by Moshe Dann (June 2013)
The corridors of Windsor's Hotel Dieu hospital were dark and empty when Avi arrived, except for illuminated statues of kindly looking saints and huge crucifixes. No place for a Jew to die, he thought as he pushed open the door of his step-father’s room and tip-toed in. Sam's frail body lay motionless covered by a sheet, eyes closed, his mouth slightly open. A brittle silence filled the dimly lit room; Avi was afraid that he'd arrived too late.
A nearby heart monitor had been left unhooked, its abandoned cords hanging uselessly. A bag of intravenous fluid dripped steadily like the rain outside. A flash of lightning lit up the cold Ontario streets as heavy thunder rumbled across the city.
Jenny sat next to the bed, holding Sam's limp hand, her small wiry body on the edge of the metal chair, reddish hair pulled into a bun, focused. She had worked with Sam as a nurse in the same hospital twenty years ago. Avi was reassured that she was there; she knew what to do and what to expect.
“Hi, Jen,” he said softly, hanging his damp parka on a chair.
“Hi there yourself,” she turned and smiled. “You got here pretty quickly, eyh.”
Canadian talk, Avi warmed to the way an exclamation at the end of a sentence turned into a question, inviting a response.
“Yeah, the first plane out of New York; it's only an hour and a half flying time …” he calculated “…twelve hours from Tel Aviv.” His head still moving through space and passageways, time schedules, he tried to balance. Coming back to Detroit where he grew up brought back memories of childhood, a familiarity that clashed with the complacency of his adulthood, confusing Old and New, a vortex of clashing memories. In the cab on the way from the airport, familiar signs and street names welcomed him: Telegraph Road, Southfield, the Chrysler and Ford Expressways, Wayne State University and casinos, new housing developments sprawled near factories, warehouses and shopping centers. Asphalt shingled wooden houses, like the one in which he grew up in Detroit's old Jewish neighborhood, Dexter and Linwood, an incense of recognition. Motown, I'm back.
The Pakistani cab driver looked at him in the rear view mirror as they passed billboards overshadowing paint-peeled homes in working-class neighborhoods; in the distance, the tall buildings downtown where his father had worked as a lawyer. He remembered helping out in the office when he was in high school, running errands, eating lunch with his father and other lawyers in the building's basement cafeteria. Cigar smoke stuck in clouds of a closeness with his father that he had not known as a child. No longer a boy, his entrance into the world of men awaited him.
“Why can't you be a lawyer?” His father's question, an anchor in a sea of independence, exploration and confusion, a way of connecting, a legacy of love and regret.
“I can't.” Knowing that he would have to cut the line and sail, each time, a tide of curiosity that drew him out, pulled between loyalty and betrayal, drifting unforgiven and unrequited.
The struggle between them unwound after his father's death, part of his baggage in that grey and grudging city, still there after two decades, with a distance that allowed understanding and acceptance. Driving past the huge iron sculpture of Joe Louis' fist, glistening and defiant in the street lights, they entered the tunnel and crossed into Canada. Welcome. Bienvenue. Borders past and present evoked memories of summer vacations in another country, differences that swirled around him, a mixture of strangeness and familiarity.
“Where're you going?” the customs officer asked. “Why? How long?” Avi stammered, tried to explain. “My step-father's dying; Mum's waiting for me.” And across the ocean thousands of miles away, he wanted to add, my wife and children, my life tangled and in turmoil. Afraid of losing my family, marriage ending, everything swept out to sea.
“OK, go ahead,” the officer handed him his passport and waved them through. “Have a nice day.” Gusts of wind and rain pounded the cab as they drove through the dark streets to the hospital.
Avi stood on the other side of the bed, holding Sam's hand. “How is he?”
“Won't be long now,” Jenny said, caressing Sam's thin, bare arm. “Cancer's eaten away so much of him; I don't know how he's made it this long.” She stroked his hand gently.
Outside the door a figure hovered in the shadows and then disappeared. Avi wondered if it was Sam's son, Gordon.
