Comfort comes, when it does, from conventions in mourning. Others have rehearsed the process so that we can get it right. Byzantine icons of the koimesis, or Dormition, of Mary, show the Apostles gathered about the draped bier in regular locations: Peter at the head, Paul at the foot, John at the side, his long fingers grasping the hand of the Virgin Mother or venturing to her waist. Christ holds aloft Mary’s soul in the form of a child, handing it to the waiting angels. The bumps of toylike faces, of shoulders slumping in sorrow, are carved into ivory now dessicated, its tooth, or grain, running vertical in some icons and horizontal in others. I find the images most compelling when the tooth runs horizontal and the carving resists it: folds of robes drop groundward, and ascent through arms uplifted seems eternally imminent.
Jewish tradition has three mourning periods: the first week, the first month, the first year of loss. When there are prescribed time periods, there is also an end. During the week after my father’s death, the shiv’a (seven), we covered mirrors, sat on low stools; people came to visit and brought food; we reminisced about the deceased, good- and bad-mouthing him; we discussed family traits, habits, illnesses. I wondered if his life could have been otherwise, if he was sometimes happy, why I was still angry, whether I could have should have said given taken. I remembered closeness across an abyss.
On the last day, the rabbi’s wife came to remind us that it was time to get up. Don’t just stand up, she said, take a walk around the block, go back to life. So we filed out the door, haltingly, into cold air, my mother and my brothers and I, down the street, past the leaning tree, around the corner, past the house with the picnic table. I used the occasion to take a closer look. There was no sign that a splinter had ever been dislodged: the tabletop was perfectly smooth.