The following is my 29th Annual Yom Kippur Greeting. For 29 years, I’ve shared a story or a poem and then the core Yom Kippur message itself. This one isn’t quite my usual fare – Rebecca wasn’t even sure I should share it…
My earliest memory is of a parking lot. I didn’t realize it was a parking lot at the time, but I can picture it now. It was a Costco parking lot. The tire shop was directly across from me. The sky was mostly clear, but there had been a recent rain. The pavement was wet, with a sheen of oil glimmering above the surface. I was mesmerized by it, as if I’d never seen it before. Perhaps I never had.
There were cars moving here and there, just as there should have been.
In other words, it was an entirely normal and uneventful Sunday afternoon.
But that wasn’t how it felt to me. At that time, all I was aware of was chaos. The sound of the wind. The distant ringing of a train crossing. The ‘beep’ ‘beep’ of the scanners as endless shuffling feet made their way in and out of the store. The water – the overwhelming sound of the water – as the cars’ tires and children’s feet violently displaced it. The sound of the shopping carts, loaded with boxes, their wheels rattling.
I couldn’t take it all in. It was too much. Like it was something I had never experienced before.
Perhaps I never had.
Then I heard voices. Loud. Getting louder. They sounded urgent, desperate. I know now that they were shouting at me. Warning me to stop. I was a child of 10, walking aimlessly, as in a daze, through a busy parking lot. But I didn’t understand their words. I didn’t understand the warning. Their voices seemed no more important than the creak of an old truck door as a man pulled it open.
And so, I kept walking.
One foot followed the other and just like that, I walked into the middle of the traffic. It wasn’t fast-moving traffic. The cars were going maybe 5 miles an hour. But the road was slick. Then I heard the shudder of anti-lock brakes. The sliding of tires. Even the intake of breath from the startled driver. Then the car slammed into me, and I heard nothing at all.
I could understand the voices I heard before I opened my eyes. I could barely make them out though – among all the other sounds I did not yet recognize. The chaos of the parking lot was nothing next to this. Feet were scampering here and there. I heard groaning. Crying. I heard the beeping of machines. The inflation of cuffs, the sliding of metal ball bearings along curtain rods. Even the intake of breath as a needle was pushed into an arm.
“It will be okay, Mrs. Parker,” the voice was that of a middle-aged woman. Somehow, I knew that. “From what you told me, the car wasn’t moving quickly and aside from a broken ankle and few bruised ribs, Isaac should be fine.”
“Who is Isaac?” I wondered to myself. Then I fell back to sleep.
When I woke up again, I was in a quieter place. There were hushed voices – something that reminded of home? An air conditioning system was exhaling steadily and confidently. And there was a light shining in one of my eyes. There was a doctor here. A woman in her early 60s.
An old hand.
“His pupils are reacting normally,” she said, “He should wake up any day now.”
“I am awake,” I said.
The doctor stood up roughly, almost pushing herself away from the bed. I slowly opened my eyes. They seemed stuck together somehow.
She reached forward and urgently pressed a button by my bedside. I heard a distant ‘ding’ and then scurrying of feet. Standing next to the doctor was a tired-looking woman. Standing next to her was a girl of maybe 10.
Both of their faces were filled with worried anticipation.
“Mrs. Parker,” said the Doctor, “We need to run some tests. I think it best if you both leave the room.”
Mrs. Parker nodded doubtfully. They backed out of the room reluctantly, their eyes never leaving me. With a violent shiiiing, that sound of metal bearings on a metal curtain rod, the doctor shut them away.
Then she turned to me, and asked, calmly, “Can you tell me your name?”
I hesitated for just a moment. I’d heard my name, but I knew that somehow that wasn’t what she was asking.
“Isaac,” I said.
“And your last name?”
I took a gamble. “Parker.”
The woman smiled warmly.
“Can you tell me what year it is?”
I looked at her blankly.
“Can you tell me where you are?”
I had no idea where I was.
The doctor took a quick note on her electronic pad. Then asked, “Isaac, can you tell me your parents’ names?”
“Mrs. Parker…” I said, uncertainly.
The doctor bit her lower lip in concern.
“Thank you,” she said.
The next few days were filled with a battery of tests. Blood tests, MRIs, questionnaires and even CT scans. Each test seemed more desperate than the last. I could hear the results being delivered to Mr. and Mrs. Parker – and that little girl – right outside my room. “No brain damage. No cranial fractures. No signs of trauma aside from that bruised rib and broken ankle. We don’t understand what’s happened. But he’s very young. The brain is still quite plastic at that age. Maybe he’ll recover.”
