Ten thirty at night, and the house is quiet. I can hear gentle breathing sounds from the shared bedroom where my four- and seven-year-old sons are sleeping. Cocooned beneath a floral quilt in her own room, my ten-year-old daughter’s body is barely visible. And like a studious high school boy, my husband, a cardiologist, sits at his desk reading through piles of electrocardiograms, his pen circling problematic areas, interpreting the troughs and peaks, the steady or interrupted drumming of another heartbeat.
I fight off sudden chills. I’m a practical woman and a rabbi. I’ve always preached that there’s enough mystery in the here and now not to waste much effort worrying about what comes after this life. Yet now, in the silence of my home, I wonder if I, too, have begun to detect the echoes of distant heartbeats. I wonder if I believe in ghosts.
Until today, I’d never been able to explain the inchoate dread that overtakes me whenever I approach the local Costco near my house. The store itself is innocuous enough, a generic giant box with gray cement walls and a sizable parking lot. But the moment I pull in, before I even get out of my car, a magnetic tug propels me to flee, as if a silent force is pushing me away. It's a sensation I experienced once at my daughter’s first playgroup, when, in the middle of the circle of children and caregivers, one of the toddlers suddenly vomited. I wanted to run as far away as possible, put a barrier between his germs, the foul odor, and my own child’s immune system. In the Costco parking lot, I'm gripped by that same compulsion to flee.
When I enter the store itself, my heart starts beating frenetically, and my back and upper arms tingle with the same prickles that I used to have when nursing. My chest feels tight, as if my breasts are preparing to feed an infant rousing from a long nap. The first time it happened, I shrugged it off, attributing the strange reaction to a weary mother's sensory overload and exhaustion. But the same feeling washed over me each time I entered the store, intensifying with every visit.
My husband teases me about my inexplicable aversion to this Costco, but I’ve become morbidly afraid of this clean, harmless superstore, a place whose bushels of cereal and towering aisles of Hershey’s kisses should promote only feelings of comfort and abundance.
This morning, I was determined to conquer the disturbing sensations and restock our pantry with enough frozen waffles to open my own pancake house. But as soon as I flashed my membership card and entered the cavernous warehouse, it began again: My hands tingled with electric shocks when I grasped the shopping cart, a series of searing pulses that made it nearly impossible for me to touch the metal. I glanced around. Unfazed, my fellow shoppers were serenely hoarding packs of AA batteries and pounds of triple-chocolate brownie mix. Whatever this was, I seemed to be the only one affected.
My hands began to ache, and a new emotion settled over me: an inexplicable sadness, as if years of sorrow were pressing on my heart. I was relieved that I hadn't dragged my children along; I wondered if they, too, would have sensed my dread. Or was this just me? Was I experiencing an anxiety attack? Was I losing my mind? If I could just find the granola bars, I thought, I would leave, go out into the sunshine, escape.
By the time I returned home, my heart ached so much I could hardly breathe. At the door, the kids ran to meet me, then looked worried at the sight of my pale face, my unnerved demeanor. I didn’t want to frighten them or my husband; but the irony would be too horrific if somehow my heart was failing to regain its own steady beat, and he
didn’t even take note.
"Mommy doesn’t like to go grocery shopping," my husband announced. Satisfied that all would be well, the children returned to their Matchbox cars, superhero games, and dance choreography. My husband took my pulse, palpitated my neck. "I think you’re having muscle spasms because you didn’t ask me to help you unload the car," he said. I wasn't sure I believed him, but I swallowed two of the 1,200 milligram ibuprofen tablets I had just purchased and turned to my computer, while my husband tried to figure out where to put all my purchases. Maybe Facebook would distract my racing thoughts.
Coincidentally, an old friend had just posted about another Costco, commenting on a newspaper article about first-time shoppers. In the responses, praise for the store's expansive kosher selections piled up like bricks. I commented sourly: "Does anyone else out there feel ill when entering the Costco in Westchester?"
Later that night, I returned to Facebook and read a startling response to my comment: "I never go to that Westchester Costco because of all that business with the Jewish cemetery."
