Joy Breaking Through Grief

These seats are not nearly as comfortable as they look, I thought.

I fidgeted in my seat on the train, trying to find a better position. The dull ache in my left thigh that had bothering me for the last week or two returned, though I did my best to ignore it. I positioned my work bag on my lap, placed my coffee cup under the armrest next to me and took out my train ticket. I managed to slide out of my coat, doing my best not to disturb the heavyset man who had sat down next to me.

I had just settled in when I heard the conductor’s voice come over the train’s public address system.

“Attention, passengers: there are no trains coming into or going out of Penn Station at the moment due to signal problems. I repeat, there are no trains coming into or going out of Penn Station due to signal problems. As soon as we have more information, we will notify you.”

Of course.

The train car became filled with the sounds of people shuffling in their seats as they took out their phones to send messages about the travel delay. The voice of a young man behind me broke through the silence, informing the person on the other end of his call – and all of the passengers in our car – that he was sitting on the train and not moving.

So much for the quiet car, I thought.

The man next to me unfolded his copy of the New York Times and began to read, pausing every few moments to let out a cough. He pointed his mouth away from me but I found myself wincing anyway. To say that the last week had been taxing emotionally would be an understatement and I was going to need more energy for the coming weekend too. Getting sick was not an option.

I spied one of the train conductors walking along the platform toward the front of the train. She was speaking to someone through her walkie-talkie but I couldn’t make out any of the dialogue. She boarded the train again and I heard the sounds of the train’s brakes being released. The train lurched forward and we began moving through the tunnel.

I leaned my head back against the high seat-back and looked out the window. We cleared the tunnel and I gazed at the thick fog encroaching over the marshes near the train tracks. I could see the patches of ice that had managed to remain solid in the pond, despite the quick thaw of the past few days. The water rippled slightly as a breeze floated by.

I began picturing my wife’s uncle as my thoughts began to drift. I could hear him calling to his wife with his thick Brooklyn accent and trying, mostly unsuccessfully, to carry the tunes at the Passover seder. I imagined his hands, thick and strong, even as he aged, and the profile of his face, which had always reminded me of Yogi Berra. I thought of his smile, always warm and welcoming, and the way he always pulled me in for a hug instead of just shaking my hand.

The seats at the funeral weren’t so comfortable either, I thought, shifting my weight again.

My phone buzzed with the arrival of a text message from my brother, jolting me back to reality and reminding me why I was on the train in the first place. His wife had given birth to their first child last week, a mere two days after we had received word that my wife’s uncle passed away. My thoughts were replaced by the image of my brother’s newborn baby boy cradled in my arms when we went to visit him for the first time. He was bigger than my kids had been when they were first born but he still felt tiny, barely more than folds of skin and a mop of hair.

The edges of my lips curled slightly to form a sad smile as “Circle of Life” began playing in my head.

I began thinking about the highs and lows of the previous weekend again. I pondered my wife’s expressions of frustration as she mourned, the joy in my brother’s smile as he spoke about his new son and the Biblical phrase, “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away.” I felt the familiar weight of intense emotions build between my shoulders and tried to remind myself that the coming weekend was supposed to be joyful. I knew, of course, that the circumcision of a Jewish baby boy is supposed to be cause for celebration. I just couldn’t quite shake the pangs of sorrow that were still lingering from the previous weekend.

The man next to me coughed again, startling me out of my reverie. The conductor’s voice came over the PA system again, announcing my stop. I shook my head quickly to recenter myself, gathered my belongings and excused myself out of the row. I made my way down from the train platform to my wife and children waiting for me in the car. The nerves in my thigh protested again as I sat down in the front seat but I felt the rest of my body relax. I didn’t know exactly what the weekend had in store for me but I did know that being around my wife and kids always seems to make things easier.

Here we go, I thought.

Awesome Clouds

My eyes scanned the ground as I walked, mapping out each step so that I could avoid the muddy patches near the walkway and the awkward separations between the sections of concrete. It was somewhat slow going; I kept having to pause so that I could pick the blanket up and re-wrap it around Shayna’s body that was huddled against me. I gave her a little smile but she didn’t respond. Her eyes held my gaze for a moment before turning back to the nearby trees swaying with the breeze.

“I know, Shin, I’m sorry,” I said quietly as I tugged the blanket up again and tucked in the corners.1 “I don’t really want to be here either.”

I stayed back behind the gathering, not wanting to disturb anyone if Shayna started to object to being out in the cold. The people kept shuffling in, squeezing together to make room for everyone. The cold began painting faint roses on their faces, some of which still showed the faint streaks of dried tears. I bounced Shayna slightly to keep her quiet and to keep my legs moving, trying to ignore the biting air and the reason we were all outside in the first place.

The rabbi began singing softly. Her voice was pleasant enough, though I found myself holding a grudge against her for making mistakes in her speech earlier in the day. She could have checked on the dates with any number of people, I thought. Of all days, she should have gotten it right today. The song ended and I let out a resigned sigh. The rabbi began speaking but I was too far away to make out the words.

My mind wandered as she spoke, desperate for distraction. The sky was a spectacular shade of blue, like a crayon that ends up getting blunted from overuse because of its appeal. A handful of white cotton candy clouds hung in the air, looking almost happy in contrast to the melancholy ritual taking place below. As I glanced at the names on the nearby headstones, I wondered who the people had been and why there were more small rocks piled on top of some of the graves as opposed to others.

