WHAT I PAY ATTENTION TO

The school massacre in Uvalde lays a shadow on me, especially at night. I go to bed, read, get sleepy, turn off the light, and then lie in bed looking at the night outside my window. It’s night inside, too, night looking at night.

In the daytime the flowers are exquisite. The white bearded irises are out, as they’ve been for 18 years, and the first hummingbird, green and red, has arrived, guzzling so much sugar water I’m sure it’ll develop diabetes. It’s almost summer but not quite, though mosquitoes and black flies are out and biting plenty.

It’s hard to get too gloomy in such daytime, but then comes the night.

Tomorrow I’ll be doing a one-day retreat. What will come up? Roshi Alan Senauke, of Berkeley Zen Center, wrote: “There is no enlightenment. There is only enlightened activity.” Yes, but what is that?

I miss talking to my mother every day. I remember her walking in the yard behind our house and Bubale, our pit bull, ran into her while chasing her friend, Stanley, and took her down. Mom hurt for a long time, but Bubale had no bad intentions. She was just who she was, jumping into people on her way elsewhere.

Parents’ death is just what it is. It feels natural that they go before you, there’s an inevitability about it, even a blessing: May you die before your children. If this happens, then life is basically fine.

Life isn’t basically fine for the families of 19 children and 2 teachers in Texas, not to mention 17 more who were wounded.

It’s so easy to hurt, then get angry, rage, and strike out wherever we can: mockery on social media, hate aimed at gun-owners, politicians, Donald Trump, the NRA. None of that’s the answer, so what’s the answer? It’s why I’ll be sitting tomorrow.

But something stays with me from my mother’s shiva, the mourning period, in Jerusalem a few weeks ago. One evening an older couple came to pay condolences. He’s a doctor who, aside from managing one of the country’s leading hospitals, was also head of the Israeli chapter of Doctors Without Borders, and on weekends would visit West Bank villages to treat Palestinians who needed help.

We talked about my mother’s stories of the Holocaust, her right-wing righteousness, her hate of Arabs. He listened quietly, and then said that he, too, had survived the Holocaust. He was born in 1943 in France, and the family lived on a farm in the Dordogne region.

“You know,” he said, “our stories are different from your mother’s. Our stories focus on all the help we got from our neighbors during those years. Every time there was a German army unit coming our way, a neighbor would inform us so that we could hide. My grandfather ended up in the hospital, and a German army officer came in and told the doctor that they’re going to take him away. ‘This is a hospital,’ the doctor said. ‘You can’t do that here.’ The officer left and the doctor himself drove my grandfather home that night to safety.”

He went on: “My parents fled Paris when the Germans came in and moved into the farm. No one from the area knew them, and they assumed that no one knew they were Jews. It turned out later that everyone knew or suspected that they were Jews, and everyone helped them to survive in that small village.”

“In the end,” he said, “it depends on what story you tell. It could be a story that you, your family, and others like you are the only ones who matter and everyone else is to be ignored or, if seen a threat, smashed to pieces. But it could also be a story of how you and your family would never have survived without certain neighbors and friends, maybe the unknown kindness of a total stranger. If your story is that your survival depended not just on you but also others, and that they came through, that changes everything.”

We have elements of both sides in our lives. Even my mother, who dwelt mostly on the suffering and heroism of her own family, remembered the hospital doctor who took care of her sister when her sister fell and broke a bone in her leg while they were hiding in someone’s cellar. Bratislava was supposed to be free of Jews; he knew well who they were and could have reported them. Instead, he took a big risk and treated her.

She mentioned this episode, she mentioned a few others who helped, but didn’t dwell there. The doctor dwelt there.

My life experience depends on what I pay attention to. For much of my life I paid attention to disappointments and failures, to how things could and should have been different. No more. Now I pay attention to white bearded irises. I pay attention to Jean, whom I met in the morning after getting lost in our Plains with the dogs. Everyone was hot and thirsty, and Jean took me and two dogs into her SUV, gave me a mask, and drove us to where I’d left my car.

Are there funky things, too? Of course. But they no longer reign on my life’s marquee in big neon letters. No denial at all; I just changed what I pay attention to.

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FACES OF INNOCENCE

Front garden at night

On May 16, while still in Israel on account of my mother’s stroke and death, my sister, listening to the radio, suddenly  said: “There’s been a mass shooting.”

“Where?” I asked. Before she could answer, I said, “Forget it, I know where.”

Where else?

It’s not like Israel doesn’t have shootings, especially between Israeli soldiers and Palestinians, not to mention the battles with Gaza. And it’s not like other countries never have mass shootings. But when you hear of one, you know the odds. You know that in all probability, it’s another mass shooting in the United States.

On May 16 it was Laguna Woods, California. Yesterday it was Uvalde, Texas.

By now we’ve had so many school shootings that many of us are numbed out with helplessness. But the two that really take my breath away are the mass shootings in elementary schools, in Sandy Hook ten years ago, and now the Robb Elementary School, where a massacre took place in a fourth-grade classroom. That means young kids, 9 or 10 years old. In Sandy Hook, they were first-graders and kindergarteners.

Sandy Hook is in Newtown, Connecticut. I pass the exit to Newtown every time I drive down to New York City on Interstate 84, and I think about those shootings. Just as I pored over the details of that event—the children, the parents, the killer, his family—I did the same now, and will continue as more details emerge.

All mass killings are terrible, including those aimed at certain groups of people for no reason other than their religion, skin color, culture, or immigration status. But I think a lot about Sandy Hook and now, Robb Elementary, because in those cases little children were targeted.