“It's Jenny, Sam.” she spoke softly to him. “Let go. It's okay, Sam. You can let go,” she urged. His eyelids fluttered. “We love you, Sam.” Simple words, unable to elicit a response; Avi felt that he needed them too. Jenny placed a small wet sponge on Sam's parched lips; he sucked in as if he were about to begin a long speech. “He can still hear us, but he can't answer. Morphine's filling him up.”
Avi watched Sam's gaunt face pull against a gravity in him that struggled to be released. Hard to let go, Avi said to himself.
“When I first became a nurse in the operating room he was chief surgeon. Right here. Same hospital, ya know.” She chuckled at the irony. “He noticed I wasn't very sure of myself, and he was so kind to me. Maybe that's when I first began to think of becoming Jewish.” She rubbed a small Star of David that hung around her neck. “He was the first person in my life that stood up for me.”
“And then I met my husband; he wanted me to convert and it seemed natural, something that I'd wanted to do all along. My family didn't accept me and his family objected, even though they didn't know much about Judaism anyway. I felt so alone, but Sam consoled me: 'It doesn't matter what anyone says but what you feel inside.' He encouraged me. That was so long ago…” she sighed.
Sam's breath broke into short gasps as if he wanted to add some details to her story. “Your Mum's been here `round the clock for days. I finally sent her home. She was exhausted. I told her I'd call, but there's nothing she can do now. She's having a hard time. She knows you're here, eyh?”
Avi nodded. “I called her from Metro when I arrived.” His head still buzzed from the airplane, his body beginning to relax from the tension of traveling, cramped, shuttled, taxied and routed. “It was like this when my Dad died. She just fell apart.”
“It's not easy. She's scared. Hard to be alone when you're old. And they were such a pair, two lovebirds. They wanted to make each other happy and they did. By the way, how're things at home?” Jenny asked, not looking at him.
“Not very good, I'm afraid.” Avi sighed wearily.” My wife's talking about divorce again.”
“That's not new. You've been saying that for years.” Her sharp directness caught him like a slap in the face.
“Well, this time she might go through with it. She seems so determined and her parents and the rest of her family are gathering the wagons around. To tell you the truth, Jen, I might just give in. I'm so tired of fighting. I just feel battered.”
“Victim, eyh,” she said smiling. “Suits ya, don't it?” Avi liked her challenge, even as fear and loneliness resonated in him.
“Yeah, I make a good one, don't I?” He sniffed in agreement; it was easier to play dead and drop it.
She shook her head disapprovingly. “Is that what you want? You don't seem to have much love for each other. Why not just end it and try your luck somewhere else?” Practical supermarket advice, Avi thought; buy whatever you need and check out.
“The kids. I can't do that to them. We’re a family, or what’s left of one.” But it wasn't only that. He wished he could talk to his wife the way he talked with her. He had married an Israeli widow with young kids and tried to adjust to a culture that he didn't understand and a language he couldn't speak. They had more kids together and sometimes things seemed to be working out. He loved being Abba, fathering, but he seemed perpetually out of place, a stranger in an even stranger land, one that he'd adopted, but that was reluctant to adopt him. Hanging on to threads of dreams unraveling, he tried to weave a new life from a coarse unfamiliar fabric, trying to make a rug into a magic carpet. In the stormy Windsor skies outside he could remember everything. That night in Jerusalem when he'd left, wanting to be hugged.
“Get out!” Her shouts followed him all the way down the stairs to the taxi. There was nothing to say. Her words echoed in him, a mantra of despair and his failure.
“What do you think you're doing to them now?” Jenny asked, watching Sam's face.
“I don't think divorce is a solution,” he tried to sound convincing. “We have to try to work it out.” He wondered if there was a difference between determination and stubbornness; maybe it was only the fear of losing his family, and the awareness that they grounded him, a safety float as the ship began to sink. And behind it, the gut feeling that in some primeval way, divorce and his abandonment was inevitable.
“Come on. You can't work this out by yourself ya know,” she said, sharply. You need a partner. You deserve it. She doesn't want to work things out; seems you don't have much choice, do ya? So get on with you life. You need someone who's going to be on your side. You keep pounding on the door, but there's no one home. Be as noble as you want, but it won't change the situation.”
