Monday, January 09, 2006

A Guardian Butterfly

Part of moving to a big city like L.A. is having a more diverse community, meeting people you just wouldn’t have access to at home. People besides Brad Pitt. I have lived in a lot of places and have met all kinds of people. Even living in New York and being engaged to a Jewish man did not prepare me for Aidel.

During my first month here, I spent one of my pre-employment days of leisure at the DMV switching my license and my plates to the California variety. I was thumbing through a friend’s script in the waiting area when a soft voice at my side asked “what’s that?” Surprised to meet someone in this town who didn’t recognize a script at fifty paces, I spent the next two hours discussing life with this tiny, orthodox Jewish Israeli woman with the impish glint in her eyes.

Only a few years older than me, she told me about her four children and her American husband. She told me about the crazy way her parents had met in London high society and fled to Israel during the war. She told me about some cousin or other that was supposedly a big deal producer in town.

For some reason I felt completely at home with her. I told her about everything. She seemed genuinely delighted to get inside my life and not in the “what can you do for me?” way of LA. But in the way a child listens to you read a story because you are giving her access to a new world.

After that day at the DMV, we’d meet every month or so and sit and talk. It was always at her house.

“I need time with my friend,” she’d shoo her kids out of the room.

It was early in these meetings that I began to realize Aidel was different from me in ways other than her Jewishness. I’d tell her I’d spoken with my mom about my latest script idea and she’d tell me that my mother was about to go through a big change and that she’d make a move that would surprise us. Later that year my mom went through a divorce, radiation, and then moved to New York City, a place she’d professed too big a fear of to visit when I’d lived there just a few years earlier.

I hate to use the word ‘psychic,’ especially in conjunction with the word ‘friend’ as that conjures up visions of Dionne Warwick. Later, when I finally met her sister, she referred to it as Aidel’s gift. Whatever it was, it was at times unsettling and always accurate.

Usually the first thing she’d ask me about was my love life. I had told her about my Jewish ex, the Agent Man, and my time in New York.

“I was his shickza” I laughed.

Her face clouded. “Don’t use that word. It’s not kind.”

For as much as I’d learned about Judaism, I knew so little about Jewishness.

I remember later reporting excitedly to her about a man I was dating. He was European - always a source of points with me - and from a very rigidly ethical background.

She sighed and without ceremony said “No, he’s not the one for you.”

I sputtered and protested that yes, I thought he was. She calmly waited until I was done and then proceeded to tell me why he wasn’t the right one.

“He doesn’t appreciate your humor or your sense of life.”

I got quiet and we talked about other things. I felt like a petulant teenager.

I stopped calling or coming by so often. I told myself it was because I felt like such an outsider in her world and I didn’t want to upset things by calling on a day I didn’t know was a Jewish holiday or come by not dressed conservatively enough. But really, I didn’t want her to be right anymore.

One day this boyfriend and I were driving and, as usual, I was singing along to every song and doing goofy car-dance moves. I thought it would make him laugh. My sister and I always cracked each other up this way. Instead, he reached over and slammed the radio off. I froze and heard Aidel’s voice in my head. He may as well have told me to stop being me. The relationship held on for a few more months but I think I knew it was over right then. I called Aidel and she told me she couldn’t see me, she was sick.

It was a while before she called me again. Finally, she was well enough and wanted to see me. I came over and told her she’d been right about the boyfriend. She smiled quietly. She was bony and rail thin and I worried my hug hurt her. She never spoke to me of cancer. For as much as she wanted to delve into my life, it seemed she felt there were parts of hers she needed to keep from me. She dodged my questions after her well-being and asked about my life. I said my sister had met a guy. Aidel told me she’d move somewhere hot. A week later, my sister called to tell me she was moving to Arizona for this guy.

I saw Aidel less after that. It depended if she was well enough. I would never have minded to see her in any health but I think it embarrassed her to be seen so frail when she’d been so vivacious. She never wanted to need help.

