Wendy Kalman
There are many ways to see and understand

Counting our days

Photos taken of the Unetah tokef prayer from The Complete Artscroll Machzor for Yom Kippur, 1st Ed, 11th printing, 1994

Yesterday would have been the birthday of Judy, my closest friend when I lived in Jerusalem. When I traveled to Israel last summer, we were able to get together, and it brought me back to the days when our oldest sons were in day care and elementary school and becoming best friends themselves. I worked at Hadassah Hospital and later for publishers as I figured out what I wanted to do and Judy worked at an advertising agency and had dreams of doing something more artistic. In the afternoons after we picked up our kids, we would take them to the park or sometimes to her apartment or to mine to play and feed them dinner. Our friendship grew. We each had more children and they too became a part of each other’s lives. In fact, Judy helped me figure out my youngest son’s nickname, since I knew before he was born that I’d want one for him…

She moved from Jerusalem to Modi’in and a year after my divorce, the children and I moved to the US. Judy and I found each other on Facebook a few years later and got back into each other’s lives. It wasn’t constant, but we would share what was going on with our families and with ourselves, with the world at large. I was far away but I knew that she had started running after school art programs for children out of her house, and that her mother moved from England to be closer and then had health issues, and she was there for me when my youngest had his summer from hell with a rare tumor removed in an unending surgery and five days in the ICU. Though we were not in constant touch, we were still in each other’s lives, supporting each other from afar. And when I knew I was coming to Israel, we made plans to meet.

I would say it was like no time had passed, but as we caught up, we realized how much it really had. We were in Israel because my oldest was getting married there. Her older son was finishing up school and her younger son was becoming an officer in the army. I was so happy to be able to introduce Judy to my then fiancé, as I was about to get remarried (again!). She had some ongoing health concerns that were increasingly impacting her life but didn’t want to spoil the day by elaborating too much. This was June 2018.

After I returned to Georgia, she updated me a little more. I tried to research online for support groups for her particular concerns, but it was hard as the doctors were at a loss regarding underlying reasons. Still, she sounded hopeful.

At the end of the following March (it is still incomprehensible to me that this was only seven months ago), her older son reached out to me to let me know. A brain tumor had been discovered and several days after undergoing surgery, things had taken a turn for the worse, and she was now brain dead. The Judy I knew was gone. I was in shock. I blogged about how precious life is. The shock stayed with me for weeks and would resurface every so often. Months went by and I continued to wonder what had happened. Her Facebook page didn’t show if or when she had passed away and I did not want to intrude on her son. And so, I searched online. I found a blog by a mother in Israel who wrote a beautiful tribute; it was dated only a few days after Judy’s son had reached out to me. In the very first few sentences, I saw the letters ז״ל, z”l, after her name. Zichrona livracha, of blessed memory. Gone! Judy was gone forever.

The blogger wrote about the art groups Judy ran, the beautiful projects her children created under Judy’s guidance, the impact on her children – and about Judy’s impact on her. She included photographs amid her heartfelt words about this senseless loss. I too wanted to share and submitted a memory.

* * *

My father had an uncle, also of blessed memory, who used to go through family albums and point out all the relatives who were gone, both older than him as well as his contemporaries. “This one’s dead! That one’s dead! Dead! Dead! Dead!,” Uncle Joe would point over and over. His joking manner belied how well he knew what we don’t want to face – that our mortality is something very real. And something very present.

When we are young, it is easy not to think about the end of life. As we age, and as we lose people in our lives, the idea of making our mark before we are gone gains importance, but do we really think about our own passing? And even as we recite the Unetanah tokef prayer on the High Holidays, reeling off the innumerable ways we may meet our death in the coming year if G-D so decrees, a part of our brain may be compartmentalizing this as ritual and not reality. “Who shall live and who shall die, Who shall reach the end of his days and who shall not, Who shall perish by water and who by fire, Who by sword and who by wild beast, Who by famine and who by thirst, Who by earthquake and who by plague, Who by strangulation and who by stoning, Who shall have rest and who shall wander, Who shall be at peace and who shall be pursued, Who shall be at rest and who shall be tormented, Who shall be exalted and who shall be brought low, Who shall become rich and who shall be impoverished…”.

Do these words spell our possible fates for the upcoming year, how we might meet our end?

I do believe in free will. I don’t believe that our future is predetermined, especially not on a yearly basis. But when a friend my age is so tragically hit with something beyond her control and succumbs to it, there is a sense of immediacy, a punch in the stomach, that hits harder than learning about catastrophic acts of nature or the randomness of car accidents, gun violence or terrorism, because though horrific – and terrifyingly random – we distance ourselves from what happens to others in other places.

But when it is a contemporary, when it is so incredibly unexpected, the odds, we realize, are not always in our favor. And as we watch our children grow up and begin their own lives, there are competing emotions rolling up inside – one of enjoying seeing them reach different stages in their lives and then the scarier one of knowing that every day on earth is one less day we have and that we have to savor every moment.

I think of Judy’s husband and especially her sons, now moving into their adult lives and how she won’t be there to enjoy watching that unfold, to support them, to witness their futures. And how they – and their future families – won’t have her either. And it hurts.

All I know is that for each day we do have, we must be grateful. We must make each day count. And we must take the time daily to let those we love know just how much they mean to us.

About the Author
Born in Brooklyn and raised on Lawn Guyland, Wendy lived in Jerusalem for over a decade submerged in Israeli culture; she has been soaked in Southern life in metro Atlanta since returning to the U.S. in 2003. Recently remarried, this Ashkenazi mom of three Mizrahi sons, 27, 24 and 19, splits her time between managing knowledge in corporate America, pursuing a dual masters in public administration and integrated global communications, relentlessly Facebooking, enjoying the arts and trying to bring a wider perspective to the topics she covers while blogging.
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