“Mom, how are you?”
My sister texted that my mother is having a hard time. Israel is going into a strict 3-week lockdown for the Jewish holidays. There is arguing and fighting on TV, much confusion. No synagogue for my mother this year, no hearing the shofar.
”She thinks that somebody’s trying to kill her,” my sister explained.
I called her.
“Don’t worry about me, Chavale,” my mother says, “we have a plan.”
“What plan is that, mom?”
“We’re going to do something very big to beat this. Very, very big.”
“Beat what, mom?”
“You know,” she says vaguely, “this. What is going on.”
“What do you plan to do?”
“I can’t tell you, Chavale, it’s a secret. But listen, do you have a television? Watch the news tomorrow and you’ll hear all about it.”
“Who’s planning this, mom?”
“Two friends and me. But I can’t say anything now, you’ll know tomorrow because you’ll hear it on the news.”
In the middle of dementia, my mother is still the eternal hero. There are enemies everywhere but she will beat them, she will serve on the front lines of the coming war. She tells me this often. It’s how she copes with hardship and the loss of her mind.
How do you cope with it? How do you cope with loss of your mind and your body? Of someone you love?
My friend, Fleet Maull, lost his only child, a 42-year-old son found in bed by his mother in Peru, probably from complications coming out of epileptic attacks that began after a horrific beating he suffered years ago. There’s something about losing a child that catches me around the throat so hard I can hardly breathe. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it: the phone call out of nowhere, the news out of nowhere. The absolute, irredeemable fact of loss.
I come across people whose relentless caution with covid seems to me to border on the extreme. Put gloves on all the time, don’t stop at a rest stop but pee and shit in the woods (a mask, sanitizer, and gloves aren’t good enough), take a covid test before venturing anywhere (though I come from an area that has seen 0 covid infections in August and 1 in July).
Everyone has a right to their own guidelines, as I have a right to agree to those terms or not, but at times I wonder what control we’re trying to exert here. There’s a difference between taking precautions and trying to practically guarantee that nothing bad will happen.
“Americans haven’t learned that life carries risks,” an African woman told me.
Risks and loss for everybody, not just our poor cousins in Third World countries or the hundreds of employees who died from covid infection because they worked in unsafe conditions in slaughterhouses so that we could have our supply of meat. Exposure is everywhere, you can’t avoid it.
I take the usual precautions, but I don’t wish to fight exposure. My life isn’t any more important than anyone else’s. It’s true, I don’t work in a slaughterhouse and I’m not about to lose my home, at least not in the near run. But I will be part of a group holding an in-person service for Fleet’s son on Saturday morning. We will maintain distance and wear masks, all the usual covid-related accessories will be there, but I need to show up in person. I need to see him face-to-face and see his grief, and be seen by him, in my deep, deep sorrow, face-to-face. I want to expose my broken heart to him, and while there will be opportunities to do that on Zoom, sometimes we just need to do it in person.
I wanted to be exposed in flight and airports in order to see my mother still alive because I don’t know when she’ll go. If she goes soon, I won’t be able to attend her funeral or the Shiva. The brave, demented woman continues to imagine herself at the head of an army, taking care of her family, taking care of Jews everywhere, taking care of the world. Even with a clear mind she would wish to be exposed, to share in the risks of being human.
We love and we lose. The risks of being human are everywhere.
I often think of love, of finding someone who wishes to deeply connect, to share a life with a man once again. At the same time, a voice tells me inside: You know, we humans are pretty small when it comes right down to it. We’re small creatures with enormous needs for this and for this and for this and for this, hungry ghosts everywhere. By all means, find love if you can, but don’t forget, you’re not that big. Ours is not the tape measure by which to measure the world, by which to measure how much I give and how much I receive by tiny teaspoonfuls.
So much gives me life that I’ll never repay it in a thousand lifetimes.
How do I repay the gently sloping oak behind the Kwan-Yin in the back yard? We would be nowhere without the green universe that none of us created. How do I repay the hawk that several days in a row has flown low across the windshield of my car as I drove down the road above my house? I must remember to tell this to my Indian friends, I think, and immediately recall that 4 days ago we heard from Renee Iron Hawk that her grandson, whom she is raising, had a fire accident and now lies in a burn unit bed in a Sacramento hospital with burns on 92% of his body (you can support Magnus’s recovery by going here).
Renee took precautions, and still this happened. She knows it, and sounds stoic on the phone. It’s the risks of being human.
Just do your work, I tell myself. Not in some huge way—my work doesn’t have such proportions, nor do my mistakes. I’m not heroic like my mother. Just be ready, I tell myself each morning, and take care. A hawk will guide you on your way.
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