Be the mother of thousands, gazelle of my heart.
May the sons of your virginity seize the gate of all who hate them.
– Frederick Buechner’s “Son of Laughter”
It wasn’t that late, maybe eleven o’clock, but my girlfriend had already fallen asleep beside me in bed. I stayed awake for half an hour reading, then decided to check my email one final time before turning out the light. There was a message waiting from my mother, subject line perched like a crow of dread. “Not sure you had heard…”
The message that followed was third hand. Earlier that day one of my oldest friends, a burly, gregarious fellow I grew up playing music with, had shown up for an evening service at my hometown church in tears.
I read the email fearfully, unable to stop scanning yet not wanting to arrive at whatever horrible revelation I could feel rearing up ahead of me. I finally got to the place where my mother explained what had upset my friend so much.
That morning his sister, Sarah (I’ve changed her name) and her husband had woken to find that their young daughter had died during the night. When I read the line where my mother said that their little girl “had not woken up,” I sat up in bed, pole-axed by disbelief.
“What?” I said out loud.
Then I got out of bed, walked into the kitchen, leaned on the sink, and cried. Sarah was the first girl I ever fell in love with.
^ ^ ^
Last month Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit celebrated the first anniversary of his release. Held for five years by Hamas after being pulled from his tank by a raiding party darting across the border from Gaza, he was finally freed when the Israeli government made the decision to agree to an astonishing prisoner swap. The IDF would grant liberty to over 1,000 Palestinians, many of them convicted murders and terrorists, for the guaranteed healthy return of a single soldier. Gilad.
Shalit was delivered to Israeli officials on October 19th and was flown straight to his mother’s arms. It was three days after the death of Sarah’s daughter. For weeks I found myself pondering what he might have been thinking and feeling, knowing that an entire nation had valued his life enough to trade a thousand enemies for his release. What would that knowledge mean to a man? What might it do to him, for good or ill?
I also wondered at the differences between Sarah and Aviva Shalit, two mothers confronting opposite stories. My friend had gone to bed on the last Saturday evening of her daughter’s life with the routine certainty that she would wake the next morning, while Gilad’s mother lived for half a decade under the crushing knowledge that she could get a phone call at any hour letting her know her son had died a violent death. Then, each of them received the opposite of what they might reasonably have expected.
I find it hard to think very long, or very deeply about what Sarah and her husband have had to endure. The experience is like tonguing a raw space inside my mouth. Something prickles and goes numb inside of me when I think of what the gentle, lovely girl I knew in high school has been subjected to. I try to imagine what it would be like to have death claim my child, quickly feel that this act of imagination itself seems a kind of obscenity, and stop. Sometimes I have to shake my head to clear the cobwebs.
^ ^ ^
In the fall of 2006 I flipped my Honda off the freeway. Miraculously, I was unhurt. I can still remember the white roar in my ears, then the tinkle of glass as I hung upside down in the ensuing silence, windshield shattered and caved in inches from my face. In a perverse sequence of events, not two minutes after I crawled from the wreckage of my Civic, another car came around the same wet curve I had spun out on and did the exact same thing. The only difference between our two accidents was that this other guy’s car fishtailed to the left instead of the right, and as a result slammed at fifty miles per hour into the grill of an SUV whose driver had stopped to check if I was okay. In less than fifteen minutes I watched one of the two passengers who had been riding in this spectacularly unlucky other driver’s small sedan bleed to death in the grass on the side of the road.
Even now, every so often, I find myself thinking of Gilad and his mother, understanding in my own way what it feels like to have been given a second lease on life, wondering how it would feel to know that you have become the apple of an entire people’s eye.
And then I think about Sarah, without fail.