Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Great Chicago Hot Dog—or Why I May Never Be Thin

I had just finished facilitating a challenging two-day training session at our corporate headquarters in the Aon Center in downtown Chicago. The focus of our work was a project our firm is currently engaged in—a retrofit of the Empire State Building that will lower its energy use approximately forty per cent. It’s a model energy project. The owner of the iconic building has expressly made the tools and processes we used public information in hopes of encouraging other building owners to follow suit.

Some of the processes are only marginally different than conventional processes, but significantly more effective. I spent months studying the technological and financial drivers, and the interrelationship between them. As an avowed art major, my appeal to technical subject matter experts is always: “If you can get me to understand this, I can get anyone to understand it.” Part of my approach is to simplify the jargon and offer engaging analogies and activities to help cement the concepts in the minds of others.

One analogy I tried out was intended to suggest the difference between a normal energy audit and the robust, comprehensive, holistic energy audits that we performed. I compared these to the difference between an order of McDonald’s fries and a “super-sized” order. I passed this concept by one energy manager who said I had gotten it wrong. I needed a metaphor that suggested adding different features not merely providing more of the same. The next time we met I showed him a PowerPoint slide that graphically demonstrated that if the typical service is a plain hot dog, then the robust, comprehensive, holistic, service is a Chicago dog with the works.

Chicago dog with the works.
I presented these images to the workshop participants during each of three “webinars” that I led in the weeks prior to our gathering in Chicago. Admittedly it may have been a bit of a stretch. I’m not sure how effective it was in making the distinction between the levels of service. I do know that it generated a thirst for Chicago hot dogs in myself if not the rest of the group.

Chicago is a great food city. Throughout my years of travel here I’ve had the opportunity to sample many of its restaurants. One benefit and hazard of frequent travel is frequent dining out. This trip, however, was not destined to bring me to any of the “finer” establishments. Our management had decided to have a department holiday party on the eve of the training sessions, so I cancelled reservations at The Girl and the Goat to take one for the team that night. The party featured some pleasant, if not spectacular, hors d'oeuvres, most of which featured either pork or shellfish, neither of which I eat. So it goes. The following night, after our first day of training and in a further effort to create some team bonding, I was hosting a bowling party. We had ample party food there as well, but face it—this was a bowling alley. I had even ordered some mini-Chicago dogs, somewhat tasty, a bit on the cold side—and again, nothing to get excited about.

On my final morning in Chicago, I was okay about having missed an elegant meal during my visit, but what really stuck in my craw was not having had a truly great Chicago dog. I figured I could remedy that with a stop at Portillo's on the way out of town. Portillo’s had been introduced to me by some locals a few years ago. I had been there once. Loved the Chicago dog. Not so impressed by the fries covered with melted cheese that was no improvement over ketchup.

I wheeled my carry-on down the sidewalk outside the Fairmont and flagged the first taxi in line. “Portillo’s,” I requested and we headed off. Immediately he asked, a propos of nothing, if I were Italian or Jewish. After I replied, he asked if Hanukkah was over yet—apparently he never does well on Jewish Holidays—business is too quiet on LaSalle Street for the lack of Jewish bankers. I wasn’t entirely sure if that was blatant anti-Semitism or an accurate assessment based on empirical evidence. I let it go.

He was Greek—in this country since he was eleven years old. He engaged me in animated conversation on a variety of topics most of the journey. We talked about the freezing weather. We talked about our families. He proclaimed that he was happily divorced. Not long ago he flew to San Francisco to meet a beautiful wealthy woman from San Francisco who he met on the Internet. En route, apparently, she suddenly had moved to Stockton, gained 300 pounds, and lost her fortune. Funny how that worked out.

Eventually the conversation turned to my quest for the great Chicago dog. Soon he offered a suggestion. While he had never eaten there himself, he knew a hot dog place on the way to O’Hare to which he had taken many people, including a guy who was actually flying out of Midway and for whom the excursion to this part of town added significant dollars to the cost of the dog. If someone thought that highly of the place, I was game.

