It was 12 years ago that I got the call from my grandfather, but the anguish in his voice struck a chord within me that still resonates today.
"I'm finished," he said with resignation, skirting around his actual diagnosis. "They give me three weeks."
What an oddity of human nature -- that I was forced to realign my reality with this thought, that my young, vibrant grandfather would no longer be available to speak within three weeks time. As if one can shift their reality to assimilate this token piece of information, just as one would the news of a new store opening down the street.
"They?" I asked incredulously. "And who are they to say?" I could talk the party line. This staunchly religious family representative would set things straight. Deified doctors never vexed me more than when I heard the raw fear in his voice.
Scarred by the war torn years in Europe, much of my grandfather's religious expression was channeled into his art. An intensely talented man, he poured his soul on to canvas. He did not grant me entrance into the caverns of his mind in terms of what role God played for him in this saga. Not yet.
"That's what they say," he replied. His words lackluster, his voice defeated.
I hung up the phone and sat on my bed. Sitting being the ultimate act of passivity, it gave me no comfort. And thus I passed the weekend, waiting for my grandfather to arrive home from Florida.
Visiting my grandfather in the hospital that first day, I saw that death had already curled her tenacious tentacles around him.
Visiting my grandfather in the hospital that first day, I saw that death had already curled her tenacious tentacles around him, tightly clasping the delicate bud of his soul. I wanted him to rally. I knew that his latent strength would shine, that he could outrival this disease, if only given the time.
Only time, was not on his side.
But I believed that God was.
I walked down the Manhattan avenues that evening, returning to my college dorm. The streets pulsed with the steady rhythm of life. The man playing a fast tempo on his bongo drums oblivious to the plight of my grandfather, and I, oblivious to the hobos in the doorways. But God, in his omniscience, was privy to all of our secrets, and held the key to the healing of each and every one of us.
An idea, brewing in the muddled cauldron of my mind, was taking form.
There are many healing formulas prescribed by the Jewish religion. Some choose to take a new religious commitment upon themselves, in the merit of the sick person. Others go to Kabbalists, who prescribe complementary formulas for healing the ill, based upon mystical lore. And there are still those relics whom I emulate, who are content to intone the ancient words of Psalms, calling out to God from the frayed pages of their prayer books.
None of these were my choice weapon.
One of the things that drew me to deeper levels of commitment in my religious observance was the idea of guarding your tongue. It is considered a serious iniquity to speak harsh words about your fellow Jew.
Even if he doesn't hear you.
Even if it is true.
Even if he absolutely deserves it.
This concept is so deliciously fresh in a world riddled with gossip mongering and backstabbing. Imagine an office in corporate America where no one badmouths the boss behind her back. Imagine a teacher's room where no one denigrates that daunting student. Imagine two friends meeting for coffee who are forced to focus their conversation on matter of challenge and growth in their personal lives, as the personal lives of others are completely off limits.
I found such societies to exist in the religious world, and I wanted in.
Granted, there is no utopian existence in this world. We are merely mortal beings, desperately clinging to the rungs of ascent on the slippery ladder of life. But the ideal shone like a crystal dome atop a muddy stadium-illuminated brilliance.
Guarding one's tongue from speaking badly against another is a potent and proficient tool. Many have linked miraculous deliverance in their lives to some concerted effort made in this area. In observant circles, conducting large scale projects of this sort has become commonplace.
Through a project aimed at not maligning others, I hoped to fight the malignancy that was invading my grandfather's body.
This was my choice weapon. Through a project aimed at not maligning others, I hoped to fight the malignancy that was invading my grandfather's body.
I sat on my bed that evening. This time though, my brain was engaged in active pursuit of the cells that threatened to destroy my Sabba's immune system. I mapped out a chart, dividing the day into distinct sections. Each time slot I availed to the brave person who might take it upon themselves to refrain from speaking badly about others during those hours. I wrote my grandfathers name above, asking that they have him in mind for a speedy recovery, in the merit of this undertaking.
The sign filled up quickly. I ran to Kinko's and made a copy for each participant. I handed them out, thanked them, and wished them luck.
The benefits began to accrue early. Walking through the hallways, I received enthusiastic feedback.
"Yael, I'm trying really hard. I held back from saying something and it was really difficult."
"Hey -- I kept my mouth shut for two whole hours. I got a lot of work done that way too. I may need to try this again. Good luck with your grandfather."
The comments kept coming. I prayed that some subtle cosmic change might result from the tiny efforts of small men.
Late that afternoon, exhaustion wove its weary net around me and I slept. My brief nap was interrupted by the ring of the telephone. It was my mother. I jumped.
Her words were measured, calculated, lilting.
"Sabba is doing ... great."
I opened my mouth like a baby bird waiting for more. Her words gained momentum and started coming rapid-fire.
"They came to put in the shunt for the chemo. They brought out the most recent slides to double check things. Hospital protocol." Pause.
"There was no trace of disease on the slides. It seems to have disappeared. They checked and re-checked. They don't understand."
It wasn't registering. "I don't understand mommy."
Then, sounds of joy, rippling through the wires.
"They don't either. It's some sort of mystery."
Some sort of miracle.
I got out of bed and went to pray the afternoon prayer. I stood there numbly. Why was I so surprised? Did I lack faith in man's ability to curry his way into the celestial plan? Is that not what God wants from us? My capsule of self-doubt slowly thawed and the tears fell freely like newly melted ice.
My grandfather is no longer in this world and I am grateful that God granted him a reprieve. I cannot reveal all that transpired, but suffice it to say that when God returns life to a withered seed, there is abundant growth.
And when man reaches heavenward like an upturned petal, God graces him with His presence.