The first time Paul Castelvi brought Belle to the kibbutz to meet his employers Lilach and Evyatar “Tari” Kipnis, Tari spread his arms wide and exclaimed: Finally we meet My Love! Belle laughed and blushed.
“My love” was Paul’s and her pet name, which must have trickled into Tari’s ears from the nightly phone calls, when Belle and Paul would drill each other about their day. What did you do today, my love? What did you eat today, my love? I love you, my love. It went on like that until they each fell asleep at their workplace, Paul on Kibbutz Be’eri and Belle on Kibbutz Or HaNer near Sderot.
It took them eight years of trying until they were able to conceive. In the first week of October, Paul and Tari drove to Or HaNer and loaded equipment that had been acquired for the birth: bassinet, clothing, changing table. All these were unloaded and arranged in Paul’s room in the attic of the Kipnis house in Be’eri. Lilach and Tari had invited Belle to live there during her maternity leave. They were excited to host the baby that would be born there.
On that infamous Saturday, Belle woke up to a storm of Tzeva Adom red alert sirens. She texted Paul: My love there are many alarms. Paul texted her that he was going down to the safe room, not to worry. Sometimes, instead of entering the safe room he would pray, but this time he did not argue with Tari who persuaded him to enter. At 9:38 Belle texted him that she had a stomach ache, which might be from stress or worry. Paul wrote: Everything is fine my love. I love you. God will not leave us.
Belle sneaked out of the safe room into the kitchen and brought back breakfast for “my eema,” as she calls her employer at Or NaNer. She fed her and took care of her, which helped pass the time. At 11:30 she sent Paul the daily selfie of her growing belly. It always delighted him, but this time he didn’t respond. Belle texted a friend in Be’eri to ask if she had heard anything about Paul. The friend reassured her, explaining there was no phone reception in the safe rooms.
On the morning of October 8, Belle packed a small suitcase “for my eema” and they left Or HaNer for Ramat Aviv. Someone told her they had heard that Paul had been spotted in a hospital. Belle asked which hospital. He didn’t know. And yet she calmed down. Deep in her heart, she knew that Paul was smart and strong and that he was taking care of Tari and Lilach and that everyone was fine. She waited for the chaos to end and the fog to clear for good.
On Tuesday, the Philippine embassy called and offered their condolences. Belle didn’t understand what they were saying. They went on to explain that they had identified Paul by his fingerprints. For an instant she was glad Paul had been recognized. The next moment she realized that being recognized was not a good thing. She froze. There had to be some mistake. It couldn’t be, it’s not like him at all and she is 37 weeks, and he hasn’t seen his son yet. She asked to see him with her own eyes. They suggested she come the next day to identify the body. She heard herself say that tomorrow she has a prenatal care checkup and ask if she should cancel.
The next thing she remembers is standing with a representative from the embassy near a building in Petah Tikva. Someone from the morgue greets them. He takes one look at her face and another at her round belly and refuses to let her in. It will kill you, he whispers to her softly, it’s too dangerous for you and the child. And I don’t know who this man is, Belle can’t remember his name, but whoever he is, he’s a saint because he says he has an idea and asks her to wait a moment. He takes the embassy representative with him and enters the morgue. They return with a photo taken inside – a photo of a tattoo: Her full name, which Paul had tattooed on his chest when he realized she was the love of his life: “Jovelle.” Belle looked at the photo and knew it was Paul, and knew he was dead.
A few days later Tari’s body was identified. And a week after Tari was buried, Lilach was also laid to rest. Two weeks later the contractions started. Belle refused the epidural. Somehow the pain did her good, masking her sorrow, or perhaps giving form to her grief, I don’t know. Either way, the contractions were nothing compared to the agony of grief that clutched her, she told me. But even 24 hours later the birth did not arrive. It was stuck.
The excellent midwife, a friend of the Kipnis family, begged her to let go, to release this baby into the world. Belle said she couldn’t, that this wasn’t the plan, that Paul should have been there with her. Who will see the child now? The midwife pleaded with her, saying Paul is in this child, and this child needs to come out now. Only when Belle let go of all the plans, all the dreams, all the sorrow, only then did the birth begin to progress and a healthy, exquisitely beautiful boy came into the world, Jason Paul.
This boy truly is incredibly sweet. For two hours Belle and I sat down for a testimonial conversation about Paul (the Be’eri people asked me to write an obituary for Paul and three other dedicated caregivers who were murdered there, just like the obituaries written for the kibbutz members who were murdered), and this baby did not make a peep, sleeping innocently and deeply and fragrantly, oblivious to the disaster around him.
During the interview, I occasionally glanced at the small memorial table in the corner of the room. On it was a framed photo of Paul (handsome!), an urn with his ashes, a vase of wilted chrysanthemums and an open bottle of Corona beer, his favorite. I was disappointed when the beer level didn’t go down. No thirsty spirit passed by to take a sip, at least not while I was there. I thought about it later, about the phrase to “make believe” – to make belief. I thought of Belle putting the bottle there, like a children’s tea party, with the cups empty and the children alive. Only it was the other way around: the cup is full and the man is dead.
What was the last present he bought you? I asked. Belle said that he wanted to buy her new sneakers for her birthday. She waved him off, even getting annoyed because her feet were swollen from pregnancy and it wasn’t the time for shoes. Buy for the baby instead, she suggested. And Paul went out and bought these tiny, little Nikes. He wanted Jason Paul to grow up to be a basketball player, like him, to shoot hoops together.
Where are the shoes now, I asked. They were on the dresser in Paul’s room in Be’eri, but there was nothing left. Everything was burned, Belle said, while stroking Jason Paul’s perfect soft feet. And a sort of spasm of an infant smile shook his face in his sleep. We laughed.