A Father's Ode to His Lost Son

Sunday, August 27, 2006

David Grossman, a leading Israeli novelist and peace activist, lost his soldier-son, Uri, earlier this month. Uri was serving on the front lines in Lebanon and was killed two days before the U.N.-brokered cease-fire. He died two weeks before his 21st birthday. His father delivered these remarks at his funeral on Aug. 16.

My Dearest Uri,

For the last three days, almost every thought has had a "won't" in it. He won't come home, we won't talk, we won't laugh. That boy with the ironic gaze and the awesome sense of humor won't be anymore. That young man with the wisdom so much more profound than his age won't be anymore. That warm smile and that healthy appetite won't be anymore, that uncommon combination of determination and tenderness won't be anymore, his common sense and discernment won't be anymore. We won't have Uri's infinite gentleness, nor the calm that steadies every storm. We won't watch "The Simpsons" and "Seinfeld" together anymore, we won't listen to Johnny Cash with you, and we won't feel your strong, soothing embrace. We won't see you walking with your big brother, Yonatan, conversing with exuberant gestures, and we won't see you hug your little sister, Ruti, the love of your heart.

Uri, my beloved:

Throughout your brief life we all learned from you. From your strength and your determination to follow your own path. To follow it even if there is no chance at all of succeeding. We marveled at your battle to get accepted into tank commanders' course. You didn't give in to your officers because you knew that you could be a good commander, and you weren't prepared to make do with contributing less than you were able. And when you succeeded, I thought: Here's a man who knows his abilities in such a simple and sober way. Without conceit and without arrogance. Unaffected by what others say about him. Whose source of strength lies within.

You were like that from childhood. A boy who lives in harmony with himself and with those around him. A boy who knows his place, knows that he is loved, is aware of his limitations, and knows what's special about him. And, really, from the moment you bent the entire army to your will and became a commander, it was clear what kind of commander and human being you would be. Today, we hear from your comrades and soldiers about the sergeant and the friend, about the guy who gets up before everyone to organize everything, and who goes to sleep after everyone else has already dozed off.

And yesterday, at midnight, I looked around the house, which was a mess after the hundreds of people who had come to console us, and I said: Okay, now we need Uri, to help put things straight.

You were the left-winger in your battalion, and they respected you, because you held fast to your opinions without dodging a single one of your military responsibilities. I remember you telling me about your roadblock policy -- you spent a lot of time manning roadblocks in the territories. You said that if there is a child in a car you pull over, you always begin by trying to calm the kid down, to make him laugh. That you always remind yourself that the kid is about Ruti's age. And you'd always remind yourself how frightened he is of you. And how much he hates you, and that he has reasons for that, and still, you will do all you can to make that terrifying moment easier for him, while doing your job, without fudging.

When you went to Lebanon, Mom said that the thing that most scared her was your volunteer complex. We were very frightened that if someone had to run to save a wounded man, you'd charge straight into enemy gunfire, and that you'd be the first to volunteer to bring more ammunition. That's the way you were your whole life, at home and in school, and in the army. You willingly gave up your home leave when some other soldier needed it more than you did. You'd do the same in Lebanon, in the war.

You were my son and my friend. You were the same for your mother. Our souls are intertwined with yours. You were at one with yourself, a person it was good to be with. I'm not even able to say out loud how much you were someone to run with. Every time you came home on leave you'd say, "Dad, let's talk," and we'd go out together, usually to a restaurant, and talk. You told me so much, Uri, and it was gratifying to be your confidant. A person like you had chosen me. I remember that once you pondered whether to punish a soldier of yours who had committed a breach of discipline. How you agonized over the decision, knowing that a punishment would anger your men and enrage the other commanders, who were more lenient than you were regarding certain violations. And, in fact, you paid a heavy social price when you decided to impose the punishment. But that incident later became one of your battalion's foundation stories, and established a standard of behavior and of adherence to the rules. On your last visit home you related, with your bashful pride, how the battalion commander, in his talk to the unit's new officers and sergeants, referred to your resolute decision as exemplary leadership.

You illuminated our lives, Uri. Your mother and I raised you in love. It was so easy to love you with all our hearts, and I know you felt it. Your short life was a good one. I hope that I was a father worthy of such a boy. I know that to be Michal's son is to grow up surrounded by infinite generosity and kindness and love. You received all these, in great abundance, and you knew how to appreciate them, and to be grateful for them, because you didn't take anything you received for granted.

