that coat was extraordinary, ever-changing, a constant becoming, a story about love that is never quite finished.
Shelly R. Fredman is a guest contributor for NPR’s “On Being,” and her writing has been featured in “Best Jewish Writing,” and numerous literary magazines and anthologies. She teaches at Barnard College and is at work on a spiritual memoir.