A day to remember “I’m considering getting a lung transplant,” an old friend confided. What followed was his grim smile, then a deep tug of oxygen from nasal tubes attached to the canister he was carrying.
I hadn’t seen him in months; his condition had worsened. Although that shocked me, I admitted to him that he’d been on my mind for the past few days. That pleased him.
“Here’s why,” he said, as his brighter, more familiar smile returned. “After 1 1/2 years of difficult work, I finished this.”
He held up a cell phone.
“After 18 months, I had to come show it to you.”
On the phone’s screen was a menu of fourteen presentations about Jesus and Christianity, each three minutes long. All of them could be viewed in one of six regional dialects of India. “One of the videos teaches how to transfer all of the information (including a library of Christian texts) to the memory chip of another phone. And another, and so on until, potentially, all of India would have access to the work he’d done.
Despite the fact that Jews like me don’t proselytize, I was impressed. “Next, I’ll make one for Spain. Then Africa.” Although he struggled to breathe, he seemed and sounded undaunted. A few ministers who’d been shopping had heard him talking to me; they wanted to see what he’d done.
Weary after that, he had to leave. Weeks prior to his visit, he hadn’t been able to drive. Feeling stronger, he’d decided to make this trip his first solo outing. However, since he’d struggled to get from the front door of my store to a chair fifteen feet away, I was worried about his safety.
“I’ll be fine,” he said. “It’s just the standing and walking that’s hard.” With that, he dropped into the driver’s seat; we said goodbye. For a moment, I thought of offering a prayer in his behalf, something I don’t often do.
A question one of my students had asked earlier that morning may have provoked me.
“Did you doubt your faith in God?” she’d asked Dr. John Guzlowski, a retired professor whose parents had survived the Holocaust, after he’d read his poetry based on stories they had told him about their ordeal in concentration camps. All of us strained to hear his answer. Very quietly, he explained that he had.
Before his reading, we’d heard a similar question asked of a Holocaust survivor, the mother of our other guest, while she was interviewed on a video filmed as part of Stephen Spielberg’s Shoah project. At the time, the survivor, in her seventies or eighties, was, according to her daughter, battling cancer.
Even so, although she was Polish, she spoke with clarity in her heavily inflected English. Time and again, she was asked questions that brought her to tears. Her answers that were unforgettable.
One was a about a day she never forgot. That day was May 12, 1942. She described it with absolute certainty, with a touch of stoic rage that pierced any emotionally buffering layers I’d brought to class.
“That was the day,” she’d said, staring directly into the camera, “that they took my parents away.” She never saw them again.
Six months after the filming, she passed away.
Returning to my store after class on that clear autumn day, I was subdued. Not long after that, my friend with with the telephonic bibles arrived. When I saw him, I recalled the story he’d told me about his Dad, a soldier in World War II who had liberated one of the Nazi concentration camps. After that experience, my friend had told me, his father had been so impacted by what he’d witnessed that he never spoke again.
Perhaps that memory, coupled with the Holocaust documentary, added to my shock at seeing my friend so enfeebled. Indeed, it will be a day I will long remember.
B. Koplen 10/23/11
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