We rolled up to the corner of Roscoe and California to “Hot Doug’s”! I was immediately taken by the name. By this time the driver had already described the vast menu that includes different meats, toppings, and even choices of cooking medium. You want it steamed? Fried? Grilled? Fried and grilled? The cabbie considered whether to join me inside, but opted to wait for me in the car—with no idling charge. The line would normally have been out the door and around the block if the temperature were not in the teens. As it was, I waited long enough to make some friends in line, and watch a lot of happy faces walking out the door or gathered around the tables inside.

We rolled up to the corner of Roscoe and California to “Hot Doug’s”!
The guys ahead of me let me know I had not been led astray by my cabbie, that he had extricated me from the tourist trap in town to an authentic joint in an authentic neighborhood. I perused the menu, eschewed such options as The Elvis: Polish Sausage, smoked and savory, just like the King; The Frankie “Five Angels” Pentangeli (formerly The Virgil “The Turk” Sollozzo and The Luca Brasi): Italian sausage—“keep your friends close, your sausage closer; The Keira Knightley: (formerly The Jennifer Garner and The Britney Spears): fire dog, mighty hot!; The Salma Hayek (formerly The Madonna, The Raquel Welch and The Ann-Margret): Andouille sausage: mighty, mighty, mighty hot! The list went on with aptly named selections of Bratwurst, Thuringer, vegetarian dogs, chicken sausage, corn dogs, etc.

I stuck to my plan—two orders of the classic, simply named “The Dog—Chicago-Style Hot Dogs with all the trimmings: 'nuff said.” I added the optional sport peppers, a small fry, a Diet Coke and a Hot Doug’s t-shirt. The friendly guy behind the counter said, “Make it twenty bucks.” I assumed he had done some rounding, probably down. He was the kind of guy who told someone ahead of me to order a small Coke if he was dining in, since they were refillable. When he asked if I wanted my dogs steamed or grilled, he only waited a second as I contemplated these options. “Grilled” he proclaimed.
 “The Dog—Chicago-Style Hot Dogs with all the trimmings: 'nuff said.”
I took in the ambiance. Animated diners filled the joint. Brightly painted walls were covered with colorful paraphernalia. There was one guy whose job was expediting the orders to the tables. He brought me a tray with two robust, comprehensive, holistic dogs, covered with relish, mustard, sautéed onions, tomatoes, the aforementioned peppers, and a big dill pickle spear. The Chicago dog is often judged by its “snap” and I’m pretty sure grilled is the way to go to enhance that quality. The fries alone were worth the trip—bronze toned, skins on, just the right amount of grease. I savored every bite of dog and fry.

When I told the server how I happened to arrive for my first meal at his place he didn’t hesitate to order a dog, on the house, that I dutifully ran out to the waiting taxi and handed through the open window to a grateful driver. By the time he and I got to O’Hare he had dictated a tidy list of places to eat the best hamburger, the best pizza, and the best Greek food in Chicago, but it was the amazing visit to Hot Doug's! Sausage Superstore and Encased Meat Emporium for which I will be ever grateful.
An amazing visit to Hot Doug's! Sausage Superstore and Encased Meat Emporium.

Monday, November 1, 2010

A Khaki Hat

In October 2009 fifty men had gathered at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in Falls Village, Connecticut to spend a weekend exploring issues of Jewish masculinity. Sounds like the setup for a joke. There was plenty of humor. There were many other emotions as well. I have participated in so-called “men’s work” since 1991 when I attended my first Gathering of Men hosted by the poet Robert Bly. Jewish Men’s Work may not be so very different from non-sectarian Men’s Work. That’s really a topic for another essay. The motivation for attending this workshop at this time was simply an opportunity to spend some time with my brother (see my January 27, 2011 post: Tribute to My Brother).

