On the morning I was to pick up my brother from the airport, I woke up to a Whatsapp alert on my phone. In the haze of waking, I reached for my phone and saw a message from him. When I realized what he had sent me, I whispered to myself, “Damnit, Benjy” and rolled over and sobbed into my pillow, next to my bewildered husband.
He had sent me an echo of my own words. This is what his message read. It was a poem I had written for him:
“The first time we parted
you grasped me with massive shoulders, brand new
and I was overwhelmed by the giant you had become.
I smiled weakly,
and with tears tipping out of my eyes
I offered, “Maybe the next time you see me, I’ll be a new woman.”
But the next time you did, I wasn’t.
Every time after, when we parted
you looked at me with the eyes of the infant I remember
full of an age you’ve finally grown into,
and told me that faith would guide me home.
Here we are, a year out from our first parting,
hair grows long, children grow tall
and though life has evolved around me
I still stand before you, unchanged.
When the time of our parting comes again
you’ll envelop me in your new cavernous embrace
and I’ll bite back the words once more,
to save myself from the irony of unrealized dreams
and the sorrow that comes in their absence.
But the words will be there
tattered on my teeth
for hope is as relentless as this scourge
and if you continue to tell me the future will be new
our shared blood begs me to agree.
So excuse me, while I sap into your strength
and your opaque optimism
and while I watch you realize our dreams
I’ll keep some of it for myself.
Perhaps when our eyes meet anew,
I won’t be a new woman at all,
but the woman you used to know.
A match for your strength and purpose
and we can be bookends again
taking our rightful places on each side,
to dam the reservoir of family and future
that now bleeds on my side of the river.
You’ll be in your uniform of honor
and I’ll be in my uniform of home
and together we’ll weave new identities
so that our skin will fit comfortably around us
You the pioneer, the student, the soldier
and for me, a fusion of all my selves.
Soaking up the holy air of the place
where we part, no more.”
This poem I sent him on the day that he was leaving to go to Israel for his eventual aliyah, was titled, “Unchanged.” I wrote it while I was battling chronic illness, and he was leaving to start a new life for himself. He was taking the opportunity to live the dream of my family, actualizing goals that seemed to be out of my reach while I was ill. He always reassured me that I would meet him there, and that if I held onto my faith, things would be ok. I would be ok.
On the morning I reread this poem, I would be seeing him for the first time in over a year. He came home for a few short days last winter, when our grandmother passed. His plane landed, and my husband drove at an insane pace to get him to her apartment so he could make it on time to say goodbye to her. One of the last coherent things she said was, “Oh, my Benjy, you’re here!” I remember watching him in the corner of her dark room sitting on an ancient stool, saying tehillim. I watched while he joined the men of our family dig the earth onto her grave. We sat together in the middle of the day, in silence, listening to our mother and aunt tell stories we had heard many times. Before I knew it, he left to enlist in the army.
In the span of time that we were separated both our lives shifted drastically. I got an accurate diagnosis and my health began to improve. The color in my face shifted from grey to pink with life. I worked every day to push the boundaries of what I thought I was capable of- and dragged myself from illness to living.
While I was fighting to recreate the potential of what my life could be in the future- he was fighting a different kind of fight. He became a super soldier – a leader – a fighting machine. I watched from the Kotel Cam as he was initiated into the army at the Kotel, my tears fogging my view of my computer screen.
I pored over the photos and video clips that my parents and siblings sent of when they met his unit in the North and finished his final masa (hike) of training with him, and got to watch him graduate from training. I was not surprised when he was awarded “chayal mitztayen” (like MVP) during the ceremony. I had hoped that I would be well enough to make it to Israel to be there to see it, but I wasn’t quite well enough yet. That kind of moment is something you don’t get back, and I missed it. He went off to active duty, and we began to count the days till he could come “home.”
So now the day had finally come, he was let off for his “miyuchedet” (month off that chayalim bodidim receive to visit their families) and I stood in the airport waiting for him. My kids were chanting his name over and over in anticipation of seeing their uncle that had taken on an almost mythical quality. They hadn’t seen him in a year, but they worshipped the ground he walked on.
Sure enough, out of the mob of people that were pouring out of the terminals, there he was. Much larger since the last time I saw him, in a olive colored Golani jacket, hair short, beard long. My kids were jumping up and down and he lifted them both in one swoop, living up to the hype of “being superman.” He and I embraced and after a moment I pulled back to take a good look at him. Our eyes locked and he said, “Shira, you look good.” He meant to say, that I looked changed. I laughed through the tears that were betraying how much I had missed him and we left the airport together.
I worried. We weren’t just a brother and sister who had been separated for a year. We were a brother and sister who each had gone through the most challenging experiences of their lives, while separated. How many moments would be impossible to retell? How much pain, would never be shared? Those moments that would remain silent between us, might continue to separate us, as that time lost could never be regained.
As we spent time together over the next weeks, I discovered that the good things between us had not changed. We caught up on stories as best we could, but I knew that both of us have imaginations vivid enough, and enough empathy that we could fill in the gaps ourselves. The similarities between us in personality and temperament, even though we were born 9 years apart, the eldest and the youngest, had not altered. We had lost moments in time, but being together again in the quiet of our bond, sealed long ago, assured us that we would gain many more in the future.
So this time when he leaves it will be different. Gone will be the bitterness that came when I felt my life and my little brother was being stolen from me. This time I will know that life will continue to transform and progress and I will be ready for it. This time I will know our separation won’t be for much longer.
This time I know, I am changed.