My Sister Rachel
When her oldest, Jake, was a baby, my sister Rachel once told me, she would go into his room and watch him as he took his naps. One morning he cried out in his sleep, and she awakened him. “I wasn’t going to let him have any lousy nightmares,” she said. Only she didn’t use the word lousy. After all, why use a five-letter word when a four-letter one would do? That was Rachie’s motto. And that was Rachie. No child of hers would have a nightmare if she could help it. No child of hers. No child of our sister Naomi’s. No child of our sister Ruthie’s. No child of mine.
She may have been a small person, 5’3” at the most, and skinny, and I may have been taller than she by the time of my bar mitzvah despite my being younger by 10 years (and never skinny), but to me, she was so very, very, very large. So beautiful, so vivid, so sophisticated. And such a worry. My parents are not especially discreet people, and so even as a small boy I knew, I heard, I witnessed, how they feared for her—that she was always on the verge of some disaster in school, that she would lose herself in the cheap pleasures of the 1960s, that she would be detoured by some boy.
In the end, it was pointless, all that worrying, because she was who she was, after all, and if anyone knew that life was too glorious and precious to be frittered away, it was Rachel. So she wasted a few years, here and there, she futzed around on a kibbutz, and she didn’t get a diploma. Well, what on earth did she need a diploma for. This was the most talented person I’ve ever known. She could do anything. She could paint, and draw, and sculpt, and carve. She could conjure up witticisms that would have stoked the envy of Oscar Wilde. She read widely and tastefully. What she didn’t know she didn’t need to know.
And how she wrote. I made the acquaintance of a leftist playwright of renown in the last couple of years. He followed me on Facebook. One day he asked me who this Bad Rachel was—this writer on the Internet to whose blog items I provided links. I stiffened because I didn’t want to get into a fight with him. She’s my sister, I told him, and yes, she’s pretty hard-core. He paused dramatically, this man who regularly abuses conservatives in print and in his plays. “She is a writer of genius,” he said.
She was, too. She wrote mostly in anger, enraged at people she believed hated the United States and knew hated Israel, disgusted by Islamist misogyny and contemptuous of feminist misandry. She was not merely politically incorrect; she simply discarded all nicety. But the prose she constructed around those feelings was ornate and so rich in arch ironies that it often took several readings to get it all in. Of a certain writer at a Washington magazine for whom she had particular contempt, she took to verse:
Oh blithersome couturier of wordifactious spewage,
Your loathsome predilection for effluxicating brewage
Has found its proper gallery in hurricanus sewage.
Oh odious splendiferatious tonguer of all piety,
Ambassador-at-very-large for platitudiniety,
Your prosody’s ontology’s all Sartric nullibiety.
It’s thus we say, with due respect, and many years’
Oh, literary colporteur, the words of your devising
Appear to land upon the page without palpable revising.
This bit of denunciation, worthy of Alexander Pope, took her maybe an hour. Earlier, it might have been half an hour, but the chemo really took it out of her.
I’ve never known what to make of the fact that Rachel, who was really very ambitious, could never do what was necessary to allow the world outside her small circle to see the overwhelming glow of her interior fire. She wrote some, here and there; wrote a few book reviews; and published an extraordinary short story in Commentary in 1988. But while those of us who knew how brilliant she was did everything we could to encourage her, not until she let herself loose and started blogging as Bad Rachel in her late 50s did she really ignite herself in public.
And then she got sick.
She once talked to me about what it was like to be married to her husband, Elliott Abrams, in the 1980s, when they were young and his remarkable career had taken him further than almost anyone of his age in America at the time. They would go to dinner parties in Washington, D.C., where they lived, and she would be seated next to some dignitary, as was suitable for the wife of an assistant secretary of state, and said dignitary would ask her what she did, and she would say she was the mother of three small children, and said dignitary would turn to the person on the other side. “I felt invisible,” she said.
Those fools. If the bizarrely sexless city of Washington made that drop-dead-gorgeous creature feel small and insignificant because there was some dull lobbyist to someone’s left who was deemed a more valuable conversational companion, the indictment writes itself. And we’re not even talking about the jewels that would have poured from her mouth all but unbidden, jewels that would render even the most tiresome evening a night to remember indeed.
Yes, she was a mother, a stay-at-home mother, of three children. Our sister Naomi once said she had never seen anyone who loved being a mother so unqualifiedly as Rachel. It was not that she loved her children more than anyone else, not that she exemplified maternal wisdom like her beloved Marmee from Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. It was that Rachel took an almost sybaritic pleasure in mothering, in all of it, the quotidian and the profound, the meals and the fights, the company of these small beings whom she not only loved fiercely but really, really, really liked.
