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Once Upon a Time, on a Board

This is a small story. It so happened that, for a short time, my wife (I still can’t say “late wife” and suspect I never will) and I were on the board of The Jewish Federation of Brevard and Indian River Counties. My wife and I. That makes this an ancient story as well.

For a short period of time, Lee and I fit that stereotype the world often holds, and holds against, Jews – we were professionals who had our own business and were, seemingly, doing well for ourselves. A stereotype held by much of the non-Jewish world and, in my experience, held onto by many American Jews as well. As a child, in a temple in Charleston, South Carolina, a city with the oldest reform temple in the United States, there too, not fitting the stereotype, we were reminded, constantly, even I, a student of ten years old, that we were not really members – we were there by the grace of the board and my father laboured weekends on the grounds, on the building, to gain entrance for my brother and I to Hebrew school, and for our tickets to the High Holy Days. But, now, now were were in. We were courted. We were voted onto the board. It didn’t last long.

This came to mind as I was party to a conversation regarding a menorah lighting, for Chanukah, in Viera. It could not be held where it has been for the last few years. In a large rotunda in the middle of a shopping area, two hundred people would be too many. It is a hazard. The Christmas tree lighting, we were told, only attracted sixty-five. Maybe that’s because Christmas trees are everywhere. Christmas is ubiquitous. But one has to strain ones neck, squint ones eyes, ask for field glasses to find a menorah.

That same area has a Night of Lights parade, or called some such thing, that blocks the traffic in several directions, detours people over four miles, results in congestion and accidents. I know this as I was stuck in that traffic, detoured, and crawled past the accidents. They have this every year.

And so someone asked if there was not a Jewish Federation which could speak to this. Perhaps talk to the powers that be and ask them to look at this fairly and logically. Here was my reply.

Brevard and Indian River. Jewish Federation. Unfortunately, that group, and their board, are as filled with hate as many other groups. I used to be on their board and eventually resigned in protest.

Here is that story.

We did much, while were were there, and maybe we were on the board for a year, to build the food pantry and make it accessible to everyone. And to promote the yearly Jewish Festival. After, a visible, welcoming group, a group that opens the door to understanding, even if it chooses to hold on to traditions, is less frightening, less mysterious. Create your own narrative so others don’t create it for you.

Then, at one meeting, charity came up, as it often did. This was after a long discussion about how to make the Federation into something that more people would want to join, and donate yearly, to. Yearly memberships were down. I suggested this was because people felt the Federation wasn’t doing anything for them, was not something that benefited their lives or that they could see benefited the lives of others. What were we doing so that people could see their money was being used well?

The discussion moved from that to making calls to past members, instead of just letters. That would do it, was the thought. That would increase donations.

Then, charity. A request to have a fundraiser for a charity in Israel. An open ended charity. No specific plan for the money. They would do with it as they saw fit when the need arose.

I asked if there was not at least a focus for the charity. Medical? Educational? Why did I want to know?

Why? I wanted to make sure the charity, our money, wasn’t going to be building houses in the West bank, or buying ammunition. I wanted to make sure it wasn’t going to be used to shoot Palestinians.

I recall there were twelve people on the board. I recall being stated at intensely, quizzically, unbelieving, by at least four. Then, a reply. “Why? It’s not like they’re people.”

I do not recall what Lee said. (Here I am tempted to say, “She of blessed memory,” as is cuswakemeuptom, but I do not want her laughing at me.) I do not recall because I was shocked and collecting my own thoughts but I remember she spoke at length, angrily, with heart, and tore into them in a way, considering their faces, they were not accustomed. We resigned that night.

At the core, here, I believe is a problem with what it means to be Jewish. And not just for me, but what it really means. Chosen. Not chosen because we are better. Not chosen to hold our noses high. Chosen by God, if you believe in such a thing, because we can do the hard work of bringing Tikkun to the world. Tikkun Olam. To make a heaven of Earth. To collect the shards of kindness into which the world has been shattered and bring them back together to recreate the vessel of heaven. Right action, Buddhists call it. Repair the world. Which is why a Jew should stand up for everyone. Which is why Jews were at the forefront of civil rights, why there are six Jews listed among the dead on the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery. Freedom Riders. Which is why Rabbi Heschel marched to Selma right next to Martin Luther King. Which is why we should not be for war. Which is why we should stand against poverty, against violence, disenfranchisement, and hate of all kinds, against all people. Tikkun is worth giving your life for.

This stand, and such is the pity, does not make me welcome in many temples. It often leaves me feeling lonely not just as a Jew in the United States, but also among my own tribe. And while I do not necessarily believe in God, or a god, I hold that concept in my heart. Tukkun Olam.

And that is a story from ancient history.

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Posted by on December 17, 2016 in Culture, philosophy, Religion, 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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Win a Copy of my Newest Book : Yom Kippur as Manifest in an Approaching Dorsal Fin

Want to win a copy of my newest book? Of course you do.  Goodreads is holding a give-away for ten copies. Just click on this link.

From the back-matter:

“Whatever ‘the Jewish experience’ might mean to the modern reader, Adam Byrn Tritt’s approach is uniquely his own. He is ‘observant’ in the sense that he carefully observes, as you would expect of a man who is, at essence, a poet. As a self-described ‘Jewitarian Buddhaversalist,’ he is aware that each tradition illuminates the other. This collection of essays and poems provides us with good talk. Conversation is the highest artform, and Mr. Tritt invites us in most kindly, with insight, erudition, humor, and compassion.”

—Wayne McNeill, author of Songbook for Haunted Boys and GirlsImage

Yom Kippur as Manifest in an Approaching Dorsal Fin explores—in essays, poems, and creative nonfiction—the tension between cultural heritage and contemporary society, between religion and spirituality, between the family you inherit and the family you create. From early-morning wrestlings with God to portraits of three remarkably different family funerals, from Kabbalist chants at a pagan bookstore to the humorous “What Do Jews Do on Christmas?,” Tritt’s writing taps into themes nearly universal in today’s world in ways that will resonate with readers of all backgrounds and faiths—or no faith at all.

 
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Posted by on August 20, 2013 in Books, Culture, Family, psychology, Religion, Social

 

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3:10

It is 3:10 ᴀᴍ
And I’m
Wrestling with Hashem
Over matters of love
And propriety,
Over poetry
And the small matter
Of whether he exists.
Hashem states
It is of little consequence
And I say, Hashem,
People fight and die,
Live, love, kill and
Become kind
In your name
And Hashem argues
Atheists do the same
But are, at least,
Honest in their motives.

 
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Posted by on March 5, 2012 in Culture, philosophy, Poetry, Religion

 

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A Letter to Sadie

I have just come back from a three and a half mile walk. Why? I am just a little bit more serious about long walks. Soon I’ll be pushing a stroller with you in it. Then walks in the park. Then maybe some road-trips to places you want to go. Then, who knows?

I want to be here a long time. Not just for you. That would not be true. I want to see your Father older, happy, smiling at you as you grow up. I want to see your Aunt Sef, my daughter, achieve everything she wants in life. I want to see your Grandmother, forever.

I want to see the family together. Your Father, your Mother, your Aunt, your Grandmother. Together. Again and again and again. And I want to see you. I want to see you crawl and walk and graduate college or learn the arts or whatever it is you want to do, I want to see it. I want to see my granddaughter. I want to see you happy.

As I write this, you are a month before you are born. I have felt you kick, I have talked to you through the wall of the womb. “Hello? Is there anybody in there? Just nod if you can hear me. Is there anyone at home?” Yes, Pink Floyd lyrics. If you like Pink Floyd, you can blame me. You heard them in utero.

See, even before you are born, I love you. I can’t help it. Maybe it is biology. Maybe not. It doesn’t matter. I can imagine talking you for walks, playing in parks, seeing things together. Being a good Grandfather.

I’m sure I’ll make as many mistakes as a Grandfather as I made as a father. There are no instructions for either. And I have no role models for it but I’ll do my best.

Last night I was sitting at the kitchen table with your Aunt Sef. She is, as I write this, 25 years old and in pre-med in New York City. I am telling you this because I hope you, unlike me, will know who your family is without having to put puzzles together. In part, that’s why I am writing this letter.

In a chair, near us, is your Grandmother. Dusty is on the couch with Sef’s boyfriend, Joe. Maybe he will be your Uncle. We sort of hope so. Her dog, Godiva, is on the other side of him. On the other couch are your Father and your Mother. She’s kind of on top of him and you are happily warm inside her. You three are startlingly cute together.

Sef and I are going through boxes of pictures brought up by your Great-Grandfather. He doesn’t know who most of the people are. I asked my Mother, your Great-Grandmother, Sheilah, for whom you are named, but by the time the pictures came to my attention, she could not identify some of the people, was unsure of others, changed her mind. Remembering not remembering was hard for her, stressful, upsetting. I let it go.

Really, that’s what this letter is about. It’s about introducing you to your family. And, as time moves on, I will label pictures better, Years, people, events, relations. I’ll do a better job than those before me.

Let’s start before there were pictures.

Your Father’s side of the family is all I can describe, of course. So I’ll talk about your Grandmother and Grandfather, Lee and myself, with that understanding.

Way back, maybe six or seven generations, both families were in Galicia and Galacia. Don’t confuse those. A letter can make a big difference. Language is funny that way, as you’ll discover.

Galicia is in Spain and it borders Portugal. Galacia is in Eastern Europe and it is sort of between Austria and Poland. Both had an awful lot of Jews which is why they got their own names and they got invaded a lot because when Jews live somewhere, it’s treated like no one really lives there.

