I am typing in the room where my mother’s ashes sit in a box in a beautiful paper bag. The elegant bag is in the corner, out of my view, and I haven’t looked at it in a long time, but it is a distinctive bag. The bag is brown paper on the outside, a pure slate gray on the inside. My mother would like the bag. She has no worries now, nor any wishes, either. I decided years ago that I’d scatter her ashes in the Long Island Sound at the public beach at Wading River, but we haven’t done it so far, in eight and a half years. I haven’t been to that beach in more than fifty years, who knows if you can even get on the beach now without a resident pass? When I was there last there were swings, seesaws and a sliding pond on the sand, and a small parking lot with maybe eight spots painted on the once black shore road.
The idea of scattering my mother’s ashes in the water at Wading River was a sentimental one. I think of those months in that rented green and white bungalow a hundred yards from the lapping water as the happiest summers of her life, but who knows? She always said she wanted to live near the water, and for a couple of summers we did. I don’t know if she was happy there or not, hearing the waves breaking at night. What I do know is that at the moment she truly doesn’t care. Her concern at the end was about not being eaten by worms and bugs, the thought terrified her. I assured her it would never happen and it will never happen.
The scattering of her ashes is more a poetic matter, really. Every so often it gives me a pang, that I haven’t managed to scatter her ashes into the gently lapping Long Island Sound, that her ashes are sitting there in that elegant paper bag. On the other hand, I am positive she doesn’t mind, even if she would chide me about my long failure to do it, if she were somehow able to.
That I can sit here, a few feet from her ashes, writing thoughtfully about it in words almost nobody will ever see, is a blessing and my form of daily meditation. Thinking these thoughts, molding them into sections that I then comb carefully for readability, focuses my spirit, clarifies my beliefs, sharpens my sense of purpose. That I have little clue about the only thing the world understands — attaining financial success — does not distract me while I work. The hard work of vainly striving is not a remote consideration while I concentrate on making my words express my thoughts, my heart, as clearly as I can.
I had a call just now from a one-time good friend of my mother’s, a woman a year older than my mother. My mother would have been ninety last May, this woman was ninety-one last month, and still going strong. God bless her, as we say. Her mind is sharp, her language is crisp, she is upright and walking and driving great distances– still a force at ninety-one. In the course of narrating a lot of horrors she asked me to keep to myself, while assuring me that she is up to the challenges, taking them one day at a time, she mentioned something that gave her a glimmer of hope in these dark times.
She attended an interfaith vigil the other day, the great throng of several faiths who had gathered was inspiring to her. The hall was very crowded, with a big crowd outside also. Somebody came through the mass of people outside and ushered her inside to a seat she didn’t want. “I can stand, I’m perfectly fine,” she insisted, “give the seat to someone who needs it.” In the end, she took the seat, though she felt bad about it. Her ninety-two year-old friend, who had declined the seat in another part of the crowded hall, regretted it afterwards as her lower back tightened up painfully after standing on the concrete floor for a couple of hours. Better to be seated than aching, I say more and more often now.
Small mercies take on a bigger and bigger significance as life goes on. We see few enough of them in the world now, as so many nations stand on the brink of merciless horrors many of us believed were a barbaric relic of a bygone, insane age. I’m talking about a small mercy like finding a vacant bench at the point of a walk when your arthritic knees are barking. The relief you feel, taking the weight off your troubled bones, a gift you give yourself, provided by a merciful side of the universe and gratefully accepted.
There was a lot on this woman’s mind, and much of it I agreed not to share with anyone, so there’s that. At one point, God bless her, she couldn’t resist giving me just a little shit about not calling her lately, after I’d spent hours on the phone last month advising her about some very vexing things– and sent her several more pages about my father’s life that she was too vexed to really take in.
After the Saudis murdered a journalist in their consulate in Turkey last month there was a period of several weeks during which the vicious, smiling thirty-four year-old Crown Prince had his advisors and marketing folks make up and spin multiple lies about what happened to the disappeared critic of the regime. Our president, also born to great wealth that made him feel truly exceptional since childhood, stalled along with the Crown fucking Prince of Saudi Arabia, a fundamentalist Islamic monarchy. “We have to wait until the Saudis finish investigating whether they murdered this vicious, lying journalist, which they strongly deny, look, they strongly deny it, like Justice Kavanaugh denied all those lies against him — whatever happened to the presumption of innocence that liberals used to talk about? Here they go, rushing to call MBS a murderer, which we don’t know, we may never know, certainly not until he’s done investigating whether he is or not, look, this kid is a gem, a great, great future king– no presumption of innocence for him? Typical of the lying haters and hypocrites, funders and defenders of the raping, leprosy and smallpox infected terrorist hoards advancing on us …”
All we have, any of us, is the impression we leave behind on those who knew us. We are whispers, after our death, not even ghosts. The example of how we lived is the only thing we leave to the world of people who knew us. The power we may have wielded over others is nothing, it is how we used that power that is remembered, that lessons for the living can be drawn from.
