Kol Nidre Sermon: “The Whiskey Story”

The early mornings have become our time, though we approach them differently, each according to his station.  I usually wake just before dawn, to the sound of the roosters.  My mind is preoccupied with the need to arrange itself delicately around the barbs of painful thoughts, and a fitful yearning for more sleep.  But soon I hear him, in the next room.  He wakes, and instantly begins to speak, daybreak just an opportunity to resume the conversation he has begun with himself, and with the world.

I give him a few minutes, and then pull off the covers and go in to him.  I wish him a good morning, tie open the curtains and turn out the nightlight.  Then I lift him out of the crib and we pay a quick visit to the potty.  After that, it’s back to my bedroom, where I try to coax him to cuddle with me, though this is a hard sell.  He’d rather that I read him a book, or, even better, tell a story.

His favorites are mash-ups involving stuffed animal friends and characters from books and television, all brought together under his careful emotional editorializing.  Like the time when Sherman and Mr. Peabody (who are often ciphers for the two of us), Humpty-Dumpty and Chaim the Clown, took the Wayback machine to Treasure Island and met Long John Silver, who, it turned out, was a very nice pirate and liked to bake his friends special cakes on their birthdays.

But often the legend that he calls for is something rich and strange—a story he wants to hear again about me, before I was his father.  It might have come to mind because of the way we are lying so close together, intimately enough for my face to be an arena for the casual play of his fingers.

“Abba,” he says to me, “tell me the whiskey story.”

Though I have plenty of tales about what we call “yucky juice” at our place, having lived in Ireland, he means something else—a story I’ve told him many times before about the two scars on my lower lip.

I tell it to him again.

“This happened when abba was a boy,” I say, “but older than you are now.  I was with Boomba and Grandpa Steve.”  As I say this, I wonder if it puzzles him to hear the names of my parents linked, because he’s used to connecting them with other partners.  “It was Rosh Hashanah, and we were at our friends’ house for lunch.”  Now I think about how long it’s been since I’ve seen these friends, and that one of them, the one I loved most, is dead.  “They had a little dog.  He was a little light-brown Terrier, a cranky little dog. Do you remember what his name was?”

“Whiskey,” he says.

“That’s right,” I say.  “It was a dog named Whiskey.  Not the friendliest of dogs in any circumstance, and this time he was even crankier than usual, because he’d just had some kind of operation, and he was wearing a special white collar so he wouldn’t bite himself.  It was like this.”  I demonstrate the collar by holding out my open palms at angles beside my ears.

“Well,” I continue, “to tell you the truth, bud, abba wasn’t exactly being nice to Whiskey.  I wasn’t doing anything really mean, but just kind of playing around with him, and I don’t think he liked it.  I would pretend I had something in my hand and then make a fake throw and Whiskey would go running and try to look for it.  But it wasn’t really anything at all, just a fake thing I was pretending to hold in my hand.

“Between this and the collar he must have gotten into an even worse mood than usual, a really bad mood.  Well, anyhow.  It got time for us to leave, and we all got up from the table and starting walking toward the door, and I thought I would just bend down to pet Whiskey, to say goodbye.  And you know what Whiskey did?”

“What did he did?” he asks me.

I know that he knows, because I’ve told him before.  The first time I hesitated just a little bit, but, in the end, he seemed more fascinated than upset.

“You know what he did, buddy,” I tell him.  “He jumped right up and bit me.  He bit me right here and here on my lip.  He split my lip open.  Look, you can still see the scars.”

As he peers at my face, a fanciful image comes to mind, a metaphor for this conversation that we’re having.  He’s like a shepherd boy, grazing his flock on the ruins of an ancient battlefield.  It’s a mysterious landscape, and he doesn’t realize that the hills are really the slumped remains of fortifications, or that the grass is so green because it’s been watered with the blood of soldiers.  But the place is haunted by a ghost that knows the past, knows the history of its pockmarks and mutilations, and, sensing the boy’s innate curiosity, begins to move its mouth in the underbrush.  It is my voice, speaking to him, whispering old secrets of spear points and the rearing of horses.

“And there I was,” I tell him, “standing right there in the middle of the room, in front of everybody, with my lip split wide open and bleeding.  And everyone was saying, ‘What happened?  What happened?’  And I heard somebody, I don’t remember who it was, maybe Grandpa Steve or Uncle Isaac or Jay, say, ‘Whiskey bit Ben!’”

But there’s always a danger that the ghost will not be gentle.  Sometimes an old wound is still alive and pulsing.  Some old ground only speaks its truth to children through the explosion of a forgotten mine.

