for Norm, my father
Why is this night different from all other nights?
On this night, Grandma Jan is late, for the first time I can recall. Traffic from Highland Park, all the way down.
On this night, Reinaldo is early. A miracle, like the eight days the Chanukah oil burned at the Temple. A year from now, at his memorial, a friend will remember how Reinaldo once arrived at a party at 3 am, just as the last guests were getting ready to leave. But they hadn’t yet, and the liveliest guest had just arrived, and so the party went on. But on this night, he arrives at Susan and Jim’s before anyone else, and they sit together, waiting for Grandma Jan to bring her matzoh ball soup and homemade gefilte fish.
On this night, I have to beg permission from the hospital authorities to let you leave so you can join the Seder. It seems easier to get you and bring you back on foot rather than fold and cram the wheelchair into the car. I don’t look up to the heavens when I am on the phone with them, negotiating the terms of your release. When I walk over to fetch you from your room at West Suburban, only four blocks away, the gray clouds are gathering, and the winds are shifting with the promise of rain and a storm too close.
On this night, I sign a paper promising I will return you by 10 p.m.
On this night I push you in the wheelchair, west along Erie, into the wind, as we hear the first rumbles in the sky and see a distant flash as the storm moves in. The asphalt is smoother and easier than the sidewalk and so I wheel you down the middle of the street, at a run, my heart pounding, arms aching, hoping to beat the cool April rain on its way, not wanting you to catch a chill in your weakened condition.
On this night, the C diff infection inside you that had started to shut down your kidneys is in retreat, dying bacteria annihilated by massive I.V. infusions of antibiotics. The C diff is drowning, like the Egyptians, and you cross the parted waters, survive, make it to the promised land of at least one more Seder with us.
On this night we run west together laughing wildly because we can, because we are together, because I have sprung you, because you have lived, because we wonder what picture we present to the passersby in their cars, a woman in her 50s, hair graying, at a run, pushing an old man in a wheelchair down the middle of the street, panting from exertion. Anyone might wonder –what are they fleeing? Is he being abducted? Is this a kidnapping? Is there a ransom? Will somebody call the police? Or from their cars, can they see how my face mirrors yours, can they see I belong to you, that you have given me my dark eyes and narrow chin, the stubborn curly hair, the same propensity to laugh at absurdity?
On this night a tempest descends upon our town. Dark clouds and the flashes and cracks of nearby lightning strikes confuse day and night. I do not know if I am remembering the Passover story or if I have actually entered it and have become Shifra, Puah, Miriam and Pharoah’s daughter, refusing to let you die, setting you afloat, pulling you back to the shore, to safety, to this night, at Susan and Jim’s, to this warm home, to this Seder table piled with good food, to this circle of daughters, grandkids, sons in law and friends.
On this night we gather, we eat matzoh, eat bitter herbs and dip them twice in our salty tears, we recline. We retell the story, sing the songs, drink the four cups of wine, talk of justice and liberation, mix the maror and charoset, the bitter and the sweet. We set a cup for Miriam. We wait for Elijah. You have taught me to do this. The leftwing Seders of my Milwaukee childhood, the collection of nonconforming friends you and Mama cultivated, where shortly after ‘67 someone at the table declared “Next year may Jerusalem be unoccupied!” There have been so many Seders, the tellings and retellings, the socialist, the secular, the feminist, the anti-Zionist Haggadot, always the yearning for some new way to hear this ancient story in hope that the next year might truly bring in something better. I have done this my entire life. So how is this Seder different from all other Seders?
On this night I choose my seat carefully, you on one side, Reinaldo on the other. I want only to feel the warmth and presence of you both, and not sit across the table, where I would have to notice how thin Reinaldo has become, how his smile is not quite as bright, how I see the pain deep in his eyes, how you have become serious, and anxious, how the last three months of hospital, rehab, nursing home, hospital have worn you down and confused you, though always, when I explain what is going to happen next, what we have to do to make you better, you accept, humbly, meekly, even though you hate each place more than the previous one, because you are willing to do whatever it takes to stay with us in this life. This Seder is different from all other Seders because tonight I do not know what is safety, what is liberation, what is release, what is the promised land. Tonight, I do not want to recognize the illnesses you and Reinaldo carry inside, from which there is no safe exodus. From which neither of you can flee. I cannot say to my kids what I know is the truth: Soon you will not have your grandfather or your uncle.
On this night when the Seder is over and the storm has moved on, I wheel you back to the hospital. It is getting close to ten, the curfew I have bartered for your presence at the Seder. I have wrapped a blanket around you, and now we walk, slowly, enjoying the fresh air the rain has brought. You are quiet. Halfway there, I spot the bright lights of the hospital ahead. I am overcome by the urge to turn around and run. You are so tired of hospitals. So am I. If I took you back home, after all, what could they do? Arrest me?
But on this night I violate the lesson that you have taught and retaught me throughout my life, the lesson that is at the heart of our Passover celebration this evening, about resisting authority. I don’t turn around and flee, but instead, obediently deliver you back to West Suburban even though I know how much you detest your captivity and the emptiness of the hospital room you will lie in tonight, recounting the evening. I surrender you, in the wheelchair, to the aide who greets me. And I am thankful, grateful, to your captors, the ones who stick you with needles and draw your blood and put you on an I.V. drip and check your vitals every hour. I thank them, your captors, your saviors, the ones who have returned you back to life. It is Pesach, and it is bitter, and it is sweet.