Saturday, July 31, 2010

Update on Rose

By Susan Esther Barnes

I visited Rose again this morning. She was lying in bed, covered up to her neck. Her eyes were open, but they didn't move. She didn't give any impression during my visit to indicate she was aware I was there at all.

I held her hand through the covers and watched her breathe. She didn't seem to be in pain. She didn't seem to be asleep. She was just there, breathing.

I sang "Pitchu Li" for her: "Open the gates of righteousness, so I may praise God." It seems to me that when Rose dies, she will be passing through the Gates of the Righteous. In Hebrew, the word is tzedek, either righteousness or justice, so maybe it's really the Gates of the Just.

Rose has lived a long life. She became ill, and decided her time on earth was done, so she stopped eating. After 93 years of life on this earth, 93 years of bringing light and happiness to others, she deserves a chance to rest, to lie in bed and just breathe, before she moves on to whatever comes next.

I realized, over the past week or so, that the idea of joining a chevra kadisha, a holy society, to ritually wash the bodies of people after they have died, no longer seems so scary. How could Rose's body ever be scary?

Before I left, I kissed her on the forehead and told her I love her. It doesn't matter whether or not she heard me; I know she knows. I just needed to hear it one more time while she breathed.

Rose died at 9:40 pm on July 31, 2010, the 21st of Av, 5770.
Baruch dayan ha'emet.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

You Don't Need Postage for That

By Susan Esther Barnes

I’ve been told, by a very reliable source, that when my husband came to bed on Monday night and started to undress, I woke up (or not) and informed him, “You don’t need postage for that.”

My excessively brilliant husband took this in, then replied, “Thank you,” upon which I said, “You’re welcome,” and promptly fell back asleep, while he valiantly stifled his laughter.

I began having nocturnal conversations when my sister and I shared a room as kids. She would come back late from a party with her high school friends, we’d have a brief exchange about who was at the party and what happened, and in the morning I’d have no recollection of our little chat.

I know these conversations happen, however, because sometimes I’ll remember something about them once the incredulous other party reminds me about it. Sometimes I don’t remember the conversation at all, no matter how much detail the other person uses in describing it to me.

Every once in a while, I’ll remember a tidbit on my own the next day, and I’ll ask my husband, “Did this conversation actually happen last night, or did I dream it?”

When I stop to think about it, it amazes me the level of trust we display when we’re willing to fall asleep with other people in the room. We voluntarily lose consciousness, leaving ourselves utterly vulnerable to anything the other person may choose to do to us or our belongings while we sleep.

This vulnerability rises to a new level for me, since I know anything could come out of my mouth in the middle of the night, completely unfiltered by any mechanisms I may employ while I’m awake to protect myself or others from harmful disclosures. And the next day I may not remember it at all.

What a rare and special thing it is to find someone with whom we feel comfortable enough to rise to this level of vulnerability, on a regular basis, and usually without even giving it a second thought. It’s a thing almost all of us share with another, at least at some point in our lives. I don’t think we appreciate it nearly as much as it deserves.

And you don’t need postage for that.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Changing Plans

By Susan Esther Barnes

While browsing the web on Friday, I made a comment on Minnesota Mamaleh's blog about what I was looking forward to doing on Shabbat.

My father taught me better than this. You never say, “I’m going to do such and such.” You always say, “I hope to,” or “I’m planning to,” or someplace you insert, “God willing.” For me this is not a superstition. It’s an acknowledgment that we can make all the plans we want, but God may have different plans for us, and in the end, it’s God’s plan that comes to fruition.

Last Saturday my husband and I went to see his folks in Oregon, and the previous two Shabbats I was in Israel, so this, I assumed, would be the first Shabbat in about a month on which I would be able to follow my normal routine: Services on Friday night, Torah study on Saturday morning, Saturday morning services, and a nap in the afternoon. After all, I had nothing else planned. What could possibly go wrong?

On the third Friday of the month during the summer, our synagogue holds Friday night services outdoors at a nearby state park. It’s a beautiful place, with plenty of grass to sit on and a gorgeous view of the San Francisco Bay.

So there I was, standing at the parking lot entrance, greeting congregants as they arrived, when a particular couple drove up. We have a mutual friend, Rose, who at 93 was diagnosed with cancer. I was able to visit Rose in the hospital a couple of times before I left on my trip.

She seemed to be doing quite well. In fact, on my last visit she was telling me she’d only been walking from her bed to the restroom, but she didn’t think that was enough exercise, so she was going to try to talk the nurses into taking her on a walk down the hall. The staff was working on plans to discharge her to a convalescent hospital.

Now that I was back, I wanted to visit Rose again, so I asked this couple where she was. They answered my question, but they told me Rose had stopped eating and had been moved to hospice. It’s funny how people are able to convey what they mean without coming out and saying it. What they were telling me was Rose is dying, it may not be long now, and if I wanted to see her I’d better do it soon.