Your Father is Jewish. I know – it’s hard to tell. See, it’s a religion, yes. It’s a culture too, yes. It is also a race. Sort of. Kind of. No one can tell from your genes if you are Catholic or Baptist or Mormon or Buddhist or what-have-you, but you can tell if you are Jewish. Even if you are a Cohan, Levite or Israelite. Your Father, by the way, is a Cohan, a member of the priesthood, traditionally. I can explain all that to you later. It’s kind of cool and kind of doesn’t matter anymore.

Genes. You can track the genes for the Jewish people for the female lineage by mitochondrial DNA. And for the male lineage by the haplotypes of the Y chromosome. Ok, so you are minus one month old and maybe not up to anthropological genetics. Besides, your Aunt loves genetics and she can explain it to you when you are older and able to understand. When you are four or five maybe.

You Father is Jewish. His entire side of the family is. Here’s how we got here.

Your Great-Great-Grandfather, my Grandfather, my Mother’s father came from England. Albert Cohen. His family was from Galicia. Near Portugal. His last name was Cohen. His family had to leave Galicia and went to Portugal. Had to means the governments said, “Hey, you. Jews. Convert or leave.” Sometimes it was just, “Leave.” And sometimes the request to leave sounded an awful lot like hoof-beats and rifle shots. They settled in Portugal and then they were told to leave again. This was 1496.

They could be forcibly baptized, or killed or leave. They could stay as “Crypto-Jews” which are also called Marranos, which means they outwardly convert but practice in secret. Many Marranos find out centuries later their families are Jewish and that is the reason they have customs and practices that are not quite Christian. Many even practice in cellars as part of their heritage but didn’t know why. Your family chose to leave.

They went to The Netherlands. There they were welcomed and in the 1670s you family helped create The Portuguese Synagogue. There is a lot of history there and we should go see it someday.

In England too. I have a picture of my Grandfather’s father or uncle. I cannot tell. He is the Lord Mayor of Hereford. He is standing next to King George VI and The Queen Mother, Queen Elizabeth’s mother. King George is in military uniform. They are on a street, in a group, in one picture. In another, looking at a bomb site. This is WWII Britain.

I never met my Mother’s father. He died of pneumonia when my Mother was a teenager. Or younger. He ended up in England, following his father, I think. Or his Grandfather. I am not sure. But he then came to Canada before WWII and was in the Canadian Forces and fought in that war. He was an electrical engineer. He met your Great-Great-Grandmother. I am not sure how. He became an American.

Looking through the photographs, I find pictures of him. He is in his 40s, maybe. Some in uniform, some not, some in a suit, a wedding picture. I find pictures of his brother, Uncle Dave and his sister, Aunt Jane. Great Uncle and Great-Aunt, actually. Your Great-Great Great Uncle Dave (Wow, three greats) was a jazz musician. He died in the late 1990s. He was amazing on a piano and would tell us stories of all the famous people he played with. He was married to Aunt Ester. We would go over to visit them often when I was small. Less than seven years old. They lived in New York then. They lived in an apartment. Their chihuahua bit me.

When they moved to Florida, as did we, we’d visit them in their home in North Miami. She would give me gin and tonics. I was twelve, thirteen.

Aunt Jane. There is a picture of my Mother with Aunt Jane and Uncle Al. My Mother is in her 20s. Great-Aunt Jane met my Great Uncle Al when they were both 14. He had a pushcart in New York City. He sold various items from it. He met Aunt Jane. They were married 78 years. In their late eighties they would go to the old age homes and play for what Aunt Jane called “The Old People.” Most of them were ten to twenty years younger than they were. Aunt Jane would play the piano and sing and Uncle Al played accordion.

She got sick and died within two weeks. She was in her nineties. That was 2007. Uncle Al took me aside and asked me what he was supposed to do. What do you do without your best friend? He asked me this because, he said, he knew I would understand. I didn’t have a good answer. We just sat. He died in 2009. I still have his number in my phone.

His daughter, Judy, my cousin, lives in New Hampshire.

Your Father met them. He was lucky. Aunt Jane and Uncle Al were two of the nicest, kindest people I had ever met. I believe, if there is no heaven, surely one was created for them.

Back to your Great-Great-Grandfather. Albert Cohen. Here is what my Mother told me about him. He was never cross, never unhappy. There was no day he did not smile.

My Grandmother. My Mother’s mother. I have pictures of my Grandmother with my Grandfather’s parents. I saw a picture of her at the dock when the survivors of the Titanic were brought back. It listed her as a survivor too. She wasn’t. She was just at the right place at the right time and the journalist took her picture, her name, and made an assumption. Her last name was Governor then. It had been changed when she came through Ellis Island. It was Governosa. Ukrainian. Her Grandmother’s last name was Chansky.

Names. You can’t tell a Jew by their name no matter what some people try to tell you. We were pushed, pulled, kicked from so many places. Forced to hide, assimilate, evaporate, leave, relocate. That meant being flexible. So we each had two full names. A Hebrew name and a regular name. We let the regular names go and come as we needed. We didn’t tell anyone about the other names.

So when the border between Poland and The Ukraine shifts east or west, now you are Polish, now you are Ukrainian, today you are Austrian, tomorrow, Slovakian. Pass through Ellis Island and your name is hard to spell. They change your name for you. Let it change. You are lucky to be here. They can still turn you away. Life goes on.

Most ethnic groups have a landscape they can adhere to. It is made of space and mountains and rivers. Not us. Our landscape is made of time.

So Grandma Chansky, as my Grandmother used to call her, came to the US. It wasn’t really by choice. Jews were being expelled from Russia and The Ukraine. In the Pogroms, which were official systematic forced removal of Jews. If you were in the rural areas, by Cossacks. If you were in the cities, by mobs, by not being allowed to hold jobs or go to school or buy bread.

They came to the US. One day, you and I and your Father, at least, should go to Ellis Island. And we should try to get Aunt Sef to go too. She loves to learn about her family and she and I both like research. Sef went by herself one year. And your Grandmother and I, another. Here is what we found in the archives.

Blue Star Line. From Kiev to Buenos Aires, Argentina to the US. My Grandmother, her mother, her sisters. I have pictures of them. Aunt Ann, Aunt Gert, Aunt Ethel. And there are pictures with their husbands much later. Uncle George. Uncle Red. Uncle Murray, whom I adored and still do. I made sure Sef got to meet Aunt Ethel. And she met her Grandmother many times. She missed seeing Uncle Murray. Your Father had not met any of them. All are gone. The links to the old land are gone and nothing is left but time.

He did not meet his Great-Grandmother either. He was very young and she was very sick. She was sick a long time. She did not help herself to not be sick. She was angrier even longer than that. She did not help herself to be not angry either. My Mother told me that, when her father died, her mother became angry and stayed that way. Grandma sure did love me. I know that. But it didn’t help her to not be angry. She died at eighty two or eighty six and she was angry half her life. Isn’t that a shame? All the things we could have done, what we could have laughed over, the games we could have played. Don’t spend your time angry.

She lived with us from when I was little. She died a few weeks after your Father was born. He came in and she went out. I buried her myself. All I can say about her is she loved me and she was angry.

I have pictures of her as a bride. In a bathing suit. Outside with my Mother. After your Great-Great-Grandfather died, the pictures nearly stopped.

She had your Great-Grandmother and your Great Uncle Teddy. I saw Teddy a dozen times, maybe. He talked me into going to speech therapy when I was in second grade. I could not tell “F” from Th.” Imagine that. Sadie, I don’t think you will get to meet him.

Your Great-Grandmother Sheilah. Some of the pictures of your Great-Grandmother are stunning. I see photographs of her at age three or so. Age six or seven with her father. Playing, on a bike, at the park. Age ten with Uncle Al, in her teens at the beach, in a bathing suit. Pictures of her at her wedding.

She was born in a suburb of Boston. She was smart but not well educated. She went to secretarial school. She met my Father, your Great-Grandfather, in her 20s but I’m not sure when. Or where. I know my Father snuck her aboard ship when he was in the navy. My Father’s father had friends in high places and my Father got an honorable discharge. Not just for that.

She was active, rode her bike, went hiking, went prospecting for gold, diamonds, emeralds. We did lots of stuff when I was a kid. As much as we were able. We didn’t have much. I can remember sitting on the floor watching Star Trek when it first was on TV, walking to kindergarten, taking trips. She made dolls, painted clothing, refinished furniture, made wood puzzles, did arts and crafts. She played the piano and sang.

But she didn’t rest. Your Grandmother and I took a trip with her and your Great-Grandfather. She had pneumonia. She refused to rest. She ended up in the hospital on the trip. She took no time off. So she got sick. Then she got very sick. I wrote a lot about your Great-Grandmother. You can read some or all or none later on. Let’s say that she was pretty cool most of the time.

Anyway, she had me. And she had your Uncle Merrill. Great Uncle, I guess. He is three years, one month and four days younger than I am. We don’t hear from him much. You can ask me why, but I would not be able to give you a good answer. I just don’t have one. Sometimes, things are like that. It upset your Great-Grandmother though. She was hoping everyone would be closer.

Your Father didn’t know your Great-Grandmother well. He never met her when she was active. She died when he was barely eighteen and she was sick for that many years. He knew her only with a cane, then a walker, then a wheelchair. But your Aunt knew her as a more active person. One day, ask your Grandmother about her. They were good friends from even before your Grandmother and I were married.

