This week, two of my patients, each submerged in grief, told me of their recent loss of a son in the war. Each mother struggled to hold back her sobs. I listened. “Allow yourself to cry,” I said to each. And when each mother managed to compose herself, I asked, “Do you have other children?” Each nodded. “I hope they’ll be a comfort to you,” I said.
After these two encounters, I could understand why I focused more intently on the photo of my brother, which sits at home on my bedroom dresser. The photo was taken in 1943, soon after my brother enlisted in the Navy. He is in uniform. A faint smile appears on his face, as if he just realized something was funny. He is trim and fair-skinned. His light-brown hair is cut short, making him look even younger than he is. There is a hint of pride in his blue-gray eyes.
At seventeen, high school had become intolerable to him. In the Navy, he said, he could learn a trade, become an aviation mechanic, and also serve his country. When my parents refused to give their written approval for him to enlist, he flew into rages.
You can’t stop me,” he shouted. You think I’m still a child, but I’m not.”
“We’re not signing,” my father said.
“OK, refuse to sign” his voice boomed. “I’ll just forge your signature.”
My mother, embarrassed that the neighbors in the apartment house might hear his shouting, begged him to quiet down.
“Do you want all of Brooklyn to hear you?”
She pleaded with him. “Finish school. Wait a year before you enlist. Isn’t eighteen young enough to put your life in danger? Don’t do it, Nathan, we beg you.”
My father’s efforts to reason him into waiting likewise proved futile.
Four years younger than my brother, I listened to the arguments between him and my parents. Part of me agreed with my parents and part of me with my brother. He didn’t like academic study, so why should he be forced into it? On the other hand, I could imagine my parents worrying constantly about his safety and fearing the worst. But I kept silent. In the end, Nathan wore my parents down, and they signed the papers.
It was two years later that a letter came from the Navy Department saying my brother was missing in action. The date, February 15, 1945, is etched in my memory. I was not yet fifteen.
I came home from school that day to find my mother in a state of hysteria, the next-door neighbors trying to calm her. “Why did I let him go?” she screamed. “Why did I let him go?” Her face was contorted in pain and wet with tears. She made wild gestures with her arms and bit her lips until they bled. And when my father returned home that evening, he caved in under the news. For the first time, I saw my father weeping like a lost child. He held my mother in what seemed like an interminable embrace, as if his embrace could keep at bay the full impact of the tragedy. He looked strange, holding on to my mother, his body bent and shaking with sobs. “Sarah,” he said sobbing, “they’ll find him. You’ll see. Have hope.” And still holding her, he gently brushed aside the damp hairs that were covering her face. I had never seen before such chaos in people that I loved. I flung my arms around both and wept with them.
The aircraft carrier to which my brother was assigned was struck off the coast of Iwo Jima by a Japanese Kamakazi pilot who crashed his plane into the carrier, setting off fires and explosions. Nathan, we learned, was among those missing in this incident of war. Often, I wondered what my brother’s last moments were like. Was he overcome by fires that enveloped the ship? Did he perish in explosions set off by the attack? Did he jump overboard only to be strafed by enemy planes, or did he drown from exhaustion in a black and turbulent sea because there was no one to rescue him? My sorrow over the loss of my brother expressed itself in many dreams of my brother’s last moments. But that sorrow was compounded by the fact that gradually I also lost my mother.
My mother suffered from profound remorse as well as from overwhelming grief. “How could we have signed those papers?” she wailed. We must have lost our minds.” In her anguish, she blamed my father. “What kind of father allows such a thing to happen? What father wouldn’t put his foot down and show who’s boss in the house?” And then she mocked my father’s words. “‘We have to reason with him. We have to reason with him.’ That’s all you could say. Look where reasoning got us. Some father!”
