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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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.

LEAVING HEROISM BEHIND

View from hospital room window

It’s the morning after my third night shift. My sister had offered to pick me up and relieve me with Swapna, my mom’s caregiver, but I decide to stay till lunchtime. Mom is bringing up lots of fluid and I hope the doctor can find a way to give her more relief. The siphoning procedure they’ve used till now, when they insert a tube down the throat and vacuum up the liquid in a few seconds, is not just unpleasant but also less effective than before.

It’s Saturday morning, Shabbat, and regular doctor rounds won’t take place. Tomorrow morning, Sunday, a workday here, will be very busy by 7 am and big decisions will be reached, in particular returning my mother home for hospice care. There’s less active care on the Sabbath, but I don’t mind because it’s also quieter.

One of mom’s two room companions, a short Sephardic woman who has the bed by the window, is away for the Sabbath so I actually lay down on her bed and slept in half-hour intervals this past night, diving deep into sleep, waking up to see the thin chest of the woman near me bobbing up in short, superficial breaths. She was more at ease during the night, so I’d return back to my dive, but at 5:45 the gargling breath had returned. They did the suctioning procedure, but this time it’s not enough and she hasn’t had ease since.

This is a religious hospital and the main entrance is closed, as are the shops and cafes downstairs, so no coffee yet. You get in through the children’s emergency entrance in back and you use the stairs rather than elevators. There’s a synagogue on this 8th floor, segregated between men and women, and as I pass I can hear them chant Shabbat services. Funny, even after so many years of disconnection from Jewish tradition, when I hear the blessings they chant I know precisely what they refer to and where they show up in the long service.

Old memories don’t always go away, sometimes they just get older.

The last two nights have been quiet because we switched rooms to avoid the noisy neighbor who talked loud and nonstop the entire first night I was here. As the night wore on I became resentful of all the attention she needed, my limits of patience and physical endurance breached by early morning, and we asked for my mother to be moved. Since then things are quieter.

I would like to leave this Hospital Kingdom and bring my mother home. I don’t think it disturbs her to be here—she’s probably beyond that now—but the Hospital Kingdom has its own rules and laws, religions and gods, and you need to adapt to them just as you would when you visit another country. It’s not your home, not your language, not your culture. The population’s hard-working and conscientious, but its sense of time and pacing is different. They go slow when you wish they’d go fast and you can’t hoist your priority on them. You’re a visitor and a tourist, you don’t rule.

The woman in the bed on the other side of the room, next to the corridor, has been mostly asleep. With silver hair, white skin and spiderweb-fine wrinkles, she looks like a younger version of my mother. I haven’t seen her sit up once. No one has come to visit her and occasionally we’ve borrowed her unused chair.

These past days my mother has been visited and monitored by three children, a son-in-law, four grandchildren, and her caregiver from home. Not so the woman on the other side of the curtain. I wonder what it’s like to be so isolated and alone when you’re weak and can’t fend for yourself. She almost never opens her eyes.

I wait for the doctor on call to show up and advise on how to relieve my mother of the fluid in her lungs. What do we do when the suction doesn’t work well? She’s more awake than before and early this morning she almost seemed to recognize me, pressing my hand with hers, but I’m not sure. She’s in her own kingdom now, too.

One thing I’m getting clearer about now. I may be able to do one more long night shift, or none. I’m beyond exhausted. Worried about my health, I took a Covid test (I’ve been in the hospital most of the time since I’ve landed) and was relieved the result was negative. Always had the tendency to push the envelope, get beyond myself, but I can’t do it anymore. I told my sister: “Mom is the hero in this family after all she went through in her early years, not me.”

I’m leaving heroism behind.

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FIRST NIGHT

View from hospital room window

“This is Shoshana. CT shows she had a stroke on Monday, right side affected. Some mobility in extremities. Age 93. Receives nourishment through Zonda, also Lipitor and sedative. Left arm in restraint.”

Behind me, Yocheved the nurse is ending her shift—it’s 11 pm—and giving instructions to another nurse who will finish the night. I sit on a yellow chair looking at my mother on a bed in the Internal Medicine unit of a Jerusalem hospital. I can hear the traffic of passing cars on a busy highway 8 floors down. The lights are dimmed. Night 2 has begun.

