So here I am writing from a hotel room in Amsterdam. This was never part of our plan but if you are to live wildly and preciously plans must be kept to a minimum and life must get in the way. Last night I landed here in Amsterdam with the girls but without Guy. Guy was on a standby ticket to Amsterdam but unfortunately the flight was full and the pilots’ wives got first dibs on the standby seats (in the cockpit actually) so I set off with a crying Noa but a very standing-brave-and-tall-pulling-the-small-suitcase Lina. It took some time for Noa to calm down but once she did she also rose to the occasion and we planned our Amsterdam stop over – hoping Guy would be able to get on the 6am flight from Tel Aviv and meet us at the airport in the morning – which is what will be happening in a few hours. Then we will all train to Zwolle to be reunited with our friends and of course Danke Van.
I have tried all week to write a post about our week in Israel before and after and even during Aarons’s passing. I did write – a lot actually. But it never felt right – too much detail, too personal, too this, too that. It couldn’t breathe the way I love writing to breathe. And I felt it might not all be my story to tell. Maybe I will tell it all one day but for now I will just share my experiences of the week in less detail but with more reflection.
[In Zwolle now] It was a big week. We landed Tuesday night and Aaron passed away Wednesday afternoon. Those 18 hours were particularly surreal and sad and at times so very normal-every-day-hours. I know this happens when big things happen. And when you have children even more so because the practicalities of raising children doesn’t stop, not even for death. There’s no curling up in a ball and crying in a dark room for a lengthy period of time. Life continues on – mouths to feed, bottoms to wipe, tears to console. I remember when I found out my grandfather had hours to live. I was sitting in a café about to meet a friend. She arrived late and when she arrived I told her the news. We didn’t stay long and I drove home. When I got home I just sat in the car and cried. I knew that as soon as I would walk into the house I wouldn’t have the time or space to cry from my deepest being. So I gave myself 10 minutes to sit alone. And it did help me grieve.
Guy arrived from Holland to Tel Aviv at 4am on August 1. Ilan picked him up and drove him straight to the hospital. His father was still conscious and though very uncomfortable and incoherent at times, he knew Guy was there with him. Guy and I have briefly talked about those 16 hours in the hospital – the hours that we were apart – and from what I can ascertain from our various interrupted conversations over this frenetic period, those hours were very stressful, painful and emotionally taxing.
Noa, Lina and I landed that same night in Tel Aviv and Guy picked us up and took us straight to the hospital. The children raced to him at the arrivals – such joy and sorrow in that small reunion. I remember when I was 19, I went to pick up a friend from the airport. I was so captivated in watching the people arriving into Israel – the tears, the screams of joy, the embraces – that I missed my friend’s arrival. And now here I was observing from afar the scene of my own bitter-sweet symphony. But at least we were all together now, we had made it in time, and in some way I could be there for Guy.
Hungry and tired from a full day’s travel on a train, bus and plane, we drove to the hospital. We organized to meet Marsha downstairs to have dinner before seeing Aaron. It all felt very surreal. Being back in hot and hectic Israel felt like we had been sucked out of calm and refined Europe prematurely and now we were hungrily wolfing down humus, kebabs and salad in the middle of the little retail area of the hospital, a table set up in the corridor for the last of the diners for the day. The kids happily ran around playing hide and seek between the clothes rails of the nearby shops. On the one hand I was so relieved we were going to see Aaron alive, that I could rest for a moment and breathe a little easier. On the other hand, I knew that the end was nigh and that seeing him tonight would probably be my last chance to ever see him. And I knew what I was going to see would be difficult and that the girls were going to see a dying man. A dying Saba.
We walked in and there was Ilan standing by a sleeping Aaron’s side. Once in the room we all talked and occasionally Aaron seemed awake and motioned that he wanted to get up. Ilan said that because he could hear us all he wanted to sit up and join us. When he heard that the girls were there in the room he tried to open his eyes and sit up, reached out his arms and said ‘bubba‘ which means ‘doll’ in Hebrew and is the affectionate term he often used to talk to them. This was the last coherent word I heard him say and perhaps his last clear word. I held his hand for a minute while the girls and Marsha walked around the hallway and then we brushed the girls’ teeth for the night and left. That was the last time I saw him.
On Wednesday August 3, 2016 at around 2.45 in the afternoon, Aaron Shalvi, son of Genia and Abraham Shalvi, died in his sleep, his wife, Marsha sitting beside him. Guy and Ilan had stepped out of the room for something to eat and it was then that his body surrendered, his heart stopped beating, his breathing ceased. During those last few hours Lina slept, Noa watched some TV and I lay in bed at home and read and messaged people and cried. When the news came through that he had passed I got up and after deliberating with Guy told the girls that Saba had died. Noa said she was sad and hugged me. Then I took the girls for ice cream. Sounds ridiculous writing this now but that’s what we did. Saba loved ice cream so I thought he would approve.
