I mean, you must take living so seriously
that even at seventy, for example, you’ll plant olive trees–
and not for your children, either,
but because although you fear death you don’t believe it,
because living, I mean, weighs heavier.
–“On Living,” Nazim Hikmet
I got the call this past Tuesday evening from my cousin, just as I’d finished packing for my husband’s sister’s wedding in Toronto. He told me that Uncle Balani, my mother’s eldest brother who’d been sick for a long time, was showing “the seven signs.”
I don’t hear anything else my cousin says after that until he says: “I love you,” but I hang up too quickly, cutting my own voice off.
I stare at the gown hanging above the luggage, to be packed at the last minute to avoid wrinkling. The colors are bright, garishly bright. The last time I saw my uncle was about two months ago. He was wearing one of his usual white t-shirts, clutching his left arm in pain, half-lucid as we held up his head so he could drink water from a straw.
Make sure to say your goodbyes, my husband had whispered.
I did not say my goodbyes.
My mother and my husband went out of the room so I could sit there alone with my uncle and not say goodbye. I held his hand, and stroked his head. I rocked back and forth in his old rocking chair as the long, curling tube of his catheter bag pushed fluid up and down, up and around. I don’t remember what little I said.
Now my husband comes home and takes over. He calls my cousin to get specific details I couldn’t hold onto. He cancels Blue Apron for the next week. He writes emails for both of us explaining we might be missing work. He has used most of his vacation days already, accompanying me on many six hour flights from New York to see my uncle in the Rio Grande Valley. He is sensible, my husband, while I sit down in front of my computer and type into Google “7 signs of…”
I can’t complete it. So Google does it for me, offering up the following suggestions:
7 signs of cancer.
7 signs of beauty.
7 signs of death.
7 signs of grief.
7 signs of love.
I turn off the computer. My brother calls. My mother calls. We call my cousin’s father. Everyone tells us to go the wedding in Toronto, that “things” take time, that he’s holding on yet, that he’s a fighter, that quite possibly he won’t see the next day, that the doctors and nurses have been wrong before.
That’s the thing about cancer: contradiction and truth intertwine into a gnarly, hypothetical reality, one bent on satisfying impossible hungers. Cancer has fed upon my family, and we have bit back just as viciously.
There is this truth in my mother’s family: we descend from apex climbers, our predecessors covering much ground in the short time they lived. It’s a little strange, given that my mother and her siblings are so close and the legacy of apex climbers end up leading solitary lives (say, like almost all breeds of sharks). Perhaps that closeness is the one genetic factor they would not sacrifice. There is something within that generation that when one turns her or his face to the wind, the rest of their faces turn, knowingly. They are the kind whom rage against the body when it fails one of them, do whatever it takes to reawaken that particular instinct to survive.
At a young age, I understood once you have cancer, you’re always in remission. That your doctors can set time spans in which you’re “good as cured,” but never again will your life belong to you as it once was. You’ll always have check-ups. You will never lose that sense of distrust.
Before Tuesday, this was to be a very different essay on Aseret Yemei Teshuva, the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. During these “Ten Days of Repentance,” one takes a critical look at the choices they’ve made in life, and how they can become someone better. It is not about merely asking for forgiveness; it is about self-reflection and changing for the long-term.
I am rewriting this now because Hikmet’s poem “On Living” is ringing in my ears. It is a call to prayer for one who has forgotten how to pray. I can easily find solace in knowing my uncle is the kind of man to plant olive trees for those he would never know. There aren’t a lot of people like that. I don’t think I am that kind of person. But I want to be. I want to believe the weight of living is heavier than that of death. I want to cradle that weight for the sake of living itself, not out of fear or loss. I mean the kind of surviving that derives from the Latin word supervīvere, or “super-living,” when you cannot— will not— settle for a life almost as good as the first. It is not enough to think in the colloquial I have survived. You must live as if each day is a miracle, even if you can’t believe in them. Even if your own body can betray you again and at any time.
* * *
The one who is dear to me is not here,
and perhaps he simply is not.
I pass from day to day
from day to night
like a feather
which the bird is unaware of when it molts.
–“From Day to Night,” Dalia Ravikovitch
That same night, my uncle was somewhere between living and elsewhere. That is to say, before he passed away at 1:30 AM his time, which was 2:30 AM my time, he came to say his not goodbyes to me. I was wide-awake. I felt him wrap around my left hand and arm. Then he was gone.
Today is Thursday. I am writing this now from Toronto. We didn’t tell anyone in my husband’s family, except his mother. It wasn’t an easy decision for me; I wanted to be with my family immediately, who all insisted I go to the wedding first and then fly down to them, to pay my respects to my uncle. Pay your respects is a cruel phrase for a beloved, to whom you cannot say goodbye.