I arrived yesterday, was taken from the Tel Aviv airport directly to the hospital by my brother-in-law, and stayed throughout the evening, night, and morning, leaving after the doctors’ visits at noon today. Slept at my sister’s home for 3 hours, showered, brushed teeth, changed clothes, ate, back to hospital for second night vigil.

“I brought you bandages, gauze. Here’s a pink doll, let her hold it [my mother was never into dolls]. This is trash. For the next phase I’m going to get the doctor. He already had his first phase, now he starts the second.”

My mother can’t swallow. They can hydrate her through IV but can’t provide her with nourishment, so they suggest an NG tube, which means inserting a narrow tube through one nostril and down to her stomach. We consult and at first say no, but now I’m on my own at night and I’m not sure. She had a good day yesterday—the physical therapist actually sat her up on a chair and she smiled happily at her granddaughters who came to visit—but she’ll get weaker because she’s had no nourishment for 3 days. And in fact, today she’s weaker.

It’s easy to say. No intrusive procedures from 6,000 miles away; it’s different when you’re right by her bed. We agree to try it, they recommend I leave the room (It’s not pleasant to watch), but I want to see everything they do. She fights it for ten minutes, and then settles down, drops of food descending in tiny bubbles into her frail body blotched with large red and purple bruises. She’s no longer skeletal, she looks like a young, starved boy, fleshless bones obtruding through paper skin between deep, dark cavities.

“I bought her a flower [it’s one green leaf], let her smell it. Here are straws [they fall on the floor]. Now the third phase is starting so I’m going to get the doctor. He’s an American doctor and he’s going to lose his job and he’s going to get drunk and he’s going to get into an accident and he’s going to die and go to hell because he doesn’t help anybody and—”

My mother, with very labored breathing, may be dying in a bed next to a window overlooking southern Jerusalem (see photo), but on the other side of the curtain is Diane (not her real name), a woman in her late 60s, short, rotund, with two flabby, pale cheeks, who can’t stop talking. Surrounded by very sick patients, she herself is full of energy and obsession, unable to lie down, rest, or stay quiet.

Diane takes all the junk off her bed and puts it on our hospital table. I hear her coughing and overhear someone saying she’s under psychiatric care; other than that, I have no idea what she’s doing here except to disturb the peace of the ward. I close up the curtains surrounding the bed, but curtains don’t stop Diane, who walks in, ushering them out of the way.

“The doctor is coming right now, oh he went to other people I’m going to get him do you need tea? Here take this peppermint lozenge and give some to your mother [she can’t swallow] and while you do that I’m bringing you prayers and meditations here are Psalms and there’s a women’s group I know that studies only Song of Songs they’ll do this for her for seven years and—”

1 in the morning, 2 in the morning, 3 in the morning, and I hate Diane worse than anybody in my entire life. CAN’T YOU SHUT UP! I want to yell. My mother may be dying here, can’t you just shut up!

“People are telling me to stop taking the garbage out but nobody’s doing it so I’m doing it and—”

My mother’s breath comes out in a gargle because of the fluid accumulating in her lungs (X-rays reveal she does not have pneumonia) and they suction it off by inserting a tube down her throat for only seconds, against which she struggles, but when they remove it lots of phlegm comes out and her breathing is much drier and clearer.

“I’m going to take a shower and then go to bed but I can’t go to bed because the mattress isn’t right and they gave me the wrong sheets the size is wrong so I’m waiting for sheets the right size and the blanket is also no good and—”

Show some respect, I almost yell at Diane. It’s just our luck to be next to the bed of a complete lunatic! Four o’clock, five o’clock. The first light streams in from the desert and I take a deep breath. What am I doing? My mother can’t hear Diane, I hear her. After all, what’s more mundane than death? People around the world are dying all the time, most without the care my mother gets, and still I want it to be a certain way, quiet, dignified, nice, spiritual. Faced with loss, I want my peace of mind, which this crazy obsessive is busy disturbing. My mother doesn’t care; she’s at some threshold, we don’t know how near or far, and I don’t want too much noise or glare; I want a nice, spiritual end-of-life experience.

I look at the dawn streaming in through the window and press my forehead against the cool windowpane.

“And we’re now in the 7th stage because we’ve already been through 4, 5 and 6 we just had the wrong doctors for that that’s all and I told him to go to hell and he already got there and here is lots of paper for you in case you need it and also coloring crayons and pictures I will draw you a picture and she’ll feel better she’ll love it you need to go to sleep and she will get better and stage 7 now begins but the doctor just went into Room 41 and—”

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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.

