The last time I saw Christine, she brought me a four-foot layer cake. Three of the four feet were a blue and white sugar sculpture likeness of my smiling face. She limped into my office, holding the cake on a cardboard tray. She seemed about to trip, so I jumped up and eased the vanilla monstrosity on to my office coffee table, while she tumbled into a chair.
“Happy Birthday,” she said, catching her breath.
I stared at my sugar face, then answered, logically, “It’s not my birthday.” This was January; my birthday’s in July.
“Well, I don’t know your birthday.” She turned to the cake. “But this is part of my final assignment – a personalized birthday cake. You can probably tell, I based it on your bio photo.”
I have a bio photo? I thought. I looked at the strange smiling figure, which did in fact look a lot like me. Except for something in the smile I couldn’t pinpoint. “It’s not quite me, is it?” I said.
“Oh, well, I filled in the gap in your teeth.” She took out her phone and showed me the photo from my installation as rabbi at Beth El. I was more than ten years younger, and not totally gray – another detail in my favor. She’d photoshopped better teeth.
“Ah. I knew I didn’t look that good.” I smiled at her, but kept my teeth hidden.
Christine was finishing up a course in cake decoration. After 3 years of social work, following her graduation from the University of California in San Diego, she was bravely embarking on a new career. We’d been close when I was supervising her conversion to Judaism, meeting every other week, sharing theologies, debating biblical and rabbinic texts. But in the past few years, she’d attended Chai events, our young adult program led by our associate rabbi, so I didn’t see her that often. I was touched that my younger, smiling, teeth-repaired face made it to one of her cake-decorating assignments.
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“But really, I just came here because I wanted to hear the song?” She looked at my Taylor acoustic guitar, stashed in the corner of the office. “Can you, please?”
I watched her touch the bottom of her neck as she spoke. I studied her worried face, her long blond hair, her thin arms. “Are you okay?”
She nodded, forced a smile, but didn’t speak. I reached for my guitar.
Christine had a rare genetic disorder that affected her circulatory system and especially her lungs. As a child, she’d been hospitalized and intubated several times. She walked with a limp, could only speak when covering a hole in her throat, and was perhaps the thinnest person I’d ever met. And she was transcendentally beautiful, radiant, joyful, loving and wise. She spoke easily about her mortality. In our first conversation, she told me “I want to live to be 99, like my great grandmother. But no one expected me to survive my thirteenth birthday. So I guess every day is a blessing.” I googled her disease and consulted a few doctors I knew, but the condition was so rare, I couldn’t find a solid prognosis. She was sick, infirm, limited. But she lived a full life. She’d either continue and live a long time, or she wouldn’t. Either was possible.
I played the song, “Arise My Love.” She often requested I sing it for her. Lately, it was our only interaction. She’d pop in, ask me to play the song, listen, sometimes dance a kind of wounded ballet, her small feet shuffling oddly while her skinny arms swayed in imprecise time. She’d smile widely, showing perfect teeth. Then, when I finished, she’d limp away. That day – the cake day – was the last time I played it for her in person.
I first saw her sitting in the back corner of the sanctuary with a group of young friends. Christine wore a sleeveless yellow dress which highlighted her bony arms. Her blond hair flowed nearly to her waist. The rest of her crowd – two men, two women – sported clean pressed jeans and button-down shirts – college semi-formal. They arrived together at 9:40 AM, ten minutes late for the beginning of Shabbat services, but quite early for synagogue etiquette, where the bulk of congregants showed up between 10 and 10:30. At first I assumed they were non-Jews, coming for a bar mitzvah, or a baby-naming or a pre-wedding ceremony. It was certainly not normal for five college age folk to attend services. They brought the average age of the regulars down ten or fifteen points. Guests, I figured. But I remembered there was no celebration scheduled for that day, and I noticed they picked up the correct books from the shelves in front of them and sang along like shul veterans. I tried to reach them after services, but they scooted out before the end of Adon Olam. They came the next week, and then the next several Saturday mornings in a row, each time exiting during the final hymn. Naturally, they were the talk of the synagogue at the kiddush refreshment table. “Maybe they’re saying kaddish?” one elderly lady suggested. But none of them stood for the prayer. “An Introduction to World Religion class assignment?” another man offered. But that wouldn’t go on for six weeks. Besides, these young people knew what they were doing. The men wore their extra large tallises with the exact correct folds. All five bowed and stepped and swayed and rose and sat at the right times, before being prompted by me. They knew the difference between the two books in the pews. They all stretched to touch the Torah as we processed it around the room, and then kissed either their tallises (the men), or their prayerbooks (the women). And they sang – quietly, but correctly. We were left with unlikely, yet unmistakable conclusion that they were here to pray. A retired professor confirmed it for us. He’d seen them at UCSD Hillel – the Jewish campus organization. They were undergraduates. But why were they praying here?
