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?”

I tense up because he’s louder and more insistent than I’ve had the energy to be. Will he take my spot? When I see him accost every airline employee, I decide to use him to ask the questions rather than fight him. This plan is successful, and when I finally find an El-Al employee who seems to be in charge, she tells me I have first priority to get on the flight should anyone not show up. So here I am, waiting.

And then they come for me. Everyone else is gone, there’s a no-show, and I’m on. The woman tells me that El Al’s security policy is such that she can’t sell me a one-way ticket unless I have an Israeli passport. Another technicality: I don’t have mine with me. I show her that my American passport confirms my birth in Israel, and she makes a rare exception. When I get on the flight my resolve crumbles—I’ve attained my task, no more planning—but I’m too exhausted to do anything about it.

Israelis are the last people I know who clap when a flight lands.

I can’t step through the arrival gates at Ben Gurion Airport without newly-painful memories of her standing there grinning and waving, bearing boxes of our favorite pastries. My father comes for me. He arrived to be with her in her last hours only to find he’d been too late.

I walk into her now empty kitchen—remembering her whizzing around, tirelessly creating culinary masterpieces from yesterday’s scraps, while carrying on endless conversations about anything and everything. I clutch the pot holder I crocheted for her in the second grade, which she kept in a place of honor. It’s nearly five in the morning, and no one has gone to sleep. My grandfather, pacing, stops and sees me. He gives me a shaky hug and tells me to rest in the last bed not occupied by my parents, brother and aunt: hers. He’s staying downstairs.  

Her last bed was in the hospital, but the Gauguin posters she loved and the photographs of my family everywhere are enough to break anyone. But there’s no time for this. Within hours I’m watching my mother stand with the other immediate bereaved, enacting the custom of having their shirts cut with a blade.

That they wear those sadly nicked shirts for every day of the shiva, the week-long Jewish custom of sitting mourning, only enhances my impression this all is an endless sentence of undeserved punishment, that time is on a hideously repetitive loop.

We are machines of social custom, greeting those who come to tell us what we already knew—how wonderful she was, how much she’ll be missed. Ceaselessly energetic even late into her sixties, she played basketball until weeks before her death, so there’s the local basketball coach, flushed and upset. A fleet of local librarians arrives to marvel at her ravenous appetite for and absorption of world literature. There are many as ashen and bereft as we, all of us who knew her; and there were distant family, polite co-workers, high school acquaintances. Hundreds upon hundreds come.  

Awash in ritual and responsibility, the immediate aftermath of death becomes a series of obligations and forced situations, meant to cut through, or at least distract from, the numb and searing emptiness of loss. For us, anecdotes—about her and her sayings and doings, even about our various ordeals in getting to the funeral—become a canon of bittersweet memory, the only way to break the terrible hush.  

We all remember: whenever utter quiet intervened, in those tiny moments where, apparently unbidden, every conversation stills, that she used to playfully whisper, “Ezeh sheket…”

What quiet.

Irin Carmon ’05, a literature concentrator living in Quincy House, is an associate magazine editor. She dedicates this endpaper to the memory of Rachel Avissara, 1933-2003.