My father didn’t defend himself. He didn’t return anger with anger. Instead, he looked at me with an expression of sadness that said, “It’s her black grief that is speaking.” My father now had to deal both with his own ‘black grief’ and my mother’s scorn and anger. My heart went out to him. I see him now as he was then, bent by sorrow but having the wisdom to know what to overlook.
I had thought that in her sorrow my mother would find some solace in me, her living son, that she would draw even closer to me, be more protective of me. But the opposite occurred. Her words to me became fewer. She might look at me for a moment, offer a sad smile, and then turn her eyes away. She seemed almost indifferent to my coming and going.
When I expressed my bewilderment to my father, he said, “We all grieve differently, Melvin.” And looking at me with a steady gaze, he said, “Mom acts differently toward me, too. Let’s hope time will soften her pain.” He talked about her pain. It was not his nature to talk about his own.
My mother declined into deeper and deeper melancholy. She lost all interest in food and neglected her appearance. She, who had been so proud of her appearance, sat for hours in some old housedress, ashen pale, her hair falling untidily about her. Her body seemed to shrink. Each passing day made her look older. She, who was active cooking and sewing and cleaning and helping this neighbor and that neighbor, just sat staring off into space. Or she would mutter, “My son, my son! Oh, my son, my son.” She became indifferent to the Jewish holidays and festivals—she, who had so strong a love of her Jewish faith.
On some days, she found the strength to do a simple household chore, or to cook a simple meal for me and my father, she herself eating little. Washing dishes at the kitchen sink after the meal, she would stop to remove a handkerchief from an apron pocket and dab the oncoming tears.
When in August 1945 servicemen from the European theater of action began to return home, and the sound of homecoming parties filled our apartment building and the street we lived on, the reality of her loss descended fully upon her. “If only it could have been me instead,” she moaned. “Why couldn’t it have been me?” I couldn’t bear to see her in such a despondent state. It tore my heart to hear her anguished voice.
She hardly slept at night. Sometimes, when I awoke to use the bathroom, I would see a light in the living room, and there she would be seated in an armchair staring into the distance, a shadow of herself. Did she go to bed at all that night? Did my father try to coax her back to bed only to fail? During the day, when I came home from school, I would see her dozing in the same living room armchair. In the classroom, I could be distracted a while from my sadness. At home, a gray cloud covered me.
When my mother stopped lighting candles on Sabbath eve, my father grew alarmed. For my father, it was a sign that her despondency had deepened. “She’s angry even at God,” he said to me. “She’s accusing Him.”
“What do you mean, Dad?”
“She feels God has been unjust, taking her son from her.”
“Do you think she’s right?”
He hesitated, and shaking his head he said, “No. The loss of Nathan is not God’s doing. Maybe God weeps with Mom, and with us, over Aaron… and over every person lost in war.” He turned away from me for a moment to hide a rush of strong feeling. “We’ll have to get Mom to a doctor,” he said.
It took a lot of persuading to get my mother to see Dr. Berman, our family doctor, and then to see a specialist. The latter diagnosed her condition as “clinical depression,” which made me realize my mother was not only grief-stricken; she was ill.
It mystified me and distressed me that the strong bond that previously existed between me and my mother seemed to vanish. She, who more than anything else loved to engage me in conversation, had little or nothing to say to me. It was as if we had no history together, for she treated me as if I were a stranger in the house. It was as if my being the living son had no importance to her. It was hard for me to believe that “clinical depression” could change a person so.
Before the heavy news struck, my mother was drawn strongly to my light, perhaps because it had more sunshine in it than that of my brother. As a youngster, I loved art and I loved to paint, and my mother used to watch me as I worked.
“What a beautiful bowl of fruit that is! What wonderful colors!”
“It’s a still-life. That’s what they call such a subject.”
“A still-life,” she repeated, “a strange name.”
I became my mother’s color consultant.
“Melvin, what color shall I make the slipcover for the living room couch?”
I reminded her of her favorite color. “Don’t you like beige?” I asked.
