We go into my study, stopping outside in the dark to look at the moon. We dial the number: will anyone else join us tonight? We’ve led this short service over the phone for two years now, late on Wednesday nights, on a party line so that anyone can call in, carer, sufferer, seeker of consolation. Leslie sings the song of the four angels: ‘Before me is Uriel, angel of light; behind me is Raphael, angel of healing; over my head is God’s presence.’
Leslie was there with his smile when I first came to our community, 36 years ago. That smile never left him, warm, embracing, simplifying life’s adversities into welcome, ushering everybody, old friend, new acquaintance into a sunshine of welcome. It never left him, except perhaps in the cruellest phase of his illness.
I see Leslie leading the services in the Synagogue: Kol Nidrei: All our vows and dreams, may we never give up hope of fulfilling them; Shuvi Nafshi; may my soul find her rest; Ve’avitah tehillah: you, eternal God, love the songs of mortals, made of flesh, blood and confusion, fleeting as shadows through a turbulent world.
Leslie was a wonderful teacher: ‘Half the battle is helping the boys relax, taking the pressure off them’. He’d talk to the parents: ‘Don’t worry, she’ll be great on her Bat-Mitzvah’.
Leslie loved animals. I see him, gently calling to the horses at the farm on Regents Park Road. He adored dogs, and they him. If I let my dog off the lead in a room full of forty people, it was Leslie to whom he ran.
Leslie had a moral passion too, refugees, people in pain. He helped fight for the Race Relations Act.
But it’s his from-the-heart smile we all remember most. He could almost disarm destiny with that smile, and nearly did, running with the Olympic Torch in honour of the generous, accepting spirit in which he took his diagnosis of Alzheimer’s. But in the end, it wasn’t Leslie any more, but the faithful love of his family, close friends and carers which formed the counterforce of love against the cruelty of the disease.
We gardened together during the first stages of that illness, when his kindness shone out even more and he wouldn’t hear a single bad word about anyone, not his synagogue and certainly not his rabbi. I think of us together, planting hundreds of daffodils.
The wonderful poet Helen Dunmore understood, in her own dying:
My life’s stem was cut…
I know I am dying
But why not keep flowering
As long as I can
From my cut stem?
Forgive me for writing about Leslie, but he is the closest of my colleagues to have gone to his eternal rest. There are so many others whom we remember. Today is July 7, twelve years since the London bombings (before those this year). I think of Miriam Hyman, Susan Levy, and others whom I only know by name. Tomorrow is the Pride March in London; I think of Shira Banki stabbed to death in Jerusalem’s 2015 parade.
There are so many with whom our daily lives are inextricably, instinctively bound: parents, partners, children. Living without them was unthinkable until…
A friend who lost his wife spoke to me of his dislike of the term ‘closure’. I agree. Love, and loss, do not know closure. They continue to grow in us. What we have is not closure, but becoming, what the voices of the dead say inside us.
This is true of sorrow, as David Grossman wrote in Falling Out Of Time, reflecting on the death of his son Uri: ‘the boy / is dead…But his death, / his death / is not / dead.’
This is no less true of love. We carry within us the ongoing becoming of those we have loved. Sometimes, in some seasons, on days with a special light, we notice that they are still flowering. We all have gardens in our hearts, into which time painfully transplants more and more of the lives we have loved around us, until it takes us too, and leaves us, also, vital memories in the hearts of others.