Finally, their seventh week in the pews, they stayed for the entirety of Adon Olam, and approached me afterwards as a group. Christine, in her yellow dress, slouched behind the others and looked down. Her blond hair partially covered her face. “Do you do conversions?” a young man asked me, wearing jeans, glasses, and a white shirt.
I was confused. Of all of them, this guy seemed the most familiar with Jewish customs. He’d even accepted the offer of an aliyah to the Torah, where he deployed his tallis expertly while kissing the parchment, and recited the prayer from memory. “You’re converting?” I asked. He glanced behind his shoulder, as if asking for permission to continue.
“He’s asking for me,” Christine said, brushing her hair out of her face. She pointed to her friends. “They’re all here for me
And that was the last time she seemed at all shy.
The next day, she limped into my office and told me her story. She was raised as a Messianic Jew – a Christian sect formerly known as “Jews for Jesus,” that aped certain Jewish rituals and festivals, but embraced Jesus as their master, teacher, messiah, and son of God. When she said the words “Messianic Jew,” she reared back, as if expecting me to slap her. But I just nodded. She smiled – a crooked, knowing smile, as if we were sharing a naughty joke. “Wow, I thought you’d flip out. That’s why I insisted we leave early every week. I was too scared to talk with you. Whenever I remind Joel that I’m a Jew for Jesus, he balls up his fists. I’m glad you’re staying calm.”
Actually, I wasn’t undisturbed by the concept. Most Jews I know distrust the perversely contradictory idea of a Jew for Jesus. But I really knew nothing about Messianic Jewish communities – their structure, their “synagogues” – and I was intrigued by this dynamic, young, physically damaged college student.
“It started with a dream. I can’t even remember how old I was. Young. 3 maybe 4. Not my first memory, but one of the first. Maybe the first memory of a dream. But old enough that I knew that I was a cripple. That it hurt to walk, that other people could walk better than me. I dreamt that an angel touched me and took away my pain. I could walk. I say angel, but it didn’t look like an angel. It looked like, well, like a rabbi. Sort of like you, but more rabbi-like, you know? With a long gray beard and a black coat. A, what do you call those hats? A big black hat. And a beautiful smile. I cried when I woke up, because I realized it was a just a dream, that I was still a hunchbacked cripple. I guess I was old enough to understand the difference between dreams and reality. My mom heard me crying and ran in, so I told her the dream. ‘Oh, it was Jesus,’ she said. ‘Jesus came to you in a dream and promised to heal you.’ Well, that just pissed me off, because that wasn’t the dream. There wasn’t any promise. And it certainly wasn’t Jesus. I mean, the guy was old and overweight. In a good way. ‘It was an angel of God,’ I said, but then, wide awake, I realized it couldn’t have been an angel. I knew angels had wings, were all white, and this was some chuckling, kind, chubby guy with a gray beard and black hat, and a tallis. ‘I mean it was God,’ I told my mother. ‘Not Jesus, God.’”
Christine stopped, shook her head, and asked for water. I ran to the staff room, grabbed a bottle and hurried back. I found her limping among my bookshelves, lingering beside the Hebrew volumes – the Talmud, Maimonides, the Shulkhan Aruch. She plucked out a book, a Hasidic commentary on Genesis, and slowly ran a finger along the Hebrew letters. “You can read this,” she said – a statement, not a question.
