It is an achingly hot Friday afternoon in Jerusalem. The heat burns my eyes and slides slowly off my hands. My three children are covered in chicken pox. I am on the phone with my grandma in America who is sick. Very sick. I pretend that she is fine as we talk. She has to be fine. We speak every Friday to wish each other a good Shabbos. We have done this for 15 years. She has to be fine because she is the one who taught me how to pray, how to love, how to embrace Shabbos with a heart full of joy. But suddenly, her voice breaks.
"Come now," She says. "It is time to say goodbye." I begin to shake. No. You cannot say goodbye, it is not time. The ocean that stretches between us begins to deepen before my eyes. How will I ever make it there in time? How? I try to speak, and I choke on my words.
"Grandma, I'm coming. Wait for me." I hang up the phone and call my travel agent. It is an hour before Shabbos. He puts me on a flight for Sunday morning. As I light the candles that night, I sob into my hands. Please, Grandma, wait for me. You have to wait.
I pack a knapsack, and fight with my thoughts as my husband drives me to the airport. The baby has fever; she is covered in chicken pox. Please don't think about that. Grandma, wait for me. The line at the airport seems eternal. I want to shake the woman next to me and cry. My grandma is dying. My babies have chicken pox. And I don't know if I will make it in time. But instead I stand clutching my knapsack, composing myself. Don't think. Don't break down. Keep moving.
When I arrive at the ticketing counter, the clerk takes my passports and then looks up at me in wonder.
"Miss, your U.S. passport expired last month. You can leave Israel, but I don't know how you will get through customs in New York." I look at the passport in my trembling hands. This can't be happening. America is on orange alert. What should I do? I say thank you to the clerk, put my passports in my bag, and head for the gate. Grandma is waiting for me. I am getting on that plane. Don't cry. Don't think.
I call my husband as I am boarding. "Please call my mom," I tell him. "Tell her I am traveling on an expired passport."
I don't wait for a reply. I board the plane, and when I am finally seated, I cover my face and pray. Please, God, help me arrive in time. God, please help Grandma wait. And as the plane rises into the air somehow I know. God hears me. Of course, an expired passport means nothing to Him. He is the One who gives us the permission to enter, and the signal to depart. Of course, Grandma would never leave without me.
Meanwhile, my mother is frantically making phone calls in New York. She has a prestigious government position, and she is calling everyone she knows. After contacting national security officials, she puts together a police escort team. Her daughter must get off the plane as quickly as possible. And indeed, with God's guiding hand, I run into my mother's arms as soon as the plane lands. Grandma is waiting for you, she tells me. I know, I say. She would never leave without me.
I want her to wake up. To say my name. To tell me that she loves me. That she sees me. Wake up, I cry silently. But she doesn't.
We are escorted out of the airport, breezing through customs with an expired passport. When I reach Grandma's bedside she is sleeping. I tell her that I made it. I'm here. I tell her that she has given me all of my Torah, that my home that sits in the mountains of Jerusalem is in her merit. And then I fall silent. I want her to wake up. To say my name. To tell me that she loves me. That she sees me. I want her to tell me what to do with my life in this world. Wake up, I cry silently. Please wake up. But she doesn't.
I recite prayers for one who is departing this world. "Though I walk through the shadow of the Valley of Death, I shall not fear, for You are with me." I say the Shema with a voice that cracks and tries to be strong. Grandma wants me to be strong. She asked me to come just for this. Finally I have this chance to give back. She, who taught me to pray, will leave this world in the cradle of my prayers.
Grandma breathes her last breath. I am heart broken. I keep repeating the Psalms, willing myself to be held by the words. For days I sit beside my family and cry. Who will lead us now? Who will fight for Shabbos? Who will hold our family together?
The day of my departure comes too soon. How to leave? My children seem like a far-away dream. Only this, my grief, is real. On the plane back, I am numb. My heart is still by her graveside. Screaming. Don't go. I'm not ready. You didn't really say goodbye. You didn't see me. You didn't say my name. Tell me how to go on from here. Someone tell me how.
When I walk in my front door, my children's glowing faces pounce into my arms, interrupting each other with exciting stories about the week. Has it only been a week? I try to smile. But suddenly I can't hold it in. I walk over to the living room window and look at the blazing red sun sinking into the Judean mountains. I begin to sob and sob as if my tears come from a place that has no end. My husband and three children stand next to me helplessly. And then my oldest daughter begins tugging on my skirt.
"Don't cry, Ima. God is holding Grandma now in Heaven. She is happy now. Don't cry."
I gather my daughter into my arms. Grandma knows that her end is not an end. That she has children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren who will treasure her Shabbos and give voice to her prayers.
The circle begins to close and then it spirals through our voices. "I lift my eyes to the mountains, who will comfort me?" My tears are her tears are my daughter's tears. Goodbye derives from the words "God be with you." Grandma never said goodbye, for she will never leave us.
Dedicated to the beloved memory of Gittel bat Miriam.