HAPPY BIRTHDAY

Photo by Clemens Breitschaft

Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you.

How old are you now? How old are you now? How old are you now? How old are you now?

Not answering? Cat got your tongue? Never mind. I know it’s your 80th. Or would have been.

“What do you want to do for your 80th birthday?” I asked you in early fall.

“Nothing,” you said.

You had a big party for your 70th, another one for your 75th. What do you have for your 80th? Gray frosty skies, Aussie lying on your bed, Harry the Cur, who’s never met you, lying on mine, all of us awaiting a big snow.

How we loved a big snow, you and I, the feeling of being in a shrouded world, islanded and safe, waiting for the snowplow to clear the driveway. “Till then,” you used to say happily, “there’s nothing we can do.” You were tired from all those years of doing, glad to wait things out till the snowplow arrived. Glad to watch the Patriots play on Sunday, play against time, a little like you.

And though you said you wanted nothing I’d have bought you something sweet, like the Boston Cream donut you liked. And we’d have discussed the coming storm, me remembering to fill the bathtub with water in case we lost power and bring up the battery-operated lamps. And in the recess of my mind I’d wonder what I’d do if we did lose power, along with our heat and water, that I’d have to get you and the dogs out of the house. But I wouldn’t have worried, I knew I’d take care of everything.

So why don’t I feel that way now? Why do I feel my constitution has melted into puddles? That of course I’ll take care of things, but it won’t really matter?

That’s what I’m missing in your absence, Bernie, that things matter. That we may not be important, but that things matter. Or, to turn it around, the matter of things. Not to look through a book or the black bean soup or the dogs’ toys on the floor as if they’re made of air, as if they don’t exist, but to see that they have matter, that they exist, that I exist.

A student of yours posted the photo above, from one of the times we taught in Switzerland. How different we always were. You liked to improvise everything, I liked to plan. But that photo! My goodness, that photo! We’re in good health, walking towards the meditation hall to start another segment of teaching, doing it like we’ll do it forever. Did we know how unbelievably gorgeous that moment was?

Is that why we humans aren’t usually so present, because the uncertainty coupled with the beauty are way too much for us?

I think they were too much for me that day, so I probably lost myself in the usual things—What do we talk about now? Who starts? What do we do this evening, or tomorrow?

Happy birthday, Bernie.

TROLLOP!

“Psst, Awesome, who’s that?”

“That, Spook, is Harry.”

“Harry what? The prince?”

“Does he look like a prince to you, Spook? Just Harry.”

“Where’s he from?”

“Mississippi.”

“OMG, don’t tell me She brought him home!”

“Okay, Spook, I won’t tell you she brought him home, but that’s what She did.”

“How could She do that, Awesome? By the way, what is he?”

“He’s a Mountain Cur.”

“A cur! Who in her right mind brings home a cur? You get rid of curs, you don’t adopt them.”

“What’s wrong with a cur, Spook?”

Cur is a derogatory word, Awesome. It doesn’t just mean mixed, we’re all mixeds. But when you call someone a cur it’s a word of insult, of injury, of contempt!”

“I don’t call him Cur, Stanley Spook, I call him Harry.”

“So what’s the Mountain Cur like?”

“Totally uneducated.”

“Of course.”

“Shat and peed in the house for the first several days, chases after Eve wherever she goes, and sleeps in her bed.”

“Sleeps in her bed!”

“She loves it. The sleeping in her bed, not the shit and pee.”

“I can’t believe she’s sleeping with someone so soon after the Man died.”

“Sad but true, Spooky Stan.”

“She should sleep surrounded by photos of the Man and lots and lots of candles, and switch to a twin bed.”

“Not her. She washed his shirts today, said she plans to take them somewhere and give away.”

“Awesome, how could you let this happen? The Man’s clothes should hang there for the next decade. Is she crying a lot?”

“Not much, Spooky. Voice catches sometimes.”

“Well, I should have known.”

“Known what, Spooky?”