I could write that my uncle and I have always had a special bond, how I’m hoping these words will reach him as I write this. That he was a man who gave his everything to his children and grandchildren and great-grandchild, his brothers and sisters and their children, to his community, to my Jewish father who loves him like a brother. That he will not be forgotten.
But that’s not quite right; those are words too easily understood.
I mean: When he died, part of my origin died with him. His death means the world vanishes, but only in flashes, as I walk through endless bonfires on a beach. And I’m surfacing from ocean depths only to find no land anywhere in sight. I’m a loose board on the bottom of a floor, a bus hurtling downhill, some twisting tunnel of an endless hell. He had been sick, became sicker, and yet I would not concede even when my mother and her siblings, those apex climbers, told me it was his time to go. Imagine that kind of agony, seven days a week. Seven signs. Seven signals. Seven a new death; I must rethink this. Seven signs of Beauty. Love. Grief. Death.
I’ve heard from others that time heals, that people forget and move on. They have to, someone tells me, to survive.
Survival is beside the point. It has nothing to do with what has happened.
Losing my uncle means losing part of my identity, forever; I mean my living identity.
The day I forget him is the day I forget who I am.
* * *
I met you somewhere
in a hell beneath the stairs
there’s someone in that room
that frightens you when they go boo
boo boo boo boo boo boo boo boo boo boo boo boo
–“Real Love,” Beach House
I try to pray. But when I try to pray, all I can hear this.
After the High Holy Days last year, my husband and I married on the island of my childhood, South Padre Island, close to the border, surrounded by our friends and my mother’s family and his family; no one showed up from my father’s family. How we felt their absence: here my Chinese husband and I were having an Orthodox ceremony in Hebrew (albeit with English translation) for friends, his Buddhist family and my mother’s Mexican Catholic family who came out in full force because they knew what the absence meant. The female rabbi wrapped us in the special long tallit for weddings. My husband wore a yamaka. Uncle Balani was still able to walk then, and wore his favorite cowboy hat and ostrich boots. His pain was visible, as the cancer had spread to his spine and liver, but the occasion gave him a chance to see relatives, now spread out all over this country, whom he hadn’t seen in years. We were all an odd kind of crew, and not about to throw out the melancholy, falsely; it was okay that it was there. So we chose “Real Love” by Beach House as the song for our first dance, and it fit us as husband and wife, and it fit us as a family coming together.
We had the wedding on the island so Uncle Balani could attend. My mother remarked she’d never seen him and the rest of her family so happy, that it was like a Gomez family reunion. After the reception, after changing into t-shirts and shorts, my cousins took our friends and us out on the island; we stayed out all night, dancing and celebrating on the beach, all these different lives and worlds sharing the night together, until the club closed down and the police came to help empty out the place. I remember the lot of us got separated from each other, the crowds pouring out from the neighboring bars and clubs, the crowds moving quickly and without mercy. I held onto my husband’s hand tightly, and my best friend’s in the other.
That night on the island was too bright to see the stars. I remember my uncle could always find Orion by first finding his belt, and from those three random stars, I could see the warrior in the sky. Because he had pointed it out. If there were clouds in the sky, I would close my eyes and point up to where Orion was, and then he would close his eyes and say that he could see it too.
I remember looking up, as the three of us waited in the parking lot to regroup, tipsy and elated and exhausted, looking up at the sky, looking for Orion, then looking for him hard, as if I could bring the stars into existence as something very new and very real, a new life or at least a new body, for he who needed it. I swayed on my feet, looking hard into the sky asking for things I knew impossible, for a forgiveness that has no name.
* * *
You are ashamed to overhear yourself praying
You laugh at yourself and the laughter crackles like hellfire
The sparks gild the ground and background of your life
Your life is a painting in a dark museum
And sometimes you examine it closely
— “Zone” by Guillaume Apollinaire
I’m eleven years old, and my mother goes to see a doctor. She never sees doctors. She wakes me up one morning and we laugh because they think she might be pregnant. Then she goes to see another doctor who tells her she is not pregnant after all. There’s some shuffling off papers and x-rays and MRI scans as he suggests they watch it.
Watch what? I ask, tugging on my father’s shirt.
But my father doesn’t answer me because he won’t hear of it. He says: Listen, it’s coming out. He is signing forms at a long desk in front of the doctor. I hold my mother’s hand, which is shaking. Her hand never shakes. My mother begins to argue with my father, siding with the doctor, that she doesn’t want the surgery, that we should wait. My father lets her finish and then says: It’s coming out.
I am in a waiting room, and my brother is sobbing.
Why are you crying? I ask.
My brother looks at me in disbelief.
Aren’t you scared? He asks.