An important feature of these retreats are the breakout sessions called “Mishpacha Groups.” Each of the three days in residence we split off into eight-man sub-groups structured carefully to engender intimate conversations that otherwise would be almost impossible in the larger group. On the final morning the substance of the conversation typically focuses on what each man, based on his experiences of the weekend, commits to go forth and do in his life that will make a difference. When it was my turn my comments included my aspiration to end my long procrastination of studying biblical and prayer book Hebrew.

There I sat, in our intimate circle of brothers, averring (once again) my intention to learn Hebrew. Across from me sat one of the retreat leaders—Yosaif—a man who had attended all of the seventeen previous Jewish Men’s Retreats.  His white bearded face and shaggy mop of white hair was adorned by a khaki hat. Printed in yellow Hebrew letters across the front of the hat were the words Lech L’cha. These are words that God spoke to Abraham—“Get up, and go forth!” These were appropriate words for the getaway day of the retreat, all the more appropriate given that Jews all over the world would be reading that very passage of Torah the ensuing week.

Then, Yosaif took the hat off his head and presented it to me! He said he wanted me to go forth and fulfill this intention. As an incentive he said I should keep this hat until I fulfilled the pledge, and then return it to him. I was stunned to receive this object that clearly had special meaning to Yosaif.  I was amazed that this veteran leader showed such concern for a man who he had only met less than 48 hours earlier. I was honored that he entrusted me in this manner. Sure it was just a hat, but it was also much more than a hat. I put the hat on. I thanked him and accepted his challenge.
...across the front of the hat were the words Lech L’cha.
When I returned home I displayed the hat prominently in my home office letting it be a reminder in the days and months ahead. During those months life happened. Something always seemed to get in the way of initiating my study. The Lech L’cha cap continued to hang tantalizingly above my desk.

It would be unusual, if not absurd, for me to fly from California to the East Coast just for a weekend retreat, so when a high school reunion turned out to be the week before the next annual Jewish Men’s Retreat in October 2010, the opportunity to go back and attend both events was irresistible. That also meant I would have the opportunity, if not the obligation, to personally return the cap to Yosaif. I had never lost sight of the cap, nor my agreement with him that hung before me with as much presence as the cap itself.

As the summer of 2010 waned, one morning during my ritual walking meditation I found the inspiration to contact a local Hebrew tutor and ask to schedule lessons. She was about to go to Israel for a few weeks. We would make arangements upon her return. Then the chaggim interfered. Then it was some other travel or something, etc., etc. We never seemed to connect. As the October retreat loomed I became increasingly insistent that we start the lessons. She kept looking at her full calendar and suggested putting it off. Finally I had to tell her about the hat and my determination to at least get started before I departed for the East Coast. She understood. One day before I flew east we finally began. I was relieved to fulfill my pledge even as I was feeling somewhat daunted by the awesome task that lay ahead--of actually learning Hebrew.

I took off on my trip with great anticipation of the reunion I would have with Yosaif. I entertained various options of how to spring it on him that I had met the challenge and would redeem my pledge by returning his hat. Would I just show up at camp wearing the hat? Would I wait until the final morning as Yosaif had done the year before? All of this became very moot. Several days after I had arrived in New York I woke up in the middle of the night with a start. Earlier, when I had laid out the clothes I would need for the next day, I didn’t recall seeing the cap in my luggage. Oh, no! I had already made a few stops on this trip—staying with a classmate in Westchester before the class reunion, staying out on Long Island for the reunion itself, now at my son’s apartment in the city. Come to think of it, I didn’t remember seeing the cap at all on the trip. Had I left it home or lost it along the way? How could I have done either? I had been so careful to lay it out with my things before packing for my trip. I frantically called home and asked my wife to look in my office. Sure enough there it lay on my desk! How could I have forgotten it? Now what? Did it make sense to FedEx it? If not, how would I explain my unrealized intentions to Yosaif?

Friday afternoon I rode from Manhattan to Falls Village with a friend who had been to many of these retreats. For some reason I felt compelled to tell him the story of the cap. It seemed simple enough to him—of course I should have had the cap FedExed as soon as I knew I had forgotten it. I couldn’t admit that I had been too cheap to do so; although I had also rationalized that putting the cap in the mail when I was moving from place to place would have put it at risk. Regardless, there was nothing I could do about it now but tell Yosaif the story, and mail it to him after returning to California.

