TREE OF LIFE
for the eleven Jews murdered in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on October 27, 2018; for congregation Dor Hadash; for my parents; for A.K.
The week after our family friend is not shot
that Saturday morning in synagogue,
she invites us over for dinner. I’ve known
her and her husband long enough
that their names have become a single song,
syllables knit with an and—in your life
you’ve probably known a dozen of these songs,
the rhythm of decades of marriage.
The song would have split
if she had been shot that day, but
she was late to Torah study. Turned
and ran when she heard the shots.
Before dinner, she and her husband pass
shallow dishes of cashews and green olives
around the living room. There are not many of us,
three other couples and my parents,
but I have known them all since I was a child,
and I, at thirty-five, am the only adult child at dinner,
the other adult children of the couples
far from our hometown, living their lives—
none of our parents have been shot. I
am sitting at dinner with them.
We are eating a lightly dressed salad and stuffed peppers.
It takes a while to make a stuffed pepper. It is a careful thing.
In Latin, her name means bird—our friend
who was not shot. Our friend, the bird,
has an easy face. A poem might say
she has a sweet crinkle in her voice,
something one looks forward to hearing,
like the air that slips between a foil wrapper
and a hard butterscotch candy one has kept in their purse
for a while, to be surprised with later.
I have kept this poem at bay
for a while. And still,
when I am visiting Pittsburgh,
I shudder away from the corner
where the Tree of Life synagogue still stands,
empty now three years, drive different routes in order
to not see the building, to not have the flash
of bullets, air splitting and splitting and splitting.
But our friend the bird and her husband still live
down the street, and must pass the lost temple
all the time. Our friend’s name also, in origin, means desired.
The week after she was almost shot,
she invited my family and our friends over for dinner.
Our congregation was targeted because we were helping
a refugee organization. Our friend had us over
for dinner. Snipers stood on rooftops
when we filed into a different synagogue
for the memorials. Pittsburgh stopped and stood
and held itself, watching the eleven hearses. We were sick
with crying. I warned my parents away from crowds of citizens
gathering to sing—they went anyway. Jewish tradition tells us
to have no nails in coffins—to have a plain pine box,
held together with wooden pegs made by hand.
It is a careful thing, to make a stuffed pepper—
it means that you will make something balance. Our friend was not killed and so
she invited us to dinner. At dinner, there was laughter.
Before the meal, we did not recite any particular prayer,
but in the stuffed peppers,
there were a few meanings of life. They were warm.
They were filled to the brim.
appears in The New England Review 43.3