What do you do when you kill a child? You’re killing a girl or boy, a small person. You’re killing faces that show innocence and trust, eyes that haven’t yet endured cruelty and disappointment, that still open wide to contemplate the world with curiosity and optimism. Skin unwrinkled by worry, mouths that jabber and talk about anything at all, shiny teeth revealed by happy smiles, headbands and ribbons in their hair, braces or else a tooth that fell out just the night before, followed by a visit by the tooth fairy. Faces of vulnerability and hope; most of all, of innocence.

I think back to a time long ago when I had little patience for such faces. For various reasons, I grew out of my innocent phase very early. In old photos of me that I found in my mother’s apartment, I’m a wary child by the end of my first decade, a fixed smile on my face, straining to give the camera (and the person taking the picture) the photo it wishes, a photo of a happy, hopeful child. I stopped being that early on.

But as I grew up, I disliked friends who still had those faces, who believed in the basic goodness of the people around them, who took peaceful families for granted, who knew there was always a safe, loving home to return to.

It’s no accident that I never had children. I disliked their loud clamor on airplanes and in restaurants, didn’t join in the cooing and coddling by indulgent parents. Those scenes were alien to my experience and therefore felt unreal. Looking at those lucky children, I wanted to say: You know nothing about life, that’s why you have such pretty smiles and shiny eyes. You wouldn’t look like that if you knew what I know.

I got dogs instead, but was often impatient with them, too, in the early years, testy in the face of vulnerability, needs, and trust. Stop being so dependent, I wanted to say.

I think of the two young men who killed children in Newtown and Uvalde. They killed Charlotte, Daniel, and Olivia. They killed Xavier, Jose, and Navaeah. They also killed innocence, trust, hope, and love. Why? What happened to them that, confronted by scared youngsters, they didn’t immediately assure them that all would be well? Why didn’t they automatically take them into their arms and tell them that their whole life was ahead of them, and everything would turn out fine? Isn’t that what everybody would do? Isn’t that what you and I would do?

Now I would, without a doubt. But in the past I might have turned away, thin-lipped, and thought: What do you know about life?

I don’t know what Salvador Ramos and Adam Lanza felt when they looked upon those faces. They just aimed their guns and shot.

When we kill anyone or anything, who are we really killing? I scan the media for hints: He didn’t get on with his mother, he shot his grandmother, he felt excluded by other kids, he was a loner, he was bullied. I know who he killed outside, but what did he kill inside? What happened to his young life?

After the mass killing in Newtown, I thought there was no way we wouldn’t pass gun control legislation. Ten years later, the odds are still not good. But I don’t resonate when political leaders or the police call the killers monsters. “God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them.” It doesn’t say that God created mankind in his own image except for Salvador Ramos and Adam Lanza.

Please remember, in both cases they shot the woman taking care of them first, as if only then could they go on to kill young children. What partts of life couldn’t they deal with anymore?

When we say the names of those who were killed, let’s add these names as well: Innocence, trust, optimism, hope. Love.

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JUST THE DONUT, THANKS

“Aussie, they named a food after you, look: Aussie Bites.”

“The only one I bite is Henry the illegal Chihuahua.”

“I think they mean bites of food, and they named them after you!”

“Do they contain steak?”

“Let me see what it says, Auss: Loaded with an assortment of healthy ingredients.”

“Oh oh, that doesn’t sound so good.”

Great source of protein, omega-3 and fiber.”

“Any hamburger meat? Bacon bits?”

“I’m afraid not, Aussie. Rolled oats, dried apricots, flax seeds, sunflower seeds, honey, coconut, quinoa—

“Sounds like one of your dinners! Not even chicken? What about salmon?”

“I don’t see any, Auss. Sure sounds healthy.”

“I don’t want my name associated with anything healthy! They’re trying to commodify me, use my good name to sell healthy dog food. Did I give them permission to do that?”

“I don’t know, Aussie—”

“More important, am I getting paid?”

“I can ask them for 10 years’ supply of Aussie Bites, Aussie. It’s the least they can do.”

“I’ll never live for 10 years if I eat that stuff. I’ve had it with humans! You take your problems—like being fat—and load them on us.”

“Aussie, let’s be honest. You are a little portly.”

“I got anxious when you were gone so I ate more than usual, but that’s no reason to recommend a healthy diet.”

“Wow, Aussie, you are pretty upset. You know what I should get you?”

“A Big Mac?”

“No, an anxiety donut dog bed. It’s a dog bed in the shape of a donut. You lie in the middle—”

“Where the hole would be?”

“There’s no hole in the anxiety donut dog bed, Auss. The whole thing is made from faux fur.”

“You mean fox fur?”

“No, Auss, faux fur. Faux for phony.”

“You want me to sleep in a phony fur bed?”

“It’s supposed to be calming and fluffy.”

“I don’t want to be calm and fluffy.”

“Listen to this, Auss: The anti-anxiety bed creates a sense of security, allowing your dog to enter deep sleep.”

“Holes in the middle of a bed don’t give me a sense of security.”

High quality soft faux fur surface material feels like mommy’s fur—”

“My mommy didn’t have phony fur!”

“—and helps them to calm down faster, ease anxiety, and sleep well. Keeps your dog calm and relaxed.”

“Now I’m getting upset.”

“Maybe I should order that bed for—”.

“Just thinking about an anxiety bed makes me anxious! I don’t want to be calm! I don’t want to relax! Besides, my anxiety began when you were gone. What took you so long to come back?”

“My mother got sick, then died, Aussie, and then we did shiva.”

“What’s shiva?”

