A Late Friendship with a Writer and a Hospital Rock Star—by Ayala Emmett

Late friendships are meteors, those streaks of light that enter our lives so unexpectedly and astonish us. Such an unpredicted friendship happened when I met B.J. two years ago. We were introduced on a Friday night as we both leaned carefully on a counter loaded with Sabbath food and B.J. spoke Hebrew to me immediately right there, in the kitchen. The rich aroma of spices filled the air, and somehow we skipped the formal conversation of people who have just met. We talked about writing. She wrote, I found out, mostly creative non-fiction and poetry was not her favorite genre. She was about to publish her memoire.

I venture to say that Hebrew, my native language, had been the incandescent light in our friendship. On that first meeting B.J. said, “it must be so restful to speak your native language.” I was surprised and moved by her awareness of what Hebrew meant to me. And I have often thought about the phrase she used, and the word “restful” she chose so fittingly. I was touched by B.J.’s insight because most discussions on immigration emphasize the promise of America, and exalt a narrative of the hopes it offers, yet little is being said about immigrants’ longings for their native culture and language, and the painful loss of their early identities. There is a presumption and expectation that immigrants would be cleansed from their past and become born-again Americans.

That B.J. would instantly and so accurately tap into an immigrant’s longing was emblematic of the scope of her understanding of complexities. Perhaps she grasped things that others might miss because she had the writer’s gift to imagine what it meant to be “other;” or because B.J. having known tragic loss and grief in her own life, had an ability to recognize sorrow, in my case of the loss of daily use of my native language.

As we stood in the kitchen that Friday night B.J. said she wanted to deepen her knowledge of Hebrew and suggested that we start a Hebrew-speaking group. A week later we met again, and when I told her that I followed her suggestion and came up with a name, “Ivrit Bekapit,” (“Hebrew in a Tea Spoon”) she was delighted. She paused, and then told me that she was diagnosed with cancer and was facing a series of treatments.

I knew, even though this was only our second meeting, that B.J. was a woman of immense honesty and integrity; she was not a person to whom one could offer platitudes; as I would find out she always wanted to engage in the kinds of concrete acts that were life affirming. No, she said firmly, she did not want us to wait; she wanted me to start the group so that whenever she could come she would join us. B.J.’s enormous gift was that she had always defined herself by life, not by illness. While she had cancer, she refused to be measured by it and always brought her full personhood with her.

The group Ivrit Bekapit took different turns, it expanded and contracted with changing weather and people’s lives. Last year it coalesced as a small group with B.J. as our intellectual force and Mike as a fluent Hebrew speaker. We met most Sundays at 10:00a.m. at a local coffee shop and we used Hebrew to talk about things that mattered, philosophy, politics, religion, illness, repentance and forgiveness. Weather was not a deterrent for B.J. On cold days she bundled up and wore a Mohawk knitted hat, a gift from her granddaughter, and people would stop at our table to comment on its originality. It was easy to admire her irreverence and her courage to open new frontiers in fashion, politics, or religion.

When spring came we would look out the window waiting to see B.J.’s car with her canoe on top of its roof. She came when the canoe was gone from the car, when she walked slowly to our table at the coffee shop, when she no longer drove and we would drive her home. When she was hospitalized, we came on Sunday to pick up again the discussion in Hebrew, catching up with the latest medical diagnoses and world events. We were not the only B.J. fans. In the hospital she was a rock star, nurses read her newly published memoir, With an Outstretched Arm: A memoir of love and loss, family and faith.

An excited Hebrew speaking group in a hospital room seemed part of the B.J. aura. On one occasion B.J.’s nurse’s Hebrew tattoo came to our attention. As B.J. wrote about it in her essay “Loving Nurses,” she noticed on her nurse’s wrist a tattoo with a graphic of some kind, and what seemed to be Hebrew writing and wanted to make sure she deciphered its meaning. There we were, a Hebrew speaking group sharing Molly the nurse’s life story. It turned into a discussion on the meaning of tattoos, on how a non-Jew came to choose a Hebrew word to inscribe on her wrist and on the importance of compassion in medical treatment.

That Sunday in the hospital was a beautiful day, B.J.’s room had a large window and sunlight animated the Hebrew gathering. B.J. loved nature, the sun and the warm weather and talked about canoeing again.

We thought, or hoped, that we would go on like that forever, we would meet and talk, and discuss world affairs and laugh; we would just change locations. Our last group meeting was on a sunny summer day at the end of July with B.J. in her hammock in her garden. Her doctor didn’t think too much of her being out in her hammock, but B.J. lived her life in the most fierce way and wanted to be outdoors.

Even then and against all odds, I thought B.J. would be there forever. I could not imagine Sunday mornings without our discussions that had become so intimate, personal and honest, we shared things that really mattered to us. We told her in Hebrew that we loved her, and that she would be forever in our heart.

B.J. died on Saturday August 8, 2015. May her light be a meteor shower in the annals of friendships.

Third essay in the series Four Women’s Essays on Rosh Hashanah and on Friendships

A meteor shower
A meteor shower