We arrived at the retreat center just minutes before Yosaif. When he emerged from his car I greeted him immediately. I asked him if he was ready to hear a story. He politely thanked me for asking, since after his long drive from Philadelphia he was not ready. We would find another time.

The weekend began with a beautiful energetic Kabbalat Shabbat service followed by a great Shabbat dinner and then vigorous drumming and chanting. Saturday morning a few of us who had volunteered to lead the morning service gathered early at breakfast to review our plans for the morning. As I sat there I saw Yosaif walk in remarkably wearing a cap identical to the one he had entrusted to me! How many of these must he have? Does he hand one out every year? Why is he wearing it on Saturday—this is not the “Lech L’cha” day?! I didn’t know what to say. The friend with whom I had shared the story on the drive up, quipped, “Well I guess you don’t have to worry about returning his hat!” He clearly didn’t recognize the symbolic importance to me of this. Yosaif walked past our table and I got his attention. “We’ve got to talk,” I implored him. “Perhaps this afternoon,” he replied.

Later our morning service accomplished the unimaginable—we finished well before the scheduled time for lunch! Yosaif turned to me and suggested we take a walk. I was delighted.

On a cool sunny morning we walked the perimeter of the pond. I began. “Tell me about the cap you wore at breakfast (he had replaced it with a large knitted kippah for the morning service). Yosaif explained that it was designed and created as a keepsake for an earlier men’s retreat. “I guess you must have quite a few of these hats.” Yosaif told be he had 2 or 3 at home. He had given one to a young friend for his bar mitzvah or something. Maybe another somewhere in his house. He wasn’t sure where.

It was now clear to me that Yosaif had forgotten about our transaction. I pressed the point. “You sure you don’t know where the other hat is?” Yosaif hesitated. He started to become perplexed if not agitated; later explaining that he was feeling a bit pressured, that I was apparently coveting his hat. Then I merely blurted out, “I have your hat!” I reminded him of his generosity and thanked him for being the inspiration that brought an end to my prolonged procrastination.

Yosaif was overwhelmed. He profusely expressed his gratitude to me—not for knowing the location of his cap, but for demonstrating that one of his greatest desires had been fulfilled. Yosaif is a motivational coach. He was moved to learn what a difference he had made in helping me achieve my goal.

We continued to walk and revel in the poetry of our exchange. Had I remembered the cap we might not have walked the same path of discovery. We contemplated the subconscious reasons that I might have had for leaving the cap behind. Yosaif commented that as difficult as a first step is, sometimes the second step is even harder. Now I have to continue my study to bring my goal to true fruition. Yosaif chuckled all the way back to the main hall. We embraced as friends. There would be no mailing the cap to him with a false sense of completion. I have much work to do.

Saturday, September 18, 2010


Delivered at the "alternative" Kol Nidre service
Congregation Beth Jacob
Redwood City CA

Repent one day before your death!

These are the words of Rabbi Eliezer recorded in Pirke Avot.

Repent one day before your death!

Not knowing when that day will arrive, we are left to repent every day. In other words, every day could be, and perhaps should be like Yom Kippur.

What would your life be like if you lived it as if death were imminent? As a rule most of us don’t think much about the inevitability of death. We are pretty much loath to even consider the subject. Even if we were willing to entertain such thoughts, the idea of our own death is still a concept most find almost impossible to truly comprehend. (If you think this seems a bit disturbing or morbid a topic, you may be as surprised, as I was, to learn that Rabbi Ezray quite independently has also chosen this very topic to address in the main sanctuary this Yom Kippur.)

Why think about our death? What would such morbid thoughts do to improve our life in the here and now? Morrie Schwartz, the subject of Mitch Albom’s bestselling book Tuesdays With Morrie said it well: “Everyone knows they’re going to die, but nobody believes it. If we did, we would do things differently.” Since doing things differently is the goal of the High Holy Day observance, accepting the inevitability of our death may be a powerful point of entry to making tshuvah.