I handed her the bottle of water. She drained it in two gulps, then sat down. She took a deep breath. I couldn’t tell if she was nervous or just easily winded. “It wasn’t Jesus,” she said. “In my dream.”
She laughed. “I’m not sure you do. I still don’t. When I say it wasn’t Jesus, I don’t mean that Jesus didn’t happen to be a character in my dream. His absence was like a presence, you know? Discernable. Like when you’re in pain, and it suddenly stops. You feel it – the absence of pain.”
I nodded and tried to remember the last time I’d experienced a great physical pain that suddenly stopped. I’m not sure that had ever happened to me.
“It’s like there had been this barrier. This wall, this enclosure. And it disappeared. I’d been confined. And now I wasn’t. I was free.”
“You were three-years-old?”
She laughed. I saw now that she laughed easily, contagiously, and often the focus of her laughter was something odd about herself. She enjoyed her own foibles; they amused her. “My whole life, I’ve thought about God. I don’t remember a time when I didn’t. So, yeah, even at 3, or maybe it was 4, I noticed that it was God who took away my pain, and not Jesus. That Jesus not being there was part of the experience.” She looked at me. It was my turn to say something. I was the rabbi, the religion expert.
“Jesus had blocked you,” I said. “Stopped you from getting to God.”
“Stopped me from praying to God for healing. Stopped me from healing.”
I watched her move her hair away from her face, a consistent tic. I considered not bringing up an obvious flaw in her reasoning, but forged ahead. “But are you healed?”
She laughed, touched her throat. “Do I look healed?”
That’s when she gave me her medical history, including a discouraging prognosis, which she presented calmly, almost humorously, as if her illness were a kind of cosmic joke. When she finished she turned her gaze to my bookshelves. “I don’t necessarily expect God to heal me,” she said. “But if He did, it would be God, not Jesus. Does that make any sense?”
It was as coherent a theology as I’d ever heard. “It does,” I said.
“So I can convert with you?”
A bright undergraduate who gracefully transcended an obvious handicap, and who couldn’t remember ever not thinking about God? Most candidates for conversion entered the process because they were engaged to Jews – a good enough reason, and I was always happy to help. But Christine was seeking to clarify her relationship with God, her life of prayer. Her goal was liberation, breaking through her perceived spiritual confinement. “I’d be honored,” I told her.
After that, she became a “candidate.” In a “program.” I had an unusually high number of people converting that year – 10; our associate rabbi had another 10 – and with the busy schedule of a senior rabbi in a large congregation, I couldn’t devote much time to any of them. Like her fellow converts, Christine read The Nine Question People Ask About Judaism by Dennis Prager and Joseph Telushkin, The Jewish Holidays by Michael Strassfeld, Living a Jewish Life, by Anita Diament. For her theology book she chose Standing Again at Sinai by Judith Plaskow. She kept a journal of her Jewish experiences. She continued to attend services with her college crew on Saturday mornings.
I met with her every two weeks. She’d read to me from her journal; describe how putting on tefillin made her feel tied up (“not doing that again!”); how sometimes when she lit the Shabbat candles she felt herself ascending with the flames (“not in a good way, or bad way, it just felt natural, like I’d become the flame.”), and how she really didn’t enjoy our synagogue music (“You could do so much better. Just go to one Messianic service, just for the music.”) Every so often, perhaps every third visit, she looked paler than usual, more gaunt, and seemed to struggle more than before getting up from her chair. I’d ask her if she was okay, and she’d smile and wave me off. “Couldn’t be better,” she said, and I couldn’t tell if it was seasoned cynicism, or true strength and courage, or both. Or faith. After a few visits, I stopped noticing that she touched her throat every time she talked.
