In Jewish tradition, a child who loses a parent is required to say Kaddish, the mourner’s prayer, every day for 11 months, and the community recognizes you as an avel, a mourner, all that year. You are advised to eschew hilarity and concerts, wedding banquets and bar mitzvah parties. You aren’t to seek out live music (unless your livelihood depends on it). You do not go out in search of unnecessary joy or frivolity. You inhabit a place of enhanced contemplation, by tradition as well as by religious law.
But as a parent who has lost a child, as I did this spring, when my 14-year-old daughter, Orli, died, you are on your own. There is no tradition of daily prayer or asceticism beyond the first 30 days. There is no rule requiring a yearlong ritual; you can do anything. You are in free fall. No one knows exactly how to relate to you. (It is not uncommon for people to cry when they see me.)
Without religious guide rails, and guarding ourselves from the anguish of others in the midst of our own, we have sought our own path. Where Judaism proscribes the child mourning her parent to avoid unnecessary joy, perhaps, I thought, my family had to actively seek beauty. We had to do what Orli had done.
In June last year, in the scant weeks between Orli’s first brain tumor and her second — when her multiyear battle with liver cancer, following round after round of chemotherapy and radiation, a liver transplant and umpteen surgeries, had morphed once more into something even more frightening — our family was gifted a few days by the sea, in a tiny fishing town. One early morning Orli biked off alone, ignoring the concerns of her doctors (who worried about balance) and her parents (who just worried). I came upon her sitting on a jetty made from enormous boulders, a book in hand, staring out to sea. She turned when she heard me arriving and smiled enormously. This, she said, gesturing broadly, was so good for her mental health. She meant the sand, the sea, the solitude, the beauty, the autonomy. It did not take away what she had been through, and what she suspected was to come, but it sustained her, for a time. This, this is what I need, she told me.
This has been a season of trying to find what Orli saw there. I have spent these weeks insisting our remaining family go out into the world with me, to find it beautiful as well as horrible, amazing as well as painful. We are learning how to live now. We often stumble.
I had the idea at the outset of summer to go on a grand sadness tour, visiting places we once lived in Europe, in the years before all this began. I wanted to see and stay with friends, to try to, even briefly, recapture wonder. My younger daughter, Hana, and I decided that along the way we would drop white beads emblazoned with a gold O, a semi-permanent bread crumb, a way to take Orli with us, to keep her close. We looked for Orli as we went — we looked to find ourselves. On the wild Spanish coast, 90 minutes above Barcelona, we hiked on rocky trails where the Mediterranean pines improbably grow into the inhospitable rock, clinging to life, thriving and green, but weathered and battered. Look how they survive, we said to each other. Look how they survive.
Hana’s birthday fell when we were midway on this journey, in Paris. She asked friends to call or text at the exact hour of her birth. At the moment messages came in, a fast-moving summer thunderstorm abruptly swept through. While my partner, Ian, and I took shelter under the awning of a shuttered restaurant, Hana ran out to dance in the warm rain. She looked up and saw we were in front of number 13, Orli’s birth date, her favorite number. “It’s Orli!” Hana shouted. We thought: Who knows? Maybe it is.
In part I know that our travels were a means of running away. Indeed, I would have kept on running if Hana and Ian were amenable, if finances would have allowed. If I could have fully uprooted us, I probably would have. (I know we were fortunate, amid enormous misfortune, to be able to run at all.) Our home can feel heavy and haunted. I have spent hours cleaning Orli’s room, first collecting medical equipment for donation and then swapping out the bedding that she died on. The room still carries her scent, in a tiny diffuser with wicking sticks that makes olfactory promises it cannot keep.
I have made the room beautiful, as though it is still hers. Orli’s feminist posters are still on the wall, the books are still organized as she carefully placed them; the room is as she designed it, ever so slightly altered, stripped now of terror. When I finished overhauling the space, absent its oxygen machines and hundreds of pill bottles, its tubes and limb-adjusting cushions, its wheelchair and bedside commode, equipped with a new, subtly matching throw blanket and pillow and an Ikea duvet cover, I lay down on the bed and wept.
So all that’s to say I am not nice right now. I don’t want to speak, but I want you to write. When I interviewed the French author Anne Berest some weeks ago I told her I did not have one child, but two; one was gone. I began to cry. “I’m sorry,” I said, gathering myself. “Why are you sorry,” she said, looking directly at me. “It is sad.” We sat together, comfortable in the discomfort.
I still have a tendency to wake in the night and go over and over all of the things that went wrong and where I imagine I might have protected Orli. I berate myself for having failed her. It is completely irrational; it is also true. I could not save her; she could not be saved. I am her mother; ergo, I failed. In the light of day, I see the faulty logic of 4 a.m. It reminds me of how, when we were first in the emergency room with her in November 2019, after a month of her pediatricians failing to see what was in front of them, of coming back to the doctors week after week and asking them to please, please look at her one more time, it was not them I blamed initially but myself. “But I breastfed her,” I kept telling the emergency room physicians, into their downcast faces, as they explained that the pain she carried stemmed from innumerable liver tumors. “But I breastfed her.”
I try to reorient myself walking each morning. I try to see the blooming flowers, the wild potato blossoms that run the stretch of the path near my home, the fecundity of August, the greenery that rushed in during the months since Orli left us here, to fend for ourselves. I find I cannot talk to people I see at the farmers market, but I can appreciate the ripening fruit, the taste of late summer, the heat in the skin of each peach.
Sometimes I have tried to share what I see. As Hana’s birthday came to a close, long after the sky had cleared from that sudden downpour in which we looked for Orli, we stayed out too late. The day’s scorching temperature had finally eased, it was still gorgeously light out, and we were walking with a wonderful French friend of many years who happened to be born the same day as Hana, some decades before her. The adults were loath to turn back to the apartment, basking in company long denied.
Hana suddenly hung back, upset. Life, she said, is terrible. I said: I know it is. I feel like that, too, all the time. But look around you, I said. We are in Paris. It is 10:30 at night and the world is filled with people. This street, these buildings are exquisite. The light is soft, it is beautiful here, there is a breeze. The pain is always there for us. It will be waiting at the apartment when we return tonight, it will be lying next to us in bed or come to us when we wake; we always have it. But we have to let this beauty in, too. That will be the work of all the rest of our days: to hold this pain and this beauty side by side, without letting the one crush or crowd out the other. We have to let this beauty in, too.
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Sarah Wildman is a staff editor and writer in Opinion. She is the author of “Paper Love: Searching for the Girl My Grandfather Left Behind.”