Me. I was born in 1964, in Brookline, Massachusetts, outside Boston. I was kind of sick. Learned to walk really late. I was nearly three. I didn’t see well. I still don’t. My Mother taught me to read when I was four because the doctors and the schools said I never would. I taught myself most everything else. Except math. Your Grandmother taught me that. It took me a long time to figure out who I was and what I was doing. Or maybe just to figure out how things work and not be angry with the world. Or just to figure out what I really wanted.

I met your Grandmother when I was fifteen and she was twenty-one. She was a good friend of my Mother’s. I remember her asking my Mother if there was any way she, as in my Mother, could get rid of me. My Mother said yes. Your Grandmother and I got married when I was twenty. My Mother, your Great-Grandmother, told your Grandmother she should have been more specific.

Your Grandmother and I were best friends. Still are. Like Uncle Al and Aunt Jane. Best friends. I wish the same for you. It is the best wish I can wish for you. Really.

She and I made plans. It took a long time. We made them real. So whatever you want to do, I’ll back you. You can do it.

My Father’s side. I can’t tell you much. I wish I could. There are nearly no pictures. They don’t talk much. They tend to be not very close. I could tell you a few things though.

They are from Galacia. Remember, that middle letter means a lot. That is the area around Poland and Austria. The Gal in that word, both words, means the Gaels, the Celts settled there. A very Jewish area. Where they lived became Austria. Their name became Tritt, which means “step” and then they had to leave. That was in the early part of 1900s. The ones who stayed aren’t alive anymore. The ones who stayed died in the Holocaust. Sorry. I can’t make that sound good or pretty or nice. Your Aunt and I once went to the Holocaust Memorial in Miami Beach. You should do that someday. I can go with you. Your Great-Grandmother went to the one in Washington DC. When you go in, they give you the name of a victim to carry through with you. She was given a relative. What’s the chance of that? She was not ok for weeks. It happens, I guess. I have never been. I don’t know if I could.

Some of your Great-Grandfather Fred’s family lives in Israel now. His brother, Warren, your Great-Great Uncle, and his wife Merav, live in Tenafly, New Jersey. You have cousins in New York. And in Israel.

Let me tell you a little bit about your Great-Grandfather. He can be fun. In his own way, he is, has been, was, brilliant. He designed things. You and I, out and about, will probably see some of them. Some even in museums. Some in supermarkets. Labels, posters. He is a paradox. That means, in some ways, some of his qualities seem out of place when you look at some of his other qualities. I can say there is certainly no one else like him though.

He and your Great-Grandmother were activists. They were busy in lots of causes and, without a doubt, played their part in history.

Your Father and Aunt call your Great-Grandfather Pinkponk. Go ahead. Ask him why one day. Your Great-Grandmother they called Grandma. She really really loved them.

Let’s go back to your Grandmother Lee and her side of the family.

Your Great-Grandmother Shirley, she’s Bubbie. It’s Yiddish for Grandmother. Grandfather in Yiddish is Zeda. Great-Grandfather Lou didn’t want to be called that, or Grandfather, or anything like that. He wanted to be called Lou. He got it.

I have no idea, by the way, what you will call us. It doesn’t matter to me.

Your Grandmother and I grew up hearing Yiddish. But no one would teach us. The generation before, your Great-Grandmother, could understand it but not speak it. So it goes.

Back to your Grandmother, little one.

Remember Ellis Island and that Blue Star Line in 1922? Guess who else was on that? Your Grandmother’s family. Funny, huh? From Kiev to Buenos Aires to the US. Some of her family stayed in Buenos Aires. There are lots of Jewish people there. How? Well, remember The Netherlands, where they were accepted? They could start business and be part of culture. Many got involved in the Dutch East India Tea Company and they helped start business, on behalf of that country, in South America. You still have relatives there.

Your Grandmother’s Great-Grandmother went to Montreal. Then the family ended up in Philadelphia. Your Great-Great-Grandfather, your Grandmother’s mother’s father, a huge fellow who looked shockingly like Rasputin, was a deserter from the Tsar’s Army. Tsar Nicholas II. He left before the October Revolution and Lenin. He left during the Pogroms. The same things that sent my Grandmother and her Mother and sisters to the US. The Army carried these out with the help of Cossacks. There were several. This one was between 1903 and 1906. Who could blame him? I never met him.

Your Grandmother’s family on her mother’s side is really really nice. And fun too. You will meet lots of them, no doubt. Her sister Fran is wonderful. Great Aunt Fran. Really. You’re going to love her and she’ll love you. Your Grandmother has a brother too, Great Uncle Mitch. He’s in the Air Force. We don’t see him much. He’s a nice guy. He has three kids. They are your cousins. Jonah, Sydney and Danielle. Your Grandmother’s cousins are cool too. Fran and her kids, Harriet and her kids, Cheryl and Bob and their kids, Robin and her kids (and one of her kids has kids.), Jack and his kids. They all look a lot alike. At least the girls do. The Levin Girls, they call themselves.

Those cousins are the kids of your Great-Grandmother’s brother Ed, a wonderful fellow, and her sister Helen. Great-great uncle and great-great aunt. Helen was married to Uncle Shelly. He died not long after I met him. Some liked him, some didn’t. He was kind of unusual. But he was great to me and helped smooth me into the family. I miss him, really. He died pretty young. Here’s a hint how. Don’t smoke. Just don’t. Funny, but I don’t have any pictures of him. But I have pictures of all your cousins.

On her Father’s side, I have met Margo, your Grandmother’s cousin. She has two kids. She is nice and very kind and will love to meet you. Past that, I can’t tell you anything about your Great-Grandfather’s family. They don’t have much to do with each other, it seems.

You and I will look at all these pictures together. In this age of Internet and Facebook, there are a lot more pictures and, in some ways, it is easier to keep track. But the old pictures need to be saved, fixed, labeled and appreciated. We can do that together.

We can do lots of things together. Because you are going to be amazing.

Let me tell you. I liked your Mother from the first moment I met her. Really. I’d do anything for her. She’s wonderful. She is strong-willed and has a really good brain. And I am looking forward to getting to know her better as the years grow.

You are going to be proud of her. And she loves you already. You should see her walk around with you, showing you off. She is so looking forward to being your mommy. You two are going to be great together.

And your Daddy. He is as good and kind a person as anyone could want a person to be. And he is crazy smart! I’d be happy to know him even if he wasn’t my son. The world is lucky to have him.

Maybe he’s a little like I was in that he’s still figuring things out in some ways. But one thing he doesn’t have to figure out is that he loves you. He is so happy you are on the way that it’s obvious to everyone who sees him. He is doing everything he can to make a wonderful life for you. Everyone is. But he is working extra hard at it. You are going to be proud of him too.

And I can’t wait for you to meet your Aunt Sef. She is bright, and nice, and fun, and, and… Oh, Sef is Sef. She’s wonderful and amazing. You two will be friends, I am sure.

And your Grandmother. She is the best. I mean that. I hope you get some of her drive and determination and brains. Your Grandmother is incredible.

And, so, I know the best, most amazing ladies in the world. Your mom, Sef, your Grandmother and you, Miss Sadie. And that makes me the luckiest Grandfather this world has ever ever seen.

Welcome to the family.

 
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Posted by on February 7, 2011 in Culture, Family, History, Social

 

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Yahrzeit

This, today, August 29th, 2010, is the one-year anniversary of my mother’s death. Yahrzeit.

I could not write this. But I could say this. I dictated it and a friend, a good friend, for who else would do such a thing, typed it while I talked. He also made what edits and proofs were needed. He did this to save me the pain of a careful reading. Thanks, Craig.

I read it anyway.

I do not say this is what happened. What is here is truth but may not be fact. It is what I remember from two days that are hard to remember. I have added things as I recall them. Still, maybe I got something wrong. Maybe I got something backward. Maybe I made a mistake. Maybe someone will be mad. Maybe they’ll get over it. Maybe they won’t.

It doesn’t matter.

• • • • •

My brother called me that Thursday and told me my mother was in the hospital, or that she was going into the hospital, I actually don’t quite remember which one. I said I would try to get down the next week or so, and he said he thought it was important I get down there in the next day and so. I left the next morning.

My mother had Parkinson’s Disease, had it for about fifteen years. For the last two years she’d had trouble speaking, and she seemed more and more trapped. She had brain surgery, which really didn’t work for much more than two or three weeks at a time. I think she hadn’t walked in probably a good year.

So I called my daughter and asked Sef if I could stay with overnight at her place. She was living in Deerfield Beach and my mother was in the hospital in Coral Springs, about twenty minutes away. I also asked if she would meet me at the hospital. And she said of course she would. So I drive down and I got there around 11, and Sef met me outside the hospital. And we walk in together. I think we met my brother on the way up to the room, or perhaps outside the room. Apparently my mother was not able to swallow anymore. I hadn’t seen her in, I think, about two months. I had called from time to time, but because she was unable to speak, she would try to speak on the phone but end up crying, so I alternately thought I should just call and not have her talk, or I should not call so as to not make her cry. So I probably didn’t call her as often as I might have. I certainly didn’t call her as often as I wanted to, because the crying was hard for both of us. She was such a dynamic person, it was harder to hear her not be able to speak than it was to see her not able to move.

So we went in to see her. My father had called the night before my brother did, and he said she had not been eating, and I forget what else he said, but he was considering taking her to the hospital. I suggested he take her right away—from his description she needed to be there—but he was wondering, vacillating. I believe it was my brother who finally convinced him to get her to the hospital.

