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by Ilana Masad
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THE DAY my father went to the doctor’s appointment that would tell us if he did or did not have lung cancer, I happened to have several friends sitting in a row on my bed at home. When I heard my parents coming in, I excused myself and slid the door to my room shut behind me. My parents were still dressed in their outdoor clothes -– black jeans for my dad, blue for my mom, button down shirts for both (white for my mom, probably and something checkered for my dad).
A few weeks before, my father had begun having trouble breathing. He was a regular exerciser who did his calisthenics at home in front of the 8:00 news. I vividly remember him starting to breathe more laboriously when he, my brother, and I walked to my grandmother’s house on Friday evenings, which was our routine weekly visit. Finally, he agreed to go to a doctor, who sent him to another, who sent him to do some tests.
So there we were, my friends sitting in my bedroom with the door emphatically closed on them; my parents still taking their shoes off; and me, in their doorway, asking what the results were. They gestured at my closed door and said we’d talk about it later when my friends left. No, I want to know, I told them. And then, It’s cancer, isn’t it? They exchanged looks and nodded. I went back to my room and told my friends I just found out my father had cancer. They left in short order.
THE EIGHT MONTHS between when we found out it was cancer and when my father died was the period of time when I stopped being a teenager and started being an adult, by sheer force of circumstance. I learned that teenagers don’t know how to deal with friends whose fathers are dying. I learned that I couldn’t enjoy them much any more because nothing seemed particularly important: school drama, friendship drama, meeting up with people after school, it all seemed pointless. I wanted to be with my father, my Aba, even as he insisted on continuing to work (he was the spokesperson for the ICRC, the Red Cross, in Israel at the time — he was involved in the humanitarian work that ICRC did in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and other occupied territories) for as long as he could. I wanted to be home with my mother, who’d long been working remotely (way before it was the norm for so many writing/editing-related professions).
It was the right thing to do. When my father was first hospitalized for chemo and radiation and an attempted operation, it was at his oncologist’s hospital, Meir Hospital, which was almost a forty-five minute drive away from where we lived, which by Israel standards is incredibly far. It was the only place I’d ever been where I saw Palestinian women and men working alongside Jews. I’d lived such a segregated life — most people in Israel live such segregated lives — that I’d never had much of a chance to interact with the people with whom my country was perpetually at odds.
My father was dying, so I didn’t think about this at the time, but looking back, I find it fascinating — here were Jews upon Jews in bed after bed after bed, and the Israeli Palestinian nurses didn’t seem to be treated differently. Nurses take lots of abuse as it is, but I never saw or heard an ethnic slur against them. Of course, I was wrapped up in my father, and didn’t see everything. However, recently, my small city has suddenly sprouted some Palestinian checkout ladies, wearing head scarves, at the grocery stores. Is it just that the assumption is that Palestinians work the more menial jobs and aren’t CEOs or secretaries? No. But it symbolizes some sort of shift, one I can’t identify, nor do I care to. Gambling on whatever might happen next in Israel is a fast track to penury.
My father became very ill very quickly. Once he was released from Meir Hospital, he had tubes coming out of one of his lungs, draining the liquid that continued to accumulate. The bandages that kept the tube in place and sterile had to be changed every day and my mother, much as she wanted to help, was too squeamish. She would feel woozy and nauseous while watching the television show House whenever they would show internal organs, so it was even tougher on her when it was the real thing. When my father had to administer shots of medicine at home, he did so himself. The bandages were trickier, and those I helped him with. I know it is something both my parents were immensely grateful for. I would unwrap the bandages carefully, making sure to pull the tape off of my father’s sensitive skin extremely slowly. I would clean the area where tube and skin met in what felt like a sci-fi set-up, and then I would put fresh gauze over the technically open wound and wrap the bandage and tape around his shrinking body again.
He used to be a fleshier man, my father. In pictures of him from the army — yes, of course, he served in the IDF — he has some extra pudge around his face and arms. He was reversing then, becoming the stick thin child he’d once been and whose pictures his mother liked to show us occasionally.
WHEN MY FATHER DIED, on November 6, 2006, he’d been on a morphine drip for two days already and was gone to the world already. He didn’t want a religious burial. He and my mother morbidly, and realistically, scoped out other spaces and decided on the cemetery at Kibbutz Einat, in central Israel. It was newish then, a growing secular graveyard where no rabbis need be present and the body could be buried in a casket rather than wrapped in a shroud.
