Saba, lately I can barely understand what went wrong. You were always kind and reserved, but quietly funny. You were always there to lend a hand, and try to be the handy man you oftentimes weren’t. But you would always attempt. Things began to change early in my life, but I can still remember when things were good. I guess that’s the perk of being the oldest grandchild; you can remember the good days and pass them on. And I can tell you for certain that I continue to try my best.
I remember when you used to play soccer with Yosef in the backyard. It’s a Brooklyn backyard, but you made it work. I’m probably remembering about ten years ago, when you were first starting to get sick. But I remember. Just like I remember when you called searching frantically for the car you parked at the train station and my mom had to come help you collect your thoughts to find it. Multiple times. And the time in the East Coast blackout where it took you hours to get home from work because you kept getting on the wrong bus. That’s when I think my mom realized things were changing. We just didn’t realize things would never be the same.
I remember how much I loved hearing your stories about escaping from Romania to Israel, being in the Palmach, fighting in Israel’s War of Independence and the war of 1956. I don’t remember if you were always the first one to tell those stories to me, because you were never one to brag. But I definitely asked for more details from you, especially when you came to my third grade class to speak about your experiences. It was like your life was a real life thriller, complete with action, horror, romance and comedy. My one regret is that I’m sure you dumbed down the details a bit because I was so young, and I wish I could know more now.
I remember that my favorite story was the one about the truck. And about how you needed to conquer an Arab city in 1948 and all you and your friends had were vodka, glass bottles, rags, matches and one truck. So one of you thought to make molotov cocktails, drive up the hillside with the truck’s lights on and throw the cocktails at the city. Then you guys would promptly turn off the lights and drive back down the hill. Then you’d repeat the process again. You put that into practice, and by the next morning, the Arabs had abandoned their city, since you had scared them away with brains, not just brawn. I think that was the first time I was truly proud to be considered an Israeli citizen.
I also remember the shrapnel in your leg, and how much it scared me the first time I saw you in shorts. I remember my mom explaining to me that a bomb had gone off in the war of 1948, and that your friend had carried you to safety so that you were able to survive. You became the strongest man I knew because of that story. And the shrapnel didn’t bother me much once I knew why. It was more like a badge of honor that you held once I knew.
Of course Savta has added to your stories, but it’s not exactly the same as hearing them firsthand from you. She’s told me of how you hid in a tree from the Nazis before you escaped Romania, even though dogs were chasing you. She’s explained to me that that’s why you always hated dogs, because it reminded you of the horrors you survived. She also told me that your father was beaten to death by the Nazis in front of your whole family. She told me you saw your nephews freeze to death on a death march as well. But all the stories she’s added haven’t always been bad. She told me how you two met because you had the courage to approach her as she passed your house every day walking to her sister. Of how she denied you multiple times, because she was Sephardic and you Ashkenazi, so she claimed it would never work out. But boy, did you prove her wrong. She also said that you surprised her with a mustache the day of your wedding, and that you couldn’t exactly rock it. You should really see the way she misses you now that you’re not by her side. She loves you so much.
Do you know I’ve always wondered what really was my trigger to be so defensive about Israel in academia and in my writing? I’ve also always wondered why at the age of fourteen I had wanted to make aliyah with such fervor and passion. And I do believe it is in part due to the stories about you that I had the privilege to grow up on. When people ask me why I want to be an advocate for Israel, I always answer that you’re partially at fault. I say, my grandfather fought for a Jewish state with guns because that was the best way he knew how, and I fight with words, because that’s the best way I know how. Really, Saba, I wish you could’ve seen my thesis presentation last year, where I presented to a room full of people who had never been trained to question the media in regards to Israel. I like to believe that you would’ve been very proud, especially since I dedicated it to you.
I also tend to blame the fact that I’m always late on you as well. When you told me that story of how you were late to your kinder transport and that was the ship the Germans sunk, I had my excuse ready: lateness saved my grandfather’s life, so of course I’m late. I’m partly a Burgida. It’s allowed. I also remember how you would never forget the name you took on to get on the next kinder transport. I wish I could remember it as well as you did. And I like to tell the story you told us behind your very original last name, Burgida. You told us that in WWI your great-grandfather was afraid of being put on the front lines. So he changed his last name to something Italian-sounding so that he’d be put there, if anywhere, and they placed him in a bank there. You never told us what the last name originally was, and I don’t think we mind. We like being Burgidas.
Do you know that ever since you gave me that ring you made for me when I was seven, I’ve never taken it off? And that it still fits? It inspires me when I’m having rough days, because I know how rough life was for you. And, I guess, still is for you.
Honestly Saba I just don’t understand why G-d gave this to you. It’s not a life when you can’t remember your own name. Or your wife’s. It’s not a life when you used to be defending borders and now you can’t even pick yourself out of your own chair. Or feed yourself. Or bathe yourself.
And now we feel helpless not being able to help you. My mom has always tried so hard to make sure you were always taken care of in the best way possible. And we now constantly struggle with the debate of longevity vs. quality of life. We don’t want to hurt you, Saba. And, thankfully, you don’t seem like you’re hurting in the lethargic state you are in. But you can’t last in your always-sleeping state much longer.
And we all are slowly coming to know that.
Alzheimer’s truly is one of the most terrible diseases.
***Please pray for my grandfather, Saba, Yisrael Tzvi HaLevi ben Miryam.