Shiva literally means seven, Aussie. It’s hard work. You sit for seven days, morning to night, and the whole community comes by to talk about your mother. They cook meals for you, bring drinks and snacks—”

“That’s hard work?”

“Aussie, I wasn’t even allowed to get myself a glass of water or clear the table. The minute someone saw me get up to do something they’d tell me to sit down, they’ll do it.”

“Forget the anxiety bed, I’d like to do a shiva for my anxiety.”

“For 7 days?”

“No, 7 years.”

“Aussie, someone close to you has to die for you to do a shiva.”

“Let’s kill Henry.”

“Aussie, you can’t kill Henry and then mourn him in a shiva. It’s hypocritical.”

“We’ll honor him, we’ll tell everyone to bring tamales.”

“Aussie, Aussie, Aussie!”

“What? What? What? Now I’m getting anxious again.”

“You want me to get you the anti-anxiety donut bed?”

“No, just the donut, thanks.”

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I SACRIFICE

I am home. The leaves are out, as are wildflowers scattered in the grass. Spring in New England—new birth, new life. Purple and white lilacs reach for the sky outside my office window. They live and die quickly and soon, no complaints, no apologies.

As I take my daily dog walks, I think of Swapna Santhosh, my mother’s caregiver for almost 6 years. It was she who was by my mother that Saturday morning, at 6:30, when she died. She called my sister and brother, weeping hysterically: “Ima isn’t breathing! Ima isn’t breathing.” She was changing my mother, turning her around in the hospital bed, when a wide-awake Shoshana coughed a few times, took three long breaths, and left.

From the beginning, Swapna called my mother Ima, Hebrew for Mother. She wept more than any of us, not because she loved more, I think, but because her emotions were closer to the surface than ours with little standing in the way of their expression. She treated her as if Shoshana was her own mother. My brother told me that in the 7:00 am Jewish prayers that he led in the apartment, as is the custom in shiva, she would stand in the kitchen, behind the group of men, and murmur her own Hindu prayers on Shoshana’s behalf.

But Swapna is a foreign worker, as she’s designated in Israel, so she couldn’t just mourn. Israel treats the caregivers they bring in from India and the Philippines quite well. They have clearcut standards for salary, holiday and sick pay, as well as medical insurance and severance. Most important, they’re legal. But the rule states that if the person they care for dies, they are paid for one additional week and must immediately start a new job, otherwise their work visa expires.

That meant that even as she mourned my mother deeply, Swapna had to quickly find a new job. No family leave, no time to deal with loss.

Rather than waiting for an agency to deal with this, my sister talked to various visitors in the shiva about Swapna—there were lots of families who would want her services—and identified an elderly couple that didn’t live far. She vetted them, brought Swapna over to meet them, and helped her negotiate a salary. When the week was over, my brother drove her with her things to her new work family, assuring her that we want to stay in touch; we all want her to be happy.

Her vulnerability hit me hard. She’s been in Israel for 7-1/2 years, having left parents, brother and sister, husband, and small daughter behind in a small Indian town. Every Wednesday she wires them money. With my sister’s help, she mailed an enormous box of clothes back home. She’s supporting an entire family with her earnings and hasn’t seen them in four years. She’d planned to go two years ago, but the pandemic hit. This year she planned to go for August and September, but my mother died. That means she’ll have to negotiate her leave with new employers, who may not wish her to go to India so quickly.

With all of Israel’s generous benefits for foreign workers, when you scratch under the surface you see how thin the net is they rely on. No matter how well they work, no matter how loved and appreciated they are, the smallest change causes big disruptions in their life.

“Why do you do this?” my uncle asks Jennylou, his caregiver from the Philippines. At 83, he’s the last of his generation, and the minute he gets up from his chair Jennylou is at his elbow, making sure he stays stable on his legs, taking him wherever he needs to go, giving him his vitamins and medications, supervising long, daily walks, carrying with her everywhere a big bag with an extra sweater and supplies that he may require.

“I have two children in university in Manila,” she says slowly in English. “I also have aunts and uncles in northern province of Philippines, and I send them money.” She shrugs: “I sacrifice.”

They live in strangers’ homes and negotiate years, often most, of their lives in a strange land with no family and few, if any, friends because their families back home depend on their money.

Would I be ready to give my life to this? Would you?

I thought of Swapna when Jimena asked me for rent money for Claudia (not her real name), one of our immigrant mothers. She lives alone with her young daughter, but the daughter got sick and the mother had to give up her job to take care of her. That means no income. And since she’s illegal, no sick leave, no unemployment, no net to prevent a fall.

We make such big deals of the twists and turns of life. Messages abound about how much I need to take care of myself, warnings that this will take time, try not to work too hard, offers of food and meals. We read books about mourning and loss, attend bereavement groups.

Not so Swapna and Jennylou, not so Claudia. Nothing shields them from the blows. A baby gets born, they need to take care of her. Someone dies, they need to get another job quickly so that they could continue to support a family. No one to complain to, no therapist to help them process change, no layers of protection. They go on because life goes on, either with them or without.

We make things precious. They know life to be precious because they live it in all its rawness.

If you would like to support Claudia and immigrants like her, please make a financial contribution to “Immigrant Families” using the button below. Thank you.

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IT WAS ALWAYS A GARDEN

Old photo of my mother and me

I’m on board a flight from Europe to the US, on my way home. As I look out the window at the white clouds over Austria, I can feel so much movement in my body and mind.

