It's been 11 years
by Susi Döring Preston
This picture was taken the week after Tsiki was killed. I don’t know why I decided to join his male family and friends on the trip to Hebron but I did, I probably thought I was being tough about it, that it was my duty as his partner. In any case, I wanted to see where he spent his last days, where he sat when we spoke on the phone, I wanted to see what it was like as a soldier what this fuss was all about that I read in my Newsweek in the Peace Corps, where words like “intifada” and “suicide bombings” jumped out at me. I wanted to go because I thought it would help me understand how something so horrible could happen. I hoped if I had this experience, it would help me heal quicker -give me an express closure, but it didn’t. That month I lost over 10 pounds and I would wake up every morning to a handful of hair strands covering my pillow- “from the stress”- the doctor would explain to me. If I didn’t have these pictures, I would only remember what that year felt like and 2005 felt numb. 2005 felt alone. The heartbreak of losing my father and Tsiki would have killed me too if there wasn’t luck on my side.
A few weeks ago, I went searching through the fabric drawers in our IKEA bookshelves. 6 weeks earlier, I had given birth to my 3rd child and had to gather the right paperwork for his U.S citizenship. Beneath our bill records and our medical records is a plastic file folder packed with every single written memory I have of Tsiki. I open the folder carefully and find myself hoping to not read a letter that is too emotional. I want to only catch a scent of my story, to softly remind myself without falling into the rabbit hole that took me so long to climb out of. But it never happens that way. Moments later, the folder is wide open, its contents spread around my naked legs and the brick on my chest presses down causing my breath to shorten and pause as my 35 year old self begins reading the story of a young American woman, who fell in love with a young Israeli man in a village in Thailand.
We all know what happens.
A week later, my expanded family and I attend Tsiki’s annual memorial service. After 11 years, so many friends and family still gather at the family home in Mazkeret Batya. The same annual vegetable wraps are served and we still sit together, in a big circle on the stone floored patio outside, while homemade cakes are passed around. This time, since I am nursing, I stay at the home while my husband and older children attend the service.
My husband tells me how our children sit quietly, curiously watching the friends and family surrounding Tsiki’s grave, how they sit patiently and then understand the moment they need to rise up and give comfort to Tsiki’s grieving mother. My husband expresses his own awkward realization that although he is standing among the familiar faces of the family and friends, it is nevertheless the family and friends of a man that (on this morning) he alone has never met, but who is an important ingredient in the recipe of his own life and instrumental in the development of his own future in Israel. And when we pack up to leave, my son angrily tells me: “You SEE! You see Mama?? I don’t want to be a soldier. You see what happens? Tsiki died.” he says, upset about the reality of the conflict. I spent the last years finding the right words for my own narrative, but I had not yet thought of how I was going to handle the effects of that upon my own children. The time has arrived.
It’s been 11 years. I’m now the mother of three sabras – I’ve built my home here. I know the people who have helped me birth my babies at the nearby hospitals. I’ve completed graduate school here, I’ve walked all over this city and built my marriage to what it is now under this holy sky. My children speak Hebrew with a native tongue and they live Judaism. Our neighbor downstairs opens his door when he hears the echoes of our children in the hallway and pulls out a piece of chocolate when he checks their ears. Families in our neighborhood take turns picking up our children from school and we all meet daily in the local park, which is overflowing with the yells and laughter of tons of the neighborhood children. The wine shop knows which wines we drink and when we have dinner guests they just ask to buy something that Susi likes. Our local cafe greets our children with a baked treat every Friday when we go to buy Challah. Despite the great love this little country has, I am a mother now and I am in beast mode with my little brood, like every mother-I will always want to protect them. I am not going to glamorize army service. I am not going to pretend I am comfortable with the thought of my own children having to serve their time. I’ve witnessed the harrowing grief parents go through when a child dies and no one deserves that kind of pain.
As a mother and a citizen, I do not accept the status quo, where loss and grief are an inevitable price for our right to exist.
Our soldiers want to finish their army service and go home to their families. They want to go to college. They want to fall in love and run on our beaches. Our soldiers want to live for this country, and not die by it. So for me, each and every night when I put my own babies to bed, I run my hands over their smooth cheeks and I bless them with the good luck needed to get through this life, because G-d knows they will need it. Whether it’s in Israel or abroad.
11 years have passed. Every single day, when I walk through the streets of Jerusalem, I take a moment to breath in my surroundings. I examine the trees around me and look at each car that lines our neighborhood. I often study each face that passes me in the alley way near our home- wondering what their story is. I look up into the sky think about all of the circumstances and coincidences it took to raise my family in the heart of this Holy City. 11 years later, I still find it difficult to make sense of it all and my most random daydreams could never have imagined this adult life I am living. And I suppose because of such great fortune, I would have assumed that after 11 years, I would not need to write about Tsiki anymore, but I was wrong. Because time passes for people like me but it doesn’t. Does that make sense? But for you, I need to write about Tsiki Eyal more now than ever, because I don’t want you to forget him either. Every fallen soldier should be remembered. For many, this is the devastating reality of living in Israel and whether it’s 1 or 50, losing a soldier brings Israel to her knees, the entire nation mourns and we lose sleep together. Just like tonight, as the memorial siren bellows, we all shut down we all remember together those we lost and there is simply nothing more powerful for me than this experience, to know I am not alone.
Last week a small bird slammed into our patio door, it landed on our patio table, breathing heavily and disoriented. I moved it to our flower bed. My 3 year old asked why I was doing that. “The bird doesn’t look like it’s doing so well, and I want it to have a comfortable place for it to rest.” I answered. “And if it dies, we will bury it like Tsiki” answers my daughter, without a beat.
“Yes”, I answer deflated, “We will bury it.” But when I returned a few hours later, the bird was gone. And that gave me one more chance to narrowly escape having that conversation with them. It gave me more time to find the words for our own family story, and I need as much time as I can get.