Expect the Unexpected

Moving to a new country changes your life.

Even if you stay for six months, and then turn around or move on because it wasn’t what you expected, you won’t be the same person as who you were when you arrived.

But the hardest time to leave is when you are still in the honeymoon phase, the process of falling in love with this new place, and external factors are in play.

Like cancer.

Cancer doesn’t care if you haven’t found a job yet.

Cancer doesn’t care that you’re about to start classes to learn the local language.

Cancer doesn’t care how much fun you’re having exploring and trying new foods.

Cancer doesn’t care that there are over 6,000 miles between you and your loved one.

When cancer has decided that it’s go time, you go.

Harvesting olives in Israel is an annual ritual and opportunity for a picnic. I was invited to participate with the Jewish Federation of Middle Tennessee during their visit to Israel.  Tal Shachar, Israel, 2013

Harvesting olives in Israel is an annual ritual and opportunity for a picnic. I was invited to participate with the Jewish Federation of Middle Tennessee during their visit to Israel.

Tal Shachar, Israel, 2013

I got the call less than five weeks after my immigration date while spending the weekend with the group visiting Israel from Nashville’s Jewish Federation. The doctors said that if I wanted to still see my dad while he could enjoy it, I needed to come. Now.

One of my first encounters with the Ministry of Interior was trying to get a special document to allow me to fly without an Israeli passport. They were concerned I was trying to take the new immigrant benefits and leave, even though I had a note from the oncologist telling me to come home. The first person I spoke to (after waiting for three hours) insisted such a document didn’t exist, and I should wait the full three months to leave the country with a temporary passport like everyone else.

At that point, I was angry, with tears running down my face, refusing to move far from the desk. Every time someone finished their business with a representative, I jumped into the seat to ask if they could help me get this document. Finally, someone knew what I was talking about, and less than two minutes later, I was out the door, clutching the paper with both hands for dear life.

The temporary passport I received two months after that debacle.  Haifa, Israel, 2014

The temporary passport I received two months after that debacle.

Haifa, Israel, 2014

I was on a plane the next day.

It was like I had never left. To be fair, I had been gone for about as long as going to summer camp four hours away from home.

I was only planning on staying a couple of weeks, but I couldn’t bring myself to leave so quickly. I got to enjoy the Thanksgiving/Hanukkah mashup of 2013 with my family, and my dad even ate a little bit of the turkey. It was the highlight of the trip. He spent most of his time in the room that had been mine years prior, and we sat and talked until he got tired. My stepsister gifted me a set of Cards Against Humanity, and my dad, brother, and I played on the hospital bed disguised with lovely sheets and a soft comforter. I told him about and showed him my tattoos.

When I got in the car to go to the airport, I knew I would never see him again.

My first look at Kibbutz Yagur, Israel 2013.

My first look at Kibbutz Yagur, Israel 2013.

Less than two months later, I was living on Kibbutz Yagur, doing a work-study program to learn Hebrew. I talked to my dad almost every single day. As time went on, there were more and more family members piping in during the conversations. We talked about everything, and I sought his advice on topics I would have never approached a year earlier.

On Thursday, January 23, 2014, I was told that I needed to say my last piece. He couldn’t talk anymore, but he could understand me, they said.

I honestly don’t remember anything I said to him. I remember that I was walking in the park by the kibbutz cafeteria. I was next to the statue of the child sitting in a parent’s lap, the one whose silhouette I confused for real people when I saw it at night, even years later. I remember my aunt and stepmother describing his visual responses to what I was saying. I remember we all cried.

That Saturday, he died.

In Jewish tradition, a person that passes away on a Saturday, on Shabbat/Sabbath, is considered to have been a tzadik, a righteous person in their life. After everything he had been through in his life, and the person he was in the end, my father deserved that. He died with his sister by his side, quietly, peacefully. The person who was most important to him and had supported him, literally from the day he was born to the moment he left the earth, was the person he chose to be with him in that moment. Hospice nurses say (and from my experience they are not wrong) that people who are dying will make that conscious choice. They will wait until their children leave the room so as not to traumatize them, or wait until their best friend comes from across the country.

I left the second that Shabbat ended, my flight time being at midnight. I remember making a few phone calls from the airport. The next thing I remember most is sitting at the dining room table (a place for formal occasions in my memory) with the rabbi who was going to give the eulogy. It was Sunday, and the funeral had been delayed so that I could be in attendance. It had been over 24 hours since my dad had passed away, but I hadn’t cried yet.

My brother, sister, and I were answering the rabbi’s questions about him, minor stuff mostly. Then, the story of Fintiplu came up. Fintiplu was a magical bird that was born from the imagination of my father’s grandfather Simon, in what became family lore. Our own childhood stories were accompanied by Fintiplu and a little wooden carving of a village. The stories changed every time, along with the color of Fintiplu’s feathers and his magical abilities. Nights that we heard stories of Fintiplu were treasured and taught us to be creative, kind, respectful, and to never lose hope. We cherished the time with our dad, and always held Fintiplu in our hearts. I wondered where the carving was, and if I could claim it.

“I have it!” my brother exclaimed, and jumped out of his chair to run upstairs.

He came back, cradling the carving in his hand. “Abba gave it to me,” he said.

Oh.

I couldn’t help but be a little disappointed, but I was relieved to see that it was in good hands. I felt the tears finally beginning to flow, the first of many times that I would cry about my father’s death.

I had been debating what would be the best representation of who my father was and what he meant to me. Fintiplu’s village, by way of permanent ink, seemed perfect. That tattoo means that every day I get to be reminded of the bond we still have. A year and a half later, when I was showing my aunt the tattoo, she jumped up and said, “I have one!!” It was a little different from the one that had its designated spot on our mantle growing up, but to me, it was perfect.

The morning of the funeral, I got a message from the “house mother” of the work-study program (his name was Phil and he didn’t know how to turn off caps lock):

YOU GOT MAIL FROM THE ARMY. I OPENED IT. TZAV RISHON DATE FEB 9.

I was being called to the IDF recruitment center to determine my status. I would be jet-lagged, I would still be in mourning, but I would be there ready to start my new life because I knew life would go on.

Love always, Shirit

Love always,
Shirit