The day came when all three of her kids went off to sleepaway camp. For many parents this is a day of liberation, a time of vacation, the first moment when a husband and wife are alone as they were before the kids were born, when they can go out to restaurants without worrying about the sitter and stay out late and wake up whenever and do whatever. And God knows Rachel loved Elliott. Loved his company. Loved to be with him. Loved the time she had with him. This was maybe the best marriage I’ve ever seen. But when they drove away and left the children there, Rachel was devastated. “I don’t know why they ever made those lousy camps,” she said. Only she didn’t use the word lousy.
She loved Joey, her youngest, and Nani, her girl, and Jake, her oldest. She liked Jake and Nani and Joey. She befriended them and she watched over them and, yes, how she worried over them. And there was no greater joy in her life, even in the worst of her cancer-stricken days, than seeing them find their loves, and being present at the marriages that give off every sign of following in her uniquely happy path with Elliott, and liking their loves, loving their loves, and knowing deeply within her that her love, her bottomless and endless and enriching and revivifying and ennobling love, was what made possible their ability to love so well and so wisely.
So maybe this explains it:
The world would be a better place if it knew of Rachel’s marvels, if her extraordinary wall-length carvings based on biblical themes—drawn in pencil, grooved into the wood with awl and burned with soldering iron, and then stained meticulously by hand—had gotten the attention they deserved. Everyone who sees one gasps at it. She only made a few. I have two, and I expect they will be passed down in my family for hundreds of years.
The culture would be better if she had focused her energies on producing writing of length that would have assembled all her gifts in one place and allowed her puckish, brash, saucy, sizzling, wise, unforgiving, harsh, gimlet-eyed sensibility the space to roam across the literary landscape.But the thing is, Rachel might not have been the better for it. Maybe she didn’t reach for it because, in the end, she didn’t need it. Maybe she didn’t need it because she ended up with more than she ever thought she would have during those days when she was spending too much money on taxis and making foolish romantic choices and playing at being a kibbutznik (that was the 1970s) and later feeling invisible at stupid dinner parties unworthy of her (that was the 1980s).
She found what was most important. She had her mother—a girl who became a woman largely because of her. She had me and her sisters, Naomi and Ruthie, whom she loved without pain and without competition. And when it came to healing her soul by herself and healing the wound of the emotional cruelty and guilt-inducing absence of her father, Moshe, she (and Naomi) found, and accepted, and made her stepfather Norman into her father as surely as Norman was mine and Ruthie’s.
That was a sight to see, that relationship between Rachel and Norman. A love so deep because it was voluntarily entered into by both. Rachel adored D.H. Lawrence’s strange and great novel, The Rainbow, because it featured the only depiction in literature of the kind of relation she had with the father she had chosen. Lawrence writes of the decision Brangwen and Lydia make to marry—she, the divorced mother of a four-year-old girl.
“There is the child,” she said, out of the long silence….There was a slight contraction of pain at his heart, a slight tension on his brows. Something he wanted to grasp and could not. “You will love her?” she said. The quick contraction, like pain, went over him again. “I love her now,” he said.
And as for the child, eventually “Anna’s soul was put at peace between them. She looked from one to the other, and she saw them established to her safety, and she was free. She played between the pillar of fire and the pillar of cloud in confidence, having the assurance on her right hand and the assurance on her left. She was no longer called upon to uphold with her childish might the broken end of the arch. Her father and her mother now met to the span of the heavens, and she, the child, was free to play in the space beneath, between.”
So Rachel had a mother, who loved her, and she chose Norman, who loved her, and because she chose Norman she was healed to choose Elliott, who loved her, and then she made Jake and Nani and Joey with him, and they loved each other, and Nani and Josh made her first grandchild, Rapha, who loved her as she loved him. Who knows who will come next from this great choosing.
It was not enough, though. Not nearly enough. She should have had more. So much more. So much more time for more grandchildren, more time with her husband, more time with all of us, and more time, if I can be selfish, with me. Speaking to her nearly every day, as I did, was like having my lungs filled with the purest oxygen. Hearing her laugh. God, did she love to laugh. Telling her about my kids, every detail of whose lives she vacuumed up hungrily and thoroughly, like a Dyson. And above all, throughout it all, her ineffable tenderness, her indescribable tenderness, her incandescent tenderness.
Now I will have to learn how to breathe ordinary air. I loved you, Rachel. And I liked you. And oh, oh, oh, how I admired you.
Rachel Abrams died on June 7, 2013, after a three-year battle with stomach cancer. She was 62 years old.