“Awesome, I should have known she wouldn’t be faithful, wouldn’t think of the Man day and night. Instead off she goes sniffing around for someone new—from Mississippi, of all places. And a Mountain Cur! How could she sleep with a cur? Isn’t she ashamed? You know what I think, Awesome?”

“No. Are you going to tell me, Spooky?”

“I think she’s lost her mind. Grief and sadness can do that to humans, and I think they have driven her to distraction, to madness! She’s become the Mad Woman of Montague. The Mad Woman of Zen.”

“I’m not sure you’re right about that, Spooky.”

“I have to be right about that, Awesome, she has to be mad because the alternative is too dreadful to contemplate.”

“What’s the alternative?”

“That she’s a trollop, Awesome. That she doesn’t care who she sleeps with, just as long as he’s furry and warm.”

“I’m afraid to tell you, Spooky, but I think that’s it. You should see the way he curls himself against her leg and then her hand comes down towards his head, and the noise she makes!”

“Woe is me! Vomit, vomit, vomit! I’d rather be dead!”

“You are dead, Stanley!”

“But I can’t go back to the Land of the Dead, Awesome. What do I tell the Man when I see him? That his widow has lost her morals? With a cur, from Mississippi? You know who they vote for over there, don’t you? Woe is me, woe is me!”

GUARANTEES

“Miss, what guarantee can you give me that he’ll be safe in your home?”

That question came to me via email from a dog rescue operation somewhere in Texas.

Here in New England we get lots of dogs from the South—Dixie dogs, they’re called—through rescue groups that get dogs out of kill shelters and occasionally have them fostered in a family for a short time before transporting them up North. They advertise online and ask you to fill out long applications. Friends of mine have gotten wonderful dogs in this way.

Looking for a companion for Aussie, I dutifully filled out one lengthy application after another. Ignored. But a third yielded some results, namely, a lengthy email exchange. The questions came from Texas, the answers from here, and I thought I was doing pretty well till I was asked what I would do with the dog in the times I wouldn’t be home.

“I work mostly at home,” I typed, “but there’s also a dog door so that dogs could go out into a large fenced yard. In that way they are not dependent on me for running out to pee or shit. This has worked very well for a variety of dogs that we’ve had over the years.”

“We don’t think dogs should be exposed to the outdoors without human supervision,” the answer came back.

“Why?” I asked.

“Because of nosy neighbors, prowlers, and predators.”

“The few neighbors I have are not nosy. I live rurally without too many people looking to steal mutts, in fact without too many people period, except for an insurance agent who came prowling around once, saw our pit bull and shepherd mixes, and promptly reported this to our insurance company, which promptly canceled our home insurance. Other than that, no prowlers. As for predators, coyotes are the only plausible ones here for midsize dogs, and the odds are low. P.S. The dogs love their freedom.”

And that’s when I got one final answer: “Miss, what guarantee can you give me that he’ll be safe in your home?”

I didn’t renew the conversation. When you talk of guarantees, you’ve lost me. Does the word even exist in other cultures?

I am aware that dogs are raised in urban and suburban settings, and there the rules are probably very different. But this is rural New England, farmland and woods. Here, if you look for guarantees you’d never take dogs off-leash into the forest because there are predators there as well, not to mention hunters or an occasional maniac. That means they’ll never fly over the ice or chase a deer scent, never sniff in the hollows of tree trunks. But they’ll be safe.

They’ll never be able to lie and soak the sun on a warm spring day even in a magnificent, fully fenced backyard unless you can sit there with them for hours. Nor will they play tug of war with sticks or dig after gophers for any length of time that you can’t match, but they’ll be safe. The rhythm of their life will always depend on you. They won’t follow their cadence of play—rest—relaxed and curious walking/sniffing—more rest. But they’ll be safe.

True, you live in the country among flora and fauna, have spent the money needed to fence your yard, and take them out every day for a run in the forest—

But can you give them guarantees that they’ll live to a ripe old age?

Can you them give guarantees that they’ll always be safe and never sorry?

Can you give guarantees that nothing, positively nothing bad, will ever happen to them?

That word should be outlawed from the English language.

