by Rita Plush (New York, NY)
People have surprised me since my son died—and not always in a good way. Some of those I thought would be there with a note, a call, a “How’re you doing?” have fallen by the wayside. Yet others I hardly knew have reached out in a most caring way. One such person called out, “Rita?” as I was leaving the synagogue one Saturday.
Never having spoken, I knew this man only by sight. And name, if I could ever recall it.
He told me he had read an article I wrote about my son’s death (such a terrible and final word) when I had volunteered as a phone friend to an elderly shut-in as a way of reaching out to someone instead of wallowing in my sorrow. The man offered his condolences. But I sensed in his manner, in his almost hesitant way of speaking, that there might be more on his mind. I waited a beat and he asked if I had a minute, or did I have to get going? I said I had time.
He shared that his father had died when he was five and a half, and his mother when he was 21.
“Everyone has their own grief,” I said. “That must have been very difficult for you.”
I wondered if this was going to be one of those conversations—if you can call it that—where people insist their grief is just like yours, or tell you about someone who has it worse than you (no one has it worse when you lose a child!). Or what you should be doing to get out of your funk.
But then, as if not to take anything away from my suffering, he said, “Losing a child is the greatest loss of all.” He was glad I had come to services and not stayed home brooding, grieving alone. It was important to get out, he said. To be with others, to socialize. “It’s key in the healing process.”
It’s also key in Jewish tradition to perform acts of kindness. The 12th-century sage Moses Maimonides wrote that by comforting mourners you fulfill the commandment to love your neighbor as yourself. My neighbor was doing just that.
“I hope you don’t think I’m preaching or telling you what to do,” he said. “I’m just passing on what worked for me.”
“Not at all,” I said, taken with his compassion.
There had been mentors, he said: a neighbor, an uncle, later on teachers, role models who shaped him and became important in his life. A job well done, I thought, considering how he had sought me out, a stranger, to comfort.
We stood there talking by the exit door but I don’t recall seeing anyone come or go, so absorbed I was in our exchange. And though he spoke more than I, it wasn’t a me, me, me assault. An us talk is what it was. One sufferer (he) trying to make another (me), feel better in the most sincere way.
How kind. How lovely. How a five-minute conversation, if it was that long, cut to the heart of things.
“You’re Sam, right?”
“Thank you, Sam.”
He reached out his hand to me. I could feel the slight damp. This had not been an easy talk for him. Then gently, almost shyly, as if the gesture might be too familiar, he drew me in. It did not occur to me then how much I disliked being touched by strange men. Perhaps because it was I who was the stranger, and he had welcomed me, as the Torah says one should. So that when he brought me closer and his cheek tapped mine, it seemed the most natural thing in the world. A complete understanding of what had passed between us.
Rita Plush is the author of the novels Lily Steps Out and Feminine Products, and the short story collection Alterations. She is the book reviewer for Fire Island News and teaches memoir at Queensborough Community College and the Fire Island School, Continuing Ed. Her stories and essays have been published in The Alaska Quarterly Review, MacGuffin, The Iconoclast, Art Times, The Sun, The Jewish Writing Project, The Jewish Literary Journal, Down in the Dirt, Potato Soup Journal, Flash Fiction Magazine, Backchannels, LochRaven, Kveller, Chicken Soup for the Soul, Broadkill Review, Avalon Literary Review, Jewish Week, and The Best of Potato Soup 2020.
If you’d like to read more about Rita and her work, visit her website: https://ritaplush.com