By Susan Kushner Resnick
My soul mate’s hand was warm, so I felt safe letting go for a few minutes. I had calls to make, people to summon to his bedside. While I sat next to him and spoke to his only living relative, a nurse walked into the room.
“He’s gone,” she said almost in a whisper.
I put down the phone and lifted his big hand again.
I kissed his forehead then immediately called my husband.
David had been supporting me for the entirety of the relationship that I’d just lost. He wasn’t threatened by Aron, a ninety-one-year-old Holocaust survivor, although he became appropriately alert when I’d announced our first rendezvous fourteen years earlier.
Aron had approached me in the lobby of a community center as I put my baby in a car seat.
“Vhat’s his name?” he had asked.
I summed him up as harmless. I figured he was approaching strange women and babies because he missed his own grandchildren. But a few more questions revealed how wrong that assumption had been. Aron didn’t have children or grandchildren. All but one of his family members had been killed by Hitler.
“I was in the camps,” he said. “All the camps.”
Auschwitz, Birkenau, Dachau. Places of infamy where he learned to sort the blouses of the dead and to witness a hanging without flinching. Yet his eyes sparkled during that first conversation and he delivered lines like a Borscht-belt comedian. The contrast—so seemingly jolly for a Holocaust survivor—hooked me. I asked him out for a coffee date.
“You buying?” he asked.
And so, for $1.25, a beautiful friendship began.
In the early days of our relationship, we flirted. He’d drive by my house to see if my car was in the driveway. I’d make sure my make-up was right before ringing his doorbell. He would regularly tease David about the potential for romance between us.
“If I was thirty years younger, you’d be in trouble,” he said over and over.
I even imagined romantic scenes starring Aron and me, circa 1946. In these fantasies, I played the strong American lass loving the young Polish survivor back to life. I would soothe him after he woke screaming from the nightmares that plagued him from the end of the war to the end of his real life: dreams of vicious dogs and men shooting at his father. He would be so grateful for my patience and tenderness that he would take me as his bride. And for the rest of our lives, he would never construct slag heaps of laundry in the corners of the bedroom or forget every logistical detail I ever told him, as my actual husband does.
I conjured those fantasies because like most humans, I was conditioned to associate strong attraction with romantic love. I was drawn to Aron, therefore I must have a crush on him, right? And though I always knew that wasn’t the course our relationship would take—he was forty-four years my senior and the picture of elderliness when we met—I had a hard time labeling our bond. I played with all kinds of combinations: grandfather and granddaughter; sister and brother; best friends. None of them fit.
The soul mate, we’ve been taught in our rom-com culture, is the brass ring of romantic love. Find your other half and you can start searching for wedding caterers. A soul mate knows you and “gets” you and will never let you down. Therefore, you should marry him.
At least not if you believe in soul mate as mirror image. There’s an old myth that says humans started as four-limbed double creatures, but the gods worried that we’d take over, so they decided to split us in half. Ever since, we’ve been searching for our other halves so we can feel complete.
How marriage became part of the equation I’ve never understood. It seems as though marrying your twin would be exactly the wrong thing to do.
For four years, I dated my psychological echo. At first it was wonderful: so familiar, so comfortable. He got me. Then it turned disastrous. This nice guy and I, with our tendencies toward depression and inertia, were bringing each other down. Because we were so similar, we made the same mistakes. There was no counterbalance—no one to pull either of us back by the belt loops when we got too close to the edge.
In a pairing of opposites, there’s always someone to see how crazy you’re getting and metaphorically slap you straight. The boyfriend and I didn’t have this. Thankfully, we didn’t marry.
My husband, by contrast, can pull me back from the brink and I can do the same for him. We are not soul mates. We are complete individuals, not two halves of each other. He is science and I am art. He is awake and I am dreaming. He saves and I spend. I’m better at parallel parking, but only he can remember where we left the car. Of course, our differences can sometimes be infuriating, but our pairing has worked for twenty-one years. I like to think that’s because David is my intended: the best husband the universe could have picked for me. A unified soul has nothing to do with it.
Aron also ended up with a romantic opposite. His girlfriend, Nerry, was a highly educated Russian professor of foreign languages who never complained about her serious medical issues and who read poetry recreationally. Aron, by contrast, graduated from fifth grade, complained about every twinge, and watched pro-wrestling for escape. At their cores, he was sand and she was steel.
Both of our relationships worked fine when we met, though I was yearning for something I couldn’t name. David and I balanced each other, made each other laugh, and agreed on the big things. But he didn’t get me unless I explained myself because he didn’t see the world through the same lens. I missed that. Then I found Aron.
He identified our similarities first. He had tumbled into an anxiety-depression hole that led to a hospitalization that brought me to the first of many uncomfortable chairs by many institutional beds. He’d been admitted for chest pains, but the doctors and I knew that cardiac weakness wasn’t causing his distress. PTSD from four years in the Nazi system was making him sick, but he refused to see that or to speak to the staff psychiatrist about treatment. It was my job to convince him to surrender to help. As the sunset turned the industrial rooftops outside his window into art, I told him my story. I’d been anxious for years until a case of postpartum depression forced me to face and treat my brain’s chemical inadequacies. I’d felt fine ever since. Accepting help didn’t have to be shameful.
“Nothing bothers Nerry,” he said.
“Same with David,” I said.
“Good thing we have them because we’re both nervous,” he said.
He looked at me and grinned. We were both nervous. We laughed at the same things. We interpreted the world in the same cynical way, spoke in the same blunt manner, even liked the same foods prepared the same quirky ways. Because he’d been raised in the days of privacy and dignity, our conversations didn’t involve dribbling our vulnerabilities all over each other. But we still knew what the other would say or how the other was feeling most of the time. We didn’t have to work at trust and love, or worry that either would fade. Neither of us could be described as easy-going, but even after he hung up on me during an argument or I scolded him for being so exceedingly stubborn, we didn’t have to apologize or explain ourselves. It was easy. It was not marriage.
We were, I believe, the purest of soul mates. There was no romance or sex. Just the deep comfort of being seen and known and accepted completely. For a brief period in both of our lives, we got to feel whole.
Then his hand went cold.
What’s it like to lose a soul mate? The saddest part is suspecting that such a relationship will never come again. I plan on having my husband around for many more years, and I will surely develop new life-changing friendships. But I don’t think we get more than one soul mate per life cycle. Who else on this earth will ever know me so well? It hurts to realize that particular luxury is probably over for me.
I used to panic, as Aron got older, about how I’d live in the world without him. But it’s turned out to be surprisingly painless. I take comfort in remembering how lucky I am to have found my other half. But I also don’t feel like he’s completely absent.
I talk to a lot of dead people in my head—my mother, dear friends who died young—but almost never to Aron. This makes sense to me. Where else would the rest of me go after death? Following my soul mate theory, he is I. To reach him, I only need to talk to myself.
SUSAN KUSHNER RESNICKS’s latest book, You Saved Me, Too: What A Holocaust Survivor Taught Me About Living, Dying, Loving, Fighting and Swearing in Yiddish, was published in October 2012. She teaches creative nonfiction writing at Brown University.