Every year for the past 25 years, I’ve shared a Yom Kippur Greeting. It is a custom among Jews to ask forgiveness of our fellows prior to Yom Kippur. Each year, I write a story connected in some way to my reflections on the year that has passed and the year to come.
This year I am sharing a story I had written before.
I think you’ll understand why.
(if you want to skip the story, the rest of the Yom Kippur message is marked by  near the bottom)
The Haversham Trust
The view out the windshield of the car is dark and shifting. There’s no rain. My headlights pick up the shape of the uneven pavement as they bounce over it. My window is open, warm air rushing into the cabin of the truck – keeping me alert and awake. The air smells of evergreen forests and dirt. I weave slightly on the road, crossing the median here and there. But nobody minds, there’s no traffic and the median is more of a recommendation than a reality.
I know I’ll be home soon.
Then, out of nowhere, there’s a dark figure. A shape. I look towards it, curious, and the truck seems to follow my eyes. The lights illuminate a face just as it turns towards me. My foot reaches for the brake. But it is far too slow. I feel it then, through the steering wheel and the floor of the truck. Everything else was so indistinct. But not that. I feel every bone that breaks as the front of the car connects with the surprised face before me.
When I open my eyes, I am where I always am.
The sofa I’m on is old. It has cloth fabric that smells vaguely of rot. There’s a beer in my hand. And in front of me, the TV is playing. It is a rebroadcast of a classic football game. I know every down and throw by heart. I feel like I’ve seen it a million times. The volume is up, loud. And I can hear, almost feel, the crunch of bones with the most brutal of the tackles. I’d fallen asleep, that was all.
The game had led to the nightmare.
I look at the beer in my hand. I curse it. And then in one long series of swallows, I finish it off.
I turn off the TV. I look around my dark little house, with its stained walls, low ceiling and cozy, molding, smell. It seems so small. And yet it feels so empty. I think about getting up. Brushing my teeth. Going to bed. But I don’t feel up to it. Instead, I drop the beer on the floor – alongside a few others – and then I lay my head on the sofa and fall fast asleep.
I wake up in the morning a little late, as I always do. I rush here and there, showering and brushing my teeth so it isn’t completely obvious how I’ve spent my night. And then I race out to my truck, start it up and head into town. I’ve got a job. I’m a cashier at the local supermarket. It’s an 8-to-5 gig with a healthy lunch break. Union rules. And the people are nice enough, even if they aren’t the most ambitious of folk.
I’d wanted more, once. I’d had more. I’d been a football player in high school. I’d thought I was pretty good. I was the star of the school and I was the quarterback. I thought I’d go to college, and maybe – if things broke just right – the NFL. But no colleges called. My girlfriend, her name was Amy, was just as disappointed as I was. I was her ticket up and out. But she didn’t leave me. I was proud of that, of us.
I was proud our relationship could survive that kind of hit.
I did go to college, but not some fancy four-year place. Instead, I got a degree at a local community college. I was licensed as a CNA, a Certified Nursing Assistant. The money wasn’t much, but I felt like I was helping. And Amy was proud of me. We got married. We even bought a little house near town, up a little hill from the heart of the place. Things were pretty good. Before long, we had two children. A little boy and a little girl.
But while Amy had moved on from my college dreams, I hadn’t. Not really. I’d still wanted the glory football could offer. I’d wanted those games, that attention, those titles. And I knew I could never have them. It wasn’t why I’d started drinking – being a star high-school quarterback will get you started – but it was why the drinking began to take over my life.
I’d get home every day. And I’d pop open a beer, or two, or six. I hated myself for it. I should be doing more. I should be spending my life in some sort of useful way. I promised myself I would, eventually. Right after the next beer or two. After all, I’d worked hard that day. I deserved a little break.
Amy used to scream at me then, even in front of the kids.
“You shouldn’t drink like that,” she shouted. “You’re setting a bad example.”
