Commentary Magazine

Light Gleams an Instant

This story begins fifteen years ago.–I’m not looking for sympathy or something, he tells Sheryl over breakfast. I’m being objective. Pass the marmalade, will you? Sympathy is the last thing I’m looking for. –I didn’t say you were. But you’re not dying, Donald. Why are you dying? –This minute I’m not. But I want to face the facts. Like those old-school monks who used to sleep in their coffins? Or the skull on the window ledge, remember, in Dürer’s St. Anthony? –Face or don’t face, but please keep it to yourself, Sheryl says. She takes up the B section of the Boston Globe to hold it between them. Then with a sigh she lowers the paper. Donald, I heard all this last night.

The doctor says you’re fine. Our own son—and this, after all, is his business—says you’re absolutely fine.

–Not the point. You miss the point completely. In a few years, I’m a hundred percent guaranteed, they’re going to take this body of mine, the chevra kadisha, the Holy Society, and wash it and put it—dead, God willing, heart stopped, brain stem inactive—into a plain pine box and lower it into the ground. Quickly, quickly, down we go, within a day, right?—because Jews don’t let the body sit around. And my flesh—my hands, marvelous creations though already with their marks of age—will begin to disintegrate and to smell. If there were anyone to do the smelling. Begin to rot, eaten by worms and bacteria, no one to see. Does a tree falling in the forest make a sound? Does a body make a stink? What’s the big difference, a few years more or less? I’m already well past my three score and ten. Practically eighty. You see what I mean?

She laughs. A comfortable marriage, this is. She takes him with a grain of Alka-Seltzer. Meaning, mostly, she lets him talk. But sometimes it can eat into her, his self-absorption. Only he doesn’t think of it as self-absorption but as a study of the human condition.

–Increasingly he says, I feel sorry for my own flesh. Poor flesh, sorry to imagine it decaying. Wires and tubes and slipping away, then rot in the ground and my separateness lost.

–So? Doesn’t this happen to all of us? Sheryl says, closing her eyes against the battering of his philosophizing.

–Exactly! You said it yourself: It happens to all of us.

–You know, she says, the funny thing is, you’re not even a hypochondriac. But you give me a pain. Right here, she says, tapping her chest, ending the discussion.

Lifting his hands in surrender, he leans over the breakfast table to kiss her cheek.

Lately, he’s been, oh, he knows it, a little obsessed. When you realize, really realize, realize so it becomes really real, it gives you a kick in the kishkes—his mother’s favorite word for the place inside where what goes on, goes on. And yet he can’t fully imagine even now the dissolution of his body without imagining an imaginer to look on. And who is the true imaginer? Only God.

But he can’t imagine not imagining.

This brief moment of light we have! LIFFFFE—the moment dissolving into the sound FFFF, that hisses like a candle aflame, then goes out, as if plunged into a cup of Havdalah wine. Back to the dark—which is, after all, the ordinary, the normal—for it’s life, not death, that’s so remarkable. For a million, million years I haven’t been—and still, when there’s no one left on a dead Earth to keep the time, I still won’t again be—in the light. Whatever happens after death, it won’t be life. No wonder we say a blessing for flowering trees, for bread and wine, for a rainbow.


Neal calls from Minneapolis. Sheryl must have contacted him.

–Dad? he says, in that funny tone he uses when he’s going to criticize. What’s all this? This talk about dying.

–I’m being scientific. Just like you, my boy. You’re a doctor, you have to face the facts.

–Yes and no. Yes, when someone’s dying. No, not all the time. Not with Julia, for instance. Dad, isn’t it a distortion to go out of your way and stick your face in the face of facts? I mean. It’s not being considerate. Mom loves you. She worries about your state of mind.

–Of course, Neal. We love each other. Thank God. All right. What? She thinks I’m nuts? A word to the wise guy. I’ll stop.

–Thank you. Thanks. Of course Mom doesn’t think you’re nuts. But why worry her? How’re you feeling except that you think you’re dying?

–Who’s dying?

