In a dead end side street deep in the heart of San Simon, we saw a new park teeming with children. On our way to the Shiva house, I was struck by the hidden beauty of the neighborhood. Not far from our own apartment, we parked our car and followed the even numbers towards the Shiva house. I paused to admire the pomegranate tree; the boughs heavy with not ripe fruit a reminder that Rosh Hoshanah is almost here. We will all eat from the fruit because it’s tradition, yet the seeds won’t truly be ripe until mid-Fall. The fig tree was bare as the season has begun, either picked clean by the fruit bats or a neighbor.
People were trickling into the building and we formed a sort of queue, falling into step as we ascended the stairs towards the noise. Mentally, I reviewed the rules of a Shiva visit while wondering when I had even learned these rules. Did someone teach them to me in school? Was it something whispered in a hurry by my parents before visiting my first Shiva house? Sadly, we have made way too many shiva calls over the years.
The sign on the door revealed the name that has been at the top of my tehillim list for the past three months. Our neighbor’s father, diagnosed with lymphoma three months after I had started treatment for the same disease. Our friend’s parents would see me on the sixth floor of Shaare Tzedek Medical Center but never say a word. Until I walked through the door to the shiva house, I had no idea who they were. While they recognized me, they chose not to interact with me during my weekly visits. I understood that choice.
We walked through the door to a crowded room full of people and made our way towards the cluster surrounding our friend. He rose and shook our hands, his wife embracing me as I whispered my apologies. I went to go find my friend’s mother and she stood up and reached out to grab my hand.I had placed her before she said a word, memories of her sitting in the waiting room on the 6th floor next to her husband flooded back to me. He had unmistakable features, sharp and hawklike, they always greeted me with a smile. That’s the thing about the 6th floor waiting room, people were always generous with their smiles, even if we didn’t exchange words.
Suddenly, I was the one getting comforted. I told her how sad I had been to hear the news and she told me not to feel sad. That she had many friends who walked away from lymphoma, that I should have hope. Then we hugged while I fought back the tears. I was so sad that this disease claimed another life.
The pomegranate tree outside and the Rosh Hoshanah reminder evoked the words of Unetaneh Tokef, the most important prayer recited during the High Holiday liturgy.
On Rosh Hashanah will be inscribed and on Yom Kippur will be sealed – how many will pass from the earth and how many will be created; who will live and who will die; who will die after a long life and who before his time.
Shaken, we took seats around our friend and listened for a while. We asked questions about his life, his illness, his death.
and who by plague
Does plague refer to cancer?
who will enjoy tranquility and who will suffer
Enduring round after round of R-CHOP is suffering, but were there moments of tranquility?
man’s origin is from dust and his destiny is back to dust
Why does one walk away from this disease and one does not?
Overwhelmed, we said our goodbyes amidst offers of help. But platters of lasagna and play dates just seem so inconsequential. Linking fingers, we left the building, walking silently down the path and underneath fig leaves and the branches of the pomegranate tree.
You will remember all that was forgotten.
May the neshamah of Uri ben Miriam TZ”L have an Aliyah.