ln 1975, when I was a girl of 7, Israel was all over the news. Wide-eyed, I stared at our B & W television as Walter Cronkite commented upon religious and political carnage from the Middle East. Gruesome footage of dead bodies covered by plain, wool blankets, and dark-haired men pounding their angry fists into the air. Over Cronkite’s shoulder, the graphic “P.L.O” would scream in bold letters. Confused, I asked my dad (or Daddy, as I will evermore think of him, especially after he died three years later at 38 from the same condition I have self-diagnosed. No, not renal failure, chronic migraines, or The Nightmare of Unknown Skin Pain, but straight up, nearly-took-me-down, took-him-down-and-out, alcoholism) a question."
“Daddy. Why does it say, please leave on?
I remember his high-pitched giggle, and his smooth British-accented answer,
“Palestinian Liberation Organization.”
In my world, P.L.O. meant “Please leave on.” An acronym understood between the teachers and custodians at my private Anglican Girls’ School in Toronto. Lessons meant to be saved on the classroom blackboard would be circled and peppered with the 3 letters, “P.L.O.” and the custodians would leave the valuable intellectual gems alone.
To the rest of the world, P.L.O. meant the Palestinian Liberation Organization. As Walter Cronkite ended each broadcast with “And that’s the way it is…” Daddy might have tossed out something glib like, “They’re all crazy over there," but in his heart, I knew he was worried. The world was watching religious and political freedoms clash, but a brother was watching the newly adopted homeland of his sister live through wartime.
Dare I write that most of the world feels connected to Israel because of religion? The Top 3: In Judaism, the Jews believe Abraham was willing to sacrifice Isaac for God at Moriah. Christians believe Jesus was crucified and resurrected here, and in Islam, Jerusalem is where Mohammed ascended into heaven and was given the second pillar of Islam. Look, I’m no rabbi/priest/prophet. What do I know from religion? Nothing but what Wikipedia, a few weeks of Catholic Sunday School and one scintillating 18-week Introduction to Judaism class taught me. I know my God from a Big Book and 12 Steps where I get to choose a higher power of my own understanding, and thank God for that.
It’s funny, isn’t it? How one place can mean so many things to so many people.
All I understood about Israel was that Daddy was connected to it because his younger sister, T, had chosen to live there. I am sure there were many nights in the mid-70s, pre-24-hour news cycle, pre-internet, when he wished he didn’t have to wait for weeks for his insanely messy, jam-packed letters of love to arrive, to reach across the miles to touch her, in lieu of his hand.
Born in Latvia, my father and my Auntie T., held hands together over a 4-year age gap and 4 years of passage through post-WW 2 German refugee camps (from 1944-1948). Growing up in Coventry, England, first Daddy, and then Auntie T. became doctors at Guy’s Hospital in London. In 1968, she was one of only two women to graduate from her medical school class.
(Side note: You’d think in a family riddled with doctors named Ivanans—father, aunt and brother—this perennial patient would’ve had a better shot at health, but that’s like saying you can become an astronomer by looking at the stars.)
In 1976, she visited Toronto after Daddy had been hospitalized for three months at age 36. I recall her flat lined shock. Tears that filled her beautiful eyes. She did not need to know the details of his bleeding ulcers or full set of dentures. Eye-to-eye, hand-to-hand they connected. Even as a wee girl of six, I could feel their love tinged with a dank sadness. If you breathed in too deep, it filled all of our lungs: Daddy’s illness. It was in the air all day, every day. But that day, I bore witness to love. Their tender love. A love filled with history, one that had traversed borders, post-war rations and the pains of starting over.
In 2011, my Auntie T. offered me one of her kidneys if I could get to Israel. I was too sick to get to Israel. Today, I am 7 years kidney strong. (Hats off, McIntyre!)
Today, my beloved and I are traversing our own borders. For me, Israel has never been a religious or spiritual destination. It is not a country constantly at war. It has nothing to do with the P.L.O..
Israel is where I will hold my Auntie T. at last.
Today, come hell or high-water, come gurgling Gaza or Burning Skin we are going to Israel. We will land in Tel Aviv, and meet my Auntie T. by the coffee bar in the airport—it is where the family always meets. And I am family.
We are family.
I will reach out and hold the hand that held my father’s. For Israel is the country where Kevin’s heart has always been, and where my blood has always been waiting