Family Matters: The Worst Knock of All
The beginning of the Jewish year is a pensive, somber time. How much more so for a mother who lost a child during the days of reflection.
Yom Kippur 2003, 6:25 P.M. The best time of the day. The streets in Kfar Saba are still empty of cars. The Holy Day’s heavy silence is broken by the happy babble of voices marking its end and the sound of footsteps hurrying to synagogue to hear the tekiya gedola that concludes the Ne’ila prayers. a In my study, I stand near the open window and hold my breath in anticipation of the trumpeting of the shofar.
A knock on the door. I open it and see four men in Israel Defense Forces uniforms. They wait, silent. I stare at them, uncomprehending. My mouth struggles to form words.
“Is it my son? Is he dead?”
They back me through the living room to the sofa.
“Hezbollah snipers…killed instantly….”
I get up and smile, reassuring the soldier who follows me to the bathroom that I am not going to faint, pass out, do whatever he expects me to do. And I stand there, leaning against the cold white tiles, not even crying because how do I know what I am supposed to do when someone comes to tell me that my son is dead. My son David, who was to be demobilized in only three more days after serving for three years. Three years less three days.
“Our Father, our King, we have sinned before Thee.”
I was invited to a friend’s house to break the fast, but as I didn’t fast, I didn’t want to be the first guest. Besides, I wanted to call David after Ne’ila to ask how his day was and to talk about what he was going to do when he arrived home on Thursday. But instead of breaking the fast and chatting with David, I must answer questions.
“No family here in Israel? Who should we call?”
They call Fran, my closest friend, who has been part of my family since I made aliya in 1994. She will make all the necessary calls—to my sisters and my son Michael in the States, friends and work. As the soldiers leave to go to my ex-husband’s home, to knock on his door, honey cake—the symbolic break-the-fast cake saturated with the sweetness of a new year, instead saturated with grief—appears on the table, with coffee and tea, to sustain the people who stream through my home.
Some come directly from synagogue, still in their white shirts and tennis shoes. Others arrive from home, traces of hastily eaten eggs and fruit juice on their faces. Young men in dirty Army uniforms, David’s friends, have rushed to be here. Some cling to me, embrace me, others are unable to do more than nod as they congregate in David’s room, trying to find comfort in tears and silence and in a language of their own.
“Protect our beloved and bless them with the spirit of Thy loving-kindness.”
The Army gathers my family together for a final viewing before the burial. At Tel Ha-Shomer Army base, a stern-faced rabbi from the hevra kaddisha leads me into a stark room. I approach my son’s body, laid out in a pine box.
“Don’t touch him,” the rabbi warns. “He is ready for burial. He is clean. If you must touch him, touch only the shroud covering his body. Don’t touch him,” he repeats, inserting himself between my son’s body and me, ready to leap if I even reach out a hand to caress his face, a face without a mark, a face with a gauze baby bonnet wrapping his head.
I try to memorize david’s face as I kneel next to the coffin, willing myself not to impress upon his cold skin some warmth from my palms. His lips are set in an unfamiliar smile, a grimace I do not recognize. It is not my son. And yet I want my hands to warm him. The rabbi says, “Get up now. It is enough time.”
“Wait, it isn’t time. It is not enough time.” Two of David’s friends, now not in uniform, kneel beside me, weaving their arms under my arms and around my shoulders. They help me up, their eyes pleading for time alone with him. I leave the room to my son and his friends.
“Give us strength to overcome our weakness and fill us with compassion that we may bring cheer into darkened lives.”
At the cemetery, I stand clutching Michael as I watch David lowered into the ground. I stare at faces mouthing words about this young man now covered in earth. Rifle shots from the honor guard ring out. As I gasp and cower, hiding behind sunglasses to block out the living, I am as cold as the body in the coffin.
I turn away from people pressing close to me, smothered by their compassion, and allow myself to be pulled through the mourners to the Army car that will take me home. Home to more tables covered with food, death notices pasted on the building and the heat of bodies crowding the apartment for two days of shiva. The rabbis award me a consolation prize: “Because David died on Yom Kippur, you can end the shiva after only two days and then celebrate the joy of Sukkot.”
