Is there a Heaven? Do Jews believe in that?
My grandfather died last week, at the tender age of 80 years. Eighty revolutions around the sun. Eighty cycles of 365 days. He died last week, after a stretch of a three-months chain of illnesses that shattered his body completely, eviscerating his kidneys, heart, spine, and legs. Three months was all it took for my vibrant, gorgeous, athletic, brilliant grandfather to become a broken heap of a man, a shadow of what he once was.
Now, a week after his funeral, shiva behind us, I keep looking up. I look up while I run in the damp summer mornings. I look up when I walk to get the mail. I glance toward the sky while I wait for my daughter’s school bus. I’m waiting for a sign. I want a sign. I need a sign. A sign that he’s up there, that he’s making his way, that he’s alright. Is there a Heaven? I need to desperately know that there’s a Heaven and that he’s there or on his journey there. I look up while useless mail catalogs are falling out of my hands. I look up while my sneakered feet hit the dewey morning pavement.
I went to the market today, searching for the brand of jam my grandfather used to always offer me when I visited. I stood staring at the shelves full of jam, trying to remember which kind he favored. “Think,” I will myself. “Think! You ate this jam every week! How can you not remember?? Idiot.” Soon I’m crying and crying and crying among the dozens of Russian jam options in the Eastern European section of the Buford Hwy. Farmers’ Market. I’m not sure if anyone ever cried so much in the jam aisle of a farmers’ market. Maybe no one ever will.
My grandfather was the most educated, well-rounded man I knew. He was well-read and well-traveled. He loved classical music, and knew much of it by heart, able to identify composers after hearing just a few notes. He had an appropriate poetic quote for any life situation and a tremendous memory. He played tennis and swam well into his senior years, frequenting the Jewish Community Center pool.
In his Soviet life, he was a foreman at a construction site, overseeing buildings rise all over the Soviet Union. He met my grandmother in a hotel lobby of a business trip they were both on, though separately. She was married at the time and had a small daughter. That was 54 years ago. Together with my grandmother, they loved, raised, and nurtured two children. One of them was my mom.
My grandfather died last week, and I don’t know what to do with this death. I haven’t figured out a place to put it yet. We visited his grave after seven days, and I stared at the grassy patch of land which now envelops his mortal body. Is he there? No, of course not! He can’t possibly be in that dirt! That’s ludicrous. He’s my grandfather! I will come over to his house and he will offer me tea and start his line of questioning about how we’re doing. How am I? How are the girls? How is my husband? “Why aren’t you finishing your tea?” he’ll mumble, half-joking. “Just a waste of tea with you!” We’ll both smile.
No, he can’t really be in the ground, in this grassy field among Jewish tombstones. He doesn’t belong in this cemetery, where all my friends’ grandparents are buried, where I see familiar surnames everywhere I turn. Though at least he’d be in good company, I console myself.
How do we go on after a loved one dies? A question that surely has been asked before, millions of times, by other inconsolable granddaughters. Where do we put all the love that we had for them? Where does the love go? I sit in my kitchen with three different kinds of jam, all the love and no place to put either. Is there a Heaven? I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know. But if there is, I know my grandfather is there, hugging loved ones who have passed. Maybe he’s drinking tea with them, maybe even with jam. Maybe he won’t finish the last bit of tea, as I usually didn’t.