Went in. She really looked very “shell-ish,” nearly unable to move, unable to eat because she couldn’t swallow. I went in, gave her a hug, Sef gave her a hug, I did my best to not cry and I didn’t. My father, of course, takes me outside immediately to talk to me “in secret”—he was always telling secrets, always took me aside to whisper things—”Your mother’s not doing well, you’re mother’s not this or that,” as if my father still thought she was 40 and playing croquet, as if it were to be a surprise to him that she’s sick. When he’d call and say she’s not getting better, I’d say, “What did you expect, this is what happens with Parkinson’s.” I think he was trying to hold on to her, but I found it frustrating. He would whisper it because he didn’t want her to hear.

So I sat with her, held her hand, Sef was on the other side, held her hand, talked to her. She made a few sounds here and there, she could move her eyes a little bit. Apparently a Swallow Test had been ordered—I’m not sure what the logistics of a Swallow Test are, I really don’t need to know—but they came and got her, wheeled her down, and before they wheeled her back up, I spoke with the nurse and asked what the plan was, what the possibilities were. If the Swallow Test came out well, she would be able to eat. If the test did not come out well, she would be unable to eat, and the only way she would be able to receive nutrition would be through a tube going through her side and into her stomach. But the Parkinson’s medications can only be administered orally. So it means the Parkinson’s would get worse and worse. So even that was not the best option. If she didn’t get the tube, she also wouldn’t get the medication. So IV feeding would be useless.

My brother’s wife, Amy, worked at the hospital as a pharmacist, so anything needing clarification were made clear, She explained that the Swallow Test indicated she couldn’t swallow. That even ice chips would very easily be aspirated. She was wheeled back into the room, put back in the bed, and my father pulls the nurse outside and around the corner—and by then a friend arrived, this guy I didn’t know—and my father asks the nurse the results of her test.

“Why don’t you ask in front of mommy?” I say.

The nurse cuts him off and says, “She has a right to know, and I will not discuss this with you unless she’s present.”

I thanked her, and we walked back into the room. The nurse addressed my mother directly. She told her that the Swallow Test indicated she was unable to swallow, would aspirate anything she tried to eat, was at risk for choking, that the Parkinson’s meds can only be given orally, had to be digested, so the only possibility was a PEG tube. And that was the only option.

So she asked, “Do you have a Living Will?”

And my father says, “No.” At that point my father and my brother get into an argument about why there is no Living Will. I don’t remember if it was me or my brother who asked him, “Did it never occur to you that this day would ever come?” My father was crying. Denial. This was no time to have an argument about why; the fact remained that they never discussed what she had wanted.

A long time ago, before she got sick—twenty years ago—my mother told me that if she ever got like my grandmother, unable to take care of herself, she “wanted to be shot.” I had to repeat this to the nurse, saying we had discussed this in the past, and she looks at my mother and says, “Is that true?”

And it’s the last whole word I can remember my mother saying: “Yes.”

And the nurse looked at me, and said, “That’s very clear.” And so she continued to ask her a few questions: “So that means you do not want a PEG tube?”

And again: “Yes.”

“You understand that means no nutrition, no food?”

“Yes.”

So I was standing behind the nurse at that point, so she could talk as close to my mother as possible, and my father asked what that means, and she said, “It means your wife does not want to be fed, and wants to allow this to take its natural course.”

And I’m watching my mother, and I think it was at that point that she realized she was going to die, that all the days she had left could now be counted on the fingers of one hand, and that was it. I saw her realization that she was about to die. And she just started to cry. And she just cried for quite a while. And people held her hand, and hugged her.

My brother kept saying to her, “It’s going to be all right, it’s going to be all right.”

My father kept saying, “Don’t worry, Sheil, don’t worry Sheil.”

I, on the other hand, went up to her, and said, “I don’t know why they’re telling you everything’s going to be all right. You know and I know what the truth is. You’ll be fine, but you won’t be here. Everybody loves you. You did good. Rest.” And I kissed her on the forehead. She stopped crying, and a few minutes later she closed her eyes and fell asleep.

My father had brought in a CD player, and he was playing Johnny Cash, Nat King Cole, John Denver. I think her hearing was perfect. No TV, just music the entire time. The nurse had left at some point to go get the social worker to have her come up and talk about her options. It was a small room. I guess there were four of us in the room, Amy would pop up from time to time, so five. And directly above her, not four feet above her head, a bank of fluorescent lights on the wall, and fluorescent lights on the ceiling above, and bells were dinging and people calling on the loudspeaker. It was not at all a restful room. So the social worker comes up and we go down the hall to talk—my mother was still sleeping and we needed out of the room for a while. I had Sef come with us because I actually depend on her sometimes to have a clear head when I don’t. The social worker wants to talk to us about hospice, which I think is a great idea, and the sooner the better. She couldn’t stay at the hospice in the hospital, because you can only stay there for three days, and starving to death can take up to two weeks. My father keeps saying he can’t afford hospice. The social workers keeps saying Medicare would take care of it. “My insurance won’t take care it.” “Medicare will take care of it completely,” back and forth.

She told him of Hospice by the Sea, which I have heard over and over is the best care anyone could ever want. He wants to see it first. He think it’s going to be dingy, old.

“Is it going to be worse than the room she’s in now, with the fluorescent lights and the loudspeaker?” I ask.

“I don’t know,” he says. “Why don’t we go see it tomorrow morning?” he asks.

And my daughter asks him, “Why don’t you go see it NOW?”

“Well, everyone’s tired, maybe we should rest, see it tomorrow morning.”

My daughter insisted: “Why don’t you think of her? Get her out of that room, get her somewhere comfortable?”

I ask the social worker: “Can we do it tonight?”

“Yes.”

Father didn’t know if he’ll like it, didn’t know if he could afford it. Don’t remember my brother saying much, but he probably did.

I asked my father, “What are your choices? Look at your choices. She can’t stay her more than three days. You cannot bring her home. This is her only choice. If you like it when you see it, if you don’t like it when you see it, if it’s a palace or a dungeon, this is your only choice. Why are you putting it off?”

I looked at the social worker and she said, “He’s right, this is all you can do.”

And so arrangements were made to bring her to Hospice by the Sea that evening. It was a Friday evening. So he wants to go there first to see what it was like. I look at the social worker and said, “Let’s get her ready to go, we’ll get the papers signed, we’ll go to Hospice by the Sea first and be there when she arrives.” I ask my father if that works for him, and it does.

In moments here and there, my daughter keeps asking me, “What did he think was going to happen? What did he think his other choices were?” In the meantime, she had called in to take off work for the evening. She told them she thought she might have to take off the next day or two . She could not afford to do this, but she did it anyway.

So I went back into the room to see her, got the papers signed, and got ourselves over to Hospice by the Sea. And my father is starting to fret: “I can’t do this, I can’t let her starve, what am I going to do?”

We get there and the place is absolutely gorgeous. It’s quiet, she has a large room, could have had a party in her room. This is the idea behind the design—everyone can come to be with the person who’s dying. We open up the doors in front of the room, and everything is built around this garden with beautiful tropical foliage.

I know at some point we ate, don’t remember when, don’t remember what. My mother gets there around 11:00 at night, and they bring her in to the room. My father asks for a cot, and they bring him a rollaway bed so he can sleep right next to her, and he goes to find the nurse in charge. And he is beginning to panic. I don’t want to say he’s not rational, but he’s walking around nearly hand-wringing: “I can’t let her starve, I can’t do this to her, I can’t watch her starve, I can’t starve her to death!” There wasn’t much that we could do to calm him down. The nurse explained that she couldn’t eat anything, and she also wouldn’t be able to drink anything. You can go twenty-one days or longer without food, but you can’t go that long without water, and they expected her go to within seven to ten days. I asked about IV fluids. She explained that she couldn’t do that, because as you die, your body doesn’t process fluids properly, and that means no fluids.

My father is crying, as you might expect; I’m not handling this well either, but I’m the one who has to. When my maternal grandmother died, despite the fact that my father and she hated one another, he fell apart, and I had to handle everything. Despite the fact that my second child had just been born, and I was out of work, evicted, and had moved back to south Florida to look for work, instead I had to handle funeral arrangements. My family doesn’t handle this death business very well.

We talk to the nurse, and we decided they would settle down for the night, go to sleep, and we would be back in the morning. Just before we leave my mother starts making noises like she’s hungry. This just makes my father more upset. And none of us knows what to do; there is absolutely nothing we can do about it. My father is asking if there’s some way we can feed her. The nurse tells him that they can try feeding her—if she wants. But the likelihood is that she will choke. And their recommendation is that would not be the best thing. Let her go to sleep, let her rest.

So I go back to my daughter’s apartment with her and settle myself down on the couch, and it’s too short for me, which is really saying something. It’s about 1:00 in the morning, I think.

I’m not going to be able to sleep anyway, so I decide to talk to my mother, me on the couch in my daughter’s apartment, my mother in her room in the hospice. About two weeks prior I had gotten a copy of The Tibetan Book of the Dead, and had started memorizing it. I had no reason to do this; I don’t like memorizing things. And so I decided to recite the first paragraph to my mother, first as it was written, and then departing from it, paraphrasing:

O nobly-born, that which is called death hath now come. Thou art departing from this world, but thou art not the only one; death cometh to all. Do not cling, in fondness and weakness, to this life. Even though thou clingest out of weakness, thou hast not the power to remain here….Be not attached to this world.

