Learning that Life is Bittersweet

Learning that Life is Bittersweet


torahWhen I was little – around the age of five or six – I used to love visiting my grandma. Back then, she lived in New York.

I wouldn’t be able to describe the house today: what it was made of, how the front yard looked, or even where it was. But I do remember the inside.

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I recall how the three-bedroom home seemed to stretch as guests arrived, making room for my grandma’s two daughters and sons-in-law and four grandchildren. I remember how the other kids and I liked to sleep together on the floor in one room. And I remember my grandma’s bathroom was lined with yellow wallpaper, and the bath with a big green foam footprint.

Also, I remember getting up in the morning and hearing her voice from the kitchen. She’d give me a kiss when I woke up, and then I’d lay on the cool tiled floor in my “Tarzan” (and Jane) silk PJs to piece together a Flounder puzzle for the 100th time.

Grandma would watch me from the kitchen while she made challah French toast. Sometimes, I would finish before the food was ready, and I’d go sit at the breakfast bar to be with her while I waited. I remember she always sat really close to me at the table, and even with a plate of warm, syrup-covered goodness in front of me, I always took note of my grandma’s comforting scent.

I’m sharing all this with you now because this wonderful woman passed away in January at the age of 79 from a form of lung cancer called adenocarcinoma.

Now, I’m inclined to say that cancer stole my Grandma Eileen from me, because I picture the disease as a deviant creature that sneaked inside my grandma and refused to leave. It knew she wasn’t ready to go, and that I wasn’t ready, and that the hundreds of other people who loved her weren’t ready. It had to know.

But on the days when such feelings fade away, I sometimes see the cancer as a blessing. Too often, people die suddenly and unpredictably, leaving behind untold stories and broken hearts. My grandma’s cancer was a signal, an alarm of sorts, complete with a snooze button giving us all an additional “10 minutes” with one another.

We knew our time was short, but at least we got to say goodbye.

Coming into Focus

This Shabbat – the sixth of Av on the Hebrew calendar – we’ll celebrate Shabbat Chazon (“Shabbat of the Vision”) and read of Isaiah’s prophecy of the destruction of Holy Temple. Then, three days later, we observe Tisha B’Av (the ninth of Av), a day of remarkable significance.

It’s a day that’s come to be known as a period of mourning, and as such, is a time for both fasting and humility. Our laws prohibit eating and drinking, wearing leather footwear, being intimate and sending gifts – and what’s more, on this specific day, we are commanded to spend the day commemorating the many tragic events that occurred on this date in history.

For instance, it was on the ninth of Av in 1313 BCE that the Israelite spies reported the Holy Land as unconquerable; the First and Second temples were destroyed on this date in 423 BCE and 69 CE, respectively; and it was also on the ninth that the Jews were expelled from England in 1290 CE.

Still, even with all these somber notions, it would be a mistake to think that the true focus and meaning of the day is just on grieving and sadness. There is also, interestingly, a bit of joy: In the parsha portion we are about to read, Devarim, Moses retells the journey of the Israelites from Egypt to Canaan.

Thus, in the final days before entering the Promised Land, he reminds them of wars with other nations and conflicts with G-d. It’s one example of a relationship between grief and joy shows up throughout the Torah and other Jewish texts.

You see it also in the book of Isaiah, when we read:

“Rejoice with Jerusalem and exult in all those who love her: rejoice with her a rejoicing, all who mourn over her (Isaiah 66:10).”

The Talmud, too, says that “everyone who mourns for Jerusalem merits to share in her joy, and any one who does not mourn for her will not share in her joy (Talmud, Ta’anit 30b)” and that “not to mourn at all is impossible, because the blow has fallen. To mourn overmuch is also impossible because we do not impose on the community a hardship which the majority cannot endure (Talmud, Baba Bathra 60b).”

Clearly, therefore, there’s a tie between mourning and celebration; seemingly, we cannot enjoy that which we did not grieve for. It makes sense, as in order to fully appreciate anything, we first have to pay tribute to the misfortunes that led us there.

Full Circle

Now, I’ll admit that before even reading this week’s Torah portion, I knew I would be writing about my grandma. This weekend, my family and I will be gathering in Florida for the unveiling of her tombstone – a moment sure to cause an emotional whirlwind – so I felt that this week I needed to write both about her and for her.

And in making that decision to share even a bit of her story, I too made a connection between mourning and celebrating, realizing that you can’t do one without the other.

I can neither miss my grandma without recalling wonderful memories; nor can I speak of our time together without missing her.

Rachel LaVictoire (rlavictoire@wustl.edu) is a graduate of the Davis Academy and Westminster High School, recipient of the prestigious Nemerov Writing and Thomas H. Elliott Merit scholarships at Washington University in St. Louis and an active member of Temple Emanu-El and the Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta. She was recently named to the board of St. Louis Hillel.


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