I JUST WANT TO CRAWL UNDER A ROCK

Yesterday I got a funny message: “Bernie Glassman wants to be friends with you on Facebook.”

My first thought was: Now you want to be friends?

Naturallement, Rami, ED of Zen Peacemakers, informed me that this was some kind of online scam. But for a moment I almost wondered if this wasn’t Bernie’s way of communicating from the hereafter; if he was to going to reach out to me somehow, this might be it.

Yesterday also marked the day when, three years ago, Bernie had his stroke. It was a milestone in my life, but that was probably nothing like how it was for him.

“You know what Muryo used to say?” he would tell me again and again, referring to Peter Matthiessen. “He said that if he gets sick, he just wants to crawl under a rock and die. He wants to be left alone. Well, that’s true about me, too.”

In earlier years, that indeed was pretty much how Bernie carried on whenever he got sick, but the stroke changed everything. He didn’t have the wherewithal to crawl anywhere. He couldn’t talk, he couldn’t walk, couldn’t use his right side.

I remember even now how relieved I was when, at Springfield’s Baystate Medical Center, after Bernie had been moved one floor down from ICU, a rehabilitation physician examined him by hitting a soft mallet all over his body and getting no response. Finally he hit the sole of his foot, then put the mallet away.

“Well?” I asked nervously.

“He’s not totally paralyzed there,” the doctor said. “I got a small response from the foot.”

“What does that mean?” I asked. What I really wanted to know was: Will he talk again? Walk again?

“He’ll regain something,” the doctor said.

Bernie talked again. Bernie walked again. Bernie used his right arm and hand again. Slowly, with help from therapists, caregivers, and so many who financially supported these efforts, he learned to talk, walk with a cane (and without in the kitchen), dress himself, and cut his food with both hands. But he would never be independent again. The man who just wanted to crawl under a rock and be left alone now couldn’t evade the fact that he was dependent. Hugely dependent.

Would he fight it? Would he be angry at his caregivers? Would he be angry at the woman by his side who could take a fast walk each morning, run up and down the stairs, get food out of the refrigerator and hang up laundry in the basement? Who flaunted her physical independence with every move, every errand? Who drove, flew to different cities and countries, who did so much that he couldn’t?

Never. Not even once. That is no exaggeration.

At most he’d withdraw, become silent, or else say he’s tired and needs to rest.

I believe that fully accepting his state of dependence may well have been the hardest thing he ever did. Forget the fuss of the old Greyston days, a divorce from his first wife and the loss of a second. Forget the financial emergencies. This was something he could never push away, never forget.

Visitors would sometimes talk too fast for him to follow and he’d say sadly to me after they left: “I couldn’t understand what they said.”

Someone else would come and talk about a dinner honoring him, or a new bearing witness retreat somewhere far away. We would love to have you there. “Maybe,” he would say with an encouraging smile. But to me he’d say: “I can’t, it’s too much for me.”

He loved his children, he was proud of his successors, he loved the Zen Peacemakers, he loved to hear about the work going on around the world. And he knew without a doubt that he couldn’t do any of it anymore.

I’d tease him after a hard day of exercise and he’d say: “Just watch, next year I won’t walk, I’ll run!” Then add: “But I won’t be disappointed if I don’t.”

“Next year [December 2020], when you turn 70, I want to take you away somewhere,” he told me. His tone was somewhere between serious and prayerful. I smiled and nodded my head, but inside I thought that in all probability it wasn’t going to happen, he couldn’t recover that much.

Do I think I was wrong? No, but now I wish I’d let those words hover for a while. I wish I’d let myself take them in, not as a promise that would not be fulfilled but as the deep, expressed yearning of someone who badly wished to celebrate me—to celebrate us—one last time.

COMFORT: NOT A WORD FOR A ZEN WARRIOR

Photo by Peter Cunningham

I continue to be semi-hoarse since my time in Israel; maybe my voice is changing. The message I get is: Now may be a good time to shut up.

