December 21 was Bernie’s and my anniversary for some 20 years, and I think of that even now, here, in Israel.
I usually get stuck on his last words to me. He was in pain, having gone into septic shock (though we didn’t know it at the time), and as the first responders prepared to remove him from bed, take him downstairs and into the ambulance, he crawled towards where I was standing at the foot of the bed, talking to them, and said to me, “I’m too much for you.”
I believe it was his way of saying that caring for him, paralyzed as he was in half his body, was too much and he wanted me to have a life. It was his way of saying that he loved me.
In the ensuing years that memory brought up lots of guilt feelings in me. I wondered how much stress I’d shown, how burdened I’d seemed to him, how pressured for time. There wasn’t a day when I didn’t wish I’d spent more time with him, let go of everything else and just spent more time with him.
But what I’ve often forgotten were my words back to him when he said, “I’m too much for you.” I pleaded: “It’s just love, Bernie. It’s just love.”
Pleaded for him to understand that because he was such a supremely independent man, so unwilling to accept help and be vulnerable; he was no longer his own man, as the stroke reminded him day after day. But care and attention are what we do for people we love. At times it feels complex, yes, but it’s also simple.
I was brokenhearted when he said those words to me and I replied as I did, I have no idea if he heard me or not. And I had no idea that he would be gone in less than 90 minutes from that exchange, dying finally in the Emergency Room where the ambulance took him, where they finally realized, too late, that he was dying of sepsis.
I think of that now, sitting here in my sister’s living room in Jerusalem. I remember Sami Awad telling me that he stopped his work of resisting occupation nonviolently and instead cares for his parents since he’s their only child nearby. He prepares all their meals, washes and cleans them, spends time with them. He took breaks in our meeting with him on Monday to check on them. “They’re napping,” he’d come back and say, relieved.
He’d stopped working locally, in Palestine, as well as his global involvement with other peoples, to take intimate care of the people closest to him. How rarely we do that in our Western world. How often we say, as Bernie implied, that we don’t want to be a burden on anyone. How often do we get the reply: “It’s just love. It’s just love.”
I thought of my niece, with whom I met yesterday. Her husband is in Gaza and she is home with 5 children. She’s not happy for many reasons, including the fact that she’s a feminist who’s raised a family with shared responsibility with her husband for child-raising, householding, and livelihood, only to see him swallowed up by the army while she stays back, all mother all the time. They go back to being warriors and we go back to being nurturers, as if nothing’s changed in all these years.
Another nephew returned from Gaza for a few days because his 18-month-old was hospitalized due to breathing problems. I saw them as he, his wife, and baby left the hospital, which means he is returning to Gaza today. I know this has its equivalences “on the other side,” as it’s sometimes called here.
It’s so confusing and overwhelming, the news every hour, the commentators, the terrible depression among activists on both sides who see dreams crashing all around, questioning the value of decades of past work. No expectations, no expectations, Bernie used to warn. Hope, but no expectations.
“It’s just love.” Even as they bemoan losses and defeats, even as they bemoan deaths and devastation here and in Gaza, and the lack of an optimistic horizon, there’s feeding, washing, healing, bathing, caring. Bernie had to learn to write again after his stroke, and he had to practice over and over again writing his own name. His hand was shaky and uncontrolled, and still he tried to sign his name—on documents, on rakusus, on cards, on books: Love, Bernie.
Even when it’s shaky, love is still love.
“How does it feel for you to be here?” my niece asked me, breaking one of our many silences.
“Like I’ve fallen into a bottle as soon as I landed,” I told her after a pause. “All of life is in that bottle. It’s intense and I often feel hemmed in on all sides. At times I look forward to returning home to feel freer, less uptight, walk in the wild wood. But there’s space inside the bottle., too. Finding it, feeling it, breathing it in—that’s my daily practice here.”
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