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.

No Better Feeling

I got to hold a baby the other day.

I don’t just mean a young child. Eitan is three and a half and still gets referred to as “the baby” sometimes. That’s not what I mean. I mean a baby, barely a week and a half old on the day when I met him. He was a floppy mush of skin and hair with the tiniest little mouth that seemed to open twice as wide when he needed to yawn. His father brought him into the room, holding the baby in his forearm in a perfect football grip, and gently laid him into my arms.

I laughed and said, “Jesus, I forgot how small they are when they’re born.”

Eitan the toddler was a giant compared to this little being, probably twice as tall and three times the weight. My arms usually start to ache after carrying Eitan for five or ten minutes so holding the baby was a snap, but I found myself feeling nervous. The baby might have been small, at least compared with Eitan, but I could feel the overwhelming weight of the responsibilities that all parents feel when their children are born. Eitan can control his movements; he can run and jump and put his hands out to break his fall if he trips. This tiny little human, though, was completely helpless. I don’t mind admitting that I was somewhat relieved that he woke up a bit and started crying because it meant that I could return him to his father.

His father is young, but looked like he’d been playing the role for years. He was confident as he picked up his son from my arms, leaned back and put the baby on his chest. The baby, surely sensing his father’s warmth and hearing his heartbeat, fell back to sleep almost immediately. My God, this kid is a natural, I thought. The slightest bit of jealousy I felt at the ease with which he had been able to calm his son was drowned out immediately by my pride at having played a role, however minor, in helping a child step up and become a man when he needed to.

The baby’s father and I had spoken before about the different feelings that parents experience, whether they are new to parenting or seasoned veterans. He told me that he loves his son and that he wants to give him the best life possible, but that he does not know how. He said that he does not feel like he has the resources or the knowledge to be a good father. “What can I offer him?” he asked. I explained to him that every parent thinks about the quality of life that they can provide for their children and that the truth is that most of it doesn’t matter. I told him that he could learn to change diapers and to feed the baby a bottle and to do all of the other little things that go into caring for a baby. The key was that he needed to love his son, no matter what, and that the rest would work itself out.

I pointed at the baby on his chest, now snoozing contentedly. “He knows that you love him,” I said. “You’re here with him, talking to him, spending time with him. He can feel your love coming through whenever he’s with you.” The baby’s father gave a noncommittal shrug. “You picked him up and he fell back to sleep immediately. He can feel every bit of positive energy you’re sending his way. You can do this. It’s going to be hard a lot of the time and there are going to be times when you’re going to want to throw your son out the window, if not jump out yourself. But the greatest thing about being a dad is that it helps you see strength that you never knew you had. You just have to be open to it.”

He seemed satisfied with my short soliloquy, though still somewhat unconvinced. I couldn’t blame him, of course. Becoming a parent is a hard adjustment for everyone, no matter the age, gender or ethnicity. I had just turned 29 when Eitan was born. I had a steady job, a wife, a place to live and a master’s degree and still, I struggled as much as anyone. I made mistakes and I got frustrated and angry and dejected.

But then things changed. 

I started learning from my mistakes. I started figuring out techniques and shortcuts, like soaking every bottle of milk in the sink at the same time rather than washing each one individually and standing out of the line of fire when changing Eitan’s diaper. I stopped beating myself up every time things went wrong and I started believing that I could do everything that Eitan needed from me. My confidence grew and I kept getting better. I adapted to Eitan and he adapted to me.

The other thing I told the baby’s father – the thing I would say to any new parent – was that parenting is a process. It’s a matter of constantly shifting tactics to figure out what works and adjusting when things don’t go according to plan. It’s getting used to the idea that just when you think you’ve figured things out, your kid grows or stands up or starts eating real food or does something else new that throws you off and makes you learn all over again.

He said to me, “That sounds really annoying.”

“It is,” I said with a laugh. Then I added, “But even so, moments like these, with your son sleeping on your chest? There’s no better feeling in the world.”

He glanced down at his son, sleeping softly. And he smiled.