One afternoon, she caught me singing and playing guitar. It was late March, and I was preparing for a creative Passover Seder. I needed to practice the song “Arise My Love,” by Debbie Friedman, and, as Christine had pointed out about me and our synagogue music, we could use some improvement. So I was playing loudly, trying to find exactly the right tune, and I didn’t hear her walk in. I was just finishing the final coda (“Rise up my love, my fair one. And come away. And come away. And come away.”) when I looked up and nearly dropped my guitar. Christine was dancing – ballet like movements, awkward with her limps, but rhythmically interesting. And her grin – the pale light from her face – lit up the room. Embarrassed, I put down the guitar.
“No, no,” she said, still shuffling her small feet, still grinning. “You can’t stop. I need you to play that song again.”
“Okay. Can you, uh, sit while I play?”
“No, I can’t,” she said.
I nodded and played the song, a setting for the biblical book “Song of Songs.” She swayed slowly, but joyfully while I played.
Rise up my love my fair one. And come away.
For lo the winter is here and the rain has come.
The flowers appear on Earth. The time of singing has come.
And the voice of the turtle dove is heard.
The fig tree bringeth forth its fresh green figs.
And the vines in blossom, they bring forth fragrance.
Arise, arise my love, my fair one come away.
Arise my love and come away.
Rise up my love my fair one. And come away. And come away. And come away.
By the final coda, tears dampened her cheeks. She was clearly moved, even with my bumbling out of tune performance (remember, I needed practice). I hesitated asking her why the song made her cry. Was it romance? I wondered. Most converting students were marrying Jews, but certainly not all, and Christine never mentioned a boyfriend or girlfriend. With her physical condition, it would be difficult to carry on a romantic relationship, but certainly not impossible. Finally, I just asked. “Why the tears, Christine?”
She shook her head, as if denying the obvious wetness on her cheeks. She hadn’t stopped smiling since she walked in the room. “She’s flying away,” she said. “She’s rising up. She’s becoming free.”
She sat, and I put away my guitar. “Who wrote that?” she asked.
I told her it was from “Song of Songs.” Biblical love poems.
She paused for a second, then put her finger on her throat. “But it’s about God, right? That’s what we learned in my synagogue. Well, I mean my church. We called it a synagogue.” She laughed.
“Some people interpret it that way. That it’s about God. A metaphor. God’s the man; the Jewish people are the woman. Or, I guess maybe you learned that Jesus was the man.”
“Of course,” she said, remembering, contemplating. “But I never saw it that way. Oh, but it’s definitely a metaphor. It’s about God. I mean, just listen to how you sang it.”
I told her I wouldn’t rely on how I sing for anything. “But I have to say, to me, it doesn’t read like a metaphor. Some of the images are purely erotic.”
She giggled. “Look, let me just show you.” She looked around my office. “Do you have a bible in here?”
I had dozens of shelves filled with bibles and biblical commentary. I took out the Jewish Publication Society’s Hebrew-English Tanach and handed it to her. She flipped quickly to Song of Songs and pointed to some verses in chapter 3. “I sought the one I love – I sought but found him not.” “See,” Christine said, “she’s craving a relationship with God, but there’s all these barriers.” She recited some more. “’I met the watchmen.’ These guardians, she runs into them. That’s the Church, religious establishments, it’s everyone trying to keep God for themselves.” She flipped ahead a few pages. “Here’s chapter 5. Listen to this. ‘I opened the door for my beloved. But my beloved had turned and gone.’ Every time she gets close to embracing her beloved – God – something happens. Poof, He’s gone. Then, listen, she meets the watchmen again. ‘I met the watchmen who patrol the town. They struck me, they bruised me.’ All these obstacles. Church establishments throwing rules at her. Her own laziness. Physical weakness. But all through the book, she keeps trying. She’s desperate to find God.”
I stared at her. I’d never met anyone who actually believed the metaphoric reading of Song of Songs, who’d ever internalized the idea that God could be a passionate lover, and that humans could love God with an erotic intensity. The notion had always disturbed me, ruined for me the exquisite poetry of Song of Songs. But Christine, with her wounded body, and sensitive soul, demonstrated for me the power of her reading. She danced to it.
