She loved the Shema. Sometimes, during our phone conversations we took the prayer apart. “The first word is ‘hear.’” Why not ‘listen’? Could we say both?”
‘And ‘Israel.’ Why not put my own name in? Isn’t this prayer all about me, what I should hear or know?”
“In the middle, why do you think God’s name is repeated three times? Makes it all very holy.”
“And that final word. Echad. It means so much more than one. It is the unity of all.”
Judie sang the prayer to her non-Jewish friends. She even burst into it in rich alto tones as others in her congregation recited their own group prayer. This prayer was the center of her being.
And so, as she approached her death, I mentioned this to a friend of mine. “You know how important it will be for her to hear those words as she dies?” my friend remarked. Be sure someone with her at that time knows to say it so she can hear it..
And six months later, I was told she was close to death. “She does not respond to us. She is restless. We believe she will die soon.
I replied, “Then it is important for someone to say the shema to her.?”
“What is that?”
“The central prayer in Judaism. Shema Yisrael, Adonai Elohenu, Adonai echad.”
“I should say that to her now?”
‘You could say the English words. ‘Hear Oh Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.’”
“Let me write that down.” We paused in our phone conversation while the woman searched for pen and paper.
The next morning I got the call I had known was coming. “Judie died peacefully last evening.” The woman paused. “I need to tell you. Right after you and I got off the phone, I went to Judie. Told her I had spoken to you, you wanted me to say that prayer. She was not in this world. She was not responding to anything. She was restless. I said to her, ‘Hear oh Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.’ Her body stilled. In a voice, bright, and clear she said the Hebrew words. “Shema Yisrael!” Her body calmed. She passed on within the hour.”
In predawn’s black, before night fades, relinquishing its starry hold on the sky, an alarm rudely jolts the darkness. Like stealthy spirits, my father and I arise, wordlessly. We awaken no one else as we pull on layers of warm clothing. My father, silent as the night skies, rolls the car down the driveway before he cracks the ignition.
Early morning grays the horizon. Stars succumb to daybreak’s brightening. We drive across the gray bridge that spans the bay. In total silence we climb over the shoulder of Mount Tamalpais. The fragrance of a redwood forest weaves through the moist air. A sharp left turn begins the downward descent of hairpin curves. The illumination of our headlights fights dense fog.
My father’s shoulder muscles loosen their grip across his chest as we first hear the rhythmic crash of waves. Gravel splatters under our wheels. We park at a break in the coastline’s boulders, follow the path between them, stretching downward to the craggy beach.
The sky pinkens. Foamy waves break, a quarter of a mile out beyond the rocky shore. This super-low tide, my father’s mission, has uncovered the magic of the ocean’s intertidal floor. We breathe in the enchantment of salt.
Between the shoreline and the rumbling breakers a myriad of tidepools await us. We check to be sure our sneakers are tightly tied before we begin to jump from rock to rock toward the waves.
Now and then we stoop to scrutinize a tiny seastar lying beneath our feet. Minuscule fish hide under a rocky ridge. Miniature crabs scuttle sideways across the shallow bottom, searching out a breakfast of sea star. Sea anenomes their tentacles, like brightly colored petals, dance, keeping time to the music of the surf. In one pool my father points to a bright red octopus, small as a tear. On the damp rocks he kicks at a chiton, its plates of armor almost camouflaged by the steely gray boulder it grasps.
We share our beach with noisy seals. They bark to one another as they, too, comb the tidepools for breakfast. Gulls sweep overhead, their cacophonous shrieks scolding us for trespassing in their dining room.
Through mist the sun rises behind us. Silently, a cottony fog settles into rocky crevices. We are wrapped in a cool dampness.
Eventually the ocean begins to reclaim its rocks. The rising tide dumps rivers into once tiny seas, enclosing the chitons that cling to its reef. Spray salts our jackets as we clamber back across the rocks.
We rewind the curves, sniff the redwood fragrance, shake with the rumbles on the bridge. We enter the azure sparkle of sky, lying beyond the curtained shoreline. We do not speak. The crash of breakers, the bark of seals and the scolding of gulls resound as shared memory. Our car crunches over the speckled blacktop in the driveway. Without speaking we walk towards our house. The rumbles from our awakening family tumble toward us.
"With all the beauty surrounding me here above the Verde Valley, how could I not create more beauty?"