The Friendships That Hold Us Safely in Their Keep

5 07 2017

“One loves not just the happy memories. At a certain point in life, one is aware that one simply loves one’s memories,” wrote the novelist Natalia Ginzburg.

And that was the thing about my sister. She had been there for all of them. After she died, just over a year ago, my memories were all sad ones. The last hard days, the letting go.

Then, so slowly I didn’t notice them returning, other images began to reappear.

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Long summer afternoons, birthday dinners, and singing the Miss America theme song in the bathroom. Shorthand jokes. The rainy night we looked for my lost tooth under a pile of wet leaves.

Then, too, were our fights in the car, parents’ lives and parents’ deaths. A shared moral compass, a sense of humor. Landscapes and decades. Wrong turns. Failures. Diminishments. The interesting thing was, the older we got, the less any of that mattered.

As time went on, the sting had gone out of all of them. Whatever selves we had tried on in our life had been folded in, like egg whites into the batter.

What bound us together was not that we always liked each other. Because we didn’t. It was the certainty of each other, knowing that no matter what, she’d be there. Whether harm was coming from the outside world or inside our selves.

“I’ll miss you,” she said the day before she died, and that’s when I knew. This was going to be far worse than I thought. Not only was I going to lose her, I was going to lose all the reflections of me that came from her eyes.

As the weeks went by, my sorrow took the form of a solitary retreat with no idea where to go or why. A year passed and early one winter morning, I was in bed staring at the white walls of the sky. We had been a family of two, so the answer to letting go of my sister was still no.

When my father died 45 years ago, my mother sat at his bedside crying that she couldn’t imagine life without him. “I know you’ll always love me, ” he told her, “but I can’t bear to think of you wasting your life in misery.” He said that when his father died, his young mother turned bitter and unhappy. “Promise me, that won’t be you.”

The opposite of love, I think, is loneliness. One ties you to the center of the universe, the other cuts you off. Good friends came to get me. Slowly, I tried. Dinner, emails, joining them on short holidays, taking a friend’s son to college. Raking leaves.

Still, there was a reticence on my part, a hidden awkwardness. Not to overstay my welcome or use up my invitations. Scanning their faces for signs of weariness. I said thank you and would you mind, and kept on my best behavior, which can be exhausting.

I didn’t dare wear my torn leggings and black socks to breakfast, wipe my runny nose with my sleeve or throw a hissy fit. I didn’t keep anyone up late going over something I was writing or have a family joke told about me. The truth with a side of tenderness.

What is it really that makes us feel secure with our families, or with those who are like family?

To feel that we are valued, that we are not cast adrift. To trust we can be ourselves, and that all our many selves will be part of an ongoing story. To share the solace of being human. And know there is a place we will hear, as we slide into home, the umpire call, “Safe.”

Thanksgiving came and I was invited to spend it in Washington. The next day, five of us who had been a close-knit film team, former colleagues who had gone our separate ways, went to a new restaurant. The kind where you wear jeans, drink expensive wine and the waiter describes the farm where the chickens were raised.

The next day, they went back to their lives and I returned to New York. Everyone wrote what a good time they had and named their favorite dishes. I was ready to say the charred brussels sprouts and cucumber ices except that what I kept thinking about was not the food but how they had all rearranged their plans to see me. Everyone at ease, even in the pauses. Sharing good news and bad. Forks reaching across the table. Familial reminders, “Don’t eat that, it’s too spicy for you.” How for a few hours I did not remember to be on my best behavior, I simply was.

I thanked everyone for coming and said how much it would mean to me to do it again.

I added, “I think you’re stuck with me.” A friend wrote back. “Stuck with you? Did you ever think you’re stuck with us?”

This renewed desire for deep attachments is a sign of wanting to rejoin life, isn’t it?

My friends, I am lucky to say, held on tightly even on the days I wanted to let go. When I could find no place for myself, they did. By what miracle that happens, I don’t know.

I’ll never stop thinking about my sister; missing her is a part of me now. At the same time, I’ve felt a growing warmth in the company of friends.

An act of kindness can bring me tears. A bit of teasing slides me off the chair. A favor asked, a fear confided. A future assumed. A late night call for help with a son’s homework. With each encounter a piece of story is laid down, like stones along a path.

