It was a Friday, the end of the first full week of summer. In two days, our youngest son Lev would turn 2. Our oldest, Ari, was 5 1/2. Kindergarten awaited him in the fall, but it seemed light years away.
We sat around the kitchen table, finishing breakfast. My parents were in town from Alabama to celebrate Lev, and my mom, too, as they share the same birthday. The kids shrieked at each other the way brothers do, and the house smelled of waffles. Birds sang outside, ushering in the day.
My husband Ronen, their Aba (the Hebrew word for father), grabbed his bag from the chair closest to the door, ready to leave for work.
“Bye Abbaaaaa,” Lev and Ari called, as he circled around them for a peanut buttery kiss and sticky hug.
“Bye guys,” he replied.
“Bye honey,” he said to me, kissing me on the lips. He was wearing a navy and white polka dotted shirt. He tasted like coffee.
“Bye,” I said. “See you later at your mom’s. 4 o’clock?”
And he walked out the door. Blue and white polka dot shirt, hunter green pants, his blue bag slung over his shoulder, his wedding ring glinting in the early morning sunlight streaming through the blinds, his deliberately tousled hair pointing every which way.
I never saw him alive again.
The story of us is the kind of story that people loved to hear. Tell me again, how you met, they would always ask, first at loud bars in New York, then at clumsily but earnestly crafted dinners in our tiny Brooklyn apartment, again at the wedding and then at just about any dinner party we attended. It’s a good one, I never blamed them. And boy, was it fun to either tell or hear, sitting next to Ronen, smiles in our eyes. We couldn’t believe our good fortune either. And it was hard-won good fortune, too, which made it even better.
I officially met Ronen when I was 30. I say officially because I had met him at a party at least six years before that, when he was dating a coworker of mine. His handsomeness made my breath short, my heart pump pump pumping as I uttered an awkward hello and then watched him ascend the stairs to the roof, a gaggle of girls behind him.
His face. It was perfect to me. And more than that, much more than that, I felt like I had seen it before. He was just so familiar — his strong, dark eyebrows; inquisitive big, brown eyes; the slight swell of olive skin underneath each of them intriguing. Like he had seen some things. A dark beard hugging his jaw. A Sephardic man of mystery with a name I’d never heard before: Ronen. A name that evoked deserts and beaches, sun and sweat. Exotic.
Years passed. He and my coworker broke things off and she began seeing his best friend. The job at which we worked, an Internet startup selling luxury goods out of a crappy office in Manhattan’s Fur District, folded. Everyone went their separate ways, scurrying into the next phases of their lives, staying somewhat in touch via email but not really. We were in our 20s in New York. Unencumbered.
I moved to Brooklyn. I moved back to Manhattan briefly. I considered leaving entirely. I could not find my groove. I worked in book publishing, but what I really wanted to do, as the cliché goes, was write. With one foot out the door, my friend offered me her affordable, one bedroom apartment in Carroll Gardens. She was moving in with her fiancé. My extended foot was pulled back to join its mate and I ran — you always run for once-in-a-lifetime rental opportunities in Brooklyn —to make myself a home. And I did. I began to write, small gigs at first, but paying ones. Nothing previously in my life had felt more fulfilling to me.
One morning, taking the F train to work, guess who? Ronen, the Sephardic mystery man, waiting on the same platform. My heart pounded just as quickly as it had those four years before.
Should I say hello to him? I wondered. What if he’s a jerk? Then I’d have to switch subway cars. No. Forget it.
I was juggling enough “maybe” guys in the background to forego the hello. I had learned at that stage in my dating career that it was always nice to have at least one guy on a pedestal, even if the pedestal was completely unwarranted. Because then you at least had some hope.
Some weekdays I would see him. Not every morning, but some. And I would always toy again with the idea of saying hello, but inevitably back down, instead trying my best to look approachable and fun loving. To smile. This is not an easy task when your face is pressed into someone’s armpit during the always-packed commute, but I tried.
Ronen became my subway crush.
“You see Subway Crush this morning?” my friends would text me. “Just say hi Zoe, what’s the problem?” they would chide me over drinks. “What’s the worst that could happen?”
Thinking of those words now — what’s the worst that could happen? — a lump the size of an apple forms in my throat because how could I have known, how could we have known, that the worst would indeed happen? But then, 12 years ago, the worst that could happen in my world was that I would have to choose a different subway car.
One snowy winter morning I scribbled “you’re my subway crush” and my phone number on a tiny piece of notebook paper as the train jostled along underneath the city. He was standing right beside the door, reading a book, his back to me. All I had to do was slip him the note as I exited the train at 23rd Street. That’s all I had to do. The train stopped, I walked past him and chickened out, the note damp in my fist as I clomped up the stairs to the street above.
