Thursday, January 27, 2011

Tribute to My Brother

Weatherly Heights Baptist Church
Huntsville, Alabama
Monday, January 24, 2011

At Jeffrey’s 60th birthday party I read the single poem that I am most proud of writing. It’s a poem that Jeff loved as well, and I think you will see why. It expresses the admiration and the love of a little boy for his big brother, and the wistful yearning for deeper connection with his brother that the boy felt later in life.


He had a Schwinn Roadmaster
the kind with the fat tank
along the crossbar
that held batteries and
had a little round chrome button
to sound the horn

Some mornings
he let me sit sideways
along that crossbar
he seemed so big and strong
to pedal for the two of us
as we headed for the
Chestnut Street School­
a first-grader and
a big sixth-grader

That was the last time we were going
in the same direction at
the same time
the last time we were on
the same path

We’ve traced one another’s
footsteps here and there
crossed paths on other occasions
often out of synch
going to or coming from
different places

There were places
           of learning
           of worship
           of recreation
           of work
           of living­
a cat’s cradle
of our travels
           our quests
through space and time

How glorious
to recall
a September morning
when we were going
the same way

I stand here today not only with gratitude for that September morning, but with eternal gratitude that in the years that followed the writing of this poem, and especially in the last two and a half years, Jeff and I made the time to consciously walk the same path at the same time.
No greater example of this was the “home and away” visits to one another’s spiritual retreat centers. In the summer of 2005 I asked Jeff if I could join him for his annual foray to the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina where he would meet with colleagues for a week of study and fellowship.  It was a treat to spend time with him driving through the wooded highways, or sitting shoulder to shoulder in morning prayers, or taking in a scholarly lecture. Best of all was just hanging out on the porch at night with an array of snacks and beverages, chatting with Jeff and his rabbi friends.
In October of 2009, with both his speech and his walking somewhat compromised, I nervously asked him if he would consider coming with me to a Jewish Men’s retreat—at a place in the Berkshire Mountains of Connecticut that I have come to love as a spiritual refuge. I can’t remember why I was so hesitant and unsure, because Jeff accepted the invitation at once. We met in New York City, celebrated his 67th birthday with Ann Lois and other family members, and then the two of us headed up the Hudson Valley to camp.

As  he did everywhere, Jeff instantly became a beloved and treasured member of this ad hoc community of fifty men. I really don’t recall that either of us did anything so special, but it was ironically gratifying to discover that within this group of men who had gathered in search of virtual brotherhood, two actual brothers would be so greatly admired for simply being there with and for one another. 
The single moment that I will most treasure occurred during the Sabbath morning service. Quite unexpectedly I was summoned to come forward to carry the Torah around and through the congregation before it was to be read. As is the custom, as I passed each man, he would take the fringes of his prayer shawl and touch the sacred scroll, then touch the cloth to his lips and kiss it. When I reached Jeff, in addition to touching the Torah and kissing it, he touched my forehead as well and drew the fringes to his lips with a kiss.                                                                  
How glorious to recall an October morning when we were going the same way as brothers!
In August of 2008, Jeff had been given what some considered a cruel and tragic “death sentence” but he didn’t seem to look at it that way. For him it was a chariot ride—a golden chariot drawn by winged horses—sent from heaven for his final ascent. He would savor the ride with such appreciation of his days, that he invited everyone along the way—friends and family and even strangers—to climb aboard and share the sheer joy of being alive. For two and a half years we all were on the same path—a path of hope, a path of faith, and most of all, a path of love. My brother shared every mile of his journey with every one of us. As sad as we are to see him reach his final destination, we all rejoice in the treasured gifts that he bestowed along the way.
The last time I saw him, I pulled up a chair to sit close as he chatted with great animation late into the night, well past his normal bedtime. He asked to study the Twenty-third Psalm.
“What does it mean,” he probed the Hebrew text, “Adonai ro-ee, lo echsar. (The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.)?” “...[people] say they know this, but none of them [really know] any of it!”
Lo echsar! (I shall not want!) Lo echsar! Lo echsar! he kept exclaiming.
He wanted us to know that he felt the guiding hand of the shepherd and that he was lacking for nothing. It was an amazing teaching from a man barely able to make his simplest thoughts understood. It was a final declaration of faith—as far as I know, his final sermon. In studying the Twenty-third Psalm, as Jeff requested, I discovered these words of Rabbi Harold Kushner who says that part of the psalm’s message is our ability to “make God look good by the way we live our lives so that others will be inspired to follow us and walk in God’s ways.” 
Jeff made God look very very good. Jeff was an inspiration. Jeff’s cup runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy followed Jeff all the days of his life. Rabbi Jeffrey Lewis Ballon, harav Yisrael Lev ben haRav Shimon, my brother, Jeff shall dwell in the House of the Lord and in our hearts forever.