I could have ignored her. But I didn’t. She was right. I needed to do more with myself. Somehow, I could. I’d looked up degree programs then, to become a Registered Nurse or some such. But I never did anything about it. Maybe I was afraid of failing a second time.
What I did instead was start drinking, outside of the house. Occasional visits to the bar with my buddies turned into nightly affairs. When my parents passed, one after another in one short year, Amy tried to comfort me. But I didn’t seek her out. Instead, I somehow began to drink more each night. I’d stumble out of the bar to my truck and drive just a few short miles to my house. And then I’d slip into bed. Amy would ignore me; she’d given up on me. At least that’s what I remembered. I had already started to suffer blackouts.
And then I’d wake up in the morning and start it all over again.
That was when the nightmares started.
And not long after, Amy left.
I had been at the bar. When I got home, she wasn’t there.
She didn’t leave a note, but none was needed.
I knew why she was gone.
I thought about stopping then. Maybe I could get her back.
“I’d do it!” I decided. But I needed a beer first, to fortify myself for the effort.
I never did stop. I just got worse and worse. I’d be late to work. And the empty house began to fall apart around me. It wasn’t long before I lost my job as a CNA. I just barely managed to get another at the supermarket.
But even that wasn’t enough. I couldn’t seem to dig myself a deep enough hole. Eventually, I told myself, I’d hit bottom. Then, finally, I’d have what it took to get back up and make something of myself. But my definition of bottom just kept shifting further and further away.
That’s where I am now. I sit on the couch, watching the TV. Hating myself. I go to sleep, wake up, and repeat. Things get worse. My boss at the supermarket threatens me with termination.
I don’t particularly care. I deserve termination. I lack the will to resist it.
One morning, on my way to work, I notice a billboard that’s gone up on my little road into town. It is a huge thing and it is advertising something called “The Haversham Trust.” There is a picture of a smiling man wearing hospital scrubs and carrying some sort of tablet computer. I have no idea what a “Haversham Trust” is. But I don’t really care. People can advertise whatever they want to. It’s a free country. The odd thing about the sign is where it is. It is on my little road, not the main highway. Maybe a hundred people a day drive past it, instead of the thousands who would see it on the main drag. It is like somebody had sold the Haversham Trust a pricey billboard that is really worth next to nothing.
But again, it is a free country.
I drive by the sign every day, on my way to work. And once in a while I see it in my rearview mirror as I drive by it at night on my way home from the bar. And I ignore it, every day. And then the Haversham Trust doubles down. They buy another billboard, in the same spot, facing the other direction. I can’t help but see it then, every day and every night. The same smiling man with the same little tablet computer.
And then one night, I’m heading up my road when the headlight from my truck (the one that works) flashes over the sign. This time, I just stop the truck. Right there below that sign. I don’t know why. I look up at the sign, and I finally read it. “Haversham Trust” it says. Underneath, in a smooth cursive text, it reads “Reinvent yourself through Industry and Charity.”
I’m pretty drunk, as I normally am. But the guy on the poster kind of looks like me; if I lost twenty pounds, shaved and got a decent haircut. There is a web address at the bottom of the poster. I get out my phone, punch it in, and see an address. The Haversham Trust has an office, in the town. It is in a tiny rundown strip mall right across the road from my favorite bar.
Why would somebody who has an office in this town buy a sign on my road? Why would they buy two?
I decide I am going to ask them. I stick the truck into gear, pull a U-turn across the ‘advisory’ medium, and head back into town. The Trust is closed when I get there. But it isn’t such a cold night. So, I kill the engine and just park. I have a six-pack on the seat next to me. I think about cracking one open. But I’m suddenly aware one beer won’t do much for me and I don’t feel up to drinking six.
Instead, I recline my seat, and I go to sleep right there. I’ll see what the Haversham Trust is in the morning.
