‘Set your signature on my heart’, says the lover in The Song of Songs.
We carry each other’s signatures in our hearts. Every day we write ourselves into each other’s lives and spirits.
Sometimes it happens with sudden drama, as when people fall madly in love. More often it occurs slowly, imperceptibly almost. Teacher, neighbour, colleague, friend, man at the gate, – months pass, years pass, turn unnoticed into decades. We share a hundred ordinary things, take each other for granted, like the trees along the side of the road.
When a person we know in such a way dies, we lose them, their idiosyncrasies, humour, how they liked their coffee, said ‘good morning’.
And we lose a part of our own self also. For our lives are interwound and a part of us dies with each other’s death. That is why John Donne’s words leave few untouched:
No man is an island entire of itself…Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind. And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee. Meditation XVII
Bernard Schneider died last week. If you didn’t know him, imagine a person who was always there, faithful, quiet-spoken, kind; a man with a sense of humour so dry or droll that I sometimes gave people who’d never before met him a quiet health-warning in advance; a person loyal to family, community and the Jewish religion, with an immovable commitment which not rarely suggested the words ‘stubborn’ or ‘obstinate’; a man on whom the congregation could utterly rely; a man who never lost touch with the child-part of his own soul, so that he was, until almost the end, a wonderful reader of stories, player of games, pusher of swings with his children and grand-children.
He used to approach me at the end of the synagogue service and make a gesture of turning a door knob. I would hand him my bunch of keys to the office and he would go upstairs and place some essential document in the community wedding files.
For Bernard really did write signatures of the heart. During thirty-five years he was our registrar, our senior secretary for marriages, who filled in the forms in indelible ink in the official books; held out the pen to bride, groom and witnesses; sat on the other side of the table while the photographers captured that iconic moment in which the newly-weds signed away the rest of their lives; and finally confirmed with a signature of his own that this was indeed a marriage faithfuly performed ‘according to the usages of the Jews’.
I’ve been told that Bernard officiated at three hundred weddings (including Nicky’s and mine), almost all of them after the death of his first wife, which made me realise what courage lay concealed within his humour and unflappable self-possession.
Bernard’s passing is to me and his friends not at all like his loss for his wife, children and grandchildren. My heart goes out to them.
Losses are never comparable. I cannot but think today of the shocking murder of seventeen young people and staff at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida. (It’s inconceivable to me why America does not change its gun laws.) I think of all of them, their parents and families, and of the ties friends and colleagues may have with the five Jewish victims.
Sometimes our writing on each other’s hearts feels like the calm presence of a steady hand, sometimes like the reassurance of a calming caress, and sometimes like the cutting and tearing of an adze.
Our heart is full of other people. We should acknowledge them, appreciate them, thank them, share their greetings, quip back at their crazy humour, stand by them in loyalty, while they and we still can.