As if that weren’t convincing enough, at home I had a voice mail message from another friend, telling me Rose specifically asked for me to come see her, implying that it should be soon.

So instead of going to Torah study on Saturday morning, I called the place where Rose is and asked if I could come see her. “Come on over in about an hour,” they said, “She’s up and showering, and she’ll be having breakfast soon.”

Showering? Breakfast? Does this sound like someone who has stopped eating and is going to die in the next few days? What was I supposed to make of that?

Of course there was nothing for it but to go on over and see for myself. And there she was, talking on the phone, as lucid as ever. But beside her bed was a full tray of food, along with an array of cups and glasses filled with various liquids she clearly wasn’t drinking.

So we talked. I tried to make plenty of space to let her talk about whatever she wanted. She told me about her two children who had died, and how she keeps thinking about what it was like for her and for them when that happened. She talked about her son who is still living, and her hopes for him.

She told me about how, before her husband’s death, as a rabbi’s wife she used to greet people at the synagogue, and how I do that now.

We talked about our first memories of each other. I reminded her that back when I attended my first class at the synagogue because I knew nobody and wanted to meet some friends, she was the first person I met. I tried to let her know how much it meant to me when she was the first person to introduce me to someone as her friend.

I told her I love her, and I will miss her. She told me her children are always with her, and she will always be with me.

I was there for an hour and a half. Mostly we talked. For short periods of time we were silent, and that was okay too. Some moments we smiled and laughed, and at some moments tears graced my cheeks. It wasn’t nearly enough time, but the rabbis tell us not to stay too long when we visit the sick, so I left, and said a prayer for her.

I sat in services this morning, but for the most part I couldn’t say the prayers. I just let the tears come down as they would. I didn’t feel sad exactly; I just felt like crying. A part of me kept paraphrasing the line from the Monty Python movie, scolding, “She’s not dead yet,” implying it was not yet time to cry. But grief takes its own course in its own time; only a fool tries to divert it.

Perhaps I will see Rose again. Perhaps I will speak with her on the phone. Maybe both; maybe neither. It’s hard not knowing, but it’s the way it’s supposed to be. I am grateful Rose has this time to see her friends and family and to say goodbye. I am grateful I had this time with her.

It’s funny how often God’s plans are better than mine.

Monday, July 5, 2010

No Longer in Israel

By Susan Esther Barnes

Sitting at the JFK airport in New York waiting for my connecting flight to San Francisco, I hear voices speaking a language that isn't English, but it isn't Hebrew either.

Out of the corner of my eye I see a man walking toward me. Something sways near his hips, but when I glance up it is not the tzitzit I expected to see, but instead it is the arms of the sweatshirt he has tied around his waist.

I purchase a bottle of water, but the vendor does not want Shekels, she wants Dollars.

I realize the Hebrew, the tzitzit, the Shekels were not surprising or jarring when I arrived in Israel. Why, then, are their absence here so unsettling to me now?

Why in the world would I think nostalgically about the Hardei turning their back to me as I walked down the street?

The woman sitting next to me asks me, in Spanish, what time it is, and I am able to answer her in Spanish. Sadly, I would have had more trouble understanding her question and formulating the answer if we were trying to speak Hebrew. So why doesn't this exchange make me feel more at home?

Whatever led me to believe that if I just visited Israel once I would be satisfied? I don't want to live there, but I want to be there, soaking it in. I know I belong here now, in the US, and I suspect the alien feeling of my own country will fade with the jet lag.

Yet part of me will forever miss the ease I felt, walking into a restaurant or dining room without having to wonder whether the bread served with the meat might have dairy in it, violating the laws of kashrut. I will miss the mezuzah on every hotel room door and the quiet of the streets of Jerusalem on Shabbat.

It seems there will always be something here to remind me I am no longer in Israel.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Tel Aviv

By Susan Esther Barnes

Written on July 1, the first day of the last leg of our trip to Israel:

Tel Aviv, I hated you from the moment I arrived. Tel Aviv, with your old new airport full of jet planes crouched on the tarmac, waiting to take me away. I rejected you almost sight unseen, for what you have not yet done to me, forgetting altogether it was here I first set foot in Israel so long ago but so recently.

I blame you Tel Aviv, for pushing back, for sneaking into my senses, using your warm sandy beach and your Israeli folk dancing and your cool evening breeze. I wanted to savor my hate for you, Tel Aviv, but you would not allow it. In seemingly no time at all I came to love you, with your bustling shops and confusing, busy streets.

You tricked me, Tel Aviv, as your founders tricked the Turks into accepting your name, not understanding what it represents. I may never forgive you for denying me the feelings I thought were rightly mine. When I return, Tel Aviv, I will be wary of your tricks.