The Heart Rebels Against Absence

In Musings on May 25, 2010 at 4:11 pm

Grief is a strange thing.  Just like when it first rains and you feel the drops unevenly, at different intervals.  My 95 year-old Opa, Naphtali Rosenfeld, I believe the last of 7 brothers, died yesterday. The night before, he had a heart attack and went into the hospital, only to be pronounced “stable” and told he could be released in a couple of days under hospice care. Several hours after, my father called back to say, “I’m sorry I have bad news.”

People die all the time. Every day, in natural and tragic ways. People too young, people with unfair illness, people in unfortunate accidents. Ultimately, the death of a man who lived 95 years and died peacefully is less a thing of sorrow and more a thing of rightful endings. We should all be so lucky.

And yet. The heart–it is a notoriously illogical organ. It does not care about time and space. It loves. It goes on loving after the person is gone, even rebels against the notion of absence.

One Christmas years ago, my husband put five photos into a frame for me. Each photo is of me perched at a typewriter, from about the age of 7 up to adulthood. All but the last photo is set in the same place: the cottage Oma and Opa rented in Shelter Island, New York, where I spent my childhood summers. The typewriter is my grandfather’s.

While I will take most of the credit for the hungry little spark in me that has always needed to write, I give a great deal of credit to my Opa, who saw a fellow lover of words and nourished/nurtured it in me as though it were a rare and precious plant that needed special care and he was the gardener tasked with the job.

My Opa and I came from vastly different life experience. He grew up in a large, orthodox Jewish family in Germany, presided over by a fearsome and affectionless father. But when the family couldn’t afford to feed all their children he was sent to a children’s home, where his world bloomed open. Out from under the thumb of that oppression his intellect and curiosity began their first urgent explorations. Just as the first tiny tremors of Hitler’s plans for Jews began to ripple in his community (and others), he left with a youth group to Palestine, to a kibbutz, where he eventually married Tamar Weingarten and produced two sons, my father, and my uncle. He fought in the war that resulted in the State of Israel. And then, upon pressure from my Oma, he eventually immigrated to New York when my father was six.

And that’s how I could come to be. I think often of the great work of chance involved in my father coming to the United States and meeting my mother–and every time I thank my grandparents for making that enormous journey.

My Opa dearly loved me, even though he showed his tenderness in a removed and intellectual way. I spent most of my childhood summers visiting them, and during the year he wrote me monthly letters, sometimes as many as 10 pages long, in a handwriting that required study to read carefully.  I’ve been looking through some of his letters this morning (my heart clenching at the sight). Here is a choice line I found from a letter in 1994, when I was in college: “When I read your class work I feel moved back half a century to the time when I grappled with the tantalizing questions you so vividly describe in your work.” He was a steady and constant presence. Reliable, sturdy.

He regarded me, I always felt, with a tiny bit of bemusement and awe. I had all the independence and freedom to live my life that he had not. I was probably a rash and self-righteous teen, but he listened to my rants. I was a girl, but not a quiet and subservient one. I challenged him. He challenged me. He interrogated me lovingly. He was always, always there.

And now he’s not.

Not physically. He’s permanently lodged inside me, of course, and in my words, his hand linked with mine, even now, as I type.

There’s so much more to say, and maybe I will continue saying it. For today, simply: Opa, I love you.

  1. So sorry for your loss, Jordan.

    This is a lovely and loving tribute to your grandfather.

  2. Thank you Marisa. It feels good to write about him. To process my grief.

  3. This was beautiful and heartwrenching. You have found a way to honor him that I am sure would spark a 10 page letter from him. It is difficult to see past our own grief sometimes, but you do a wonderful job of letting us see how he lived. Thank you for sharing this.

  4. That was very beautiful. I can feel how much you love him, and how much he loved you. I’m sorry for your loss, but glad that you got to have him. What lovely memories to cherish.

  5. Thanks, K. It totally would have sparked a 10 page letter! He’d have corrected any factual errors in his history, thanked me for writing it, and told me how proud he was of my writing 🙂

  6. Jordan, this is beautiful. I know some of what you’re feeling–one grandfather died when I was three, but the other lived until I was in my thirties–actually pregnant with my son. I was so lucky to have grandparents into my adulthood, but, boy, their deaths can leave the biggest holes. It’s been over 14 years, and I still miss Grandpa. Everybody should have someone in their life for whom they walk on water.

