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Empty Chairs

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 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.

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Posted by on April 10, 2019 in Culture, Family, philosophy, Religion

 

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State of Being

Verbs are words that show a state of being—present, past, future. Transient or continuous. When we use the verb “was/were,” we mean something that has passed. It happened in the past. It is done. It is over. When we use the verb “is/are” we speak of something that is present. Something that exists now, current. An action that is going on right now. This moment.

For the purpose of my question, tense is not important. Past participle, continuous, perfect—none of these important to my question. What is important are simple tenses. Past and present.  

And so I ask, why do we say someone is dead?

We can say someone is alive. To be alive is a continuous state. Continuous, until it ends, either abruptly, or slowly, slowly over a period of time. Suddenly, or counting down, day, day, day. One hand. A few fingers. Done. Present becomes past very easily.

Someone is alive. Then they are not alive. But they are not dead. If we insist on using present tense we should say something that is an actual ongoing state. Something that is active. Her body is in the ground. She is decomposing. Her ashes are disappearing into the snowy stream.

Death is not an active state. It is not something someone does. It is the end of doing. She is alive. She is laughing. She is loving. She is healing. She is holding your hand, raising children. She is putting her feet on the dashboard on a long ride, talking, laughing, singing.  Under your hand, her leg is warm.

 
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Posted by on January 27, 2016 in Culture, Family, philosophy, psychology, Social

 

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Collecting Stones

Collecting Stones

Today is the day I collect stones.

Years ago, far away, Jews, before they were Jews, back when they were a wandering tribe of anthropo-theists who believed in a single god that they insistedGrave 1 was unlike any other, met the Canaanites, who believed in no such thing. Before they merged, even back then, we buried our dead in the ground. At first this was in caves. Then, in the ground itself. In areas that were too hard to dig, too rocky, a body would be placed on the ground and stones would be heaped on and around the body. The community would bring stones and the more people who attended, the more stones would be piled. One could tell how important, or how loved, and they are not the same, by how high the pile of stones was.

Still today, the tradition continues. One can walk through a Jewish cemetery and see graves with stones on them. Someone comes to visit and leaves a stone. “I was here.” “People still care about this person.” Over srtre gravetime, the piles grow.

The Hebrew word for pebble is tz’ror—a word that also means bond. In the memorial prayer, El Maleh Rahamim, we ask the deceased be “bound up in the bond of life”—tz’ror haHayyim. By placing the stone, we show that we have been there, and that this person’s memory continues to live on in us, through us. And the practice is not kept to just Jews who have passed, but one may see pebbles on the grave of any beloved or respected. If you see pebbles, you know a Jew has been there. You know the person is loved.

Tomorrow I bury my father. Unlike my grandmother, whom I myself buried, my mother—and soon my father to join her—is buried in a “waterproof” concrete casket buried in the ground over which a concrete lid is placed over which a marble lid is placed and secured with four large bolts. I shooed the workers away and secured the bolts myself. It was not the same, one shovel after another, but it was some closure. Tomorrow I will do the same.

bernstein graveWhat strikes me about this cemetery, other than the non-Jewishness of keeping a body from the elements, securing it from the waters, protecting it from the natural process that brings it back into the Earth, is this—a nearly complete lack of stones. Oh, the graves have stones. They are brought in, small ones, in pockets and handbags and baggies. But there are none to gather—as though the ground had been cleared, swept, scraped free. There should be a sign. “There will be no gathering of stones here. No. We have made sure of it.”

First breath. Last breath. In between, we collect stones.

And, so, today I collect stones.

 
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Posted by on July 6, 2015 in Culture, Family, Religion

 

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Already It Is Too Long

Already it is too long 
For you 
To lie there 
With your one eye open 
Staring at nothing, or 
Something only you can see. 
I cannot quite tell 
If you are conscious but 
Incapable of movement, or 
Vacated so fully 
you do not even care to swallow 
However much we may plead. 
 
I ask how you are doing. 
They tell me facts - 
How many squirts of apple juice, 
How many half-teaspoons of pudding - 
But I don't want facts. 
Lives are not made of 
facts and measure and scales and 
What do they know? 
They didn't even know 
Which way to comb your hair. 
So we brushed it back and 
Now you look like you again and 
You can go now. 
Really. It's OK.
 
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Posted by on July 2, 2015 in Family, Poetry

 

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My Novel

At the edge of the waves, at the rising tide, where the surf dug a cliff of the sand, a father was flying a kite. His daughter of nine or ten is digging a hole, arm deep, water filling from the bottom, scoops of mud pulled out one by one. His son stares at the sea. He is seven or eight, and he stares at the sea. His father asks if he wants to fly the kite. His sister asks if he wants to dig. “I just want to go fish.”

His name is Javier or Julian, Emiliano or Felipe and he just wants to fish. He is a young man of nineteen and he is out on his boat. His father is an accountant, or a lawyer, and he wants him to go to college. He presses. They don’t talk. He is a man of thirty-five, and he fishes. His sister has moved far inland. She wants him to visit. Stay. Meet a girl. She says she loves him. She worries.

He is fifty. His nephew calls. Wonders when he will visit. He is fifty five. His father calls. He has not seen him in ten years. Fifteen years. They draw near, fall away, decide to connect, find their egos, fall away again.

He is fifty-eight. His sister has died. She had an illness. Or an accident. She lingered, gave in. He wasn’t there. He is sixty-one, his father makes a last call. His son answers but all he hears is the sea.

He is seventy, and the waves roll up and down. The horizon fades. This is the novel. But I know nothing about fishing. All I know is the child we passed as we walked the beach. He said something. Six words. I heard him. This is the novel. But I don’t know what to write.

 
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Posted by on May 3, 2015 in Writing

 

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Silence

I have taken a break to grab some lunch. A small Chinese restaurant. A family of four sits across from me, one table ahead.

This is the family that typifies an average – a mother, a father, both middle aged, a daughter of late teens, a son nearly a teen or recently so.

Each eats without word, but the only silence is among them. Within each there is a shield of sound. Each has headphones on. Earbuds, full phones, hangers, and, for the father, Bluetooth speakers reminiscent of Uhura at the communications console on the bridge of the USS Enterprise. Each is listening to music. It bleeds beyond the headphones and earbuds, mixes into a pandemonic of sounds. Loud enough to carry the treble to my table of each individual island at theirs, as they listen, look down, fork, plate, food, mouth, plate, food, mouth, down, up, down, up, wordless, silent.

 
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Posted by on March 24, 2015 in Culture, Family, Social

 

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Image

Something My Mother Taught Me

Something My Mother Taught Me.

I know this is not what she set out to teach me, but I am grateful for the lesson about life, even if it cost my mother her own.

 
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Posted by on July 7, 2013 in Culture, Family, Poster, Social, Uncategorized

 

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