Monday, May 23, 2005


When I was 16 and finishing high school in the south of Israel, I got a summer job working as an interviewer in a survey of wives and parents of Israeli soldiers that had been killed in combat. It was 1978, and I was surveying familes of soldiers killed in the 1973 Yom Kippur war, and in the war of attrition that had followed the 1967 Six Day War. The Israeli army had commissioned the study to get a better idea of how the families, five or more years after their loss, had adjusted. Questions were asked about their social and work life, their health, their finances… I was way too young for the job, but I managed to land the interview, and seemed so mature that I was hired.

For several weeks, I visited one family after the other, traveling around the south of Israel by bus, and going through the long and repetitive questionaire – about an hour and a half worth of questions – at least a couple of times a day. When I think of it today, I’m shocked at how unprepared I was, and wonder how much damage I did asking those callous and formulaic questions.

Small as the sample was, I very quickly perceived a pattern. The wives, mostly widowed with young children, were struggling with the practical consequences of their loss. They didn’t talk about their lost love, they talked about the difficulties of raising children without their father, of socializing in a society where all their friends were married, of losing the upward mobility that they had expected in life.

The parents’ loss, on the other hand, was almost entirely emotional. They all had other children, and none were left alone. But here too, a pattern emerged. The mothers had in some way recovered. The fathers had not. Almost without exception, the fathers were unable to resume a truly normal life. They felt ill, they couldn’t work, they needed anti-anxiety medications, they couldn’t get their lost children out of their minds. There was an emotional resilience that the mothers seemed to have, and that the fathers did not.

I remember in particular a family from one of the smaller towns in the Negev. They’d had three sons, two of them identical twins. They showed me pictures. The twins were slight and red haired and wirey. Both had been paratroupers. One had been killed in the 73 war. In my mind, it seemed like the least of the losses, after all, he had an identical twin. His mother sat stoicly through the interview. His father started crying almost as soon as I started on the first question, and continued crying all through the interview. Almost five years had passed, but the wound seemed just as raw. I was crying with him, I couldn’t hold it back. When I left the mother looked at me quietly, observing a foolish young girl. But what I clearly saw even then was that she had made her peace with what had happened, her husband hadn’t and probably never would.

Many years have passed, and I’d forgotten about these interviews, until a brunch yesterday with a good friend. Guys were the subject of the conversation. Their fear of rejection, their difficulty in recovering from failed relationships. I was telling about a man I’d met who still seemed to remember vividly a six week relationship he’d had four years ago. He’d fallen in love. She’d left him. Since then he hadn’t tried again. I suddenly remembered that I too had a failed relationship exactly four years ago. It was only a four week affair, but it was by far the most painful that had happened to me. For months I’d cried at the end of every yoga class, driving my car, riding on planes. But four years later, I can hardly summon the memory. I knew it hurt, but I can’t remember how.

“Guys are just fragile”, my friend said. “Once they’re hurt, they can’t seem to just pick up and move on”.

I guess I had realized that already at age 16.


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