Saturday, July 12, 2014

“Tis A Fearful Thing To Love What Death Can Touch”

September 11, 2013
My husband’s last words to me were “drive carefully.” It was night at the hospital and my daughter and I were just leaving to go home for a couple of hours.  At that time he could no longer speak so he wrote those words in a little note book. He didn’t write that he loved me or asked me to take good care of our daughters. But when I looked at his words I understood that this was what he meant.
Living in the suburb for many years in the US and later on in Israel, driving was a central part of our life. Still Tzvi, my husband felt that when I got distracted or upset,  I didn’t pay enough attention to my driving. By making them his last words, Tzvi added  significance to his warning making sure that indeed I was being extra careful  at the time of grief.   
Tzvi’s instruction had a clear and literal meaning, he just wanted us to get home safely.  But I feel that these seemingly simple words have a broader, even symbolic meaning. 
In the past whenever our family went on vacation Tzvi and I always took turns driving, now I was the only driver, literally and metaphorically. I was left in charge and it became my sole responsibility to take care of my family in and out of the car.  
By instructing me to drive carefully Tzvi implied that he expected me to move forward, yet  at the same time he was warning me to pay attention. Six years later these words seem straightforward, but at the time it was quite impossible to focus on the world around me. It took time to be able to make sense of what was there, and then to commit to what lay ahead.
The inspiration to this  post was an episode of This American Life about last words which I listened to today 9.11 as I was skating in the park.
In the prologue Ira Glass states that last words often sum up who the person is. In the case of Tzvi  they illuminated one important aspect of his personality –that of a family man: the husband, father and educator. When he was diagnosed  he told me that he wished to conduct himself as a role model to our daughters.  He chose as a motto a paraphrase on Rabin’s declaration of intent: “we will fight terror as though there was no peace, and will make peace as though there was no terror.” In our case it was “we will fight cancer as though there was no death, but we will make peace with death by being prepared.”
We lost our battle, but it always cheers me up to think that even when death was imminent Tzvi did not miss the opportunity to take care of us one last time.
PS.  Although I heard the epitaph which  I chose for the title today on This American Life, it is part of a poem by the great  Jewish poet Judah Halevi, 1075 – 1141
“Tis a Fearful Thing
‘Tis a fearful thing
to love what death can touch.
A fearful thing
to love, to hope, to dream, to be –
to be,
And oh, to lose.
A thing for fools, this,
And a holy thing,
a holy thing
to love.
For your life has lived in me,
your laugh once lifted me,
your word was gift to me.
To remember this brings painful joy.
‘Tis a human thing, love,
a holy thing, to love
what death has touched.” 


  1. Great post, beautiful poem by Judah Halevi. I just saw it used in ‘Godless’, the Netflix western. It caught in my throat and has haunted me since.

    1. I too just finished Godless and was so moved by these words I had to trace their source. Powerful, simple, beautiful, true...

  2. Thank you so much for your kind remark