We drove to Ronen’s mother’s house in Roswell for dinner that afternoon — the kids, my parents and I. I hadn’t heard from Ronen all day, which was strange for him but not so strange as to cause alarm. I pulled into her driveway and his car was not there. Strange again.
It was 4 p.m. and then 5 p.m. and no one had heard from him. I couldn’t let my brain shift to a catastrophic place, I don’t think any of us could. And when you have two little kids running around, telling you they’re hungry, making the demands that kids make, there’s little time for anything but them.
But then it was 6 o’clock. We had texted him. His mother had called him. No answer. And that was truly unheard of. His mother and I huddled by the kitchen, trying him again. But he didn’t pick up. The emergency room did.
“This is the Kennestone Hospital Emergency Room,” a woman said. “Get here immediately.”
Once there, some well-meaning and fast-talking woman wound us through fluorescent hallways and corridors. Ronen’s phone, she said, could not be unlocked. She had no way of contacting us. We kept asking her what had happened to him. She couldn’t tell us, she was sorry, but the doctors would.
And then my mother-in-law and I were deposited in a tiny room, the kind you see on television doctor shows, and she shut the door. This was not a room that had ever heard good news, I knew that much. Darkness fell like a curtain. We held hands. Because I didn’t know what else to do, I recited the Shema in my head. Please God, I thought. Please.
Two blonde women in pale green scrubs entered, their eyes scared and sad.
“He’s had a brain aneurysm,” one of them explained.
“An AVM brain aneurysm. His brain is filled with blood.”
“On a scale of one to five, this is a five.”
“This is bad? How bad?”
“He’s in a coma,” one of them said. “You can come see him now, if you like.”
“Is he going to die?” I asked.
“You can come see him now,” she repeated.
Had it not been for one fateful Saturday, when I was running late to meet friends in the city, I’m not sure if Ronen and I would ever have connected. At that time, you could wait outside to see the F train coming before descending down into the abyss of Brooklyn to catch it. There he was. On a Saturday.
Today is the day, I told myself.
On the platform, I waited for him. The train pulled in. He did not come flying down the stairs as I had hoped. I had to get on, I was already late. I collapsed into my seat as the train idled, cursing my luck. The doors began to close and then — a hand wedged in between them. Ronen. And not only Ronen. Ronen with my former coworker and her husband. She had married Ronen’s best friend.
She walked up to me as the train click-clacked through the underworld.
“Zoe!” We hugged, my legs shaking. Ronen approached behind her.
“I see you on the subway all the time!” I blurted out.
“I see you too,” he replied, in a voice that was not at all the voice I had imagined him having. An American voice.
He asked me to join them for the dance party they were attending, but I couldn’t. As he spoke to me, with unabashed enthusiasm and zero self-consciousness, I thought he is not the man I thought he was at all. I was wrong. But I was also right. Our exchange was so immediate, so fluid, that I knew I had indeed known him, somewhere, somehow, before.
We parted ways and I continued on uptown a bit, to my friends. Outside above the sidewalk, sun peeked through the gray clouds. My heart, it had wings. It was him. It would be him. I knew. I had always known.
In the hospital room, Ronen was his same old beautiful self. He was tan; his beard black with threads of gray; his arms and legs peeking out of his hospital gown strong. A nurse came in and handed me his wedding ring; his watch; his wallet. I closed one hand around these items that were as familiar to me as my own face in the mirror and one hand around his elegant, tapered fingers. My mother-in-law took his other hand.
“The doctor will be by in the morning,” the nurse said.
Ronen’s sister and her wife arrived, backlit by the hallway in the dim room. We cried and we cried. A tube carried blood out of Ronen’s brain into a bag.
This was the healthiest, most affable life force I had ever met. I thought he would live forever. It never even occurred to me, even on my darkest day, that he could die. That I would be a widow. A single mother of two boys.
Everything I thought I knew was turned upside down; my belief system a flimsy rucksack emptied onto a cold, dirt floor.
Ronen was the only person I ever dated who truly wanted me to be me. Once, during a particularly uncomfortable talk about “us,” I interrupted him. We were walking in Brooklyn, right outside a bar.
“Let’s get a drink,” I said.
“Why do you need a drink to talk about this?” he asked. That was Ronen.
Within a year, we were engaged. That next May, we were married in Orange Beach, in front of my parents’ condo, the same beach I had grown up driving to as soon as the air turned warm. We went up in chairs. We danced a hora that lasted an eternity. To feel such love from people we loved, to feel their joy about our joy: that was an unbelievable gift.
Walking down the aisle as a guitarist strummed “Heavenly Day” by Patty Griffin, Ronen beaming at me from under the chupa, was the most grateful I had ever been.