Monday, January 3, 2011

The Shepherd’s Hand

Debbie and I were concluding our planned three-day visit to Columbus, Ohio—home of our daughter, Becca and her husband, Josh. We had gathered on Sunday, December 26, 2010, the eve of our fortieth wedding anniversary, with our other children—Shira from Chicago, and Jake from New York City with his wife, Alana. The event was joyously successful beyond our expectations. Everything seemed to come together perfectly.

The mere fact that we all arrived was a miracle in itself. A week or two before our travel day, Jake and Alana were notified that they had been unceremoniously moved from the mid-morning flight that they had booked to a seven a.m. departure— less pleasing to them by far. Disgruntled but compliant, they left their Manhattan apartment in darkness to get to the airport. How fortunate it turned out to be, as a blizzard soon descended upon New York stranding thousands of people for days. They were among the last to depart that morning, thus allowing our celebration to take place on schedule with everyone present.  

As we contemplated our scheduled departures from Columbus later in the week, it seemed like it would be clear sailing ahead. The warming trend in the weather was reassuring. Shira departed on schedule Wednesday morning. Jake and Alana followed suit Wednesday afternoon. Deb and I would stay through Thursday afternoon so we could spend some time with Josh’s parents, Steve and Cheryl, with whom we have become good friends.

All was good. We had a great visit. Wednesday night we parted company with Becca, Josh, Steve and Cheryl and headed to our hotel. Just then I received an email from my sister-in-law Ann Lois, from Huntsville, Alabama, giving me an update on my brother Jeff’s condition. He himself is a miracle, long outlasting the dire predictions of his neuro-oncologist. Nonetheless, his brain cancer—or its treatment—has had a deleterious effect on his speech and mobility. The latest news is that his kidneys are showing signs of being compromised as well, with the possibility that kidney failure might ensue. I called Ann Lois to get the details. We spoke nearly an hour. It was around midnight when we hung up.

I prepared to go to bed. Deb may already have nodded off when my phone rang with a recorded announcement from United Airlines informing me that our Thursday afternoon return flight had been cancelled! I immediately called United to see how we would make it home, and learned that there were no seats available until Saturday, January 1. This was preposterous. I was on the phone another hour searching every possible option from several Ohio airports to nearly every California airport—nothing! Reluctantly I allowed the agent to book us on a New Year’s Day flight at 6:10 a.m.—routing us backwards to Washington/Dulles, then on to Chicago, and finally San Francisco. Yuck!

At the end of the call, my curiosity prompted me to ask the reason for our flight cancellation. They told me it was due to an impending ice storm in Chicago that would not allow our plane to get to Columbus for departure. That seemed specious, given how far in advance of this supposed storm they were canceling the flight.

As I settled into bed, my mind was churning over the grim news of my brother. I wondered how and when I would see him again. I also was preoccupied with the logistics of extending our stay in Columbus two days. Eventually I fell asleep. When I finished my fitful night I felt the lingering awareness of a dream. The only part that I could recall involved someone leaning over me, whispering something about Jeff. That seemed to be all I needed, upon coming to full consciousness, to be inspired with an idea that only seems obvious in retrospect. Since we would not be getting home before Saturday, and since we had essentially accomplished all that we had set out to do in Columbus—what if United could get us to Huntsville to spend these two extra days of our trip there? This would give us the unanticipated opportunity to visit Jeff and Ann Lois.

When the temperature that day proved to be in the forties in Chicago with the mere chance of rain, I knew for sure that United had not leveled with me all along. I called the “friendly skies” again and offered the agent the opportunity to make amends by rewriting our Columbus-D.C.-Chicago-San Fran return tickets to take us to Huntsville immediately and home to San Francisco on Saturday at no additional charge. One more hour listening to Rhapsody in Blue on the phone, and the deed was done.