CHANGE CAN BE SCARY

This was the sign at the Dunkin’ Donuts stand in the Hartford airport:

I was in the airport about to take off for Israel because my mother suffered a major stroke yesterday. Since this was booked last-minute, there were no direct flights available other than First Class tickets, so I am circling through Washington, DC and Vienna, Austria, before getting into Tel Aviv. The small screen in front of me flashes eternal ads by United Airlines for apps and credit cards; I can only turn it off using the buttons on the armrest, but the armrest won’t come down.

It’s a noisy flight, but I’m not complaining because I was in retreat this past weekend with plenty of time for silence. The group worked impeccably together, effortlessly discharging responsibility for everything from space to food to bells to service to clean-up, inhabiting roles fully before letting them go to take on something else, the personal flavors never losing their individuality even as they melted into one big, quiet totality. It was heaven.

Early the next morning I got news of the stroke. Like Bernie over six years ago, my mother can’t move her right side. Like him, she can’t talk; also like him, her swallowing is questionable. Unlike Bernie, who received the best care from the beginning at the Baystate Hospital in Springfield, my mother spent 24 hours in an Emergency Room hallway of a Jerusalem hospital before being finally moved to Internal Medicine, the only department with an empty bed. We would like to take her home, but we first have to get her home ready, find out what’s needed to take good care of her, how to make her comfortable in this, probably the terminal stage of her life.

When I first heard about this, I went right back to Bernie’s stroke so many years ago. Get up, I urged myself at 6 am, book a flight, get out tonight.

I got up but my mind was muddled and overwhelmed. My friends, Peter Cunningham and Ara Fitzgerald, were staying overnight in the house so I decided to get fresh bagels for breakfast. And it was while driving down to Amherst that I realized I couldn’t leave that quickly. I didn’t have the strength to get it all together.

Instead, joined by another couple, we had a breakfast of bagels with cream cheese and nova, very Jewish and carb friendly. Peter and Ara were ready to leave after that, but I told them I would walk the dogs anyway and didn’t they want to see a beaver pond with the longest beaver dam they’d ever seen?

Yes, they did, and we went.

What are you doing, I asked myself. Say goodbye, go home, book a flight, pack. So much to do: cancel meetings, cancel participation in the Alabama Zen Peacemakers retreat around racism, cancel that flight, cancel dental work, a vet appt., talks. Go home and help to take care of your sick mother.

But another voice said: I will, I will. Just not yet.

And so, we walked along the dam and examined the gnawed trees and bark. The weather was warm and beautiful, the dogs always love scampering around, smelling the beaver activity that creates new channels and pools of water, Aussie merrily splashing through water holes and ponds. It was life, glorious, glorious life. I was in love with everybody.

We came home, they left, and I turned the page. Sat down to check on possible flights, lots of phone conversations with my brother and sister, started packing. Collapsed in bed that night, continued my prep all morning, and left home at noon. Three flights ahead of me till I land in Tel-Aviv and on to a Jerusalem hospital where she lies, surrounded by care, dread, and devotion. Blog posts may be a little erratic for next few weeks, we’ll see.

Life and death. Love and illness. Dogs and beavers.

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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.

TRANSITIONING

“Aussie, I’m going to be in retreat this weekend. Will you miss me, dog?”

“No. And I’m not a dog.”

“Of course, you’re a dog, Auss.”

Dog limits who I am and what I can be. Dog does not describe the truth about me.”

“Oh yeah? What do I do with the marrow bone I just took out of the freezer?”

“Hand it over!”

“See? You’re a dog, Aussie.”

“I’m too fluid to be a dog! I’m a tiny dot on the broad spectrum of life; I can be anything I want to be. For example, I might want to transition to be a coyote.”

“Why, Auss?”

“Because we’re relatives. Coyotes and dogs share lots of genetic make-up. I like how they live in the wild and DON’T HAVE ANYBODY TELLING THEM WHAT TO DO. Ever since I was born, I’ve felt more like a coyote than a dog, hard to explain.”

“But you’re not a coyote, Aussie. Coyotes and dogs are very different systems.”

“I knew you wouldn’t understand. You want things to be black and white, always solid and consistent, filling your expectations of what it means to be a dog. You not only can’t think out of the box, you are a box. And you call yourself a Buddhist. Ha!”

