Monday, June 15, 2009

Wearing the face that she keeps in a jar by the door

About three years ago the son of close family friends was severely injured while serving in the Israeli army. He was, in a way typical to this family, highly motivated, overachieving soldier, commanding troops during the second Lebanon war. His experience was particularly harrowing. A few days before he was injured he took part in a mission to extricate the bodies of his fallen comrades from behind enemy lines. One of those fallen soldiers was his best friend. A few days later he was back in the field. He stood up at the top of his tank to gain a better look at the landscape and that moment his tank was hit. For the first few days it was unclear whether he would live. For the first few weeks it was certain that he would lose a leg. He didn't. In a miraculous turn of events, he lived and kept both his legs. He'll use crutches for the rest of his life-but he walks. And despite all the trauma he has maintained a surprising level of normalcy in his life. Last year he started medical school. A few weeks ago he got married. A miracle indeed.
To me, his injury three years should have been just one more step in the process of my naturalization as a member of Israeli society. After all, in my 6 some years here I have lived through two wars, been witness to a terrorist attack and in this, begun to experience the awful diminishing in degrees of separation between myself and loss. But three years ago, when it happened, I didn't feel that way. The American in me, or maybe the me in me, could only feel this widening gap between myself and these family friends whom I had been so close to. With this tragedy they had taken their place in the Israeli national religious ethos. It seemed to me that the belief, which perhaps they had always held, that there is meaning in suffering for one's country, that the scars we bare are honorable, and that we must heal clean and fast, lest we show weakness, now became paramount. And all I could think was, what a waste. What a bloody damn waste is war.
A few months after their son's injury I spent a weekend at their home, as I often did. The house was filled with noise and laughter. Their son, still in his wheelchair at that point, was always surrounded by a protective bubble of rambunctious friends and family. He went out and raced through the streets of their small town, with sheer determination and no sign of consternation on his face at all. Their daughter's boyfriend was visiting, there were mouths to feed and things to discuss. Life continued and I could barely breathe. And then, in the middle of it all the youngest daughter, who was then just barely an adolescent, threw a tantrum in the way only a pre-adolescent can. There was screaming and tears and slamming of doors and dramatic pronouncements. If I recall correctly the tantrum was centered on an article of clothing and its lack of availability. It was the most hopeful thing I had witnessed all weekend. It meant more than the laughter and the motherly advice in the kitchen; more than the sight of an injured boy getting up on his own two feet and shuffling his way from wheelchair to chair- here was proof of life.
I don't mean to sound derisive or condescending. I believe in their belief. I believe that it has power and meaning. I'm aware of the strength and courage that faith like that demands. I admire it. I admire the tenacity of spirit and self-assured belief in the value of the sacrifices made. I admire the determination it takes to allow life to go on. But I also find it terribly claustrophobic. It doesn't leave room for doubt, or anger or grief. It doesn't acknowledge weakness or loss. It doesn't allow for anything other than a love of country and people above all. But why can't there be room for sorrow? Why can't we mourn the loss of a boy who will never run again? Why can't we acknowledge the sheer horror of his experiences? Why can't we throw a tantrum? Does the belief that most war is just one terrible waste inherently negate the meaning of loss? Can one still believe in the nobility of sacrifice without believing in its inherent value?
All of these questions visited me again a few weeks ago at this young man's wedding. It was a huge, highly emotional affair. But I found myself strangely unmoved. I didn't cry as he walked on his own two feet toward his bride to cover her face. I didn't cry when the father of his dead friend stood up as a witness under the wedding canopy. Even the smashing of the glass,with all its potent symbolism, left my cheeks dry. Only later, at the site of his whole family (new wife included) dancing together was I moved to tears. They stood in a haphazard circle with their arms wrapped around each, broken yet whole in the way of all families- with their own private dynamics and emotions; their own ebb and flow. It was the sheer intimacy of the moment that got to me. It was the private joy; the private love. Here was healing. The music played but they swayed with their own rhythm, and in that moment I almost believed.

Thesis Watch: 16 pages into the second draft.

Book Rec: Until the End of the Land, David Grossman

Cubbie Watch: Ugh.

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