Monday, February 5, 2018
I’m finally making a rare visit to the cemetery. I told myself to go for months but kept putting it off, putting it off. I hate being reminded that my beautiful boy is in a box in the ground, that he’s been there now almost five years. I worry that I’m coming empty handed but once parked, I find things in the car that I’ve been saving so long, I can’t remember where they’re from: a shiny acorn and two rocks, one streaked with purple like a twisted heart. I have something to give my son Noah after all.
Up on the hill where his marker is, a breeze ruffles the palm and olive trees. Metallic pinwheels left by mourners whir blue, green, and red like hummingbirds in the silence. The nearby grave of a teenage girl is smothered in flowers and teddy bears. A row of cars and a clump of black-clad people across the way signal a fresh grave, fresh grief.
I sit leaning, keening over Noah’s gravestone. I finger the snug ring of shells and stones people have placed around it that are now ground into the earth. I’m riveted by his Hebrew name, Noach Chayim. The guttural “ach” in Noach, the suffering within that we failed to ease or understand. The middle name pictured above, Chayim (life), that I chose instead of my father’s name or middle initial because it seemed like bad luck to name a baby after a grandfather who died by suicide. Was that a fatal mistake, to tie my father’s life to Noah’s even with the hope that he'd choose life?
Ruing all this with head down, I sense someone nearby and look up to see a long shadow behind me. It’s an older woman in sweats and a red baseball cap, squinting at me from a plain, creased face. “Can I give something to his fund?” she asks.
His fund? Does she know Noah? How does she know we have a memorial fund? “Do I know you?” I say, wondering if she’s someone from my synagogue whose name I can’t place.
“No,” she shakes her head, “I’m nobody. I just saw you looking very sad and that made me”—her voice cracks—“sad.”
I ask how she knew we had a charitable fund named for Noah. She says only that there are a lot of young people in this part of the cemetery. Unbelievably, she’s taking out her checkbook and asking the name of the fund, stumbling over the spelling.
She says she has a son who’s 24. Ah, another bereaved parent. “Is he here?” I ask and she says, “No, he’s at work right now.” Of course, why should any 24-year-old be here! “I come with my sister to visit our parents’ graves, our uncles, but they all had long lives,” she continues. “These young people” –she gestures outward—“it can happen to anyone.”
She hands me a check and I read her name and address. “Thank you, Natalie,” I say slowly, “you’re very kind.” I hand her a postcard for my book about losing Noah, wishing I had something better to give her.
“I could have been an ostrich,” she mumbles as she starts to turn away, “buried my head in the sand. But I saw you here looking so sad. And you could have said you just wanted to be by yourself, but I just thought I’d come over.”
“Thank you,” I say again, and she’s gone, a few minutes after she first appeared.
I’m stunned by this gesture of lovingkindness from a complete stranger. Her visit brings me gently back to solid ground and tells me it’s time to go.
Was this one of those random acts we read about on bumper stickers or something more? I can’t help thinking of the 36 tzadikkim (righteous people) who, according to Jewish tradition, appear at times of crisis to reveal the “Hidden Light.”
Whoever you are, Natalie G. from Venice, California, thank you for the gift of your presence.