(Note: This entry works best over a broadband connection. There are two songs linked. Click to open them in a separate tab or window, and have your speakers on. The songs will load automatically, but you need to be sure the one finishes before you click on the other or you will be hearing two songs at once. Also, I want to give a "profanity alert" for the link from the phrase "unbearable yellow ribbons" in the narrative.)
I have had better years than 2002.
It started with a bunch of weird symptoms. Once, I pulled over on the Mass Turnpike in agony from optic neuritis; I even looked in the mirror to see whether there was something in my eye, like a knife. Several mornings, I woke up unable to move. I pissed all over myself and then crept out of the office with a copy of The Wall Street Journal covering the stain.
I landed in a city not knowing why I was there or where to go. I'd stumble around and not recognize co-workers, one of whom later told me that he had wondered why I was drunk at 8 in the morning. I would find myself sitting in front of clients unable to understand or explain the material I had just given them.
The doctors figured out that I had multiple sclerosis. I quit my job, and then worried like crazy about whether my disability insurance carriers would find a way to stiff me. It didn't help when I turned on 60 Minutes and saw a story about how Unum Provident rejected a disability claim from an eye surgeon with Parkinson's Disease. (My idea: Force Unum's CEO to use that doctor to get his cataracts removed. Both eyes.)
In the midst of this twisted circus, I attended a block party in the suburbs of Boston and found myself seated next to an nice old man who drooled and talked as if he was mentally impaired. His name was Leonard and he was a retired rabbi. He had suffered a stroke, and what I was seeing represented a major recovery for him.
I told myself I'd be polite and move on as quickly as I could. Immediately, a little voice said, You have just been diagnosed with MS, you selfish jerk. You are going to sit here and give this man your complete attention, and hope that whoever runs the universe will forgive you for what you were just thinking.
Thus began a beautiful friendship with a wonderful man who, stroke or no stroke, could think circles (and squares and triangles and octagons and ellipses) around me. We discovered a mutual affinity for chess. Soon, we were playing every weekend, Leonard typically kicking me up one side of the chessboard and back down the other while we lamented the disaster that was (and still is) George W. Bush and his Iraq war.
I learned all sorts of things, among them that the Spanish and Portuguese inquisitions weren't merely the over-exuberant enforcement of orthodoxy I had learned about in Catholic grade school, but vicious exercises in anti-Semitism perpetrated on the descendants of Jews who had been forcibly converted to Christianity a century or more earlier.
To proclaim one's innocence was to prove one's guilt. To defend the accused was to be guilty by association. Sound familiar?
Leonard Zion was a poet, a thinker, a reader and a teacher. His goal was to read every book ever written. The word rabbi means teacher. I told a Jewish friend about my rabbi, and he replied, What, you've converted?! No, I replied. I have gained a teacher and one hell of a chess opponent.
Oh, and I guess while we're on the subject of Leonard Zion I ought to mention that he established Indonesia's cooperative education system, which puts promising university students into apprenticeships in major corporations there. He knew many of that country's leaders. When Leonard's son died, the Muslim daughter of one of Indonesia's leaders flew halfway around the world to be at a Jew's funeral. But, hey, what's the value of diplomacy, anyway? Indonesia is the fourth-largest country in the world, you say? Who cares? They're Muslims. Bomb 'em.
Leonard's stroke left him speechless for the better part of a month, during which time his wife of nearly 50 years, Deborah, sat by his bed talking and reading to him. When he finally spoke, he talked so much that Deborah eventually had to tell him to keep quiet so she could get some sleep, already.
When Don and I returned to the Pacific Northwest in 2003, Leonard and Deborah presented me with a going-away present, a copy of Al Franken's Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them. On the way to Seattle, I stopped at the Corning Museum of Glass in Corning, N.Y., and found a beautiful hand-blown menorah in the shape of a spreading cedar tree. I sent it back to the Zions, saying that it reminded me of Leonard's searching intellect and the woman whose love had nourished it.
Leonard and I continued to play chess via the Internet, and as always he continued to win most of the time. We'd play three games per session, but this past spring he started begging off of the third game. I started winning more often, and not because I was playing any better. Then, one Sunday in April, Leonard played two especially bad games. A week later, he missed our appointment.
He had suffered a second stroke, and by June he had passed away. I couldn't attend the funeral, but flew back to Boston a few weeks later and had lunch with Deborah, their daughter Alana and son-in-law Fernando. We ate at a restaurant that had been Leonard and Deborah's favorite. It was right down the street from the Boston Public Library.
Leonard had been in his 80s, and when he died I wondered about Deborah, thinking of those couples who go within months of each other. Please don't think me macabre. My own partner passed away on Sept. 22, 2004. I'm not squeamish about death, and my thoughts about Leonard and Deborah are of the very fondest sort. Theirs was the sort of love you could feel as you walked past their house.