I don’t like the phrase, I’m processing something, as if it’s something I’m doing. Inside, stories collide and smash against long-held assumptions, but the process, if that’s what it is, is not up to me. It’s like a rushing river changing the coastline of my psyche and carving it anew, converting my mind into something unknown, not the same old-same old country I’ve known for years.

These times are to be treasured.

Two exchanges come to mind; I’ll write about one of them.

Our first two days of the shiva, the mourning period for my mother, Shoshana (Hebrew for lily), are taken up by stories of Holocaust and lost childhood, stories I’d heard from her over many years.

But on the third evening, a woman comes in, her husband walking slowly behind her with the assistance of a cane. I stare, and immeiately recognize a close friend of my mother whom I haven’t seen in several decades. I’ll call her Sara. She, too, recognizes me. Her eyes light up and she makes a beeline for me.

“You look just like Shoshana, you always did!”

I haven’t looked like my mother in many years, but now, in her absence, I hear this from many people.

Then Sara proceeds to tell me tales of Shoshana. Not the grim ones of strength and survival, but of what rollicking good times they had together:

“The three of us were in Toledo, in Spain, and your mother drove the car—she always insisted on driving! A policeman flagged her down, she claimed she didn’t see him, and she went on. Before we know it, a few police cars are chasing us through the streets and Shoshana finally stops the car. They say that she didn’t stop as she was supposed to so they’re fining her 300 EU. Your mother flatly refuses to pay, says she never saw them. They say it’s either pay up or they’ll confiscate the car. Shoshana refuses to pay. We plead with her: We’ll share the fine, pay two-thirds of it, otherwise we have no car and can’t continue on our tour. Shoshana refuses to pay. She did nothing wrong and won’t pay a penny. We practically have to threaten to leave her there and go on without her before she relents and agrees to pay one-third of the fine and not a penny more.”

“What a stubborn woman,” I say.

“And then there was the time when seven of us were in China together. We were going up a hill and paused on a platform in the middle, and Shoshana left her jacket on a ledge because it got hot. At the top she realized she didn’t have her jacket, but when we came back down, naturally the jacket wasn’t there. Shoshana wouldn’t budge till she got her jacket back. We said that obviously someone took it, it was no big deal, let’s go home. Not Shoshana. To make a long story short, she talked to somebody, who talked to somebody else, and eventually we visited a family in their home and Shoshana started negotiating for her jacket, which she finally got back after paying them the equivalent of $5.”

“She was a stubborn woman,” I say again.

“Yes, but she was so much fun! She wasn’t afraid of anything and anybody. She talked with strangers, always wanted to learn new things, and got us into all kinds of scrapes! We had more fun with her than with anybody.”

Sara, in her 80s, laughs so hard that she’s almost crying. Her cheeks are flushed, and her bright eyes remind me of my mother’s eyes whenever she talked of mischief she caused.  I laugh, too, and we both hold hands shaking our heads at a woman who was not just a survivor, but also loved coffee, trips, friends, bridge, food, new clothes—loved life.

The tenor of the shiva changes for me at that point. I think back to how I introduced her to Bernie for the first time in Las Vegas, the end of a trip I’d taken her on through New Mexico, Arizona, and Nevada. She was sure he headed a cult and was ready to give this Zen teacher a piece of her mind, only he sat her down and immediately proceeded to teach her to play blackjack. He himself had been a famous card-counter in his early years of blackjack, even kicked out of a few casinos. They got along swimmingly after that.

Over time, stories can lose their edge. She was so stubborn! He could never let anything go! She never came on time! He was always so intellectual, no feelings, just brain! She wanted to party all day long! He was always silent, with no friends!

We have strong feelings about these characteristics, swear by them. With time and distance, they might become flavors: She was like a pungent taste of paprika, he the bland, comforting vanilla, she a mysterious blend of chocolate and cinnamon, he unafraid saffron. Aspects that once bothered me turn into a meadow’s wildflowers and grasses, with bugs, birds, butterflies, and moles all doing their thing, dancing the dance of life.

Finally, if you live long enough, you might look at it all and say: I see now, it was always a garden. I preferred the lilac trees to the ferns, loved the gold finches but not the snakes—and still, it was and is always a garden.

 

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BE FREE NOW, EVE

My mother’s grave early Sunday morning

It’s Sunday night in Jerusalem, and I plan to sleep early this evening. Tomorrow, a second day of going through my other’s things and emptying her apartment. Tuesday at 6:15 am I will start my long flights home.

It’s hard to describe what happens when someone close dies.

You can say: She was almost 94 years old, what’s the tragedy? And my answer would be: No tragedy at all. My mother’s life beggars expectations, even credibility. She fought hard—the doctors said so. To quote a friend, she decided to declare victory and move on. Mo tragedy here.

I can give a linear description, but that won’t do, either. I can say that I flew to Israel the day after her stroke, went straight to the hospital, stayed with her in long overnight shifts, sleeping very little over five days. We then brought her home, she hung around for 3 more days, died quickly. This was followed by a funeral, followed by a religious Jewish shiva. We collapsed on Saturday. Sunday and today are dedicated to clearing out her rented apartment, which we must give up quickly, and I fly home Tuesday bright and early morning.

The linear story won’t do, either.

The story changes in my mind from day to day; last week, it felt, from hour to hour. Family members came in, friends of my mother whom I hadn’t seen in decades, and brought so many conflicting stories of her, so many views about the Shoah:

Do you talk or don’t you talk?

What are the symptoms of second-generation survivors?

Is there really such a thing as multi-generational trauma?

What was the role of the excruciating poverty they grew up in before the war, when they often didn’t have enough to eat?

