By Malkie Gordon Hirsch
“Always look on the bright side of death”
As Malvina tried massaging the knots that had formed throughout my neck and shoulders over the year and a half since I had seen her last, I received a phone call from one of the three sleepaway camps (yes, you read that correctly; I said three) my boys were attending for the summer.
I thought about the timing of it all—the irony in the fact that this phone call from the infirmary stating that my son’s eczema had flared up to the point that they wanted to have him seen by a doctor in the local hospital came during what was meant to be a relaxing hour of getting relief for my back wasn’t lost on me.
As I tried supplying answers to the camp nurse on his history and messaging some family members at the same time on a different phone, I requested a picture of the irritation site, the contact info for the counselor bringing him to the hospital, and tried remaining on the massage table, determined to have her smooth out old knots and hopefully tackle new ones that were forming as my 10-year-old was transported to a hospital in Wurtsboro.
As I waited for developments on my son reaching his destination and going through the possibilities of what I’d hear as he was seen by medical professionals, I thought about the fear and anxiety associated with the first-time events people go through.
I thought about how although we’ve been through a lot more than the majority of families, it’s a wonder that certain events can still surprise and worry us.
My reaction certainly isn’t the same as it would’ve been a few years ago (when I likely would have been freaking out over the phone, demanding answers immediately when there were none to give), but it brought me back to that familiar thought process I adopted during shivah.
I remember the feeling so vividly that when I visit other shivah homes, I always mention it to the various people who are sitting for their loved ones.
I understand that although a lot of people might have a different mindset, I still feel like it’s a healthy perspective to have, even though it might take awhile for your emotions to catch up to this type of logic.
I recall sitting at shivah and thinking about how I’ll never have to go through this again. Now, this isn’t to say that I won’t have other unfortunate events involving the death of close family members ever again. After all, death is a part of life and no one is immune.
All one can hope for is a life of love, a sense of completion, nachas from future generations, and the comfort in knowing that there was readiness as their life came to an end.
I could tell you for certain that the feeling in the shivah house of my 95-year-old grandmother had an entirely different vibe than the one for my 40-year-old husband. While it’s sad to lose anyone you love, it’s expected that eventually it’ll happen.
When a woman passes in her mid-nineties, one can feel the sense of satisfaction and comfort in knowing that the life lived was substantive and full. Not every loss is a tragedy.
With a man who passes suddenly in midlife, there can be that feeling of being robbed of time deserved and not fulfilled. There can be sadness and confusion. Regret for things not expressed or said. Unanswered questions. Unfulfilled promises. So much pain. Personal pain, confusion from children, family members, a sudden change in family dynamics that are out of your control. Then there’s the aftermath—the domino-effect challenges that come along with this new reality.
There are the open looks of horror from strangers in the grocery stores as you try doing the things you did before, desperately trying to hold onto some shred of normalcy from before this mess happened.
There is loss of social status, an identity crisis of sorts in not knowing any longer where you stand among the community you were happily a part of for so many years.
Being treated differently, being forgotten or avoided by your friends and your spouse’s friends that you had for years.
Being the object of pity from others. There’s much to adapt to. There’s much courage you have to find in yourself to walk out your door after being exposed to this, and keep trying to hold on to the life you once had and still want to maintain.
There’s so much newness and unfamiliarity to deal with that, in a strange way, it’s comforting to know that the feelings you had to battle through, the life circumstance and change you needed to adapt to have passed, and the silver lining is that the worst is over. I’ve faced the disaster, the greatest fear.
This is the hardest part; it’s agonizing, and I’m still here. It’s a sort of spiritual surrender. We walk around with an almost desperate will to live, to survive, that generates a chronic anxiety around all the “what ifs” that threaten our grand plans.
We resist the possibility that “something” could happen, while knowing deep down that it always could. We fight it, the reality of uncertainty, almost as though worrying will ward off the bad stuff. Then when it comes, and it’s real, there’s this unbelievability of it, all the stages of grief spinning in my psyche, followed by this odd feeling of “There, now it’s done.”
Once that’s done, you start to reacclimatize and rebuild. You eventually gain the ability to face the horrified looks from passersby by giving them a big smile and moving on with your day. (Well, at least that was my coping mechanism. I like to do the unexpected.)
The first time might feel odd but every subsequent time feels more and more like the life you once had.
The muscle memory of your days kick in and slowly you remember who you once were. Of course I got nervous when I received a phone call from my son’s summer camp reporting to me that he had a medical issue that needed immediate care.
But as we went through the steps of what to do, as I gave my insurance info repeatedly to several people, as I sat at my family’s July 4th barbecue, arguing with the pharmacy in Middletown, New York, that my son did have insurance coverage, then calling the insurance company to make the pharmacy process the order, I realized that the next time would be easier.
I’ve learned that life is like a gym. The first time I lifted the weights or used a muscle, it hurt and it felt almost impossible. But I kept going—I had to. And I got stronger, built stamina, even learned a rhythm and put on some music.
I’ve learned that I can find a silver lining in almost anything now. It’s already there waiting for me. It’s not denial or toxic positivity. It’s the intentional choice to use crisis as a catalyst for growth.
Malkie Gordon Hirsch is a native of the Five Towns community, a mom of 5, a writer, a social media influencer, veteran real estate agent, and runs a patisserie in Woodmere.