A sudden gust of wind sent a chill through my legs. I turned to shield Shayna from the breeze and adjusted the blanket. Her head kept turning from side to side, as though there were too many things in the world to see and she couldn’t decide where to focus her attention.

“What are you looking at?” I asked quietly. “Is it the trees? The sky? The awesome clouds?”

Shayna turned her head once or twice more. When she finally settled on one direction, I looked up and saw what had finally caught her.

A large bird had taken flight in the distance. It glided back and forth, tracing circles and figure-eights through the air. “That looks like a hawk,” I whispered to Shayna. “He’s probably looking for–”

I stopped short, remembering where I was and for whom. I began to think of him and the moments we had shared together. I pictured us watching our sons play soccer in the courtyard of his apartment and tearing slices of pizza into little pieces for them at Nick’s. I thought of us drinking beer while we played arcade games at our friend’s birthday party and him making fun of me for leaving the party early. I thought of sitting with him at the bar as we watched the Philadelphia Eagles, his second love after his family. I remembered feeling simultaneously amused by his ongoing complaints about his team’s mistakes and embarrassed by his badgering of the waitress because the television showing the game kept cutting out. I thought of the love he felt for his team, which was why his disappointment in their performance was so intense.

Then I thought of his family again. I thought of his wife, who had been one of the first real mom-friends that Trudy had made after Eitan was born. I thought of his son, who is three weeks younger than Eitan, and his daughter, who is a month older than Shayna. I thought of how much being a husband and a father meant to him and how his children seemed to fill him with purpose. I thought of the connection he felt with his football team and how it paled in comparison with the passion he felt for his family.

I looked up again at the bird, still circling among the clouds.

“I changed my mind, Shin,” I whispered again. “That’s not a hawk; it’s an eagle.”


1. Shin is the first letter in Shayna’s Hebrew name.

Under Better Circumstances

They say you can never go home again.

I suppose that’s true; just as you can never step into the same river twice, because the water is constantly moving, home will be different every time you come back. The people may be the same, or at least appear to be, but they are moving too. They are thinking, growing, spreading their wings. They are separating, searching for their own identities, their own callings. They’re coping, looking for handholds along the way, just as you are. Just as we all are. The people look the same, but they aren’t. And neither are you.


Trudy, Eitan and I flew to Chicago last weekend. The details are more complicated – they always are – but let’s just say that there was a death in the family and we felt like we needed to be there. I’ve been back to Chicago a handful of times since my family moved to New York when I was eleven. We went back for a couple of family vacations; I went back in my senior year of high school; and then Trudy and I staffed a youth group trip to Chicago when we were in college. The city has been different every time, especially the neighborhood where I used to live. It’s more modern, and yet, still just the same. So many of the stores have been updated, while the homes look very similar to the way they did back then. It was familiar but strange, all at once.

We saw my father and his girlfriend, which was our main reason for making the trip. We met extended relatives, new to us but not to each other. Eitan met his baby cousin and gave her the presents we had brought with us. We saw family friends from my childhood and a friend Trudy and I knew from college. I even saw some of my old elementary school teachers when they came to visit during shiva.1

Everyone I had known before looked the same to me. A little more grey here, another wrinkle or two there, but the faces and the smiles were all just as I had remembered them. They were thrilled to see me and to meet Trudy and Eitan, and I was just as excited to catch them up on what I had been up to over the past few years.

Still, something was off. The city felt so foreign to me. I remembered much of the geography and some landmarks here and there, but it wasn’t mine anymore. I didn’t have the same connection to the streets or the stores or the houses. The people, some of whom I’ve known for literally my entire life, had grown up or grown older or changed in some other way and I’d had no idea.

I’d come home, but it wasn’t home anymore.


If there is any silver lining to losing a family member, it’s that it brings people together; it brought us to Chicago, after all. But throughout the trip, I kept coming back to that one thought. We brought Eitan to a museum, showed off the sights I’d remembered from my childhood, reinforced his Chicago sports roots. We ate deep dish pizza, spent badly needed quality time with my father, bonded with new family members. And underneath all of it was the terrible loss my relatives had suffered. The new relationships we were forming were all because of the relationship that would never be formed with the stepbrother I had never met.

The stepbrother I would never meet.

It’s still difficult for me to process the circumstances that brought Trudy, Eitan and me to Chicago last weekend. Honestly, I’m not sure I’ll ever really understand. People who have experienced a death tend to want to ask why, even though they know there isn’t a real answer.

The family and friends who came to visit kept saying, “Hopefully, next time we’ll meet under better circumstances.” I almost laughed every time I heard it; next time would have to be better because how could there ever be any worse situation than losing a family member?

And yet, I I understood the sentiment. It was an acknowledgement of a difficult, horrible time, while still expressing some hope for more positive times in the future. This, too, shall pass, as awful as it seems right now. We will all continue on as best we can; coping, growing, moving forward, somehow finding the strength to put one foot it front of the other. We will surround ourselves with the special people in our lives who offer support and guidance and distraction. We will use them to help restore structure, while still leaving the windows to the past and the future wide open.

They say you can never go home again. But they should have added that home is more about who you’re with than where you are.


1. Sitting shiva is the Jewish tradition of accepting visitors when mourning a family member who has died. You can read more about it here.