Consider the rituals surrounding this Day of Atonement. Yom Kippur is a day of physical deprivation, of fasting. Traditionally men wear a kittel—the white robe that also serves as our burial shroud. We spend much of the day in confession, urgently seeking to be inscribed in the Book of Life before the final gates close, not so different from the vidui, the deathbed confessional. All of these images are designed to heighten our awareness of our mortality. In a sense Yom Kippur is a dress rehearsal for our death.

Let’s see how this rehearsal can help us change our lives. I will suggest three ways we could do things differently as a consequence of facing our mortality.

The first thing we might do differently is to live more fully the life we are truly meant to live.

Recently, I was listening to an interview by Terry Gross on National Public Radio. She was speaking to psychologist Dan Gottlieb who, when he was a young man, was in a near fatal accident that left him a quadriplegic. Terry asked him how the accident changed his life, and whether it allowed him to live in ways he may have always wanted, but not been able to do before the accident.

Gottlieb responded that this was true. He said, “I live, as Sartre said we should live—with death on my shoulder. The vision I have about my accident is that when my neck broke my soul began to breathe.... ...each time I faced death I became more of who I am and less worried about what others might think of me. ... my only choice was—if I was going to live, I would live as me not as the person I wanted to be ideally. Most people I know spend their lives trying to be the person they think they should be and never get to discover who they are.”

The first powerful benefit of confronting one’s mortality is to let go of trying to be who and what we are not, and to be inspired to be who we are truly meant to be. As Morrie Schwartz also said, “Dying is only one thing to be sad over. Living unhappily is something else.”

A second outcome of acknowledging the inevitability of our death would be to consider the kind of legacy we would leave.

Terry Gross was interviewing Dan Gottlieb to discuss his book Letters to Sam: A Grandfather's Lessons on Love, Loss, and the Gifts of Life. Terry asked Gottlieb what had especially compelled him to write these letters to his newborn grandson.

Gottlieb was 56 years old when his grandson was born, and he sensed, due to his physical condition, that his life expectancy was likely to be shortened, and that he would probably not be a part of his grandson’s world. Gottlieb wanted the boy to know who his grandfather was, and how he saw the world. In other words, he wanted to leave a legacy of his learning and his love.

Gottlieb’s awareness of his mortality led him to write these letters. Although he didn’t label his letters as such, this tangible document of his life lessons is the essence of what is often called an “ethical will”. Ethical wills are an increasingly popular process of writing and sharing your most important thoughts, values, blessings, teachings, love and forgiveness with your family, friends, and community. They can be written at any stage of life, and are usually shared with others while the writer is still alive. An ethical will can take any form--a small paragraph, a poem, a book, an annotated collection of favorite photos or recipes--anything that conveys who you are and what is important to you. For most of us financial wills and trusts provide an important measure of security by passing our physical assets on as we desire. As one who has written and shared my ethical will I can say that it’s a profoundly moving experience and a surprising source of comfort to know that my spiritual legacy is also in order.

So in addition to living our lives more fully, a second action that may come from confronting our mortality is to document and share our spiritual legacy.

A third way we may act differently as a result of facing death is to fill one’s life with compassion, acceptance, and forgiveness.

Consider these verses from a poem by the 13th century Persian poet, Rumi, entitled Die Before You Die —

Everybody in this world is dying.
Everybody is already in their death agony.

So listen to what anyone says as though it were
The last words of a dying father to his son.
Listen with that much compassion, and you’ll
Never feel jealousy or simple anger again.

People say everything that’s coming will come.
Understand this: It’s all here right now.

And me? I’ve been so woven into the mesh
Of my trivial errands
That only now do I begin to hear the mystery
Of dying everywhere.

By listening to what everyone says as though these were their last words, by looking around the congregation on Yom Kippur, in fact by looking at everyone in our lives everyday with this awareness, we may realize that we all have the same fate, we share much of the same hopes and fears, triumphs and struggles.

