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Vertigo

The vertigo came early this year, catching her by surprise. She wasn’t expecting the a chiness in her bones and the swirl of her head until about a month later, when the actual anniversary was upon her But the moon’s cycles pulled her down like a tide. And one night she sat at dinner and suddenly felt dizzy.

Her first thought, as she gripped the edge of the table and watched the saltshaker spin, was that she might have a brain tumor, which would not be a pleasant matter ordinarily, but compared to the grief that had wracked her body and that was haunting her now like a lost limb, it would have been easier to face a more certain physical crisis. When she realized what was overtaking her, she understood from experience that for a while the world would be out of focus.

As she lay down with a cold washcloth across her forehead, she mused on the mysteries of the Jewish lunar calendar—the ever-shifting days giving no hint as to their arrival each year Yet Shabbat arrives every Friday and the seasons are defined by wonderful traditions—the Passover seder heralds spring and Hanukkah candles are designed to brighten the darkest days of winter. There is an ever-present rhythm that quietly leads to the next celebration.

She thought about how much she looked forward to Friday nights. She was able to arrange her work schedule so that she could leave early on Friday afternoons to pick up her girls so that together they shop for the chicken, challah, flowers and fruit for the table. And the three of them go home and she jiggles her younger daughter on her hip as they dance around the dining room table and they set out the tzedakah cup, the kiddush cup, the challah plate and the candlesticks – three sets, one for each of her two girls, and one for the baby boy, had he lived. Their dancing, too, is rhythmic, circular, and as they lay out each separate item for the Shabbat table, she always notices how it mimicks her daily life, compartmentalized pieces that come together to form a whole. If one ritual item is missing, it would not really be Shabbat.

But there is no preparation for the arrival of yahrzheit—the anniversary of death. It approaches differently, it sneaks up on a person more quietly. Its timing is unclear from year to year. And while it does not fall on the modern anniversary date of the passing, the moon pulls your body in and you can sense it coming, in an ancient atavistic way.

Two years ago at this time she was in bed, cross-stitching the baby’s name. They hadn’t told anyone any of their children’s names before they were born, so this felt like tempting fate, but the nurses in the hospital were so engaged in her life and this baby that she felt at liberty to tell them, as if it could possibly tempt the fates because none of this could possibly be real anyway. The water breaking at 27 weeks, the bed rest, the bedpans, the hospital, the boredom, terror and finally, the zen sense of complacency.

Her friends called and came to visit religiously, her husband and her older daughter…back when she was the oldest and only child and couldn’t wait for the baby to arrive…came several times a week, bringing her newspapers and magazines and mail and gossip from school and the neighborhood. Her favorite times were when they had just left, although she loved to see them, as she was relieved that there was quiet again and she had a stack of newspapers and crossword puzzles that would sustain her for at least a day. She vowed not to turn on the television until the evenings so that its soporific qualities would not force her into a nap during the day—she wouldn’t sleep well at night if that happened.

There is no good sleep to be had this night either Her younger daughter cries out, and she tiptoes into her room at three AM to check on hen She never goes back to sleep. Tossing and turning, she feels the familiar phantom cramps on her lower left side, as she had in every pregnancy. Her demons circle around her head, projecting snapshots of the tiny casket, the cold rainy day, her mother’s arms resting on her shoulders as the rabbi invoked the kaddish. She shivers in her bed, reminded of the sweaty nights of half sleep where she couldn’t shake the vision of her baby being cold, so cold, underground.

When the dawn breaks, she is curled up under the covers, cheeks tear-stained and breathing heavily. Her husband lumbers out of bed, unaware of the long night behind her. She rolls over and blinks, not sure if she can actually pull out of bed and into the day ahead. She notices that even after two years, her first few minutes out of bed are difficult, her ankles and joints not quite limber enough to hold her weight. When she first got up from her two months of bed rest, when they were trying to induce labor, finally, and get the baby out, her legs crumbled underneath her, the strength had been so sapped from her body.

The alarm clock rings, snapping her out of the fog of the night before. She knows that within five minutes, her body will lurch into auto drive, and she will get the girls up, fix breakfasts and lunches and get everyone out the door on time. It isn’t her home life, where every second is accounted for, that suffered from this now-annual Juggernaut. It is at the office, where she is, ironically, more in control of her time, that she has less control over her body and its almost spastic response to the anniversary. She knows that she will be unable to focus clearly on anything, and even though there are projects to complete and staff to manage, she will need to close her office door and give in to the shivers that will accompany the dizziness, both taking up residence in her body.

He would have been two years old. Sometimes, when she walks past the playground on her way home from work, she sees the neighbor from around the comer who had had a baby at the same time. She watches the little boy toddling up the jungle gym and down the slide. It was harder before she had the third child, her little girl, who now devours all her air and breath and time and fills up empty spaces with her enormous presence. But sometimes passing the playground makes her shake inside. She’ll hear the little boy’s squeals as he slides down the slide, and all she can think is that his lungs are healthy, he can breathe. They thought that their baby could breathe too, once he was delivered. Her fluid had been low, but never too low, and since his heartbeat had been so very strong, everyone held out the hope that he would be fine. No, it wasn’t even hope. It was a quiet assurance—the doctor and the nurses all felt that he was certainly a keeper. And then he was born, and for the first hour, everything was perfect. He was out, he was breathing, and she was allowed to sit up again for the first time in two months. Then, dizzyingly, he was in the neo-natal ICU, he was being rushed in the middle of the night to the children’s hospital so that he could be placed on a special heart and lung machine and then they were standing next to his little head, which was swollen and red from all the medicine, hearing the doctor say that there was no chance, there was a bleed and he had to be removed from the machine, the god-like machine that had been helping him breathe just a few days more, please just a few days more so that his lungs could develop and work on their own but no, he had to be taken off the machine and then he died. In their arms. He was five days old. It was the first time she had held him since he was born.  