Unless he was talking about work, Bernie tended towards silence, especially in the personal sphere. As everyone knows who was around him, he talked a mile a minute with enormous confidence and enthusiasm, but put him around the dinner table and tell him your mother wasn’t feeling well or you don’t know what to do about this book or that, or even about your whole life, and he had nothing to say.

“Zen masters don’t talk.”

“He talked plenty, Stanley, just not personally. And I wanted to talk, not about Trump or things like that, but about how I was feeling and what was coming up.”

“Zen is about silence.”

“That’s a sad delusion, Stan. Meditation isn’t just about sitting or silence, it’s about everything, including talk. You know what I used to tell Bernie, Stanley? ‘I feel like an electric wire seeking to make a connection, only the socket ain’t there.’”

“That’s a terrible way to talk about your beloved husband who’s now dead and can’t defend himself.”

“Oh Stanley, why don’t you go back to being dead? And speaking about someone else who’s dead and can’t defend himself, let me tell you this story about my old friend, Hans Hokanson, a big, silent Swede, a Zen priest who made massive, gorgeous pieces of furniture. Massive and gorgeous described Hans.”

“Is he dead, too?”

“Yes, Stanley, Hans has been dead for over 20 years.”

“Then I don’t think you should talk about—“

“Just listen, Stan. Back in 1996 I flew with Hans to Vietnam on Singapore Airways. It was a long, long trip that went through Los Angeles, Tokyo, and Singapore, till we finally landed in Vietnam. In all those endless hours of travel, Hans and me sitting side by side, I think Hans may have uttered about six words.

“On our final leg from Singapore to Vietnam, the plane starts to wobble. We get into heavy clouds and wind over the Gulf of Thailand and the plane shakes. The passengers look around nervously. Of course, food is being served right then—“

“What kind of food? Steak?”

“Stop with the food, Stanley. The plane careens this way and that, plates and glasses falling all over the place. From the cockpit, nothing. Nobody says a goddamn word. Finally the plane plunges quite a way down and people scream.

“‘I wish he’d say something,’ I tell Hans.

“Hans deigns to look at me. ‘Who?’

‘’The captain, or the co-pilot. Someone should say something.’

“The plane plunges again. More screams. Silence from the cockpit.

“’Why?’ says Hans.

“’To explain to us what is happening,’ I say.

“’Why?’ says Hans.

“’Because I want to know. I’ll feel better if I know.’

“’If you die, just die,‘ says Hans.

“’I think it would calm most of us—maybe not you, but most of us—if he’d say something, the way they do on American planes.’

“’If we’re going to die what difference will it make?’

“’I’m not talking about dying, Hans, I just want some comfort!’

“Comfort. Does that word appear anywhere in Zen? ‘Why?’ says Hans, who then proceeds with the Buddha’s story of the man wounded by an arrow shot at him. Do you bother with checking whether the arrow was made in China? asks the Great Physician. Do you spend time checking out if it’s aluminum or plastic, and what other colors it comes in? Of course not. You take care of the sick man. ‘It’s the same thing,’ concludes my companion.

“’Hans,’ I say faintly, shocked by his sudden verbosity, ‘I just want the pilot to talk to us.’”

“I don’t think you should tell stories about somebody who’s dead and can’t defend himself,” says Stanley.

“Defend himself against charges he was too silent? Not Hans, Spook. Not in a million years.”

YOUR VISION ADJUSTS

I woke up at 4:30 and looked out the window. No clouds this time, no gray, fuzzy darkness, but stars everywhere, so I put on my winter pants and sweatshirt, jacket, and in my slippers went out the front door, Aussie right behind me.

I’ve always been afraid of the dark. Not that I sleep with a lamp or the hall light on, just don’t like to go out in the dark. Someone stayed here the other night and went for a walk at 10 pm. I told him I had no flashlight to give him and he said it was no problem. “Your eyes get accustomed to the dark after a while,” he told me while buttoning up his boots.

He was right. I slowly and tentatively made my way down the steps, trying to make sure they weren’t icy, wishing I’d put on my sneakers. Turned left and walked right into the big hydrangea plants in front. Aussie practically leaned into my legs, maybe curious what we were doing outside at such an hour, maybe for support because I’m sure she could tell I didn’t know where I was going.

