In Death’s Dominion
I am writing this by the bedside of my ninety-eight-year old mother, watching the life forces slowly ebb. It is a strange privilege, the fear of the inevitable and the sorrow of anticipated loss mingled with gratitude for so many years of presence and a minimum of pain in this twilight time. On the table beside the hospital bed on which Mom lies, rests Eitan Fishbane’s Shadows in Winter: a Memoir of Love and Loss. Eitan is my nephew and Mom’s grandson. In 2007, his wife, Leah, was two months pregnant when she died suddenly at the age of thirty-two of an undetected brain tumor, leaving her husband and a four-year-old daughter. I am sojourning in death’s dominion, witnessing the gently accompanied decline into that good night of a woman crowned with decades of full living—a long (yes! happy) marriage and all the pleasures and pains of nurturing three generations of family, of reaping some professional achievement (rather unusual for immigrant women of her generation), of cultivating the smooth surfaces while struggling with the gritty layers—while I leaf gingerly through a journal of the precipitous descent of a woman who died on the cusp of life’s promise.
Leah Fishbane: the sprite of our family, the radiant presence who greeted you at the doorway—her own, her in-laws’—as if your entry into that portal was the most important event in her day. Yes, the dead are eulogized; their flaws tend to fall away with their mortal coil, and their memory always shines. But Leah was a blessing… and who will know it, besides her close family members and friends? She hardly had a chance to cut into the world, with as narrow or wide a swath as a few more decades of living would have permitted.
Who, then, besides that circle of family and friends, will read the memoir written by her grief-stricken husband in the months following her death? Why didn’t this young widower heed the advice of a prominent Israeli writer who had himself recently suffered the loss of a dear one—to leave the manuscript in the drawer for awhile so that his own life could proceed into its next inevitable phases? Indeed, five years have passed since this memoir was written in the heat of raw grief and disbelief, and time has done its work: Eitan’s life proceeded apace, and along with his and Leah’s daughter, Aderet, who is now nine years old, his family includes a new wife and baby.
What, then, does this slim book add to the shelf of grief literature? Shadows in Winter was written when a spate of memoirs of loss, most prominently Joan Didion’s Year of Magical Thinking, were saturating the talk shows and stacking up on the nightstands of conscientious readers. What, besides pathos, could Eitan Fishbane, a scholar of Jewish thought at the Jewish Theological Seminary, add to the sensitive howlings of professional writers who, even in their darkest moments, know how to craft a sentence and avoid maudlin cliché?
DeKoven Ezrahi, Sidra. 2012. In Death's Dominion. Tikkun 27(4): 53.