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Book of Life

“If I don’t make it,” he whispered to her, “name the baby after me”


It’s Erev Rosh Hashanah, and we are four proud siblings,

noses gleefully pressed to the windowpane, awaiting Mommy’s return from the hospital with Daddy and baby. Grandma and Grandpa puttered in the background, readying the house for the arrival of their daughter and newborn grandson.

Suddenly, cries of distress distracted me from my window-side vigil, and I swiveled to the stairs to determine its source. It was Grandpa. He was sprawled on his back halfway down the stairs clutching at his stomach, his face contorted in the most fearsome expression of pain.

“Where’s Grandma?!” I heard someone shout. (Was it me?)

Grandma rushed to Grandpa’s side and kneeled beside him, her expression a mirror to his rising terror. “Someone call Jerry!” she commanded, and we hurried to summon my father’s close friend to assume the physician’s role in Daddy’s place.

Perhaps it was minutes later, perhaps it was more, but eventually the house filled with medical support. Just as Hatzalah escorted Grandpa down the stairs with Jerry and Grandma trailing protectively behind, Mommy, Daddy, and baby stepped over the threshold.

I’m sure they were stunned. I’m sure they were utterly horrified at the specter of infirmity and affliction that hurtled past just as they hurried in, clutching a bundle of newness and hope. But all I remember is my grandfather’s voice, hoarse with agony, as he passed my mother cradling the baby in her arms.

“If I don’t make it,” he whispered to her, “name the baby after me.”

It was a strange first night of Rosh Hashanah. Where was Grandpa, family patriarch and posek? How would we navigate these days without his imposing presence, without our family’s spiritual compass?

Late that night my father walked to the hospital, an hour’s journey, under a wet, weeping sky, without an umbrella, in deference to the holy day. He confirmed that my grandfather had emerged from surgery for a perforated ulcer.

That Rosh Hashanah every allusion in the davening to life and death, to a future hanging in the balance, resonated with a visceral truth. I was sure the sheliach tzibbur was talking about Grandpa.

The days of “bein kesseh l’asor” marched by, and Grandpa held on. In the interim, we celebrated a bris. The baby was named Elie for the Kohein Gadol in the haftarah of Rosh Hashanah, and, mercifully, not for Grandpa.

But as Yom Kippur approached, Grandpa was still confined to an upper floor at St. John’s hospital, and it seemed we would have no choice but to manage the holiest day of the year on our own. Where was his spotless kittel and tall, silky-white Yamim Noraim yarmulke, accoutrements so befitting his innately regal bearing?

Once again, the davening seemed to bourgeon with import and consequence where previously it had teetered on the edge of lukewarm. Hashem was sealing the din, and that meant only one thing to me: Grandpa.

The first night of Succos fell in late September, and even with a new sibling crowding the succah, Grandpa’s place was conspicuously empty. Nonetheless, for the next few days, we welcomed the Ushpizin, sang Yom Tov zemiros, and davened it wouldn’t rain.

Almost three weeks to the day he had been rushed to the hospital we were once again waiting, noses pressed to the windowpane. Grandpa was finally coming home. He was considerably weaker and thinner and couldn’t lift us, but that was irrelevant; he was home and he was healed.

Grandpa is long gone, yet his presence endures in the memories I share with my children and the recollections I swap with my siblings. But perhaps most enduring is the memory of that Rosh Hashanah, when the actuality of din sprinted past theory and pulled up short on the stairs of my childhood home.

It was a chilling and awe-inspiring opportunity to witness the progression of Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur to Hoshana Rabbah play out down below in This World. As I clutch my machzor, I think back to that tremulous month, to the sense of life hanging in balance, and beg to be granted another year of health, another year of life.


(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 758)

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