The next morning, I told the boys that Aba was sick, but the doctors were doing everything they could to make him better. Everything had been an out of body experience since the emergency room had picked up Ronen’s phone, and this was no different. It felt like watching a sad movie about somebody else’s life except it was my own.
I settled the kids. I thanked my parents. Before I got back in the car to return to the hospital, I called my best friend in New Jersey. Something horrible has happened, I told her. Something really bad.
Two days passed in a blur. Family arrived and we all held each other and cried. Ronen lay in his bed, the same. Still beautiful, still hooked into machines that were keeping him alive.
I held his hand. I watched the blood being slowly sucked from his flooded brain. I put balm on his cracked lips. Lips like pillows. I cleaned his beard as best I could. I massaged his feet. I cried and I cried and I hid from the endless stream of concerned friends, all bringing more and more food that I had no interest in consuming.
Every night I kissed Ronen goodbye and went home to the boys, to tuck them into bed. Aba is still sick, I told them. They are still trying to help him.
OK, they said.
We spoke to the doctors. They all told us that Ronen’s prognosis was grave. Even if he did come out of his coma, the likelihood of him being a virtual vegetable was very high. He would never come home again, they told us.
But no doctor could tell us yes, 100 percent, this will be the case — 98 percent, but not 100 — 2 percent left over for a miracle, if you believed in those.
I had believed once, when I had somehow had the intuition to know that Ronen would be the love of my life, the father of my children. I did not believe any more.
I knew, in my heart, that he was gone. The morning after we found him at the hospital, when I had gone back to gather our kids at my mother-in-law’s house, I walked into the bathroom and closed the door. And when I did, the lights flickered. They had never flickered before.
And I heard, as clear as day, Ronen say to me:
I love you. I’m sorry.
“Don’t be sorry,” I sobbed back. “This is not your fault.”
I knew he was gone.
We were only 38 and 42, but somehow Ronen had the foresight to have a living will drawn up after our youngest son Lev was born. I hemmed and hawed, calling it a waste of money in my supreme naivete, but he insisted.
Maybe it was the untimely and tragic death of his father from cancer in 2011 that had robbed him of his own sense of invincibility. Probably. But he also considered death a lot. That was likely a result of the hundreds of tales his patients had woven for him during his schooling and career as a clinical psychologist. Religion, both Judaism and Buddhism, fascinated him. I’m sure his higher spiritual plane contributed to his perception of mortality. And he lived his life to this end too — squeezing the juice and joy out of every moment with an unbridled enthusiasm I had never seen before or since.
He had named me his health care agent. He had said he did not want to be kept alive by machines. It was my job to make sure his wishes were met. That week in June, I have never wanted a job less. But it was mine, and I would fight with whatever strength I had left in my exhausted body and mind to make sure his wish was granted. I would speak for him when he had no voice.
As more days passed with no change, it appeared my job was starting. I couldn’t believe it, I didn’t want it, but I had no choice. His choice was my choice. He had made it so.
* * *
My girlfriends, women who had known me through high school, college and after, began to trickle in. Armed and ready with their incredible self-sufficiency, they took the reigns from my tired parents. They bought the groceries, played in the sprinkler with the kids, took them for ice cream; trying their damndest to make life as fun and normal for them as possible when it was clearly not normal at all.
Friends here in Atlanta set up a meal train and a fund. Ronen’s life insurance was good, but not great, and I am an author. Ronen was the one with the full-time job, the health care. I wrote when I could, and took care of the kids. That’s how we worked, and we worked pretty well.
People from all over the world, some who didn’t even know us, contributed. Our community was holding us up. I was still at the hospital, watching and waiting for I didn’t know what. But I was in awe. I am still in awe of such infinite kindness and compassion. I have learned, through them, how to be a better human being.
Finally, we, the family, decided it was time. Ronen had developed pneumonia, on top of it all. He was suffering. It was time.
They disconnected the machines the morning of June 9. Ronen’s siblings, their spouses, my mother-in-law and I clung to each other in despair. But we were united in Ronen’s decision, united by our love for this incredible brother, son, husband and father. We were in it together. Another reason to be grateful, even as the sorrow suffocated us.
Late that afternoon, Ronen was transferred to hospice. I rode with him in the ambulance. I told him I loved him. I told him that he was the best thing that ever happened to me. I told him that I was so sorry this cruel fate had befallen him. I promised him I would raise our boys the best way I knew how. That we would talk about him every day. That he would never, ever, ever be forgotten.
We settled Ronen into his new bed. It was late, I had to get home to put the boys to bed. I had to see them, to smell their sweet skin. But I also had to tell them a different story. That Aba was not getting better. I had to prepare them.
