You'll excuse, to begin with, the illegibility of my handwriting. Since the accident I've only been able to use my left hand, what with my right arm amputated. Amputated, without replacement! But do I write solely out of anger? I am not so solipsistic. (Though you try learning to write left-handed at seventy-three and see how it does by you). I only express my spleen at having lost my boy and my wife, of having buried them in a cemetery behind the shopping mall, of losing my arm and trying to save them, et. al.
I don't exculpate myself from the matter. Would it bring my wife and son back for me to rue not having gone out to buy a better pair of glasses? Hannah, she kvetched— "What're you trying to do, kill us all?"—and it's all I heard when I would squint to make out the green exit signs on I-95. Would it reanimate them had I braked sooner to miss the old woman wandering mid-lane in the highway, searching for her grandchildren in an cataleptic stupor—the statutes the President of our gerontocracy recently wrote into law disallowed the regulation of the actions of the elderly in any way—instead of veering off into the swamp that took my wife and son?
I won't say it wouldn't.
I won't say if I had wiped my lenses with the glasses cleaner Hannah was always pushing on me, if I hadn't failed to put on a decent pair of shoes and check the oil and tuck in my shirt, they wouldn't be alive today.
But ours is a nation built on, if not only the finest assisted living communities, the chance to better our lives. Was I conscious when the jaws of life opened the Lincoln Town Car whose break pads I should have checked? Do I still view the world through the amber gasoline dripping into my eyes, the languid swaying of transplanted palm trees or the gecko creeping by my head as I listened to Adam calling for my help?
I won't say no.
Not in my left-handed scrawl I won't.
I'll answer only by saying that all of it registered no more quickly than the empty seat next to me where my Hannah once sat. Oh my Hannah! She was gone.
There was a slow ache in my shoulder that brought the realization that my arm was pinned by the steering column. There was no longer any sensation beside that searing pain.
I heard my Adam crying out. My mind flashed. Oh my Adam! He was alive still, I heard him cry once more, I watched him taken to the ambulance. He needed a liver. I knew what it meant. In the hospital it hurt more than my arm to hear it. The doctor said:
"We haven't had an organ donor in almost two years. We can't do anything for the boy."
"Listen to me," I said from my stretcher. "Listen clear as I sing it to you like a song sung by the moon: I will give my boy my liver. You need no donor! Just put me under and take it, give it to him."
Those doctors all around me just looked.
"You know we can't do that," they said. "The Leviticus Laws."
I stared up at them. The doctor didn't even have to say it, I knew chapter and verse as well as he: Leviticus 19:28. "You shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor tattoo any marks on you: I am Lord."
They must have seen what was in my eyes, for they said:
"It's not our fault. We only follow the laws. We haven't lobbied for them, we haven't signed or vetoed them."
"Oh, but my Adam! How he read the Torah. Forget the law of your President— look to the higher law! Don't you read in that same chapter of Leviticus where our law comes: ‘Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.' What of the spirit of that word? Does not this supercede! Does it not take precedence?"
No more had I spoken than their morphine sent me into a resplendent ignorance while they took my right arm and gave no replacement—prosthetics were forbidden by the Laws as well. It meant nothing compared with my Adam. But would it have mattered if I could have thrown around my ailing body and told them to take my liver, take my body, take whatever life there was in me so that I might let that boy live?
Nothing can undo law.
That night, at eleven pm, Adam died.
And look. I'm not unreasonable. I know it's not always all one way. Hannah herself sometimes agreed with the politics as they came. She sat next to me as we listened to the rabbinical President give his speech:
"The issue is debated within each synagogue," the President said, his keepah on his head and his wizened ponom on the TV screen, "with people of different faiths, even many of the same faith coming to different conclusions. Many people are finding that the more they know about transplantation, about current, untrammeled medical practices, the less certain they are about the right ethical and moral conclusions. We have it clearly in the book."
And Hannah turned to me to say:
"Maybe he's right. Maybe we could be better Jews. Didn't we let Adam skip Purim last year to go to his Little League game?"