Once on the driveway my eyes adjusted. No moon, but I made my way up the long, uneven, pebbly driveway in my slippers guided only by starlight. Reached the road, blacktop. The woods above the road made it darker, not a light in either direction.

I looked up at the stars and remembered my childhood, that sense of smallness and bigness I had when I looked up at the infinite sky. I’m going to do this some more, I promised myself. Put on my sneakers next time and go out in the dark, get my eyes used to a new way of seeing things.

A couple of hours later Aussie stands in the back office looking out at the yard. She has a dog door she could get through from the kitchen, but she doesn’t go there, just sits looks out the glass door at the squirrels and chipmunks scampering round the roots of trees over the frozen leaves of summer. They crowd around the bird feeders, chasing one another up and down the branches, two, three, even four of them at a time playing games.

When Aussie first came she spent a few months rushing at them, leaping over the fence in chase of squirrels on the other side. Tim came twice to raise the fence all around the yard and the Juvenile Delinquent has learned that she can’t fulfill her dreams, can’t achieve her dearest wishes.

She hasn’t totally given up, there still are the occasional runs and forays: Onward! Don’t let past crashes and defeats dissuade you. You’ll get one of those furry critters in your jaws one of these days, onwards!

But you could tell she’s losing hope. She’s tried mettle against metal, done her damndest, thought she was pursuing her true vocation, and it hasn’t worked. So now she looks out the back door at the activity outside, maybe wondering what her real life will be about if it’s not about catching squirrels.

 

WHAT DO YOU HAVE SO MUCH TO TALK ABOUT?

A week, 8 days, 9 days. Six months ago, for my mother’s 90th birthday, I stayed in Jerusalem for 2 weeks, but it felt too long. This time it’s 8-1/2 days, and it almost always ends this way, a 3:00 or 4:00 am wait on the street for the limo service to pick me up.

By limo I mean a van that will pick me up and then take me around Jerusalem for an hour’s tour as it picks up another 10 people or so, before it hits Highway 1 to go down to the airport. But it always starts with this wait in the dark, standing across from the Museum of Islamic Art, around the corner from the Jerusalem Theater and the President’s home, looking down a quiet street that in daytime is frenzied with buses, cars, people, and lots and lots of cats.

I am one of those people who live very far from their family of origin. That’s common in the US, but elicits raised eyebrows from people here, especially when they hear that I also don’t have children—and now no husband, either. I can see they feel sorry for me, and probably a lot sorrier for my parents. This is not how normal people are meant to live, many eyes convey.

I know people who live this way and feel little closeness with the family members that are far, as if they’ve left them behind, lives diverging so sharply there is little left in common. That’s not true for me. I am very close to both brother and sister. We share karmic stories; we know where we come from, and even share some uncertainty about where we’re headed. We know what we have in common and where we grew apart; by now we even appreciate the differences among us because we perceive more clearly the complementarity of things.

My most enjoyable time is not going off into the desert or even to see the Old City, and especially the shop of Armenian art I like to visit, but rather sitting in a new café that just opened up (both brother and sister always keep up with new cafes) and opening my heart to reveal what’s there. What’s happened since the last time we talked? I know who you were then, but who are you know? What new insight suddenly appeared? And most important, what do you need from me?

We verbally meander, follow a path here and then there, touch on our mother, touch on their children, push away layer after layer, and marvel at how simple it seems to be at the very bottom.

The men in my life never got it. “You two have so much to talk about,” Bernie would marvel after I’d come back from another coffee with my sister. My father’s version was more interrogatory: “What do you have so much to talk about?”

What indeed. Last night, just before we hugged good-bye, my brother said to me: Just be yourself. Most of the work consists of nothing but discarding the nonessentials so that you could finally see who you are and what you need, find the one question that you really have, maybe two. Don’t bother with the rest.

NOT A PEOPLE PERSON

It’s not that I talk that much; it may be that I shouldn’t talk at all.