The question makes no sense to me; doesn’t he know who our family is?
I am in recovery, standing next to my mother who is falling in and out of sleep. The doctor raises his hand, and lays it on my father’s shoulder: The cancer was a later stage than we thought; uterine cancer is tricky. You saved her life.
My father saved her life. He is exhausted. I’ve never seen him so tired. I decided I will make things right.
We are home and my father locks himself in the bathroom. I knock on the door, but he is sobbing. I knock on the door, but he sobs for a good hour. My brother is sobbing. I do my chores and my brother’s chores, but somehow, the house is in disarray. My father calls my Uncle Balani, and his wife Aunt Nena drives up from the Rio Grande Valley, drives five hours, arrives the same day, with one of my cousins in tow. My brother and I are sent to shower and change into clean clothes. Aunt Nena playfully musses my head when I ask her what’s next now. Go study, she says. We study. The house is cleaned up. The table is set for dinner. We eat quietly with my cousin. My Uncle Balani calls from the RGV: How’s it going? I tell him: My father won’t leave my mother. My father won’t leave my mother.
It’s a good while before I understand just what happened. That if my mother had waited as little as a couple of weeks, she might not be here. That my father had saved a world from falling apart by knowing something no one else knew. That truth starts to follow me everywhere, waking me up in the middle of the night, causing my hands and voice to shake as I read to my mother who’s still too out of it to realize it.
One afternoon the weight of that horrid almost-future bears down on me too hard, and I run away. I end up in a park near my house, where some teenage girls find me huddled under a tree. They wear very tight tank tops, tight jeans and heels; a family is picnicking nearby and the girls yell at them: don’t you see the lost child right in front of you? One takes my hand, and leads me to a pay phone. I call home, while I watch the girls strut back and forth in front of the family, speaking really loudly about the stupidity of ignoring me. The talk like they are if auditioning for a television show. The phone rings and rings; no one is answering, but I don’t care. I’m suddenly afraid for the girls, that a cameraman would appear and catch their behavior on tape. That he’d leap from the trees to capture them with his lens-face, twisting his wire-arms around their bodies. That the families would still go on eating without a word.
I’m thinking of this image a few days later in Hebrew school, and I start sobbing. Sobbing like my father. I can’t stop. I am sent to the school’s administrator who sits me down. I can’t stop sobbing. She lets me get it out until I’m dry-heaving and dizzy. Her assistant brings me some water. The administrator says: Rabbi S visited your mother in the hospital; I’m sorry to see how it’s affecting you. Do you want to talk to him?
My mother had told me that the rabbi had indeed visited her, and that he had very formal and very cold, as he’d always been with us. I didn’t want to see him. I shake my head.
The assistant hands me a tissue: Have you met the new assistant rabbi?
I shake my head again.
They call him up. Rabbi B is young, with large, round glasses and a serious face. The administrator begins to explain things to him when he stops and says he knows. He asks if I can be excused from the rest of class today, and she nods.
Follow me, he says.
Rabbi B leads me outside the office, down the hallway. We bypass the smaller chapel and go inside the main sanctuary. We pass the empty long, wooden pews. It is cold. The lights are low. The rabbi steps up to the bimah, opens the ark and takes out one of the Torah scolls. Very carefully, I help him take off the sterling silver remonim and breastplate, their bells jingling softly. We set the yad, the silver pointer used to read the Torah, down on the podium; it is used because the Torah itself should never touch the skin. Holding onto the etiz chayim, the wooden holders at the bottom, and through the thick, velvet mantle covering, the rabbi offers me to hold the Torah. It is very heavy and he has to help me. We hold it between us, with him carrying all almost of its weight.
Why are you crying? he asks.
I don’t respond, and shift on my feet; I can’t see him over the Torah. I’m not sure I can tell him about the teenage girls in the park, how they ended up walking me home after I told them about my mother. How I felt ashamed that I became the coolest kid on my street the next morning for “hanging out” with them. How I liked how they fussed over me and hugged me, and walked me to the door as my distraught father ran up the street, screaming my name over and over.
Why are you crying? Rabbi B asks again.
I thought you knew, I mumble.
Where is it coming from? he asks.
The Torah is resting against my cheek, making it hard to talk.
My father, I say.
Your father, he answers.
My father has a funny way of describing his life.
Tell me, he says.
Well, whenever I ask my father questions about his life before my mother…
He always says the same thing.
What does he say?
He always says: I was born the day I met your mother, I became a man the day my children were born, and I grew old the day you began asking questions.
Rabbi B laughs.
Just me asking questions, not my brother, I add.
What kind of questions do you ask?
I always ask the wrong thing, I say.
Like why is Mama sick when she’s the strongest person I know? Like if she’s not forever, then what is the point?
What is the point, he echoes.