Avi thought of the lights of New York bubbling through the clouds when he'd landed. Part of him was still there: his old six-flight-walkup rent-controlled apartment, the subways, jazz clubs, universities where he studied and taught, friends he'd left behind, women he'd loved. He wished he could be in love again. He wanted to be back in Jerusalem with his kids. He wanted to talk to Sam. Where's home? Where do I belong? He remembered waiting by his father's bedside as he lay dying, unable to help, even to comfort him properly. Nothing I could do. His head flooded with a jungle of memories howling inside.
“I don't know why I can't accept it. Maybe I'm just scared. We've been married almost ten years. That's a long time.” The words echoed inside, as if he'd said them before. “Isn't it?” Words echoed his unsureness.
“Relatively,” she said, keeping her eyes on Sam. “I know it's hard to give up, but sometimes it's for the best.”
Like being in a car hurtling down hill with no brakes, he thought.
Rain battered the window. He shivered, feeling suddenly helpless again, remembering the last time he'd brought his family to Windsor for a visit one soft Canadian summer. The kids played in a neighbor's pool; his wife ate, slept and shopped. Mom cooked; Sam doted. Things seemed so much easier then, far away from worrying about terrorist attacks and missiles.
Survival, he thought. Protected in a cocoon of familiarity and family in Windsor, Avi had been ambivalent about returning to Israel, anxious about leaving his mother alone and facing the war at home. It was hard to say goodbye as the taxi waited to take them to the airport, their last desperate hugs were not enough, waving futilely from car windows as they pulled away, brave smiles of pain and longing. Avi wanted to shout, “Stop!” but schedules and timetables loomed, unwilling to compromise.
For a moment Sam turned his head slightly, as if listening to Avi's thoughts. “I'm here Sam. It's me.” Avi kissed his forehead, then his cheek. Sam's breathing eased, a slow patient effort to untangle all the crazy knots of life. He could heal others, Avi thought, but not himself. Even his family, Avi thought of Sam's son, Gordon, and why he wasn't around.
“Where's Gordi?” Avi turned to Jenny.
“Probably out boozing' or workin' the swing shift at Ford's,” Jenny said curtly. “He's takin' it hard. He depended on Sam, never felt good enough, maybe 'cause he's adopted, maybe just because. Left him a message, but he never answered.”
Suddenly, with one last gasp of life, a deep breath-hug to the world that he had won and lost, Sam pulled his pain inside and was gone. Avi stared at him, confused, immersed in the chasm that opened before him.
“Goodbye, Sam,” Jenny whispered softly and kissed him on the cheek. Avi wasn’t ready to let go. He leaned over, feeling the stubble of his beard, his lips mixed with tears. “I love you, Sam,” memories of his father gasping for life, trying to hold on, the sudden silence upon which all life hangs.
“Still handsome,” she said, closing his eyelids gently with her fingers. She placed a small pillow beneath his chin to keep his mouth closed, as if to contain his secrets and smoothed his hair like a child. “Dr. Brodsky,” she said elegantly, as if introducing him to an audience. “He was always so dignified.” Holding the sheet over his face for a moment, unwilling to admit that finality she whispered his name again, covered him and turned away.
She sat back in the chair and then leaned against the edge of the bed. Her body shook with a violent force that tore through her as she covered her face with her hands and wept.
Avi stared at Sam and Jenny, remembering the night before when he got the call to come as soon as possible. His kids were around him, frightened and unsure of what was happening. His wife stood on the other side of his suitcase. “I hope you never come back,” she growled. He didn't look at her, or reply and hugged the kids one by one, feeling a loneliness that burned inside. He wished he could hold on to them; he needed them. The taxi honked impatiently. No time. He rushed out and waved from the cab, trying to reassure them until he was out of sight and then burst into tears. The driver looked at him in his rear-view mirror and turned on Sephardi rock and roll.
“I guess we should call the rest of the family now,” Jenny said as she disconnected the tube from his arm. Avi walked down the hall to the nurse's station, wondering if Gordon would show up. A trim grey-haired nurse with a starched white hat looked up from her charts. “Dr. Brodsky just died,” Avi said haltingly, his words confirming what had happened.
“He was such a good man,” she nodded, removing her glasses and wiping her eyes. Simple, Avi thought. What more needed to be said? Returning to the room he opened the window and felt cold rain spatter against his face, his head far away into the black sky towards Jerusalem.
