Standing By

In memory of Rachel Avissara, 1933-2003

Courtesy OF Irin carmon

The author, with her grandmother, at her sixth birthday party in Israel

I am watching the crowds thin until only leftovers linger: the babies, the wheelchairs, the dogs, the desperate. There are five of us trying to get on this sold-out flight, and the rest of them, strangers, keep telling me not to cry, that I’ll get on it.

To pass the time, or maybe to break the competitive tension, they fall into the perennial Israeli custom of throwing out names and addresses to find a link. They find some: a barber, a cousin. I don’t take my eyes off the lines and the chief security attendant, except to watch the clock.  

In these last few hours of pain, my grief has had a project, and at least I know how to do those. Nothing can stop me from getting on that plane. That I’ve lost my grandmother, heard about her unexpected death from a relapse of cancer that morning on a public phone near the Georges Pompidou in Paris—it’s too raw. She was so much more than a grandmother to me. But what can I do with that right now?

It all seemed so straightforward this morning. “I’m coming to Tel Aviv right now.” These were the words that came out of my mouth, through the sobs. My mother, in Tel Aviv, was sleepy from too many nights awake at the hospital, and too weak to do anything but agree.

I have a mission, but…how does one get on a plane to Israel without a ticket? It’s Sunday and Paris is shuttered, the airline offices included. Last night I had to wait online with nicotine-addicted Parisians for an hour just to get a phone card at the only tabac on the Champs Elysees open late. That was so I could call the U.S. and hear my father, frantically packing for his own last-minute trip to Israel, tell me that my grandmother, after being sick for only two weeks, was being resuscitated.

This morning my mother told me to go to the airport and beg. This sounded like a plan.

I arrived in Paris only yesterday, hours after wrapping up my Let’s Go itinerary in Amsterdam, so the packing to be done back at my friend Neasa’s apartment was minimal. Still, I needed her help, because I couldn’t get my fingers to move.

I wanted to close my eyes, open them and be with my mother, and the fallacy of international mobility made me think at first that this was nearly possible. Then the details and technicalities kicked in. For example: no ticket means no terminal information, and we lost half an hour shuttling from terminal to terminal until we found El Al. And despite my goal-centered doggedness, nothing could change the fact that the only flight to Tel Aviv out of Charles de Gaulle Airport was cancelled, and that no El Al employee was to be found.

“What should I do?” I’d pressed the information desk with manic insistence, and learned that if I took the shuttle to Paris’s Orly Airport, I had the off-chance of getting on the sold-out 10:30 p.m. flight, eight hours from then. I said goodbye to Neasa, and have spent the last five hours feverishly devising the best possible plan for getting on the full flight.

But I’m by myself now, and it’s harder not to think about why I need to get on it in the first place.

Plan. Should I cry or should I scream? How fast should I get hysterical? How much am I willing to pay off another passenger, and how illegal is this?

I have to be the first one on line. I scan the airport suspiciously and listen hard for Hebrew. I try not to remember the sound of my grandmother’s voice when she’d call us just because, randomly asking me if I’d heard of this Brazilian writer or that German family drama, and remembering every detail I’d ever told her about my life.

I hate sealing the memory of her with adjectives, but they come anyway: vibrant, outspoken and unedited, passionate, giving, loving, strong. The most extraordinary woman I have ever known. None of these words can encompass her.

How could I have forgotten what it means to fly to Israel? Three hours before boarding, the security entourage arrives and transforms the terminal. They push the line into a jumble so they can set up barrier ropes and stations for questioning every passenger. Even as their movements are brisk and authoritative, the Israelis waiting get more raucous. They start fighting loudly over who was there first.

On the other side of the terminal, the Air Tunis flight to Djerba boards docilely and without incident.

There’s a man, almost blindingly rude, who obstinately tells me that he was there before me. He has a ticket for tomorrow, but he wants to go now, and he has no reason why. “I just want to, okay?”