Thursday, March 16, 2006

CONTRASTS

In the Jewish religion, it is customary to honor the memory of the death of a family member on the equivalent date they died, according to the Jewish calendar. This is called ‘Yahrzeit’ (roughly translated – year time – or time of year). My brother died on March 17th, 2003. This year, the equivalent date fell on Monday, March 13th. This was also the Eve of the very festive Jewish Holiday, PURIM.

When it comes to religion, nothing is truer than the saying. “Different strokes for different folks.” The irony of it all is that in the name of G-d and faith and belief, there are such strong differences of opinion. My family’s religious experience is far more tradition based than halachic (the by-the-book laws). Growing up I observed my parents lighting Memorial Candles in memory of their parents and siblings. This is in fact a tradition based observance and it is not required by halacha to be done. Some people do it on the Yahrzeit, some people do it on Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) and some people do it according to the secular calendar date.

During the last three years since my brother’s death, I have lit many candles, for different reasons, on different days – not only for him, but for many other people whom I have loved and lost. There are moments and there are sometimes whole days where my brother is on my mind and in my thoughts. He is always in my heart. When those moments move me strongly enough, or when they extend into days – I light a candle. Clearly that person is “around” me – I can feel them, so I like to acknowledge it by lighting a candle.

The day of Yahrzeit for my brother is a day that I can’t possibly find adequate wordage to articulate my mother’s pain with. It is a day, not unlike any others, where there is so little I can do to ease her pain – other than by giving her the space to get through it the best way she can. As much as I would love to see my mother shift into a space where she might one day celebrate my bother’s life rather than mourn his death, I had to accept that she chose not to come with us to Temple/Shul this particular evening. In her enormous generosity, she was totally accepting of the fact that we would not be able to see her and she wished us a happy holiday and hoped we would go on to have a great evening, especially Ross.

I was comfortable with my feelings and we went to Shul in the true spirit of the holiday. This is a holiday which my brother would totally get into the spirit of, with ease! He was bold and silly and fun and festive, and he was deeply connected to his heritage. While he went through life making choices that resulted in a life he didn’t deserve but did create, there were certainly many years when he did make good choices. This is the person I remain in touch with. This is the person I smile about and ache for when I think of him.

Sitting in Shul, listening to the story of Purim, I was reminded of a trip I took to visit my brother and his family in Amsterdam when I was about 17 years old. My flight from Johannesburg was via London. The flight out of Heathrow was delayed for several hours and when it came to boarding, I could not find my boarding pass. I turned my large handbag out completely and stuff spread out all over the floor. At that stage of my life, my body was fully functional. While down on my haunches rummaging through the most outrageous volume of objects from my handbag, a gorgeous man came over to help me gather everything up and put it back in my bag. I found the boarding pass, thanked him and headed for the gate.

During the short flight, this man came to look for where I was sitting. Of course the seat next to me was vacant and he asked if I would mind if he sat down next to me. I remember hanging on every word he said. I found him to be enchanting. On closer inspection, I saw he was actually older than I had realized on first meeting him. He was going to Amsterdam for a few days and then on to Morocco for a folk dancing retreat. Did it get more romantic than that? I wanted to go with him to Morocco.

During our conversation he mentioned his travel companion was in fact blind. I was amazed to learn that the man traveling with him moved about with such ease to the extent I had not realized his blindness when seeing them together in the airport and while boarding.

He went back to his seat for the landing and I said goodbye and wished him well on the rest of his journey. While waiting for my luggage at the carousel, he again came to me and asked if he might contact me over the next few days. I was happy to give him the phone number and explained that as I was staying at my brother’s house he should not call too late in the evening. This was not my first time to Amsterdam so we made an arrangement to meet the day after next at a point in the city where I knew how to get to.

I parted company with him in quite a hurry as I was so excited to see my brother and couldn’t wait to get to the arrival hall. The next evening, the phone rang and the surprise in my brother’s voice when the caller asked for me was obvious. He immediately switched to his “big brother bordering on father” voice when he called me to the phone. It was Jon reconfirming our plans for the next day. At this point I got really excited but tried to act quite blasé about the whole thing. I knew what was coming.

“Who was that?” Willie asked.

“Jon, the guy I met on the plane. You saw me talking to him at the airport.”

“So, how did he get your number here?”

“I gave it to him.”

“What the fuck for?”

“Cos I am meeting him in town tomorrow and he wanted it so we could do what we just did on the phone – reconfirm and make final plans. I’ll ride in with you and be back in time to come home with you. OK?”
“Are you out of your frigging mind? This is not Jo’burg where some little prick is going to pull up in an Alfa at your front door and take you out for coffee! He has to bring his passport here and leave it here until you get back.” He was actually starting to shout.

I shouted back, “Are YOU fucking mad? If you think I am going to ask him to do that, you are mistaken. I will come into town with you, I will meet him, I will come back to come home with you and that’s it. RELAX!”

I really do remember this conversation as it took place. We reached for our cigarettes, drew hard on them, and exchanged fierce glances. The lecture about the hazards of meeting up with someone I didn’t know went on for a good half hour. I decided the best thing to do was keep silent. He was tough to argue with and I did realize that he was just being protective. He had left home to make this move to Amsterdam when I was 10 years old. He was 14 years older than me. I was after all his baby sister who had grown up without him being there to watch it. At an age where I felt like a gladiator, no-one was going to stop me from going on this date.

We drove into town in complete silence the next morning and before getting out the car, I assured him that I would be safe, that I was more than capable of spotting a potentially freaky man or dangerous situation and I promised I would find a pay phone at regular intervals and call in to confirm I was still on the planet. There were of course no cell phones yet.

The most magical day unfolded for me. One, as you can see, I have remembered for all these years in explicit detail. Jon showed me some drawings he had done of the view from his hotel room and they were just gorgeous. I was stunned at what a superb artist he was. Even I could see his talent and it was amazing.

What brought this story to mind during the Purim Play put on at the Shul, was that at a special moment in that magical day, Jon turned to me and said that I was what he would imagine Queen Esther to be. I smiled and thanked him, but it was only on this night that I got the full impact of what a compliment he had extended to me.

When we were saying our goodbyes, Jon, who was from Canada, told me that he would one day make it as an artist and he would be sure to send me an invitation to his first exhibition. I smiled as I recalled Willie’s response to my telling him about this and what an incredible artist this guy was.

“Of course he is!” he said. “You meet a hippie on a plane, on his way to Morocco and you’re in love. Why didn’t you just phone me from Morocco?”

“You’ll see,” I said, “this guy will make it, and he WILL send me an invitation.”

Jon most certainly made it, and he kept his word. Some years later an invitation arrived at my home in Johannesburg to his exhibition at a gallery in Toronto. He had a very unique way of spelling his name, so a few months later, while watching the TV show COSMOS, I knew that the artist listed in the credits was him.

The memory of this wonderful experience pays tribute to the love I have for my brother and the many magical people who have crossed my path. Some are here, some smile down on me from heaven.

While sitting in Shul, I knew that Willie and my friend the Rabbi, Ady, were at the best Purim party of all and I knew that as they watched me sit with my husband in his full fire fighter regalia and my son the Clone Trooper, they were happy about the way I was remembering them on the Eve of Purim, Willie’s Yahrzeit 2006/13 Adar, 5766.

Party on, Dude!

 
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