The tests weren’t the only thing that happened, of course. A flood people came to my room. They entered hopeful, they left in tears. I didn’t know any of them. Their faces were a blur, almost like I wasn’t programmed to separate one from the other. I learned who Mr. and Mrs. Parker were, but I had to rely on the sound of their voices to recognize them. The little girl never spoke.
Everybody else asked me, or told me, about my life before the accident. The doctors, my parents, my friends. Everybody did. But I could tell them nothing. I remembered nothing. One distinguished-looking man brought me an instrument. The little girl was with him. The instrument was what I now know as a violin. He placed it in my hands, confidently expecting me to play. But I just looked at it, I knew that I knew how to play, but I was mesmerized by by the polish of its wood, the delicate complexity of the horsehair bow, and the muted gleam of its wound strings.
He too left the room, crying. The little girl left with him. Neither of them came back.
I went home a week after I woke up. In the months that followed, my parents just prayed for some glimmer of hope. I knew how to read, how to do math. I knew how to speak and to listen. But I could not remember people or places. I could not remember things.
Eventually, my mother went back to work. There were so many things I still didn’t understand that my parents hired an aide. Somehow to accompany me to school. Someone to help me cross the street. Someone to ensure I didn’t cut myself with knives or slip where the floor had been moped.
I found an old janitor’s closet in a wing of the school that was no longer used. Sometimes, between classes I’d hide there, even from my aide. For 10 or 15 minutes at a time, I’d sit there in the dark, surrounded by the relative quiet. For those 10 or 15 minutes, I’d feel like I was truly at home.
One day – after being walked home by my aide – I opened the door and discovered my parents red-eyed from tears. My mother stepped forward, leaned down, and hugged me. As she held me, I could sense her desperate need. But soon enough, she released me. I had not reassured her.
I looked up at my father. He stared back at me with something akin to hatred. That was when I knew, when I was certain, that I was an imposter. I was a killer who had taken their boy and was now pretending to live his life.
I went to my room, closed the door, and turned off the lights. I sat there in the near-silent dark. And then I heard it. Words. Haunting, discordant, words. A song, I suppose, buried deep in my memory. But the words were not nouns and verbs and adjectives. The words were feelings. And the song was not a song. At first, it seemed like there was no melody, no rhythm. There were just a grinding of notes and a lilting of voices shifting and changing, moving randomly without structure and without beauty.
Then, I recognized it. I knew there was melody there. There was beauty there. But it was not shallow – the creation of a composer, meant to be consumed and appreciated by those who somehow share his (or her) time and place. No, this melody had been composed over an unimaginable time. It had been passed down and among its composers. It wasn’t the work of a collective, but it had been built up, layer after layer, with the echoes of millions. It was a song whose melody could not be heard unless you could pull apart those many voices. And I could. What I heard was a song of desolation and fear. Of doubt and surrender. Of desperation and of loss. And I heard a song of guilt. Terrible, unimaginable guilt.
I went to school the next day, but something had changed. I knew it was the song. I wasn’t supposed to just hear it, a passive observer. I was supposed to carry it forward. It seemed almost impossible though. The tones were deep and throbbing and somehow muted. They were unearthly. The instruments seemed not to be made of wood, but of glass and stone and, somehow, memory. My aide watched desperately as a I spent my time gathering everything I could and smashing or rubbing it together. I listened as I did it, trying to find analogs for the sounds I knew I needed.
Over time, my parents became more and more distant. Before long, I almost never saw them – they found reasons not to be home when I was awake. The aide treated me as an object to be handled and managed, but not a person.
I confronted my mother once. I told her that I didn’t think I was her child. She smiley wanly and said, “I have a pretty strong memory that says otherwise.”
We both knew she didn’t believe it.
The years passed. My collection of objects, of stones, of metals, of minerals, of fabrics and filters – grew and grew. Bit by bit, I was growing closer to being able to share the song. I couldn’t possibly bang and rub and sing my way to what I needed. So, I recorded the sounds and learned how to bring them together on my computer. I was a Junior in college when I’d finally assembled that first song. I practiced on my own. I would play back the layered, crazy, tracks. And then I’d sing over them, adding that little contribution that I knew was meant to be mine. When I was ready, I rented an activity room at the University. I invited everybody from my classes. I printed out flyers for those in my dorm.
I wanted others to experience what I had experienced. I knew it was why I was here.