“There’s something else about Song of Songs,” she said. “You asked why I was crying.”
It looked to me like she was still crying. Her cheeks shone with tears, though her near constant smile decorated her face. She picked up the bible, stared at a page, then put the book down. “I thought of something while you were singing.” She smiled. “I realized the girl in the song is not stuck. Not completely. Play the first line.”
My fingers formed a C chord. I played the first line.
“’Rise up my love,’” she repeated. “The way you sing it – not just you, the melody – it sounds like it’s possible. Like she could rise up. She could fly. She’s flying inside; trapped and flying at the same time. For me, Song of Songs was always about the struggle. I admired the sentiments. It’s not easy to love God. You have to go through so much pain to get to the love. But the song focuses on transcendence.” She smiled and flapped her arms, her wings. “’Arise.’”
“’Come away,’” I said.
“The fig tree. It’s blooming. Vines are opening up. I don’t know why I never noticed. It’s not just about the barriers. It’s about transcendence.”
“Freedom?” I suggested. “You know, we recite it on Passover.”
She nodded. “Of course. Freedom, sure. But for me? It’s about flying.”
We looked at each other, two students, finding new meaning in an ancient text. I could see she was lost in thought, rolling the lyrics around in her mind. “I asked you who wrote it.”
I told her scholars weren’t sure. Jewish tradition claimed it was King Solomon.
“No,” she laughed. “I don’t mean who wrote the Bible. I meant the melody.”
I thought for a moment, then remembered, astonished that I would have forgotten. I told her about Debbie Friedman.
Debbie was the singer laureate of American Judaism, the artist who transformed Jewish liturgical music from European high art opera to Simon and Garfunkel/Peter Paul and Mary style folk music. If you went to Jewish summer camp, or attending Jewish youth groups, or even just showed up at services occasionally, her songs were everywhere. They were choreographed, with canonical handclaps, tambourine shakes.
Also, she suffered from a cruel neurological disorder which robbed her of her ability to perform and eventually killed her. Before her final disintegration, she gave several searingly moving talks about living with illness, transcending physical barriers, flying free from your body. Her healing song became the emotional highlight of many non-Orthodox services, not necessarily because of the folky melody, but because most of us knew her story.
I told Christine about Debbie, expecting her to smile with recognition. Debbie hadn’t yet died, so I figured Christine would see her as a heroine, a role model. Instead she looked pensive and nodded. “Uh, huh,” she said. “Do you mind playing the song again.” I played it again. She cried then laughed.
Christine finished her conversion studies. For her ritual immersion, we drove her to La Jolla shores on a cool, foggy June morning (when you move to La Jolla, nobody tells you how cold it gets in June). She limped across the sand with her college buddies, rubbing her thin arms against the morning chill. It was 6AM; we wanted to get there before the surfers took over. She took several quick breaths, then sprinted into the water, her limp slowing her down not at all. When she’d swum twenty some feet into the waves, she slipped off her one-piece red bathing suit, and immersed herself three times, in three quick practiced moves. She was Jewish. Five minutes later, shivering, wrapped in three towels, she sang the Shma. She chose the Debbie Friedman melody.
Then she disappeared. I don’t mean literally. She remained an active part of the congregation, particularly the young adult social/religious group we called Chai. By “disappeared” I mean we didn’t see each other on a regular basis. There we no more bi-weekly pre-conversion meetings in my office where we debated God language, sang songs while I played guitar, and she’d dance her wounded dance, twirling like an angel. When someone as vital and light as Christine stops meeting with you every other Thursday, it feels like a disappearance. Her absence becomes a presence. But, of course, I was pleased. Christine fit into the community the way she fit into Judaism – perfectly, like she’d always been there, like the synagogue and the religion had been designed with her in mind. Christine and her band of college students – eventually young grads – became as familiar, as part of the sanctuary on Saturdays, as the old regulars, as the Torah, as the ark.