And when she had to dress up for some special event, a wedding or a bar mitzvah, she would say, “Melvin, do the colors I’m wearing go together?”
“Why don’t you ask Dad?”
“He’ll say it’s fine.”
“Well, I think he’s right.”
She could speak to me for hours about the small town of Stashov, Poland, where she was born and grew up.
“We lived upstairs in a lovely house owned by your great-grandparents. Our apartment had a balcony, and from it as a girl I could see our entire street, with its houses and shops and the synagogue on the corner.”
“You must have had girlfriends.”
“Oh, I had many. And in the summer we would swim in a nearby pond, or we picked blueberries—baskets of them—in the woods not far from where we lived.”
Sometimes, I would tease my mother. “But Mom, if it was so wonderful, why did you leave Stashov? Didn’t you say that Grandpa bought one-way tickets to America?”
“Well,” she mused, the spell of nostalgia fading. “Grandpa couldn’t make a living in Stashov.” And pausing to gather her thoughts, she added, “As Jewish people, we never felt secure in Stashov, or anywhere in Poland.”
“Does Nathan know about your life in Poland and about how Jews were treated there?”
“I think he knows a little,” she said, “but he doesn’t listen like you do. May God bless him,” she added. “Er loift… He’s always running. Still, he has a good heart, your brother.”
Such conversations with my mother were now a thing of the past. I couldn’t understand where all her interest in me went, all her affection, her steady stream of praise of me when she spoke to a neighbor or relative on the telephone. “Melvin is now editor of the school paper”… “Melvin has a leading role in a school play”… “Melvin’s teachers asked me why I even bothered to come to the Open School Day for Parents because he’s getting all A’s”… “Melvin wants to be a biologist or a doctor.”
Now she kept me at arm’s length. Coming home from school, I would try to tell her of this or that incident that amused me, the antics of fellow pupils or the eccentricities of a teacher, hoping to lift her spirits, to elicit a response that went beyond a word or two. But I could not reach her. She would look at me blankly, sometimes with the barest sad smile. She had the fewest words for me.
“Dad, she treats me like a stranger. I can’t stand it! It makes me feel terrible.” We were seated at the kitchen table. My mother was in the bedroom. My father listened to my words, his eyes directed at his folded hands.
“Look, I’m the son that’s still alive! You’d think that would help her. Doesn’t she care about me?” In my upset, I raised my voice, and my father had to quiet me down. Maybe I wanted my mother to hear me.
“Of course she cares. She loves you as she always has. But some people need more time to climb out of their sorrow. I told you what the doctor said. It’s not ordinary grief. Don’t draw away from her, Melvin. Be patient. Maybe the medication will help.” He put his arms around me. In a barely audible voice, he added, “It’s very hard for me also. In a way, I lost my partner too.”
Sharing his feelings with me made me feel better for a while. How fortunate I was in those days to have my patient, loving father, humble and wise. But soon enough, every time I looked at my mother, I felt a gnawing at my heart.
One late afternoon in October, my mother was sitting on one of the wooden kitchen chairs she herself had painted in the past with yellow enamel to match the yellow kitchen curtains. She held her left hand under her elbow and her right hand under her chin and looked blankly at the kitchen linoleum floor. I seemed invisible to her.
“We need milk and butter,” I said. “Is there anything else I should get for supper before Dad gets home from work?”
She scarcely moved, as if she didn’t hear me.
“Mom!” I said more loudly, more impatiently. “I want to do some shopping for supper. Will you listen to me? We all have to eat. I’m asking you, what shall we have for supper?”
It was plain that she was prepared to do even less this evening about supper than on other evenings. I waited for her to look at me, to speak directly to me, and then I lost whatever patience I had.
“Mom I can’t stand it,” I shouted. “You won’t even talk to me. Look at me, Mom—I’m still alive,” and I pounded my chest to prove it. “I’m your living son,” I shouted. “You can’t just ignore me. I want to help you. I want to be the son you loved, but you won’t let me.”