“We'd better call David and make arrangements for the funeral,” Jenny said.
“Now?” Avi asked, closing the window. “It's so late.” He looked at his watch. “It's almost midnight.”
She nodded. “He'll come over,” she said. “It won't take long; a few details. We've got to arrange the burial for tomorrow.” Avi felt like running outside in the rain. “Here's his number,” she handed him a piece of paper.
He went back to the nurses' station and asked to use the phone. “He suffered so much at the end,” she said pulling out his chart and noting the time. “Are you his son?” she asked.
“No. Step-son,” Avi replied, “but he was like a father to me.” The words dug into memory, evenings of gentle conversations and his wife's curses as he left for the airport, “Don't come back!” his children hugging him with tears. Rain in Jerusalem; rain in Canada. It's all the same. Pain traveling from body to body, night to night.
He called his mother. The phone rang several times before her weary voice answered. “Mom,” he tried to sound strong, “Sam just passed away.”
“No, no,” she wailed.
“I'll come right over. I'll call the man from the Chevra Kadisha (burial society) to meet us here. Okay? Are you okay?” He tried to sound in control.
“I'm fine. Just need to cry. Please come and get me as soon as you can.”
When Avi arrived she was standing in the hallway wearing her heavy winter coat, vulnerable and alone. He hugged her as she cried in his arms. “Thank you for coming. It’s so good that you’re here. I’m so afraid,” she said, her voice shaking. “What will I do? Oh God, what will I do? Do you want something to eat?” she asked and smiled. “I can heat up something.” Mama. he thought, Food, that primitive Jewish sense of priorities and survival.
“No thanks, Mom,” he replied. “Not now. We’ve got to get back to the hospital. I’ll eat later.”
When they returned to the hospital David was in Sam's room talking with Jenny and taking notes on what needed to be done; a notice in the morning newspaper; service in the chapel of the funeral home. He introduced himself.
“It's very nice of you to come out at this time of night,” Avi said.
“Well, in a small town like ours,” he smiled gently, “it doesn't happen all that often.” He turned to Mom and put his arm around her. “If there's anything I can do, let me know,” he said.
“We'll call friends tomorrow morning,” Avi said. “I hope they'll be able to come.” He felt like he was inviting people to a party.
“I'll order food for afterwards,” Jenny said. “Gordon's working the swing shift. Hope he'll stay sober.”
All the pieces fit into place, whether they matched or not, practical ends that tied up a lifetime, reduced to details and rituals that needed to be done.
“We'll take the body to the funeral home tomorrow morning,” David said. “We'll do the Tahara (ritual washing) there after morning services. Now, try to get some sleep.”
Home, Avi thought, adrift somewhere.
“Can I see him,” Mom asked, “just one more time?” She pulled the sheet from his face. “Oh, Sam,” she sobbed into his chest, “I love you,” and kissed him softly. Avi remembered how hard it was for her when his father died, almost twenty years before, the loneliness that enveloped her and her determination not to succumb to despair and self-pity. Now again she was on the edge.
Together they walked through the silent corridors and stood numbly at the elevators, trying to accept the enormity of death, holding each other and their aloneness.
“What am I going to do,” she moaned. Avi began to cry along with her, not only for Sam but something else that was dying, a dream of family that he had nurtured, twisted away.
At the end of morning services in the synagogue, Avi stood and said Kaddish; he was the tenth man. The cadence of the words comforted him. The rabbi watched him sadly and those who knew Sam approached him with condolences. Strangers, having met only when he joined them during visits, they now seemed like old friends. Shlomi, the gabbi, a short, thin man with a round face and blue eyes announced, with a heavy accent, “Now ve are going to clean the body of Dr. Brodsky.” Avi noticed the numbers on his arm.
“Can I go with you?” Avi asked hesitantly, not knowing what had to be done, but that he wanted to be part of whatever was going to happen.
“You vant to?” Shlomi sounded skeptical and scratched his cheek. “You have ever done this before?”
“Never…” Avi admitted. “You'll have to show me.”
“Fine,” he answered. “Follow us to the chapel. Nu! Who's going?” he asked, looking around the room. Another man agreed to come.