The founder of the Jewish Renewal movement, Rabbi Zalman Shacter Shalomi, in his book From Age-ing to Sage-ing, writes about facing the end of life. He suggests that we bring the wisdom of our years to reinterpret occurrences in our life that once vexed us, for it does not serve us to condemn others or ourselves for what cannot be undone. Reb Zalman suggests a daily practice of forgiveness—not only to give it, but to seek forgiveness as well—a daily practice of forgiveness!

So in addition to being our true selves and sharing our spiritual legacy, a third way to change our lives that may come from hearing “the mystery of dying everywhere” is to become less judging and more forgiving of one another and of ourselves.

Repent one day before your death!

Were we to heed these words of Rabbi Eliezer, we would carry with us, throughout the year, the heightened awareness that comes from this Day of Atonement.

As we observe this Holy Day, I pray that we let the images of Yom Kippur infuse us with a healthy sense of our finite existence. I pray that this inspires us to go forward to be fully who we are meant to be, to leave a legacy for our loved ones, and to fill our hearts with compassion for all.

Kol Nidre 5771

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Metaphor Is All I Can Remember

My brother called to wish me a happy new year. Well, it was Ann Lois who called, and I’m not really certain if Jeff said those words, but that’s what happened.

I understood a lot of what he said (and/or got the details from A-L). He will sit on the bema as the old revered rabbi emeritus at Rosh Hashanah. They will fly to Florida for his grandnephew’s brit milah and to see Father Rick one more time—that he would especially enjoy. They would drive to Illinois for Yom Kippur with A-L’s brother. Going to Lisa’s wedding in Cincinnati from there would make too much sense. Instead they’ll drive back to Alabama so Bo won’t have to stay in a kennel, then drive up to Cincy for the wedding the following weekend. That’s just the next three weeks.

Drinking it all in.

After the call I was just able to squeeze out the words, "My brother wishes you shana tova” without my voice cracking too noticeably, I think. I had started from my office to say this to Deb and Becca. Didn’t quite make it from the hall to the dining room where they were sitting. Veered off to the left. Sat on the edge of my bed. Let the tears fall into a tissue. Grateful for each one. A blessing of comfort. Each squeezed out drop a measure of love and compassion.

* * *

It’s not that I haven’t been dreaming. Lately, when I regain consciousness, the details disappear quicker than usual and the message seems to linger like a vanishing chord on a piano. If I were to search too far and too long for the missing notes I would lose the ones ringing this second in my ears.

Tonight I understood this maybe for the first time. Understood enough to embrace what I heard and not worry about what I lost. That was what I heard. That is what I did. Here is the result:

The Metaphor Is All I Can Remember
We should all take advantage
of whatever comes our way.
In my dream, for one person it
would have been a superball,
for another a laptop computer—
none of the particulars matter.
Everyone is waiting for the “big prize”
but no one knows what it is
or even when.
Just a continuous stream of life
flying past every second.
Grab something! Anything.
or everything you can....
Every second.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Essence of Jeff

The phone rang a loud electronic version of the traditional phone bells of the last century. I picked up the wireless handset from the kitchen counter, read the name of the calling party, forgot for a moment that I was answering my brother’s phone as he slept in his bedroom, depleted from his infusion of cancer-fighting drugs earlier in the day. So I said “Hello” instead of “Ballon Residence.” The caller hesitated. It was Jeff’s friend Barry. He knew the sound of Jeff’s voice. He probably also knew that it has been a long time since Jeff sounded like Jeff. The fact is I sound more like Jeff than he does at this point. “You sound just like Jeff!” Barry exclaimed. “You must be brothers,” he quipped.

I had to agree. Most of the time, I am unaware of any similarities between me and Jeff. We’ve never really been around each other enough to notice. Then again, when we were living together—lo those many years ago—we didn’t notice it at all.