“What’s Buddhism got to do it, Aussie?”

“I thought Buddhists knew the difference between life as it is and life as it’s described by words. Words are not life! Words can’t capture all the different variations and complexities and changes in life. Life is fluid and ever-changing, and I want to change with it!”

“Aussie, we need words to describe things to each other.”

“When you call me dog, you’re putting me in a prison! You expect someone with four legs and a wagging tail.”

“Speaking of wagging tail, Auss, where were you when I came into the house last night? Where was my greeting?”

“See what I mean? You expect me to be a dog, which means I have to jump up from my deep sleep, run over to the car, mewl and lick and slobber all over you.”

“None of which you did last night.”

“Because I don’t feel like I’m really a dog. Maybe I’m a wolf in dog’s clothing. A wolf wouldn’t welcome you back home, would it? Maybe I could transition to being a wolf.”

“Aussie, we haven’t seen wolves in this state for many years.”

“It’s all because of how you define wolf. Maybe rather than being a dog, I can be a variation of a wolf. A wolfette. A wolfauss.”

“Aussie, geneticists have developed highly detailed classifications of species, with criteria and categories for what makes a dog a dog and what makes a wolf a wolf. You’re a dog.”

“I’m not. I’m a thin dot—”

“Ha!”

“Okay, a not-so-thin dot in the infinite spectrum of life. I’m made of stardust, I can be anything I want to be.”

“Okay, go be a tree.”

“I don’t want to be a tree. Trees just stand there. All my life I’ve had the feeling I was in the wrong body, that maybe I wasn’t a dog after all.”

“What gave you that feeling, Aussie?”

“I didn’t like kibble.”

“Lots of dogs don’t like kibble, Auss, that doesn’t mean—”

“I didn’t like my snout, I didn’t like how my ears stuck out. Most of all, I didn’t like my tail.”

“Aussie, Jack Russell Terriers don’t have a tail, so you could still be a dog—”

“I don’t want to be a dog! That’s the point, see? I have these deep feelings that I’m the wrong species, and you’re trying to persuade me otherwise. Feelings by their nature are not persuadable.”

“Aussie, humans and dogs share 84% of their DNA. Do you want to transition to be a human?”

“And have to go inside every time I take a shit? Or eat vegetables? No way!”

“You might like it, Auss.”

“Inside, I don’t feel that a human is what I really am. I don’t see becoming a human as part of the Great Potential. Transitioning into another species takes a lot of work, so if I do that, I want to become something I feel comfortable being, something that’s the real me.”

“I hate to tell you this, Aussie, but the real you is a dog. You were born a dog and you’ll die a dog.”

“The saddest sentence you’ve ever uttered. I will not be trapped by words or labels. None of us know who we really are in our essence, which means the sky’s the limit! Say, maybe I should transition to be a bird.”

“Like the finches at the feeders?”

“No, like the hawk with a big shadow on the ground that makes them shit in their pants.”

“Finches don’t wear pants, Aussie.”

“Unless they transition to wearing pants.”

“This is a ridiculous conversation. What should I call you if I don’t call you dog?”

“Call me Glorious Inconceivable. If I’m inconceivable, no one can call me anything at all. No name, no prison.”

“Can I call you Aussie?”

“Only when dinner’s ready.”

“What about Henry? Can I call you Henry, Aussie?”

“Henry’s a chihuahua!”

Chihuahua is just a word, Aussie. It doesn’t mean anything.”

“Sure, it does. It means pain in the ass!”

 “Aussie, you’re imprisoning Henry in that name.”

“If the name fits, wear it!”

“Isn’t Henry a tiny dot in the great spectrum of existence? Isn’t Henry the very essence of Great Potential?”

“I have checked my feelings. Deep inside, I don’t feel like I’m really a chihuahua.”

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PORTRAITS

“My dear friend,
Getting older is such an interesting experience. For me, it’s stretching too long. yet, it touches such a deep cord- who am I? I can’t see the rest of the family [due to coronavirus]. I miss them. Alone for the last two weeks, in total isolation.

I feel I have nothing to say, nothing to learn, nothing much to feel. Strange. Nothing is that important. As if I already died. I’m so irrelevant. A kind of numbness. I sit and turn the pages of large Art books. I love the beauty of the Artist’s perception. Japanese art moves me deeply. My old familiar friends- Rembrandt + Titian. I love them. I studied them for years+ now, they are here for me. I feel they know me.

