Such a Small Thing

May 24th, 2023

I parked the RAV4 in front of the synagogue. My little grandson, Asher, was already strapped into his car seat in the back. The elderly couple walked over to the car. The woman slowly and carefully climbed in the backseat next to Asher. Her husband climbed in the front seat next to me. Once they were both buckled up, we started our journey to the cemetery.

The old couple are friends of mine. They buried their son a month ago. Their son was only a year younger than I am, and I’m retired and on Medicare already. The family is originally from Ukraine. They came to America after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The son had been an officer in the Soviet Army. He was severely wounded in Afghanistan in 1983. For the last forty years he struggled with PTSD and alcohol abuse. He finally lost the battle.

As far as I know, the mother and father of the soldier had not been to the cemetery since they laid him to rest. I had been with them at the funeral. They don’t own a car and they don’t have licenses anymore. They asked me to drive them to the memorial park. I agreed to do so. It was the least that I could do for them. It was a half hour ride from the synagogue to the cemetery. I drove and the old folks talked to me.

I had brought Asher along with me because the elderly couple love the boy. Usually, they can make him laugh and smile. Not this time. Asher would have none of that. The father tried to make funny faces at Asher, and Asher recoiled from him. Toddlers have their moods, and Asher’s not very friendly. However, as we drove, the mother said to me in her thick Slavic accent,

“The little boy, Asher, he lets me hold his hand. I like sweet little boys who do that.”

The mother started to tell me a story about her deceased son. It was a bit hard to follow at times. She did not have all the right English words to explain what she meant. At times, her husband would clarify things for me. It was a sad story, and it struck home to me. Her son had often refused help and advice from others. He insisted on handling his problems alone, even when it was obvious to everyone else that he couldn’t.

The father told me,

“It is hard for a successful person to admit that they need help. Doctors, lawyers, engineers (my son was an engineer), they don’t want help. They think they don’t need it.”

That’s true. I never wanted help. I didn’t accept any help until there was no longer any choice in the matter. The old man’s son had been a decorated military officer in the Soviet Union, and when he lived in America, he was a highly paid radio engineer. The guy had been very successful, and the father is still proud of his son. The son could do damn near anything, except deal with his PTSD and his addiction.

I think it’s just human nature to want to be independent. Asher is just starting to ride a bike, and he wants no assistance whatsoever. His mantra is: “I got it! I got it!” The goal of being self-reliant is strongly reinforced by our culture. As Asher grows up, he will be encouraged to do things on his own.

Did the son refuse help because of hubris? Maybe. I don’t know. I never met the man. From what his parents have told me, their son experienced a great deal of hardship and trauma in his life. He often had to fend for himself. He learned to use his many abilities, but he never recognized his limitations. On the surface, it was the alcohol that ended his life. On a deeper level, it was his inability to accept help that killed him.

Before we arrived at the cemetery, the mother asked,

“Is there place I could buy flowers?”

The father talked to her in Ukrainian, and she did not reply to what he said.

The old man turned to me and explained,

“We do not put flowers on graves. Christians, they put flowers on graves. The Jewish tradition is to put stones on the graves. Flowers? What good are they? They wilt after one, maybe two days. Stones, they last. We have seven stones on our son’s grave: two for me and my wife, two for our daughter and her husband, and three for the grandchildren.”

As we entered the cemetery, the old man pointed to where his son was buried. He said, “That is a part set aside for Russian Jews.”

I parked and the parents got out of the car. I got Asher out. We were a few yards from the plot. There was rectangle of fresh sod on top of it. The grass there was a darker color than the rest of the lawn. The ground had not settled enough for there to be a headstone, so there was a small placard with the son’s name written on it. The little sign was on a stick stuck into the ground.

The old couple stood next to the grave. I took Asher away, so that they would have time alone. It was a gorgeous spring day with all the trees showing off their fresh green leaves. As I walked with Asher, I noticed all the headstones with small smooth stones on top of them. Some of the headstones had writing with Cyrillic letters. They all had words written in Hebrew.

I glanced back at the parents. The old man stood straight and immobile. His deeply lined face betrayed no emotion. The mother hid her face in a handkerchief as she silently cried. She wept for her sweet little boy, the one who had held her hand. She cried for the son who was now buried several feet below her.

That broke my heart.

I walked a bit more with Asher. Then the father beckoned for us to come. We hadn’t been at the grave site for more than a few minutes. The parents were ready to leave. Asher was too. We all got back into my car.

It was a thirty-minute drive from the cemetery to their apartment downtown. There was dead silence in the car, except for when the mother sniffled in the back seat. The father sat next to me and wore wrap-around sunglasses. I couldn’t see his eyes, and his face held no expression.

As we got close to their home, the mother said to me,

“The little boy was tired. He is asleep now.”

I pulled up to the entrance of their building. I told them that I was staying in the car so that Asher would not wake up. The old man said,

“Thank you, my friend.”

From the back seat the mother said, “We are indebted to you.”

I replied quickly, “No. You’re not. Don’t worry about it.”

They said goodbye, and I pulled away from the curb. It bothered me that they felt like they owed me something. I was glad to help.

It was such a small thing to so.

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