I thought about Christine quite a bit after I got sick with a lung ailment, eight years after she converted. “She’s flying inside,” she’d told me, about the young lover in “Song of Songs.” Transcending the watchmen who struck her, flying above her own laziness and indecisiveness, the taunts of other maidens. One night when my lungs wouldn’t let me sleep, I took a well-worn Tanach down from the shelf and leafed through “Song of Songs.” The first four chapters left me cold. I couldn’t get past the mushy eroticism, the “kisses of your mouth,” “breasts sweeter than wine,” “bundle of myrh, my lover for me, between my breasts.” Not what I – an old, sick guy – was looking for in the middle of the night. I struggled to remember why the book had so moved Christine, energized her into dancing her wounded ballet. Then I came to chapter 5, and something clicked. “I am asleep but my heart awakes.” I yawned. Fatigued beyond mercy, but somehow still awake. Ill, but still somehow, fully alive. “My beloved knocks. ‘Open for me! My sister, my love.” Open, I thought. The thirst for openness, for expanses. I took a breath, opened my lungs. I remembered a line from psalms, which also appears in the morning prayer service: “You’ve opened my sackcloth and robed me in joy.” I exhaled, freely. The move from mourning to joy was also the move from constriction to openness. I reached for a siddur and found the prayer – psalm 96. My eyes landed on the verse preceding the line about opening my sackcloth: “You’ve transformed my mourning into my dancing.” Confinement – sackcloth and mourning - becomes movement, dance, flight. Christine could feel that transformation every time she got out of bed and limped into her day. She flew on the inside.
Back to “Song of Songs,” chapter 5. The man calls to his would-be lover from the other side of the door “Open for me!” She reaches for the doorknob. She “opens” it.
But her beloved has disappeared. She fights her way to him, past the wicked watchmen, the jealous friends (“How is your beloved better than others?”). She seems to find him; he’s “gone down to his garden, he “browses among the lilies.” But then he’s gone, or she’s changed her mind. He cries out to her “Come my beloved, let us go to the field, let us lie in the vineyards.” I realized the whole book follows this pattern: yearning, closure, then openness and freedom, then loss, then more yearning. That’s how Christine lived day to day. Yearning, then fighting for freedom, for expanses, for dancing. Then, once again, the harsh reality of her body closing down. And then again freedom. That was also Debbie Friedman’s dance. I saw her perform twice when friends led her nearly crippled body up onto the stage. But somehow the music – her music – opened her up, filled her, the hall, and all our hearts. Her sackcloth became joy. Could I do that? I wondered. I wasn’t as sick as Christine or Debbie. I didn’t need as much “opening up,” meaning I didn’t need as much faith. But was I as strong?
I asked the same question not long afterwards, in the pandemic’s early months, but this time I asked it about all of us - Americans, humans. We, who were stuck inside, hiding from a different illness, quarantined, yearning for doors to open, longing for the masks to fall from our faces, hungry for the wide-open spaces outside our homes. Somehow, we found the openings, the cracks in the quarantine. Dinner parties moved to virtual spaces. Education went online. Where before we would have transcended time and space with our cars and shopped at the mall, we walked around the block in the fresh air. We filled our ears with exquisite, expansive ideas and gorgeous music broadcast from wallet-sized devices. We reunited on Zoom with cousins we hadn’t seen in years; we played computer games with old friends who lived miles and miles away. The world narrowed, but also expanded. The watchmen beat us down – not just the virus, but a rancid politics, racist violence, and endless fear. As of this writing, we still oscillate between shutdowns and re-openings. But we persevere, we hear the knock on the door, we reach to open it, we imagine the spaces outside, and we fly on the inside.
By the time the pandemic hit, I’d managed to find new spaces in my lungs, enough for long walks, and then short jogs, and even bike rides. My condition didn’t change, but the inspiration Debbie and Christine bequeathed to me gave the skill of dancing with what I have. It’s a limping, wounded dance, but it’s saved my life. For me, the virus was one more watchman, beating me down. But I did what I could to dance away.