Oh, there were some subsequent occurrences that seemed more like curses than blessings—such as arriving at the Columbus airport and discovering that the acquiescent agent had not written the ticket in the prescribed manner, thus making it nearly impossible to get our boarding passes. As the clocked ticked away the minutes before our flight, a hapless airport attendant finally allowed another agent to press the magic keys to fix the problem.

From there we ran through the airport, barging ahead of the security line, dashing to the most distant gate, only to discover that I had somehow been cleared though the initial identification check without a true boarding pass. Apparently and inexplicably the TSA agent had initialed my itinerary card. The boarding attendant was unsympathetic. They were minutes from closing the door and he demonstrated no concern that I was standing before him without a boarding pass. There would be no way I could retrace all my steps and get back in time for the flight. He just impassively said he had to deal with other customers and seemed to derive pleasure from exacting as much anguish from us as he could before nonchalantly printing out a new pass for me and allowing us to board. Whew!!!  

Of course inconveniences such as these quickly pale in the light of my brother and sister-in-law’s daily struggle with his increasing infirmity. His simplest acts have become major undertakings enabled largely by the enduring patience, strength, and determination of Ann Lois. Many of Jeff’s abilities have diminished. He either has had some mild strokes or the lesions have affected his ability to move about freely and to communicate clearly. Every action, every utterance is an effort. Often at issue is whether to use a cane, a walker, or a wheelchair for his transport—all viable options under certain circumstances, although increasingly, the wheelchair seems most appropriate.  He is most comfortable sitting in a new motor-controlled recliner. Often he lies back in it idly playing with the up and down buttons—seeming to exercise control over the small part of his universe that succumbs to his will.

His understanding of the world about him varies—or at least our understanding of his understanding does. Occasionally his words are sharp and clear—more often not. Sometimes unintelligible. Sometime nonsense. He has been disinhibited for much of his illness—anger, frustration, sadness, joy always on the surface. He is also still amazingly clever and funny at times—knowing when he has broken through the dim translucent wall surrounding him, making the silly grin that we used to see so often.

Thursday night, after dinner, I pulled a chair alongside his recliner and patiently panned for meaning in his intermittent stream of ramblings. He was able to clarify his intent somewhat. He definitely wanted a copy of the twenty-third psalm that I quickly found in a weathered Rabbi’s Manual in his office. He seemed to be asking me to study the psalm with Adam Stein, a recently ordained rabbi and young friend of our family since birth.

“What does it mean,” he probed, “Adonai ro-ee, lo echsar. (The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.)?”

“...they all say they know this, but none of them [really know] any of it!”

“After I’m the home, at the house...even once...a little bit of...a lesson—it must be done....”—a clear mandate not only to read the Twenty-third Psalm at his shiva, but to study it as well.

Lo echsar! Lo echsar! (I shall not want! I shall not want!)” he kept exclaiming.

His lesson seemed to be that people want more and more. If they really felt the protection of the Lord as their shepherd they would want for nothing. Some of his words suggested that he was criticizing young rabbis, but I suspect this was as much a commentary on his own life as much as the next generation. Jeff, throughout his illness has often quoted the Twenty-seventh Psalm as a reflection of his condition—“Though armies be arrayed against me, I will have no fear.” Now, as the traditional mourners’ psalm seems increasingly imminent, I believe he truly feels the guiding hand of the shepherd and knows what it is to want nothing more.

It was an amazing teaching from a man barely able to make his simplest thoughts understood. Jeff chatted with great animation for about an hour, late into the night, well past his normal bedtime. His words cause me to reflect on my own “wants” and the effects the shepherd’s hand may have had on this very trip—flights moved ahead, flight moved back, seemingly what we least wanted becoming what we most needed.

Was it the shepherd’s whisper that spoke to me Thursday morning and inspired me to turn the inconvenience of a cancelled flight into an opportunity to share precious moments with my brother? By what divine providence did we come to witness acts of loving kindness such as the extraordinary efforts of Ann Lois who everyday defines the word mitzvah with her unrelenting physical and emotional support of her husband. How did it come to pass that we were present to hear the garbled words of a rabbi and teacher striving to give one more lesson?

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
Now I must study.