Desertion — “Necessary Stories” from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

     illustration by Avi Katz

     illustration by Avi Katz

The picture I see each morning when I turn on my computer is of my younger son, Niot, in a graveyard. His hands are on his hips, his head is cocked, his eyes look straight at me, and his lips are pressed into a half-smile that says, “What, you again?” He’s wearing a gray coat, striped on the shoulders with the straps of a red backpack. Under the coat is a blue Adidas sweatshirt and on his head is an indescribable hat, which perhaps has something to do with a defunct Polish yeshiva. The cemetery is in Poland, and the photograph was taken during his high school class trip to the concentration camps. Now he’s in another cemetery.

I didn’t miss him then. It was a time when I never missed any of my children. That is, I missed them in the sense that I enjoyed when they were home and wondered how they were doing when they were not, but I never felt that they were out of reach, that I desperately needed to talk to or touch them; I never feared that they would not come back. No longer, because Niot went away and didn’t.

When a child dies, he becomes incessantly present. Niot is always in my thoughts, all the time, and not in the back as he was when he was off at school or in the army. He’s always looking at me and asking, “What, you again?”

He’s close up in my mind, and right there on my computer screen, but so distant. As of the Shabbat in the middle of Pesach it’s three years now, and he grips my heart but recedes; I hold him tight but he is ever more distant.

Niot connected with friends and basketballs, not with poetry, but I often think of poetry when I think of him. Right now it’s a poem by one of my favorite living American poets, Sharon Dolin, and it’s called “The Problem of Desertion.” That’s the title, but it’s also the first line, because after it the poem goes like this:

occurs when time feels like space
and the dead are stuck
on shore

As if time were something you have to push your way through. But am I not the one on shore, the one who stayed behind when Niot went off to Poland, when he went off to Golani, when he went off to Eilat and down into the Red Sea and never came back?

When Niot was perhaps three years old he sat between me and the window of an Egged bus. We were on our way to Holon—was it to spend a Shabbat with family there or to go to the Bat Yam beach? I don’t remember. As the bus drove through Mishmar Ayalon, Niot’s gaze was caught by a little boy running in a front yard, his father after him. What did he see, I asked him? “He’s running away from him and he’s chasing him and he’s trying not to get caught and he’s catching him,” Niot said as the father swept the boy up into his arms and toward the sky. So we teach our children when they are very small—no matter how far they go, we will be right after them, and we will always catch them and bring them back. We are on shore, they out at sea. I always believed that. My children rode the buses during the Intifada, went off on hikes in the wilderness, and into army combat units. I never had the slightest doubt that I could catch them and bring them back. Then.

But, no, Dolin says, we’re the ones out on the water:

while we
the living kneeling in our form-
fitted canoes
paddle on the lake

It does feel like that, paddling alone in a cramped canoe, far past exhaustion, with night falling fast. It hurts.

In the photograph, a road paved with puzzle bricks recedes behind Niot, running by autumn trees shedding yellow leaves. At the vanishing point, in the exact center of the left side of my screen, just past a square white icon labeled “Niot Project Donate Page,” is a forest. Sometimes I imagine that that’s where he stays at night, that when I log off he turns and saunters back into the woods to get some sleep. He did not rise easily, Niot, but he’s up on time every morning, waiting to ask me, “You again?” Of course, it’s a joke. We look at each other for a few seconds, sometimes a minute or so, before I go on with my day and he gets covered with Firefox and Word. But he’s always there behind the windows, when I need him.

Now, he didn’t desert me, nor I him. He had every intention of coming home, just as I had every intention that he come home. But I am deserted, that is, I have become a desert, or close to one, would be one were it not for the love of the rest of the family and lots of help from friends. That arid spot inside, how evident is it? I think people know it is there, but they cannot feel it. Ilana and I have a support group made up of other people who have deserts inside. We get together and water each other’s dry spots as best we can. But they remain scorched, inhospitable, seas of sand.

Can it be three years since I heard his laugh, felt his hand on my shoulder, three years since the morning, after the Seder, when I sat across from him, his nose in a book, and asked my friend David, “Who ever thought we would see that?” I laughed. Niot did not look up. That night I took him to the bus stop at Faradis junction. He was worried that he would miss the bus. I reassured him. And never saw him again. Three years kneeling in a form-fitted canoe, paddling in the sand.

into years past trees
whole rivers of lily pads and reeds

says the poet. How did she know?

On Niot’s other side a black obelisk rises right next to the edge of the road. Right behind it is another headstone, so it’s hard to see where the grave could be that the obelisk marks. It points up at a gray tree trunk that rises straight out of it, the only tree there that still has leaves on it. If I were a poet, I would make that mean something. On its right is a supine black stone that slants upward until it reaches another monument that, cut off by the edge of the photograph, looks like the bass end of piano. Behind it are other obelisks and markers. They bear words that cannot be read. Behind all the stones and the trees is a building, a school, or apartment building. Life outside the realm of death. But Niot does not look there. He looks at me.

She continues:

and all they do
like the loon’s echoing call on the farthest shore

So there’s a loon in one of the trees. No, not in the trees, loons are like ducks, they have webbed feet and can’t roost in trees. But perhaps Niot put a loon in a tree. It’s the kind of thing he would do, put a water bird on a branch as a joke and then feel sorry for it and take it down and watch it waddle back to its pond. The idea that somewhere in this Polish cemetery a loon sits in a tree makes the picture seem cheery to me. I can laugh, which is what Niot always got me to do.

But what is like the loon’s echoing call on the farthest shore? They are. They are the dead. They are like a loon’s echoing call on the farthest shore while I paddle in my form-fitted canoe into years past trees. Time feels like space and the dead are stuck on shore.

When my oldest daughter, Mizmor, first went down to use my computer after the shiva, after I’d put the graveyard picture of Niot up on the screen, she came upstairs (this was that first dark month when I still could not work a full day) and asked, “Are you sure you want that picture there?” I assured her that I did. It hasn’t changed. Probably it never will. I’ll probably be sitting here thirty years from now, tapping away on my obsolete keyboard with arthritic fingers, and Niot will still look at me each morning with that half-smile and say, “What, you again?” Why should I change it? He’s farther away than Poland, in a city of dead soldiers. It’s quite different from this Polish cemetery—the trees are fewer and farther between and they don’t shed their leaves. No loons in the branches. No, I’ll stay here.

Last night I dreamed of him. I had come to pick him up from the Luna Park. Against a background of Ferris wheels and roller coasters he told me that he’d spent eight hours there with a girl, “and we never ran out of things to say!”

So what do they do, the dead, as we paddle for our lives through the years? Oh, the poet says,

and all they do
like the loon’s echoing call on the farthest shore
is recede


Sharon Dolin’s “The Problem of Desertion,” from The Realm of the Possible, Four Way Books, 2004, is quoted here with the permission of the poet. For information on and donations to the Niot Project to help teenagers with learning difficulties, please go to the Niot Project webpage .

Necessary Stories about Niot:

Pepe Fainberg A Him to himA Him to him (on SoJo)
Meditation: A letter to Bach on the loss of my son.

Other Nights (on SoJo)
Meditation: The Seder, chamber music, and the death of my son.

The Day of His Birth
Meditation: On the death of my son.

More Necessary Stories!