Three days before Naomi’s party, shortly after breakfast, Joel and Irene Schlesinger arrive at the little old house with their enormous good-natured hound Moshe, a handsome mix of Great Dane and Rhodesian Ridgeback, his fur short and golden brown.
Joel is eighty, Irene seventy-nine. They have been bringing Moshe to the little old house twice a week for the last eight months so Moshe can socialize with the Weintraub dogs and go on long walks with the pack while Joel and Irene spend time with their daughter Judy, their granddaughter Sara, and Judy’s husband Jeff who live at the north end of Mercy.
Irene and Joel have become good friends with everyone in the Weintraub consortium, and the Weintraub dogs now consider Moshe a member of their pack. Moshe is seven-years-old and twice as big as Mendelssohn, yet it has never occurred to him to challenge Mendelssohn for the position of alpha, though Mendelssohn is twelve and would gladly relinquish that role to Moshe if only he were here more often.
“So,” says Joel as he and Irene stand with Healing on the deck overlooking the backyard where Moshe is going with Mendelssohn, Miguelito, and Coosi to visit the pond. “We have momentous news and a question for you.”
Healing smiles. “We heard from the Guptas that Judy and Jeff and Sara are moving to Honolulu.”
“And we are moving with them,” says Irene, smiling brightly. “They’re leaving in a couple of weeks so Sara can start school there in August, and we’ll be moving in September. We bought the kids a house in a ritzy neighborhood and a townhouse for us on the golf course three blocks away.”
“The most beautiful golf course I’ve ever seen,” says Joel, with a dreamy look on his face. “No more putting in a parka. The only thing is…”
“It would be problematic to bring Moshe with you,” says Healing, nodding. “We will be happy to take him.”
“Oh thank God,” says Joel, rejoicing. “We insist on paying for his food. He eats like an elephant.”
“If you wish,” says Healing, bowing to them. “I hope you’ll come to the party on Saturday.”
“Of course we will,” says Irene, smiling sadly at Healing. “We love Naomi. And we love you. We’re so grateful to you. What can we bring?”
“Just you,” says Healing, his tears on the rise. “Would you mind keeping Moshe until a few days before you leave? Things are a bit tumultuous here right now.”
“Be happy to,” says Joel, nodding emphatically. “The last thing we want to do is be a burden to you.”
Later that morning, Jean, Healing, Tova, Raaziyah, and Ozan take the dogs for a beach walk and find lots of people and dogs enjoying the sand and the crashing waves.
“I’ll miss Irene and Joel,” says Jean, holding Moshe close so he is less likely to tug. “Such charming people.”
“I will miss them, too,” says Healing, in charge of Miguelito and Coosi and Mendelssohn. “But they’ll be happier in Hawaii. They found it unpleasantly cold here and now they will always be warm and Joel will play golf every day in a short-sleeved shirt.”
“Where’s Hawaii?” asks Ozan, who is holding Flora’s leash – Flora now bigger than Mendelssohn and sweet as can be. “Why is it always warm there?”
“I’ll show you in the atlas when we get home,” says Jean, recalling when she and Healing were children and spent many happy hours perusing the atlas with Naomi and Ezra.
“Mama?” asks Raaziyah, who has charge of little Max. “When will our school start again?”
“In a month or so,” says Tova, tugging Puccini away from a pile of seaweed he wants to devour. “After Arjun and Ravi and Kashvi get back from India.”
“Where is India?” asks Ozan, frowning at his mother.
“We’ll look that up in the atlas, too,” says Tova, exchanging smiles with Jean. “When we get home.”
“Darvin and Esther went to Canada to visit Esther’s grandmother,” says Raaziyah, who misses playing with Esther. “They’ll be home next week.” She sighs dramatically. “Finally.”
“We’ll find Canada in the atlas, too,” says Healing, anticipating Ozan’s query.
“We may have a new student this time around,” says Tova, who is antsy to get home and spend more time with Naomi. “Her name is Georgia Fidelio. She and her mother Lola moved here from Italy in May and live next door to Darla. Georgia is six.”
“Italy,” says Ozan, looking at Jean. “Can we look that up in the atlas, too?”
“We can and we will,” says Jean, who also wants to get home to her mother.
“Georgia will probably go to the Montessori,” says Tova, giving her father a plaintive look to ask Can we head home now? “But Darla raved about our school and Lola and Georgia were intrigued and want to try Nasturtium School for a week or two and see if they like it.”
“Excitement abounds,” says Healing, slowing to a stop. “Shall we turn the hounds around and head home before we all become weak with hunger?”
“Good idea,” says Tova, winking thankfully at her father. “Who knows what fun they might be having at home without us?”