This fall, within only a few months of Leonard's passing, Deborah fell into a coma. She came back out and learned that she was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Now she is in an apartment next to Alana and Fernando's, under round-the-clock care by a hospice agency. Her time is coming. At the risk of descending into cliché, my love for Deborah and Leonard surpasses my ability to capture it in words. Ah, but Deborah, you were able to vote. And isn't it wonderful what happened!
And that brings me to my new rabbi.
Within a few months of my partner Don's passing, one of my brothers and his wife were given the gift of a daughter. And so was I, because I have always regarded my niece Madeline as the new life formed in an answer to Don's passing. She doesn't know it -- not yet -- but Madeline is particularly special to me. She will always be the seedling that grew from Don's ashes.
This fall, I found someone who will fill the shoes left by Leonard and soon to be left by Deborah. Click here for music, turn it up nice and loud, and keep reading.
He is a young Marine Corps staff sergeant who was severely wounded in Iraq, and he has already taught me the sorts of lessons that, with all due respect to Leonard, aren't in books. Out of respect for his wishes, I'll call him Mike rather than use his real name. And even with a pseudonym, I'm not going to detail his injuries or how they occurred.
I'll say this much: Mike is what you call a hero, and I say it as someone who thinks that word has been vastly overused lately. You know, those unbearable yellow ribbons and the breathless commentary about how everyone in uniform is a "hero?" That kind of crap only debases the currency. You'll just have to trust me when I tell you that Mike is the real thing. You know those guys who crawled up Mt. Suribachi with knives in their teeth and planted the flag on top? They are still here.
It's an open question as to whether Mike's going to make it. He is in frequent pain, both physical and mental. Every week is an effort to stay alive. If I can do anything to keep him alive, I'll do it.
I met Mike during a debate on a so-called "milblog," a category of right-wing website purporting to support the troops but in fact exists to do little but serve as cheerleaders for Bush's disaster and to attack the patriotism of anyone who differs. I have posted on those sites partly out of neurosis and partly out of a genuine belief that the right wing in this country badly needs to hear a few things.
We were in full argument, insults flying. Mike spoke up and wrote that he was wounded in Iraq, something I had not known. My body is fucked up and my brain is scrambled, and if you people are going to sit there and hate each other then I might as well just end it all because what's the goddamn point anyway?
In the blink of an eye, I am Billy Pilgrim, the time traveler in Slaughterhouse Five. Sitting at a conference table, looking down at some papers I had put there. Zap! A painless electric shock from my feet to my neck. What have you just done? Back now, on the Internet, I slam on the brakes. I stop posting on that site, contact Mike through e-mail and make peace. We've been corresponding ever since. And I've pretty much lost interest in giving what-for to the wingnuts on the "milblogs."
Something else: Mike is gay. Since being shipped home, he was introduced to and is now partnered with another wounded Marine, a 23-year-old guy I'll call John who wakes up in the middle of the night screaming with phantom pains in his missing legs. I said I wouldn't detail Mike's wounds, but I'll tell you this much: He is considerably worse off than John.
Mike, the fact that you're still here means that something that neither of us can truly comprehend wants you here. So make the most of it, my friend. In the words of Bob Dylan, words that I have quoted to you so often that I wouldn't blame you for being sick of them by now:
Ev'rybody will help you
Some people are very kind
But if I can save you any time
Come on, give it to me
I'll keep it with mine
Some time ago, John got drunk and crashed his hand-control-equipped car into another vehicle. I sometimes joke that I'm an atheist on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays and an agnostic on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. John's crash must have happened on a Sunday. He hit a Marine who had served in World War II. Who didn't report the accident but instead helped get John into Alcoholics Anonymous. Semper Fi.
This past week, Mike and John celebrated the 231st birthday of the United States Marine Corps, a service that would probably still expel them if their sexual orientation became known. They love each other, their country and the Marine Corps, and they hope for victory in Iraq. Mike says a lot of the conservatives on the "milblogs" treat him well, and that he has decided to dedicate his life to memorializing his buddies who made the ultimate sacrifice.
So, I have a new rabbi. I walk in his shadow, just as I have walked in Leonard and Deborah Zion's shadows. Life is a mysterious grand circle, a collection of paradoxes, a moebius strip. Time and space merge and we all move on, hoping that before it's all over we can count ourselves among the brotherhood of the civilized.
Addendum: Deborah Zion passed peacefully on the night of November 20, 2006. She joins her husband Leonard, who passed on June 16, 2006. I will treasure and remember Deborah and Leonard's love and friendship for the rest of my days. I'll do it with every breath. They changed me, and therefore they are still here. A song for Leonard and Deborah Zion