Cold rain lashed the street as they drove a few blocks to a small one-story building that might have been mistaken for someone's home. The sidewalk and grass were carpeted with a thick layer of maple leaves. They walked through an empty hall where the eulogy would take place later that day and down a few stairs to a small tiled room. In an adjoining alcove, Sam’s body lay on a gurney, covered by a sheet. Donning a hospital gown, Shlomi gave one to Avi and wheeled Sam in, pulling off the covering slowly, as if not to disturb him.
Sam's nakedness shocked Avi, his genitals exposed, bruises and wounds where doctors had tried to prolong his life. My family was falling apart. How could I hold it together? Forgive me, he prayed.
Filling three pails with sponges and water they began to wash him, gently brushing over hollows of flesh where his body had been eaten away by the cancer. No one spoke. Avi dipped one of several large cups into the pail of water, following the example of the other men and was about to pour it over Sam’s body when Shlomi stopped him. “No, not that vay,” he said taking the cup from him. “Ven ve vash de body, ve spill backvards, like this.” He poured the water away from him. “In death everything’s different.”
A small piece of blue plastic was still stuck in Ben's arm. Avi was about to remove it when Shlomi stopped him again. “Don't pull it out,” he said. “Blood vill spurt all over.” Expert, Avi thought, wondering how many times he had done this and if he noticed that he was shaking.
Sam's skin was cold. Avi remembered him the year before, sitting in front of the TV, reading the paper, drinking a cup of coffee. “Sometimes you just have to let things go, if she doesn't want to stay married,” he said, matter-of-factly, as if he were diagnosing one of his patients. Avi didn't want to accept it but knew he was right. “Divorce isn't the most terrible thing,” he said. “You'll survive,” and poured another cup of coffee. But losing his family was like a nightmare coming true. Sam probably knew then that he was dying, Avi figured, but didn't want anyone else to share his secret. Was that fair? How does one say goodbye without regret, without holding on?
The water drained off through a hole in the table near Sam's feet. Avi picked up one of Sam's arms and began to sponge the sagging skin underneath. “Oh, Sam,” he sighed silently, an echo inside him, wishing he could hear. A strong wind shook the windows. “Sam,” he murmured, afraid to disrupt the stillness, sounds of water splashing over his body and onto the floor, “wherever you are…” Shlomi poured some vinegar and wine into the last bucket and then dropped an egg inside as they finished. Life and death reduced to simple symbols. And what rituals are there for the end of a family? Avi mused. A bonfire of old toys and birthday presents, everyone standing around dressed in black Halloween witches costumes blowing bubbles and mopping the floor.
They dried him off. Shlomi patted his hair neatly into place while the other man cut Sam's fingernails. A manicure for the World to Come. Avi looked at his own fingernails, remembering the way his father would do that, a gesture now that made him feel close to him, and closer to the time when someone would cut his fingernails.
“Dr. Brodsky,” Shlomi spoke softly, clearing his throat, as if about to make a speech, “forgive us if ve did not treat you vith dignity. Ve do this only for your honor.” Apologies absorbed into silent forgiveness. No right and wrong, just living and dying.
Sam would have appreciated that final irony of life, Avi thought, stripped of everything he cherished, his privacy, his dignity. They dressed him in a white shirt and pants, bending his limbs like a doll to get them into the clothes and then covered him again with the sheet. Shlomi placed a white cloth belt around Sam's body and another under his legs and tied them together with a knot in the shape of the Hebrew letter, shin, the first letter of God's name. Sam believed in the practice of medicine more than God, Avi thought.
“Thank you, gentlemen,” Shlomi said, politely. Avi felt dizzy as they walked back to the parking lot. The sharp cold air cleared his head. The rain was letting up; perhaps it would soften the earth and make it easier for burial. He felt torn, jumping back and forth from one life to another.
“I don't belong anywhere,” he thought, a cold gust of rain hit his face. “We were purifying him and he purifies us.” He wiped his eyes with his coat sleeve and shivered. The wind twisted the bare branches, pulling on the roots. Across the river I grew up, and across the ocean. Where do I belong? I need to be needed.
