The summer my grandmother died, I remember her houseplants of all things, houseplants I had never consciously noticed before then, but now they stood out because in the shock and confusion, no one was watering them, and they slowly wilted, turned brown, and died apparently as a gesture of solidarity with the one who had tended to them for the previous decades. It felt to me at that time a profound undoing which seemed appropriate to the experience of losing someone. It never occurred to me to water the plants. Something in me was wilting as well.
We scattered Grandma’s ashes on top of the big mountain in Tucson, and I sang a few lines from the high holiday liturgy that I had learned while singing in the synagogue choir. Adam yesodo me’afar, u’ve’sofo ve’sofo le’afar – a human’s origin comes from dust, and a human’s end is to return to dust. And then she was gone, traveling the winds to the four corners of the earth.
Love is strong as death, it says in the Song of Songs. But what does that mean? Some translations render “strong” as “fierce” instead: love is as fierce as death. Perhaps all-consuming, perhaps ultimate, perhaps a complete mystery we don’t understand… until we do. When love encounters death, how do we keep going? When our loved ones are gone, what is left of love?
Memory is how we practice love after someone dies. We retell stories, revisit past experiences, live out lessons our loved ones taught us or modeled for us. But there are limits to memory. The poet Marge Piercy writes about how “all those memories I never got to catch / and keep vanished to dust motes floating / in a skein of silver moonlight and gone.” Sometimes our memories fail us.
Death is strong, but love holds its own. My other set of grandparents died when I was about two years old. I have no conscious memories of them. I do have stories told about them, second-hand memories, but what I’ve learned to trust is that although my mind does not remember them, my body still recalls that I was once held in their arms. An invisible embrace still encircles me. Even beyond memory, we still love and are beloved.
The Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai once claimed that Death is God and change is His prophet, but then reversed himself and said Change is God and death is His prophet. The secret strength of death is transformation. Death is a great unknown, a wiping away of detail, an undoing of our specificity, as the peculiar ways we are ordered and eccentric dissolve into tohu vavohu, not chaos but undifferentiated matter and energy, back into the abstract. When we die, it seems to me, we fade back into the general love that underwrites the universe, and once again our atoms and our energy will re-emerge into ever new forms of specificity.
Leonard Cohen, that great poet of love and death, once sang, “We are so lightly here. It is in love that we are made. In love we disappear.” In other words, we come from love, and we’ll eventually return back to the great love, and here we are in this sometimes wonderful and sometimes wild and often worrying in-between space we call life. When we die, I believe we will encounter love as a fact. While we are here, I believe love is a choice.
It was 6:38 pm. Night had fallen, although I couldn’t tell from inside our hospital room. At 6:38 pm, my life changed, as my son Ami entered the world with a brief squawk and a lot of cute confusion. When people talk about love, some of the fiercest and deepest relationships they imagine are those of parents for their children. But at 6:38 pm, I don’t know that I could pinpoint among my many emotions the one I think of as love. What was instantly clear the second he was in my arms was that I was obligated to him, I was going to take care of him, and I was going to devote my service to him. But love? The bubbly, affectionate, irresistible attraction to someone dear? I’m not sure I felt that specifically for Ami that night. He was just a strange little creature that apparently I and my wife Laura were responsible for.
The truth is, love doesn’t just happen, like a light switch turned on. It isn’t a fact. It is a choice. Love grows. Like a seed planted, it won’t grow overnight, but with the right combination of active watering and the patient presence of sunshine, one day the invisible seed sprouts into your awareness, and then you feel the love that has been there all along. What I did feel at 6:38 pm was a general, all-encompassing sense of love. Love for the body and what it can do, love for life, love for the expertise of professionals who help birth new life safely, love for love itself. A love that wasn’t directed towards anything in particular because it was directed towards everything. What I thought I would feel was a specific love, love for Ami, but that would only emerge over time.
