So Long as We Can Say “This is the Worst”

Death, pain, and then a love letter

Shadows in Winter by Eitan Fishbane (Syracuse University Press, 2011) is a compelling, lyrical and honest look into what happens when the worst occurs. In 2007, Fishbane’s wife, Leah — graduate student in Jewish history, mother to their four-year-old girl, Aderet, and two months pregnant — discovered a previously undiagnosed brain tumor and died two days later.

Fishbane, a professor in Jewish thought at the Jewish Theological Seminary, has crafted a beautiful memoir of his tragic experience, but also of his own life, his late wife’s and his daughter’s.

“We build our lives knowing that things will end,” Fishbane writes, “that they may end suddenly and harshly…. But who really believes that it will happen? Careers, homes, marriages — we enter into their shelter, never quite accepting how fragile they really are. Like bridges that are constructed over rivers, or the towers that stand above cities, not until the moment of their sudden collapse is it ever imaginable.”

Whereas Leon Wieseltier’s Kaddish relies on scholarly and religious sources to build a scaffolding around his sorrow at the loss of his father, Fishbane opts instead to lay his heart bare in the hands of his reader.

Fishbane frees himself on the page to express the thoughts mourners usually have alone in the dark of night: “The truth is my mind keeps returning to the image of her six feet beneath the earth’s surface.” “At a deep level, I cannot really separate her identity from mine.”

The pain Fishbane writes of is awful, unbearable — and yet, the book is also a love letter to love and a tribute to its power.

Jordana Horn is a lawyer, mother and writer working on her first novel.