    The best thing that I discovered after he died, was that my memories of him–with time–filled up again. He spent the last couple of years in a wheelchair, not able to speak easily because of strokes that hit his throat muscles. I thought, when he died, that all my memories would stick in that spot, but one night, when I was rocking my son, there he was in my mind, racing us on the beach again.

    You’ve been loved in the best way, and that will always be part of you. Hugs.

  7. Oh, dear… I am crying again. And Pedro is at school now and he’s not here to clean my tears as he did yesterday.

    I feel that his having gone so peacefully at the age of 95 leaves place to this “clean” sorrow that is only made of love. There’s nothing there except the sadness for knowing that there is no possibility to see him again.

    Even if our relationship was different, some of your lines could have been mine. I also felt some admiration and amusement by my adventures. And he definitely interrogated people lovingly!

    He was a decision maker with a very strong, sometimes imposing personality but he had so much sensitivity when it came to nature, to human nature, to literature and arts. I specially remember how he loved flowers (those tulips he planted at the front!) and how he so lovely looked after an oak tree that was 5 cms tall. And all his drawings. His home was humble and cozy.

    I believe you and me inherited from him our like for learning. Remember he still went to University when he was 80! I remember how he told me that he was happy because he could go and learn everything he wanted without the need to take any exams (they wouldn’t allow him, due to his age). He studied literature and history at that specific time. I know I’ve read more in my life thanks to his example.

    He was wise in many senses…

    And we were very lucky, and we are very lucky.

    I send you virtually the hug that I should be giving you in person.

    I love you. Thanks for being so beautiful and sharing this part of our history. Even being so far away, we lived similar experiences. And he linked us, which is awesome.

    • Patricia, everything you say is true. He was a complex person, not always easy, definitely imposing. But he loved us deeply, even if his own fears got in the way.

      I send that hug right back to you.

      Much love

  8. Thank you for sharing him with us.

  9. Jordan, so beautifully expressed. So many of us fail to appreciate our loved ones until they are gone, but it’s clear this wasn’t the case with you and your Opa. Such a wonderful gift, that kind of connection.

    Thank you for sharing this. May the coming days bring you the joy of knowing he loves you, still.

  10. Jordan, after hearing your stories of Opa and Oma, your visits to them, it was deeply satisfying to learn even more about Naphtali. It doesn’t matter if our loved ones live long, long lives or not. It simply hurts when their spirits leave their bodies, leaving us to find new ways to keep them in our lives. The texture of your words brought to life your Opa. Thank you.

    • Thank you, Claudia. So true. I definitely feel that he is with me, internally, permanently.

  11. Oh dear, sweet Jordan, the love of your grandfather is conveyed so beautifully in this piece of writing. I could feel it pouring through every word…running over and around them like cool river water over stones. Just lovely. It made me cry. Thank you for writing such a moving tribute to such a remarkable man, who lived such a remarkable life, and for sharing it with the world. I will never forget the image of you, seated before his typewriter at various ages… This is yet another thing we have in common: I actually have my grandfather’s typewriter, one of my most prized possessions. We shared a similar bond. Although I lost mine at a much younger age (when I was only 13), he left just as profound an impact on my life and heart. Grandparents are so special. They shape who we are are in many ways, and, in a way, we get to carry on where they left off. So, I will be thinking of you and your beloved Opa in the days and weeks ahead as I watch the world around me spring back to life in yet another incarnation of itself. I love you, dear girl. And I am sorry your heart is hurting. I know your Opa will be missed. But remember: love never dies. XOXO Christine

    • Thank you, sweet Christine. I so appreciate your words and heart! Miss you.


  12. Dear Jordan,
    So much of what you wrote is true and springs from a deep wisdom within you. I especially like “Ultimately, the death of a man who lived 95 years and died peacefully is less a thing of sorrow and more a thing of rightful endings.” And I love the following paragraph about the heart is an illogical organ. There are four people in my life right now who are on the brim of spilling over into the next phase and didn’t realize how nervous I’ve been about that until I read your piece. Thank you for sharing. Your words will reverberate through me and settle into a happy place, helping me to accept the transition that our loved ones go through. Love you. xoxoxo Marlene

    • Thanks so much Marlene. It must be very hard to face off with the potential loss of four people in your life, wow! It’s tough enough to handle one. Thanks for the love.


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