My parents took a trip to Las Vegas, last month which meant they wouldn’t be joining us for Passover.
So I have four new questions for this year.
“If you’re not visiting now, when will you come to visit?” “Next year we’ll come to you,” said my father, adding the words, “God willing.”
The expression set me back. When had he added the phrase to his vocabulary? I hadn’t noticed it before. He clearly meant something other than “Next Year in Jerusalem.”
“God willing” was what my grandfather used to say when he’d discuss any plan that demanded more than the usual amount of energy.
Like, “I’ll see you next Sunday, God willing.” I was a child at the time. Why would God be involved in our visit to the Lower East Side, with our short trip over the Koszkiusko Bridge? I thought then that life had an organic rhythm to it. Trees grow, leaves bud, children and grandchildren visit their elders on Sundays in New York. It was a way of being.
But here was my father saying “God willing,” a linguistic fashion statement, like when I moved from flats to high heels.
Now the great wisdom of my parents is the grace with which they have made peace with time.
I have known few men or women who not only anticipate the coming years, but actually jump the gun. My folks sold their business before retirement age, and their house when they could still easily climb the stairs. And they talked about the will long before my brother and I could stand to listen. Maybe it’s because they both lost parents when they were young. Or maybe it’s because they are on a first-name basis with the truth. Whatever.
But if they are ready to say “God willing,” I am not. Dad was in great shape when I saw him in Vegas. Full of vigor. When he’s at home, he goes to the gym: You should see his upper torso! Why in the world is he saying, “God willing?”
“How are you feeling?” Of course he didn’t have to mean anything permanent by it. Maybe it is a tic, a temporary psychic itch. These instincts do come and go.
A few years ago, before his heart bypass surgery, Dad would answer the question “How are you?” with “No two days are alike.”
This made me anxious. Grandpa had answered any inquiry about his health much the same way.
“No two days are alike,” he’d say, with a bitter mutter that implied no two days were worth discussing.
I was a teen-ager by then. We were no longer meeting Grandpa at his store on Orchard Street. I’d drive myself down the Belt Parkway to Brooklyn, where Grandpa lived in a senior apartment complex. Of course, as I think back on it, Grandpa could have been referring to the weather or the sunset when he said “No two days are alike,” since that’s precisely what people who live near the beach say. But I doubt it.
However, when Grandpa said “No two days are alike,” he meant that his body was playing tricks on him. That he was not in control of his corpus even to know what he was free to eat. He had become like a car that had lost its capacity to steer.
Of course it could have been worse, and Grandpa knew it. It could have been that the mind was losing control, while the body careened on. The statement “No two days are alike,” in that sense, had a muscular elegance to it. He was aware of everything, he was assuring us; he was intently, even if obsessively, alert to each and every one of life’s difficulties and joys. His was a statement of pride, in its own age-corrupted way.
But I noticed something new when Grandpa and I said goodbye. He no longer said “God willing.” The absence of the phrase was chilling. It was not the death of hope, not really. More likely, the excision was an acceptance of what was worth fighting for. His struggle was now lived day to day. Next month, next year, was too overwhelming, even if God were willing.
“What’s next?” Thinking about Grandpa, I have to laugh, not at him for his struggles and his realism, but at myself. All around me are the men and women of the new Nip-and-Tuck set, ready for the collagen treatments and the eye lifts. Holding back the night. We never say “God willing.” And we are a long way from thinking “No two days are alike.”
How long can you hide from the basic grammar of life?
“What’s doing?” You can imagine my pleasure when, after his surgery, Dad stopped saying “No two days are alike.” Instead, when I ask what’s doing, he says the all-encompassing refrain, “Thank God.” Not, “I’m fine, thank God.” Just “Thank God.” This, too, of course, indicates something new.
“Thank God” means more than “As well as can be expected given my age.” It means, “I dare not to think about how wonderful life can still be, given all we’ve been through.” “Thank God” is the call of the warrior, still standing up tall.
How I love to hear my father say “Thank God.” May he live to 120, God willing.
Marlene Adler Marks, senior columnist of The Jewish Journal, is the author of “A Woman’s Voice: Reflections on Love, Death, Faith, Food & Family Life” (On The Way Press). Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
Her website is www.marleneadlermarks.com.