Monday, October 18, 2010

The Nest Keeps Getting Emptier

Unless we’re invited out for lunch on Shabbat, most of the time (85%), Barbara won’t make it out of the house, and almost never (99%), will Natania. So usually, both of them have been willing to put on their shoes and accompany me back to shul for mincha, the afternoon prayers. Both of them can use the exercise after a big lunch and an afternoon nap. Besides which, who knows what manner of spooks and goblins might be lurking behind the garbage dumpsters to accost me on the way if I don’t have an escort? We will part ways once we get in front of the beit knesset. I go inside, stay for Nachum’s weekly exercise in brilliance, and come home after the evening prayers. My females take a stroll and are back home before I return.
The previous Shabbat, both of them were still sleeping, so I was on my own to get back to shul. The solitude of this short journey reinforced my sense of impending separation. Once Shabbat was over, Natania would be moving out into her new apartment in the French Hill area, near the Hebrew University campus, where she will be studying this coming year.
Once she finished her army service last spring and was accepted into the mechinah program, a one year preparatory program for students who did not graduate from a high school in Israel, she made it clear that she was ‘moving out’ once school started. She sent in an application for a room in one of the campus dormitories. It did not concern her, as the months went by, that she had not heard anything from the housing department. Barbara and I, taking a more jaundiced view of Israeli bureaucratic efficiency, were more troubled by this lack of communication. Natania hadn’t even been told how much accommodations would cost. She was working, and then she got sick; plus we hate to be 24/7 naggers, so we didn’t press the issue.
Perhaps it was because the mechinah program is part of the Rothenberg International School, and her housing application had to be sent from office to office, or perhaps it was simply ‘because,’ but Natania’s application disappeared into that vast black hole where lost forms become etherized. When she realized what had happened at the end of August, she had to start all over again and fill out another form; at least then she was told how much it would cost, about 1300NIS a month plus utilities.
It was all for the best. Just about this time, a notice appeared on the Nefesh B’Nefesh e-mail list, which I saw, and on Janglo (a community website for the Jerusalem Anglo community), which Natania saw. Two young female shomer Shabbat students were looking for a third to share an apartment near Hebrew U., the monthly rent being 1300 NIS. Even though she would also have to pay utilities and arnona (the tax everyone pays for not being homeless), she figured – correctly – that she would be better off living in an apartment than a dorm room. For one thing, she could prepare her own meals and not be at the mercy of the food court at the student center or whatever fast food establishments French Hill has to offer. In short, she agreed to join the two other young ladies, both newly arrived citizens of The Land, one from England and one from France.
Now the race was on. Get everything that was needed done before the Holidays in September and after that the start of the school year on October 10. Beg, borrow, and, in a pinch, buy whatever you need to move into your own place. Overcome every bureaucratic obstacle to get the utilities registered in your and your roommates names – so you don’t have to deal with it months later when you’re trying to study for midterms. But this is Israel, where nothing is simple (exciting and rewarding, yes; but simple no). You can get almost nothing done by going to one office one time (One remarkable exception is getting an Israeli passport, which you deal with in less than ten minutes.) Natania spent several days running around from the bituach leumi (health insurance) office to the Arnona people to determine exactly how much she would have to pay each month for the privilege of not being homeless. Here’s where it gets interesting. Normally you would pay through the nose if you lived in Jerusalem, just as you pay ridiculous amounts of taxes to live in New York or London. But there are exceptions. Natania’s two roommates, being new arrivees, get a reduction on their rate – for one year, and only on the first hundred meters (the rate is calculated by the size of an apartment, and it doesn’t matter if you own it or you’re renting). Natania, having served in the army, gets an even bigger discount (for how long is not clear; she has to go back at the beginning of 2011). Of course, Natania had to fill out a bunch of forms and bring her paystubs from the army because the army computers don’t communicate with other government computers. In the end, she won the race, getting as much as she could done before school started, but it was nip and tuck for quite a while. Anyway, she had been moving her stuff little by little, and that Saturday night was to be the “nice knowing you; I’m outa here” event.