At the entrance to the funeral chapel Sam's friends from the Canadian Veterans of Foreign Wars formed an honor guard. Old-timers with faded military hats stood at attention. Some wore jackets from old uniforms with medals honoring their victories, and the final one, that they had survived another fallen comrade. Who would be next? On top of his coffin they placed Sam's old army beret.
Mourners filed into the chapel from the cold damp streets. Gordon stood in the back near the door. The rain had stopped and a hesitant sun poked out from heavy white clouds that draped the sky. “Husband, father, soldier, healer…” the rabbi intoned, simple words of life and death.
By the time they arrived at the cemetery there was no sign of rain, except for enormous white clouds and heavy mud that clung to tires and shoes. Avi was surprised that so many people had come out at short notice and on such a nasty day. The rabbi recited the Kaddish, the mourner's prayer, accompanied by those who could. Avi wondered where Gordon was as they lowered Sam's coffin into a gaping emptiness, shovels scraping earth into Sam's grave. Nearby, Gordon watched from the parking lot and then disappeared.
Back at the house the dining room table was filled with platters of food. Friends and relatives made it seem like a holiday.
“So good to see you,” he was hugged and kissed, bittersweet emotions. “How's Israel? How's the family?” Avi nodded, Okay. Could they see the pain in my eyes? Did they know? Of course not. Tears were only because of the funeral, they would understand. He smiled, Yehieh beseder; everything will be fine, reassuring them and himself.
“Did you eat?” they asked. “Got to eat something.”
He tried to make conversation, but felt like he was floating in a dream. He wanted to hold Sam and his children. Mama sat in a chair, greeting visitors with hugs and tears. “Did you call home?” she asked Avi. He nodded.
Home, he thought, slowly slipping out of his hands. Where am I going? Where's home? He removed his shoes and sat on the floor at one side of the room.
“Why are you sitting there?” someone asked. They didn’t understand. What could he say to them? He wanted to cover himself, to hide from the noise and let the pain rage through him. Sam was gone, and maybe his family. Little by little, his life would be swept away, like furniture in a doll house. No more Playing House; no more being Papa. He remembered his father's death, watching his body shake as he gasped for air. The funeral, a hearse, a stone marker for him in a cemetery in Detroit across the river. He reminded himself to visit his grave. Riding past the cemetery with his father when he was a boy his father would turn off the radio and say a silent prayer for his parents who were buried there, as if not to disturb them. Avi remembered Sam's words of comfort. “If she wants out, there's nothing you can do.” He tried to be practical, but the wound was still open.
“How can she do this?” he groped for a strand of hope. “How can she do it to the children? She doesn't care,” and gritted his teeth.
“She's hurting too,” Mom had tried to comfort him. “But she doesn't know why, or where it comes from. She thinks it's you, but her pain is from a long time ago. It's her pain and she'll have to live with it. There's nothing you can do. She can't be there for you because she can't be there for herself.” She sighed. “We're all in pain, somehow, somewhere. And we can still love.”
Sam's army beret was on the piano, a lingering presence. To whom did it belong now? Suddenly he noticed Gordon standing awkwardly in the hallway, his large frame looming in the shadows. At least he'd been at the funeral, Avi noted; when Sam and Mom were married he'd refused to come to the ceremony. Loyalties, Avi thought and wondered why he had come now, his absent face staring out of a Molsen Beer windbreaker, his mouth slightly ajar, as if about to speak, or eat. Avi smiled and waved, but Gordon ignored him and stepped back, as if offended. The Outsider, Avi thought.
After everyone had left, the house was suddenly silent. Mom slumped in an armchair, her eyes glistening with tears. She brushed back her white hair. “I must look like a mess,” she said, smiling weakly.
“You look just fine,” Avi said, “considering. You've been through a lot. You need to sleep,” he urged gently.
“I can't,” she said. “Maybe I should take a pill. But it makes me so groggy.” Touching the edge of her chair, she looked around, waiting for Sam's absent hand. “It was so nice of people to come.”
“Yes, you have good friends and family,” his reassurances hollow in the emptiness.
“Sam was such a good man; we had such good times…” she bit her lip as tears welled in her eyes. Avi put his arms around her.
