There are days you cannot forget. When these are good days, you try to preserve every magical moment in your memory, but when it's a bad day, no matter how hard you try to forget it, this day will never leave you.
Twenty years ago today, I had a very bad day - one that, to this day, I still consider one of the worst.
Twenty years ago today (it's the Hebrew date that I’ll remember forever, as it happened the day after Shavuot), I went to my friend's house to study. We had a microeconomics test that week. Not just any test, but The Test. The Fateful Test. Those who passed it would continue to study for their degree in economics, and those who did not would have to think which way to go: a re-sit? Or a different degree? It was before the cell phone era, when you couldn’t just catch a person, no matter where he was. My friend and I started getting into things, and suddenly I had a phone call.
cc It was my mother. "I just wanted to check where you are," she explained to me. "In case something happens, I’ll know where to get you." Acting is not her strong point, and I realized that something bad had already happened.
"Something happened?" I begged my mother for a little bit of information, but she doggedly refused to answer me.
"When you will need to know, I'll call you."
"Dad’s fine" she answered, but I didn’t believe her, and immediately called my father.
He answered the phone. "What happened?" I begged for information, "Grandparents okay?"
"Yes they’re alright," he replied. The list of people I know began to narrow, and I remembered that Uncle Ami had a problem with his heart.
"Is Ami OK?" I asked. My father didn't reply.
Why wouldn’t they answer me? I went crazy! I hung up and flew over to my aunt's house. My aunt's door was open, and my cousin's wife was standing in the doorway.
At this stage I didn’t know anything. I hoped it was just a heart attack, and pictured Ami in the hospital, recovering. I approached the door, and my cousin's wife came up to me and hugged me.
"Ami died," she whispered in my ear, and everything went into slow motion. "He died of cardiac arrest."
I simply couldn’t take in that pair of words: Ami died. I’d seen him only a few days earlier, healthy and happy as usual, and, suddenly, he was dead… it just didn’t make any sense. I almost began to explain to her that she was wrong and that he was only in the hospital, but then I saw my aunt’s face, drenched in tears, and began to pick up the new reality. Ami had a heart problem, but he was always so energetic and full of life. It just could not be. It had to be a mistake. I thought about the fact that I hadn’t seen him on Shavuot, and, to this day, I can't stand the thought that I didn’t take advantage of that holiday to see him. I had a last chance to be with him, and didn’t take it.
The funeral was huge. That's how it is for a man who dies at the age of 55. Everyone comes to say goodbye to you, because everyone you knew is still alive… all the friends and the family, even some who are a few years older than you.
During the Shiva (a week of Jewish mourning), I didn’t manage to study for my big test. I sat the exam without studying. I passed. I discovered the best way to pass a crucial test: if you don’t stress about it, it's easier to pass. It didn’t bother me at all whether I passed or failed.
The Humble Man. Those are the words engraved on Uncle Ami's gravestone. There are no better words to describe this man. Maybe Uncle Ami's friends knew his professional attributes, but, for me, he was just Uncle Ami, a simple man who, for many of us, was a handyman. When I moved to Haifa, for example, he went with me and helped me paint and install electricity. On the way back, we stopped for hummus and fries in a working men's diner. He savored every bite. He knew, quite simply, how to enjoy all the little things life offered. I knew he was a doctor of biochemistry because there was a diploma hanging in the back porch, but that title didn’t fit with his everyman image. The only time in my life that I had a chance to talk to him about his occupation was when I was about 18 years old. I’d finished high school with science qualifications, and had exotic dreams of finding the cure for cancer. I shared my dreams of being a great scholar with him, but he dismissed me with the words: "Leave this nonsense - at the end of the day, you'll deal with the shit of other people." That's how, with just one sentence, he buried my plans to be a scientist.
Perhaps this sentence gave me impression that he actually was dealing with poop. Or was it just that his entire behavior radiated the modesty of a simple blue collar worker? I simply did not know that my Uncle Ami was one of the world's most respected researchers in the field of virology, and among Israel's leading researchers in the field of AIDS research. Only after his death did I discover (after the Shiva, and the gatherings in his memory) that my uncle, who had received a professor’s degree near his death, had such a reputation in his field. This is how the respectful words The Humble Man came to be rightfully engraved on his tombstone.
vv But, despite all the titles and honor, Uncle Ami will remain, for me at least, just Uncle Ami. The happy and kind man - that's how I remember him, and I'm sure that's how he'd like to be remembered.