I wake up with the sun shining through the windshield. I feel awful, but that is par for the course. I think about heading up to the house, getting a shower, freshening up. But I don’t do it. I just want to ask the Trust a question. So, I bring my seat up, open the squeaking door of my truck and step out into the morning light. I look at my phone. It is 9AM. I am way too late to show up at work.
But the Trust is open. I walk up to it, and pull the glass door. One of those bell things announces my arrival, but it is deeper and more mellifluous than any bell I’ve ever heard before. I step inside. I expect linoleum floors, or some cheap industrial carpeting. I expect a little Formica counter. I expect some cheap furniture and maybe a pimple-nosed attendant. But that’s not what I see.
Instead, as I step into the room, my feet seem to melt into an exquisite Persian carpet. The edges of the room are lined with ornate bookshelves in some dark wood. Expensive-looking scones of light hang on the walls. The place feels… holy. I feel suddenly, totally, dirty. I lean down and unlace my shoes. I step out of them carefully and set them to the side of the door.
And then I pad further into the magnificent little storefront.
In the middle of the room, there is a desk. It is angled up a bit, like an architect’s desk. There is a lip at the bottom, to hold books up. The desk seems huge, but it is only four feet on a side. The impression of size comes from its design. It is a solid wood affair, with complex and beautiful carvings.
A matching chair sits before it. And it is empty.
“Hello?” I say, calling out for help. But nobody replies. There seems to be nobody here.
I step up to the bookshelves and I begin to look at the titles. They are all stories. And there is that desk, sitting in the middle of the room. I take down one of the books, I carry it to the desk, and I start reading. I spend the entire day there, reading. I read the stories; stories of men and women who overcame themselves. Stories of people who overcame their own faults. They are old stories, all of them. Some seem set hundreds of years in the past. But they all seem to be speaking just to me. I spend the whole day there, by myself. When the lights dim in the evening, I realize the place is closing.
I get up, go to the door, step into my shoes and drive home, sober.
And then I come back, first thing in the morning. The place is open, but I’ve seen nobody open it.
A few days later, I lose my job. I get a notice in the mail. But it doesn’t seem to matter. I have a new addiction. I am reading those books and falling into those stories. My house is foreclosed on soon afterwards. But I still have my truck. I park it there, outside the Haversham Trust. There is an old bathroom in the strip mall. Between that, my truck, a nearby supermarket and the Trust, I seem to have everything I need. At least until my meager cash runs out.
Then I realize that the stories are more than just stories. They are guidebooks for my own life. I can conquer myself, my own limits, through industry and charity.
These people can serve as my example.
I apply for another job then, as a CNA. There is only one hospital in town and they don’t want to hire me back. I look like crap, but I’m not drunk and they’re desperate for staff. That first day, I use the employee locker room to clean up. I spend a part of my first paycheck on a haircut and shave. I don’t drive to work though. I walk to and from that little strip mall. I don’t want to spend the money on gas.
Instead, for the first time in my life, I am truly saving money.
Not that I deserve any of it.
In reality, I don’t know what’s driving me.
This time in the hospital is different than the last. When it comes to the patients, I’m not a doctor or even a nurse. I’m just a body helping them out. But they love to talk and they deserve somebody who can listen. Soon, patients begin to ask for me by name. It doesn’t matter who they are. High flyin’ types or the parents of my old buddies from the bar. They are asking for me because they love me and I love them. They are in pain, life-threatening pain. I am in pain too, not physical something, but something that threatens my existence nonetheless.
I park in front of the Trust every night. It is across the street from my old bar. And I want to go into that bar. Not because I want a drink, but because I want to destroy myself. Despite everything at the hospital, I feel like that is all I deserve. I feel like self-destruction is all I have earned.
The only thing that keeps me going are those stories. I read and reread them. They tell me, no matter what the voices in my own head say, that I can recover. That I too can conquer my demons. That I can be worthy of success. They begin to fill me, those stories. And I begin to plot my own. I will become a Registered Nurse, like the guy on the billboard. Perhaps I’ll become a Nurse Practitioner. Patients will rely on me and I will be there for them in their darkest times.