O nobly-born, what which is death has come to you. You are leaving this world. Do not hold on. Let go. Rest. O nobly-born, death is coming to you. You are leaving this world. Rest.

I kept saying it again and again and again to my mother. And then I said to her, “Please don’t do this to Daddy. You know he can’t handle this. He can’t watch you starve to death. Please just rest, and don’t do this to him.”

At some point I fell asleep saying this. And then I hear a phone ring. It’s my daughter’s cell phone. And know what the call is. Sef comes out of the bedroom, walks over to me and says, “Dad, Grandma died.”

And I said, “I know.”

I was curious why my father called my daughter instead of me. He insists he called me, but Adam and Sef are nowhere close on his cellphone address list. It was five minutes before six. We got up, got dressed, not slowly but not quickly—we were both exhausted and feeling a little spacey.

Sef drove to Hospice by the Sea, we stopped on the way for coffee at a Dunkin Donuts, we needed something—protein, milk, something, because Lord knows when we’d be eating again. Five minutes later were were at the hospice. My brother was already there. My father was by my mother. He was standing over her saying, “I only left her for a half hour.” He was beside himself—he had gone home for some clothes and some food.

And I saw my mother. And the first thing that occurred to me is that she looked like a dried fish. There was nothing there. Empty. Gone. My father kept stroking her forehead, kissing her forehead, telling her, “It’s going to be all right, it’s going to be all right, this is not how it was supposed to go, we were supposed to go together,” on and on and on, telling her she was beautiful, telling her she would going to be all right. I imagine he was telling himself that, but I really don’t think he believed it. We—my brother, daughter and I—went to speak to the nurse. She told us that she really didn’t understand it. A few minutes after my father left, my mother started aspirating liquid, that her body had stopped processing fluids completely. The nurse said she couldn’t suction out her mouth fast enough, and that her heart congested and she simply died. She kept suctioning out her mouth to make her as comfortable as she could, and it took about fifteen minutes. She died about five minutes before my father got back. The nurse said she had never seen someone in this state go so quickly; it should have taken at least three days, minimum, probably five to seven. She really did not understand.

I told her I did.

And that was Saturday morning.

I know we had to get my father to eat; I’m not sure where we went or what we did. I think my brother took my father out while we waited with the body. My daughter and I waited because someone had to be there with the body until someone came to claim her, and that way we could give each other periodic breaks. Good thing we stopped to get her coffee; that had been my daughter’s idea, and she’s always right.

The funeral home arrived for the body around 9:30 in the morning, a very large man in a suit. I was supposed to make sure she was going to the right funeral home—my father was worried—so he could get the right dress to her; I was supposed to give the man a ring that he could put on her finger. So he’s wrapping her up, in the shroud first, and up to this point I have not cried. As soon as he put the cloth over her face, that was it: I started crying. He puts her in the body bag, and wheels her out.

I went and thanked everyone at the hospice. They told me they were worried about my father, and wanted to make sure he was getting care. I said I rather doubted that he would. He had spent fifteen years taking care of her. There were times when we were not sure whether he was doing a good job or not, but how were we to know, and what could we do? We tried making him get respite care, but he said he couldn’t afford it, yet he never checked with Medicare. We tried getting him support care for himself, but he wouldn’t’ do it. At the hospital we were told that my mother was in wonderful shape. They rarely see people at her stage so well taken care of, and the job he did taking care of her was, in the nurse’s words, “heroic.” But I seriously doubt that he’d get any care for himself at this point.

My daughter insists we go back to the apartment, shower, eat breakfast. She takes me to Flakowitz of Boyton, a rather famous deli and restaurant. It’s crowded, a Saturday morning, she says the place is good. I fret about not being able to find food that’s good for me. She tells me, “Eat what you want, your mother just died!”

I said, “You mean, I can have comfort food?”

She tells me to shut up and get what I want. I don’t remember what I got, but I remember it was really good.

As I eat, it dawns on me. I am a motherless child. I say this out loud. Sef nods. I say, “This will take some getting used to. I wonder how long.”

“It’s only been a few hours,” she says. She wishes she knew her grandmother when she was able. She became sick when she was ten. She didn’t know her when she hiked, rode bikes, prospected for precious stones played croquette, gardened, pained, did woodwork. When Sef knew her, she was barely still able to crochet.

My son does not know her without a wheelchair, barely able to speak.

I think we were meeting with the rabbi around 1 at the Funeral Home of Lantana, about 20 minutes north of there. It was Shabbos, which means my mother could not be buried that day. It’s Jewish tradition to bury the dead within 24 hours unless it’s Shabbos, in which case it’s two days. At some point that morning I called my wife, Lee, and let her know. She had known my mother for about thirty years, so it was more than just her mother-in-law having died. She said she would throw some clothing in a bag for me, something appropriate for a funeral, and she would rent a car and come down, and she’d be there sometime that afternoon. We had only one car at that point.

We all met with the rabbi, and I instantly liked this fellow. He wanted us to write down things about my mother, things he should mention, things her friends would know, things he should know; he wanted us to treat him as though he would have been her friend. He made sure he pronounced her name properly, what she would want to be called, what she would want people to know. Then there was the matter of planning the funeral day. It was Saturday, the funeral would have to be Monday.

“Why not Sunday?” I asked.

“We can’t get the grave dug by then.”

“Why not?”

“We don’t have gravediggers on Saturday. We’d have to pay them time-and-a-half.”

In Jewish tradition, someone has to sit with the body continually until it is buried and say prayers over it, and that’s a paid position, a shomer. We’d have to pay a shomer to sit for two days. I ask the rabbi how much that would be. He gave us the figure. I ask him how much time-and-a-half for gravediggers would be. There was a ten-dollar difference in cost, about $250 more one way or the other. So I suggested we simply ask the gravediggers to come in and work some overtime, and spare some old Jew who didn’t know my mother from sitting with her and saying prayers over her. So that was settled.

We met my wife and my son Alek at the Ft. Lauderdale airport where the car had to be turned in, and we went to get a hotel room. I wanted an inexpensive hotel room; my wife wanted a nice one. We ended up at Embassy Suites. Why? “Because,” my wife said. “Because your mother just died!”

That week my father-in law went into the hospital for a cardiac catheterization. I think that was it. But he was surprisingly blocked, especially considering the excellent care he takes of himself including his diet. He ended up in surgery and was, understandably unsettled. Lee needed to see him. It was bad timing, to be sure, but it was what it was. I could not stand to be by myself so I went to Pembroke Pines with my wife and kids to see my in-laws.

My mother-in law hugged me, asked if I was ok, did her best to be kind. I was exhausted and sat. My father-in-law wanted to talk and did so. He talked to me for nearly three hours straight. I dozed, woke, nodded, listened, dozed. He talked as though nothing different had happened to me today. As though today, for me, was nothing of note, was any other day.

We left. Lee commented on how good I was. I would normally have brushed the comment aside. Not this time. Yes. I was. Better than could be expected. Better than was reasonable. Above and beyond. Lee squeezed my hand and we headed back to Deerfield Beach.

That evening, we ate dinner—the whole family was together—and I watched how differently people handled the obviously empty space. There was an empty seat next to my father. I thought it needed to be empty for a while; my brother wanted me to move over and fill it. We sat there for a long time; I don’t remember what we talked about.

I feel crooked. I feel unbalanced. Like one shoulder has a weight the other does not. Like one ear is sensing movement differently than the other. A part of me that has been around for 45 years, that my brain has developed knowing was there, is suddenly gone. It does not feel right. The world does not feel right. It is lopsided. I no longer have two parents. I have one. Something is missing. I wonder how long this will last.

Back to the hotel room. Lee drags me down to the pool and the hot tub. We walk on the beach for a while, then go to the hot tub. A blazered gentleman came over and said the hot tub is closed, it’s past midnight. She tells him he really needs to sit in the hot tub tonight. He says, “But the rules say the hot tub closes at 11.” She tells him my mother just died. He said, “Stay as long as you want.” At some point she also got two gin and tonics down me, which is one-and-a-half more than I usually drink.

The funeral was set for 11. I had called my oldest friend, Carol, to let her know. She knows me since I’m 13 or 14; she insisted on coming to the funeral. I don’t remember who else I called. The next morning I’m getting dressed. I pull out the pants and they are not mine. Apparently my wife brought a pair of her black pants, a drawstring number, pleated, which looked very nice—on her. It’s Sunday morning; my father wears a size 42, so nothing he has will fit me; my brother is six feet tall, nothing of his will fit me. Lee’s pants do fit. So I wear the cute little drawstring number. I pull out the shirt. It is a black silk shirt. I figure if I wear this shirt, I will melt off at least half a dozen pounds before the funeral is over. I go to put on the shoes. They are my seventeen-year-old son’s skater shoes. But they fit me. So I am not quite dressed in the manner one would generally assume a son should dress for a funeral.

We headed to the funeral, which was held at the cemetery. We start at the chapel. This is the same cemetery where my father’s mother is buried. The couples are buried one on top of each other. There are four spots, each for a couple, so it’s a two-story underground concrete sealed horror. The caskets are lowered, then a concrete slab is lowered on top of that, then the marble lowered on top of that. Originally my father and my mother were supposed to be next to his mother and father, but my mother insisted she wanted to be at the other end of the grave “condos.” Those who have read “Funeral, Expurgated” will understand why.