What about those who managed to get to England for safety before the war (one in the Kindertransport), only to find themselves living lonely lives, no language, no way to support themselves, no family nearby?

And what happened to all their descendants? I am the out-of-the-box Zen Buddhist. Another cousin lives in an eco-village in Netherlands. We traverse the spectrum of spiritual/religious traditions and causes till you get to the ultra-orthodox cousins who would only drink water at my mother’s home (and she was a religious woman), no food.

A family that was birthed on the narrowest of planks, a shtetl survivor mentality inside and grinding poverty outside, has exploded a generation later into a rainbow pinwheel of colors and textures.

This was celebrated during the mourning period called shiva. Some women came in dresses, some in jeans. Some men came in black jackets, hats, and forelocks, some in t-shirts concealing well-tuned biceps. My mother was not one for diversity, too much anarchy, not enough control. This was one battle she lost.

And we recognized each other. Whether it was a Hassidic rebbe with thousands of followers or an architect wearing tight jeans and a necklace she designs herself in her spare time, we recognized the oneness of that gathering, the oneness of the family.

I, who years ago fled that family because I didn’t know how to create a life inside, now witnessed how much had changed, the transformation that time brings. And again, I remembered Bernie’s words to me so long ago: “The only thing we have in common is our differences.”

Who’d have thought that 50 years after I escaped that family, running to create a life of meaning and value for myself, that in my mother’s mourning period we’d be celebrating so many differences?

How lucky I am to live to experience this.

Allergies affect my health, especially today in laboring through layers of dust surrounding old photo albums and books. I sneeze and sneeze as I pack up her clothes. She had so many! She loved to shop, she loved to find deals.

“How many white- and cream-colored blouses did she have?” I growl to Swapna Santosh, her caregiver, while wiping my nose.

“One more clothes, we need new closet,” Swapna tells me.

Saint Swapna is a little anxious because tomorrow she goes to a new family to resume her caregiving duties. My sister found her new employers, vetted them, recommended her, and promised to stay in touch in case there are any problems. In some three years, Swapna will return to her own family in India, including her husband and little girl. That’s another post, for another time.

Life goes on.

I got so many messages of condolence after my mother died and am grateful for every single one. One ended with the words: Be free now, Eve. I know now, deep in my blood, that freedom has nothing to do with escape. It has to do with embracing everything.

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DEATH

Mom

My mother died at 6:30 this morning.

Her beautiful, saintly Indian caregiver, Swapna Santhosh, called to say that she was changing her and turning her body when my mother suddenly coughed a few times, gagged, took three deep breaths, and was gone. She had a heart murmur and I suspect her big heart finally gave up.

My brother and sister are in shock. I’m not. They took care of her all these years in Jerusalem, I didn’t. Instead, I feel relieved on her account. Day after day, since arriving here after her stroke and seeing her mostly blind, deaf, and unable to talk, not to mention half-paralyzed, I prayed that her deepest wish be granted, be it for life or be it for death.

Now, Saturday afternoon, I sit with her body. You can’t start the burial procedures here till the end of Shabbat, which will be around 20:15 today, and then, I imagine, it will be bedlam. Till then, four hours of relative quiet. I sit in her living room, just a few feet away. I’ll be sitting here for the shiva, too. But right now it’s just me, no family, no guests.

I’d like to tell you more about my mom. She survived the Holocaust in Bratislava, most of whose Jews were killed, while losing her father, a brother, and two sisters. I’ve chanted their names every time I’ve been at our Auschwitz bearing witness retreat.

She wanted to get to Israel after the war, so she took her orphaned 5-year-old nephew and brought him to a refugee camp in the south of France. From Marseilles she stowed aboard an English ship with him and hid the entire time the ship traversed the Mediterranean, only giving herself up to the red-jowled, British captain when they docked in Haifa. The scene that ensued was very funny in the telling, but I won’t tell it now. She and her nephew were taken to a refugee camp in Israel, where she met my father and married.

After that my parents fought in Israel’s Independence War in 1948 and my father was wounded. I was born in the last month of 1949, when she was 21-1/2. My sister was born in 1954 and in 1957 we found ourselves on a ship passing under the Statue of Liberty, enroute to New York.

My mother’s early years marked her; she couldn’t forget them. Long before the term PTSD was coined, she was a living embodiment of all that conveys. She had a long life, good times, bad times, and everything in between. She had three children, 5 grandchildren, and some 15 great-grandchildren; she was also strong and healthy till the age of 86, never missing a morning swim in the Jerusalem municipal pool.

But those early years grabbed a hold of her like cruel fishing hooks. She cried every time she recounted those events, and she recounted them plenty. She didn’t hide in silence.

Karma is very complex, no one thing explains everything. But in my favorite land of stories, there’s one story that captures a lot about my mother:

The Nazis cleared Bratislava of Jews during the war, but my mother’s family managed to survive the first onslaught by hiding in cellars. My uncle Simcha was the one who found places and people to help; he’s the one responsible for the fact that I, my siblings and cousins are all alive. But my mother also showed amazing courage. She was the lightest member of the family, so she’d be sent to forage for food outside; had she been caught, she’d have been killed on the spot. She also, along with Simcha, went outside the city to bring money to a non-Jewish woman who was taking care of their nephew, whose mother was killed in Auschwitz with an infant son.

Since in theory there were no more Jews in Bratislava, Jewish apartments were padlocked from the outside by the Nazis. My uncle Simcha was able to unpadlock their apartment and the family crept back home to hide there, as quiet as church mice. But the apartment had to look as though the padlock had not been interfered with, otherwise people would guess that someone was hiding inside. My uncle, using some kind of thin, heavy pin, with great ingenuity managed to maneuver the padlock back in place from the inside, so that to outside eyes the door looked like all the others. He also showed my mother how to do this in case the Nazis came one day and he wasn’t around.