These ties of friendship that hold us safely in their keep, that shape and share our memories, are among the hardest, most mysterious and most precious of all. Moment by moment, year by year we entrust ourselves to each other. In light of life’s fragility, friendship is our terra firma.



Morning Walks With My Son

5 07 2017

When Lev was going into third grade he couldn’t decide whether to switch to a new school, so we made a list of pros and cons. The pro side filled up with cramped sentences written in Lev’s sweet, illegible handwriting, while only one word appeared on the con list, in huge letters: FAR!

Distance is definitely an important consideration when choosing a school, especially when there is no school bus available and your parents don’t have a car. But, still, the cramped sentences on the pro side won out, and Lev enrolled in the new school, a bit of a distance from where we live in Tel Aviv. There were three ways to get there: Take a taxi, ride a bike or walk. The walk took half an hour.

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A taxi or a bike would get him there faster, but I tried, every morning, to tip the balance in favor of walking.

There’s something magical about Tel Aviv at 7:15 a.m. The half-awake streets are filled with industrious birds and languid cats, but almost no people.

At first, on our way to school, we played a game called “Where’s Everybody.” Each of us took a turn explaining where all the people who filled the streets later were: They’d been abducted by aliens; they’d moved to an enchanted castle; they were establishing another Hebrew-speaking country in the African savanna. But wherever they were, their absence enabled us to discern all sorts of sounds and details we could barely notice when the city was bustling, and to talk about things that somehow, at other times of day, we had no time to discuss, such as:

Which superhero has a more highly developed sense of humor, Spider-Man or Hawkeye? (Spider-Man, by a knockout.)

And what government minister we wanted to be if the prime minister offered us a position in his cabinet. (I wanted to be education minister and Lev chose the very specific position of minister of desserts.)

There were regular stops on our long journey to school: the bald guy’s grocery store where we bought soft pretzels and chatted with him about sports; the natural juice bar where we drank banana-date shakes and heard updates from the bleary-eyed owner about his baby girl who refused to sleep at night; the square with the brazen pigeons that insisted on having all the benches to themselves and cooed in complaint whenever we tried to sit down next to them for a minute.

Since I am not a creature of habit, those morning walks with Lev became almost the only ritual in my life, a kind of slow, pleasant awakening in an equally sleepy universe, until one evening that spring, Lev had a slightly upsetting talk with my wife, Shira, and me.

He told us that all the kids in his class were old enough to walk to school alone and, at 10 and a half, so was he. I stammered something about living much further away than the other kids, but Shira traitorously pointed out that even though it was a long walk, there was almost no traffic, and so with a broken heart, I had to agree that there was no reason Lev couldn’t go to school by himself the next morning.

Saying goodbye was hard. Not to Lev, who looked even more excited and determined than usual, but to our shared journey, which I had grown so used to. That evening, Lev told us that he had walked to school quickly and arrived 10 minutes earlier than he usually did. The next day, he broke his previous record by two whole minutes. On the third morning, when I walked barefoot down the steps with him, a bag of garbage in my hand, I told him that I was proud of him for being responsible enough to walk to school alone but if he ever wanted company, I’d be happy to go with him. Not to supervise, I stressed, just to share a morning walk. He didn’t answer, just nodded, and after I threw the garbage in the bin and turned to go back home, he called, “Are you coming?”

That conversation took place a year ago, and ever since, we’ve been walking to school together every morning. Israeli sports, according to our grocery store owner, could use some improvement, the brazen pigeons in the square just seem to be getting fatter, and the natural juice bar owner’s baby girl sleeps through the night now and can even say “Papa.”

The day after school ended, the sound of obsessive bird chirping woke us to the first morning of summer vacation. After we brushed our teeth and got dressed, Lev opened the front door and gestured with his head for me to come. We went downstairs and began walking quietly toward the school.

“Isn’t it great that summer vacation is here?” I said casually, in an attempt to make sure he was aware of the new circumstances.

“Absolutely,” he said with a nod, and bent to pet a cat. “I don’t have to schlep my schoolbag anymore.”