When Joel and Irene return in the late afternoon to get Moshe, they find Eliana, Turq, Tova, and Healing rehearsing on the deck for an audience of Maahiah, Jahera, Ozan, Raaziyah, Jean, William, Diego and his wife Teresa, Helen, Justin, Jean’s friend Darla, and Naomi with Zubina on her lap.
“I thought the party wasn’t until Saturday,” says Joel, when the quartet finishes playing Rogers and Hammerstein’s A Hundred Million Miracles. “I hope we haven’t missed the appetizers.”
“No appetizers,” says Naomi, laughing, “but please join us for supper. The resident gourmands are barbecuing corn and fish and vegetable shish kebobs.”
“A dress rehearsal,” says Jahera, giving Irene and Joel hugs. “Please stay for supper.”
“How can we refuse?” says Irene, loving how affectionate Jahera is.
“I have to leave in twenty minutes,” says Turq, smiling at Naomi. “Any requests?”
“Oh I’d love to hear Deep Purple again,” says Naomi, smiling brightly. “I know you started with that today, but I love it so much.”
“So do we,” says Turq, nodding to Healing and Eliana.
Healing begins a lovely chord progression, Turq adds a heartbeat with his bass, and Eliana and Tova sing in exquisite harmony, the words of the song bringing tears to everyone’s eyes, save for the children who are simply thrilled by the sound of the music.
In the still of the night once again I hold you tight
Though you’ve gone, your love lives on
Tasty comestibles sizzling on the barbecue, Naomi sits on the garden bench with Eliana, the garden bathed in golden light as the long summer day draws to a close.
“Healing mentioned at breakfast today,” says Naomi, gazing fondly at Eliana, “that your wedding gigs have proved so lucrative you are considering moving out of your parents’ house and getting a place in town.”
“I’ve wanted my own place for years,” says Eliana, sighing. “Just never had the wherewithal. Or the courage. But now I think I do. The trick will be finding a place to rent. There’s a terrible shortage of rentals in Mercy these days.”
“Would you consider living in my cottage?” asks Naomi, taking Eliana’s hand. “After I’m gone? I would love for you to live here and help with Zubina and be auntie to Raaz and Oz. Jean was going to stay on in my cottage, but now she’s shacking up with William.” Naomi laughs. “I’ve always loved that expression. And Maahiah has her cottage across the street, so… Healing and Jahera said they’d love you to live here if you want to.” She looks over the tops of her glasses and gives Eliana a mischievous smile. “I promise not to haunt you.”
“Oh I wish you would,” says Eliana, crying. “Then I won’t miss you so much.”
“We’ve know each other since you were born,” says Naomi, putting her arms around Eliana. “You were one-and-a-half when Ezra and I moved to England, Spanish your first language, though when I took you on a tour of the vegetable garden shortly before we departed, you startled me by asking in perfect English, ‘Can I pick a flower?’ I said you could, and you proceeded to pick several dozen sweet peas we put in a vase on the kitchen table.”
“I’ve always been greedy for flowers,” says Eliana, laughing.
Naomi laughs, too. “I’ll never forget the first time we met again after I moved back to Mercy. I’d been home for just a few days when you came for your accordion lesson. You were fifteen, charming and beautiful and funny. You deftly assumed my British accent and dazzled me with your intellect, and then you and Healing played a fabulous accordion duet and I realized you were one of the most fully realized people I’ve ever known.”
“Me?” says Eliana, sniffling. “I’m one of the most unrealized people I’ve ever known. I’m almost twenty-six and I still live with my parents who would love for me to live with them for the rest of my life. And I’ve never even come close to having a lover. Of either gender.” She pouts. “What do you mean by fully realized?”
“I mean you are void of false persona,” says Naomi, looking into Eliana’s eyes. “You speak your feelings without inhibition and you are keenly attentive to others. You are reflexively loving and kind, and you feel the sufferings of others as your own. It is no wonder you get along so well with the members of our collective, for we are all very much like you. As for not having had a lover yet, you are protected, my dear, by your genius and your originality that manifests in everything you do, so that most people are incapable of recognizing you as anything but a beautiful eccentric. But do not despair. For though the gods have not yet deemed it time for your path to coincide with the person you will partner with, it will happen. I have inquired of my cards about you many times over the years, and there can be no doubt that one day, if you will forgive the cliché, your prince or princess will come.”
When the feasting subsides and no one is inclined to leave, more wine is brought forth, tea is brewed, and cocoa is made for the children.
