HOW I FORGAVE MY BROTHER
(This was first published in The Jewish Journal)
“Why do you want to be alone with me?” Irwin wrote back.
Although it was an email I could hear and feel his anger.
“I’d love you to voice Dad’s WWII letter for my film,” I wrote back.
He instantly replied, “I’m sorry I signed the release. I don’t want to have anything to do with your film.”
Before I finished reading his response, my head started to throb, something, which hadn’t happened in decades.
Why was Irwin saying this and now? I was just about to finish my movie, a deeply personal documentary I had spent the last three years working on; the one that I had 250 backers for; the one that I got sick while making due to reliving the trauma; the one that I poured my heart into with one motivation to help others.
I was scheduled to go to his house for brunch. I was hoping to record him then. Now, I was afraid to even see him. For sure he’d bully me, something he’d done continuously since we were kids. He was my big brother. Aren’t big brothers supposed to protect you?
I needed him in the film. I couldn’t entirely remove him. He’d given me a beautiful interview, which was filled with empathy, something I had never experienced from him before.
The next day I woke up sick. I had no appetite and couldn’t stop vomiting even though I had nothing to throw up. My head was throbbing and the room was spinning. Fear was seeping out of every pore of my body.
I hadn’t felt this way since I was child living at home. In seventh grade on the way to Hebrew School in a carpool of kids, I mentioned I had a headache. They all asked me what was that. I had thought everyone had headaches.
Huddled over the toilet, I knew I had to cancel my plans for the day. I was supposed to meet a backer of my film who lived in Scarsdale. She had mailed me a letter sharing the trauma of her childhood.
When I pulled myself together, I called her. The phone rang with no answer. She didn’t have a mobile and was picking me up at the train station two hours from then. I had to go. I couldn’t leave her waiting for me with no way to reach her.
As I sat on Metro North with a plastic bag in hand just in case I started retching again, I looked outside the window. I kept asking myself, why did Irwin now tell me he didn’t want to be in my movie.
I knew I hadn’t forgiven him yet. My work had been focused on my mother and I had succeeded to forgive her.
There was much to do to finish and release my film especially as the producer, director, editor and distributor.
I postponed the emotional work I would need to do in order to forgive Irwin. It would take time and digging, both of which I didn’t have.
As I gazed at the moving landscape, the answer came to me. Don’t wait. You must forgive Irwin now.
I decided I’d go to his house for brunch but I wouldn’t go alone. I was so afraid I would crumble from his hectoring. Irwin was an extremely private person and I knew he’d restrain himself in front of a stranger.
I asked a buddy who was Irwin’s age to come along. We stopped on the way for me to fetch fresh bagels.
As I stood outside ringing his doorbell my stomach turned. My mission was to get in and get out of his house as fast as possible. I wasn’t going to bring up my movie, just talk about world affairs.
Irwin’s future wife answered the door. Behind her leaning on the spiral staircase was a life size mounted portrait of Irwin wearing a suit, yarmulke and tallis from his Bar Mitzvah in 1959.
“Why’s that there?” I asked her.
“I don’t know. He wanted you to see it,” she responded.
Both curious and worried what I was walking into she led the way to the kitchen where Irwin was waiting. I plodded to him and kissed him lightly on his cheek and introduced him to my friend.
Being around Irwin was never a warm, loving experience. It didn’t take much to unleash his anger. One time I was visiting for a holiday gathering during the day. I had to be back in Manhattan for something I was participating in by 7 PM. He was settled on the couch with some of his guests watching a ball game while the rest of the family was scattered in the kitchen and the backyard. I had to get to the train station. Not wanting to disturb anyone I asked if someone had a phone number for a taxi.
Irwin started screaming. “This is not about you. You can’t wait until the game is over and I’ll take you.”
He was so loud that everyone heard him, perhaps his neighbors, too. His wife ran in startled. Just another offense on my growing record. I never knew what I would do that would piss him off. Frequently, it felt like just my presence annoyed him.
Now, there was something so critical, something I couldn’t give in to, something he couldn’t control, my film. I had to make the best possible movie without his involvement.
Our brunch was going well. Just as we finished and were ready to say good-bye, Irwin directed us to follow him to his finished basement.
Sitting on his desk he pointed to his baby book from 1946. He was the first born of three. As I went through it, gently turning each page, I marveled at each item that was cut, placed and pressed on these pages — his hair, baby announcement card, and ribbons. Mom had written down everything in Irwin’s book. As I hemmed and hawed, my big brother started singing, “I’m the Prince. I’m the Prince. Your next movie is going to be about me.” He sang this over and over again.
That was all I needed. My prayers had been answered. Prior to this, Irwin was my brother whose life was filled with riches — partner of a law firm, a gorgeous house, fancy cars, many friends, a loving wife, children and grandchildren. Now, I saw his pain. I didn’t know what caused it, what happened in his childhood, but I saw him as a wounded child desperate for attention and love. This gave me the ability to forgive him.
My friend commented in the car on the way home. “Boy, your brother is a narcissist.”
Two years later Irwin was diagnosed with metastatic cancer. Three years later he passed away. It was devastating to watch his body deteriorate and see him in so much pain. He fought to the end, still controlling everything. The day he returned from making his funeral arrangements, I was visiting. For the first time in my life, I was invited often and was thrilled to be there to give him my love. I wished I had a magic wand that could heal him. As he withered away, my heart ached. Irwin was taking his rage to the grave. I was losing my brother, my emergency number, the only person who never missed sending me a Valentine’s card and the one who no matter what happened I knew he would be there for me.