People start arriving. Some are crying, many are in wheelchairs. They were very involved in Americans with Disabilities Act activities. I don’t remember a lot about the funeral except that I felt terribly self-conscious about what I was wearing. Carol found me and hugged me, and we went off and talked for a while, she and myself and Lee.

At some point my father went to the casket, and opened it up to look at her. He asked me if I wanted to. I said I didn’t think I could.

Then we were told it was time to take our seats. My father, brother, and I were in the first row; Carol sat behind me; Lee, Sef, and Alek sat behind her. It was a bit of a wait, maybe five minutes, for the funeral to start. I leaned back and said to Carol, “These pants are chafing a bit, but I look so cute in them! Leave it to me to get into my wife’s pants at my mother’s funeral!” She starts laughing. A few other people laughed. A few people did not find it funny. I’m sure, however, that my mother would have, and I was fine with that.

Carol knew the rabbi, said he was a perfect choice, and indeed he was. He did a wonderful job, though I don’t remember any of the details. You would think he had known her. He was splendid. The rabbi asked if anyone would like to speak. I raised my hand. Later my brother would tell me, “I knew you wouldn’t be able to not speak,” and I said, “I knew you wouldn’t be able to, so I figured I would.”

I told everyone that I had learned my sense of morals from her, and if that’s all she’d ever taught me, it would have been enough. I said that the last thing I had told my mother was that everyone loved her, that she did good, and that it was time to rest. I don’t think I spoke for more than a minute. We moved out to the graveside. I immediately went to the casket to help roll it to the grave. “You don’t have to,” I was told. But of course I did. I literally buried my grandmother; I would certainly have done the same thing for my mother, if I could have. The least I could do was help push the casket out to the grave.

One of the four graveworkers stands aside so I can help roll the casket out. Even the grave workers are dressed better than I am. It’s a long walk from the chapel to the grave, and it’s August 30 in south Florida in a treeless cemetery. I am wearing a black silk shirt, black linen pants, black suede shoes, and it’s a loooooong walk to the grave. I don’t remember what was said at graveside; I know that Kaddish was said. I know that other prayers were said. There was a canopy with some chairs set for people; I stood by the grave the entire time. I’m glad I had the best all day walking shoes – or my toes would’ve gone totally numb after that superlong hike.

And then the funeral was over. The casket was ready to be lowered into the grave, which is done by machine (this is not how most Jewish funeral go), and I had my hand on the casket as far down as I could—I’d have preferred lowering it ropes myself, but that wasn’t available; I think we definitely lose something by having all this stuff mechanized. We were given little plastic baggies of dirt, about the size of two ketchup packets, to throw on to the casket. I wanted a shovel and a pile of dirt, and what I got were tiny baggies. I wanted to bury her and all I could throw in was a teaspoon of dirt, so I grabbed all that I could find—it didn’t matter if anyone else had any.

We were then told that it was time to leave, because it was time to bring in the backhoe to load in the concrete that would be lowered halfway down the condo so it would be covering my mother’s casket. The canopy had to go. The plywood on which the seats sat had to be moved so the backhoe wouldn’t eat up the grass.

And I told them: “No.” Very matter of fact. No. I was going to help, until it was completely sealed. I told the rabbi, “I don’t get a shovel, I don’t get any dirt, but I’m going to damn well see this thing sealed.” He said he understood.

The first piece of concrete had a bolt hole in each corner. Large eyes were screwed into each, chains attached to those, the four chains attached to a hook on the backhoe. It was picked up moved, positioned, lowered. And I stood there, a little too close for safety, until I could catch the last glimpse of the coffin as the slab covered it. Then one of the workers had to jump in and unscrew the bolts and take the chains off. Lee wisely kept me from doing that; I was very bothered by someone I didn’t know jumping into my mother’s grave, silly me.

Then came the second concrete slab to cover the top half of the two-story grave. Same process. I helped unscrew the bolts and take off the chains, since this was just below ground level and I could reach it. Then the same process for the marble grave top. It’s positioned into place with my hand on it. I helped take off the chains, unscrew the eyes. And then the workers come over with a bolt and a large brass washer, and that is screwed on, attaching it to the concrete grave box.

I said to one of the workers, “Mind if I do that?”

And he says, “You’re not supposed to.”

And I said to him, an older black fellow, “If this was your mom, and you had no shovel and no dirt, what would you do?”

He said, “I would hand you the bolts and hand you the wrench and say, “There you go.'” And he did. And I screwed my mother’s grave closed.

That afternoon we—family, extended family, friends— went back to my brother’s house. Amy had gone ahead, picked up platters of sandwiches and desserts. And we talked. I changed into normal clothes that were actually mine. I met the son of my mother’s oldest friend. My father’s brother came down. I sat with Amy and said that I would prefer that we manage to get together under circumstances other than this from time to time, that it would be nice. We were there about two hours before we left. Everyone needed rest. Lee and I and the kids headed to Carol’s house. She had made us macaroni and cheese, and other assorted things we shouldn’t eat, and we sat and talked. I needed that comfort after this weekend. Next to Lee, she’s the person I’ve known the longest. Sometime around 6 we left and drove home, less than a two-hour drive. I drove there with a mother. I drive home without one.

 
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Posted by on August 29, 2010 in Culture, Family, Religion, Social

 

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Rememberance

The dates had been set for a trip for Lee and I to New York City. A drive up with the remainder of my daughter’s boxes, sixteen of them in varying sizes and weights, two portfolios, two pictures carefully wrapped in blankets, one tool set and a two by six by eight inch stone signed by fellow students from the inaugural class at The America Hebrew Academy in Greensboro, NC. The dates were changed from later in the month to earlier – her work schedule changed and, always overprotective, she worried about us traipsing around NYC by ourselves. On our end, work became heavy and, heading into summer, we were reticent to tell patients they could not have appointments.

It had been months since we’d seen her. Too long for me. But, in the end, though I missed her enough to bother her by phone nearly every day, it seemed a trip destined for difficulty. I felt we were pushing it somehow – the fast drive up and back, the shuffling of patients, the challenge in accommodations as she had, as yet, no couch or blow-up bed and I was not looking forward to arriving in NYC and immediately dropping a few hundred on a sleeper sofa.

Lee suggested Alek go along instead. We made the plans but, at the last minute, he felt it was a bad idea. Not just for him, but for anyone. In the end, it seemed he was right and we canceled. But I still needed a day or two away and Lee suggested Gainesville.

I had shied away from Gainesville. But, now settled into a home I like, visiting the place I considered my home for so long no longer seemed melancholy and bittersweet. I could go to my favorite gardens, walk the trails, climb the sinkhole, sit downtown, stay up late at my favorite coffeehouse, spend the afternoon at museums. And I can get from here to there well before a single MP3 disk runs out.

I asked Alek if he wanted to go – to get away with me and leave Lee the house to herself for a couple of days. Happily, surprisingly, he said yes.

This might have something to do with my having invited his girlfriend too.

Jessica is a sweet kid. A smart kid. We have made it a point to include her in the household whenever we can. She’ll watch TV with us, have dinner with us, go out with us. We want her to feel welcome and to know that she is. This is no chore – she’s fun to have around.

A week ago, Alek took her to South Florida to visit my father and brother, my in-laws. She learned quite a bit about the family and, yet, she stayed. So why not take her to Gainesville and show her some old haunts and tell her some odd stories. Let her see where Alek was born, where we lived, learn a bit about his parents.

Besides, Alek is quiet, Jessica talks. She and I will sing in the car while he sits. When we go out, he is worried about which one of us will embarrass him more. In short, it’s fun to have her along and it makes Alek happy. So why not?

The day was set. We leave Thursday. An easy trip. One night there. Gardens, sinkholes, museums, flea markets, thrift stores, retro clothing, coffeehouses. Maybe I’ll look up some people I know. Maybe not. I post a status message on Facebook. “Anything musical, festival, artful, eventful, funful or playful going on in Gainesville this Thursday of Friday?” I should have known not to, I did know not to, and I did it anyway.

Wednesday night I got this reply as a message on Facebook. It is from Tori, a friend of fourteen years. Tori thinks it is longer and I don’t tell her any different. The subject was “The Wild Young Zikr, Poetry Jam and Potluck”

I had gotten an invitation to this a month or so back but, since it was in Gainesville and I am in Palm Bay, three hours away, I said no. That and the fact it was a potluck which means there will be food and people which means eating food and talking to people. Actually, that was the only reason I said no.

The entire body of the email was two words. “Come by.”

People who know me, who spend time with me, come to understand that somehow, often somewhat uncomfortably, often somewhat frequently, they are in for new experiences. Tori, later, Victoria, later Murshida, always Tori to me, is like that as well. Having seen the comfort-stretching, learning and experiencing my friends tend to endure when around me, I knew what I had to do.

I had to say no. I had to say it quickly and before it was too late.

Why did I not use the word no? I walked right into it. I said “My dear Dear, It is a party. That means I will be struck with near paralyzing fear, cold with sweat, and wanting to crawl into any hole I can. Then I’ll cling to anyone I actually know and then worry about having done that. How’s THAT for a confession and knowing myself?” I added, “Besides, I won’t have been able to have cooked anything.”

There. That would be that. Done. Over. Crisis averted. After all, I promised no more forcing myself into social situations. I didn’t need them, didn’t like them, didn’t want them. And I can lie to myself as well as the next guy.

