A very dear friend of our family recently died after a short illness. He was a titan in the world of finance; adored, admired, generous and humorous. He merited more New York Times obits than the regular Joe. After the funeral I was trying to dig deep within myself and ask what I really knew about him? Was he insightful? Political? Was he the same to his competition as he was to his children? Ashamedly, I realized that I knew absolutely nothing important about this friend of 40 years.
Rumination is a dangerous game, because it can take us places we would rather keep buried. But since I can physically no longer bear children, I feel a little freer in recalling that just over 30 years ago, a Stepford-nurse in a sterile delivery room placed my newborn daughter in my arms and said, essentially, “She’s yours. Knock yourself out.”
Three decades and a quorum of grandchildren later, I can still recall the shock of that birth experience and angrily recall the Lamaze teacher who prepared me for birth by driving home the point that labor was a “big, big discomfort.” “A pressing urgency,” she uttered. Without fear I emerged from the revolving door into the hospital lobby and skipped into the maternity ward like Liese Von Trapp yodeling across the Austrian Alps. Perhaps this is why I screamed my bloody head off when facing the extraterrestrial pain that comes along with pushing a human being out of an alarmingly small exit space. Truly, I believed that I was dying of unrelated-to-birth-causes, because this horror had nothing to do with “pressing urgency” but was clearly a result of a ruptured appendix or burst spleen.
My husband was understandably proud, anxious to begin sharing the news of our burgeoning family. But in my (then) typical fashion, I poured a figurative bucket of cold water over his head by announcing, “I will NEVER do this again! Who in their right mind would endure pregnancy and the brutality of birth by CHOICE a second time? WHO IS SHE???” Indeed, “she” was miraculously lying in the bed next to mine in the now-passe Recovery Room. Unsolicited, her husband explained that this was their second child. We issued the customarily congratulatory bromides but under my breath, declared her to be a “tart.”
Clearly, I was a little agitated. But what was more telling than that the not-so-much-fun birth was that, gazing into my infant daughter’s eyes for the first time, I realized that she was very smart. Smarter than me. That she already understood at the tender age of twenty minutes that I hadn’t a clue about what to do or what I’d gotten myself into.
Sadly or happily, I still haven’t figured it out, because a lot can happen in a thirty-year blink-of-the-eye. One only has to turn around for a moment and find herself sporting a biographical backpack laden with children, grandchildren, divorce, bankruptcy, intercontinental moves, trials, failures, fears, death, success, great passion and a ton of cellulite. I often imagine that this same backpack is filled with decades of learning, wisdom, kindness, insight and – most importantly – humility. Still, I’m not so sure.
We live in a world where praises are easily manufactured, whether well-earned or cooked up by a savvy PR team. So often I hear about the “best” doctor who graduated at the top of his class. No Jew ever uses the guy or gal who had remedial cardiology tutoring or exams crammed with Dermatology for Dummies. We only employ the most brilliant therapist, manicurist, electrician, gardener, decorator, realtor. Everyone is “the best” until he or she screws up and we then hire “the best” lawyer to sue the hack/butcher/charlatan. And not only do we use “the best.” We give birth to them! The son who delivers Kaiser rolls to inner-city bakeries is a Transportation Engineer. The daughter who serves drinks to out-of-town businessmen wearing a bikini and stiletto heels is in Customer Relations. The real ne’er-do-wells of Jewish parentage are “finding themselves,” “too brilliant to conform” and “exploring the options.”
As someone who has always found a home in the bottom quarter of the academic achievement charts, it has taken me an embarrassing 57 years to discover that grades are nice but relationships are everything. That a brilliant thesis, blockbuster film script or cure for Athlete’s Foot are important things that pad life records and make for better living. But brilliance coupled with loneliness is not only ugly; it leaves no heart prints. This isn’t to say that one can’t be smart as well as a mensch. But for those who think that achievement trumps goodness, I can candidly state that in my book, an A+ in “kindness” is the only score that matters.
Some of the loneliest people I know sit in homes lined with swollen bookcases, top-of-the-line TV sets, pristine kitchens. They do not know their neighbors, and their neighbors would be hard-pressed to identify them in a police lineup. Life is not “messy” for them, because the mess comes from stepping outside of the boundaries we create. Romance makes a mess. Children make a mess. Overindulging makes a mess. Pets make a mess. Living is messy.
But, oh, what fun it is to play in mud or finger-paint! The smudges we create on the figurative walls of our castles are rife with emotionalism! After all, what point is there to eating if the food doesn’t taste wonderful? Why purchase a sofa if it never accommodates guests? Why wear shoes that do not allow you to dance? Sustenance may insure another day, but who says that sustenance must be anemic?
Summer is nearly upon us, and I’ll be damned if I’ll skip the beach to wash windows. My husband’s Sabbath pants are clean enough; fruit purchased in the open-air souk tastes a heck of a lot better than that in the neighborhood supermarket – even though the market purchases the fruit in the souk. Why? Because the souk is teeming with people and colors and smells and a blaring cacophony that screams, “You are alive! Now! Seize the moment!”
The noise may, indeed, be only in my head, but I will listen to the message. Because even for us ordinary folk, the best moments are those that are worth grabbing.