So that’s what I did. After I had tucked them in, my phone rang.
“He’s gone,” my sister-in-law said quietly.
On the ride back to hospice, the sky turned pink and gold as the sun made its way down, down, down. Through my tears, I could see Ronen’s soul in those swirls of color. I imagined him on a beach in Tel Aviv, his favorite place in the world.
I couldn’t believe it. This was his end. But our boys, they were just beginning. What were they going to do without their magnificent father? Who were they going to become?
The next morning when my boys woke up, I took them both into Lev’s room and closed the door. Their expectant eyes bore holes in my own.
“Ari. Lev. Aba died.”
“Aba died?” asked Ari.
“Yes, honey, I’m so sorry,” I said, taking his small warm hand in my own. “There was nothing else the doctors could do.”
Lev, our youngest, tilted his head in concern.
“Ema, you sad?” he asked.
“Yes, Lev, I am sad.” Tears streamed down my face.
“But Ema, will I get a new Aba?” Ari asked.
“No, Ari. There will never be another Aba. But he lives in our hearts and our minds, all the time, forever. And he loved you so much. He will always be with you.”
Was this the right thing to say? I had no idea.
“Like HaShem? asked Ari, referring to the Hebrew word for God.
“Yes. Exactly like that.”
It has been nine months now since Ronen died. Just typing that sentence fills me with immense sorrow and disbelief still, as it no doubt always will. Grief is such a vast, merciless emotion. The levels have levels.
So much has happened, in the way that life happens: Ari went to kindergarten, learned how to read (to read!); lost his first tooth of many since; I taught him how to ride a bike. Lev is in preschool — talking up a storm, out of diapers and over sippy cups. I have plowed through to-do list after to-do list — the cancelling and the renaming of cell phones and bank accounts and bills; the new health insurance; the endless filing. I have become the chief of operations, dealing with ailing appliances and leaky ceilings, even a rogue squirrel trapped in our living room. I’m writing my next book, and teaching.
The family and friends who lifted us up then continue to check in, continue to do. My parents, who have lived in the same house in Mobile, Alabama, for almost 40 years, are uprooting everything to come to Atlanta. My mother-in-law, who lost a husband and then, so unfairly, her eldest son, provides love and solace when her own heart is broken in two. Ronen’s sister and brother, who’ve also lost so much, forfeit their personal pain to make ours sting a little less. My own brother, who surely never thought he’d see his little sister a young widow with two boys to raise, offers his arm to help us hobble into the future.
So many in my shoes cannot claim these same resources. I am forever grateful. But in the hard moments, and there are so many, I close my eyes and imagine Ronen back, walking through the door, swooping the boys into his unrivaled embrace, giving me the break I so badly need. Loving our sons in the way only their parents can.
Two weeks before he died, Ronen sent me a text one afternoon, out of the blue, just because:
“You do such a great job at everything you tackle. Whether it’s writing a book, raising kids, working on the lawn, cleaning the house, cooking — amazing.”
Today, I look at it often, yearning for him.
Now I am left to tackle something else. Single motherhood is much, much harder than I could have ever imagined.
But I am tackling it, just as Ronen would have expected me to. Here I am, doing my best, though my best is far different than it used to be, when I had a partner to pass the baton to. To lean on. To relish with me the parenting victories and nurse the failures, big and small.
I’m tackling it. For him. For us. For me.
ABOUT THE STORY
In this week’s Personal Journey, bestselling novelist Zoe Fishman Shacham shares the heartbreaking story of her husband’s sudden death last year. But through that tragic narrative she weaves the rom-com-worthy story of how the couple met in New York City. It is a candid, heartfelt story of fate and love and loss told with grace and vulnerability. It is an honor to be able to share it today.
Suzanne Van Atten
Personal Journeys editor
ABOUT THE WRITER
Zoe Fishman Shacham, who writes under the name Zoe Fishman, is the bestselling author of “Inheriting Edith,” “Driving Lessons,” “Saving Ruth” and “Balancing Acts.” Her books have been translated into Hebrew, German, Italian, Dutch and Polish and are also available in audio and large print editions. Zoe worked in the New York publishing industry for 13 years in the editorial department of Random House, the rights department of Simon & Schuster and as an agent for two boutique literary firms before moving to Atlanta in August 2011 with her family. She teaches creative writing at Emory Continuing Education and the Decatur Writers Studio. She is currently working on her next novel, which is tentatively scheduled for release in 2019.
ABOUT THE PHOTOGRAPHER
Bita Honarvar is an Atlanta-based photographer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Guardian US, Chicago Tribune and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, where she was a staff photojournalist and photo editor for 16 years.