His grave is a garden now, a small plot with flowers that are tended to by the groundskeeper, with a stone as its centerpiece. On the stone are the words “Shine on...” which anyone who knew my dad would recognize as the beginning of a Pink Floyd lyric. The funeral was more packed than we expected, and, oddly enough, I made eye contact for the first time with the first person with whom I had a long, powerful, intensely adult relationship. He has since almost erased our bond entirely, but I will never forget the oddity of seeing the person you think is your true love across a gravesite.
My father had a wry, dry, and dark sense of humor, among many other traits. If he’d been there, he would have been amused and glad, especially knowing that I’d spend the next six months trying to play teenager again with a boyfriend who shredded a guitar and was Hungarian and blue-eyed, before realizing that I simply couldn’t do it. He’d be amused to know that the boy, whose eyes I met at his funeral, was the son of his best friend from high school and university. Death begetting life and love would have been exactly what my father would have wanted.
After all, my father was the one who came up with the nickname for his cancer: WMD for weapon of mass destruction. And then he laughed and said that backwards, DMW, was what he was: dead man walking.
THIS IS A TYPICAL STORY of love and loss, but some things make it different, difficult. For one thing, the language barrier. After my father died, my brother was given power of attorney so he could help handle bureaucracies. Though my mother speaks a halting Hebrew, she was unable to discuss the finer details of death in Israel: getting a release from the khevra kadisha, the religious institution that bury most Jews in the country; getting a death certificate and calling companies to take his name off documents and accounts; putting the death notice in the paper; calling Kibbutz Einat and arranging the funeral date and time.
And after the funeral, of course, the shiva. The interminable, difficult, terrible shiva. The idea of the tradition is beautiful, but playing host for seven days after a loved one has died is the last thing we wanted to do. People we didn’t like or love came to express their sympathies and then to shake their heads when learning that my father smoked, as if he deserved to die because of it. People we didn’t even know came over. My teachers came. Who wants their teachers at their shiva? I didn’t.
Kids from school came, and like the day that I found out my father had cancer, I held court in my room, only this time with half the queen and king bees who were probably told by their parents that they had to come, or who came to earn brownie points for goodness and karma. These were not kids I knew well and often we didn’t like one another very much. But there they were, sitting on my bed, my floor, my chair, because that’s what you do.
After the shiva, my mother, brother, aunt, and I all breathed huge sighs of relief. My aunt had come from the U.S. to help out and be there for my mother, as had my brother, who’d taken a quarter off at school so that he could stay and help and be with us. But after they left it was just my mom and me, rattling around our apartment. Suddenly it was me on the phone with people, trying to clarify what my mother needed. My mother was buying groceries only for two. There was a gaping emptiness there, but we kept going, because, again, that’s just what you do.
My friends, as much as I love them, still didn’t know what to say or how to deal with me. I escaped into the excitement of the blue-eyed Hungarian boy and spent the rest of my time at home with my mother. When I met friends outside of school it wouldn’t be for long. My tolerance for people was low.
Israeli culture seemed abhorrent to me all of a sudden, with its “It’ll be okay” and “I join you in your sorrow.” No, it wouldn’t be okay, and no, a rote sentence people are taught to say does not mean they know what empathy is.
Soon after my father’s death, his mother died as well, and the whole rigmarole started again. Certificates, burial, shiva, death notices, and a falling out with the cousins who were my father’s only surviving relatives in Israel who spoke to us (the rest were ultra-Orthodox and we weren’t on their radar). Without that cousin and her family, there was no one.
My mother and I were left without a relative to our names, in a country that had swallowed us whole already, making us immune to things like big bangs, horrible human rights violations taking place just a few miles from us, soldiers carrying loaded guns everywhere. But we stayed, and then only my mother stayed, and now she is finally coming home to the United States.
Yet for me, Israel is still a home, and will be forever, despite its myriad flaws.
Ilana Masad, a fiction writer, is a columnist for McSweeney’s and has contributed to The Rumpus, The Toast, and the Chicago Tribune literary supplement. Masad is an Israeli-American who spent most of her childhood in Israel, with twice-a-year visits to the U.S., and now lives in New York.