The sky was perfectly blue the day I stopped going to minyan to say kaddish for my daughter Shira.
It was a Tuesday toward the beginning of September, that first year after she died, and school had opened just the day before. My daughter Miriam was a senior in high school, and I had been thinking a great deal about how this was her last year at home. Andy and I had splurged on a car – my non-negotiable demand that it must have a manual transmission resulted in a Saab convertible, hugely fun to drive – and the day was flawless, blue and gold and green with tiny fluffs of white cotton clouds.
Miriam usually took the subway to school, but it was not a day to send her down into a hole in the ground. It was not a day to go sit in my shul’s dark wood-and-gilt sanctuary, race downstairs when my grief propelled me out, and then storm back up to mutter a lockjawed kaddish. No, it was a time to push the button that rolls the car top down, stomp on the gas, kick down the clutch, feel it engage, move the stick up and over and up again through the gears, race up the Henry Hudson Parkway, count the boats in the river, and glory despite everything in being alive.
I was playing hooky, and it felt good.
I had been saying kaddish for a long time, loathing every second of it, and there still were two months to go.
Although traditionally we mourn children for only 30 days, my rabbis, like most of their Conservative colleagues, suggest saying kaddish for 11 months and mourning for a full year, as we do for parents. For me this was irrelevant – my mourning never will end. Going into a room filled with people whom I often did not know or did not like to say words I do not mean did not help me much, but it was better than nothing, and so I did it every day.
In any case, as Miriam and I headed north on the parkway, past the Cloisters, next to the elegant sweep of the George Washington Bridge, through the tollbooths that go over Spuyten Duyvil, and then off the main road and through the neighborhood of huge old rambling slate-roofed houses to her school in the Riverdale section of the Bronx, I was thinking for once about life, not death. The trees had not begun yet to change color, but the anticipation of that burst into red and orange fire was in the air. The school buses were masses of yellow and the children in them were wearing new clothes and clutching new notebooks. The high schoolers were trying to look blasÃ©, but they could not quite pull it off, not yet, not that day, not the second day of school, although by the following week they would have perfected it.
I dropped Miriam off and then drove down the highway and over the bridge to New Jersey. The George Washington Bridge is beautiful; its lines soar up, swoop down and then up again, then go down, gently, onto the Palisades. The twin arches of the bridge remind me of the arch in a line drawing in one of my favorite children’s books, “The Amulet,” by E. Nesbit, one of Shaw’s Fabian friends. In that book, Anthea, the oldest of the children, puts her hand onto the amulet that grows into an arch that leads her to ancient Egypt. So the bridge always reminds me of the time when I was a child – before I had and then did not have my first child – and its oddly delicate beauty and clear majesty always captivate me.
When I pulled into the parking lot at The Jewish Standard, where I worked, WNYC, our public radio station, had a short piece of breaking news. There seemed to have been an accident. A small aircraft of some kind appeared to have collided with one of the World Trade Center towers. The station would keep us posted.
By the time I got upstairs – the office is on the second floor of a small building – both the tenor and the content of the news had changed. It was clear that something bad had happened, although we did not yet know how bad that something was. So we pulled out an ancient television, which occasionally could get a picture or sound, never both at the same time, put on the radio, and began to listen.
It was September 11, 2001.
As the news that would change so much of our lives began to unfold, I remember leaning up against a wall and shaking, my legs collapsing under me. Another plane hitting, one tower down, the next tower down, the looks on people’s faces as they ran, the soot, the sirens, the stories. The plane down in Pennsylvania, other planes rumored still to be in the air. The uncertainty. The rumors. The flames. The Pentagon.
I shook because I already had learned something that many other people were lucky enough not to know yet. Most of the time, the world goes exactly on its course, but occasionally it does not, and then it leaves disaster in its wake. Then we have to deal with both the disaster and the knowledge of exactly how fragile everything is, no matter how solid and secure it seems.
It had been nine months since Shira died. It was as if the world had been impregnated with evil when she was killed, as if her death opened a passage to some netherworld. It was as if she had been a canary and the world her coal mine.
I never went back to the daily minyan.