There is too much- The coming and going of pixels, products, and personalities, Demands, desires, deadlines, debts, Bandwidth saturation and buffering, Buffering, always, While the world continues to clickclick. Who hears anything? Who sees anything? Pay attention—a friend of mine just died. I didn't write acquaintance. I wrote friend. He needed things. Not much. I couldn't pay attention. It isn't all my fault, but Really it is. Not his death, but He could have left with more love and Care. Instead of waiting… Waiting for the buffering to clear.
What’s in a name? For a rose, very little. Roses don’t care. But people. People care, and why would they not? Identity, history, connection, and potential futures can come and go with a mis-identification, mis-recognition,or mis-spoken name. Names have power. Names have weight.
But old patterns die hard. They weigh more. Life changes, but old patterns don’t. The brain changes but the patterns are still recognised. Still followed. They are the watercourse.
Know a girl since you are fifteen, marry, have children, grow older, support each other, change with each other, be happy, develop patterns of speech, strings of words, ways of communicating, watch her die. Old patterns – they don’t die.
Life is relentless. Keep promises. Be happy. Grow. Change. Love again. Love well. Love fully and completely. Be happy together. And, always, yet, the danger of the old pattern. The name. The slight halt before the saying. The self-check. The nearly unconscious pattern of words as it nearly slips out. Nearly, corrected. Not always. Not even often. But sometimes. And sometimes, even seldom, is enough to give wary pause always.
Don’t make the mistake, though, sometimes the name is half-out before you catch it. Don’t make the mistake, though sometimes you know you must have. Hope you have not, but know you have. No one deserves that.
This is the vigil-
To protect you from the wolves
After the nights
Singing to you
“Don’t leave me.”
Holding your hand,
Touching your heart,
Fingers in your hair.
“You don’t get tired.”
It isn’t time for me
For you though –
Watching you breath
Watching you stop.
Open the doors.
Keep the wolves away.
Feel the sudden change.
“Where is she?”
Gone. Gone. Beyond gone.
To the other shore.
Let the people roll in,
Gather the sheet,
Tie it around your body,
Carry it away.
Carry it away.
The difference is I didn’t lock the door.
The difference is I knew I wasn’t in a mind where I could make my best decisions. That, for a time, It was best to let others decide some things for me.
But Jym is dead now. He died alone. He didn’t have to.
It wasn’t much more than a year since Denise died. At home, from seizures associated with her MS. She had trouble affording her medication and rationed it. Then, when she needed the hospital, they were too busy with Covid patients, and told her not to come unless it was an emergency. Then it was, and the paramedics arrived too late. Jym was there. She died, but she didn’t die alone.
Jym drank a bit. But then he began drinking more. He stopped eating.
Jym was well over six feet tall. Look at his pictures from his younger days. Thor. When I met him, he was wearing a kilt, had long white hair, long white beard, and a long plaid kilt with high leather boots and a long-sleeve khaki twill button-down shirt. It turned out he knew many of the same people we did. He was the wacky neighbor any of us would be lucky to have but rarely appears outside of a sit-com. He was also kind, helpful, and had so many of the best stories. He was 59. Today, he is 62. He will always be 62.
Denise was so much shorter that it was hard to guess her height when next to Jym. Next to me, it was easier. Five foot tall, maybe. A Mohawk, she was proud to tell us. She matched Jym for kindness, and story for story. Jym gave us a painting of hers he thought we’d like. He was right.
A few months ago Jym wasn’t answering texts. He seemed in rough shape a few nights earlier. No answer at the door. His ex-wife came to the house. He didn’t answer. I called the police for a well-check. He told them to go away. They did. Even though he was on the floor. I called the paramedics. They broke the door in. He went to the hospital for nearly a month. Supposedly, he’d not be able to take care of himself and would need to go to a nursing home, starvation and alcohol had done such damage. But he recovered, came home, and even came over a few times to watch something on TV, to talk, bring us a Hanukkah present. But he always refused to join us for dinner. He never wanted food. He did ask us to pick up Gatorade and cat-food for him. We did.
He made his will. He told me about it. He didn’t want to stay. He told me all about that too. He also told me how he walked away from a bomber crash in 1943, England. He told me about being an American spy during WWII. He told me… so many things. I listened.
Then, last week, he didn’t tell me anything. He stopped texting me. He didn’t answer mine. Perhaps I should have banged on the door. Perhaps I should have called the paramedics again. But I think not. He wanted Denise or he wanted oblivion. If he couldn’t have the one, he’d take the other. I understood. I had been there. I couldn’t blame him.
And then he was gone.
I don’t know which he got.
But he didn’t have to die alone. Alone. The loneliness, I understand. Even in the midst of friends, loneliness.
And the difference between he and I is I didn’t lock my door.
The difference is I knew I didn’t know better.
The difference was fifteen minutes and a thought of my daughter.
The difference was a dance with my oldest friend’s daughter at her bat mitzvah the day I had planned to be my last.
The difference was a well-timed phone call from someone who somehow knew.
That he starved himself to death… I knew that wouldn’t work for me. The longest I had ever gone was eight days. People would notice. Sometimes it is better to care what others think. Sometimes.
Some years ago, a student wrote me a letter. I don’t know who it was. But, if they ever read this, please know how much you are appreciated. Please know you are appreciated more than any words can express. Please know I kept that letter. Please know that I heard you. I heard you. I heard everyone, even when it didn’t seem like I did. Even when I couldn’t respond. And I’m here. I’m here.