Love for someone is specific. An amusing facial expression, a first word, a memory of a baby falling on his head and rushing to pick him up and sing him his favorite song (or more likely your favorite song because you don’t know his yet). Love is specific – love doesn’t just happen in a moment, but in moment after moment after moment. Love is what grows naturally when we pay attention over time. Love resides in knowing specific details, and in remembering specific moments. So of course I didn’t feel specific love when I first laid eyes on Ami.
Love at first sight must be an illusion. We had to grow our relationship first. We have to choose to relate in order to love, not to feel love or fall in love in order to choose to relate. Every day (and all too many nights) I got to learn my little one, to observe his particular and specific Ami-ness, and to feel him starting to learn his parents and our quirks. That’s how you water love – notice each other. Not just the person you want to see (or the person you are afraid you’re seeing), but the person who is actually there. As poet Marge Piercy says, “It’s a job of heavy excavation / even to see each other clearly” – to practice love means to take on hard work as well as delight and joy. Love is gritty, defined by Angela Duckworth as passion and persistence over time. Choose love. See your beloved, in all their imperfect particularity. Choose love. Witness and wonder and welcome and whisper it every chance you get, while you still can.
On Yom Kippur, love and death intertwine as our teachers. The white clothing of this day is associated with the kittel, a white robe traditionally worn on one’s wedding day, and also traditionally what one wears after dying, when placed in the coffin. Love, death, new beginnings, looking at our life with the end in mind, recalling what really matters, repairing relationships, and returning, making teshuva. Love and death are linked with strength in the Song of Songs, but on Yom Kippur, they are linked with a softening, a lessening, a letting go. When we fast, we try to detach ourselves from food, money, sex, even hygiene. We feel our body getting weaker throughout the day.
As our bodies wilt, we hear the hauntingly hopeful words that teshuva – return; tefillah – prayer; and tzedakah – charity, will help us navigate our confrontation with mortality. Rabbi Lawrence Kushner explains how each of these three practices works: “Teshuva…is returning to God. This, our tradition tells us, may be effectuated through apology, remorse, or restitution, but it always requires a diminution of one’s ego and its conquests. Every “return” makes us less….By confessing our shortcomings, our inadequacies, our arrogance, our self-righteousness, we take up less space. Our egos are smaller. …
“With tefillah, prayer, there is a similar self-diminution. In any genuine prayer, we give our selves back to our Source in the Holy One. As Abraham Heschel put it so poetically, “To worship God is to forget the self… In prayer we shift the center of living from self-consciousness to self-surrender” (Man’s Quest for God, p. Xiii, 7). …
“Tzedaka, charity, of course, is the easiest. It is the tangible giving away of one’s money, skill, and time – in a word, one’s very substance. ….All three [of these practices] share this common denominator of a loss of self … a voluntary, loving lessening of our selves.” (“Death without dying” in I’m God; You’re Not, p. 211).
If we were to truly follow these practices as Kushner describes them, by the time we faced death ourselves, we would simply have less to fear – having already let go of so many of the attachments that come from craving and grasping. What is fear of death if not fear of loss? What we possess will pass. The sages in Pirkei Avot once thought (5:16), “All love that depends on something, [when the] thing ceases, [the] love ceases; and [all love] that does not depend on anything, will never cease.” What we possess is not forever, but love as a quality of presence, as an active practice, as an expression of faith, as an experience of deep connection, will persevere.
Love is often tied to what is and what is becoming, as we tend to the garden with kind attention. But love is also an oceanic current of the eternal. It sweeps us along in those rare moments when our love is unattached to anything in particular, yet marvelously real. Our task is to love with bifocals, open to this general love that is the ground of the universe, and attentive to the specific love that sees a beloved in all their particularities. Our task is to love as we grow, and to love as we let go.
Once, it didn’t occur to me to water a dying houseplant, so caught up was I in the disorientation of grief. I thought that it was evidence of a world coming undone, a proper disaster, a symbol of the futility of love. But now, I have my own houseplants. And when I water them, I sometimes think of my grandmother, and in that funny way the universe works, Yom Kippur visits me no matter what day of the year it is, and confides to me its open secret: that death is real, change is hard, and loss is worth grieving; but love is the strongest thing the world has ever seen.