Wading through widowhood: Friends with faces

I am Facebook friendless, but in real friends I am rich indeed.

South Africa 521 (photo credit: REUTERS)
South Africa 521
(photo credit: REUTERS)
I am not a fan of Facebook. I don’t particularly want to hear from anyone after four decades of disconnect.
I’m almost ashamed to admit it, but neither do I need to see photos galore of “Me at Machu Picchu!” “Me in Myanmar!!” One picture or two, attached to an email, is enough for me.
It’s not only the time that social media consumes; I wonder whether Facebook might actually be causing damage. You sit at your screen suffused with beautiful people in beautiful places with beautiful hair and beautiful boyfriends (or girls, in bikinis). Arm in arm. At sunset.
Sipping margaritas. And you think to yourself: What can I post today? Me doing a load of laundry? Me marking a pile of tests? There’s more. Privacy, it seems, has become a thing of the past. On Facebook we hear about break-ups and make-ups and all manner of drama, as it happens. Mothers and brothers get family news alongside other close contacts – all 876 friends, and their friends, and theirs.
I am not on Facebook. Still, I was horrified, a week after Martin died, to find words that I had wept, in private, in a very intimate forum, splashed on social media an hour later: my name, Martin’s name, where the conversation had taken place. I felt violated and very, very shaken. I love the person who sprayed my pain into cyberspace; we didn’t humiliate her by asking to remove the post. But how scary is that, when you can’t sob to someone without your grief being beamed abroad? It’s addictive, too, this constant communication. In my classrooms, where I have banned all manner of electronic devices, my students dive for their phones the moment I close my files. There’s a case to be made, it seems to me, against this endless connectivity. A primal longing must exist for gentler days when we could walk on the sand without being noodged by people needing us, and needing us now. I’m not crash-hot on keeping Shabbat; for the first few years of my marriage, when Martin preferred not to drive on the day of rest, I chafed at the enforced break from the beach.
Yet even I can see the brilliance of switching off everything for some blessed stillness once a week. God, it appears, does know best.
So for all these reasons, my current status situates me firmly in a fading space: Facebook friendless. But real friends… ah, in real friends I am rich indeed. Real friends give real hugs and pour real tea. Real friends text at midnight: “Sleeping?” and when you reply: “No, crying…,” they call, or come right over. (An astonishing aside: Apparently a midnight text inquiring about the state of one’s circadian rhythm is known today as “sexting.”
Thus, an interrogative “Awake?” is the younger generation’s favored method of seduction. To be young is, it seems, not such fun after all.) This summer I needed real friends.
In the good old days, when June rolled round and the academic year wound down, it seemed believable that I might never work again. July lay ahead, and August, and even September and beyond; universities here open way after Succot.
In the good old days, there was time for a trip abroad, together, and sunsets on the beach, together, and long, long floats in our pool. Together. In the Good Old Days summer was sweet.
This year, however, without Martin at my side, the summer stretched ahead, achingly. Each day presented oceans of time to fill, and I had no clear plan of how to get from 2 p.m. till midnight on Monday, and then Tuesday, and then again. It was a challenge.
So when real friends (and family) – those priceless, vital, precious people whom I have known forever – invited me to join them in South Africa for two weeks, I couldn’t think of a reason to refuse.
It’s like learning to live again, this being-a-widow business. Step by step.
There’s packing alone to negotiate (with a little help from a daughter) and booking a flight. There’s currency to convert. And planes to sit in, without a hand in mine for landings. To my surprise, I managed it all.
Ah, but your land is beautiful, as Alan Paton once said of his homeland.
So, so beautiful. Never mind that Johannesburg was partly out of power when thieves stole the cables that connect the city to the grid. Never mind the schoolbooks not reaching schools, as funds get tied up in the Education Ministry. Nor that phones sometimes snap when wires are dug out for their copper components. The beauty of the land transcends all that: the utterly clear blue sky, the utterly pristine beaches of the Cape, the utterly, utterly magical quiet of the Drakensberg, vaar die Kranse antwoord gee.
Corruption may be rife, and the currency is dropping through the floor, but the lamb chops are still the “choppiest” in the universe, and the Cadbury chocolate is the creamiest on earth. And the people may well be the nicest. Take the rituals on the roads: You approach a car from the rear, he pulls over to let you pass, you blink hazard warning lights in gratitude, he flicks headlights to acknowledge your thanks. Then off you whizz, on the open intercity highway; unstressed, gratified, impressed.
My recent stay in this laid-back land was oh-so-reminiscent; sitting at Storms River with the waves crashing, crashing on those mammoth rocks.
Martin and I had sat there last year, at the very same table, me with my cheddar cheese sandwich, him with his carb-free lunch, mellowing in the beauty and blocking out the pain ahead. In Cape Town, under the selfsame sun, we spoke of the elusive Parps that we were trying to obtain, and how this new medication might help to stabilize him… would help to stabilize him, would even, maybe, cure him. Why not? Modern medicine is amazing these days; if we hung on long enough, there’d surely be a cure.
And now I was back on those beautiful beaches, but without my handsome husband. I was trying to heal, helped by the land of my birth.
Because what else is there to do? It’s true: For me tea and scones will never just be tea and scones again (pronounced “s’kones,” if you’re a posh Brit); it’ll be tea and scones without Martin lathering on the cream. Romantic hotel rooms are just a waste of time for now; the Sunday Times has crosswords that I can’t solve alone. But yet it was healing to be “home,” embraced by loved ones who took days off to take me on tiyulim, cooked dinners to die for, and chatted and chatted and chatted some more in the comfortable cadences of an accent that is mine.
And so, home again to another home; back to Israel for the start of the academic year. Holidays end quickly; life is short. At the end of the day, while we are still on this beautiful earth, what choice do we have but to make the best of it? And there is lots to be grateful for. Not least: As I go into class today I am sure that the students will have their books; so far, no one in our Education Ministry has pocketed the budget.
The writer lectures at Beit Berl and the IDC.