“You had each other for a long time.” he tried to comfort her, but the words seemed lost, vacant. “Twelve years. You were really in love.” He felt useless, unable to say the right thing, weighing words like feathers about to blow away. How would she manage alone?
“What about you?” she asked. She seemed exhausted. He wondered how she had the strength.
“I think it's finished,” he said flatly. “She wants a divorce again.” He didn’t want her to worry even more, but suddenly as if a child again, helpless, he needed her comfort and support.
“You've tried for a long time to keep it together, maybe you should give up. Let it go, if she doesn't want…” Her words trailed into the sound of sleet battering the windows. Avi peered into the darkness, as the wind swept a large branch across the yard and then, its fierceness calmed, suddenly stopped. “It was a nice service, don't you think? The rabbi spoke well.”
“Yes, Mama, it was. Why don’t you try to get some rest now? I need some fresh air.”
“Don’t stay out too long,” she cautioned as Avi put on his coat. She would always see her son on the edge of mischief and disaster. He murmured agreement and walked into the cold night full of stars. “You'll go on,” Sam had said to him. “You'll learn from the pain. You won't lose what you love most. And you'll love and be loved again.”
Avi took a deep breath, trying to feel a bit of the courage that Sam wanted him to own. He began to jog along the road, headlights of cars shooting past, horns blaring as they narrowly missed him. Lights glowed from homes spread neatly over the newly fallen snow, families snuggling together, for him a distant intimacy. He wanted to be there, inside, warmed and wanted.
Riverside Park was empty, covered with a thin layer of white. A trail of footprints followed him as he walked down to the edge of the river, black trees starkly silhouetted against the sky. The lights of Detroit on the other side glittered seductively. Belle Isle, the park where he had been taken as a child loomed across the dark blanket of water. A long freighter moved slowly downstream towards the steel mills. Everything seemed so far away. He heard voices calling him, “Abba. Papa come home.”
Shivering in the freezing wind, he wished he could hold his children, wrapped in their hugs and kisses. A fog horn wailed into the night, a warning, ‘Goodbye.’ Where have I come from? Where am I going? Clouds of breath disappeared into night air. Waves gently slapped against the concrete embankment. I belong where I'm needed. Jerusalem. Home.
Avi didn't see Gordon until he rushed at him from behind, knocking him to the ground.
“Bastard,” he shouted as Avi tried to get up. “You killed him! You killed my father.” He lunged again toward Avi, slamming his fist into Avi's stomach and then his chest.
Drunk and furious, Gordon slipped on the icy grass, swinging wildly off balance and then toppled over. Avi rolled away and stood up. Gordon got to his knees, tried to stand up and then vomited into the snow.
Steadying himself on all fours, he began to sob. Avi wanted to run away and leave him there. He stepped back, still out of breath. Gordon looked like a bewildered animal, trapped, unable to escape, raging against the dread that enclosed him. He wore Sam's long overcoat. Avi realized that he must have taken it from the closet when he stopped by to visit. Sam's old beret had fallen nearby. He cursed something Avi didn't understand and buried his face in the ground.
“Gordon,” he said. “I'm sorry.” Avi's cheek tingled where he'd been hit. “Gordi,” he repeated and warily took a step closer to him. Avi was afraid he would lunge again, but he didn't move. Kneeling next to him, Avi held Gordon's forehead as if he was a child. Gordon trembled, his face wet, drops of blood oozing from his nose; he stank of whiskey and vomit.
“I loved him,” Gordon sputtered. Avi put an arm around his shoulders. A foghorn searched the darkness as a ship moved relentlessly towards its destination.
“Let me go,” Gordon snorted, pushing himself up and, taking a few steps back, began to walk away. Avi picked up Sam's beret and caught up with him.
“There,” he said, putting it on Gordon's head, watching him wobble unsteadily down the street through the effervescent snowfall.
A cold chill ran through Avi as he turned and began to retrace his steps across the park, walking quickly at first, then running headlong, black trees obscured by heavy fog, a sharp pain in his chest as he breathed icy air, his legs pushing him through drifts and puddles, shoes filled with slush, he spread his arms into the night, into the grief and apprehension that lay before him, crying out into the emptiness and uncertainty, an elegy and an affirmation.
The author is a writer and journalist living in Jerusalem.
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