I will be a light for them.
I can almost taste that reality. But I know I do not deserve it.
I just can’t understand why.
Then, one night, I fall asleep in the Trust. My head comes down on the table. And the dream returns. The old nightmare returns. I feel the crunch of bones as they’re driven into the front of my truck. And I awake with a scream. It all seems so incredibly real.
Then, with a sickening thought, I realize that it might be.
I’d been suffering blackouts.
I could have killed someone.
I pull out my phone and I search the news. I must have had that dream, for the first time, three years ago. It must have been summer, the wind was warm.
It doesn’t take long to find. The town isn’t that big. That summer, three years earlier, a fourteen-year-old boy had been killed in a hit-and-run. His name had been John Olsen.
The driver was never found.
I just stare at the page. My heart drops out of me. Almost in shock, I stand up on shaking legs and head for the door. I stumble out of the Trust, forgetting to put on my shoes or my coat. It is raining. In my bare feet I kneel in front of the truck and I look closely at the broken light.
And then I see it.
A fracture in the plastic. A hairline crack that tells me I killed a child.
I know then that I deserve whatever fate I suffer.
I don’t know how long I sit there, the cold rain coming down on me. I consider crossing the street. I consider having a beer and then another and then drinking myself to death. I consider going to the police and turning myself in. And then I consider the family. I look on the phone again. I read the name again. And I realize I know it.
The father’s name is Mark Olsen.
I know him from the hospital. He’s a hollow shell of man who suffered a heart attack at 43.
And his son was killed three years earlier.
I begin to walk then. Towards the man’s house; towards where I used to live. I just walk, not even putting on my shoes. It is cold, dark and wet. But I deserve the pain. I deserve the risk.
It must be close to midnight when I show up at the man’s door. I ring the bell and a few minutes later a worn-down man, Mark Olsen, answers the door. He sees me. He knows me. He invites me in.
I sit in his kitchen, still shaking. He offers me tea. His wife comes in, she’s wearing a night robe. She also knows me. She also offers me tea. They love me in their way.
But I turn them down. I turn them both down.
This is an empty shell of a house. He is an empty shell of a man. And she of a woman.
And I caused all of it.
I look at them then, shaking uncontrollably. I know I want my future now. But I know only they can give it to me. I want to tell the whole story. I want to share the reasons I drank. But I know I must be helpless. My future does not belong to me. It belongs to them.
As calmly as I can manage, I say, “I didn’t know it until just now. But I killed your son.”
The faces look at me, uncomprehending. And then I tell them my nightmare. I tell them what I can remember. I tell them about the truck. I expect rage, but there is only confusion.
And then I tell them my future is in their hands.
The woman makes a pot of tea. She pours me a cup.
The man adds a bit of milk and a bit of sugar.
It is my turn to not understand.
“We know you, now” the man says.
I nod, uncomprehending.
“And we admire you,” the woman adds.
I just stare at them.
And then the man says, “If you were the man who killed our son, you would not leave this house. But you are no longer that man. And so, we pray that you can live the life our son couldn’t.”
I sit there for what seems like forever. I drink their tea. And I listen to stories of their only child. I listen to the dreams they had for him. They prayed that he would have a life of industry and charity.
And I know that his dreams must become mine.
In the morning, they loan me a coat and shoes and I walk, as I always do, to work.
I walk past where the billboards used to be, but somebody has taken them down.
It doesn’t surprise me, I haven’t been on this road in months.
At the end of the day, I walk back to the little strip mall. As I always do.
My truck is there, parked where it always is.
But the Haversham Trust is nowhere to be seen.
There is nothing but an empty storefront in a rundown mall.
Dust floats through it, coating every available surface.