She called me one Monday. She needed to go to her doctor. It was a Jewish holiday: Shavuot. This meant no one but a non-Jew could drive her. When I pulled up to the door, I was greeted by looks of distrust by the neighbors. It had only been about a month since I’d last seen her but the Aidel that emerged from the building made my voice catch in my throat. Her husband did not smile at me as he helped her into my low sports car. I wondered if it was from his own distress watching his wife waste away or the same distrust of outsiders I’d read on the neighbors’ faces.

As we drove to her doctor’s clinic she explained that they’d disagreed about her even going to the doctor or riding in a car on the holiday but she felt her life was more important than the holiday. God would understand. I cursed my sport suspension which jounced her birdlike body over every bump.

“It’s fine,” she soothed, “with the morphine I don’t feel it.”

She would not let me carry her up the stairs to the clinic though she could not have weighed more than eighty-five pounds. She insisted she could do it herself. I steadied her and she did a sideways shuffle up the wheelchair ramp since she couldn’t get her legs to lift forwards. I watched them inject her with an experimental stem cell potion. After, she seemed to walk more steadily, clinging to my arm as we made our way back to the car.

At this point in our friendship, I saw no point in sugar-coating anything. “Are you scared to die?”

“No.”

“Are your kids scared?”

“They are prepared.”

There was so much I wanted to understand about her life and her spirituality. So much I wanted to apologize for in my absences. How could I tell her how much I valued her when I’d never really shown it?

“Any new men?” she asked as her head lolled on my passenger seat.

“No.” Then I told her about letting go of my delusions with the Director.

“He’s British,” she smiled, “and tall, yes?”

“Yes, 6’4””

I held my breath. I hadn’t wanted to bring him up. I didn’t want to have her tell me what I already knew: move on.

“He is the one for you. It will be a good life together. Just give him space”

My vision blurred and I had to focus on gripping the steering wheel. A few months before, that news would have been welcome but now it was like a punch in the stomach. Dreaming of him had suffocated me. Was I supposed to open back up to that hope and hurt? I concentrated on the road.

We arrived at her door and I wanted to tell her I loved her. But I didn’t. She brought me inside and insisted on peeling me a grapefruit for helping her. I cried all the way back to work.

The next phone call I got was not from Aidel. A month later I turned my phone on as my flight from New York landed. I’d been visiting my mom in her improbable new life. A voice I didn’t know told me that Aidel had passed away and there was a memorial that night if I could make it.

Not knowing what else to do, I grabbed a large scarf out of my suitcase and wrapped it around my head and shoulders. I stood in the back of the Yeshiva and listened to the soothing sounds of the Hebrew prayers. I really had believed that she would get better and always be there to talk to as I grew my Hollywood life. I was in shock.

Later, a woman I’d met at the memorial called to tell me when the family was planning to sit Shiva. I panicked and called all my Jewish friends. What do I bring? What do I wear? How do I act at an orthodox Shiva? Even my least reformed Jewish friend didn’t know. I worried I’d offend the family by showing up as an outsider. Then I decided I had to go just out of love for Aidel.

The only death ritual I know is the Catholic wake where everyone needs to eat. I bring a bag of fresh fruit with me, the only thing I can be sure is kosher. I enter their modest house and find the men and women gathered in separate rooms. I sit with the women, awkwardly holding my fruit until someone takes it and puts it on a table.

We are silent for a while until Aidel’s sister sits on the couch facing me. She looks at me with the same wide grey eyes as Aidel; still and glinting at the same time. I introduce myself.

“Oh, you are Heidi.”

She explains to me that when they asked Aidel to make a list of who she wanted at her Shiva, mine was the first name she had said. Me. Why? What had I given her? Not half of what she had given me. I breathe through my mouth to keep from crying.

We sit for a while longer before another friend prompts Aidel’s oldest, a twelve year old daughter, to ask me about her mother. The girl takes up a pad and pen.