She let her right hand drop from under her chin. She turned to look at me, her eyes beginning to fill with tears.
“Supper?” she answered in a voice drained of feeling. “Buy some eggs, cottage cheese … some vegetables … the rolls that Dad likes.” A moment afterward, she added, “Thank you for shopping.”
She thanked me! That was a change. But after my outburst, I was plagued with guilt. How could I have shouted at someone whose grief was illness, someone who had showered me with love when she was well? Father had said again and again, “Be patient,” and that was exactly where I failed. I thought of apologizing, but something held me back. Maybe it was because I really meant the things I said when I was angry. So instead of apologizing, I did some extra chores around the house. I wouldn’t let her wash dishes for a couple of days. I vacuumed the carpet in the living room and washed the kitchen linoleum, which had been neglected. I even cleaned a few of the windows to let more light into the apartment, because she often said she liked the apartment mostly for its light.
Weeks passed. There were more visits to the doctor, a new medication substituted for the old one, and little change. Before the loss of Nathan, mother would often buy a large batch of lemon leaves or rhododendron leaves at the florist two streets away and place them in a basket on the floor of the living room. She said she loved the mass of green alongside the beige color in the living room. She said the leaves reminded her of the countryside near Stashov when she was a girl. But for months now the basket stood empty. One afternoon, after school let out, I bought a large batch of rhododendron leaves. I cut back the long stems and arranged them in a large water-filled container that I placed inside the basket. When she saw the leaves, I could detect a hint of pleasure in her expression. “You bought leaves,” she said. Just those three words—but they were like a gift. And then she added, “They’re pretty.”
But as late as February of 1946―one year after the dreadful news about my brother―my mother’s condition did not improve, despite changes in medication and more visits to the specialist. It was the specialist’s opinion that she needed to enter the hospital. She could get treatments there, he said, that might help her.
My father did his best to ease my fears―fears that the treatments might not help, that I would lose my mother as I knew her.
“I have confidence in the doctor,” he said. “We have to think positively.”
Knowing my dad, I can imagine today his struggle between anxiety and hope.
It would be some days, we were told, before a hospital room would become available for my mother. But when I suddenly became ill, she wanted to wait till I got better before entering the hospital. My illness started with a sore throat, a runny nose, and a persistent cough. On my father’s urging, I stayed home from school and got into bed. I could sense my mother’s concern about my condition. When she heard me in the midst of a coughing spasm, she came into my bedroom, said a few words about my needing to drink hot liquids, and returned with hot tea and lemon or a hot soup she managed to prepare. Sick as I was, this attention gave me a good feeling. Maybe these are signs of her improvement, I thought. Maybe she didn’t need to go to the hospital after all.
When my cough didn’t go away, when I became short of breath and had a fever of almost 105 degrees, I was the one taken by ambulance to the hospital―the Brooklyn Jewish Hospital, a short subway ride from my home.
My father took two days off from work and spent many hours with me in my hospital room. When he returned to work, he visited me each evening on his way home. “Your brother recovered from pneumonia when he was a youngster, Melvin. You’ll be fine! Thank God for antibiotics. When I was your age, these medications were not available.”
My father’s words made me recall my mother saying―more than once―that doctors and medical scientists were God’s representatives on earth. “Does Mom know that I’m getting better?” I asked.
“Yes. I wish you could see her face when I bring her good news each evening. She wants to visit you in the hospital. But I reminded her that the trip by subway, with all the stairs she’d have to climb and the icy conditions on the streets―all that would be too hard for her in her weakened state. When I told her there’s a good possibility you’ll be home for the Sabbath, that really made her smile. She said she wants to prepare a special Sabbath meal for you.”
My father’s words lifted my spirits. “Do you think Dad, that these are signs Mom is improving?”
He looked at me for a moment, said nothing, and then in his subdued voice, “We’ll have to see.” And again he repeated, “We’ll have to see.”