Oh, my Hannah! She sat on our couch then with her sunset-red hair and her hip thrust to the side. If you could only have seen her when she was seventeen at a tattoo parlor on the boardwalk at Coney Island. Are they many, the women who would have tattooed on their hip a Magen-David while their future husband watched? Three, I'd say, maybe four in all of Brooklyn. But we know what becomes of a Jew with a tattoo today. We know how our former Rabbi of a President proclaimed the tattooed cannot be buried in a state-sanctioned cemetery, that transplantation is illegal—all this, a result of those Leviticus Laws.
We listened to the television again.
The President said:
"My position on these issues is shaped by deeply held beliefs. I'm a strong supporter of science and technology, and believe they have the potential for incredible good—to improve lives, to save life, to conquer disease. I also believe human life is a sacred gift from Adonai."
There was a look on Hannah's face like when she'd won an argument but didn't want to say so.
"I worry about a culture that devalues life, and believe as your President I have an important obligation to foster and encourage respect for life in America and throughout the world," he said. "And while we're all hopeful about the potential of transplantation, no one can be certain that the science will ever live up to the hope it has generated. Good night, God bless America, and Shabbat Shalom."
When I was released from the hospital there was not one cloud in the sky. A lizard peeked out its head and then scuttled down under the ice plants. I had no right arm, no Hannah Sheinman, no Adam Sheinman.
So I did what I could do: I set out to give my wife and son the burials they deserved. But when I arrived at our family cemetery to put Hannah in the plot where she and I were to be buried, they told me there was a problem:
They had found her tattoo.
Truly, I didn't think it should ever matter. None of this will ever affect me, I thought when I watched the laws change. Leaders come and go. This one will be gone soon enough, while the body goes in the ground for a long, long time. Really I should have been thinking: Abe Sheinman, remember when you look at your wife that that Magen-David tattoo could mean one day that Hannah won't be buried in your cemetery, because as the President says: look to Leviticus 19:28.
Now, today, the undertaker at Beth-El, where I'd owned a plot for thirty years, and my parents before me, quoted that same chapter and verse.
"But did you not see that it was the mark of our first king on her hip?" I said. "Not some pagan sign!"
But there was not a thing he could do, the undertaker told me. Once, there was a section for the body to go if it was marked in this way so a woman like my Hannah could be buried with me.
There was nothing I could do. I called everywhere, tried to call my Congressman, called a lawyer. All for naught.
It was done.
I had no choice.
I went to the mall cemetery. The secular burial ground. The parking lot was plain grey macadam. Behind it was an embankment that might have been landfill. In the spring it was a loamy mess. Now it was summer, and green. Cars pulled up close, bumpers inching past the curb. They left deep muddy imprints in the land. Cigarette butts collected as if they were droppings from some filthy animal.
I'd never noticed the peaked roof on just the other side of the embankment. But here it was, the Ravenswood Shopping Center Secular Restingplace. It was a kiosk like where you might get photographs developed. There was only one person working. He was maybe a day removed from his Bar Mitzvah.
"Be a couple days before we got an opening," he said.
He took me to the other side of the kiosk, where there was another embankment like the one that abutted the mall parking lot. All across the hill were little wires sticking up with plastic placards attached at top.
"These are they?" I said.
"All we've got this year," he said.
He handed me the literature. Bodies were buried on top of older graves—bodies atop bodies. This was where the desecrated corpses went.
"Like at the famous cemeteries in the now former but once was called Czechoslovakia," the brochure read, "Ravenswood Shopping Center Secular Restingplace buries your formerly loved one in the soundest environmental configuration possible."
The moon was already in the sky though the sun was up there, too. I signed my wife and son over and bought a plot for myself.
Then I went inside the mall and sat down in the Macy's and cried. What had led to this? Was it the cleanliness (or lack thereof) of Abraham Sheinman's glasses? The fact that an old woman needed to be restrained from walking freely on the highway? Or would I still have a son today had I been able to give him my liver, had I been able to see him become the mensch he would become?
There were no answers in the mall. Only helmeted security guards riding Segways.
I left. It was past dusk. The sybaritic moon called cold songs out to the hillsides. Under the topsoil of those hills, in two days, would lay my Hannah and my Adam. A year later I would have to return to that mall to unveil their headstones under that same sky and moon. At Ravenswood, the brochure said, the headstones were crafted from top-quality Formica. They would last longer than paper, I was assured. It meant I could at least choose their epitaphs.
I'd have all year to think of something to say.
I have always wanted a tattoo. I'd get one on my wrist if I could, but it's against my religion.