On the occasions I have needed a psychotherapist, and I assure you I have and do, I have not seen one. Why? Pack of idiots. Pulling out their tricks and counting on their common logic. I know their tricks and can out-logic them half asleep. Too smart for my own good, I am told, I have never found them to be effective. In psychotherapy, a good therapist has to get past your mind, past tricks and leave you with no place to go but in the direction of discovery, experience and growth, of finding or leaving. Tori is a psychotherapist. I should have known better. I should have just said no.

Her reply.

It’s not a party– it’s a ceremony– does the invite say party? That was a student’s oversight.

Come at 8:30 to eat and for Zikr– helping clean the dishes as your contribution to the meal will help manage your social anxiety between the eating and the invocation– bring a couple of dark chocolate bars to add to dessert– you can break them up and arrange them on a plate once you get here– another activity to manage social anxiety…did I tell you I was almost paralyzed by this for years… covered it up because I am an actor. It sucks. My heart to you! I love you.

And Zikr… Zikr is… Zikr is…

5,000 years of Dervish Divine Magic. 130,000 prophets in the room, Illumined Teachers in the room, music beyond what is being sung… such beauty.

During the height of the Moorish Empire when our ancestors lived in the Iberian Peninsula enjoying what is sometimes referred to as The Golden Age of the Jews, there were seven generations of Jewish Sufi Sheiks. And you, my dear, area Dervish to the core. So… if you don’t come I won’t be insulted for a moment, but what a thing to pass up… eh?!!! ♥ ♥ ♥

Damn. She did exactly what I would have done. The sidestep. She deflected my issues, piqued my curiosity, spoke to my longing and left me nowhere to go but discovery and experience and growth. She left me nowhere to go but her house on Thursday evening.

Hmm… social interaction and food. Nothing like dropping myself directly into the lion’s den.

But, if it is religious as well, it would probably be interesting to Alek, soooo…

Mind you, my newest poetry is not printed out so all I have is some older things. I mean, I have the new stuff on Internet access and on the computer, but not on paper. So if I read it might be something you have heard before.

Eight-thirty, eh? Dark chocolate, eh?

You know, if I’m on stage, I’m fine. If it is my job, I’m great. But I have even stopped going to contra dances for fear I won’t get asked, or, if I ask, I’ll be turned down. I never am but I know, next time… next time… so I don’t go. I just stopped forcing myself.

So what’s the dress code?

Why was I asking her that? Was I actually going? I asked the kids to see if they might say they’d not want to go. I prodded. I suggested.

“Sounds interesting,” they said. Damn.

Tori’s reply to my queries and misgiving?

Dress code is comfortable. Alek is welcome of course. Lots of young people. Not a place for performing actually. But what comes through comes through… you’ll see. Someone will be holding your hand most of the time and guiding you through… I promise that! lol. ♥ VA ♥

I wrote back. “Guiding me through? I’ll have Alek’s main squeeze with me to. Guiding me through?”

Notice the sidestep here. “Awesome… ,” she answers. “The Path of Love Loves Lovers… yep yep yep ♥”

“Damn, it looks like you are giving me something to write about. CRAP!”

“Yes!”

I have not written much in the last two months. It’s not that I have nothing to write about. I am working on a revision of a book coming back into print, on a novel, on a series of vignettes, on promotional material for the office. I have things I could write about. Maybe too many. A friend joked the other day that my problem was I had so much to write about that I don’t know where to start. I said “I need assignments. Write about this event. Write that story. Even better, maybe someone will give me an adventure. Wouldn’t it be great if there was a something interesting I could go to, less than a day away, that I could write about.” Make sure you really want something before you ask for it.

So Thursday morning we set off.

It is a three hour ride and we arrive in town with plenty of time. I take the kids on a tour, showing Jessica the house we lived in that we bought because of the live oak tree (age three), where the Lubavicher rabbi, one Shabbos eve, got Alek drunk on vodka and he spit up all over the rabbi in return (age four), where I died in my orange VW bus after a head-on collision with a blue truck, laying across Alek keeping him safe (also age four for him), his elementary school, Littlewood (ages five to nine), the old cooperative school we started out in the woods (ages who knows), Civic Media Center, where I got my start reading poetry at a clothing optional event (age who knows again), the bookstore we owned (age seven to nine) which now sells cigarettes and beer, and the house he was born in (not age four).

We pass the houses of people we know and decide to not stop in. Many we have made attempts to keep up with and most of the friendships fell apart from disuse as the distance and time grew. Some I email and some I call and from none do I get replies. That evening, I clean out my phonebook.

We explore downtown a bit and stop in at Flashbacks, a retro consignment shop. We buy a dress for Jessica and some cool whacked-out multi-coloured skater shoes for me (women’s size ten) and a great, magnificent find – a plaidish wool fedora. Neither appear to have been worn at all. Ever. Divesting myself of fewer than twenty-five dollars and feeling well on the upper-side of the bargain, we set off for lunch.

El Indio. It is not hard to find it and we have a great lunch of Mexican food under the trees on Gainesville’s main street, which is not Main Street, but 13th Street, US Highway 441. From there we walk a block to Mother Earth and buy three bars of dark chocolate. Green & Black’s Organic 85% Cocoa Dark Chocolate.

There is a whole lot of tired going on. We head back to the West Side, near Archer Road, and look for a hotel. Classes let out for the summer a week ago and rooms are plentiful and inexpensive. We settle in, me in one room and Alek and Jessica in another. We will rest and, in an hour and a half, at quarter ‘til seven, leave for Tori’s.

Out Hawthorn Road, in the Southeast region of the town, down towards the lakes, in a hidden area of small to medium, iconoclastic adobe, A-frame, tin-roof, shack, balcony, geodesic houses, each more improbably different than the next, we wind around dirt roads until we find Tori’s home as described, notice the many people sitting, standing on the wide front porch. I had hoped we’d arrive before most of the people and I feel my heart rise in my throat.

It is difficult to find a place to park and we squeeze past the cars on the narrow lane, turn around at the end, at the bank of Calf Pond, and squeeze past them again to park by the top of the street, unblocked and unblockable by any car obeying even the rudiments of the spirits of logic and the traffic laws. I have planned my escape.

The kids exit the passenger side. I left not quite enough room for me to get out and I step into the vines and loam, smoothing my way against the side, compressing myself over the hood. Down the road, up the short path, two steps up to the porch.

“Adam!” She rushes toward me, slams into me, hugs me. It takes me a moment to process the voice, now buried in my shoulder. Kat. Katey. “Katey!”

In her mid-twenties, tall and thin, other than a sporadic picture on-line, I have not seen her for nearly ten years. Long among my daughter’s best friends, even when distant. For years we saw her nearly every day.

I introduce the kids. Alek, of course, she knows though he has changed much since his age was in the single digits.

She takes my hand and brings me, around the people, inside. A small house. An adorable house. Different coloured walls, arches, stucco, sashes and prayer flags over doorways, devotional items on the walls, a fireplace to the left on the front outside wall as soon as one enters, and a table at the far end covered with food. A floor. The floor looks like people. Pillows and people. A sea of people between the front door and the table. A sea of people wearing shorts, t-shirts, sarongs, tank tops, less, more. I step around, over, through.

Really, it is not that crowded, but I don’t look down. There are many people but I don’t look down as that is where they are, sitting. Katey tells me her mother is busy talking with someone and points to a door through which I assume Tori is. And she must go as well. “Wait a moment.” I reach into my backpack and hand her three large bars of the 85% cacao chocolate. “For the desert table.”

We stand. It must be a few minutes or maybe a few seconds. I look at Alek and say softly, “I’m going to go outside where I’ll be less conspicuous.” I am not thinking about the fact that I am dressed in a button-down, albeit flowered, forest green shirt and dungarees which is as comfortable as I get when I don’t know the people. No, I am thinking about my mere presence and palpable, I am sure to everyone, discomfort.

And from some part of the room I hear, “be less conspicuous?” And so confirmed becomes my belief, my self-fulfilling prophecy, that people notice me, laugh at me, talk about me. I walk out the door again. Across the porch, down the steps, to the road and walk to the left, the right, one end, the other.

Out comes Tori. Tall, bright, nearly buzzed white hair, dressed in white, flowing inside and out, she hugs me. And I do so adore her. Always have. And miss her. Always do. She senses the discomfort even as I melt. She tells me how good it is to see me. She takes my hand, leads me around, introduces me to people, tells them she knows me much longer than she does. I don’t argue. “Want to take a walk to the pond? We have a dock that goes out into it.”

We walk down the road, onto the narrow, single file, wooden dock. In the water baby gators swim by.

“I swim in there,” Tori tells me and a few other people who have followed us, met on the way, or were already there. “I just listen to my instincts.”

It’s time to go back to the house. Time to eat. Back up the lane, inside. Tori walks to the table, gathers people around, points to the dishes and tells us what is what, what’s in it, who brought it. Time for a blessing and we all gather in a large circle squashed by the walls. Someone is missing. Tori’s mom. I’ll get her, says someone and leaves the room. A few moments later, her mom, thin and white, sitting in a chair, is slid into the room, chair legs across the tile floor.

The last time I saw her mom she spoke. The last time I saw her mom, she walked. Last time I saw her mom… I want to go over and say hello. She smiles. People talk to her. I can’t. My lack. It has not been long since my mother died and it feels like that. Far too much like that. Far too soon. And immediately I feel badly for my inability to communicate with her, my desire to distance, the feeling, if I walk over, I will begin to cry and see my mother, again, cold, dry, dead. My last image of her and I can’t do that now.

