Once When I Was Jewish

I’m grateful for this breath, for everything in between the breaths, for everything in between the everything.

Today (and everyday) is about giving thanks.

But today I’m going to tell you about the time I was Jewish.

I’m not.

Jewish, that is. Liking bagels obviously doesn’t count, although I do like a hot bagel with some cream cheese, especially in the Boise airport before an early morning flight (although if we’re being honest and without regard for consequence, I think most of us would take the doughnut).

Josh Ross was Jewish. He probably still is, but I haven’t talked to him in over three decades, so I can’t be sure. He was one of the few friends I had growing up and we spent many a night at each other’s houses, staying up late talking about Magic Johnson’s latest double-double and wondering why the 4th grade had to be so hard. We played football and soccer and rode skateboards on the weekends at the junior high down the street, which seemed so far away, but was really only a few blocks from my house and even closer to his.

Adolescents was already threatening innocence when I was invited to his bar mitzvah. Friendships sometimes drift apart in the haze of prepubescent confusion, and I hadn’t hung out with Josh in awhile. I also wasn’t exactly sure what a bar mitzvah was, except that it had something to do with being Jewish and a synagogue and getting presents.

But I got him a present anyway and by the time I walked into the synagogue and took the first seat I could find, my demise was already in motion. The lady sitting next to me shot me a sideways disapproving look, which I didn’t think I deserved, so I gave her a little wave just in case I misinterpreted her intent. A guy who looked like he was in charge behind the pulpit started reading out of a book. I had no idea what he was saying, only that he sounded pretty forceful.

So I was already confused when I stood up.

I stood up because I thought the guy in charge told me to. I guess it was more because everyone in the section around me stood up after he said something, so I thought he was telling our little geographic posse it was our time stand up.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a procession starting to build in the aisle to my left. As the line of important-looking people, some of them wearing robes like I’d seen at my congregational church back in the day, passed by, I swear that I felt a nudge from the lady next to me telling me to go. And the guy in charge said something that I interpreted as Go!

So I went.

I thought I was supposed to.

I wasn’t.

I started to realize this as the procession took its first turn to the right. We passed in front of Josh and his parents and they looked at me like I’d just shot a puppy, which was right about when I recognized how out of place I was in this particular procession. Twelve years old and short for my age. Almost-white blonde hair. Blue eyes.

So I did my best to look official and when everybody else took a left up the stairs into the front of the synagogue, I took a right.

And walked all the way to the back and out the door.

I kept walking, block after block, all the way home. Which was pretty far. I was somehow afraid an angry mob of bar-mitzvah police would appear if I looked back, so I kept my head down and my hands in my pockets.

I never did see Josh Ross again.

So what’s this have to do with Thanksgiving?

Nothing, really.

But I hope today holds some beauty for you.

And if some perfumed lady sitting next to you tells you to move, think twice.

Here, on an airplane, at my feet.

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Black Labrador, soft eyes, careful movement.

It is her.

She’s been gone for years now.

But it is her. Here, on an airplane, at my feet.

****

I saw him in the terminal with his wife, who was busy herding three little kids while he talked to the gate agent. He was a big guy and looked American in a way that you’d want him by your side in a dark alley after hours. And he’d want to be there.

The dog at his side was wearing a vest with a Vet Dogs patch sewn into the fabric, and across the movie screen in my mind ran a lightening flash of stilted images. Dogs, then horses, then the ocean. Lately I’d been on a journey with veterans, witnessing their massive struggles and what looked like small triumphs, but really were victories far bigger than any of my own.

I’d found that we shared the same beautiful, sacred ships that carried us through the storms.

Dogs. Horses. Ocean.

My gaze returned to the guy with the dog. The gate agent had approached him with what I guessed was a new boarding pass for a more dog-friendly seat, probably a bulkhead. She walked back to the gate and made an announcement over the PA, asking me to see her.

She handed me a new seat assignment too and a couple of minutes later I was walking out into the early morning air toward the plane, with barely a whisper of pre-dawn light coming over the mountains. I breathed deep once and on the exhale I said a silent thank you to the cathedral of pines for what this place had already given me.

Freedom. Peace.

And I stepped on the ramp and up into the plane.

****

She moves quietly, shifting positions with her spine draped across my feet. I ask her partner sitting next to me a question about the dog. Of course, always the dog. He tells me he’s had her a year this week, and she’s one of the last puzzle pieces in his recovery.

I ask him what he’s recovering from.

****

He doesn’t talk at first. When he starts to say a few words she stands up and puts her head in his lap, staring up at him, because she knows. He puts one huge hand on her head and starts to talk.

****

Two years after he came back, something, he can’t remember what, triggered a condition where he lost his memory. The doctors told him that the connection between his left and right brain was damaged in an explosion that he can’t recall now. He sometimes sees flashes of a building next to his Humvee getting hit by an RPG, and thinks maybe that was it.

The doctors did brain tests with all the wires and computer screens and whenever they showed him combat images, this part of his brain lit up like a Christmas tree.

His traumatic brain injury also took away his ability to recognize people. He thought his oldest daughter was his youngest, because 5 years that he didn’t even know he’d lived had already had gone by.

That’s what he lost.

5 years.

In the years before he lost his memory, he used the GI bill to get his motorcycle repair certification and opened up a shop that, after a lot of work, started turning a profit. He was at work when the trigger hit, which could’ve been a bike backfire or a slamming door. He doesn’t know. But he went out to work on motorcycle and couldn’t remember where the gas tank was. And then he fell apart.

He lived in a closet in the master bedroom for the next year and a half, because he thought it was better if his kids didn’t see a dad who didn’t really know who they were anymore. He became violent toward his wife, threw her into cabinets, and couldn’t remember doing it. After a really bad episode, his wife called the cops and he told them that whatever his wife said happened, happened, because he couldn’t remember anything.

His wife said she wouldn’t press charges, and the cops didn’t arrest him, but they told him next time they would.

She almost left him twice but stayed when he finally agreed to get help. She found a program for him, they started seeing a doctor, and he started to get a little better. After 7 months he wasn’t erupting in anger and he’d even started remembering a couple things.

But once he got the dog everything changed.

****

She whines softly, her head still on his lap, and he takes his other hand and gently rubs her ear. He tells her to lie down and she does, this time on the carpeted bulkhead floor in between us, her tail falling across my shoes and her head on his.

****

What brought everything back was the snap of a motorcycle chain connecting the transmission to the engine. He’d started to remember a few things about motorcycles and was working on the bike when the chain snapped back to a magnet and everything he knew about motorcycles returned, in a flood of memory that overwhelmed him and made him get nauseous and throw up.

And every once in a while the same thing would happen. Something he was doing would trigger the flood about that particular part of his life, and it would all come rushing back in an overwhelming onslaught of memory.

He can remember most things now, but a lot is still lost.

He’d been in Idaho for a veterans camp with his family and spent all the time he could playing with the dog in the lake, since she’d never been allowed close to water. She’d been earmarked as an assistance dog for a blind person, so she’d been trained to avoid bodies of water at all costs to keep her partner safe. But she was shy with loud noises, like car horns, so they put her into a veterans training program instead.

When he was really in the shit, as he says, the dog knew to turn on lights and wake up his wife. The dog could pull food from the fridge and get his phone if he needed it, because sometimes he had a lot of trouble moving around. He says she can do more around the house than he can.

And now that he’s doing better, the dog grounds him. She reminds him that it’s going to be alright. She plays with him.

She loves him.

****

Black Labrador, soft eyes, careful movement.

It is her.

She’s been gone for years now.

But it is her. Here, on an airplane, at my feet.