Endowed in perpetuity by the Glenna Luschei Fund for Excellence

Angel in the House

DovBer Naiditch
Prairie Schooner, Vol. 86, No. 4 (Winter 2012)

My wife is becoming an angel, or some kind of spiritual being, I’m not sure exactly what. The other day I moved to touch her and my hand went right through her—right where her shoulder used to be—and scooped out a light-speckled cloud of her into the air that took a moment to reform. She smiled a kind of tired smile and looked at me, but I could tell she wasn’t really looking at me. She was seeing something else.
 '‘I’m sorry,’’ she said. My Malkah, and I could only just hear her.

'‘Come back to me,’’ I said. It felt phony, like a tv thing to say, but I meant it.

'‘I can’t,’’ she said, ‘‘I don’t know how.’’ And her eyes, because they didn’t see me, said I don’t want to.

When this began I went to my rabbi, a gray-bearded sage not yet in his forties but full in knowledge. He promised to search the literature—set a methodical pace through the heavy tomes of tractates I’d perused only in Yeshiva. Days passed and my wife grew lighter, more diffuse. He called me on a hot Wednesday night. I was sweating so much my beard left wet heat stains on the phone.

‘‘What have you found?’’ I asked.

‘‘Nothing,’’ he said. ‘‘Angels to men there’s some discussion about. Nephilim, they were called. A prehistoric mixing of beings. It didn’t end well,’’ he said. ‘‘Men or women to angels, though, nothing.’’

'‘Why her?’’ I asked. ‘‘Why us?’’

'‘This we can’t know,’’ he said. ‘‘Why Abraham? Why David? The sev- enth son of a farmer? A shepherd? God chooses,’’ he said. ‘‘He chooses. We don’t know why.’’

But he was a good rabbi, a mentor, a confidant from my high school days. He told me that in surrounding subjects he was able to find various indices on the laws pertaining to issues of bodily integrity. ‘‘Responsa from rabbis during the crusades discuss issues of dismemberment and mutilation at length,’’ he said. ‘‘Questions of marital obligations, Halachic status, but no requests for a, eh, reversal of it,’’ he said. ‘‘Mostly just requests for divorce.’’

My wife sat across the couch from me at the time, reading some book on the lives of Hasidic masters. She was pale and cool in a thick sweater. Her iced tea had gone untouched in a pool of condensation. Divorce.

‘No,’’ I said. G-d forbid.

'‘Then perhaps you have to accept it,’’ he said. ‘‘Elijah the Prophet went straight up to G-d without losing his life. He didn’t, eh, dissipate, but he didn’t die in a traditional sense. To have a wife turn into an angel or something like it isn’t such a bad thing,’’ he said. ‘‘To turn like this, it must mean something.’’ He paused—rifled through laden holy words and their English translations: ‘‘A wonder.’’

A rabbi can say such things and mean it. I could hear him stroke his gray beard through the phone, chew thoughtfully on its bleached edges. I could feel something of his wonder, though it wasn’t mine.

'‘Accept it,’’ I said.

My wife had accepted it with quiet grace. She hadn’t been upset about anything since this began. When she was solid, things mattered. She’d come home and talk for hours about some patient’s asinine family, some overeager nursing student who’d hung the wrong medication. Her cheeks would go red, her hands would move with purpose toward some hunk of beef that was dinner, cutting and complaining. The meat would grease her fingers, stain her skirt brown where she wiped them. But as an angel she looked at our replica Monet painting for hours, asked me if I could see things that weren’t there—variations of color, multifoliate hues.

Her work couldn’t accept it. An angel doesn’t make a good nurse, they said. Patients died too often around her. The other nurses were talking behind her back about her back, the way they could sometimes see through it to the monitors, and how the beeps and pongs of the unit sounded cold and ephemeral on nights when she was there—distant, the charge nurse said, like the sound of ships in fog. ‘‘They’ve taken to calling her the angel of mercy,’’ she said, ‘‘and that’s not a good thing here.’’

'‘She may not be an angel,’’ I said. ‘‘We’re not certain of that. She doesn’t have wings or anything,’’ I said. ‘‘She has no robes, or none beside her bathrobe, which is a burgundy terrycloth, same as mine.’’ I said. '‘Wedding gifts.’’

"Nonetheless,’’ she said, ‘‘we’ve offered a generous severance package.’’

Our three children accepted it. On its face, they accepted it. Young as they were, they took Mommy’s assurances that she was fine without question. They became proud without knowing why. Mommy’s becoming an angel, I’d hear the six-year-old explaining to her dolls, so she’s not going to work anymore. The four-year-old cried a bit and said she wanted Mommy to be a person and to hug them, but my wife smiled and said she would always be her mommy, even without hugs, and eventually the four-year-old stopped. The youngest, just over a year and a half, didn’t know any better.

At home my wife puttered about like a two-day-old balloon, so tired it seemed, but floating just a bit above the ground. She made lunches care- fully, focused on the bags, the fruits. Holding a pen required her firm at- tention. Things kept breaking. Glassware, plates. They’d fall through her hands and shatter. I’d find her on her knees in the kitchen, staring at shards, picking carefully through pieces as though they were a puzzle she could put back together. I bought plastic dishes, put away her bubbe’s crystal.

Then at night she began to disappear altogether. The blankets held nothing. And in the mornings she’d wake up so alive that I thought maybe . . . But then she’d tell me of the wonderful dreams she’d had: angels— myriads and myriads of them, a swaying, flashing mass like a school of fish. And the rest of the day she’d just get dimmer and dimmer. And soon I knew in the way we know these things that our house and home were becoming the dream, that I was becoming the dream.

There was no answer for this, none that we could find. But there are always other questions to ask. My rabbi, for his recourse, had turned again to the Torah. I was never as comforted by ritual law as he was, but when we met at his house his words were a comfort. They brought with them the solidity of decisions, at least—rules for Kaddish, for mourning, for separation.

She'll turn soon. She doesn’t eat. She barely talks, and when she does it’s about things I don’t understand, foreign words and concepts. She speaks at length about multiple infinities, layers of them, greater and greater. Sometimes she speaks very slowly, other times too fast, like an old tape recorder.

The children have grown around this thing like saplings around a wire, they wisp through her on the way to bed, ignore her when she talks of myriads. Their cries are edged, maybe, with something I can’t comfort with hugs. But then they smile in their sleep sometimes, all at once, and I feel the force of tears against my eyes.

Tonight, before she falls asleep, I sit on her bed. I call her by her name and the name of her mother, and she looks at me and through me.

‘Hi,’’ she smiles. ‘‘Husband,’’ she says, as if turning over a foreign object in her hand.

‘I’ve spoken with the rabbi,’’ I say. ‘‘He says—he says that for this kind of situation I don’t really need to, uh, to do anything, divorce-wise, if we don’t want to, because even if it doesn’t pass as, as death, I can still remarry on a technicality. But for you, where you’re going, maybe you want to, I mean, I don’t want you to feel stuck to me for, you know, forever.’’

'‘The rabbi?’’ she asks, and then she understands. There are tears in her eyes, like a sad movie.

‘‘It’s not all bad,’’ she says. ‘‘Right?’’ ‘‘None of it,’’ I say. And she smiles at me in particular, puts her hands on my chest. On my solid mass of fat, muscle, bone, hair and skin. She pushes through them all until she reaches my heart, and wraps her hands around and beneath it as if she’s holding together the pieces of something broken.