Twenty people came to that first concert. They were drawn by a sort of morbid fascination. Fascination with the freak I’d become. As the music began, I saw the discomfort on their faces. I put it down to the power of what they were hearing. But they didn’t stay to explain. Instead, one by one, they drifted from the room until I was by myself singing a song for nobody at all. I knew I hadn’t performed the music poorly. But in the days that followed, they all avoided me, as if they were afraid to tell me what they thought of the experience.
I kept renting the room, widening the groups that I invited to hear me. When I invited them, my parents seemed excited to come. But when they heard my music, I saw embarrassment overcome them. They were the first to leave – their faces fallen as if in mourning.
I spent everything I could in concert after concert. But not one person could hear the beauty I understood.
The woman came to my 26th concert. She was the first person to stay to the end. As the music drew to a close, I shut down my laptop, walked over to her and asked, “Did you feel it?”
I already knew that she didn’t. She was visibly uncomfortable. She seemed almost embarrassed for me. But maybe, just maybe, what bothered her was the power of what I was sharing. Instead, she shook her head and with a wry smile said, “No, Isaac, the music was objectively terrible. But I admire you for trying. Not many people would.”
I saw a lot of Helen then. Unlike me, she was consumed with her public face. She seemed like a happy person. Outgoing, friendly, upbeat. But every time she looked at me, I saw her sadness. It was as if she were paddling furiously, hoping that her artificial joy would keep her from drowning in some deep sorrow. When we were intimate, she acted with desperation; as if her old wounds were being ripped open and exposed. That was why I couldn’t believe it when she asked me to marry her. I was an outcast, a weirdo, an artist even she didn’t appreciate. She was beautiful. And intelligent. And incredibly kind. Yes, she was wounded, but even that was a part of her beauty. When I asked her why she didn’t pick from any of the others she could have had, and she said, simply, “Because, they are all just like me.”
As sad as that answer was, it was enough for me to say ‘yes.’
After college, Helen was too busy partying to get a job. But I completed a Masters in Library Science and became an archivist. I hid away recording and trying to preserve what I hoped, someday, people would need. More music came to me. Music that spoke of hiding beneath the edges of the world. Music that spoke of ancient might, now lost. I heard it all. I understand it all. Nobody else did. Helen refused to even listen to it. I shared tracks and snippets and remixes on YouTube and Instagram and Twitter, but 100% of people clicked off within 6-seconds.
We’d go out together and friends of Helen’s would ask what I did. I’d mention the archival work, but then I’d talk about the music.
“A hobby?” they’d ask, when I disclosed that I wasn’t paid for my work.
“No,” I would answer, “A calling.”
I could see their judgement, then. I must not be a very good musician. But I knew I carried the voices of countless generations with every note.
Over the first nine years of our marriage, Helen and I had six stillborn children. I gave names to each of them. Place names I remembered from a place I wasn’t even certain existed. They weren’t place names as you and I know them, though. They weren’t unchanging, unmoving. They were words that conveyed feeling and emotion. They’d change with the shift of seasons and with the hour of the day. Sometimes they’d be welcoming and warm, sometimes foreboding, forbidden, or even forgiving. I would chant those everchanging names and they became a mantra for me, a touchstone of loss.
For her part, Helen just drank more. Smoked more. Stayed up later and later. Drugs began to be a part of her life. She was unspooling before us.
It wasn’t really a surprise when she was diagnosed with lung cancer. She was 53 and we’d been married for 32 years. We’d been married, but we’d never grown together. She’d never moved past her trauma, and I’d never moved past my music.
It wasn’t long before we both knew that Helen would not survive. It was then, for the first time in decades, that my mother called me. She asked me to come home. I hired an aide to watch my wife and I left.
I walked up to my parent’s house and knocked on their door. My mother opened the door and welcomed me in. She was alone. Somebody had told me that my father had passed, but I hadn’t been sure that it had been true.
I sat down with her at the little kitchen table. She asked, “Do you want to know who you were?”
She opened up her little laptop and loaded up an old video. It was of a child, me. I was playing a violin in a concert hall. As I listened, the music seemed shallow, empty, and frivolous. But the crowd was rapt. I was a ten-year-old prodigy.
“Perhaps the most gifted violist of your generation,” my mother whispered to me as we watched together. I glanced over to her. She was crying, just as she had been the last time she’d hugged me. Perhaps that was when my father realized I was an imposter.
I turned back to the screen and watched. This was the boy who had been lost.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“I know,” my mother answered.
