Where We Bury Our Love

January 10, 2022 / Adrian Weiss

Where does all our love for someone go after they’re gone?

The Yahrzeit candle stood waiting at sundown on the anniversary of my grandmother’s death. My father’s fingers trembled as he struck a faulty match, twice scraping against the matchbox before snapping. He cursed under his breath and grabbed a lighter, its mechanical click breaking the silence of the dining room. The flame flared into life and enveloped the wick, sending shadows dancing across our faces in the dim light. I stared into the fire, hoping to see some spark of my grandma in its flickering. But it was just a candle. She’s gone, and all that’s left is darkness.

In Jewish tradition, a Yahrzeit candle is lit in remembrance on the anniversary of a loved one’s death. Although my father has long since stopped going to temple and raised his sons secularly, these small traces of heritage remain. His mother, my grandma, passed down the traditions that were as much a part of her as our shared curly hair and crooked noses. Though she’s since passed, some part of her remains in us, the shadows cast from her flame.

My grandmother was a writer. I’d like to think that she’d be proud of me for following her legacy, but I can’t say for certain. I didn’t know my grandmother well enough then, and now I never will. It wasn’t her fault; she tried the best she could, but there were too many barriers to overcome and too little time. She lived on the West Coast, and flying became too risky with her emphysema diagnosis. More to my shame, when she did make the trip to see my family I never paid much attention to her. I was young and self-absorbed; we had no common ground. What interest does an elementary schooler have in Wagner and Shakespeare?

One of the last times I saw her, she tried to teach me the Hebrew alphabet. She hadn’t yet given up on passing her heritage to me, despite the expanding distance between us. But to an 11-year-old, her scrawled foreign symbols were meaningless. I didn’t understand she was desperately reaching for some sort of connection. By the time I realized, it was too late.

Death came for her in pieces. First there were the surgeries, the joint replacements, and wheelchairs. Then, the emphysema and coughing fits from a decades-long smoking habit. Over the years, her cane became a walker. By the time the lung cancer claimed its hold, there wasn’t much left of her to take.

There was even less to hold on to. A newspaper clipping. A CD of clarinet concertos. A few framed photographs. My memories of her are tenuous and faded, fragments seen through a child’s eyes. I mourn less for her than for our lost relationship, for the grandma I never had the chance to know.

I used to think grief was simply about sadness. I’d seen it in movies and on the news, knew the stories of black-clothed mourners breaking into uncontrollable tears at the graveside. I didn’t know about the regret. The feeling that I could have done more, I should have done more, and now I’ll never get the chance to. I wasn’t prepared for the guilt that clawed up my throat, filling my lungs until all I could breathe was tainted with it, suffocating in the stale air of every missed opportunity. No one warned me about the wave of self-loathing that crashed over me until I didn’t know if I was angrier at her for leaving or myself for being left behind. When I told my grandma I loved her, did she know I meant it? Or did it just sound like another platitude?

Sometimes I wake up and forget that she’s gone. When someone dies, they leave a silence in every unspoken word that becomes its own form of white noise, the echo of their life a ringing ache in the ear. There’s a point when that silence becomes so loud it’s all you can hear, a new sonic register from which we measure our own lives.

With loss, we enter into the realm where words no longer apply. How can you write about nothingness? Death, then, is only visible to those left behind. It is the darkness that defines the flame.

That’s the hardest part about grief: the absence it leaves behind. I want to call my grandma and tell her I’ve become a writer, that now I finally understand those Shakespeare plays and share her love of classical music. But I can’t. There’s an incomprehensible finality to death that transcends description.

That doesn’t stop people from trying ‒ go to any funeral and you’ll see what I mean. Eulogies are filled with desperate attempts to explain the unexplainable, to provide comfort in the face of grief. There’s a sense of closure in ceremonies, a way to tell someone all the things we never could in life, to say goodbye. But I missed the burial. I never got to tell her I loved her that one, final time.

My grandmother is forever frozen in my memory the last time I saw her, standing in the garden with a hand raised in farewell as my car door slams shut. I think she’s smiling, but her face is just a ghost in my mind.

I’ve been told that grief is born from love, but not with me, not for her. My grief is born from guilt. I wish I could eulogize my grandmother, but I don’t have the authority. The truth is, I’m not sure who she really was. I miss her more than I knew her. There must be some grand conclusion about overcoming grief that people are supposed to come to, but I haven’t reached it yet. For now, I just have to accept death as the final separation between us, longer than any plane ride and wider than any cultural barrier.

With my grandmother’s death, I found the connection we had lacked in life. Through her absence I’ve gotten closer to her memory, and I think I understand her in a way I couldn’t while she was alive. Yes, she was my grandmother, but she was an individual in her own right, with her own private fears and loves. She was a mother and a daughter, a writer and a wife. She was a critic, professionally and personally, an acerbic but deeply loving woman. She was human.

Sometimes when I look in the mirror, I’ll see her reflection in my own. I inherited her contradictions, her unconditional love and casual cruelty, her vanity and her passion. Through finding my grandma, I found myself.

Seven years old, sitting on her lap as she read The Tempest aloud, the scent of luxury perfume mingling with cheap spearmint gum. Eleven, losing every game of Scrabble we played and storming out into the cooling twilight, only to be wrapped in her warmth, limping into the street after me. Fifteen, two years after her death, discovering an article she wrote and feeling the weight of her absence all over again.

I still remember her whisper in my ear as I kissed her goodnight, the moonlight pooling between our shadows. “You’re like me,” she said, her ravaged voice creaking out the words. “You’re going to do great things one day.”

I hope I will, Grandma. I hope I will. ■

by: Adrian Weiss

layout: Klaire Keegan

photographer: Mateo Ontiveros

stylist: Walter Naranjo

hmua: Katarina Tyll

model: Seth Endsley
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