Once I had a father, a sad, silenced
father . . .
This line, from a Hebrew poem
by David Fogel, echoes in mind as my brother and I weep on each other’s
shoulders in the darkened chill of the hospital room.
Mama is still clasping Papa’s
cold and stiffened hands, tears spilling onto the hospital sheets, as we turn
to enfold her in our arms. A clock ticks on the nearby pale lemon wall; a nurse’s
shoes shuffle along the corridor. It is 4 am and quiet except for faint, hospital
sounds revealing a world which rolls inexorably on, God’s world.
Who can replace the papa?
We all come to experience this
loss, at some time or other. I do not speak of something unknown. It is a fact
of existence, of life.
In David Fogel’s poem the
imagery is spinning to and fro, through this veil of grieving:
I lie down and my heart hurts
Hurts . . .
I seem to draw, from the poem,
the emotional and spiritual support of his words so that, in the very moment
of remembering the lines, I intuitively touch upon a familiarity deeply and
intimately rooted in daily life. It offers comfort, a fellowship with one who
knew about the pain of the heart. David Fogel, Russian-born and much-travelled,
perished in the
Holocaust in 1944. It is a strange
thing, the thoughts that flitter through the mind, in grief.
Papa had loved poetry, too, particularly biblical poetry, the Psalms –
the Tehillim – the Book of Job, for their exquisite, metrical beauty
and haunting rhythms and sound with its rich layering of Aramaic, Caananite
and other Semitic dialects. Such a rich tradition to convey many themes, as
Yair Maezor points out in Pain, Pining & Pine Trees, from Abraham
about 1800 BCE to the return from Babylonian exile with Ezra the Scribe in about
458 BCE – prophecy, law, ethics, faith, liturgy, wisdom.
Even as I now stroke Mama’s head, an inadequate attempt
at solace, I can hear, in mind, Papa’s warm and rich voice as he sings
to us from the depths of a large, leather armchair while my brother and I, as
children, sit cross-legged at his feet, lulled into heavenly delight by the
sound . . .
Adonaynoo moh shimcho bechal
ho’oretz . . .
(Our Lord, how mighty is Thy name throughout the earth .
Those who enjoy Hebrew poetry discover an enchanted land.
So we owe to the poet a debt that can barely be repaid for communicating with
us, offering strength and warm friendship in life’s significant moments,
inspiring us by expressing the inexpressible.
All meaningful poetry can do this, of course. But to me,
the daughter of an Orthodox British Jew, Hebrew poetry will always be special,
perhaps because it is my inheritance. In it one can hear the voice of Jewish
history, throughout the ages, a deeply haunting refrain. What the contemporary
Welsh poet, Dannie Abse, calls ‘the raw, Jewish cry’, a cry arising,
perhaps, from what editor Peter Lawson describes in his anthology Passionate
Renewal (Nottingham: Five Leaves, 2001) as the ‘archetypal Wandering
Jew’, ever seeking an ‘elusive, adoptive Homeland’, with no
secure belonging. Psalm 137 expresses it all:
By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept,
when we remembered Zion . . .
a cry which resurfaces in Ruth
Fainlight’s contemporary poem, ‘The Fall’:
Wherever your home was, having
There can be no other . . .
Yet papa and I had our disagreements, from time to time,
like when I asked for a pair of gold, high-heeled shoes with deliciously thin,
spaghetti straps curling around the ankle.
I had spotted them in a Manchester shop. He was aghast. He quoted Isaiah, who
warns about girlish vanity (3: 16-26): ‘Because the daughters of Zion
are haughty, and walk with stretched forth necks and wanton eyes, walking and
mincing as they go, and making a tinkling with their feet . . .’ Yes,
well, that’s Isaiah for you. Never one to mince his words. And that
was that. I had felt like the ‘first-born daughter’ in Dalia Rabikovitz’s
poem from her collection, The Love of the Orange (1964), a daughter unloved
and misunderstood. But how I loved him.
Papa had been taken ill only two weeks before he was admitted
to hospital. Yet he must have known, for some time, that something was wrong.
The surgeon shook his head and said, quietly, out of Papa’s hearing, ‘So
sorry . . . there’s nothing we can do. It’s too late.’
How will I remember that beauty
and I will not weep
Days will pass through my life
like shivers through my body . . .
the words from Yona Wollach’s lovely poem, ‘I’ll never hear
the sweet voice of God’.
Visiting Papa in the hospital ward brings me much joy, surprisingly,
for he reminds me of his unshakable faith in God, his love and thankfulness
to be a Jew. His tephillin and tallis and a few, much loved siddurim
have come with him. Twice a day he has the nurses pull the curtains around his
bed to pray, in private, to God.
‘He is a fine specimen of his race,’ the surgeon
says, but there is respect in his voice and manner and a tinge of awe. Sometimes,
when I arrive, Papa is sitting in a chair at the end of the ward, his tallis
wrapped tightly over a faded dressing gown, with a group of ‘walking wounded’,
other male patients, gathered around him. I do not know what religion or culture
or faith each belonged to, if any, but transported in delight they remain perfectly
still and silent as he sings to them – perhaps a Psalm or a special prayer.
Even the nursing staff move more quietly, pausing to listen as and when they
can. When he finishes, tired but very happy, someone brings him a drink of water
and helps him back into bed.
Now he is gone and grown men weep
As the inevitable draws near, Papa is moved into a side ward.
Here, he is alone with us, his family. He asks for his tephillin.
‘You are as shadows.’
His words are soft, eyelids flickering. ‘Come closer.’
We do, crowding round him, longing
to be with him, touching, kissing him, his hands, his face. He has a beautiful
face, soft and gentle, with a smile that lights from within - and lights us,
Papa, papa . . . please God, let
him stay . . . we need him. The world needs his faith, his cheerfulness, his
love for the Almighty.
His last breaths come in small
droplets as they leave the body, through the mouth, like tiny hiccups.
Slowly, an illuminating smile
spreads across his face. His head lifts as if he is greeting, or is being greeted
by, a well-beloved friend.
Papa will never know the perfect
glory of this memorable legacy, a last act of faith.
Then he is gone.
Yair Horwitz’s lines, in
a poem called ‘For My love, As She Rises Early’, return, again and
again, as if they are written for him . . .
Return to your enchantment my
Anointed with angels’ faces . . .
It is an appeal to some inner yearning for something lost,
for something finer than that which we already have and are, for something of
the Divine, glimpsed momentarily.
Quotations from Hebrew poetry
in translation are taken from Yair Maezor’s Pain, Pining & Pine
Trees (Tel Aviv: Papyrus, 2000).
Raylia Chadwick has a Masters degree in English literature and runs courses
in creative and memoir writing. She is the author of an autobiographical work
entitled Lovest Thou Me and writes for many publications, including the
Daily Telegraph and the Lady. She lives in Manchester with her husband.