Facing Nadav’s death

Pour les francophones, la traduction de ce post se trouve là : Affronter la mort de Nadav.

 

That post took an awful lot of time to get out of my system in a readable form, so that it fell way behind the deadline. But let it be Nadav’s third reminder, for the third anniversary of his death.

It originated all from a comment from Nadav's father on what I wrote in memory of his son for the second year (in Nadav's legacy).
I was surprised how strongly people reacted to my post, and he simply answered : "Very few people actually manage to look straight into their most painful feelings. Lots of them spend their lives to build avoidance strategies, and when they succeed doing it, they call it happiness. But nobody is truly fooled. And you come here and stuff in their face the fact you don't need to be a superhero to look life straight in the eye. And it turns them upside down."

So I logically thought about what most people fear and avoid the most in their lives : death.
About Nadav's death. And another one : a friend’s parents whom I knew since childhood and truly cared for without ever saying it. Their death in a road accident knocked the living daylights out of me, and Nadav died shortly thereafter.

Let me set it straight: the death of someone close to you is like being ripped apart and skinned alive. It hurts so much you can't understand how you can be still standing up with no visible trace of what happened. It takes an awful lot of time to heal – if it can be healed at all – and the feeling of absence never goes away. You only learn to put up with it. It happened to me three times, the first one when I was twelve. I wish that to no one, not even my worst enemy. Nobody should have to go through that and I'm by no means saying it's a necessary step in life. Just to be clear.

… But enduring death and bereavement can be a huge learning curve, if you manage to get out of it still alive.

What Nadav's death gave to me, through the initial shock and the bereavement process was, first of all, the bitter statement that I was alive, while he wasn't anymore. Whereas he was in my mind more worthy than me ; whereas a few years ago, I'd have given everything to die on the spot and never live another day.
I just had the raw, brutal feeling to be a miracle man without having asked for it, nor even wanted it.
I felt truly miserable to have been allowed to live more days than him, as weird as it can sound. I spent a couple of weeks trying to get over that guilt, but as irrational as this feeling was, I couldn't shake it.

Until the day I decided, out of the blue, to go to a cemetery next to my hosts' house.
They had left for a fortnight and left me the keys of the house, and of the padlock of their bikes. I had gotten used to bike around the area, and often passed through this cemetery on my way in or out of town. This time, I rode into it, roamed in the alleys, then got off the bike and walked until feeling totally lost among the tombstones and the trees.

Then I stopped by a tree and looked at the scenery. It was sunny and warm in the West Australian winter ; the sun was high and the sky of a clear blinding blue with no clouds. The sun rays fell on the stones and the moss covering them, on the grass moving in the breeze, on the ground where so many dead people were buried and quietly fading away into the soil.
The whole mood was so overwhelmingly quiet and serene, I couldn't but feel my restlessness start to subside. I put my bike by the road bank and sat against the tree in its shadow.

In the stillness I could feel the thoughts gradually emerging, unrolling  from me as if they were unearthed by the simple fact of breathing, and listening to the silence around me.

Beyond the pain, the loss, the mourning; beyond the bottomless dismay that surges in front of a child’s death, what I was resenting wasn’t so much Nadav’s death in itself. I felt he was resting in peace now, his ordeal over. That he was now free of pain and sickness. I mourned his loss because I missed him, but I knew this would slowly start to heal.
I was resenting Nadav’s absence, because it faced me with what had taken him from life : death. 

The fact to be alive and to witness his death – being forced to integrate it in my world, in my own thinking, my memories –, ruthlessly forced me to take a look back on my own life, and to fully take it on myself, ontologically speaking. Before this day, I was only dragging it around behind me, like a lost soul who only waited for death to be set free of the demands of life.

Nadav's death forced me to admit I was alive, and that I couldn't take my life lightly, least of all granted. His death bestowed upon me the urgent demand to bear the legacy of his life throughout my own life lived at its fullest. Which strangely echoed some words from Kierkegaard I had researched for an essay years ago : that death was what gave its aim to life, what gave tension and speed to the arrow of our own existence throughout its arc, all the way from the bow to the target.

