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The Death of the Subjunctive

October 30, 2012

Sitting at the kitchen table and swinging my legs, I watched my dad’s face crumple into a kind of agonized smile.  The corners of his mouth turned up when he cried, making him look like a harlequin doll, grinning, though tears slid down his face.  My younger sister and I had never seen him cry before, and we watched him with utter fascination, cooing over him, snickering, and feeding him little sips of orange juice.  The orange juice seemed to help.

My mom’s crying was much more continuous, red-faced, and Kleenex-dependent than my dad’s short, unexpected bursts.  We had a more difficult time cheering her up than we did my dad.  When we hugged her, she pulled us tightly against her, but the tears continued to fall.

As for our own crying, mine and my sister’s, it was not always easy to pull it off.  Every now and then, I could force a tear or two.  At the funeral, I managed a few, but I was no match for the streaming gasps coming from my aunt.  My sister did not seem to cry at all, which made me feel superior at least to her.

When the rabbi stopped by our house to visit with my parents, they met with him in the kitchen, and I crouched behind the tall, white counter so that I could listen.  He said, “I wish that there were something that I could say to make this pain go away for you.”

Sitting on the kitchen floor listening to him as I thumbed through a pile of old photographs, I decided that he was very stupid.  Why would someone waste a wish on something as unhelpful as that?  To make my parents’ pain go away?  That was the equivalent of wishing that you had the first aid skills to make a plaster cast for a newly broken leg, rather than just wishing that you had never broken the leg in the first place.  Clearly this rabbi did not know the proper and efficient way to make a wish.

Rabbi, I thought to myself.  I’ll one-up you.  I don’t just wish that my parents’ pain would go away because that’s clearly not happening given the current circumstances.  Instead, I wish that he had never died in the first place.  I wish I were able to bring him back from the dead.  And anyone wishing for anything less than that in this situation is not doing anyone any favors.

I was eight years old when my little brother died.  It happened in October of my third grade year, a few days before Halloween.  Though my mom normally sewed our Halloween costumes, I had to go as a ghost that year with just a sheet draped over my head because my mom did not feel like sewing after it happened.  I didn’t mind, really.  I enjoyed jumping out of the bushes and scaring people as they opened their doors with large bowls of candy.  In fact, my sister and I both agreed it was perhaps the best Halloween we could remember.

After his funeral, I did not cry much for my little brother.  I watched the adults cry, as they continued to do long after the fact, and I kept repeating my wish, the one which was much smarter and much more efficient than the rabbi’s.  Standing with my sister in front of our bedroom window, which gave us an unobstructed view of the night sky, I would say out loud, “I wish David were alive, and I wish I were able to have all the Pound Puppies in the world.”  For several years after he died, saying aloud the words, “I wish David were alive” was an incantation which I thought might actually work.

Children and adults, as I learned, experience grief differently.  My sister and I were still thinking magically when he died.  When you still believe that the verdict of death can be reversed, death does not seem particularly sad.  I could still picture David’s strong, chubby legs from when he stood up for the first time.  I had one of his onesies to carry with me to school.  It seemed as if he might be back anytime soon.

My parents did not believe in magic.  Dead was dead, and they had lost a son.  They did no wishing after David’s death.  Instead, they cried helplessly because of the utter senselessness of it and because of their powerlessness to change it.  Ultimately, the rabbi’s wish about their pain was as naive as mine had been.

For me, David’s death was a magical event which could be wished away.  If I performed all of the right spells in the correct order on the proper day, he would come back to us.  However, with my childish sense that I potentially had the power to bring back the dead came a certain anxiety.  What if I were unable to pull it off?  And worse, what if the lives of all of my loved ones were in my hands, controlled by my ability to think up the proper lifesaving spells?

For years after David’s death, well into my adulthood, I would sometimes be unable to fall asleep at night for fear that if I stopped thinking about the safety of my family for even a minute, the plug would be pulled on someone.  I dreaded a midnight phone call.

It wasn’t until my grandpa died a few years ago that I was able to get my head on straight about death.  He was a good, good man, and he died well.  In fact, he died beautifully.  He was old and in failing health.  He wanted to die.  Not in a negative, tired-of-life kind of way, but in a I’ve-lived-a-good-life-and-am-now-ready-to-go-to-God-because-it’s-my-time kind of way.  He died with his daughters on either side of him.  He died after having told each of his grandkids how much he loved us.  He died with a picture of his beloved late wife on the table next to him and with the unshaken belief that he was in God’s hands.

The funeral was small, but was attended by people who truly loved him.  There were no false or empty words said at that funeral.  People affirmed what had been a beautiful, purposeful life.  As a family, we got along better than we ever do.  We were all reflecting on what we could do to be more like him.

As with my brother’s funeral, I did not cry much.  As they were interring his body inside the mausoleum, I walked to a window so I wouldn’t have to watch.  I looked outside and saw leaves on a nearby bush fluttering in the wind.  I stared at them and thought of him and smiled as I cried.

Soon after the funeral, I had a dream about him.  I could hear his voice, just as it had always sounded, asking me about school and cracking a gentle joke.  The resemblance to an actual conversation that I might have had with him was uncanny.  Sometimes, when I sing or pray, I think of him.  I do get the sense that he is there with me.

My new secret to grief and to thinking about death is to get rid of the subjunctive entirely when I think about it.  The verb tense required is too strange and hard to follow, to the point where I don’t really know what I’m wishing for.  When I wished fervently to the stars about my brother, I would say, “I wish he were alive.”  But “were” is a past tense verb.  What if the subjunctive doesn’t translate when it comes to spiritual matters, like bringing back the dead?  Wishing that he were alive is wishing for the status quo–because he used to be alive.

But worse than the strange verb tense is the sense that something said in the subjunctive is far away and unattainable.  Instead of wishing for that which I can’t have, I have been trying to look at what I can and already do have.

When I think of my grandpa, I never think, “I wish he were here.”  Instead, I think, “He is here.”  And when I do this, it’s hard to explain, but I have no doubt in my mind that he is.

  1. I enjoy reading this, as hard as it is. It’s a good story and self-reflection.

    • Thank you. It’s definitely a story that changes shape as I get older and reflect more.

      • You can see that in the story. The story changes shape from beginning to end. From the light narrative of boyhood memories to the heavy realization that subjunctive doesn’t translate across that divide of death, the story grows. I was struck; still am.

  2. Thank you! Make that girlhood memories. 🙂 I really appreciate the feedback.

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