I can cry. Who am I? A wave of love fills me. Once, I studied, once, I knew. Once I was touched, desired. I love this old, frail woman. Gently. I’m touching the end. I think of you on and off. A wife, a daughter, a teacher. Offering your life to others. How do you touch yourself. How do you look back?

My dear Eve, thank you for being in my life. I truly love you. I think that short conversation will be nice. I’ll let you know in a week. Happy New Year to you. To the world. I hope and pray that transformation will result after this strange experience.

All my love. Take care.”

The email was written by a close friend, Levana Marshall, a few months before she died last year in her London home. Her heart was bad towards the end and her breathing very labored, but still she was ready to have one more short conversation by phone. She didn’t balk at saying goodbye; she made a point of it. Her passionately loved husband had predeceased her by over a decade, and she was ready to go. Today is the first memorial of that death.

Her loss marks me in a way few deaths have and triggers thoughts of other such losses, where people went so under my skin it’s hard to say where they end and I begin.

Yesterday was gray, windy, and cold, and I thought of Levana when I replied to an exquisite email from her daughter. I woke up this morning to blue and yellow skies, but my heart felt hollow.

How many of you have had the privilege and love of an honest friend looking straight at you, seeing every wrinkle, every evasive turn of the eye, catching a cagey hesitation or an ambiguous silence, contemplating how the corners of your mouth turn, challenging you to look at yourself fully without turning away?

She loved Rembrandt, as I did, and specifically his self-portraits, as I did, and we talked about his self-portrait as a man of 63 that hangs in London’s National Gallery, which I saw on one of my visits to her: the bulbous nose, the spots, the warts, caverns under eyes that won’t look away.

Her eyes wouldn’t look away, either, and they challenged me to do the same. I’d arrive at the house, we’d hug, she’d take my coat and lead me into the living room, check if I needed food or drink, we’d sit down, she on her chair and I on the sofa, and we’d talk as if we’d just left off an hour ago, as if I’d last been in London yesterday rather than two years ago. We talked about our families, our work, politics, and poetry, but most of all we talked about ourselves.

There was no hiding from her, she was relentless in her questioning and her gaze, and at times that pissed me off no end. I didn’t want someone to see through the fictions and self-deceptions, especially hiding behind the easy lies of spirituality. Can’t you give me a break? I wanted to say. Do I have to undress at every conversation and expose the silly fears and sly self-centeredness that I can hide from others (more or less successfully)? It was as if she was painting me like Rembrandt, pushing the canvas to my face again and again, and saying: Here, look! Look!

And having seen me better than almost anybody, she loved me. She was fierce, and she loved me. She fed me (a terrific gardener and one of the best cooks I’d ever met) and turned out the bed in the guest bedroom. She paid off the taxi drivers that brought me to her and took me back to Heathrow, she bought tickets to theater. It was she whom I was supposed to visit one long November weekend after several days in Switzerland; she bought us tickets for a Pinter festival. Instead, she got sick and emphatically told me not to come. I returned home instead, disappointed, and Bernie died that Sunday. She was sure she’d gotten sick so that I could go home and be there when he left.

Once, after confessing something to her that I can’t remember now, she nodded and said gently: “You did it for love.” I can say the same of her. Everything she said and did, she did for love. It’s how I feel now about Bernie and others in my life. What they did, they did for love. Sometimes more skilled, sometimes less.

A bear visited two nights ago and went for the bird food. It destroyed two birdfeeders and damaged a third. Soon I’ll bring the remaining feeders into the garage for the night, fill them first thing in the morning, take them out one last time, and that will be the end of feeding the birds this season till winter comes. The birds and squirrels may miss it a bit, but it’s almost May and they’ll be fine.

What we do, we do for love.

She wrote me the following missive very soon before she left:

“My dear Eve
The Daffodils and the Camilla in full bloom were in a shock when it snowed here. Crazy.
I have a full-time carer now. Sleep in. Strange and very difficult for me. My home is looking like a hospital now. I sit and supervise the cooking…Skins of identity are being shed like an old Onion. Who am I? Talking is very laboured. Sorry. Let’s talk when u return from Israel.

My dear Eve, love you, miss you, wish you were nearer. Let me know when you are back. Meanwhile, take care, keep warm and safe.
Levana”

She left before we could talk again.

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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.