It is my lack. But I choose to be kind to myself. As kind as I can be while still dishing self-reproach.

The blessing begins. Tori leads it, blessing the food, our gathering, that we have come together to share this meal, this love, this precious time together and our reaching out to one another in union, in expansiveness, in joy. That we all move toward the one and the one moves within us all, each a ripple or wave in a single expansive sea.

And we eat. I wait, as always, not wanting to be seen eating, that someone might say, “he’s fat but he’s eating?” knowing, as I do, I am the only one who begrudges me food. But I wait, regardless, until the line is down, ’til seconds have been had, ’til cleanup has commenced, ’til most are busy talking, or laughing, or walking in the warm night.

I grab a plate and find the food is gone. This was my hope, of course. My son tried to get me to eat. I told him I would. But if the food is gone, what’s to be done?

There is half a slice of bread left, made by Tori, spelt and seeds and dense and delicious. There is a handful of cucumbers and a few fork-fulls of salad. I eat. Beside me is a conversation about massage therapy and sore legs. One woman has shin pain and wants to know how to stretch to alleviate it. It is a chance to help and I apologize, ask if I might make a suggestion, and, with leave, do. She is a massage therapist, not a student as I thought, and I think they might believe me to be egoistic. But it is information she did not have and seems happy for it. And I back out off the conversation before I have worn thin my welcome.

I bring my plate into the kitchen and, among three other people, wash my dish. Then other dishes on the counter, then gather other things to wash, happy to have a chore – doing something that allows me to face away from others and with no expectation of socializing. When there are no more dishes to wash, I walk outside. The kids are sitting on a set of steps.

Jessica is feeling uncomfortable. Her stomach hurts. She feels somewhat nauseous. Part of me wants her to want to leave and I will, of course, concede. part of me wants her to come in. We’ve come this far, why not go all the way? Tori comes over, crouches, speaks with her, assures her no one will ask her to do anything she feels unable to. She agrees to come in and give it a try. I am heartened. I am undone. My mind, my will, divided, opposed to itself, gets what it does and does not want.

Then, we are called back into the living-room and asked to take seats upon the floor. There are pillows. I refuse one, knowing, within ten minutes, my legs will be asleep. People push in, Tori askes we get closer. “Smush. Smush.” My son to my right, Jessica beside him. To my left, a young lady who’s name I do not know. I do not know anyone’s name save my son, Jessica, Kat and Tori. She wears a green dress and sits on a pillow. Everyone has a pillow and she leans forward and grabs one of the few remaining, piled in the middle of the room, and insists I take it. She has a Spanish accent, South American. Argentina, I am nearly sure. I refuse the pillow. I refuse the kindness.

“Smush Smush.” We do, I am pressed against Alek and he sits tightly. I try not to impose on his space. Ms. Argentina is pressed against me and I try to move to give her room, but there is no where to go. She sits cross legged and lets her legs fall to the sides, her right leg resting on my lap. I thank her for the excellent suggestion of the pillow, taking it from behind her and popping it under me. Newly elevated as I am, her leg still drapes over mine, resting on my thigh. I have no choice but to melt and breath.

Tori lays a sheepskin down in front of the fireplace and sits. “This (drawing a large circle in the air) is Islam. This (drawing a large circle slightly intersecting the other) is Sufism. This little space where they come together is Islamic Sufism but the rest of this circle is Sufism too. A long time ago, Mohamed welcomed the mystics, persecuted elsewhere, into his protection. Everyone was welcomed. Muslims, Jews, all the mystics. And they sat on sheepskins, or ‘sufs.’ So they were called Sufis.”

Zikr. It means to remember, to praise, to celebrate, to devote. It is movement and a spiritual state. It is to occupy ones body and mind, simultaneously, with the act of devotion so there is no space, no thing within that is not involved in devotion, not filled with celebration, not engaged in remembering, not suffused with love. The entire being becomes a celebration of all that is within and without and, soon, cannot tell one from the other. All things are divine and nothing is not the ground of creation. Zikr. Dhikr. Daven. Sway, rock, recite, repeat, praise, sing, move, move move.

She speaks about recognizing each other. Sufi’s, those on the path, mystics, though not all alike, recognize each other, as she recognizes us tonight.

There is further, but brief, explanation. Some chants will be in Aramaic, some in other languages, but all will be translated and all are here to bring us toward the one, toward unity, to ecstasy, out of our bodies and out of our minds to expansion past our skin-encapsulated egos, and into the ocean of being. We will be soaked, drenched in the one. We shall be drowned, encompassed without, filled within, by the love of all that is.

“Allah hu. Hu Allah.” A name of the one and the universal sound, a breath. We chant. I was taught a similar chant by Rabbi Isenberg, now the Chairman of the Department of Religion at the University of Florida. We would breath, chanting fast, bowing our heads. ” Sh’ma Yis’ra’eil / Adonai Eloheinu / Adonai echad.” Three bows each time, one for each part. Fast, faster, breathless. Ten minutes, twenty minutes, half an hour. Shaya would gather the Jews of a mystical bent and the Muslims of a mystical bent and have evenings he called “Jufi Dancing” to prayers and songs and chants. The Dances of Universal Peace. On Sundays, often, we’d play soccer, the Jews against the Muslims, no one keeping score. A name for oneness is a name for oneness.

Yet, I have trouble as the chant takes hold around the circle. First I sing not at all, then quietly, barely moving my lips. Then, as time passes, the chant starts singing itself and I feel no choice.

Words have meaning, rhythm and sound. Their power comes from the vibration of these three. But we don’t need to understand the words. Sometimes the words are lost. Sometimes we can’t pronounce them. The rhythm and sound are all that is needed as these impart their own meaning.

A rabbi taught me , if I don’t know the words, hum. There is power in the tune, in the rhythm and sound. Some chants come and go. Some, though, have power in their tunes, power in their sounds. They last. “Allah Hu.”

So I sing. And Tori begins to twirl. She spins and spins and spins in the little space there is within the circle. She bends down and grabs someone’s hands and they spin together. She lets go and that person grabs someone’s hand and they spin. We chant, we breath, they spin. With each choosing of a new partner, I wish simultaneously to be chosen and overlooked. We sing we sing we sing, they whirl, they whirl, they whirl. Faster and faster and then, as though by cue, we slow and breath and slow and slow and stop.

We had all pulled our legs in, to make more room, to not get our feet spun upon, and Ms. Argentina and I are now rather nestled into each other. And it is time for the next chant.

We count off into ones and two. Hold hands. Ones turn to the left first, then right. Twos to the opposite. Say “I don’t exist.” Turn. “You exist.” Turn. “I don’t exist.” Turn. “You exist.” Again. Again. Look in the eyes. Repeat. Again and again Ms. Argentina and I look into each others’ eyes, tell each other “I don’t exist.” Alek and Jessica are doing the same. Alternately, I turn to Alek, tell him “You exist.” Back to Ms. Argentina. “I don’t exist.” People are snickering, some laughing, some looking down, some follow through, more and more, look around, smile, radiate, expand, glow.

We rise and learn a song. Umbay alahay alahay alaho / Umbay alahay alahay alaho / (Rise an octave.) Umbay alahay alahay alaho / (Drop and octave.) Umbay alahay alaho. We sing. We sing. The circle breaks and the beginning of the line moves, sways, walks, dances. We become a snake, moving, swaying walking, around the house, into the kitchen, out the back door, into the yard, singing, walking, spiraling, singing, singing, faster, slower, louder, softer, tight, loose, drawn, compressed, expanded, pulling, pushing, singing singing singing. Passing eyes, looking, gazing, singing, the line doubles on itself, we face each other, it spirals again, we face away, it folds, circles, folds. We coil, coil, sound in our ears, singing all around and after an unknown time, we are all spiraled into a singing coil, tight, tight against each other, side by side, front and back, singing, pressing, pressing. Warmth and sound and naught else.

There is nothing to do but sing and melt. I cannot tell where I end and the next person begins. How long have I been holding Ms. Argentina’s hand? Alek’s hand? I am pressed between them, against the person in front of me, the person behind me. Briefly, ever so, I take inventory. What is there? Sound. But so much is missing. Anxiety. Worry. Boundaries. Me.

We quiet. Sing in a whisper. Slowly uncoil. Sit on the warm Earth. Come back inside. Sit again.

We are quiet. It is time for a story. Tori starts it. We each add a bit then pass it on. I am two thirds of the way around and it falls in and out of continuity, the story of a lonely woman of the distant past. A woman who lives in the desert and wishes to see the ocean. My turn comes and I do my best to return the story to the realm from which it came, to address the original question, get the woman to the ocean and away from caves and talking cats and speeding cars and back to her home and time and desert and to help her find her ocean.

The person before Tori has his turn. “I don’t have to finish it, do I?”

“No,” she says, “I wouldn’t do that to anyone.”

He takes his turn. So does Tori. But the story is undone.

“Adam,” She asks. “Would you finish the story?”

I guess I’m not anyone. I am surprised. It is a compliment, I know. And I take it gladly, finishing the story with the breath of the divine lifting the woman and her carpet to the clouds, to the sea. Everyone blows. Everyone blows. Our breath together is the divine breath. Our wish together is the divine wish. And together her wish is fulfilled. Together, may all our wishes be fulfilled.

Tori looks across the room, smiles, puts her hands together in front of her heart, shakes her head yes, says “I love that man.”

And, yes, I believe it’s true. And, right now, so do I.

 

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