I’ve been hoarse since coming to Israel, and chances of regaining my voice before leaving early am on Friday are slim. I caught a cold right after arriving. It left, returned, left again, but my throat has been consistently sore, my voice rasping and descending into bass. “You sound like Tallulah Bankhead,” Bernie used to say on these occasions.

Last night I couldn’t be quiet. Bernie’s son, Marc, my brother, and I went down to the home of our friends, Iris and Tani Katz, not far from Ramat Gan, and met with a handful of people who knew Bernie and at some point were involved with his madcap schemes for getting everyone in the world to experience the oneness of life. The evening was gracious, the food generous. We sat in their living room and people talked about how they first met him, how they last met him, and what we all took away.

Sami Awad was there from Bethlehem, able to travel through Israel with legal (though temporary) permit, growing a beard. He’s often talked of how going to Auschwitz-Birkenau changed his sense of peace-making forever. It was great to see Ibrahim Abu el-Hawa from Mt. of Olives, or Hajj Ibrahim, known practically around the world for his hospitality to guests coming from all corners of the world. Or Gabriel Meyer, who remembered our big meeting in 2000 in Tantur, right on the border of Israel and the West Bank, where he incubated his idea of an annual Sulha, or reconciliation ceremony, between Jews and Arabs, which later took place year after year in northern Israel. And Michal Fuchs, who has been working on behalf of Arab villages and cities in Israel for many years.

Many dreams dreamt; fewer fulfilled, but who cares? “If I can move things just the narrowest of hairs-breadths,” Bernie used to say, “that would be plenty. Believe me,” he’d repeat again and again, “that would be plenty.”

When we come together in small gatherings like this one we positively relish how different we are from each other. We love the different cultures on display, the different foods, teasing each other about what languages we speak and what we miss (If by next year you learn Hebrew, I’ll learn Arabic!). At the same time people show each other photos of their growing children or grandchildren (Ibrahim has 38) and talk of the people they have in common (You know Tiokasin Ghosthorse, too? Where did you meet him?).

Some will go on doing the same things they have till now, while others, like me, face uncertainty and change. But whatever we call it, we trust the one pulse that beats in all of us. We could feel it, and not just when Gabriel played his song on the guitar and we came in as chorus, not just when we picked up the bread, oil, and olives (basic staples to this region), not just when we found ourselves, clad in different clothes and memories, seated once again in one big circle. And in that circle we wait our turn, and then present ourselves again and again: who we are, what we do, who was the man who connected us.

“I’m not a people person,” Bernie would tell me over and over. “You’re more of a people person than I am.”

Indeed, he was clumsy at parties, either hiding in corners or affecting a joviality that seemed contrived. But he was a magnet wherever he went, drawing people not just go himself and the work, but perhaps most important, to each other. And even when he’s gone, they delight in meeting each other once again, perhaps seeing some reflection of him in each other’s face.

In his absence, what will bring us together now?

 

 

A SLOW, WIDE U-TURN

It’s New Year’s Eve, but that’s not what’s doing it. In fact, I don’t know what’s doing it. Who can say when the call of life finally, after close to two months, finally grabs you and you yield, say to yourself: Yes, I know, I’m here, I’m alive, time to get moving!

I clearly went into depression after Bernie died, no two ways about it. Call it grief, call it mourning, a hollowness in my entire body every single morning when I opened my eyes to darkness outside and darkness inside. Alone! What is left? No one to care for, no one to think about.

Out of habit your antennas are still out, still pointing to the other bed. They’ll be out throughout the day listening for sounds from the bedroom, from the table where he sits, from the exercise mat where he exercises, listening, wondering what’s needed, weighing whether to go and check things out or continue working at your desk.

Those antennas still reach out, only there’s no connection anymore. And with no connection, depression set in.

It hasn’t totally lifted. Early mornings are still hardest for me: the time of inactivity, of lying horizontal, feeling helpless. Still, something has shifted.

Here in Israel I caught a cold as soon as I landed. Jerusalem was chilled and rainy, a disappointment, and the wind seemed to carry the dampness everywhere in my body no matter how well my brother heated up his home. I was up all night one night, other days tired and sleepy (though I was encouraged by the flowers on all the outside porches of the apartment building next to my mother’s home).