This may shock you, but there was a bit of ambivalence on the part of the parents. Natania had spent one term at Ithaca College and two years in the IDF, but neither of these two excursions away from the nest had the ring of finality; there was always the sense that our daughter was temporarily absent, home was still first on Cranford Place in Teaneck and then in Ma’ale Adumim. (Make no mistake: we’re not renting out her room, just as we have a room designated for Tina and David for the occasional Shabbat they spend with us; but we’re guessing that we’ll need to change Natania’s sheets and towels much less frequently.) But now it was, no question-about-it, “time.” Natania needs to get on with her life, away from the we-can’t help-it supervision of her parents who are always ‘reminding’ her to do this, or worrying on her behalf about that. She needs to be where she will meet new people and make new friends. But the truth is, we will miss her. Besides being fun to be with, she has taken a lot of the culinary burden off my back and is usually good for a trip to the superrrrrrrr; she’s strong, she’s handy, and she’s good for computer related tech-support. Most important, on those rare occasions when Barbara has forgotten to enumerate my failings down to the last detail, Natania has taken on herself the exhausting burden of providing backup. What will I do without her?
This may or may not shock you, but we could detect a wee bit of ambivalence on Natania’s part as well. She had taken a respectable quantity of goods to her new apartment (people have made aliyah with less!); all that was missing was her. Technically, she could have moved in the first week in September – that’s when their rental contract took effect, and the other girls moved in. But she didn’t. She could have moved in as soon as the Holidays were over and done with. But she didn’t. She was moving in the Saturday night before the first day of classes. I expected her to be on the first bus out of Ma’ale Adumim; but, no, there was still a little bit of laundry left to go into the washing machine and dryer………
Perhaps,, just perhaps, Natania’s situation can be seen – only by those who want to – as a paradigm for what other individuals and communities do – or don’t do. Life is good if you are a daughter chez Barbara and Fred: you get room and board, laundry service, plus a lot of other perks. The service couldn’t be better. And you can stay as long as you want; no questions asked. Very tempting, considering how daunting it is out there in a cold, cruel world with all its expectations and demands. Nonetheless, sometimes you have to leave your comfortable surroundings, move on, and strike out on your own. Or you can keep saying you will and never do. Or make excuses why you really don’t need to. Or you can go half way: move your belongings, your possessions, your money, just not yourself. You see where I’m going with this? Not to keep you in suspense, Natania did catch a bus somewhere around 10PM – clean laundry and all.
Now it was just the two of us, along with our geriatric cat Mimi, whose physical deterioration was continuing at an alarming pace. By that Friday, we would take her – in the same little blue traveling case in which she made aliyah three years and some months ago – back to the vet for what would be her Final Mile. We had called Natania and told her what was likely to happen; she insisted on meeting us so she could say goodbye. Donny, our regular vet, wasn’t there, and we dealt with his partner, originally a Francophone, in Hebrew.
Marc the vet was explaining to us our limited options, all the while holding Mimi under her mid-section, so that her head and forepaws were sticking out the top and her hind legs were dangling below, until I walked over and put my hand under her back paws for support. All the while, Mimi, one of the most placid of cats, didn’t move a muscle. That image of our little black and white cat suspended in mid-air, waiting patiently for her fate to be decided, will stick with me forever because it was sooooooo typical of our her.
One of the things which causes pet owners the most anguish when dealing with their terminally ill animals is that you can’t articulate a proper good-bye. Even if she would have understood, you couldn’t explain to Mimi what was going on because, as I have probably mentioned in previous articles, she was for the last few years, stone deaf. (To my knowledge, no one has thought to come up with a sign language for aurally challenged animals. ‘Rover, the urinal is outside, not inside.’ ‘Smoochie, it’s time for your medicine; come down from on top of the curtain.’) But if we could have had a last minute heart-to-heart with our cat, it would have been something like this: “Mimi, you weren’t the picture of health when you came to live with us seven years ago, and we’ve given you the best medical care possible; but we’re running out of options. What this nice man who is holding you so awkwardly is telling us in Hebrew is that IF we can convince you to keep eating, you might make it for another month; and if we can’t, it will be a few days. Even with all your infirmities, you don’t seem to be suffering, but it’s all downhill from here. Your balance is gone, and we might come home one day and find that you fell down the stairs and hurt yourself. You might have a stroke or a cerebral hemorrhage in the middle of the night. We’re not back in New Jersey where we could get in our car and take you at 2AM to the emergency vet in Caldwell. We would have to sit by and watch you suffer. How fun is that? Your ‘family’ is gathered here to say goodbye and let you go while you still have your dignity. We have enjoyed your company immensely , and we will really miss you.”