The day after Christine delivered the cake decorated with my improved face, I heard that Debbie Friedman had passed away at the age of 58. I never met her personally. But the Jewish world being what it is - especially the world of Jewish professionals – I knew people who knew her. And of course, the entire American Jewish community mourned. Sitting alone in my office, I choked back tears. I wondered if I should call Christine. 10 minutes later she called. She was too sick to make it to the office and didn’t want to trouble me with a visit. She just wanted to hear the song. I played it for her over the phone. I didn’t tell her about Debbie, and we never spoke about her death. But of course, she knew. The whole Jewish world knew.
Two weeks later, Christine called me at 9PM, late for her, and for me. “I think it’s more serious this time.”
“I’m coming over,” I told her.
“No, no, that’s not why I called. I appreciate the offer. I’ve got company. That’s not the issue. I’m asking you not to.”
“I just, I think it might be – no, never mind. I’m feeling better.”
“I just. . . I think. . . well, one day it will be more serious. It will be, you know, the serious one.”
“I know,” I said.
“I need it to be a Jewish ceremony, okay? I’m not sure my parents. . . well, just, that’s what I want. Okay?”
I offered to come over again. She laughed. “I told you I’m better. This time. I’m up. I’m dancing. Just promise me.”
I promised. A Jewish service. I didn’t want to say the word funeral.
Back then, I didn’t indulge much in private prayer. I led services, four days a week, and stuck to the many benedictions and requests in the formal Jewish liturgy. In those pre-lung disease, pre-pandemic times, that had always seemed sufficient. But that night I made what I thought was a reasonable and humble request. I don’t want her to die, I told God. She’s too young. And too marvelous and strong and open. I’m calling you from the depths, I wept before God. From the narrow place. Keep Christine alive.
She died anyway. Two days later. She was 26.
No arguments with her parents about the service. No arguments with them at all; they could barely utter sounds. They looked like two people who had wandered into an alternate reality, where, bizarrely, parents outlive their adult children. Their faces expressed both horror and a deep, impatient puzzlement, as if they were expecting, any minute, for the person in charge to show up and explain to them, in their native tongue, that it was all a mistake. I’d seen the expression before. I’m a rabbi. I’m familiar with grief. But I’d glimpsed it that morning, briefly, in my own bathroom mirror.
Three of Christine’s young friends spoke at the funeral. I don’t remember much of what they said. The world is a darker place, a tall burly man with a colorful yarmulke said. I nodded. It was, I thought. And narrower. More confining.
Christine’s uncle – her father’s brother – spoke the longest. He told a story I’ll never forget. He reminded us that Christine had been sick most of her life, and she always understood the severity of her illness. One particularly cruel episode struck her when she was 13. Bat mitzvah age, he said, and glanced at me. She was stuck in the hospital for months. Her lungs worked hard, harder than a pale, skinny child’s lungs should ever have to work, but still not quite hard enough. She was connected to several tubes, including a ventilator. One difficult morning, the uncle cornered Christine’s father and said, “You have to ask her. Is this what she wants? Does she want to keep fighting? Has she had enough? You have to at least find out what she wants.” Christine’s father nodded. They went into the hospital room together and asked the nurses and technicians to leave. Christine couldn’t talk, but her nurse had set up a handheld light for communication: two lights for yes, one for no. Her father took her by the hand and said, “Honey, I just have to know. Do you want to keep fighting?”
They waited. Tears formed in Christine’s thirteen-year-old, bat mitzvah age eyes. One light blinked on. One meant no. But then – another light. She’d answered yes. She kept fighting. She fought for thirteen more years. I’ve been flashing those two lights for several years now, even after retiring for health reasons. In my worst moments, Christine’s answer brightens the gloom.
After Christine’s uncle, it was my turn to speak. I had a few notes prepared, but really, I didn’t want to talk. Instead, I picked up my guitar and walked slowly to the podium. My fingers found the familiar C chord, and I strummed once or twice. “This is song Christine loved,” I said. I took a deep breath, filling up all the narrow spaces in my lungs, expanding them with air, precious air. “Rise up my love, my fair one,” I sang. “And come away.”
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