How Sneaky the Duck was the Year's Best Thing

SUSAN SCHNUR

September 15, 1993|By SUSAN SCHNUR

HOPEWELL, NEW JERSEY — Hopewell, New Jersey. -- Our synagogue's service, on Rosh Hashana eve, begins with a spiritual exercise. Each congregant brings to the shul an object, smaller than a breadbox, that represents what was best about the last year. These objects -- everything from lawyers' time sheets to scissors to vanilla extract -- sit warmly and mysteriously on an altar in the middle of the sanctuary, alongside hundreds of High Holiday candles. At a certain point in the evening, those who want to are invited to talk contemplatively about what they brought.

I frame this exercise (I'm the rabbi) with an axiom from the photographer Cartier-Bresson. He used to say that ''it takes a lot of milk to make a little cream.'' He would shoot rolls and rolls of film, and then throw away everything but one photograph. This, unfortunately, is not unlike our lives. Soon enough we throw away (because we forget) all the ''milk'' -- but it's a good religious discipline to identify, and eventually compile, all our ''cream.''

This year, a few weeks before Rosh Hashana, I overheard my children, Lincoln, age 10, and Anna, age 5, discussing their ''cream.''

L: What are you putting on the altar, Annie? You have to bring what was best about last year.

A: I'm bringing what was worst.

L: You can't do that.

A: I'm bringing the worst.

L: Nobody brings the worst.

A: But Sneaky the Duck said.

L: (pause) Oh, not Sneaky the Duck! You can't put a dead duck on the altar.

A: I'm drawing a picture of him, and the funeral.

L: (pause) Annie, maybe something good came out of Sneaky dying. Then you could bring what was best.

A: Lincoln, Sneaky DIED! How could something good come from that! Oh good, Sneaky died!

L: (pause) Didn't anything good happen A child's anxiety is transformed into compassion.

to you last year, Anna?

A: Not big like Sneaky.

L: Well, how about before Sneaky died? Maybe the best thing from last year was that you had a pet duck before he died.

A: And then he died.

At Sneaky's funeral, obviously a watershed event, Lincoln and Anna cried with frightening intensity. Chanting at the top of their little lungs (I told them that singing helps get the pain out, which I believe), they sobbed, keened and belted out lyrics.

Later that night Anna said, ''You know, Mommy, the vet said Sneaky would live, but he died. How do I know the doctors aren't lying about you? And then, casually, ''I wish everyone died from just one thing, like heart-cancer. Then people wouldn't have to worry about arthritis or necks or anything. I wouldn't have to worry about your lupus.''

A month or so later, Annie came up to my bedroom with a pencil and paper and asked if I'd take a dictation. She wanted to write a note to her teacher's aide, she said, whose father had just died. Mrs. Livingston would miss school all week, sitting shiva.

Here is Anna's note:

''Dear Mrs. Livingston:

''I know it's hard when something you love dies. This happened to our duck, and I was very sad. I really miss you because you are a great teacher. I think after time passes you get better about it, and you don't think about it so much.

''I know if something's very old and it dies, you still want it to get older and older so it doesn't have to die that day. But then when it dies, you'll still wish that you want it to be older. I'm kind of coping off how I feel about Sneaky the Duck.

''I know you loved your father very much, but it has to happen some time. I know it's very upsetting, but it does always have to happen, and everyone knows that you love your father very much, and everyone knows that you're upset that your father died.

''Love,

''Anna Miriam''

When Rosh Hashana arrived, Anna, as she forewarned, placed a drawing of Sneaky the Duck on the altar.

On one side is Sneaky, all crayony yellow, and Anna crying. On the other is the duck's grave, brown with four bright flowers, and balloon-dialogue all around: ''I love you Sneaky.'' ''I wish you were here.'' ''I will remember you always.'' ''I'm very upset and hope that you love us too.''

When it was her turn to talk, she said, ''Before, when our farm animals died, Lincoln always cried, but I never understood. I always felt kind of . . . nothing. But now,'' she explained, ''I understand dying, like when Lincoln cried about the sheep and the baby chick. So this is my best thing of the year,'' she summed up abruptly, hunkering back down on the rug.

When it was my turn, I lifted up my object: Anna's letter to Mrs. Livingston. I read it, emphasizing the best line -- ''I'm kind of copying off how I feel about Sneaky the Duck.'' This last year. I said, was full of failure for me, bedbound as I was for weeks on end, sometimes in a wheelchair, ''on my good days'' pushing myself to the brink of collapse. Most awful for me was the fact that my illness was causing my children such anxiety and pain.

''Annie's letter, ''I said, was my first taste of 'cream.' Perhaps over time even more of my children's anxiety will be transformed into compassion.''

As I tucked Anna into her bottom bunk bed that night, I asked, ''When did you decide that Sneaky's death was good?

''I don't know,'' she said.

''When did you decide your lupus was good?'' offered Lincoln from above. ''It's the same thing.''

And then we lay in the dark a long time, considering a whole new year.

6* Susan Schnur is a rabbi in New Jersey.

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