One day Nazi soldiers came into the building when he wasn’t around. Parents and siblings congregated around my mother, who was 16 at the time, as she tried to maneuver the outside padlock from the inside to fall into place. They could hear the soldiers talking downstairs, and then their heavy footsteps coming up the stairs.

“Did you do it?” her father whispered to her.

She nodded to the others in silence and they stood away from the door, holding their breath.

But she hadn’t done it. She hadn’t succeeded in maneuvering the padlock back in place, her hand had shaken too much. She knew that any soldier who looked carefully at the door—and this is what the soldiers were doing, apartment by apartment—would notice this. She said nothing to anyone, but her entire life she remembered the terror in the room, and particularly the pale, shivering face of her younger sister, Eva.

Slowly the heavy boots came down the hallway, and one particular set of books trampled down towards their door. Any moment the man would notice that the padlock was not in place, would break down the door, and find a Jewish family not supposed to be there, not supposed to be alive—and it would be her fault.

There was a shout from downstairs, a name called, and after a few seconds the soldier turned around, the sound of heavy boots receded down the hallway, and he went downstairs. They were saved, at least for then.

Long after that they returned to hide in someone’s cellar, she came back one day from hunting for food and found her entire family gone, caught by the Nazis, and finally she was caught as well. She was sent to the Theresienstadt concentration camp, where she met up with the remnants of her family, and she survived the starvation there (and a tooth extraction with no anesthesia) till the end of the war.

But the experience with the padlock always stayed with her. It was a secret she couldn’t share with the others. She couldn’t meet their eyes, felt she’d betrayed everybody whom she cared for. She had guts and grit, courage and nerve beyond measure, and still she’d failed them. Only a miracle had saved them from being found and killed.

My mother was a soldier, a hero. When she was in her 80s, I still said that if a war broke out, I preferred her with me over any four-star general. Whatever fearlessness I possess, whatever capacity I have to land on my feet, I owe her. At the same time, she suffered from deep insecurity her entire life, feeling that at bottom she was worthless.

Now she lies on the hospital bed near me. My sister covered her face with the blanket, but I uncover it on occasion. Even now she doesn’t look ashen or blue, she still has the same porcelain complexion I envied. Her mouth is open; other than that, she’s pretty in death.

We loved her and found her immeasurably complicated. Now the peace of a Sabbath afternoon surrounds her, the sun shining brightly outside. All I hear is birds.

The blog will be quiet for a while.

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D WORDS

View from my mother’s bed

“Hi Aussie, how are you doing?”

“I don’t talk on the phone, I’m a dog.”

“Aussie, my mother’s home.”

“You’re not.”

“She’s lying on a hospital bed in the living room of her apartment, under hospice care. She can barely swallow. The white elephant in the room is the question of how long she will last like this.”

“You have a white elephant in the room? Why not me?”

“Nobody’s talking about the D word, Aussie.”

“You mean D as in Dilly’s Delicious Deer Delicacies?”

“No, Auss, I mean D as in death.”

“How about D as in Don’t talk about that?”

“That’s the trouble, Aussie, nobody wants to talk about that. The Jewish hospice nurse who came in discussed the situation as if this was standard home care, sickness turning eventually into health. The Arab hospice doctor was much better, getting rid of most of the hospital meds and prescribing fentanyl. Still, nobody mentioned death, they say it’s wide open. She sleeps most of the time, except when she has discomfort, and then we scramble to see how to help her. There’s some element of denial here.”

“My favorite D word.”

“Not mine, Aussie. It’s important to have a conversation around death.”

“Not with me. Don’t even think of coming home if you’re going to talk about that, stay away as long as you want.”

“I would like to get an understanding of whether she’s close or far, what are the signs we should look for. It’s hard to explain, Aussie—”

“So don’t!”

“We frame everything in terms of life. What gives us a higher quality of life, what enlivens us, what we need to function and enjoy life again, all the medications, therapies, supports, and technologies. It’s hard to turn the page and withdraw them. And its gets more basic than that, Auss. Imagine if you were deadly sick—”

“Let’s not go there. Goodbye. I’m a dog, I don’t talk on the phone.” Click.

Aussie’s right, who wants to go there? Who wants to live in the land of no recognition, no flicker of specific awareness, just a blank contemplation of some distant horizon while facing a wall, or even letting go of the external world completely and dwelling inside, unable to communicate feeling or insight? Whether it’s out there or in there, it’s very, very lonely.

I came in this morning, picked up a jar of baby food and a teaspoon, and asked aloud if she’d like to eat. No answer. I brought the half-filled teaspoon to her lips and she opened them, and I was able to give some half-dozen teaspoonfuls, while watching carefully the swallowing muscles in her throat. I stopped when she refused to open her lips.

She was agitated yesterday, today she’s quieter; the fentanyl doing its work. I’m used to thinking of sickness as an intermediate stage, but now I see that it’s its own country, whose inhabitants are referred to as patients because it demands lots of patience to live here. No big acts, just small ones—moving the edge of a blanket with your left hand, scratching softly at your upper leg, waiting for others to move you from side to side.

This morning I remembered Ram Dass saying that the nights were the worst for him after his stroke. Often he would wake up and feel uncomfortable, or else have an accident, and then he’d reflect on whether to wake up his attendant to move his body to the other side or not. “Lots of patience,” he murmured.

