Several years ago I was asked to perform the wedding ceremony for an old friend’s daughter in Los Angeles. I flew in to San Diego a few days early so that I might visit a fellow I had known sometime in the past. We had worked together years before and shared some pretty remarkable experiences. His wife left him and he had moved to El Sauzal in Baja California – about ten miles north of Ensenada on the Carretera Transpeninsular. It was a pretty drive from Tijuana south along what seemed to alternate between Highway 1 and Highway 1D. The striking scenery along this coastal route kept me from focusing on the purpose of my visit.
He moved to El Sauzal because his pension would go further in Mexico than elsewhere and, as I had learned, he was dying. That was the purpose of the visit.
This was a man who had served Israel with astonishing bravery and bravado. As strong as the proverbial ox, multi-lingual, a Sgan Aluf (the equivalent of a light colonel) in the IDF who was then billeted to the Sherut HaBitachon (the Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security apparatus – no place for sissies), he was the last of a breed of warriors – or if not the last, then certainly among the few remaining. He was also something of a poet and marvelous raconteur.
El Sauzal has its mansions by the sea. As the rest of Mexico, it also has its hovels. My friend was not dying in the high rent district. He had given me directions and, as promised, the woman who cared for him was standing in the little front yard awaiting my arrival.
“Él está muy enfermo,” she said. The “él está” I didn’t understand, but the “muy enfermo” was easily translated. He was very sick. I stopped at the door. I had flown across the country and driven in Mexico (this, before the narcotics wars, but still daunting enough). Now I stood at the threshold of pain and suffering to say “good-bye” to a comrade and friend who was two years my junior. He had told me that the cancer was eating him alive and he was spot-on. Staring at me from the bed was a mirror image of Gandhi after a fast. Striding into the little room I thought I had instead walked into a documentary about the camps.
Now, to be completely honest with you: I’ve been at this bedside before, maybe hundreds of them, perhaps thousands. Some were anonymous souls to me, about to meet their eternity. Some were congregants. Some were congregants who were friends. Some were family. Rabbis – most clergy, actually – become inoculated from continued exposure to dying and death. But my experience is that family and friends fall into a different category.
So we talked – actually, he did most of the talking and I did most of the listening. This confined space was filled with exploits, with moments of note and the detritus of a life lived in the fast and dangerous lane. In simple terms: the air was permeated with memories. It was a struggle for him to speak, but he continued on. I was not hearing a confession; this was a valedictory. And so I wonder, as the close of life-as-we-know-it approaches, what words will you strain to say? What events will you resurrect? With family, one hears expressions of love and an uncommon generosity on the order of “don’t worry, you’ll be OK.” Friends are a little different, drinking as we do from the reservoir of shared occasions. Of course, the lesson is that it is far better to say these things while you are able and make no mistake about it: this is a time-bound assignment.
After about four hours, I said my good-byes and took my leave. I heard it through the grapevine that he had died two weeks later and was interred on Mt. Herzl with full military honors. He’d have been pleased, and, although painful and discomfiting, I am so glad that I went.