The Q train arrives. I get on. I am headed to Brighton Beach for my yearly pilgrimage. My bathing suit is at home. My hands lie folded in my lap as if I am seated on a wooden pew in synagogue on a Sabbath morning. It is Saturday. I feel lucky; I have a window seat. The ocean looms ahead in my mind, replete with acres of water. It will be there, as always, every summer that I return.
I make this trip to pay for mercy with my presence. Eighteen years ago, I emerged from the fathomless waters alive. Now, there is no purpose for me on the beach but to bear witness, as there is nothing left in Poland for Jews after the holocaust. My grandfather’s bones were left behind, but I keep him alive. Every year I make this trip in gratitude.
* * *
The water was liquid of course, but my body did not feel wet. I was aware of people on the beach far away and the bright colors of their bathing suits. It was a sun-filled Saturday morning in August and my plan was to drown.
I stopped swimming and treaded water as I reached the deeper depths, aware of the hectic activity on Brighton Beach, Bay One, far away. It had nothing to do with me. I met the cold ocean waters according to plan. The sky surrounded me, something I had not expected. The water below and the sky above, two bodies with ultimate force. They held me as I had not been held for a long time. The waters calmed me, the heavens breathed into me. I felt an ease, a letting go.
The depression making me relinquish my body was as strong as the tide pulling in. It could swallow me whole. The bridge scared me, neither sleeping pills nor aspirins killed me, and the razor hurt. The ocean was simpler. As I relaxed, I began to consider the possibility of hope. I searched for a reprieve.
My grandfather was a beautiful Jew. He studied the Talmud seriously. He knew Polish and Russian, and translated letters. He was a cripple and had a general store in his shtetel. Even the Polacken, the gentiles, liked him. He didn’t hit his children. He didn’t hit my father. He died of malnutrition during the war. He would not eat horsemeat.
My grandfather, my zaydeh, was more familiar even than my father. I studied his face, and the letter he once wrote to his sister-in-law in Brooklyn, asking for five dollars to make Passover. I read and was comforted by the swirls of his Yiddish letters. A meaningful kindness emanated from the man with his generous black beard, his one photograph sent to America before the war.
I felt him near me in the ocean. As death approached, I knew my zaydeh understood what it meant to give up. Could my treasured and immaculate grandfather sanction me to weather that August, and other months, other years to come? Maybe the merit of his faith could grant my life meaning again. He starved to death with complete and utter faith. I prayed to him then. I told him how much I wanted to live.
A sliver, a smidgen of a chance began to grow. Hope was permission granted to take that chance and to swim back to shore. I relinquished my need for finality. The handbag I had left on the sand with my keys and my money lay undisturbed, as if I had gone in for a dip in the ocean, and refreshed, was headed home.
* * *
Except today, sitting on the Q Train, I feel inexplicably sad. I don’t want to disturb my grandfather’s sprit. I buried him peacefully the morning he gave me permission to go on. My life is at ground level. The summers that followed that fateful swim were a retribution with my full heart. This morning is hollow.
I visualize the last stop on the Brighton local train as a cemetery. I get off at the next express stop. I am free to do so. No one stops me from crossing over the tracks to go home. It is not a cattle car.
I emerge onto the street and buy a hot cup of coffee. The beverage is a benediction in my hands. A benediction for a life, mine, that goes on living. At the front door of the building that I live in, I check for my keys. They are just where I left them, in a concealed pocket.
G. Evelyne Lampart lived to become a clinical social worker and had clients in hospitals where she was a patient at one time. After 20 years in the field, she happily retired, and now runs an art workshop in the mental health clinic that served to help her heal so many years ago. Her life has turned one hundred and eighty degrees more than once.