“I’m making a memory book,” she explains. She looks like she’s tired of people waiting for her tears.

I tell her about how I’d met her mother in the DMV and the unique friendship she’d brought to my life.

I talk about Aidel always lending me books she wanted me to read. Most had been about Jewish history. She’d been torn about lending me one because “the narrator had some anger at the Germans he escaped from.” She knew I had a German background.

“I think he had a right to be angry,” I’d told her.

Aidel had lent me the book, laughing about all the Germans in her life now and how she never would have imagined she would have Germans as friends; people who helped her family’s well-being rather than hurt it.

The women laugh as I come to a stop. How could I explain to this girl what her mother had given me? How Aidel’s gift terrified me, challenged me and thrilled me all at once? Her earnest grey eyes fix on me, pen poised.

“She was a butterfly,” I finally say. “She was a beautiful soul that flew into my life for little while.”

She nods and writes. How can I tell her I feel just as lost without her mother as she does?

Her sister watches me watching Aidel’s daughter write.

“Did you know her Hebrew name?”

I shake my head.

“Schlomit,” the sister tells me. “It means ‘Complete’.”

I start crying.

As the months have passed I have thought of Aidel on nearly a daily basis. I wonder how her family is managing without her. No doubt they’ve been embraced by their community and though they surely miss her, they are managing. Selfishly, I wonder how Aidel could have left me with so many questions unanswered. The most burning of them: how could she have been wrong about the Director? I tell myself the morphine must have scrambled her reception.

Sometimes I talk to her. I ask her if she sees things I see. I tell her I miss her. I ask her what I should do about whatever is going on today. Last night, I watched a fluffy love story where the lovers loved passionately but had to go through trials of fire to finally be together. It was silly overall but I was inspired by the main idea of a love like that…that does not alter when it alteration finds.

Later, I turned off my bedside lamp and asked Aidel if she was there. I asked her what fires I have to go through to find that love. In the next moment I heard a faint but clear whisper:

“You are burning now.”

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12 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Heidi this was a wonderful piece.

All I can say is keeping writing and that will help ease the burning for the kind of love you are seeking. Because, I believe you have already found your LOVE. It has been right in front of you since childhood.

I love you
MOM

10:05 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Heidi, this is a marvelous piece. All I can say is keep writing. The burning you are experiencing is your lover and your love. I believe that love comes in many different forms at many different times in life. Your lover is your imagination, and your writing your gift to share. This has been true with you since childhood.

Love,
Mom

10:22 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow. Great post. Your writing is elegant and purposeful. Your story of Aidel moved me. Keep it up.

8:08 PM  
Blogger Kid Sis said...

Hey Braveheart. What a beautiful tribute to your friend.

6:11 PM  
Blogger Lynne said...

beautiful

8:46 AM  
Anonymous Shahua said...

Linked over from Kid Sis in Hollywood. This was a beautiful essay. We should all be so lucky to have a Aidel in our life. Thank you for sharing this.

10:22 AM  
Blogger MaryAn Batchellor said...

Beautiful story. Truly.

11:28 AM  
Anonymous Stephen said...

Lovely, touching story--thanks for sharing it--shalom!

8:31 AM  
Blogger Brett said...

Wow.

Beautiful story, beautifully told.
.
.
.
enviously green B

8:07 PM  
Blogger Grubber said...

What a fantastic story and memory. She sounds like a most amazing lady.

May she RIP.
cheers
Dave.

2:57 AM  
Blogger mahlzeit said...

You have a great gift for words. (I'm jealous!)

10:04 AM  
Anonymous Michael said...

WOW... well-written and touching

I ran across this from David Anaxagoras' site and read this... surprised no one else commented.

Anyway, hope you're working this into a story so you can find the meaning in it for yourself... I don'r mean to sound mercenary about it, but I think her final gift to you was this story and you should write it.

9:50 AM  

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