In Judaism it is customary to bury the dead within 24 hours of death, so Aaron’s funeral was planned for the following day at 2pm. That following morning I received messages from my mum and my aunt in Australia warning me that in Israel there is no coffin. “Miriam, Belinda told me to tell you that Aaron’s body will NOT be in a coffin, so don’t get a shock. I love you,” wrote my mum. It is customary that the body is wrapped in a white shroud and then placed in a coffin but if buried in Israel the body is buried straight in the earth in observance of the law: “You return to the soil, for from it you were taken. For you are dust and to dust you shall return“. (Genesis 3:19).
With this knowledge we decided that I would not take the girls to the graveside but we would play it by ear with all else. Noa and Lina had never attended a funeral before and had we been in Australia I would have considered not bringing them to the funeral and left them with close friends or family in their familiar surroundings. We decided we would bring them to the chevra kadisha – where you say the eulogy – but not to the graveside. I wanted so much to be there for Guy and for Aaron and the family at the graveside, but my role as mother superseded everything and I needed to be there for my girls.
Mercifully, Lina fell asleep in the car on the way to the cemetery and transferred easily into a borrowed pram. So it was just Noa and I which felt much more manageable. Soon after sitting down at the chevra kadisha on a bench at the front, the energy in the room shifted and Aaron’s body was brought in. I expected to see a coffin in the room but there he was, his body wrapped in a white shroud, the outline of his body visible as my aunt had cautioned. I was extremely shocked. I leaped up from our seat and quickly made my way to the back of the room, one arm pushing the pram, the other holding Noa. She protested the move away but I told her it would be better to watch Abba (Guy) from further back in the room. I never lie but now I needed to. Luckily Noa’s swimming teacher came towards us and distracted us from the scene. Noa asked her if she had a new haircut. I breathed deep and was certain she hadn’t seen her grandfather’s body. We moved again to the other side of the room and I held Noa tightly so she could see Guy read his eulogy.
Aaron’s body was then taken on a stretcher to the grounds where he would be buried. Noa was now asking to see Guy but I knew this was impossible. It was a few minutes walk in the blazing sun and as we walked behind everyone at a distance, I knew with each step moving closer to the plot, that I would not be going anywhere near the graveside. Every part of my body said to stay back despite Noa’s cries to be with Guy. I told her we needed to be in the shade and that it would soon be over and Abba would be back with us. I held her tighter and we looked at the trees and talked about the trees and the olives and the tree that was shaped like a pizza slice. We talked and we talked and then people started walking towards us, friends of Guy, of the family. Lina woke up, Guy walked back to us, his t-shirt now torn as customary in Judaism. I looked at him and my heart ached. And it was all over.
Another Jewish tradition is that mourners ‘sit’ at home for the week of shiva and the community visits every day, bringing food, sharing their stories about the departed and lending support. They say psychologically this way of grieving is most beneficial – you are forced to mourn, no distractions and the mundane world, the outside, is kept at a distance. It is also very reciprocal in that those people visiting are also able to find a way to grieve as when they visit they enter this unique bubble of life and death, a holding place for sadness and laughter and memories.
I wasn’t sure how the family would approach the week of shiva. Like all traditions and religious customs, people interpret or practice a custom in their own way. Marsha, Ilan and Guy all agreed they wanted to honour the seven days. For them this meant staying at Marsha and Aaron’s apartment for the majority of the time. Ilan spent half the week sleeping over so most mornings they would all rise together, eat every meal of the day together and welcome every guest together.
As the daughter in law, I mostly watched from the sidelines and helped to keep the kitchen operating, dirty dishes, food and waste disposal, new cakes on the table, dishwasher emptied. I loved meeting Aaron’s people, cousins I had never met, stories I had never been told. And of course my main focus was the girls. We were all in the bubble when we were home but Noa and Lina needed to be out and about as well to see the outside world so the last few days of the shiva we ventured out to friends and cousins and moved in and out of both worlds.
On the last day we all got up from the shiva and went down to the beach for breakfast. It always feels symbolic to be near open water and in Judaism to immerse oneself in water, a mikvah, holds much meaning. I encouraged Guy to go for a quick dip and refresh and connect deeply and wholly with nature and close the circle. He obliged. The following day I flew to Holland with the girls and Guy joined us the following morning. And here we are.
My father in law loved Elvis. Like many other devotees, no other music really compared and Aaron was pretty much hooked on the music of his youth, always happy when an Elvis track came on the radio or we could put it on Spotify for him on more recent occasions. He would sing along, dance and endeavour to engage us all in his joyful nostalgia of a time gone by. After Elvis died and until this day there have been sightings of The King and even rumours that he still walks the earth. I know our Aaron has passed but I am hoping for little signs that he is watching us from somewhere. I have had one sign already. He literally popped up in Amsterdam with Marsha. I look forward to many more sightings.