Finally, yesterday morning I spoke to my stepmother, my father’s wife who still mourns for him three years after his death. I heard of her health concerns—cancer, chemo, radiation—mantras I knew quite well–-and suddenly felt like Persephone who’d been taken to the Underworld and now faced a choice: Do I stay there or do I turn around and start walking back?

I could stay in the world of shadows, I thought. I could look at the world like a visitor who’s only come for a brief visit, who smiles wanly at the laughter of children, as if to say that this is great for them but no longer for me, who feels the coming of dusk sharper than any other hours of the day. I could stay there, or I could turn around slowly and start walking back. And I believe that sometime after that phone conversation I started making that big, wide U-turn.

And maybe it’s no accident that this happened on the day before New Year’s Eve. I’m not boring anyone with any new year resolutions, only that life came to a standstill for a split moment, like a movie frame, and I saw that I could keep on looking mournfully at glimmerings of the new day, or, as Stevenson said of Eleanor Roosevelt, I could light a candle. Not curse the darkness, but light a candle.

Only for that I had to turn around and start my journey back to the surface where the sun still shines.

And that big U-turn begins with deep love and appreciation for everyone who reads this blog, for all who email me words of encouragement and support, who remind me of how hard others have it (yes, in my case that helped a lot!), who remind me of the one big heart that goes on beating no matter what. Who remind me there’s always a home to return to, no matter what.

THE ERI-KING

My mother 80 years ago

Pouring rain in Jerusalem. a different cold from New England, not clear and dry but a dampness that creeps into your bones regardless of how well you heat the apartment.

Three days after Bernie’s 49th day I finally left my home in the early hours of Christmas morning and flew to Jerusalem to visit my mother, now 6 months after celebrating her 90th birthday. Promptly, I caught a cold and stayed home all day today.

Not my mother, who walked in the bone-chilling cold to my brother’s home for Friday night Shabbat dinner. Back home she sits in the same chair at the table, hair dyed dark brown after years of masquerading as a blonde, shoulders hunched up. Once, long ago, we were so physically alike that people mistook us for sisters.

This evening, at my brother’s home, she broke into a recitation in German, which I render in English translation:

Who rides there so late through the night dark and drear?
The father it is, with his infant so dear;
He holdeth the boy tightly clasp’d in his arm,
He holdeth him safely, he keepeth him warm.

“’My son, wherefore seek’st thou thy face thus to hide?’
‘Look, father, the Erl-King is close by our side!
Dost see not the Erl-King, with crown and with train?’
‘My son, ’tis the mist rising over the plain.’”

It’s Goethe’s Eri-King, which symbolizes death, and the father is racing for refuge, holding his sick son in his arms, but the son already sees his doom in the features of the rider chasing them.

She learned the poem in the original German when she was 14 in Czechoslovakia, “before they closed down all the Jewish schools and we lost our chance for an education.” She hasn’t forgotten the words. She obtained a bachelor’s college degree and a teaching certificate, but that sense of inferiority coming out never finishing high school in the normal way has never left her. Over the years various of my actions wounded my mother, but few as much as when I took time off from school in the middle of my college years. She took it personally, as though I was making light of her misfortune.

I would have liked to take a photo of her, my brother, and me at the table, but she would have been shocked that I wished to do that in the Sabbath.

“That’s life,” she told me after Bernie died. “That’s life,” she told me over the phone after his stroke. “I trust you to work with as much intelligence as you can,” she added, leaving me somewhat mystified.

“When she sees you she gets so much life,” my brother told me after walking her home after dinner (I stayed home on account of my cold). “Her eyes look different, she’s more alive than ever. Did you see how much she ate?”

And the Eri-King, I wanted to ask him. Did he ride hard behind you, slowly catching up as she paused many times in that short walk to catch her breath?

I want the days to clear, see some early pink crocuses and cyclamen, feel some warm Middle Eastern sun. The weather report is not optimistic, but I have hope.