Papa was supposed to visit us in August of 2018, but his unexpected death came that July, just before his intended visit to Israel.
I last saw him in person in the summer of 2017.
One of the last memories I have of Papa is him showing me his right hand. He bent his index finger at a ninety degree angle and then unbent it by using his other hand. “I can’t unbend my fingers any more,” he said. He was 69-years-old at the time.
Often, I relive this particular memory because, while I’m only 42 years old, my fingers sometimes stiffen.
Of course, this only occurs after I’ve carried many heavy grocery bags over a long distance, or when I clench my hands for an extended period of time. And, even then, I can straighten out my fingers without the use of my other hand; it just takes me a bit of effort and focus… But it’s uncomfortable and slightly painful.
While the stiffness in my fingers is nothing compared to what Papa’s had been at 69-years-old, I also feel sharp tinges when I’m typing, which I spend much of my days doing; and I sometimes feel them even more acutely when I’m bending and unbending my digits while counting syllables.
Anyway, more than anything else, it’s a reminder of my mortality.
When I think back to that same summer of Papa’s final visit, I also remember seeing him smoking a cigarette outside, near the front door of our apartment building. That was something that I hadn’t seen him do in many years.
Papa had been an on-again-off-again smoker for much of his life. He’d first picked up smoking as a teenager in the USSR – with teachers who favored him. Later in life, he regretted his addiction, and he quit… but then, not entirely surprisingly, he started again. I’m honestly not sure how many times he quit and picked up smoking again, but he was never proud of it.
In his later years, Papa attempted to hide his smoking and would deny it when confronted. That’s why I was surprised to see him smoking so close to the front door of my apartment building in Jerusalem… not because I thought that he’d given it up… but because he was ashamed of it.
I was in a hurry to pick my daughter up from her preschool that day when I ran by him, as he sat smoking his cigarette… I was running late and didn’t have time to stop. What I remember feeling, more than anything else, was disappointment; and that probably came across to in him. To this day, I still remember his embarrassed, apologetic eyes.