Two years later, she can still feel how her own lungs constricted when she first laid eyes on the baby casket as it lifted out of the hearse at the cemetery. And thinking about how cold he was going to be underground. The thought kept her up for days. And finally, letting go of it, of him, she was his mother but she couldn’t protect him from the cold, she would just have to find a way to live with that for the rest of her life. It has been this, this act of keeping his brief life in her heart and mind that has transformed her spiritually.

This morning, however, spirituality is not on her menu. She has a big presentation at work, one that she and her staff have worked on for weeks. Once she arrives at the office, she settles into her morning routine, the minutes tick by, one o’clock comes and goes, and despite her lack of lucidity, the meeting goes well. She has the luxury now of two weeks on the horizon without any projects that demand a public appearance. Good. She thinks that maybe by then the fog will blow out to sea.

Sometimes she misses the cocoon-like warmth of the hospital room. It’s a bittersweet memory, for as certainly as she never wants to be confined again, she also remembers the innocence of those months. Before she knew what it was like to sleepwalk during the day. To bury a child. To be the bereaved. Sometimes she misses those early days of mourning. When it was okay to be completely wrapped up in the sensations of loss. Today, sitting at a conference table, it’s no longer publicly acceptable to be dwelling on the past. But her body tells her otherwise, the lure of the tide is too strong. She realizes that the challenge is to learn how to mimic living a quotidian life knowing that your life is anything but, and that you will never again be able to walk down the street without the searing memory of pain.

Everyone has left the conference room. Alone again, the memories are flooding faster. She tries to catch her breath, to find a center in her dizziness. She grabs onto the back of a chair and takes several deep breaths. She needs to get out of the office, to feel the physical touch of external elements, of sunshine, of children.

She drags her meeting paraphernalia back to her office, dashes off a quick congratulatory e-mail to her staff and tells them that she has a family emergency and will be out for the rest of the day. She walks to her car, gets in, and tries to decide where to go. The cemetery is too intangible, a surprise visit to her husband too laden with a minefield of miscommunication. She realizes that she wants to go back to the hospital, to see babies in the nursery, to be reminded that in the real world, most babies are born and are healthy and happy. In the surreal world of neonatal loss, you walk into a support group room and it feels like nothing can ever be whole again because all you can hear and know and taste in that room is babies and death. That’s not what she wants to feel today, not even as her body is betraying her and reminding her with every step that her life is now defined by loss.

She arrives at the hospital and as the sliding doors open, she inhales its sterility and the too-familiar scent of clean linens. She reaches the third floor and walks over to the nursery window, where her daughter would always run first “to see the babies” when they would visit her, and she peeks in. Today, there are no babies. With no new life inside, the nursery looks desolate. She can feel the disappointment and utter fatigue curling their way up her body.

The nurse who had changed her sheets every day for seven weeks spies her, and cocks her head at her, as if to search for an alternate meaning. Then the nurse obviously remembers, and horrifyingly, walks over to her, and she knows that the question is coming because it is clear from the nurse’s expansive smile that she had never learned what had happened.

“How’s my baby?!,” the nurse booms. Her heart lurches, she paints the sad smile that has become so familiar and says, shaking her head, “He didn’t make it.” The nurse, well-trained, clucks her teeth and offers her condolences, two years too late, and continues on her rounds. She stands with the sad smile frozen on her face, and then turns to leave.

It takes a while for the smile to come unglued, and for her jaw to stop aching. As she drives home, she is not sure she can face the burden of an evening at home, with its noise and its simple but exhausting routine. As she puts her key in the lock, she hears the girls’ laughter out in the back and her husband in the kitchen beginning to prepare dinner. And then she sees the candle.

The yahrzheit candle has been placed in the middle of the dining room table and is already lit, defiantly, as the sun has not yet set. It flickers as she opens the front door and a slight breeze circles the room, like a spirit. At that moment she realizes that her husband, too, must be remembering, even though they hadn’t discussed it, even though the date on calendar doesn’t match the date in their hearts and minds. Perhaps he noticed that she was frenzied, out of sorts. Or maybe it was a just a date he marked in his book. She can imagine him, many months earlier, looking up the yahrzheit date on the perpetual calendar given to them by the funeral home, marking it in his own calendar with his precise handwriting. And then opening the book this week to discover that they needed a candle. No physical aches to remind him. No phantom pain. Just an otherwise unremarkable day made remarkable by a memory.

She sinks into the easy chair, and focuses on the flame. She quietly realizes that her body had not been betraying her today after all. It was, in fact, offering her an opportunity to feel and remember. Yarzheit—a chance to mourn, but also a chance to heal. This chance, this experience, she thinks, will come every year It has a purpose. Its rhythm is circular, like her daughters’ dancing, like the waxing of the moon.

She watches as the short wick sends sparks from the high flame into the air above, how it dances, and how it connects her to her past and her future. And she rises to greet her family and the evening’s blessings.

Karen Paul-Stern grew up in Brooklyn and now lives In Takoma Park, MD. She is a consultant to non-profit organizations, a writer, and mother of three. This story won Lilith’s annual fiction contest.