I was now so grateful for the email Irwin sent me years prior, as it was the trigger, which allowed me to forgive and love him no matter what he said and did.
FINDING MY HAPPY PLACE
Adirondack Daily Enterprise
I’m a New Yorker — a Manhattanite. After spending four months in my apartment sheltering in place, then witnessing the looting by opportunist and career criminals of businesses that were barely surviving due to being closed, it was time for me to leave my beloved city and get into nature.
I leased a condo in Lake Placid, rented a car and hit the road.
As soon the mountains became visible, I pulled over and got out. I stood like a kid in a candy store taking it all in. As I gazed at the overwhelming beauty of the peaks, my eyes welled up. I felt alive again. I could breathe the uncontaminated fresh air.
During the rest of my drive, I passed lakes, rivers and waterfalls. Turning into Lake Placid, emerging from the horizon was the 1980 Olympic ski jump set against the green pastures. I wanted to stop at almost every turn to take a photo.
It was July 4 weekend, and although Lake Placid had canceled all its events including Ironman, concerts and even fireworks to avoid pulling in crowds, the streets were filled with people — many tourists, all eager like myself to leave their homes, cities and confinement and get to nature, where they could enjoy the freedoms and recreation. Most of the people were wearing masks in the streets, and those who I asked who were not turned out to be visitors.
Having been here over two weeks, I’m in awe of how this area has managed COVID-19 and the respect the community has for each other. I’ve never felt safer.
Mayor Craig Randall commented, “We’re a resort community and want visitors and locals to feel comfortable and welcomed, but no one wants to see a spike of COVID cases.”
Since March 14, the county of Essex, with an approximate population of 39,000, according to the mayor, has had only 53 people testing positive, in which 15 are prison inmates. All have recovered. (Editor’s note: Those numbers are out of date. As of Monday, Essex County reported two active cases of COVID-19 and 72 total cases since the pandemic began in March: 56 of whom tested positive and another 16 suspected positive from a time when testing was scarce. Of the test-positive cases, 16 were inmates.)
As I started my daily walk around Mirror Lake, I discovered a happy place to work in the morning — sitting on an Adirondack chair in the covered bandstand, facing the windows looking at the lake. It didn’t matter if it rained, as I was protected.
When hunger struck and I wanted a snack, I packed up and found the Adirondack Popcorn store on Main Street, which sold many flavors. I ordered sweet and salty. The server was behind a plexiglass divider when he handed me my selection. Then he slipped underneath the divider an open, flat, plastic container for me to put in my credit card.
“Oh, you’re going to touch it, now?” I asked in my smartypants New York City voice.
“We have a protocol. I’ll clean it afterwards.”
He did just that. Sprayed it with disinfectant, put it back in the container and slid it to me.
Next he passed under his clear barrier, the credit card slip for me to sign with a pen.
“Oh, now I have to touch this pen?”
I was sure he was about have enough of me.
Kindly, he responded, “We clean them in between each person.”
I left with my delicious box of popcorn and moseyed on down the street while window shopping.
A couple of days later, I found myself at a restaurant, which came recommended, called the Cottage, right on the lake, where I sat outside. When I asked to see the menu, the masked waitress pointed to the framed QR code sitting in the middle of my table.
“Do you have an iPhone?”
“Just aim your camera at it, and it will direct you to our website with the menu.”
I was impressed and wondered about the patrons who didn’t have a smartphone.
The waitress explained, “We do have some paper menus. It’s just that in the beginning we ran off 500, as we throw them away after each person uses it, and we were killing a lot of trees.”
“This is brilliant.” I responded as I then looked down at my phone to read the menu.
A few days later I decided to take a stroll and enjoy the sunset by the lake. As I sauntered into town it was close to 9 p.m., and my stomach was growling. I hadn’t eaten dinner. The restaurants had stopped serving when I noticed Chinese take-out was open. The kitchen was behind and under the menu on the wall. They had built a plexiglass divider with a tiny sliding window.
When I ordered, the woman on the other side in the kitchen responded and her voice came through a little speaker that was right in front of me. Clever, I thought.
“How long will it take?” I asked.
I set my timer and headed out. When I returned, I was waiting by the window for my food when the women’s voice came through the speaker.
“It’s in the box.”
“What box?” I asked.
She pointed to a large wooden box that was placed between the inside, where she and her cook were, and the side where I stood. I lifted the door and discovered a brown bag with my pad Thai in it.
“Ingenious” I thought.
A few days later, I discovered the Adirondack Mountain Coffee Cafe, a gem located in Upper Jay. As it was in the 90s, I chose to sit inside where there was air conditioning. The waitress asked me to sign their contact tracer. This was the first time in months that I was eating inside a restaurant. My eyes welled up again with joy. I felt safe and happy.
If I could spend the rest of COVID-19 time up here, I would. As I will be leaving and heading south to help my elderly mother in Florida, which has now emerged as the global epicenter of the coronavirus, I wish their leadership and residents could follow the proper protocol. I look forward to the day this virus is behind us.
GAYLE KIRSCHENBAUM Emmy award winning filmmaker, TV producer, TED speaker, writer, photographer with a wanderlust. Teach forgiveness as seen in my film LOOK AT US NOW, MOTHER!