So Donald keeps silent the next few days. But walking Pooch, their black lab, mostly Sheryl’s dog, he talks to himself. No preservatives, please; a plain wooden box with holes drilled in the wood to promote dissolution. Till now, soul has been soaked in flesh, expressed by flesh and language. If flesh dissolves into the earth, the wordless soul likewise must dissolve into the one soul, like individual notes in a symphony dissolving into the memory of music after the notes have played. Soul no more bounded, no more remaining as Self, than the flesh.

But can it be lost? As body returns to its elements, soul returns to the One. It’s just that the I—that miraculous word, clever, shrewd human creation—won’t be there to witness.

He feels this so clearly he’s dying to share it with Sheryl. But he promised Neal.

At dinner he’s silent. Sheryl’s made a nice baked salmon, and for this he thanks her, but he has nothing to say—until she releases a sigh and says, –Go ahead. What?

–What “what”?

–You have something to tell me.

–Nothing. I make too much of it.

–You’re telling me! You know what I think? It’s your way of saying, The children are launched, I’m no longer working, so my life is over.

–That’s what you think. Well, my beauty, you’re absolutely wrong. This is not a psychological thing. It’s bigger than neurosis. Mishegoss is like, suppose Nazis were shooting at us and I was complaining that I didn’t have a clean shirt to run away in. That would be mishegoss. What I’m saying is bigger than my personal mishegoss.

–And that’s what you think. Your mishegoss is plenty big. Didn’t you tell me last week you’ve been dreaming of Neal as a little boy?

–Sure. And sometimes Sandra as a little girl. I miss them. I mean miss them as little ones. I also miss them as big ones now that we see them—what?—three times a year? But that’s not it. Nor is it the school. I mean my work as principal in the school. As you (he says, grinning) must miss your work as a psychologist, so you’re taking it out on me.

–Ha ha.

–But that’s also not it. All right. I admit that when you’re not busy all the time you do get to thinking weird thoughts.

–So you admit that.

–What are you, Sheryl? Prosecuting attorney? I admit, I admit. He raises his hands in surrender.

–I’m sympathetic, she says. You’re afraid of dying.

–Yes, a little, but it’s not that either. It’s the wonder of it that gets to me. Understand? The miracle that the light is lit at all, and starting from nothing, it turns into the little creatures we used to hold in the palms of our hands, actually in the palms of our hands! And then the miracle, the way, when they’re lit up, the bones grow and the mind grows and a person is formed, a Neal, a Sandra, who goes to school, and plays, and loves—or like you and me, for instance—who have to push off from parents a little, who work in the world, makes changes in the world, tiny changes, of course, but changes, and then it’s like the stone drops into a pond leaving ripples. Except it’s not exact. There’s this body that’s left in the earth.

He looks at his hands. Amazing!

She gets up and goes over to his side of the table. –My foolish honey, she says.

At night they tire more easily and retire earlier. What do you expect? She’s 74, he’s almost 80. They still have their bridge night, their reading group, their hikes, their books, her passion for genealogy, his for study of Talmud. The children and their children come to visit or host them. He hikes a little piece of the Appalachian Trail with Neal. He goes to New York when Sandra, his daughter, is in the city for business, and he attends the Metropolitan Opera with her. He and Sheryl travel, stay in a nice hotel in Paris instead of the romantic fleabag they stayed in on their honeymoon. As a kind of toast to that honeymoon, they pull the curtains and make love in the middle of the day. Nice! And life goes on. He has increasing numbers of medical appointments, and so does Sheryl. They make phone dates to talk to Neal and Sandra and the grandchildren.


And now, it’s 15 years later.

When they’re in the Boston area, Neal and Sandra try to go to the cemetery—especially in April, the month their mother died, or August, when their father died. Back home, at synagogue, they each say Kaddish on the yahrzeit, the anniversaries, of their deaths. They each light candles for them. This year, in April, when Neal, who’s become director of medical education at his teaching hospital, happens to be in Boston for a medical conference, he goes to the cemetery with a smart piece of technology that allows him to Skype Sandra in Seattle so that she can be there, too. Dad died just before there was a serious Internet. Already this would be a strange world for you, Dad.

