We are commanded to hear. Of course, the commandment, as I read it, is more about "Listen up - something really important is coming, that you need to hear," I take it to heart: Listen. Hear. And I hear everything. All day, every day, there is a lot of noise out there, and it doesn't stop. And every noise seems to proclaim "Listen up! Hear me!" and I do.
I want it to stop. I am afraid of the quiet. And so it goes: a constant barrage of noise, from soothing to seething and reeling and roiling, there is an eternal psalm of noise that needs to be - yearns to be - longs to be heard.
I dwell in the distraction of all that noise.
There are times I hear better than others. I can hear my child laugh from a great distance. I can hear him weep or cry out no matter how loud the cacophony around him is, and I hear his breath at night. I hear him with my heart, where there is no such thing as distance or clutter, just connection.
I tend to hear music, instrumental, piped in, live. Doesn't matter. I'll be sitting with friends over coffee, chattering and fluid, and suddenly hear the faint strains of some piece of music (usually bad elevator music that has no life or pulse in it, and I am grateful when it is not that); "I hate this song," or "I love this song," I will say, and am met with "What song?" Can't they hear it? I'm forever amazed that the music goes unnoticed, unheard. But I hear it. I am witness to the notes that play.
I am woken by dump trucks, startle at sirens, calm at bird song and get lost in the sound of water. I have found God in the sound of the waves that lick and jump and tangle with the shore.
I am commanded to hear, and so I do.
There is one sound that I look for, strain for, miss more than anything: my father's voice. I didn't love it. There is no special resonance in it. He was a baritone - the in-between pitch of Everyman. Normal. Pleasant. He sang beautifully, but I don't remember his songs, or his voice when I reach back into the memory banks of my childhood. He sang Barber Shop in a choir years later, long after he had moved to Memphis. It was his joy, his love, his retreat after the long hours he sat on the Federal Bench. He often sent me CDs of his performances. They went unlistened to; I am not a fan of Barber Shop quartets.
And please - don't misunderstand! My father hasn't died. He is just voiceless. Two years ago, in order to treat the cancer that had invaded his throat and voice box and tongue, the doctors performed a trachyectomy. They removed his voice box in exchange for his life. We are all good with that.
But I miss my father's voice, even though I can't seem to remember just what the hell it sounded like.
He has a mechanical voice now. As my son, much younger then dubbed him, Robot Zayde. IT is painful and difficult for him to speak. So, he doesn’t talk much. Not that he ever did; he disliked talking on the phone, answered questions with an economy of words that astounded me (considering my motto is “why use ten words when a hundred will do?). He is quiet. He is content. All good.
A few nights ago, I had a house full of people. Sadly, we had all gathered to sit shiva for my mother’s brother, Uncle Phil. While I have thrown myself into my Judaism over the last handful or two of years, searching and stumbling around, looking for meaning, looking for God, my family has not. At my bat mitzvah forty years ago (oy!), I called my parents “lox and bagel Jews.” Not much has changed since then. While holidays are celebrated gastronomically, they tend to avoid the more formal expressions of Judaism. When my son became a bar mitzvah a few years ago, although they couldn’t manage to make it to the synagogue on Friday night, at least everyone was there on Saturday morning. And so it goes: we have all taken a different path to God.
Shiva was what it always has been for me – a celebration of life, a time to mourn and remember and find strength in community. If I – when I falter, I am caught, ever and always. It is, to me, the best of who we are, this uncompromising demand that no one ever grieve alone. So the house was noisy and crazy and full to the brim. Even that day, the day my uncle was buried, there was a coming together that made sure we each of us knew we were not alone.
The minyan service seemed to take its cue from the day: quiet, hesitant, leaning in and reaching up to one another. Hebrew and English mixed and twisted together, forming a tight bridge, or a handhold – something to grab onto. The air and the walls buzzed with softly droning chants, as people murmured and mumbled their way through the evening service. We made time for words, and then time for silence.
As we came out of that silent meditation, my friend began to play the familiar chords to Oseh Shalom, creating her own bridge between prayer and memory. And into that holy space, of peace and wholeness, my father brought his hand up to the mechanical device that allows him to breathe and speak, and he sang with us. “I am here;” he sang, “hear my voice – I am with you, and moved by you, strengthen you and find comfort in you.”
I am so grateful that I was able to be a part of that sacred moment, a part of that song. It was not the voice I remembered, my father’s harsh, mechanical and flat voice. It was much more beautiful than anything I’ve ever heard.
(c) Stacey Zisook Robinson