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My Altered World

May 9, 2009 | by Dina Bar-Tov

After my husband died, it was my youngest daughter who taught me to embrace life again.

A Widow's Tale
is an honest account of a woman's attempt to redefine her life after her husband, a rabbi, dies suddenly. Dina Bar-Tov copes with the children, family, and congregation while searching for a path towards a new identity and, perhaps, new love. In this excerpt, as Dina drives her tiny daughter to school, she reflects on the position this child occupies in her altered world.

It's the first day of pre-school and the outside air has turned appropriately cool and crisp. I am bright and fresh too -- wearing red lipstick and earrings -- I am 43 but still pretend to be a young energetic mom bringing her daughter to pre-school for the first time. Yafit bounces in the car-seat; her brown ringlets are carefully brushed -- she refused to put on her new hair-bow but is pretty anyway in her little flowered dress. She clutches a soft doll; her pink knapsack, on which I have printed YAFIT in glowing colors, sits on the seat beside her. The doll has a miniature knapsack too.

Yafit is the youngest of my nine children; she was only seven months old when her father died suddenly of a heart attack two years ago. The morning after the funeral, she awoke as usual -- hungry. I slung her on my hip, slipped past the people who at that early hour were already milling in my dining room, popped her into her high chair and gave her breakfast. As the men who came to comfort me recited Kaddish, she ate her Cheerios. That night, when we were finally alone in my bedroom, she smiled at me blissfully -- the only smile left in my bleak universe.

She had no way of knowing, of course, that Daddy was gone. No doubt, she expected him to return and vaguely awaited his presence until her memory of him gradually faded. For a few months, she would enthusiastically respond to red-bearded men with glasses, men who reminded her of her father, but that behavior gradually disappeared. Today, she looks at photographs and cheerfully announces "That's my Daddy" when she finds his picture -- in the same tone that a child might use to identify a familiar Muppet. She is infinitely more gleeful when she spots Mommy or one of her big sisters.

When she was tiny I used to hug her tightly; she was my lifeboat after my ship had sunk. It doesn't seem to have harmed her -- she probably thought that all mothers behave that way. She still loves to sit on my lap and be cuddled, as I imagine that most almost-three-year-olds do. Fortunately, oblivious to the heavy role of "family savior" thrust upon her, she continued with the tasks of all infants -- learning to crawl, walk and talk in rapid succession, cheered on by her proud siblings. After several months, she would no longer sit in her stroller and I had to frantically rescue her from oncoming traffic.

I found that the world viewed with toddler's eyes was still an astonishing place.

She was gloriously alive, and in her own way made it clear to the rest of the family, "Life has to continue around here, and, guys, we can really have fun!" Fun as in smearing Mommy's lipstick all over her face, pouring her cup full of orange juice to investigate just how high she could fill it before it overflowed, emptying out the refrigerator to get at the good stuff, etc. Forced to respond to her antics, I was forced to embrace life too; I found that the world viewed with toddler's eyes was still an astonishing place. I owe this tiny mite a huge debt. Maybe one day when she has grown up, I will explain it to her.

Today, on this first day of pre-school, she confidently marches into the classroom with her eye on the new blocks piled neatly in the corner. I wonder how she will feel as she matures. Will she feel that a piece of herself is missing, or will she accept the lack of a father complacently, as in "some children have fathers, some don't"?

Sometimes I still permit myself to imagine what it would be like if her father, my husband, were to suddenly return. Yafit would look up, her brown eyes liquid with wonder. Her eyelashes would flutter; at age almost-three, she is an outrageous flirt.

"Are you my Daddy?" she would ask, and my husband's eyes would light up with the miracle of this new discovery.

Click here to purchase a copy of A Widow's Tale.

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