The concert came to an end and a young girl rushed up the stage. She was beaming with pride. Her smile was full. Her joy palpable. Anyone could have seen that those two were destined for a life together.
“Helen,” my mother said, knowing how poorly I remembered faces.
“Your wife was with us when you woke up. She stayed there almost every day. Her father was your teacher. When you could not pick up that violin, it destroyed her.”
I nodded. Silent. I was Helen’s tragedy. I was what had undone her. I was the reason for the sorrow that filled her when she looked at me.
“Do you know what happened?” my mother asked.
I wanted to explain that I remembered what had happened just before the accident. That I had replaced her son in those moments – before the car had struck me. I wanted to explain why I was here, instead of him. But I couldn’t. And I wanted to explain that I could still play the music the young man on the video was playing – but that that music was no longer what I was meant to share.
Instead, I just said, “No. I don’t.”
I went home then. To the little house Helen and I share.
I am there now.
I send away the aide and I sit with my wife. She is alert and aware, sitting up in the hospital bed we’d set up in our little room. I know I will stay with her until she is gone just as she stayed with Isaac Patrick, although he never came back.
I close my eyes and try to remember a song she can hear. A song that can touch her soul. And then it comes to me, stepping forward from the recesses of my memory.
I take out one of my most basic instruments – a strip of thinly cut metal and a piece of onyx. Before I can strike even the first note, I see her eyes fill with tears. I see her wanting to protest. I see her wanting to silence the man who stolen the child she’d loved.
But I cannot help what I am doing.
I feel an ancient song – was it billions of years old – rush into my mind. It was a song that had sustained so many through so much desperation. I close my eyes and I play. Slow and lilting. The tonality is not what she expects, but there is a joy beneath it. Even confidence. A belief in something worth saving – something more than time itself. As the song builds, I hear it gathering the threads of a forever to be, and a forever that has been.
I open my eyes, and I see that she is smiling. I see the smile she’d had on that stage. And then I see a flash of understanding and a flash of joy. Then, for the briefest of moments, I see hope.
The next morning, I wake up in the chair next to her bed. I open my eyes and look over to her. In an instant, I know she is gone. It takes only another moment to realize that she had overdosed on her own medications.
I look at her, and I know how I should feel. I should feel completely alone, completely abandoned. I should feel hopeless – as if the mysterious legacy I was meant to preserve has now forever perished. I should feel overwhelmed by what-ifs and could-have-beens. I should mourn that she didn’t have her Isaac Patrick in her life. I should regret what I cost her.
But I feel none of that.
Instead, for the first time that I can remember, I am at peace.
This year, on the advice of a new friend, I’m going to leave much of the interpretation up to you.
I will say two things:
First, I am working on a new project. A Constitution for the State of Israel – one with unique elements intended for the needs of this unique state. It could be an incredible – life defining – project. But I know I’ve been in my head long enough with these sorts of issues that I’m not really on the same wavelength as anybody else. I’m worried – with some empirical justification – that teaching others to hear the music of this Constitution is just a little too hard. If you can, take a look at it. Maybe you can help me make it better – and make it something that can be widely understood and embraced.
Second, near the end of the thrice-daily Amidah prayer we give thanks to G-d for fashioning the lives we live, for giving meaning to our souls and for the tests that we face every day. Then we sing “Sim Shalom, Tova, Uvracha” – ‘place peace, goodness and blessing on all of us and all of Israel’. This is the end of the prayer, we are stepping out of the place of prayer. What I read in this process is that we can not take the entirety of the divine experience with us. Instead, we internalize that our lives have been crafted, that our actions have meaning and that our struggles are tests. Once we do that, then the peace of G-d can settle on us.
In the past year, peace is what I’ve struggled with. Only now am I realizing that it has been there, waiting for me, the entire time.
In the year to come I hope that it will empower me to live a life of blessing for others.
Finally, in the spirit of Yom Kippur, My family and I forgive all of you for anything you may have done against us – whether we were aware or not.
We, in turn, ask for your forgiveness.
May you be blessed with a year of health, wealth, blessing, productivity and, yes, peace.
p.s. if you want to be on my regular mailing list, just let me know. I have two lists – a Torah one with stories that I send out almost weekly and a non-Torah one that gets far fewer messages.
I won’t be sending out a separate Yom Kippur email this week – so if you want my explanation of the Yom Kippur service, just visit: A Modern Yom Kippur.
Yes, I know we say more than that at the end of the Amidah – I was boiling down to a few of the most relevant points 🙂