Last Shabbat, we marked the death of our daughter Shira Palmer-Sherman, who died at 20, run over by a bad driver in the twilight drizzle of late December in Harvard Square, 22 years ago.
That sounds stark, doesn’t it? And it should. And this will not be a lemonade-from-lemons column.
But my husband, Andy Sherman, our daughter Miriam, and I have learned a great deal in the decades since Shira died, and while the cost was infinitely, unspeakably too high, the lessons still are worth learning and repeating.
The most important thing we learned — and yes, we had known it before — is the importance of community. Family, friends, neighbors, members of our shul all surrounded us so tightly that we couldn’t fall. There was no room to fall. They held us upright.
We learned that moving forward is not optional. There is no other direction available. Either you move forward or — well, you move forward. The only choice is whether you attempt to do it with any grace. Whether you are willling to try to fake some equanimity until you feel it at least occasionally.
Last Shabbat, with many of our friends gathered around us once again, we listened to Shira’s best friend, Dr. Naamit Kurshan Gerber, give a talk she called “The Two Deborahs.” We’d had a speaker at our shul, Congregation B’nai Jeshurun on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, on the afternoon of Shabbat Bo — the Shabbat before Shabbat Shira, which not only gave Shira her name but was the Shabbat closest to her birthday the year she became bat mitzvah — for many years. This talk had been scheduled for 20 years after Shira’s death, but then covid and many more deaths intervened.
This year, once again, it was safe to meet in person.
Naamit, whom we have known since she was 11, is a radiation oncologist with spectacular credentials. Given those credentials, we knew that she’d give a good drash — and her sister, Ilana Kurshan, had spoken in Shira’s memory a few years ago, when her book “If the Seas Were Ink,” had just come out — but we had no idea she’d be as good a speaker as she is — warm, composed, self-confident, completely engaging.
One of the two biblical Deborahs she discussed is the famous one, the prophet; the other is Rebecca’s nursemaid, whose death is noted in the Bible, as few women’s deaths are. After going through some of the reasons commentators gave for the nursemaid’s death being mentioned — surely she’s a stand-in for someone more important, one of them said — Naamit brought together the prophet and the caregiver.
As she did, not only did she weave Shira into her talk, she also talked about the vital importance of caregivers. In her work, she said, she is struck by the quality of care that nurses and technicians give, and how they make getting radiation, an unavoidably unpleasant situation, as easy as it can be by providing patients with care, kindness, attention, and love.
Naamit also talked about grief as trauma, about how it can live in the body as a familiar until something else makes its alien presence obvious. She talked about how a patient who had recovered from breast cancer, chemo, and radiation had gotten covid, and how the rash that often is a radiation side effect recurred in her patient. It looked like a radiation rash, Naamit said, and it was in exactly the place, and of exactly the same size and shape. She said that a paper in a medical journal reported the same phenomenon.
The body remembers.
And then she read a poem by her oldest child, named Shira after Shira, who wrote about the beauty and power of her name, and of the young woman she’d never known who carried it before she did, and whose memory she helps keep alive. It was stunning.
Given all that, given the grimness of the traumas so many of us have endured, the increase of antisemitism, including the attack on Ner Tamid in Bloomfield — we are so grateful for the incompetence of the attacker, all dressed up in his absurd big-boy get-up, brave little man — the divisive rage palpable all around us, the dangerous situation in Israel, it is good to know that there is great goodness in the world as well.
Memory and hope and love can outlive us. And we remember.