Witnessing the death of a close one is also a roadmap to yourself. You see their death, and you are faced with your own. It forced me to face the fact that I'd die one day too, sooner or later. That life wasn't eternal ; that I didn't know when and how it would stop. 
That wasn’t new to me. But more surprisingly, it led me to admit my life was a gift. That it had value. Even my own, which I so totally disavowed and so desperately wished over, years ago.
That I actually valued my life, despite my dismissive behaviour. Didn't I escaped four attempts to kill myself only by sheer will, after all ? After Nadav’s death, didn’t I become quite anxious about my own safety ? Watching twice before crossing roads, checking I had turned off the gas, that kind of things you normally don't fret so much over ?
That meant I did like life, deep down, even if I had been badly wounded and was now scared of living.

Scared of living ; these were the right words. Looking back, I slowly realized I had spent the last years withdrawing myself from any emotional or personal commitment, as those I had held dear had always ended painfully. Or so I thought. Looking closer, I couldn’t fathom whether life was truly hard, or if I just convinced myself it was. Maybe I wasn’t trying hard enough to live, for fear of failing.
I was actually trying to withdraw myself from the responsibility of living.

This was a huge shock and got me out of any self-pity and excessive indulgence towards myself : licking my wounds wasn't going to give me anything for granted. I had to get out there, and get going now, if I wanted to enjoy life and become who I wanted to be. Hiding into my den rolled into a ball and snarling at everybody peeking in wasn't going to make anything happen. Least of all, let me open myself to life.

I understood I had already started to do so by leaving for Australia ; but Nadav’s death gave me the urgency I needed to carry it through.

I also thought about Nadav himself. Recalled how fiercely he was always grabbing opportunities – thirty library books to take home, hello – how far he always stretched the boundaries I gave him, until I had to stand in his way and tell him it was over now. No more reading – and no, not one more second. How fast he always tried to climb the stairs until I would gasp for breath and ask him to slow down, or to do his homework because it was boring, to the point I had to tell him to write more slowly to be readable. All of this, so that he could dedicate more energy and time to what truly mattered to him : reading, doing art and cooking.

Nadav’s life did have meaning, because he created it himself instead of waiting for it to be given to him. Because he set out each day to fulfil his yearning to create, he created meaning for himself and those around him. A meaning so strong it reached out to me now, beyond his death.

Remembering this forced me to see each new day as something unique that would never repeat identically nor come back, something I had to seize at every minute, to welcome in all its richness, instead of devaluing it by my indifference.
It also forbade me any laziness. Life has to be fully lived, now and here. Not tomorrow, not another day, not somewhere else. If I wanted to achieve something, I had to start now. If I wanted to say something, I had to say it now or never. I couldn't waste my time in day-dreaming or building sand castles anymore. I had to get my hands dirty, period.

When I got up from the cemetery ground, several hours later, I had regained something I had lost years ago : a purpose other than bare survival. As complex and simple as that : I had to live my life, work to make it whatever I wanted, not just watch it going away.
In the beginning, it was only a tiny seed inside me. But it grew bigger and stronger and sturdier under the Australian and New Zealand skies, until it became an indivisible part of my own being. 
In the beginning it was harsh and crude and bitter and I balked a lot before following the lead ; I still have the scars of my past and they will probably never fade away. I felt so rusted, so weak and distrustful. But with time, it became a tiny bit easier. And then a tiny bit easier again.

Now its roots are what makes me alive and kicking. They are the spine my life is fleshing itself around. They are what allows me to stand up, look trials straight into the eye, and enjoy every new day of my life once and for all. Granted, I'm still a work in progress which will probably never be done. But so we all are, anyway.

Today I own the full responsibility of my life again, and I know I will lay it to rest in peace when the day will come, sooner or later.
Because I’ll have tried my best to create meaning in it, instead of letting it go pointlessly.
And perpetuated Nadav’s drive and commitment throughout my own.

Death can be frightening as it seems to make life senseless in comparison. It can also be the goad of your life, or its momentum, as Kierkegaard and Heidegger theorized it. For your life to have sense in front of death, you have to give it meaning day in day out, every day. A meaning that matters to you, if to nobody else. But to understand it yourself, beyond words and reasonings, you have to see it in front of you, to feel it in your flesh. And this realization sometimes comes with the stark, blank emptiness left by the loss of someone you cared for and valued.

Nadav's life and death gave me back the ownership of my life. The awareness of its value and potential I had lost as a kid, and never regained.
Obviously, I didn't wish it to happen that way. I wish things could have been different ; that I'd found back my purpose by another way.

But if the dead can make a gift to the living beyond their fate, there's no better one. 


 

In memoriam Nadav Shavit

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