Marc the vet turned to us for our decision. Barbara and Natania agreed that the time had come. Fred, the wimp, acquiesced to their decision. Barbara and Natania stayed with Mimi for her final moments. Fred, the wimp, gave the cat her last pat, picked up the little blue traveling case, and headed outside to wait.
Barbara and Natania came out minutes later, and the three of us headed to the mall. There wasn’t much to say. We still had to buy a cake for the couple who was hosting us for Friday night dinner. I thought perhaps we could stop and have a cup of hafuk; Natania rarely turns down an opportunity to have coffee – especially if it’s on mommy and daddy’s dime. But no, she had to get a bus back to her apartment. Fridays here are short this time of year – what with our being on Standard Time, and she had cooking to do.
Earlier in the week, the bookmakers in London had quoted even odds on whether or not Natania would come back to Ma’ale Adumim for her first Shabbat away from home. That was before she sat down with her two roommates, and the three of them decided to spend their first Shabbat together – whereupon an ever growing group of the roommates’ friends decided to join them, one bringing challah, another a bottle of wine, etc. That Thursday, I got a call from our daughter at the shuk. “Daddy, where do you buy your chicken and meat?” I invariably go to one family-run business, not because the products there are better than anywhere else, but because the storekeepers are genuinely happy to see me.
While Natania was eager to get back to her cooking, Barbara and I were in no such hurry. By a quirk of scheduling, we were invited out for both dinner and Shabbat lunch. A Friday with no cooking! Our original plan was to spend a few hours at the Israel Museum (we are now members). But the art work could wait; Mimi couldn’t.
With a cake from Maafe Ne’eman and an iced coffee from a cheaper place, we returned home to ‘remove the evidence’; i.e., all of Mimi’s paraphernalia: her plate of uneaten food, her water bowl, the measuring cup and eyedropper in the bathroom – used to clean her ears, the stool so Mimi could get on our bed, the plastic tray that Barbara had placed at the top of her bed so Mimi wouldn’t fall through, of course her litter box. Mimi’s own bed and heating pad were in storage for the summer in our machsan, so those things didn’t need to be moved. The unopened cans of food we will give away or return; the opened can in the refrigerator I brought down to the kittens in the yard. One of them took a portion that it would have taken our cat five minutes to consume and inhaled it in less than three seconds. Both Barbara and I understand that it will take a while for us to stop expecting Mimi to start clumping down the stairs because she is hungry.
Our large apartment suddenly seemed even larger, ridiculously large for two people; six people had lived here at one time. Families twice that size are living in smaller apartments than ours. Barbara reminded me of an incident that happened when we were moving out of our first apartment in Jackson Heights, and a family from downstairs came up to check it out. We were living in a fairly modest accommodation: one decent size bedroom, one bath, an area that served as a living room with enough space to put up a folding table on Shabbat, an apartment sized kitchen, a small room off the kitchen – small even by Israeli standards – big enough for a nursery or an office (I turned it into a darkroom). One of the children in this family, a girl of about eight, took one look at our apartment, and her eyes got bigger and bigger. It was as if she were standing in the Vanderbilt mansion in Newport, Rhode Island. Our apartment was modest, but it was bigger than the one bedroom apartment her family had, with their several children crowded together. It happens that some people have more than we do; some less – and I can accept both possibilities with equanimity. Just as I won’t get jealous of those who have more than I do, so I won’t feel guilty about having more than others. And I certainly won’t let a bunch of Nosey Parkers tell me, tell us, that what we have is too much. Especially The Land we live on. Another paradigm.

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