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When this is over…

Christopher L. Smith © 2020

“I may not see my father again.”

A friend in Brooklyn, whose elderly father lives here in Israel, voices the fear no one else I know will acknowledge. From the Upper East Side, another friend sends me names of ill and deceased beloveds; I meditate on the names from a hill overlooking the Mount of Olives. From the Upper West Side, a rabbi who’s been counseling mourners through many funerals shows me quiet, gray Broadway. From Lower Manhattan, I get breath-stopping photographs that echo the days following 9/11—empty streets, the feeling of darkness even when the sky glows with cobalt luminescence.

Meanwhile, from friends in other places, I get humor—funny Zoom backgrounds, a rant from a frazzled mother about homeschooling, jokes about the apocalypse. At first the humor offends me. Then I learn from the wife of a man who has lost interest in life that jokes are his only solace. I’m beginning to understand that for some of us, some of the time, humor is medicine.

“There’s a sweet spot between skillful and unskillful denial,” my Buddhist friend counsels.

Skillful denial sustains life. Unskillful denial makes us brittle; it shames the parts of us that know all is not well.

From the outside, it’s practically impossible to discern the difference between skillful and unskillful denial. It’s hard to discern from the inside too. Best not to judge. Best to trust that everyone is in some form of trauma, that we’re all doing our best.

For me and my Buddhist friend this means crying together over WhatsApp. Between the tears, we laugh and give thanks for the preciousness of every virtual visit.

*

Yesterday, Yom HaShoah, I wake up from a dream. Snow. A beautiful, snow-covered street somewhere in America. I’m on a sidewalk with a friend (not sure who), and I’m saying something about how the houses look like white hills, like the desert by the Dead Sea.

Will I ever see America again?

When my grandmother Ola was in the Warsaw Ghetto, she had hope in a future after the War because of a postcard she received from her sister. Sabine had made it to safety in Japan; she was waiting for her.

I get out of bed on the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising lighter than I’ve felt for weeks. I’m buoyed by the memory of Ola and Sabine’s correspondence across continents, comforted by their eventual reunion.

I turn on my computer. The first email I see is titled “When this is over…”

It’s from a friend here in Jerusalem, the daughter of survivors now separated from family by Corona. We met in Virginia in 2008—the year I started dreaming of moving back to Israel. Now we live a few blocks apart in eerily bucolic West Jerusalem not far from Emek Rafa’im, Ghost Valley.

“When this is over,” she writes, “I would like to hold a luncheon. I imagine the flowers. And the champagne.”

This is skillful denial.

This I trust.

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