I appreciate everyone who stayed with me, even when our relationships changed over time. That you are still here. Thank you. That I am so surrounded by love, I will never be able to explain. Thank you. That I am still here – thank you. I am under no illusion I saved myself. I know better than that. The only thing I did was to know when my own inner-voice was not the one to listen to. And to not lock the door.
An old Chinese farmer had lost his mare, his only horse, having escaped through a broken fence. His neighbor, seeing this, shook his head and said what bad fortune this was. The old farmer only replied, “Could be. Could be.”
The horse returned and brought with her a stallion. His neighbor, seeing the fine horse, remarked what good fortune he had. The farmer replied. “Could be. Could be.”
His son tried to tame the horse, to ride him, but the horse threw him off. His son broke his leg. He would be of no help on the farm. The neighbor said how sorry he was for the old man, that things were bad for him. What bad fortune. “Could be. Could be,” he said.
The general came through the province, looking for men to fight the barbarians to the west, promising the soldiers would return with the spoils of war. But he did not take the old man’s son, as he now walked with a limp. Such terrible fortune, his neighbor said. “Could be. Could be.”
The army was routed, and most of the soldiers killed. The neighbor heard, and, upon seeing the old man said, “What good fortune!” “Could be. Could be,” was all he said.
~Adam Byrn Tritt
It is coming onto to Passover. A month ago I invited people over to share seder with us. The first time in ten years. More years. The first time I have celebrated passover since Lee died. The first time I have written died instead of left. The anniversary of my first year in my new house.
I asked Lisa if she wanted to have Passover in our new home. She said yes. She was excited. That was all I needed.
We used to have a house full of people. In the haggadah, the book that has the order of the seder, the Passover celebratory supper, it says we recline on this night. It is one of the four questions asked by the youngest child. Mah nishtanah, ha-laylah ha-zeh,mi-kol ha-leylot. Why is tonight different from all other nights? Why do we recline tonight when all other nights we sit straight? We recline to represent our freedom, the freedom from bondage. In our house there was no choice but to recline. Forty-two people in one very small house left us sitting, reclining, leaning and otherwise enjoying the story of Passover on the floor, leaning against the sofa, on the sofa, at makeshift tables, draped over each other, waiting for the Angel of Death to pass us over..
Each year we did this, and people would come. Students who could not get home would hear about it through Hillel, the Jewish student group, at UF. From Santa Fe Community College. Neighbours. Friends.Jews, Christians, Pagans, Buddhists. Everyone brings something. We tell the story of Spring, of rebirth and renewal, because passover is, at the root, a Spring holy-day. We tell of release from bondage, real and metaphoric, and how those who have been slaves but are now free must then reach down to others, extend a hand, to help lift them to freedom. How those who have been freed must never enslave another. A holy-day of social action, equality, and freedom.
I’d even take red streamer paper and cover the outside doorposts and lentice-piece, as the old story says they were painted with the blood of the sacrificed lamb, to tell the Angel of Death to pass over our home. There would be no death here tonight.
Some days earlier we had met Joyce. And she was invited. Her first time in our home for the woman with whom we had become instant fast-friends, and not even a place to sit. There would be no death here tonight.
Sef and I baked matzah, the unleavened bread, the bread of haste, and prepared the house. The seder plate was set. People arrived. We told stories, sang songs, ate bitter herbs, broke matzah, tasted salt water, enjoyed charoset, tolerated horseradish on, and those of use who did not like it, made fun of those of us who enjoyed the gefilte fish. We hid the afikomen (a small piece of matzah) for the children to find, for there were many children there, including our own, and we left a cup of wine for Elijah, in case he should arrive at our door. For Elijah, and all those who are missing, being missed, absent. Metaphoric. Abstract.
This year we have invited people. Most have not responded. One person said she understood this was an honor, and, with appreciation, told me she would be away. Others just said they’d see. They don’t understand – it isn’t game-night. It isn’t just a friendly invitation to come over for a drink. It’s Passover. It’s a different world, it feels like. I don’t know how they don’t get it. But, also, I don’t know how to explain it and have no real desire to.
I know the right people will be there. Lisa. Arlene. Family. That is family. They are family. The nextdoor neighbours will be there. The children are far away. Anyone else, it seems not. There will be no need to recline this Passover.
But there are people who would be there. And for them, the empty places are no longer metaphor. No longer abstract, but painfully, concretely, empty.
Joyce will not be there. She is dying. Close to death. Close enough that she has been visited by Lee, who sits with her. Two empty chairs.
The Angel of Death is a myth. Or, if not, certainly being able to protect loved ones from its grasp is most certainly. Nothing painted over the door will work. No feng shui mirror will reflect it. No prayers will avert it. Death comes.
This Passover, as we are celebrating freedom, I’ll be noticing the empty chairs. And I’ll be thinking, while we are alive, do something with that freedom. We must. Because nothing will protect us. Nothing will stop death. Old age is never guaranteed, only death, at any time.
This is what I’ll be telling myself so I can, the best I can, turn the empty chairs into something more meaningful than symbols of loss, vacuity, grief. Because I suspect there will be many more empty chairs for me to get used to. More cups of wine to pour that will not be sipped. More memories to step around, to not become lost in, as I open my eyes for each coming dawn, go about my days, close my eyes in the dark nights.
Or maybe I’ll be an empty chair, a cup of wine, a quiet moment.
This Passover I will not be covering the doorposts. There is no need. The Angel doesn’t care. Come or go, we’ll celebrate. With life and death, we’ll celebrate. With love, we’ll celebrate, while we can. And lift our glasses to each and every empty chair and know there is one thing the Angel of Death cannot kill.