I don’t answer. We stand in silence. The Torah is becoming heavier and heavier, and even though I’m barely carrying any of it weight, my arms are aching. I think of my mother, my beautiful Mama, in her long skirt and neat waist, swung in the air by my father around a bin of twelve-pack Gatorades in Walmart because their song comes on. I hide behind someone else’s shopping cart. My mother is calling for me, in the store, from her room where she lays in bed. I tell her she will be fine. I try to be formal and cold like Rabbi S, thinking it’s more holy, more fortune-favoring. My father is calling my Aunt Nena to come help us. Mama is ill. Mama. Mama’s father, my abuelo, telling me on his fishing boat that death is the ocean. On his last trip out into the Gulf, we catch a night shark and I get lost in its brilliant green eye. We let it go; it’s the first time I experience heartbreak. I will never have this moment again because Abuelo tells me he has cancer. It is the first time I’d ever heard the word. And the cancer he can’t let go. My abuelo, inseparable from his boat, inseparable from the ocean, defiant until the end. That last trip I too spat off the side of the boat, I too rolled up one pant like grandpa. I wanted to be with him forever. To be him. So the cancer he could let go.
Can’t you feel it? The rabbi is asking me.
I don’t answer. I think to myself: Abuelo’s real name is Julian, and Uncle Balani’s real name is Julian II. Not a hard J, but a softer Who-Lee-Un.
Can’t you feel the love of the whole world here? The rabbi is asking me.
I am waiting to hear someone cough. Someone always coughs in the congregation between prayers. We are praying. We aren’t saying a word. Don’t say a word. I want to pray. I want to pray. I want to be good. I won’t back down.
He will never abandon you, the rabbi says.
I am about to answer when The Torah nearly slips from my hands, and one of my hands accidentally slips under the mantle. I feel The Torah with my hand. I don’t tell him that I touched the actual Torah. You aren’t supposed to. None of us should touch the scrolls. But I did. But I want to be good.
* * *
…what do you think
this singing and shuddering is,
what this screaming and reaching and dancing
and crying is, other than loving
what every second goes away?
—Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude
My father’s mother used to say: Do for the living, not the dead. You can’t do anything for the dead.
I saw my uncle as much I could over the last four years, after the initial diagnosis of six months to live. When he was too weak to go anywhere, we would just sit together quietly, and let my husband and the family do the talking. My mother tells me over and over how he was the rock of the family. She tells me again she never wants anyone else she loves to go through the much physical and mental torment. That we—his family— are his belief, his legacy, his living bond with a world he had to leave behind.
One of the last memories I have of him is having breakfast on South Padre Island, right near the water. His appetite came back, and he ate well. Two plates of all the fruits he’d loved, a bit of scrambled eggs. My parents were there, along with Aunt Nena and some of my cousins. I can’t remember anything we talked about, and no one took a picture of that morning, but it doesn’t matter now.
This morning I go for a walk with my husband. It’s very warm here in Toronto, eighty degrees with a light breeze, the sun full and reaching over a clear sky. Last night I had asked my husband all those things which are impossible to answer: To where does my family look now? How can we possibly return to “home”? Where are we going to? Where will this loss lead us?
Now we are walking in silence down the street, and my head is heavy from a lack of sleep. We pass under a group of large trees when something flutters over our heads and then right in front of us. It has yellow wings with patches of blue and orange, but when it lands a foot away from us, it appears grey all over, with a hard-looking shell.
A not-quite butterfly.
Or some insect that was meant to be a butterfly and couldn’t let go of what it once was.
We walk toward it and it takes off again, its wings opening up to those brilliant colors. It stops in front of us again, and then flies off in front of us; this happens several times. Finally it stops and I stop beside it. I observe its katydid-like body, the strange way it landed parallel to my own body. We all pause together. I keep thinking it will fly away. But it doesn’t. Just over a few days ago, my uncle was still alive and in the exact bed I’d seen him last. I can still feel my hand stroking his head as my voice failed me; I tried to speak to him with my eyes. Now we stand together, this not-quite butterfly and I with my not-quite goodbye, my husband behind us.
When I’m ready, when I know it’s time, I walk away. It remains rooted to the ground. My husband takes my hand.
We begin to walk away, slowly. I squeeze my husband’s hand and smile, shading my eyes as we leave the shade of the trees, as we fall under the sun’s unseasonably powerful rays.
But I can’t help myself. I turn around. I look back, and watch as it jumps into the air, hovers for a brief moment and then flies away, disappearing into the trees.
I wish I had something more profound to share at the moment, but all I could think was: Okay, Uncle Balani. Okay. Thank you.
This is the second essay of a 3-part series on the Jewish High Holy Days and Literature. Read part 1 here.