Where I am, I don't know, I'll never know, in the silence you don't know, you must go on, I can't go on, I'll go on.
Samuel Beckett, The Unnamable
I never knew my great uncle David very well. He lived in Dallas, and I grew up in Chicago, so our paths only crossed a couple of times at family gatherings while I was a child. But I had heard that he had been in combat as a tank commander during the D-Day invasion in France, and I always had an almost mythic image of him as a fighter. When I was older, we finally had a few real conversations, mainly about his wartime experiences, but also about Judaism-he and my great aunt Charlotte had strong religious identities and were active in the Dallas Jewish community. To me, David was one of those archetypal figures from what Tom Brokaw calls "The Greatest Generation." We had our last actual conversation while I was in Dallas for a conference. By that point, David was an old man. He had a serious heart condition and was very ill. The condition had been with him for a long time, and my parents had said for several years that he could succumb to it at any moment, but he somehow kept hanging on. As usual, he was humble and stoic. He was far more interested in talking about Middle East politics and Jewish beliefs than discussing his heart problems.
After the conference, I returned to New York City and began my career as a young rabbi. David watched my rabbinate unfold with genuine interest, always asking my parents what new position I had taken up and what new book I was working on. He even read most of them. Some years passed. David's health deteriorated. My parents gave me updates on his condition, and I spoke with Charlotte on occasion over the telephone to find out how David was doing. When I got the chance to travel again to Dallas to follow and write a magazine article on a professional storm chaser, I went first to visit my great uncle. Charlotte welcomed me into their home and led me to the bedroom. David was there, along with a nurse. He was lying on a cot, and there were tubes attached to his body. He was near death. I said hello, but David didn't seem to recognize me and couldn't speak in any case. He slipped in and out of consciousness, and he was in great pain. At times David would be curled in a fetal position. When he moved, he let out a moan that chilled me to the bone.
I sat with Charlotte in the kitchen. She told me that David's death was no longer a matter of weeks or even days away, but hours or minutes. She didn't cry. "I've been getting myself ready for this for years," she said in her southern drawl. It was clear how much she loved him, but it was also clear that she knew there was nothing more she-or anyone-could do for David now. "He's in so much pain," she said. "I just want him to let go and let it end." It suddenly struck me that, though I was David's great nephew, I was also an ordained member of the clergy. Rabbis, ministers, and priests often lose sight of (or feel ambivalent about) their clerical roles when they are in the presence of their families (and it is easier to fall back into more comfortable roles as nephews, nieces, sons, and daughters). But I felt that, at this point, Niles the rabbi might be of more help to David than Niles the great nephew. I suggested to Charlotte that I pray with him.
I walked back into the bedroom and stood over David. This figure who in so many ways had seemed larger than life to me now looked very small. His limbs were thin and frail, and he was moaning. His right leg hung off the side of the cot, and he appeared as if he already had one foot in the grave. David had always come across as so grounded, so rooted in reality. Yet now his appearance was ethereal. The roots that had held him down over the years were now being extracted from the world, one by one, before my eyes.
France and Antisemitism
Josh's Jewish Reminders
Our 390 Back Pages
Zeek in Print
Fall issue now on sale
From previous issues:
Carrying Light into Dark Times
What the World is...
The Gifts of the German Jews