I offer the Tuesday night writers the spark: Make a List of Questions.
These can be any questions at all, whether present moment questions, those we carried as a child, or even questions asked of us by our children or others.
Who will take care of my differently-abled son when his father and I are gone?
How is my father now?
Where do the butterflies in my belly come from?
How do spiders make their webs?
I list one my older son asked when he was not quite four: If God made everything, why did God make guns for killing people? And another that has accompanied me, a daughter of Holocaust survivors, since I was a young girl: How would I have acted as a prisoner in a concentration camp; would I have shared my bread?
A question then emerges that evokes a pronounced flutter among the butterflies in my belly: Is it really, truly, all right to be happy?
That’s the question I choose: Is it really all right to be happy?
I realize as I begin to write that I have also carried this question close since I was very young. without really knowing it. At the same time, all along, I have held what I was sure was the answer: No, of course, not. As long as people are suffering, especially my own parents, how can I dare to feel happy? (I did not know the expression “no brainer” then; but had I, I would have called my conclusion just that, a no-brainer.)
Fifteen years ago, my father had a dream that offered me a different— and life changing —answer to my question. I had already begun to suspect that “No” might not be the only possible reply to this question. Nonetheless, the truth that it’s not all right to feel happy (or free, or successful, or too relaxed, etc.) when others are suffering, had taken up residence in my DNA. What right could I have to happiness? I hadn’t endured the nightmarish injustices my parents as Holocaust survivors had faced, and others faced now.
If I hadn’t called my father just when I did on a particular morning all those years ago, I might never have found out about his dream and its message. In fact, both might have been lost.
I called my father in Philadelphia from Massachusetts at around 11 AM, surprised and a bit concerned to find that I was waking him. His voice was more than groggy. He sounded unusually subdued as he told me that he was sad, very very sad. Then, as if he were recalling it at that very moment, he said quickly, “I dreamed that I died and I went to—how do you say it in English—Ha’Shomayim? Heaven, that’s it. I dreamed I died and went to heaven.”
I had never heard my father, whose first language is not English, ever say the word heaven, much less talk about it as somewhere one goes after dying. I didn’t think he even believed there was a heaven, in any language. I remained silent for fear of dispelling what subtle dream images might be still within his grasp.
“When I was there…” “When I was there, I saw…”
It seemed difficult for him to get the words out. I was relieved when he continued.
“I saw my mother. This was my first dream of her since the day she sent me away to save my life. I was a boy.”
I could hear him crying. I pictured his head hanging, shoulders rounded. How I wished he could feel my love spanning the three hundred miles between us.
“Tell me about the dream, dad,” I said softly. He drew in and let out a long breath.
“I was in a big, big field. I knew right away it was Ha’Shomayim. I don’t know how I got there and how I knew it was heaven, but I did. There were women, so many women, all standing. They were my mother’s age, all of them holding candles. Every one of them. When you looked out you saw flames as far as you could see; every woman held a candle in her hands. I knew, don’t ask me how, that my mother was there somewhere among them. I looked but couldn’t see her. I needed to find her because I knew she was there. I kept looking and looking. I began to ask— like a crazy person—going from one to the other, asking if she knew Simmah Tuzman, if anyone had seen Simmah Tuzman.”
He was breathless in the middle of the search he was describing. I felt as if I was looking with him for the grandmother I had never met.
“Finally, I saw her from a distance,” he said. “I ran to her. That’s when I saw that her candle was not burning. She was the only one who held a candle that was not lit. “Mamesha,’” I begged her, suddenly so afraid, “’Why isn’t your candle lit like the others?’”
My father’s voice was desperate, insistent. “ I begged her to tell me why hers was the only candle not burning!”
“’Arralha,’ she answered me, ‘you keep putting it out with your tears.’”
My father cried harder than I had heard him cry in years, maybe ever. I did not expect him to interrupt the heaves of his grief when he did.
“I know why she came,” he announced, his voice changing as if he had decided to pull himself together. I felt him back in his apartment now, having left heaven.
“She came because I called to her, I asked her to help me.”
Just as it was the first time I had heard him talk about heaven, this was also the first time I could remember my father asking one of his deceased parents for help—actually asking anyone for help other than a well-to-do distant relative he asked for a loan when newly immigrated from Poland. My father was the strong one who helped others, who saved others— and who had failed to save his mother. Now, asking his mother for help?
“I wanted to end my life last night,” he said, his voice slowed down and lower. I took a lot of aspirins and I drank and drank. Then I went out. It’s a miracle I didn’t crash the car. I wanted my life to be over.”
Had I really heard him? Not only was my father a savior in his own eyes and in the eyes of many others, he was also the ultimate survivor, the one who had and would always defeat death. I had heard my mother speak of wanting to end her life during World War II, but I had never heard my father even come close to uttering what he considered defeat. To die, let alone to wish to die, was the ultimate failure—unless one were taken captive, like his mother and younger brothers, with no way to defend themselves.
My father went on to lament how hard it was to care for my mother, how angry he was at the disease of Alzheimer’s, at my mother for giving in, at all of us for not being there more, and at God, for betraying him again as God had betrayed six million Jews in The War, and many since.
My father’s mother and her candle, waiting to be kindled, seemed left in the dust of his lament. I had been listening to him rage for several years against the disease claiming his life-long companion. Of late, his anger had been aimed more and more often at my mother, so painful to witness.
“Dad,” I urged, “your dream. Your mother. She is trying to give you a message, I think.”
I heard what sounded like a grunt that I hoped I was imagining, but seemed to be his dismissal of the dream and my words. I tried again as gently as I could, wishing he would hear me, really hear me.
“Dad, I think she is showing you that it is your joy she needs, not your sorrow.”
No answer. Could this dream, such a powerful experience and with his mother no less, possibly pierce my father’s despair, anger and self-pity?
“I have to go now,” he said clicking the phone down before I could say anything else.
In coming weeks, months and even years, when I would speak of his dream, my father would shrug, turn away or change the subject, but never engage with me about it.
I came to realize that I was powerless over whether my grandmother’s dream visit would change my father. But it could change me. I could cherish the dream’s gift. I decided that my grandmother was sending me a message— not to the exclusion of my father; it was a transmission to both of us. If he could not receive it, I would.
Her message? More suffering does not relieve suffering. We can serve those who are suffering through our joyous love. My joy is what gives my grandmother’s life, and even her death, meaning.
My grandmother revealed not just a one-time answer to my question, but rather, a perennial one. It is not only all right to be happy, it is life giving. Being happy brings Light into darkness, and not just into my own shadows. To be fulfilled and present frees and, mysteriously, even redeems the past. It is my inner joy and peace that invite more joy and peace into the outer world. This was not a message my father, as I was growing up, knew how to impart to me or even to receive while he was alive, God bless him.
Grandmother Simmah, whom I never knew and whose name I bear, I thank you, as perhaps I have not yet, for coming through time and the vessel of my father’s sacred dream to bless my life with your Soul’s Light. I shall imagine my father standing beside you now with his own candle, kindled from yours.
Rest now, Dad, in the shelter of your eternal flame. I love you.
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