About four seconds of detective work on the computer unspooled the mystery. For 100 years, a synagogue and its cemetery overlooked the Yonkers hill where the Costco now stands. Unable to afford the cemetery upkeep, the few elderly surviving members agreed to give their land to developers—but only in exchange for a promise: that the cemetery's inhabitants would be given honorable reburial in Jerusalem where, according to legend, all buried in Israel's ancient soil are first in line for resurrection at the coming of the Messiah. The residents laid to rest in that graveyard included 147 children. But a recent investigation revealed that the remains of only 12 could be accounted for in Israel. In addition to the adults still buried there, I realized, 135 dead Jewish children lay beneath the cold concrete floor where I had pushed my shopping cart today.
Now, in the quiet house, I close my laptop and sit down on the couch to fold the laundry, still warm from the dryer. My hands fold and crease, flattening my son’s pants, reuniting my daughter’s pink socks. If only my mind could be smoothed so easily. But I cannot stop thinking about those children, whose presence I must have been sensing on each shopping trip. How else to explain why my heart hurt so much there? How else can I understand why my milk ducts started to expand?
Maybe some of those children loved the color pink, like my daughter, or made too much noise, or detested the smell of peas or broccoli. I wonder if they sat serenely at their Passover seder meals, or hid under the table after reciting the four questions, the way my four-year-old does. Maybe seven doses of bright red amoxicillin, or a few pulses from a rescue inhaler were all they needed to endure the illnesses that robbed them of their futures.
I fold a large pajama top with a giraffe design, remembering the gumdrop-sized cyst I discovered on the back of my now seven-year-old's tongue. He was 12 weeks old the day I noticed that unexpected sphere for the first time, as we were giggling and making faces. The growth was benign, my husband and I were told, but left untreated, the almost imperceptible lump would have grown along with him. Eventually, it would have suffocated him. A skillful otolaryngologist, an intubation tube, and modern medical care rescued our baby from that fate. Those little souls under the Costco had not fared as well. And somehow, I had felt some essence of those children there.
Perhaps I sensed their presence because I'm so attuned to the past, to the ways it persists into the present. As a Jew, I am commanded to remember. Sabbaths, festivals, tyrants, covenants, commandments—all are supposed to be engraved in memory, a heavy habit passed through generations, as enduring as the physical attributes we inherit: a widow’s peak, long toes, an allergy to the bumpy skin of strawberries. When I bring unleavened loaves of bread into my kitchen, when I lift up and utter a blessing over a glass of wine, I am remembering and recreating events thousands of years behind me, just as I have been taught.
Who or what remembered me as I stood on that old, sacred ground? The Torah clearly instructs me not to consult mediums or wizards to contact the dead. Who gave these children permission to whisper to me?
My heart stops aching the next day, but my curiosity persists. Should I return, bringing a handful of the smooth rocks we Jews place on graves when we visit a cemetery? Where would I deposit them—on a metal divider in the parking lot, or in the gardening section of the store, next to the topsoil? Or, for protection, should I bring my four-year-old son, who refuses to shed his Green Lantern costume, and who once scared away a curious coyote in our backyard? Perhaps his fierce powers would prove more potent in fending off ghosts than the amulets my ancestors relied upon: a clove of garlic, red-knotted strings, even the ancient bowls of the Babylonian Jews, with their engravings of tornado-like, swirling incantations.
After millions of years on this planet, I suppose we are all walking over the bones of each other. Yet the embattled colonial and Hessian soldiers don't call to me from their final resting place near the Westchester Mall. My breasts don't ache when I pass the peaceful graveyard at a nearby church. It's only the souls of these motherless children who call to me, whose presence on that windy hill triggers my restless heartbeat.
I wish I knew how to honor them, these long-dead children, whose mothers surely loved them as fiercely as I love mine. But I can only murmur the words my people have always uttered in the face of loss, the blessing recited upon hearing of a death: "Baruch Dayan Ha-emet."
Blessed is the True Judge.