It’s the kind of thing, at least in recent years, that others comment on when we are together and I seem to notice mostly after we’re together. For months, between visits, I go through life pretty much feeling and sounding like me—which means I’m not really aware of feeling and sounding like anything unusual. But after spending a few days with my brother, there seems to be one of two possible phenomena—or both. Either something about him rubs off on me—his intonation, his facial expressions, the way he walks and talks and reacts and exclaims and laughs and kibitzes….or phenomenon possibility #2, we have always done these things in a similar fashion and I only recognize it in the wake of a few days of being immersed in his essence.

Regardless, I am in the midst of having one of those post-Jeff sensations—Essence of Jeff—lingering in my body, my mind, my heart.

Let’s assume, for a moment that it’s phenomenon #2. That we really are alike and I only notice it when we get together. Then being with and observing Jeff provides a real opportunity for me to see parts of me from the outside. In a macro way that’s not new news. After all, I consciously spent much of my early life intentional or unintentionally being the not-Jeff. Not taking on the areas where he excelled—such as being Super Boy Scout, lest I fall short. And trying like the Dickens not to replicate his mistakes—my proudest achievement of this was completing Freshman English at Brown University in one semester to his four. (What ensued is a matter for another essay.)

It’s sort of fun to see this in micro ways too. A turn of the head. A glance of the eyes. A certain lilt to a conversation with a stranger in line, a waitress with deep brown eyes, or the blond technician at The Cancer Center of Huntsville.

The observable ways in which Jeff and I are alike are often hidden to me. Nonetheless, strange as it seems, even though I cannot see myself looking and acting like Jeff I do feel it. From the inside, I become aware certain facial movements. Tightening the jaw. Wrinkling the brow in deep contemplation. A grimace. A smile. In that instant I sense what it must be like to be inside Jeff’s head. With all his sounds and sensations—it’s Essence of Jeff for at least a few days after we part and sometimes even while we are together.

This visit was a just because visit. In the family we used to say something was just because if, say someone gave another a present when it wasn’t their birthday. They gave it just because. In this case the just because does have different ramifications. There is the big just because—our keen awareness of Jeff’s mortality, or at the very least his diminishing capacity to communicate. Or just because we can’t wait for Jake and Alana’s wedding in October to get together because we don’t know that he will indeed make it to the wedding, nor in what shape he will be.

When Jeff first got ill, and his prognosis was for about a year of survival, I made several trips to be with him—a couple to Huntsville and later we met in New York to go to a Jewish Men’s retreat together. This brother to brother time was very important to me.

At the same time I had a nagging consciousness that our sister was not part of this. Now, two years into his illness, when I decided to go to Alabama this month, it was with the same desire for “male bonding.” I wanted to be alone with him some more. Fortunately, even as I acknowledged that desire, I was able to act in opposition to it by picking up the phone to call Muff and asking her to join me on this trip. It is a marvelous thing when an almost imperceptible voice of awareness overrides the loud clarion of wanting. I am grateful for hearing and heeding that voice. It was important for all three of us to have this time together—uncertain of how many such occasions may lie ahead. Strangely, the last time we spent any time like this was on our mother’s seventy-fifth birthday almost twenty years ago when she expressly asked us to join her for a weekend without the rest of our families. She understood then as we do now that this threesome constitutes a family unit that, despite some inattention over the years, continues to have an incalculable significance in our lives.

Jeff’s heart has grown in inverse proportion to the devastation the cancer has wrought upon him. Living with a death sentence has made clear to Jeff the importance and the power of love that, in his highly disinhibited state he freely proclaims to others. Several times this weekend Jeff looked at me or Muff, and his heart was so full of joy for our spending these days with him that his face contorted with tears as he struggled to express his gratitude.

I saw that face one more time this afternoon as I took his hand in mine, leaned over to kiss him goodbye outside the airport terminal. As much as I had previously sensed Essence of Jeff in my body and in my mind, in this moment it was all I could do to turn from him, pick up my bag, and feel the muscles around my mouth and eyes contort as his essence now filled my heart.