In these dismal days since my wife’s death on September 23, shortly before Rosh Hashanah 5776, I am still unable to face the reality of death. It is a permanent separation from beloved ones never to be seen again.
I do not accept the naivete of well-meaning people who assure me that I will be reunited with them in a heaven that none of the living have seen. For some, it may be a reassuring belief and comfort that death is not a finality, but only a temporary separation.
If, at some future unknown date, my soul were to ascend into the heavens, would I rejoin my 8-week-old sister who died in 1935, or my 3-week-old brother, who followed her in 1936? Would they be clothed in diapers, unable to crawl, sit or babble? Would I rejoin my very beloved grandfather, Moshe Zvi Kravetzky-Winer, and would he embrace me, kiss me many times, and sing to me the Yiddish melodies that he sang to me in his life on earth?
Would I be chastised by my mother for not scrubbing behind my ears and for biting my fingernails, or by my father, who would again remind me to recite the Shema at the proper time?
And closest to my heart, would I be able to embrace and kiss my darling wife, who, in her last days on earth, repeatedly told me, “Thank you for all that you do for me; thank you for taking such good care of me”?
Glory to those who think that all is possible. I admire their steadfast clinging to myths passed down through the ages. But it is time to realize that death is death. It is the end of life as we know it, and all that remains are the multitude of memories that we cherish.
Talking to pictures helps to preserve my sanity, especially the pictures of my grandfather and my wife, the two most endearing people in my life.
Opposite one wall, on which hangs the illuminated parchment scroll, the megillat ha-yuchasin, the genealogy of my maternal family from 1727, surrounded by paintings and gigantic family portraits, is a table covered from one end to another with framed family photos. I take them in hand, one by one, and I talk to each one.
To my grandfather’s picture, I talk in Yiddish. To my wife’s pictures, I talk in Hebrew. They cannot hear me. They do not hear my sobs nor see my tears flowing down my cheeks. But as I kiss them through the glass of the frame, I pour out my heart, my aching and broken heart, and repeat the words of love that I had spoken when they were in the land of the living.
I know full well that we will never meet again, that the only heaven we knew and know is the joyous heaven in which we spent many years together on earth. But talking to their pictures is an important part of my self-therapy, of my realization that their memories will be cherished for eternity as long as there is breath within my body. Even greater is my realization that they will live on in the memories of my children and grandchildren, memories which are locked away and safely preserved in their hearts.
I cannot pass on to them memories of Bialystok and Grodno Guberniya, places I have never known with my eyes, but only with the stories and oft-repeated tales by family in my childhood.
My two older children are pragmatists. Realists active in the medical world. They do not talk to pictures. But my youngest daughter, a scholar of the law, shares my sentimentality. Particularly on Erev Shabbat, when she kindles the candles and recites the blessings, her eyes gaze upon her mother’s photo on the table and her tears, mingled with my own, begin to flow. She too takes the photo in her hands and kisses it lovingly. And she too finds some comfort in talking to pictures of her late mother.
We can never meet in some unknown paradise reserved for the saints, the tzadikim, who once lived.
But we can look and hold in tight embrace the faces of those whom we loved in life and continue to love in their deaths.