“One of my fondest memories,” says Naomi, gazing around at her beloved friends, “is of a poetry reading at Crow’s Nest Books when you, Helen, read your first poem in public at an Open Mike following a reading by a world-renowned poet of towering mediocrity I shall not name. I remember walking home in the moonlight with Ezra and Healing, and Ezra saying, ‘I had lost hope of ever finding a living poet who speaks to me as do the dead ones I admire. But unless the poem Helen read was a fluke, I think I may have finally found one.’ And thereafter we never missed one of your readings until we moved back to England, and whenever you published a new volume of poems, Ezra would order a copy, wait impatiently for it to arrive, and then read your poems again and again and be filled with joy. I love your poems, too, and when we moved back to England they were my lifeline to Mercy.” She smiles hopefully. “Might you recite one for us now?”
“Yes,” says Helen, who has been crying off and on all day thinking about Naomi dying. “But before I do, I must tell you again that Ezra praising my poem that night changed my life. I was twenty-five and terrified of sharing my poems for fear of being told I was no good. And that night, after I finally got up the nerve to read a poem in public, no one said anything to me and I thought my poem was no good. But when I came out of the bookstore and you and Ezra and Healing were waiting for me, and Ezra said, ‘You give me hope, Helen, that the art has not been lost,’ I was never afraid again, at least not about sharing my poetry.”
“Ezra called you his Sappho,” says Naomi, closing her eyes. “He liked to read your poems while listening to Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words.”
“I’m working on a poem for your party,” says Helen, crying, “but I don’t have it memorized yet.”
“Do Sage, honey,” says Justin, quietly prompting her.
“Oh good idea,” she says, laughing. “When my book Spin Cycle came out, Ezra sent me a letter from Oxford saying how much he liked the poem Sage, how it reminded him of Graves and Durrell and the kinds of questions they asked in their poems.”
“Ezra used to recite Sage,” says Naomi, breathing deeply of her memories of Ezra. “When he was feeling especially sad about the terrible things humans were doing to each other. Your words always cheered him.”
Now Helen recites, “Dawn brings no relief from the sorrow clinging to me, a heavy shawl of grief. The sage is standing on my kitchen table. She’s not much taller than the wine bottle holding a wilted rose, the dishes from last night still not done. ‘Oh why do people choose cruelty over love?’ I ask her. ‘When love is so obviously the better choice?’ ‘Obvious to you,’ says the sage, doing a funny little dance. ‘Obvious to those with food in their bellies, to those who were loved by mother and father and friends, but not so obvious to the unloved, the hungry, the ones deeply scarred by fear.’ ‘And so?’ I ask. ‘What can we do to change them?’ ‘Love them,’ says the sage, bowing to me. ‘As you said. Only without hope of changing them or being thanked for loving them. Love them as your heart beats when you are resting in safety and comfort. Slowly steadily without pause without fear without question.’”
“Wow,” says Joel, gazing in wonder at Helen. “That’s the best poem I’ve ever heard. Not that I’ve heard a lot of poems, but after hearing this one I want to get your books.”
“Thank you, Joel,” says Helen, nodding graciously to him.
“What do you think Helen’s poem is about Oz?” asks Tova, smiling at her son.
“You should love other people,” says Ozan, nodding confidently. “Even if you’re hungry.”
“It’s also about a little person named Sage,” says Raaziyah, smiling at Helen. “Who likes to dance on your table.”
A light rain graces Mercy on the morning of Naomi’s party, a celebration no one is calling a goodbye party or farewell party or last party.
Blessedly the sun is shining brightly by the time the first of the twenty guests arrive in the early afternoon – steam rising from the deck and rooftops. At the south end of the deck stands an enormous table composed of several tables covered with colorful table cloths, the tabletop soon to be graced with Algerian and Mexican specialties along with Tova’s spicy chicken thighs, corn-on-the-cob, vegetable shish kebobs, and broiled cod caught this morning in Mercy Bay.
Naomi is enthroned in the garden in her wicker armchair with another chair and a small table alongside her on which she has her Tarot deck, a jar full of pens, and a stack of postcards featuring Jahera’s photos of the Weintraub pooches and kitties. Guests are invited to sit with Naomi and choose a Tarot card from which Naomi intuits a thing or two for the guest to write on a postcard and take with them as a keepsake.
The first person to sit with Naomi is Darby.
“I thought it best to do this before I’ve had too much to drink,” he says, fighting his tears. “Before I become maudlin and idiotic and can’t stop crying, all of which I fear is inevitable. I’m going to miss you more than I can say. You’ve been a mainstay of my life and the cause of incalculable joy.”
“I will say the same of you, my friend,” says Naomi, who is feeling remarkably well, calm and clearheaded and entirely free of doubt about her decision to die. “Please shuffle the cards and choose one.”
Darby fumbles with the deck and draws the Seven of Pentacles.
“How perfect for you,” says Naomi, gazing fondly at her old friend. “You have accomplished much in your long life and are happy with Marjorie as your companion. Sometimes you fret about not having accomplished some great something, and it is time to cease fretting about that and thoroughly enjoy life.”
