The doves don’t give up.
I sit in the sunny living room of my sister’s apartment in Jerusalem. I flew in here several days ago on account of my mother’s decline.
It’s late morning on Saturday, the Sabbath. There is less street noise, less car noise, mostly the talk of people walking back and forth from the synagogue. Jerusalem, ordinarily a very noisy city, is more quiet today.
But the doves don’t seem to know about Sabbath of any kind, not Muslim (Friday), Jewish (Saturday), or Christian (Sunday). They have long perched on the narrow column of ledges, 4 stories tall, that is on the inside of my sister’s building. The ledges were safe havens for them, inaccessible to humans or Jerusalem’s dangerous predators, cats, a good place to raise a family. But they left terrible messes in the garden and paths below, and finally the building’s human denizens sealed up their homes.
Every morning I hear them flying down, fluttering their heavy wings, eager to settle back on the ledges that were wide and safe enough for nesting, only to find them shut off by a gray tin siding. In vain they flutter and flutter even now, as I write this, against the tin blockage, bewildered and confused, always coming back, a little like Jews wishing to return from the diaspora, carrying their history and dreams with them.
How many generations have perched here, flying in for refuge from rain and wind, raising young, using it to launch them out into the world? In vain they cluck and flutter their wings. Home is cut off, sealed, done with.
I have never called Jerusalem home. I don’t have a geographical home, not even in Montague, Massachusetts, where I live. I lack that sense of rootedness anywhere. But whenever I return to where my parents—and now my mother—reside, there’s a sense of contact with previous generations and ancestors, with a long and deep karma that goes beyond parents, country, and tradition.
You don’t own me, I used to say silently on these trip to see my parents. You don’t control me. You don’t control my voice. I would sit and witness them, listen and observe. I had learned to do that at a very early age. At a time when young children whooped and hollered, I learned to be silent and listen.
Much, much later, and far away from them, that silence exploded into words and outbursts of feelings, scratches that effortlessly filled page after page. The silence would come back only when I returned to Jerusalem.
But now my mother, too, is silent. Full of heroic stories of struggle and survival, still dreaming of a movie to be made of her life, she nevertheless has become quiet. Sometimes, she admitted to me slowly the other day, my mind gets fogged up, and then it clears, and then it gets fogged up again.
Last night she didn’t come for dinner. It was Friday night, the sacred night of the Sabbath when for generations the family always came together. That was the plan this time, too. We gathered in my brother’s home: he and his girlfriend, my sister and brother-in-law and their friend, and myself, and we waited for her to come. Instead the message arrived from Swapna, her Indian caregiver: Mother is not coming. Not doing the 10-minute walk to her son’s home, not doing the wheelchair, not even 3 minutes in a car.
I went to see her, expecting to find her as I have almost every day this visit, in her pajamas. Instead she’d gotten dressed, she even had her hat on. But she sat at the table by the entrance when I arrived and said: I have no strength.
I returned and joined the others in the living room, looking at each other thoughtfully before sitting down to dinner. Ancestorless.