He talks to Sandra while he scans the two grave markers with electronic eye to let her see. She asks him to put a stone for her on the markers.

–Thanks, she says. Remember, she says, how weird Dad got that time about dying?

–Maybe, Neal says, he knew something was wrong, knew unconsciously.

–Oh, please, she says. No! That was about three years before he died. Right? He lived another three years, I think. Mom another nine or ten. I mean after his incredible bout of focusing on death? That father of ours! They both laugh a little and shake their heads.

–You said Kaddish for him when he died, she says.

Neal remembers, and he nods his head so that Sandra can see it in Seattle.

–And for Mom, he says. For the prescribed eleven months. When I could. By then I’m sorry to say I had practice. I mean, I knew how to say it. And you chanted “El male rachamim” right here. You have a beautiful voice.

–Thanks. That was for Mom. For Dad it was the rabbi who sang it. By the time Mom died, I could go online and hear it and learn it. May they be sealed in the bond of life.

Neal finds stones on a path between the markers. Four stones. He places them on their parents’ markers and turns the computer so Sandra can see.

–It’s so peculiar, he says. We know they’re not here. Where they are is in us. In what we carry around with us. So why come here?

–It encourages remembering, she says. I guess that’s it. It’s good. Like saying Kaddish. Love you, Mom, love you, Dad, she calls into the built-in microphone of her computer in Seattle. Thank you, Neal. It’s good to join you, even this weird way. How’s everybody?

–Everybody’s okay, he tells her.

His sons are a decade out of college. They’re married, busy developing careers and families. He worries about them; he misses them, misses Seth, misses Gary. Their connections now are mostly over the phone. Just as Sandra, in her second marriage, misses her daughter, a senior in college. So it goes on and goes on, Neal says to himself after he gets off the line with Sandra and shuts the computer. When you’re lucky, that’s how it goes.

Lucky. Like Dad, who was healthy until the last few months. He swam every day. He hiked. Those last months, of course, weren’t easy; by the end he was ready to go, Dad told Neal that last visit. The hospital bed had been set up in the living room. He remembers: Sandra had just come out and was hugging Mom in the kitchen, the rabbi sat in the dining room reading, and waiting for his turn to visit.

Dad no longer talked about death except to say he was ready “to give up the ghost. Who likes ghosts anyway?” As Neal hugged him, trying not to dislodge the wires and tubes, trying to laugh, keeping his grief bottled up, Dad laughed.

–Some contraption, huh? Give me a kiss before I’m strangled by all the wires, sonny boy.

And that’s called lucky. Or lucky like Mom, who simply fell down one day on her way to lunch with a friend.

Neal adjusts the stones on the brass markers. He touches the markers and puts his fingers to his lips the way you kiss a Torah scroll or a mezuzah.

–Goodbye, Mom, goodbye, Dad, he says, even while he tells himself: They’re not here, they’re not here.

Neal remembers again that month or so three years before he died when Dad obsessed about dying. What a big thing he made of it! Walking to the rental car, Neal promises himself not to do that. Dying? Ahh. It’s just part of the deal. He shrugs. Not worth paying attention to. In his mind’s eye he sees one of his patients, very sick. A very sick man. That’s time enough to think on death. Now Neal thinks about his new position, weighing (he actually imagines a scale, like the scale held by the blindfolded figure of Justice) its financial advantages against its responsibilities.

The busy world comes back to him. And then, as if to clear himself from thoughts of death or of responsibilities, he thinks about a trip he and Julia have planned—to visit Gary and Lisa, to see their grandchildren. Only for a few days, because of all the new work. The busy, busy world, he says to himself on his way back to the car, turning on his phone to see if Professor Melnick left a message for him at the hotel.

About the Author

John J. Clayton’s novel, Mitzvah Man, was published last year. His most recent stories in Commentary are “The Name Changer” (March 2011) and “All the Children are Isaac” (July 2010).

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