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from the December 2006 issue

My Fallow Years

When I grow old, in however many three-month intervals, I'll gain more and more disabilities, cognitive and otherwise. I'll always be on edge and I'll always be thinking that it's late, too late, everything's now behind me.

When I grow old, over and over again I won't be able to remember what I'd been told only a minute ago. Dazed, I'll stop in the middle of the street and ask myself where it was that I was going. At home I won't know why I'd opened the fridge.

On top of all that I'll probably think that my name is Joy and that every day is Saturday.

With that on my mind, I'll light Sabbath candles every day at twilight, and then, just so I know exactly when the Sabbath begins, I'll knock on my neighbors' door across the hall so that they can tell me.

Often, once I've found out when the Sabbath begins and after I forget the answer, I'll ask them what costumes their children wore for Purim, even though the holiday is long over and their children are forty years old. I'll hassle them. Several times a day I'll ask to borrow some eggplant for my babaganoush, and then I'll ask for some sugar too, also several times a day, even though I'll have diabetes.

After a while, my neighbors will have had enough and they'll call my children, who will have also grown up, of course, and beg them to do whatever is necessary, despite the emotional toll, to find me a place in the best old age home there is. They'll even be ready with some phone numbers and references.

At first, my children won't hear of it, but later my youngest and his wife, and my daughter and her husband will take me to the select old age home they've found for me, way down south, miles past the next town. And I'll sulk the whole way there, because I'll be consumed by how they've all come along to make sure that I don't run away. Their silence will show me that they're sick of me, that their love has worn thin, that my sclerosis is gnawing away at the warm feelings they have for me.

Once they finish the paperwork at the reception desk and say, "What a sweet room you have, Mother," they'll drive off, coming back to visit once a week on Saturdays. And that's how I'll know it's Saturday, because they've come to see me, my daughter will say, a forgiving smile on her pretty face.

In my mind I'll picture her telling her friends that she feels a vast and inevitable sorrow because of my condition and because of how much I've deteriorated, which isn't to say that I'm to blame, it's just that time has extracted its price, she'll repeat. Time, there's no stopping it, it's time wearing me down, who'd have thought? Because when I grow old I'll be in terrible shape. I'll sit in my wheelchair. My head, in fact most of the upper part of my body, will be in a misshapen sprawl and I'll only be able to see halves of people, parts of treetops and lots of sky. More than I've seen my whole life. On a hot day with the sun beating down, the people at the home will put sunglasses on me right after breakfast. Cheap ones, smelly, dirty, you can't even see through them, and I'll look so pathetic.

Sometimes they'll tell me how I used to be. Boy what a person I used to be. People used to salute my father on Israeli Independence Day, and me as well. And not just on Independence Day, but whenever my father won the glory he deserved as a fighter for freedom and justice and I got to share in it. They'll tell me about my mother, an amazing woman who helped the country in secret ways, a secret hero who had never compromised herself.

As they carry on about my noble origins, I'll laugh right in their faces, I'll laugh so hard I'll pee, and my daughter-in-law will say: "She's gone and peed herself again, your old lady."

I'll hate them. I'll think they're after my money, even though I won't have any. I'll have spent it all a few years before. I'll tell them straight out that they're just waiting for me to die, on account of my money, and they'll say, "What makes you say that? Where do you get those ideas?" and I'll say: "It's my amnesia speaking, I'm dying of forgetfulness."

I'll be an emotional acrobat, a juggler of moods. One minute I'll adore them, and then suddenly not. I'll change temperaments at an alarming speed. The doctors will be alarmed too. Everyone will be alarmed, but they'll know there's nothing to be done, once I was one thing and now I'm something else. Such is life.

With my sixth sense I'll pick up on the way they keep comparing between past and present, and I'll tell them, straight to their faces I'll tell them: "What do you think? You think your day won't come? Your day will come. It surely will."

I'll yell at those dearest to my heart, and one of them will get up and ask the medical staff to give me a shot or something, but by the time the nurse arrives, I'll have told my dearest that they're pathetic, they have no souls, they're desecrating the Fifth. I'll be rude to everyone, because I'll suspect that they're stealing my onion so I can't make my Sabbath meal. "Aha," I'll tell them. "It's you who keeps stealing my onion, you filthy scumbags. Scum, that's what you are, scum," and as I say the word "scum," I'll let loose some spit, and it will land on me too, and I'll like it and I'll keep saying "scum" for months on end, practically every few minutes, and my son-in-law will tell my daughter how pitiful she is, this woman, because he'll think I'm half-deaf, though I'll hear just fine. My son-in-law will say that my old age is a disgrace to my youth.

Two or three times a week, I'll start screaming out of the blue and my screams will rock the building. From the depths of my soul will arise the most godawful shriek, but a side-shriek: after all, I'll be all slumped to the right or to the left (some things are hard to predict).

They'll say, "She's screaming again," and only after they find my onion will I fall asleep, calm, reassured, never mind whether there's company or not, whether it's nighttime or daytime, as long as I'm clutching an onion in my shaking fist.

How nice it will be when I grow old! At last I'll be free from the shackles of decorum, at last I'll be a burden to society, and society will have no choice but to unfold the stretcher and carry me. All I'll have to do is carry on sinking, effortlessly, into oblivion.

My manners will be atrocious. I'll be a disgrace to mankind, and my family—they'll find it so hard to bear! They'll talk about it openly in my presence, they'll think I'm hard of hearing, after all. They'll talk a lot about the difference between the way I used to be and what I turned into.

As for me, I'll break into their conversations. I'll point at people with my limp hand, I'll stare at other old geezers and their guests, and I'll sing, "Give peace a chance, so people can dance."

When I grow old, I'll eat with my hands, I'll use my skirt for a napkin, I'll get first names mixed up, I won't recognize my children, I'll be utterly demented.

My thinking will be jumbled, without rhyme or reason, without any sense of what's central and what's marginal. I'll lose all grasp of social distinctions and I won't give a hoot that someone is rich, or a renowned artist, or a scientist or a journalist who's blown the whistle on a major scandal. I won't give a hoot about anyone, myself included. I'll have stretches of silence and of stiffness. Not just in my joints and my nerves, but in my heart, too. I'll be a stiff, mean old lady, mean-hearted too. When the Saturday visits are over, I'll tell my family: "Get the hell out of here. I can't stand the sight of you," even though I'll barely be able to see. Oh yes—my retinas will betray me. Unlike my eardrums.

People will get the hell out of there, and I'll finally be able to take out my dentures and look out the window at my guests walking away—my children and their spouses—and then I'll turn to look at the trees, as far as my restricted movement allows, and I'll recall something far away, in my distant childhood, that will make me want to get up, and then I'll reach for my cane, which they'll hang on my wheelchair.

I'll have a pretty cane, I'll insist on a pretty one. I'll insist on one from Spain. Someone will have to go all the way to Saragossa to get it for me. The Spanish cane will help me get out of the chair and see the treetops from closer up, the shimmering spot of treetops, and I'll take a few steps with my cane, but then I won't have enough strength to get back into my chair. They'll have to call a nurse and tell him or her that the old lady, the lopsided one with her Sabbath onion, tried to get up again.

Copyright © Orly Castel-Bloom. Copyright © in the translation by the Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature. By arrangement with The Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature. All rights reserved.

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