The effort to bear witness to the land of illness takes everything out of me. At night I sleep long hours; sitting watching her is exhausting.

What is life with no connection? What is life without a hand pressing yours in recognition? I have tried to breathe with her, but she breathes way faster than I do.

There’s great loneliness here.

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You can also send a check to: Eve Marko, POB 174, Montague, MA 01351. Please write on the memo line whether this is in support or immigrant families or of my blog. Thank you.

INDEPENDENCE DAY

I sit on the sofa a foot away from my mother’s hospital bed. We put the bed in the living room so that she could look out the window at the trees she loved, the clouds hurrying across the sky, wine glasses behind a cabinet in the corner, perhaps sense the activity around her. She’s on a starting, low dose of fentanyl, an opioid. Her face and eyes are not as strained and opaque as before, in fact they’re clearer than I’ve seen them this visit. At the same time, I don’t know how much she sees and hears. Her right side continues to be paralyzed and her swallowing ability minimal.

My brother is happy about her increasing awareness; I’m not sure. The greater the awareness, the more she’s conscious of her infirmity, her paralysis, her inability to speak or to even turn her body.

Life outside goes on. Today is Israel’s Independence Day. Yesterday was its Memorial Day, when fallen soldiers were mourned, and some five days earlier was its Holocaust Remembrance Day. In the last two, sirens sound across the country and people, cars, and buses come to a halt. I was in the hospital with her when the siren sounded for Holocaust Remembrance Day, and I stood and looked out the window at the cars stopping on roads and highways. Yesterday Ruth and I were in a café when everyone came up on their feet, orders and talk suspended. Then the siren ended.

Politics here are very partisan; at the same time, there’s a consensus around grief and mourning that breaks through competing visions and ideology. I miss these manifestations of what joins us.  In the US, we use Memorial Day to take advantage of shopping sales rather than coming together around memories and stories of soldiers, from all states, ethnicities and cultures, who gave up their lives.

A joint memorial service also took place for both Israelis and Palestinians who died in the wars fought here. Today, Israel’s Independence Day, is also the Naqba Day for Palestinians, the day of catastrophe when so many lost their homes. Relatively few people attend that service; I wish I’d been there. How do you hold grief for both sides of a war? How do you hold grief for all sides, including nonhuman species destroyed through bombs and artillery?

Is there any gain not countered by loss? In the long run, what do those words even mean?

This morning I walked with my brother on the Jerusalem Promenade, which overlooks from afar the Old City and Arab neighborhoods. Helicopters flew above us in formation, part of the military celebration. In the grassy slope below us families were setting up their enclaves, younger people wrapping themselves up in Israeli flags, pointing towards the helicopters and raising their fists in the air. Tiny flags were attached to the ears of a dog walking with its humans, a religious couple (above).

I told my brother that I like flags, just not when they’re wrapped all around a person, enveloping neck, arms, legs, heart, and most of the head, leaving almost nothing outside.

Soon the barbecues started. Naf-naf they’re called, referring to the waving motion people make over the barbecue. Lots of meat and chicken, onions, peppers and tomatoes on skewers; later, fireworks.

During the Greyston years, Bernie often said that you have to include as many sides as possible in your work. He was proud that the Greyston board included both prominent Republicans and Democrats, grassroots activists and bankers. The ones you leave behind, he warned, will sabotage what you do.

In our Reflection on the Zen Peacemaker Order Rule, we “invite all hungry spirits into the mandala of my practice.” It’s a very practical approach because whoever you exclude will, sooner or later, work against you because they are not being cared for.

The more jubilation I see around me, the triumphant military jets and the nationalistic songs, the more I feel a deep shudder that a reckoning’s coming. You can’t just take care of one side to the conflict, you have to take care of the other, too, and of all sides, otherwise the ignored parts of the whole will come back at you with a vengeance.

I follow the Roe vs. Wade outcry back home. Of course, we’ve known that women’s right to abortions has long been in danger, especially since Donald Trump’s appointment of three new Supreme Court judges.

This morning I recalled visiting with a close friend of mine some 40 years ago. I was on my way to the Metropolitan Opera in New York City and she, living close by, invited me for an early dinner. The topic of abortion came up. While we both celebrated Roe vs. Wade, I had more ambivalence. There was, after all, the question of the life of the fetus.

The volume of talk inched up. She, a mother and grandmother, felt that motherhood was overrated, a tool cynically used by men and religion to control women. I felt it wasn’t right for government funds to be used to finance poor women’s abortions, those should be paid for in other ways rather than demanding that all Americans, regardless of their deep feelings and beliefs about those conceived but not yet born, should support abortion through taxes. She was virulently against any bending of Roe v. Wade, any compromise of any sort, and it all ended with her telling me to leave her home.

I also missed Act 1 of the opera.

How many of us took a breath of relief after Roe v. Wade, including all the attendant financial legislation covering people who couldn’t pay for abortion, and decided it was a finished deal? That if there were many others who felt deeply against it, too bad on them, they’ll come around? Only they didn’t come around, they fought and fought, and now may be on the verge of a win. And if history is an example, they, too, will then shake their hands in triumph, look to make even more gains, and not bother with the rest of us.

How do I invite all hungry spirits into my practice, including—and especially—those I disagree with? How do I stop my soul from becoming an echo chamber of similar opinions and viewpoints, singing loudly together in one, big, self-congratulatory chorus?

The weeds of war in the Middle East continue to sprout, receiving nutrients from words like victory and defeat, from blessing God for defeating enemies. And back in the US, the question for me isn’t just what will be the Court’s final decision. Will we rage and cry, or will we finally open our homes and start talking to each other?