I won't say now anything about the war you were killed in. We, our family, have already lost in this war. The state of Israel will now take stock of itself. We, the family, will withdraw into our pain, surrounded by our good friends, enveloped in the powerful love that we feel today from so many people, most of whom we do not know. I thank them for their support, which is unbounded.

May we be able to give this love and solidarity to each other at other times as well. That is perhaps our unique national resource. It is our greatest human national treasure. May we know how to be a bit more gentle with each other, and may we succeed in saving ourselves from the violence and hostility that has penetrated so deeply into all aspects of our lives. May we know how to get our bearings and save ourselves now, at the very last minute, because very hard times await us.

* * *

Uri was a very Israeli boy. Even his name is the ultimate Israeli, Hebrew name. He was the quintessence of the Israeli I would like to see. The kind that has almost been forgotten. The kind that people today consider a curiosity. At times, I would look at him and think that he was something of an anachronism. He and Yonatan, and Ruti, too. Children of the 1950s. Uri with his absolute integrity, taking full responsibility for everything happening around him. You could always trust him with everything. Uri with his profound sensitivity to all suffering, to every injustice. With his compassion. Whenever that word came to mind, I thought of Uri.

He was a man of values. In recent years, that word has faded. It has even been ridiculed. Because in our disjointed, cruel, cynical world, it's not cool to have values. Or to be a humanist. Or to be really sensitive to the distress of others, even if the other is your enemy on the battlefield.

But I learned from Uri that it's possible and necessary. That we need to defend ourselves, but in two senses: to defend our bodies, and not to surrender our souls. Not to surrender to the temptations of force and simplistic thinking, to the corruption of cynicism. Not to surrender to boorishness and contempt for others, which are the really great curses of the person who lives his entire life in a disaster area like ours.

Uri simply had the courage to be himself, always, in all situations. To find his precise voice in everything he said and did. That is what protected him from pollution, corruption and the constriction of his soul.

Uri was also funny. Amazingly funny and witty. You can't talk about Uri without recalling some of his best lines. For example, when he was 13, I once said to him, "Imagine that you and your children will be able to fly into outer space just like we fly to Europe today." And he smiled: "What's the big deal about outer space? You can get everything on Earth these days."

Or one other time, when we were in the car, and Michal and I were discussing a new book that everyone was talking about. I mentioned the names of some novelists and critics, and 9-year-old Uri piped up from the back seat: "Hey, elitists, may I draw your attention to the fact that there's a little regular guy here who doesn't understand anything you're saying?"

And once, when I was invited to Japan and wasn't sure whether to go, Uri said: "How can you turn it down? Do you know what it's like to be in the only country in the world where there are no Japanese tourists?"

* * *

Dear friends,

On Saturday night, at 11 o'clock, our doorbell rang. Through the intercom they said, "From the town major's office." And I went to open, and I thought to myself: That's it, our life is over.

But five hours later, when Michal and I went into Ruti's room and woke her up to tell her the horrible news, Ruti, after her initial weeping, said: "But we'll live, right?" We will live and go on trips like before, and I want to go on singing in the choir, and we'll continue to laugh like always, and I want to learn to play guitar, and we hugged her, and we said that we would live. And Ruti also said, "What a wonderful threesome we were, Yonatan, Uri and me."

You really were wonderful, and so were all the different twosomes within the threesome. Yonatan, you and Uri were not just brothers, you were friends in heart and soul, with your own world and your own private language and your own sense of humor. Ruti, Uri loved you with all his soul, and treated you with such tenderness. I remember how, during his last phone call, when he was so happy that the United Nations was about to declare a cease-fire, he insisted on talking to you. How you cried afterward, as if you already knew.

Our lives are not over. But we have suffered a very severe blow. We'll take the strength to withstand it from ourselves, from our togetherness, Michal's, mine and our children's. And from Grandpa and the two grandmothers, who loved him with all their hearts -- Neshuma , they called him in Yiddish, because he was all soul. And from his uncles and aunts and cousins and all his many friends from school, and his soldier friends, who are with us in concern and in companionship.

And we will also take our strength from Uri. He had enough power to last us many years. He radiated life, vitality, warmth and love so strongly, and his light will continue to shine on us, even if the star that produced it has gone out.

Our love, it was our great privilege to live with you. Thank you for every moment that you were ours.

Translated from the Hebrew by Israeli writer

Haim Watzman.

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