Omer Day Seven
Word came through tonight that one of my oldest, best friends had a heart attack--he's not yet 47--and as a few of us got on the phone or chat of some kind or another, time seemed to slow to a crawl, as it usually does when such news arrives. Life hangs on a thread, a truth we now know that much more than we did when we all woke up this morning.
My youngest sat next to me on the couch as I got an update and her insistent curiosity demanded answers. I've learned to temper such revelations to my kids with gentleness, truthful but veiled, so that their proximity to painful realities of life don't serve to traumatize them with a kind of fear that every time the phone rings at home, they're a part of a family that hears this kind of news all the time. There is something to be said for not dreading the receiving of a call. I wasn't always that way--I used to believe not only in the heroism of my work but of the drafting of everyone else into that work, too. Until some wise people--like my wife and a shrink--suggested that discretion was the better part of valor.
In a somewhat absent-minded way, while one friend and I were chatting about how it was possible that one of us had a heart attack, he suggested I take a look at the WikiLeaks video of U.S. soldiers killing Iraqi civilians in 2007, a deeply disturbing set of images chronicling the dehumanizing hell of war. Journalists with cameras mistaken for AK47s; children shot in a van arriving to rescue the wounded; and way too much laughter and macabre joking around while lives lay dying. The instant I started watching I regretted it; and yet, war and conquest are as wrapped up in the implications of the Passover story as anything else. The clean narratives are the truths observed and fixed at a distance. In real time, their slow-going evolution is a bloody, complicated mess.
My mind drifted back to my pal, laying in a hospital bed somewhere, dreaming, God willing, of playing hoops. When I last saw him we talked about this war in Iraq--its horrible dilemmas; its unclean lines; and what it does to everyone, guilty and innocent alike. We talked about this while the NBA All-Star game played and as I remembered this, I was reminded that the NCAA championship game was being played so I flipped on the television just in time to catch a commercial for a digital video game about the Iraq war. For the life of me, I couldn't tell the difference between the WikiLeaks video and this game. I knew my pal and I would love to have a laugh about that. He's not one to really show his rage as easily as I do, so laughter, like discretion, is the better part of that kind of valor.
When the game ended I went to the kitchen where I keep the siddur from which I count the Omer. Page 236 in Siddur Sim Shalom. It's been a week of counting, I thought, and as I uttered the words, I said prayers for my friend.
"Heal him, God. Protect him." And, "Why'd you let this happen in the first place?"
A weak protest. As if we have the power to stop such things in their tracks. Life is its own force. We bet against its probabilities and at best offer the palliatives of hope and faith; of love and friendship; of support and meaning. I stop the protest and pray for strength--for strength to give and share where it will be needed in the days and weeks ahead.
The dog needs to go outside. The night air is uncommonly warm; the sky is clear and black and beautiful. The trees are redolent with spring.
On one bench, facing the Grand Army Plaza arch, three Israeli Chabadniks sit, speaking a casual Hebrew, wary of my dog. One wears a Moshiach kippah. I wonder about their counting--how are they numbering their days? I round the corner and there sits a solitary African American man, quietly lost in thought and eating a bag of chips. He's lit by the lights radiating from the Richard Meier building. Further on, rats scurry in the bushes and trees of the berm, tarnishing somewhat this charmingly gritty neighborhood pastorale.
Nearing home I see an elderly man walking his dog. He's in his seventies, the dog appears to be a puppy.
"Who's this?" I ask.
"This is Andy," he says, "Andy the One-Eyed Shitzu."
Now, the God I believe in has a wicked sense of humor. And as I bend down to behold this one-eyed dog, I learn that he's only nine months old and lost his eye to a cat very recently, just before his elderly owner had to give him up because she had a stroke. And so now Andy the One-Eyed Shitzu is in the decent and able hands of a real gentleman, who greeted me with kindness, exchanged pleasantries on a warm spring night, as the more discreet matters of our mission (allowing our pets to relieve themselves) remained unspoken.
There's one man who'd appreciate this scene with no need for elaboration--and I plan on telling him this story when he fully recovers. He'll need (and deserve) a good laugh. It will be the umpteenth time since we met more than 30 years ago that life's radical absurdity needed some illumination and laughter. And because his ease has always tempered my rage against life's stupid injustices, I will admit to not being ready for anything less than a total return to playing condition.
I love you, friend. Pull through.