How small, how trivial the acts of love and kindness seem, with which we strive to counter the vast cruelties of the world. Yet the difference they make.
How selfless so many of the staff in hospital and hospice are, where our family have spent much time over these last days.
‘I’ll choose you the best bunch; they’re the sweetest,’ says the man at the fruit stall, holding up a large cluster of black grapes. ‘The nurses appreciate a bit of fruit. They get more chocolates than are good for them and more biscuits than they know what to do with.’
And those nurses and carers! ‘We’re just going to straighten you up and make you more comfortable, my darling.’ The sheets are folded back with scrupulous care, the injection inserted, the pillows made straight.
How civilised, how compassionate, how privileged this is, compared with the brutal, violent horrors of Ukraine, Yemen, the south of Israel, Gaza, ‘the monstrous anger of the guns,’ terrors which leave us all in profound and multiple distress.
Yet here too mortality, though it comes not in bomb blasts and shattered buildings but between clean sheets, remains implacable. What do we have, what’s left, when it all ends?
Or maybe they’re not the right questions. Instead, we should ask ‘What have we given? What is the love that abides?’ What remains when, in the biblical phrase, ‘the dust returns to the earth as it was’?
We cannot help but live as if the essence of our being is our own consciousness, what we feel and desire, our moods and sensations. But perhaps it is not so. Maybe the most important part of who we are exists not in ourselves but in the minds and hearts of others, in the memories and after-echoes of the care we showed them or the hurts we gave. Thus, the surviving core of me is not in me, at least not in me alone, but in every person, even every animal or tree, affected by my passing. In them our love, and hate, endures.
A beautiful phrase from this week’s Torah portion says it all: venafsho keshurah benafsho, ‘his soul is bound to his soul.’ It is these words, spoken by his half-brother Judah, which render Joseph unable to hide his tears or conceal his identity any longer. They refer neither to him nor even to Judah himself, but to the bond between Benjamin and their father Jacob. Jacob cannot live without his youngest, beloved child. The selfless understanding that this love is the most important thing, that it overcomes, that it simply must overcome, absolutely everything, finally breaks the barrier between the long-estranged brothers.
This is what we have in life to set against the hatreds, enmities, misunderstandings and misjudgements: the simple bonds of love, the appreciation that, even if they do not involve us directly, they are sacred and their sanctity commands us.
So I think, as the night advances and the corridor of the hospice grows quiet, not of the angers, (what family doesn’t have them?) but of how Isca, our second mother, sat with me decades ago during similar night hours when I couldn’t sleep after being taught Macbeth, because I was certain Banquo’s body with its ‘twenty trenched gashes on his head’ lay underneath my bed. Or of how, when we brought Mossy, our first child, home from hospital, Safi the dog, his rather large nose put slightly out of joint, sprung into her car to be spoiled by Isca for two whole days before she brought him back, reconciled to his new reality with its altered canine privilege.
These are the foolish things by which love endures, eluding death, to be passed on in the inscrutable future, in ways incapable of being fully known. These are the fragments we have to shore against our ruin.