I just stand in front of the window, looking at the emptiness.
And then I know what I must do.
I must write my own story.
Perhaps, in time, it can find a way to inspire others.
When I was growing up my mother’s Yiddish Mamaisms would occasionally come out. One of the most memorable of those moments involved a quilt she made me. She wasn’t a very good quilter, but she spent an enormous amount of time on this particular quilt. Then, in a spectacular car accident, it was largely consumed by fire. Almost reflexively, my mother declared that it was a Korban. It was a sacrifice in place of our lives. As far as I could tell, she never gave the loss of that quilt a second thought.
A big part of the Yom Kippur process is the idea of a korban. Judaism has many types of korbanot (that’s the plural form). But one of them is the korban of atonement. In Hebrew, it is called kaper. In the Torah that same word is used for the pitch which sealed Noah’s Ark against the waters.
As I understand sin in the Torah, it starts out as a cheit. It is an action of destruction. But it can grow into an ahvon. And an ahvon is almost always associated with a weight on the soul. It is the ahvon, not the chait, that drags the sinner down.
By all means we should seek to repair the damage we do, but that is not always possible. And so, the purpose of an atonement offering isn’t to fix the sin. It is to protect the soul. Its purpose is to seal it, so it is not weighed down by our mistakes. Like my mother’s quilt, the atonement offering it is a stand-in that allows us to fly free.
In this story, the main character is weighed down by his sin. He must seek atonement, kaper, to move on and to grow. Only by securing that kaper can he once again move forward and unlock his true potential.
The concept of symbolically protecting ourselves does not just involve our own acts of destruction. This concept is also used to protect us from exposure to the loss of potential – particularly death. In ancient times, Jews who were exposed to death were sprinkled with elements representing undiminished national potential, deep roots, our own capability to change the world, and trust in G-d. It was a kaper, of sorts (although it isn’t called that). It enabled those exposed to death to recharge and to carry on with lives free of the weight of what they had experienced.
Today, just prior to Yom Kippur, I am asking you for your forgiveness. Of course, if I have damaged my relationship with you, I want to repair it. But if it is beyond repair, I want to patch it – so that neither of us is weighed down by our mistakes. So, I would like to extend my forgiveness to you – although no sin against me comes to mind. And I would like to ask you to extend your forgiveness to me.
But, this year, I want to do something more.
This year, my mother passed away. My family sat with her as she struggled against what is inevitable for all of us. It was a horrifying experience and by the end we were asking her – begging her – to let go. Seven months have passed and we are still saying Kaddish. Nonetheless, now is the time for kaper. Not a kaper against our own sins, but a kaper against the destruction that we have experienced.
Life cannot be restored, but we can seal against the effects of death. The recipe is in the Torah. We must be refreshed by the experience of undiminished national potential, deep roots, our own capability to change the world, and trust in G-d. So, this year, do me a favor. On Yom Kippur, choose one of these concepts and embrace it.
- Recognize that your people have undiminished and unlimited potential. As far as I’m concerned this applies no matter which people you are a part of.
- Carry the past into the present and use its roots to ground yourself, grow your confidence and carry forward the positive echoes of those who have passed.
- Understand that you have the power – and obligation – to change our world; resolve to take some step towards doing so.
- And – in your own way – find trust in the Almighty and recognize the blessings that can flow from that trust.
When repair is impossible, we must still find a way to be free of our mistakes and our losses. Only then can we once again rise up and walk in the path of G-d the Creator.
May you and yours be blessed with a year of success, of health and of prosperity.
Gmar Chatima Tova (may you be sealed for a good year),
p.s. By way of a Rosh Hashana message, this year has been a very full one. In areas related to this post: I published six books (including one with the story above), and my parents’ first great-grandchild was born. She is named after my mother. It has been a year in which we have been building the future, and carrying forward the echoes of the past.
p.s. to read the books visit http://amazon.com/author/josephcox