I had an old friend who lives the frenetic, embattled life of a successful suburban citizen. His many stresses and frustrations have few, if any, safe outlets. It appears that I became his best option for relief. More and more, particularly since I’ve devoted myself, from before my mother’s death, to restraining my angry reactions as much as I can, he took to provoking me. I pointed this out to him each time he did it, but he always argued that he was not provoking me, that I just get mad unfairly, that maybe I was the one with the provocation problem, not him. I had more than one opportunity to throw him on the ground and kick him, but I breathed and fought my way to remaining as peaceful as I could. This restraint apparently goaded him to ever greater provocations.
In the end, he provoked me into detailing the many things I don’t respect about him. I don’t know if I mentioned his lack of basic courage, which I think is probably encompassed in the unfortunate phrase I do recall using “moral retard”. In the wake of this his wife called me, basically offering me an ultimatum. You have to forgive him, she told me, because he loves you, we all love you.
I explained why it’s impossible to forgive someone who takes no responsibility for hurtful things they repeatedly do. Futile, really, since those hurtful things continue on and on into the future if they are not acknowledged and corrected. The only option, to pretend everything is fine because people tell you that they love you, is not one I’m willing to take, even for the high moral cause of professed love.
Besides, I told her, love is the way you treat people, what you reflexively do when you see a loved one in pain. Love is action, not a word. I told her to let her husband know that I’ll be happy to hear from him once he gets some insight in the therapy he assures me he is working hard at. “That’s not going to happen,” his wife told me, and it had the ring of truth. He would rather lose his oldest friend than admit that the annoyingly superior fuck might have been even partially right. Zero sum, baby, he can’t help himself. If you don’t win, you lose. What could be worse than that? Ask the president.
It began to bug me more and more that because I’d taken a principled stance in regard to an old friendship I’d lost the longtime friendship of his wife and his two sons, as well as the friendship of a close mutual friend, apparently enraged at how badly I’ve hurt his troubled old friend. I called the guy on Halloween (spooky, I know), to ask him three questions that had formed in my head. I left a voicemail. I heard nothing back from him, though I’d spontaneously left him the option of doing nothing, saying I’d email him the questions if I didn’t hear back.
A few hours later I rethought my offer. What was the point of sending questions to someone who could not even reply to a voicemail? It would only increase my aggravation if I never heard back, give him an easy, an effortless, final provocation. I called again, left a second message, asking him to text, email or call me if he was willing to help me by answering three questions.
Two days later, having heard nothing, I texted him, asking if he was out of town or too weak and unJewish to respond. “Weak and unJewish”, an admittedly provocative formulation (especially to a Jew who fervently prays every morning), but, in context, restrained, I thought, particularly after two days of silence by way of reply.
I soon got the texts one would expect, explaining how he’d heard the first message and thought he’d be getting an email, and then no email came, and then, belatedly, he saw the other voicemail from me but didn’t actually hear it until after my recent text a few hours earlier and so on and so forth and so, you see, there was a rationale to all the delay, a hazard of digital communication (which is what I’d called to avoid in the first place) and, yes, please send him the three questions.
I sent this:
It depresses me that people I was friendly with and had no quarrel with, your wife, your sons, R___, have all vanished from my life as a result of our falling out. Not to mention you. I understand your wife and kids have to take your side, whatever it is, but still. And you can’t even pick up the phone and return a missed call? (rhetorical question)
What was my final, unforgivable act against you?
What did you tell R____ that made him cut off communication with me? When he left the US we were seemingly the best of friends, he was apologizing that we’d only managed to squeeze in one quick visit when he first arrived. Then, as a prelude to complete radio silence, I got a reference to “other developments over the last year or so” that presumably magnified the differences between us beyond the point of possible friendship.
Did you talk to your rabbi in the days before Yom Kippur and, if so, what did he tell you? I don’t think it’s possible that a rabbi would advise someone to make no further attempt at reconciliation with his oldest friend during the Ten Days of Repentance. I conclude you didn’t discuss it with your spiritual adviser. I think you should consider this seven minute discussion on apology, forgiveness and atonement:
I heard back quickly by email. He’d received my questions, but I’d have to give him a few days to answer them.
I took a breath and typed back: OK.