I’m standing by the sink, rubbing my hands around my toddler’s smaller ones. I’m singing “Happy birthday,” and my voice sounds foreign to my ears. Its cheerfulness belongs to someone else — someone I heard once. Was it a puppet in a children’s show? Was it a kindergarten teacher? It can’t belong to me. Not now, at any rate. Not while the latest obituary in my newsfeed is still twisting my insides.
My son giggles, and I startle. How long have I been staring at the mirror? How long have I been singing for? Was it enough? Or am I still one stanza away from security, one note away from beating death?
“Let’s sing the ABC song as well,” says the stranger’s voice upon my lips, and I restart the process. But this time, I am counting seconds in my mind.
One. “A, B.” Two. “C, D.” Three.
My mind is a metronome, a stopwatch, a shield.
* * *
My son’s hands are so small in my own, and so unmarked by life. And yet, despite my learning and my scars and all my grand adventures, I feel so very small right now, as small as he is. What good are all my thoughts and words and past achievements, when here I am, with naught but hands and song and soap to fend off death?
And numbers, of course.
I go on counting.
When I was little and unmarked myself (or do I only think so now? I never felt brand-new when I was younger), my teachers said that we should always imagine ourselves as if we are hanging in the balance between God’s Book of Life and Book of Death. Every little act might be the one to tip the scale, they urged us. So don’t grow complacent! Make every act count!
And here I am now, working hard to stay on the literal side of the living, never knowing what act will be the one to tip the scale. Does the line between the Books of Life and Death lie in this droplet, or the next?
* * *
Numbers don’t come naturally to me. Passwords and dates slip through my mind and leave no traces. Even now, when numbers carry weights I cannot ignore, they come and go and fail to change me. Two-Hundred-and-Nineteen dead in Israel, total. Two-Hundred-and-Fifty-Two dead in Massachusetts, in one day. I hear the words — I know that they should horrify me — and then they pass again, and I’m unmoved.
But then I catch a name. Or see a picture. Or a detail jumps at me as I scroll down, ever down, on my screen and through obituaries. A woman I do not know sang to her father on the phone as he lay dying. A man I never met woke up from intubation and learned that his own father died of COVID-19 while he slept. A friend visited three Zoom shivas, and found no words to share there. Another lost a cousin whom he loved but rarely saw.
Each detail, each name is like a nail that wasn’t tightened properly, waiting to snag my attention and pull threads of grief and worry from what used to be well-woven peace of mind. Each of them sends me down a rabbit hole of “what ifs” and escalating sorrow. Each of them unravels me, and leaves me breathless and undone.
Stop, I tell myself.
Stop. Focus on what is within your power to control.
Don’t think of the deaths (my God, to die alone like this, so far from your loved ones, and what if we get sick, who’ll watch our children…), don’t think of the mourners (my beloved sister-in-law is a nurse in NY, what if she gets it? My parents aren’t young, what if, dear God…), don’t think of the future (will we ever meet our friends again, and lean against each other with careless, casual affection?).
Think only of what is within your ability to do, right here, right now.
Ask yourself: What’s in your hands?
Focus on that.
I rub my toddler’s hands in mine.
* * *
Years ago, there was a time when I felt unhappy with some circumstances. “Let me tell you what worked for me when I was a prisoner in the Soviet gulag,” my father told me (instantly – and unintentionally – putting my ennui in comical perspective). “You can’t control your circumstances. So think, instead, about what you can, and wish, to achieve within them. And then ask yourself: what can I do today to make it happen? What can I do right now?”
The fate of humanity doesn’t lie in my hands right now.
My loved ones’ tomorrows don’t lie in my hands right now.
But right now, right here, my toddler is mine to protect.
Right now, right here, his joie de vivre is mine to uphold.
Right now, right here, my attitude is mine to shape.
And so: I sing. And this time, I own the cheerful voice upon my lips.
My son is laughing, and my love for him burns painful in my chest.
* * *
The priests in the Temple used to count too: one, one and one, one and two. Each number was part of the Yom Kippur service, their way to beg God to grant us more life. Did their hands ever tremble, did their voices ever falter? Did they ever feel fear, did they ever lose count?
And how did they feel when they handled the offerings, when they held, in their hands, so much more than mere flesh? Each offering is an expression of someone’s regrets, hopes, or gratitude. Did the priests ever balk in the face of this intimacy? Did it make them feel powerful, unworthy, afraid?
There’s flesh in my hands. Flesh — and some bubbles. Transient, mortal. Here today, later — gone.
But for now — there is life. For now — we are here, still.
Yes, we can die. But for now, we can live.
* * *
“Once I saw a violinist playing and I thought: Between his right hand and his left — only the violin,” Yehuda Amichai wrote once. “But what a between, what music!”
I am no more a musician than I am a priest in the Temple. Yet right here, right now, with my son’s hands in my own and a song upon our lips, the distance between my hands contains its own sort of hopeful symphony, its own way of transcending the limits of mere space.
I know that I can’t protect my son forever. God’s Books of Life and Death can’t fit within my grasp.
But as I imbue my actions with choice and with intention, I write myself, for this one moment, into the book of those who are truly, fully, irrefutably alive.
* * *
I dry my son’s hands, and turn away from the sink and the soap and the mirror. New chores await, new trials, new sad news to undo my peace of mind. I walk on, and pray for everything that lies beyond my powers. And as I walk, I ask myself: in this new moment, what is in my hands?