The third day of spring is warm in the sun but cold in the shade. Ilana and I take the day off to head south and see lupines and anemones blanket green hills. But first we have a stop to make. We drive to the Botanical Gardens at Givat Ram for lunch at the café, and then buy flowers to plant at Niot’s grave.
The military cemetery is a short ride away. We park in the small lot above Area D and walk down a long flight of steps, past plots holding soldiers from past wars and the uneasy intervals between them. We avert our gazes from the new section, where current burials take place; most of it is still covered in lawn. But, out of the corner of our eyes, we see a lone figure sitting by the newest patch of upturned earth. Two flights down from that is where Niot lies. We would hold hands as we approach him, but our arms are full.
On Niot’s plot, the flowers Ilana planted last year are blooming again, but the stems have grown long and tangled and tough. We try to put at least some of them in order, but realize that they have gone feral and will no longer bow to our will. So we dig them all up to replace them with young, soft newcomers, bearing petals of many colors. The sun is warm and I take off my sweater.
We do not speak much. We do not need to; lovers of many years know each other’s minds, and for the last six years we have been tied fast to each other not only by love but also by grief, and intense longing that often knows no words.
Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, whose essay “Out of the Whirlwind” I reread each year at this time, writes that the human relationship with God begins with suffering: “The covenant is born through the dialectic of suffering, through the contradiction implied in a shattered existence, in the mystery of a torn and desolate being … Chancing suddenly upon God, man becomes aware of his evanescence and the absurdity of a conditioned and relative existence.” In the Song of Songs, which we will read on the coming Pesach holiday, the human correlate of the covenant is the passion of two lovers. Pesach is the holiday of liberation, of elation at new-found freedom, and the holiday that marks our last day with Niot, his diving accident, and his funeral. Ilana and I and God and Niot, bound together by love and grief and terror and the flowers of spring.
We live an ancient paradox: spring, that season of ecstatic life, brings with it the intimation of death. “Tell me, O Lord, what my term is, what is the measure of my days,” the Psalmist pleads. To be alive is to know that one must die. Because we live, we know that our son does not.
The Ruhama badlands and the Pura channels, the sites at the marches of the Negev where we usually go at the beginning of each spring, are drab and parched most of the year. But it just takes a little rain in the winter to impel the seeds and bulbs in the soil to burst forth in a celebration when the days get longer and the temperature rises. While there are yellow mustards and pink cyclamens and purple hollyhocks, the south is dominated by red, as first the anemones, then the poppies, and then maroon buttercups reign, until the hot sun and long draught of the summer months dry and bleach the flowers and grass. It is time that moves the Negev from death into life and then back to death again.
At the Mt. Herzl military cemetery, the same thing happens in space. In the old sections, where soldiers who died in the country’s early decades are interred, the graves are unadorned. They are covered with bare stone and a modest marker bears the name, serial number, and date of death of each. Officers and privates, fighters and clerks, career soldiers and enlisted men all receive the same treatment, a powerful message of the equality of brothers in arms (and in keeping with the strong Jewish tradition of simple burials). Later, families could request a standard covering of rosemary, adding some green, some life, without violating the principle of equality.
That uniformity could be preserved when the country was young and the needs of the collective were considered paramount, trumping those of the individual. But a quarter century ago, when Israelis started questioning whether every war their country fought was a just one and whether every young person was first and foremost a tool of the nation, families began to demand individuation. They even went to court to achieve it. By around the time that Niot’s section of the cemetery was opened, the old rules were slowly relaxed and finally set aside. Some families build large monuments, erect framed photographs, adorn graves with traces of the young people who lie underneath, like surfboards or guitars. While a few retain the simple stone facing over the grave, and others opt for the rosemary, most tend gardens in the small beds where their sons and daughters lie, watering and weeding and replanting as the season demands. To enter Area D, Section 7 is to encounter a celebration of color, a fireworks display of petals of every shade and shape. We have not been the most diligent gardeners among our society of bereaved parents, but we want the grave to be ready for Pesach.
Why do we put flowers on graves? Is it an attempt to imitate the desert, where a landscape seemingly devoid of happiness bursts suddenly into life each year? Or is it a challenge to death, a refusal to accept it, a cry from the heart that tells God and nature that we do not accept that what is living must die? “Man walks about as a mere shadow; mere futility is his hustle and bustle, amassing and not knowing who will gather in,” says the poet of Psalm 39. “I am an alien, a sojourner with you.” The blooms on the grave are a challenge. They say: No, we do not let the dead go. They continue to color the lives of the living just as cemetery gardens do.
The flowers also reject the dichotomy of life and death. So do the tales of liberation, salvation, and renewal that, not accidentally, are associated with the beginning of spring. The Israelite slaves march out of Egypt to a new life, straight into the desert, where the most basic needs of life—food, water, shelter—are not to be found. Christ saves the souls of all sinners—by dying himself. “The realization of the covenant is possible only if the people is tested in the crucible of affliction,” Rabbi Soloveitchik writes. And later: “Judaism disagrees with all mental health doctrines which claim that the sooner man dismisses from his mind the catastrophic, the happier he will feel … To be means not only enjoy or to rejoice but also to suffer and carry the load, to experience great desolation and the dark night of affliction.” That is the necessary starting point for revelation, for dialogue with God, and for that love that Ilana and I now share, a new love, or incarnation of the old love, deepened by our now unrequited love for our son.
As we are sweeping up, we are approached by a gray-haired man with a moustache whom I sometimes see while swimming at our neighborhood. He is in tears. His accent is a heavily Russian and his Hebrew is not fluent, so at first we do not understand what he wants from us. Finally, we piece his phrases together. I realize that he is the man we saw sitting by the grave in the new section.
Gazing down from where he sat with his son, also a soldier, who died in a motorcycle accident two weeks before, he saw us and sought us out. He has not just lost his son; the son’s mother, with whom he lives, has grown distant and angry. We offer him what kind words we can, beside our own son’s grave, and he returns to his vigil. The sun has descended in the west, behind the trees up the slope, and the air is growing chilly. I put my sweater.
We do a quick calculation and realize that it is too late to drive south. By the time we get to the desert’s wildflowers, it will be nearly dark, and we have a commitment that evening. The blooms of spring are so easily missed. We are left with the blossoms on the grave.
We do not look at each other. Ilana weeps, lights a candle. I wipe away a tear and sigh. We gather up our tools and join hands. Ascending, we pass the mourning father. In the parking lot, we wash our hands, as tradition demands, to cleanse ourselves of the impurity if the dead.
“Look away from me, so that I may” sings the Psalmist, and then pronounces a word that gets translated variously as “recover,” “recover my strength,” or even “smile again.” I suggest “love.” It needs a desert; it now has a grave.
Please consider a donation to The Niot Project, an educational program we have set up in Niot’s memory.
Necessary Stories, a collection of twenty-four of the best of Haim Watzman’s short fiction, is dedicated to Niot and contains several pieces about mourning him. It is available as an e-book, paperback, and hardback on Amazon, and on all other on-line stores and select brick-and-mortar establishments. More information on South Jerusalem
Necessary Stories about Niot:
The Day of His Birth
Meditation: On the death of my son.
A Him to him
Meditation: A letter to Bach on the loss of my son.
Meditation: The Seder, chamber music, and the death of my son.
Meditation: Mourning my son, four years later
Meditation: When a child dies, he becomes incessantly present.
Grasping the Void
Meditation: Five years without my son