The Things I Didn’t Say When I Was Alive

There are things I never said to you. Things I didn’t think needed to be said. Or just didn’t know how to say.

Maybe if I’d said them before it could have made things different between us. Better than the way they turned out.

We had a rough time, your mother and me, after you were born. Some nights, when I needed to go to work in the morning, I’d wake up. It was your mother. She’d cry for hours at night. Stand by your crib. I didn’t know what to do. You were sleeping through the night by then, but she wasn’t.

What is it? I’d ask her. Nothing, she’d say. Or she’d say, you wouldn’t understand. Worse, she’d say, you should know why. I didn’t know why. I felt so bad that I wished I could cry myself.

I can’t remember my own mother ever crying. Or my father. They were hard people. They didn’t laugh much. They worked. They ate simple meals. Boiled chicken. A brisket on holidays.  Rye bread. Pickled herring or whitefish. Potatoes with cucumber. Sour cream. A glass of tea with a cube of sugar.

They were Shnayders, tailors. Neighbors brought them suits to be let out or taken in. Patches to be sewn with hidden stitches. My mother’s machine by the window in the bedroom. My father at the table in the living room under the ceiling light. People came and went all day dropping off clothes and picking them up. My father did the cutting. The ironing, humming and smoking while he worked.

They never went out. Not to the park or to sit in chairs in the sun with the newspaper like some of the other families in the building. In the sun along Broadway. Smelling the pickles from the store on Nagle Avenue. My parents looked like shut ins. Faces gray with creased foreheads.

My mother called me her Meir, mazel tov. The Spanish flu was killing millions then. Babies like me dying. But I lived. As you did, when we thought you wouldn’t.

You were always small and krenklekh. Sickly. I worked a lot. There was work for men coming back from the army. School, at night. I didn’t see you that much. Your mother would shiver like it was winter when I came home.

I would shiver too. I would sit in the bathroom, my head in my hands like I was lost in a forest in the darkest of nights. The wind in the trees was ghostly. Clouds covered the moon. There was no path out.

I saw that same feeling in you too and I didn’t say anything. I looked at you and I felt how alone you seemed to be. I saw me in your tight rumpled brow. Not a glimmer of happiness in your eyes. I should have said something. Stood beside you.

For this, I grieve.

One day, when she was at her worst, when you were a little older, I said leave the kid alone already, to her. And she said to me why don’t you leave me alone? I was angry, and I said Christ, knock it off already. She was acting crazy. In the middle of the night, I heard her. She was in the kitchen, where the phone was, calling her mother. It was maybe two or three in the morning and there she was sobbing into the phone and I grabbed the phone away from her and said Stop it and I hung it up.

My father never once raised his voice to me or anyone. I don’t know where it came from. My anger. I was angry at her. I was angry at you, too.

For that, I am sorry.

And from then on things were different between us.

I didn’t know what to say to you. How to make words that would make it different. And it just stayed like that.

I guess I was more like my father was. We never had much to say to one another. I can’t remember him putting his arm around me. I’m not saying that’s an excuse. I know it sounds like it, though. I’m sorry you grew up with me like that. I know how that must have felt.

For that, I am in pain.

I don’t think I ever told you I love you. I did. Love you. I didn’t know then how to say it.

And then, when I could no longer speak, and you came with your family to see me, in your hospital masks and gowns, I could feel that sad, malign, knot in my chest loosen. The sad knot for what had been lost. For the happiness I could have shared and for the things I never said.

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