There’s another scar on my head that he can name without being prompted.  It’s a lot more obvious.  Out of nowhere, he will turn to me sometimes and announce, as if it is a fresh discovery: “Abba, you are a bald!”  He may have figured this out on his own through simple comparison, noting that of all the residents of our house, I was the only one that didn’t have any hair.  I taught him a different word for it, too, which he’s learned to speak perfectly, with his preternatural diction.  In another of our recurring conversations, when he phrases his insight in the form of the question, “Abba, why are you a bald?” and I respond, “Why am I a bald?” he can answer himself in a proud singsong: “Alopecia.”

At these moments, I have to come to terms with the fact that this beautiful little boy of mine, with his long eyelashes, is speaking a phrase I have been cringing from since I was six years old: you are bald.  All these years later there is still the faintest tinge of vulnerability, the legacy of taunts and pity, and beyond either of these the basic raw exposure of incontrovertible difference.  Somewhere deep in my brain battle-hardened neurons are firing.  Are we there again, they ask?  Is it time to raise the defenses?  To strike back with the old munitions: the hostility, the humor, the indifference?  And I must remind them: no, this is my son.  He wants a story from me like he wants me to feed him when he is hungry, and it’s on me to usher him with tenderness into the mystery of myself.

“What happened?” he asks me.

“They had to take me to the hospital,” I tell him, “but I didn’t get to ride in an ambulance, I don’t think.  I don’t really remember how I got there, probably Grandpa Steve drove me there in his car.  I got to sit in a special room, the emergency room, because I had to wait a little while for the doctor.  But I got to watch television, and that was fun.  It was high up on the wall.  And I held something over my lip, like paper.  It’s called gauze, and it soaks up all the blood.  My lip felt really strange, covered up with that gauze, and I wondered what it looked like, but I never looked in the mirror so I don’t really know.  But I did take the gauze off, just once, because I wanted to feel the air on my lip, and I wondered if it was split all the way through.  But I covered it up again, because there were other people waiting in the same room, and I didn’t think they would want to see it.”

I wonder how much of this he comprehends.  He’s never been to an emergency room, and I must be using words that he doesn’t know yet.  How strange this must be for him.  And maybe it is just a little too gruesome, after all.  The scar on my face and the dog that bit me.  The complexity of a world that has history in addition to shape; that reverberates with memory and implication, blood, pain, and danger.  Encountering, in the malleability of his childhood, the inveterate scars of the adult personality.  But he listens thoughtfully, and I keep talking, noticing how with each retelling new details emerge, while others disappear, as this tale of mine inches toward a final, satisfying form.

I wonder, too, if he knows what differentiates the two types of stories he keeps wanting to hear, over and over again—the essential distinction between Long John Silver and this light -brown little Terrier.  Only one of them can’t be made nice through a simple flick of the imagination.  Only one of them still stirs the trace of a nervous reaction in the pulse and breath of his father.  He is still too young to be deliberately cruel—he simply has a thirst for stories, and as his awakening mind pushes its way forward, with more curiosity than tact, it unwittingly hauls up against the weakness of his storyteller.  And I forgive him, as I hope I will also do in the future when his cruelty becomes more deliberate.  But even more, I thank him, because when he stumbles on something painful in the landscape of my soul it is my opportunity to be tender from a place of hurt, which feels like a healing.

Because what can an old ghost possibly want except to tell its story and be known?

“And then the doctor came in,” I tell him.  “Do you remember what the doctor did?”

“What did he did?”

Ata vokhen kelayot v’lev, we say in the prayers of Yom Kippur.  You, oh God, probe our innermost being, our heart and our kidneys, the dark mysteries of the body, and in this awesome vision give us opportunity to repent and become something new.  But it’s really nothing so grand, this miraculous force.  It’s a stumbling innocent, a little shepherd boy in pajamas inviting us to retell the story of a wound.

“He took this special black thread, it looked like it was thin black plastic, or something, and he stitched me right up with a needle, like he was sewing.”  I pantomime a run of stiches across my lip, and then across his lip, as well.  “And when I went back to my new school that I had just started, with my black stiches and my story about how the dog bit me, they all thought I was really tough.  But really I wasn’t.  And then they came out.  And then I had a scar.  And here I am!

“And that’s the whiskey story, little man.”

He is quiet for a moment, and then he says, “Tell it again.”

“That’s enough for now,” I say, and I take him up in my arms.  “Let’s go and greet the day.”

 

 

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