David’s soldier friends, many of whom are now on leave, assemble in my house to talk about him. I can cook for them and listen and not think and in their words see David. They try to cheer me with stories—things I never knew because he had not wanted to worry me. Ronen comes from Haifa every day for two weeks and sits in a corner, impassive. When Dror recalls David crawling on the ground to paste a bumper sticker of his Golani unit on the commander’s car (for which David was rewarded with three weeks without leave), Ronen finally smiles, his eyes shedding silent tears.
Suddenly, and yet too soon, two weeks pass and life returns to so-called normal. But David’s friends continue to come. I joke that they come for the homemade Chinese Chews (David’s favorite cookies that accompanied him to school, on class trips and to his Army base).
One Friday afternoon, as they gather at my house, Lior—the class clown since 6th grade, the tank commander, Lior who makes an entrance whenever he walks into the house—says, “Damn. I am sick of this! We are all trying to do things together, like going to the beach, just because David is dead. What’s the point? We didn’t kill ourselves to be together before, so why are we doing it now?”
Sharon, who had decided to wait until David was released from the Army to clarify their relationship, replies wearily, “At least we can do this. At least we can try to do things together. Maybe something positive will come out of his death. Maybe this will keep some of the pain away.”
Essi stares at his knuckles, still bruised from punching a tree when he heard that David had been killed, and finishes the Chinese Chews. And they go off, all of them together, to watch the sunset at the beach.
“Our Father, our King, have mercy upon us and upon our children.”
David is gone, and I clean out his room. Tucked away in a drawer is his favorite maroon T-shirt, which I pretend to myself still bears his smell. The beads from his high school graduation trip to Cyprus still hang from the bookshelf next to his bed. In his closet, the photos of David and his friends lie jumbled with the Army’s investigative report of his death and the standard letters of condolence from officers, Knesset members, the president and prime minister.
His Army awards share a shelf with Memorial Day gifts and cards from the Department of Bereaved Families.
“What is this for?” I recall asking.
“For being an outstanding soldier,” he replied.
“When did you get this?”
“Oh, a few months ago. They didn’t have any certificates, so they gave me a Walkman and told me the certificate would be in the mail.”
“Dave, this is great.”
“No big deal, Mom.”
Yes, it is…to me.
David’s birthday is March 6th, and for the past four years, his friends mark the day with their favorite food.
“We are coming over with hamburger buns, cold drinks and beer. Do you have the Sloppy Joe mix? The Chinese Chews? Do you need anything else?” As every year, I remind them to bring salad. The phone rings again, but the connection is filled with static.
“Where are you, Aviad? Bolivia? Yes, sweetie, I am managing. Are you O.K. today? I know, Aviad, I know. I wish you were here, too. Take care of yourself. Have a beer for him, wherever you are.”
The door opens and David’s friends—mine now as well—pour in. After hellos and hugs, they head for the table, helping themselves to salad and Sloppy Joes.
“Don’t you remember how he would stuff the sandwich in his mouth and then start to talk?”
“Are we going bowling afterward?”
“No, the exams this semester were terrible, and I had to do two make-ups.”
“…the skiing? Fabulous.”
“…what do you mean, miluim [reserve duty]?”
“Who are you dating now?”
“No, Hadas couldn’t be here tonight; she’s still in Goa.”
“Where is that cat? Do you need help cutting her nails? We could sit on her like Dave did.”
“No, I am not helping you with that cat. I still have the scars from the last time!”
“Hard to believe that Dave would have been 25 today.”
Silence. Rami squeezes my hand and says, “Pass me another Sloppy Joe, will you, Ev?”
Another year, another yom Kippur, 6:30 P.M. and Ne’ila but no fasting, no honey cake.
“In the Book of Life, blessing, peace and good sustenance, may these young people be remembered and sealed before Thee for a happy life and for peace.”
You owe me, God. Seal them so David can live through them.
“Uplift our depressed hearts and strengthen us with the comforting solace of Thy presence.”
If You do not, we will strengthen and comfort each other.
And again a knocking on the door, but this time it is the friends and their voices—David’s legacy—drowning out the trumpeting of the shofar from the nearby synagogue.
Evelyn Fisher Solomonov, an English teacher, lives in Kfar Saba, Israel.