I woke up in a bad mood.
You know what that's like. You've slammed that snooze button four times, but it just won't take a hint. Your eyes are about 9% open, but it already looks mostly dreary outside. You swing your legs onto the blue shag and just shuffle your feet forward... or sideways. Who knows? Your day has begun... ugh.
But this morning was worse. In addition to all of the above, my head felt like it had been sitting in a vat of cold minestrone soup all night and thoughts of yesterday immediately wafted into my consciousness.
Yesterday. I had been surprised that my trusty Toyota had not started. ("How did it get sick overnight," I wondered?) And I wasn't pleased to learn that a new starter would cost $185. But later, I went to sleep having learned that it may also have a transmission problem. Not pleasant, to be sure.
And on top of all that, my throat was getting kind of scratchy. I don't do well with scratchy throats. My hand instinctively reaches for the Keflex, the garlic pills, and several scarves and my mind imagines that I'll be bedridden for months... at least.
It seemed that it would be a day like any other -- not especially dramatic or consequential. But I was wrong.
So, yes, this morning was worse than most. And of course, it was Monday too. Disguising myself as a responsible adult, though, I attended to my morning rituals, threw on some depressing clothes and trudged out the door to face the day -- a long day, to be sure.
It seemed, at that embryonic juncture, that it would be a day like any other -- not especially dramatic or traumatic, or even consequential. But I was wrong. Lurking behind the innocent veneer of my daily routine, the workaday flow of traffic, and a retiring autumn New York breeze, was a lesson so searing and yet so unsophisticated that it easily could have eluded my awareness and attention.
I hadn't seen Danny in a number of years. We were never really close, but ours is one of those friendships that decorates the social canvasses of most of us, especially we urbanites. We live just a few blocks away from each other, but, traveling in different circles, we could easily manage not to meet even casually for extended periods of time. Our kids go to different schools, our wives have hardly met, and the sheer plethora of synagogues in Brooklyn makes it statistically improbable that we would pray together.
And yet, had the Heavenly dice been rolled differently, Danny and I could well have been buddies. When we meet at weddings and dinners, he always has an especially friendly demeanor about him. He inquires with interest about my life, often shares a wry anecdote from his dental practice, and displays one of those hearty laughs that often seems to say, "One more line and I just might lose it." How could you not like Danny?
So, there I was... that Monday morning... scratchy throat, garlic and all... just walking down the block to my car -- yes, the Toyota with the funny transmission noise. I guess my head must have been lowered a half an inch or so more than usual, given my lousy distemper, so I didn't notice Danny until he was almost past me; not an easy feat, Danny being 6 feet 2 inches or so.
"Hey, Yaakov, long time no see," offered Danny.
"Indeed, it has been a while," I countered. "All well with you and the family?"
The question, admittedly, was not asked in earnest. It was just a platitude... a meaningless query that would surely pass quicker than a disappearing dime from a magician's palm. And so, Danny's response stopped me in my tracks.
"Thank you for asking," he mumbled.
Danny's gait seemed abruptly uncomfortable. Something was wrong... maybe very wrong. I looked up at his suddenly sad face.
I wasn't sure if those four little words were muttered as an equally meaningless reply or as an invitation to probe further. But Danny's gait seemed abruptly uncomfortable and his complexion definitely shifted color. Something was wrong... maybe very wrong. I looked up at his suddenly sad face.
"Danny, is something wrong?"
Danny's big feet wobbled in place, just slightly. He unnecessarily repositioned his glasses and swallowed before he spoke.
"Everything's fine, but I'm... er... going in to the hospital next week...brain surgery."
I was totally taken aback. I grabbed Danny's forearm and held it tighter than I should have.
"What?! Brain surgery? Is that what you said?"
I had heard right. I just didn't know quite what to say, nor did I know if it was okay to ask any more questions. But Danny wasn't finished. The crack in the dam was just beginning to widen.
"Yeah, that's what I said. I guess it's been a rough few weeks for me... what with all the tests and all.
"And my son was arrested last month. I don't even know how it began, but he started gambling -- you know small stuff. But he borrowed a lot of money -- I think the Mafia was involved. He's in a re-hab program now."
That poor man. His son has an addiction and now he himself needs a brain operation. It's at times like these that the right words are not only elusive -- they probably don't exist. I just stood there, easing my grip on his arm. Danny didn't look shattered or overwhelmed. I can't even say he was stoic. He was just... there... reaching for something -- something neither of us could really identify.
"Not to mention the financial pressure all this brings," he continued, "especially since I had to enroll one of my daughters in a school for special learning needs kids, which costs a bloody fortune.
"And my older daughter, I guess you heard, just got divorced. She's living with us now. It isn't easy."
I felt like I was watching a really bad movie; one tragedy after another. Remember, it's not like Danny is a really close friend of mine. But here we were, standing on a quiet street in Brooklyn, on a Monday morning, with him spilling his tragic guts to me and me feeling like hugging him like a brother. Instead, we both just stood there -- speechless, looking at each other, and feeling very lost.
My mind was racing but I don't think I said anything. If I did, it was, "Oh, my," or something intelligent like that.
My mind was racing and my heart coughed a little, but I don't think I said anything. If I did, it was, "Oh, my," or something intelligent like that. But Danny suddenly seemed to have a sense of where he wanted to take this. I was only too happy to let him drive.
"I know what I told you must sound terribly awful; one major problem on top of another. But I've been doing a lot of thinking -- as you can well imagine. I look at it this way.
"I've got some kind of harmful growth. That's a dreadful experience. But thank God there is a procedure that hopefully can remove it safely.
"My son was arrested. But if not for that, he wouldn't be getting the kind of help that could quite possibly save his life. He was certainly not ready to enter a rehabilitation program before. He wouldn't even admit that he had a problem! Now he's got a chance."
I looked at this tall acquaintance of mine. He was in high gear. These insights were not being tossed off the cuff. They were well-thought out and chock-full of wisdom. And I got the sense that somehow, he was no longer really speaking to me. Rather, he was either talking to himself to cement these pearls in his emotional necklace or he was a messenger from Above -- sent here to teach one of life's most important lessons to those of us who always forget.
He didn't have to continue. The point had been made. But I guess he needed to wrap those pearls in a silver pouch.
"Having a child who doesn't learn like most other kids is painful, embarrassing, and expensive. But a few years ago, there were no schools like this one. Those kids were ignored and ridiculed. And you know where that leads. So I just got to go out there and raise the tuition. It's worth it. I can see the change in her already.
"And there is one thing worse than divorce -- an unhappy and abusive relationship. That's what my daughter had. She did the right thing. I'm glad she's finally out of there. She'll start over. She'll do better next time -- that's for sure. I really love that kid."
The lesson was over. I stared at my new professor for a good few seconds. My hand was in my pocket and I felt a few garlic pills that lay there. And then I hugged him. It was a good hug -- strong and hopeful. My shoulder was a few inches below his head, but he dropped it down and wept there, briefly and lightly.
He probably thought that the hug was for him. In fact, I'm sure he did. But I know the truth. And now, so do you.
Once again we stood there awkwardly. It seemed inappropriate, but Danny then started laughing. Not his usual, hearty kind, just kind of a chuckle, I guess. I laughed too. My throat still felt scratchy, but it was a different kind of itch.
"Sorry for dumping on you," he said. "I don't know why... I just felt you'd want to know."
And then, in ultimate irony, he thanked me.
I watched as my teacher then strode down the street. He looked even taller than he did before. He didn't look back.
I entered my Toyota and put the key in the ignition. And then I just sat there for a long time.
Thank you, Danny.