“I’ll take that to the bank,” says Darby, his eyes full of tears. “And think of you always.”
The next person to sit with Naomi is Turq, resplendent in a billowy white shirt and black trousers – the outfit he wears for wedding gigs.
“I wanted to take my turn early,” he says quietly. “Before we get caught up playing your favorite songs.”
“You’re letting your hair grow,” says Naomi, smiling at him. “How wonderful. I loved your curly locks when you came to me for writing lessons as a boy.”
“You mean kinky locks,” he says, laughing.
“No I mean curls,” says Naomi, laughing with him. “Albeit kinky curls.”
“I started shaving my head when I was twenty,” he says wistfully. “And for the next twenty-four years I thought I’d always shave my head. But the day I started playing music with Healing and Eliana, I decided to let my hair grow back. And that was just the beginning of the changes in my life since we started playing music together.”
“Tell me,” says Naomi, nodding encouragingly. “Your secrets are safe with me.”
“No secrets,” he says, shaking his head. “Surprises, but no secrets. After our first few rehearsals, Sheila asked me to stop playing with Healing and Eliana. She said she wasn’t comfortable with me spending so much time with such a beautiful young woman. So I invited her to come to the rehearsals with me, and she came for one and she and Eliana had a great talk, and she was appeased. But then we had our first gig and the groom tipped us a thousand dollars and I brought home more money than I make in two weeks working at Found Wood, and Sheila said it made her feel like a failure that I could make so much money playing music while she made so little as a bank teller. And she asked me again to stop playing with Healing and Eliana. And I said to her, ‘My money is your money, Sheila,’ and I gave her a thousand dollars to go shopping with her sister. They bought new clothes and new shoes, and she was happy for a while, and I was in heaven playing music with those geniuses. And then a few weeks later I came home from a gig feeling high as a kite, and I raved about Healing and Eliana’s playing and Tova’s singing, and Sheila freaked out and said if I didn’t quit playing with them she would leave me. And I said, ‘But sweetheart, praising them isn’t a criticism of you. You’re great. And they’re great, too, and in another month I’ll be out of debt for the first time in twenty years. I’m sorry you don’t appreciate my success, but I’m not quitting.’ So she moved out. Two weeks ago. And the days and nights since she left have not been easy for me because I really loved her and she really loved me as long as we were just scraping by. And though I know it’s good we aren’t together anymore, I ache with loneliness.”
“You are my hero, Turq,” says Naomi, placing her hand on her heart. “Draw a card now, though I know what it will be.”
“How do you know?” asks Turq, giving her a quizzical look as he shuffles the cards.
“I don’t know how I know,” she says, marveling at how small the cards appear to be in his big beautiful hands. “I just do.”
He sets the deck on the table and says, “I choose the top card. What is it?”
“The Magician,” she says, nodding assuredly before turning the card over to reveal a confident man standing at a table bearing the instruments of his magic. “This is you, Turq.”
“How am I a magician?” he asks humbly.
“With your music and your kindness and your wisdom,” says Naomi, taking his hand. “Wisdom gained from the long and difficult journey you made to arrive at this moment in the continuum the Buddhists call karma.”
They gaze at each other for a long loving moment.
“Thank you, Naomi,” he says, turning to Helen who has come to have her time with Naomi. “Next?”
“Love awaits you, Turq,” says Naomi, looking up at him as he rises to go. “Fear not.”
An hour later, her Tarot cards returned to the exquisite wooden box Ezra made for them seventy years ago, Naomi joins the revelers on the deck, and with Maahiah’s assistance has a taste of everything and a sip of white wine, after which she says to Healing, “I think it would be good for you to start the music now. I’m going to lie down in my cottage and have a nap. I’ll leave my window open so I can drift off to the sound of you and Eliana and Turq and Tova making your beautiful music.”
“We’ll play all the songs again after your nap,” says Healing, kissing her. “Love you Mum.”
“Love you dear,” she says, allowing Jean and Jahera to help her down the stairs and through the garden to her cottage where she lies down on her bed and closes her eyes as Deseo begins I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free.
“This must be a lucid dream,” says Naomi as she finds herself walking down a faint trail through a forest, the air smelling of Algerian spices.
Now she comes to a clearing and sees someone in the distance she thinks might be Ezra, but when she gets closer she sees the person is an exquisite young woman wearing nothing but a necklace of small bones.
“Here you are,” says the young woman, holding out her hand to Naomi.
“Is this my end?” asks Naomi, taking the young woman’s hand and feeling infused with glorious warmth.
“Nay,” whispers the young woman, leading Naomi out of the forest onto a vast beach, the ocean roaring in the distance. “Your freedom.”