We were all sitting down together for dinner. My dad cooked some vegetable stir-fry, and it was sitting in the middle of the table in two big bowls. As dad began to serve everyone, he asked Mike what he wanted to drink.
"Apple juice? Orange?" he asked.
"Water?" his wife asked. "You want some water with crushed ice?"
Mike thought about it for a few seconds. He didn't know.
"I'll grab a few different options," I said as I made my way to the kitchen.
Juice is only for patient's nourishment.
I rolled my eyes at the sign, and opened the refrigerator, grabbing a handful of juices. I returned to the dining room just in time to hear everyone say, "Amen."
"Man," I said, setting the juices before Mike, "that other kitchen is loaded! I grabbed some Lorna Doone cookies!"
"Yeah, it's not too shabby here," my dad said. When Mike asked him to repeat himself, my dad obliged, this time a little louder. "I was saying, they really take good care of you at this hosp - rehab."
My dad caught himself. He was going to say hospice. That's where we were. That's where Mike came a few days ago to die. I wasn't sure at first why we weren't being honest with Mike about where he was; but my dad explained that because the cancer shot to his brain, he had difficulty processing his impending death.
My dad is great at cross-correction, and so he immediately carried on the conversation to a new direction. "I'll never forget," he said, placing his hand on the withering leg of his childhood buddy, "that dog. Do you remember that German Shepherd?" Mike started to laugh, but no sound came out of him.
My mom said she loved this story and my dad continued telling it with his animated, Italian hands. In the end, I didn't think the story was that funny, but we were all laughing uncontrollably.
I remember feeling ashamed of my laugh. Here I was, a healthy 27-year-old, laughing with a dying man. I would go on laughing -- tomorrow, a week from now, hopefully years from now. But Mike... his laughs were numbered.
After dinner, as my mom and I made our way back to Mike's room, she said, "It's cold in here. It's cold in this hallway."
"That's because death is here," I replied. We kept on quietly walking past doors that were cracked open to reveal the heartbreaking drama of hospice. Sons, daughters, spouses, parents, friends, chaplains: all of them crowding around the failing bodies of someone they loved, someone who was at that moment being stalked by death.
Death is here; death is always here. And yet as soon as I said that, something (hope? the thing with wings?) broke in upon me -- God is here.
But where is God? In this room with this dying woman? With that child? With Mike?"
I overheard someone say the word "chapel" and I went to find it. When I got there, the first thing I noticed was its small size. I walked up front to the table -- was it an altar? -- where I found a guestbook containing handwritten notes mostly addressed to God. I read only one of them because I felt as if I were violating the holy secrets of mourners.
I picked up the pen but couldn't think of what to write. I thought for a moment and let my eyes wander up and to the left of the table. There was a banner with four religious symbols on it: the Star of David, a Crescent Moon, the symbol for Om, and a Cross.
I looked to the symbol of Judaism and thought about the calendar. It was Friday, the Sabbath, and the next day was Purim -- the festival where we remember Esther.
Rashi said, "In the days of Esther there will be hester panim," which means "hiddennes of God's face." Esther, whose name is linked to the Hebrew word for "hidden," reminds us that even when God isn't there, he is.
One of the most beautiful books of the Bible, Esther is the only one that doesn't specifically refer to God: his name is absent from the entire scroll. And yet, while reading through this miraculous account of Israel's deliverance from her enemies, God cannot not be found.
To those who read the story with religious eyes, they may not read the name of God, but they sense The Name (HaShem) dancing throughout the entire narrative, directing every action of the story, even guiding the outcome of the purim (lots) that the evil Haman casts.
Esther's story defies moralizing, but perhaps one of its lessons is that God's hiddenness is not God's absence. Even in the face of death.
I returned to Mike's room so I could tell him good night -- perhaps this would be our last moment together in this world. I looked at his emaciated body, his disheveled mop of hair and unkempt beard, the black eye he got from falling out of bed earlier that day, and my soul asked where God was.
Mike reached his frail fingers to me and I went to him. I crawled onto his bed, and took his failing flesh into my arms. He pressed his dry, cracked lips to my cheek and gave me the only kiss his muscles could form. His tears dripped down my temple, as he told me he loved me.
At once, I realized where God was. God was there in Mike's story, just as he was in Esther's. He was there, and he was hidden: in the lo mein, in my dad's dog joke, in the chapel, in Mike's black eye, in my arms -- even there in my arms.
"I love you, too," I told Mike. "Very much."
And as he struggled to recover from a coughing spell, I squeezed him a little tighter, and fought back my own tears.
Just a few more days, Mike, and God's face will never again be hidden from you.
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