I spend the afternoon sitting with my mother. When Menachem Begin agreed to give up the Sinai Peninsula in exchange for peace with Egypt, she was so busy posting up placards against the deal, demanding Israel keep every inch of land it had conquered, that she was jailed overnight by the police. And proud of it! she exulted.

I get up to turn her body to the other side.

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You can also send a check to: Eve Marko, POB 174, Montague, MA 01351. Please write on the memo line whether this is in support or immigrant families or of my blog. Thank you.

DAY 6

View from hospital room window

She lies there, an NG tube still connected to her nose, IV for hydration and medicines, plus oxygen. I keep an eye on her to make sure that with her left functioning hand she doesn’t remove the tube, but right now she’s deeply—what?

“Is she asleep?” I ask Dr. Anat, a young doctor who’s 7 months pregnant with her fourth child.

She makes a face. “Ye-es,” she says, “but when you fuss with her, touch her, fix things around her, she responds and then falls asleep again.”

“There’s consciousness and there’s awareness,” Dr. Bat-Sheva, the palliative physician told us yesterday when she pulled us into a conference room to discuss our mother, whom she called a complex case.

 You’d think that a woman who’s almost 94, in dementia, after a severe stroke, would be considered more straightforward. To tell you the truth, I sometimes feel funny that, at age 72, I still have a living mother. My peers talk about losing spouses and siblings, while I talk about my mother.

She had me when she was 21-1/2. By then she’d gone through the Holocaust in Czechoslovakia and a crucial battle in Israel’s War of Independence in the very south, a kilometer from Gaza City. Historians credit that battle with how Israel managed to hold on to the Negev even as Egyptian forces, led by Gen. Abdul Nasser, Egypt’s future prime minister, attacked it with overwhelming force. The battle was won but the kibbutz was destroyed, and the people? Victory and defeat were the language of the day; I’m not sure that trauma had even been invented then.

My brother, sister, and I sit here waiting for the transfer from hospital to home hospice. She’s taken for a final CT scan before release, accompanied by my sister. The three of us finally—after decades of hard work—have our act together. My brother is the one who moves things along, two steps forward and one back, negotiating the bureaucracy of the Hospital Kingdom among doctors, palliative team, physiotherapists, insurance, and hospice. My sister stands back and listens more deeply, the better to reminds us of all the things we’ve forgotten and what’s falling between the cracks. And me? I finally ended the night vigils in favor of sleeping and now, in daytime, explicate to the family the differences between hospital and hospice to the best of my ability.

It’s midafternoon and I’m feeling something unusual and unfamiliar: Boredom. I’m bored while waiting for the lengthy transfer process to reach an end.

I haven’t been bored since the age of 8.  Too busy to be bored, going from one thing to another, from meditating to writing to answering emails to dog walking to Zoom meetings to teaching, etc., etc. Who has time to be bored?

I look sideways at my brother peering into his computer, then to the window looking over southeast Jerusalem, then down to the floor. I’m not sleepy, neither am I meditating. I’m just bored. It’s wonderful.

On the Austrian Air flight from Vienna to Tel-Aviv (since I booked the flight at the last minute there was no room on direct US-Israel flights other than First Class, so I did three flights thru Europe), the plane was full of ultra-orthodox Jewish families. Across the aisle sat a family with 7 young children. The father wore a black suit with sideburns and beard, the mother, dressed heavily from head to toe, including both a wig and a hat on top of her head, held an infant on her lap. In the beginning there was a flap over who would sit near the window, but after that the other six children sat in their seats quietly.

At some point I looked up and saw a young girl, 8 or 9 years old, wearing a pink-and-white muslin dress with long sleeves and ribbons, watching me curiously. Was it my jeans and sweater, the computer on my lap? She looked away and proceeded to scrutinize the other passengers. I watched her. There was something familiar about the scene, but it took me a while to identify what it was. She and her siblings were something very rare: bored American children.

Other American children I see on planes and trains are never bored. Their parents bring iPads and iPhones to keep them entertained, the children’s heads always bowed over movies, games, and apps. The last time I flew, a mother flew with her one little boy (not seven) and kept the movie she was showing him loud on speaker for all our benefit. When someone complained, she looked up with a condescending smile and motioned towards her transfixed son, happily certain she was doing a great job and inviting us all into that circle of entertainment. Didn’t we want to be like her lucky little boy?

I’ve heard other parents say that on car trips they need to show children’s programs for hours at a time, otherwise their kids will be bored, and bored is not good. For this purpose, they also need a big SUV with all the accessories, including a nice-size screen.

The orthodox children I saw on the plane didn’t complain or badger their parents. They didn’t seem to expect constant stimulation and entertainment. They sat in their seats quietly and patiently, so bored that they took turns hailing their new infant sister. Boredom wasn’t good or bad, it was just boring. Not one of them seemed to think that they had to be the center of attention all the time, with everybody focusing on their wants and needs.

This afternoon I’m enjoying being bored for the first time in decades. I look out at the smoggy gray sky and try counting the small white solar installations on each building before giving up. A dove sits on the window bar outside enjoying her boredom, too.

I’m not tired, not dozing off, not meditating, just bored. Heaven.

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You can also send a check to: Eve Marko, POB 174, Montague, MA 01351. Please write on the memo line whether this is in support or immigrant families or of my blog. Thank you.

 

Make a Donation to My Blog Donate To Immigrant Families

You can also send a check to: Eve Marko, POB 174, Montague, MA 01351. Please write on the memo line whether this is in support or immigrant families or of my blog. Thank you.