Jules gazed at a capybara, half-asleep in the late-morning sun. When he’d meandered over to the enclosure, a few of the friendly rodents gave him a nod. He’d chosen to make Thursday morning a Zoo adventure. Jules sat on a bench and sipped his coffee. It was pleasant to be at the Zoo when all the kids were in school. The workers attended to various animals. Feeding them. Cleaning up their areas. The only animal noises Jules had heard since entering the zoo were a few baboons hooting.
He’d seen capybaras near the river when he’d traveled to Brazil with Violet. They were amazingly relaxed animals. Super-sized guinea pigs that loved swimming. Maybe it was the fondness for water that kept them so relaxed.
Jules still had Reva’s list of positive affirmations, folded up in his bag. Reva was arriving in about a week and he figured he’d read a few of these to the capybaras, while they went for their morning swim at the zoo.
As Reva had asked, he’d considered the first 20 of these affirmations after she’d sent the list, but had taken a couple of weeks off since.
It was genuine work to examine yourself. Work that Jules thought most people didn’t do enough of. He knew Reva wanted to help him enjoy this last phase of his life. Throughout Jules’ endless tumbling through his years, there had been moment when he’d taken great comfort in mortality. Whereas so many feared the end of their lives, Jules learned that embracing the knowledge of his own demise allowed for the release of suffering and the appreciation of the fleeting nature of our existence. Here today. Gone tomorrow. Gone today. Here tomorrow. The girls would be arriving in a few tomorrows.
The capybara who’d been sun-bathing away from the crowd stretched and yawned. Another capybara called out for the lazy one to join in their aquatic play time.
Jules took another sip of the now lukewarm coffee. He placed the cup down gingerly on the bench and reached into his bag for the list.
#21. I forgive myself.
Jules closed his eyes. What did he have the most trouble forgiving himself for? He exhaled and thought back to his mother, Nina. Nina was always so hard on herself and her boys. Her survivor’s guilt shaped so much of his their childhood. Unlike his oldest brother, Sam—whom might’ve been labeled with Asperger’s today—Jules was naturally empathetic. Morty was charismatic and often lost in the shuffle. Jules was her baby. He’d felt Nina’s pain more than the other two. Her fractured identity. How she was haunted by her escape from death as a 10-year-old in Ukraine. How cigarettes and baking experiments masked her suffering. Neither of them brought up the old country very often. Leaving with Philip’s family as the dawn was breaking and the rest of her family, her mother and father, her aunt and two sisters, lives all snuffed out like a candle. Finding a new life with a new family in a new country.
Nina was a true survivor, but she could never reconcile her survival with her family’s extinction.
The opportunities that Jules and his brothers had been given—growing up in America in the 1940s —while the Holocaust wiped out millions like them on the other side of the ocean, had only deepened Nina’s guilt, embedded her pain, and confirmed her fears.
She projected onto the boys and anyone who’d speak with her, her sense of good fortune. This was often overwhelming. How does a child please a mother who can’t believe she’s alive and her family is healthy?
The “We are so lucky” sentiments didn’t lead to gratitude for Nina. More often, the feelings led to shame that she hadn’t done enough with her life. Or anxiety that their home would crumble apart at any moment.
Even seven decades later, at 83, as he sat with the tranquil capybaras splashing in the sunshine, Jules could hear Nina’s muffled moans from the bedroom. Those nights when Jules’ dad Philip had relocated to the couch and fallen asleep with a Ray Bradbury paperback on his chest.
I forgive myself because my mother never could forgive herself for surviving.
In Jules’ own psyche, he’d survived bouts of shame and guilt. First, with Lisa’s departure, he’d blamed himself for her decision to leave and for her mental fragility. For not seeing the signs. For assuming she’d pull out of her depression. He’d taken up more of the parenting responsibilities to ease Lisa’s difficulty. He was there for Reva. But Lisa hadn’t emerged from her funk.
It took all of Reva’s high school years for Jules to recover himself. Individual counseling. Family counseling with Reva. Reva found art therapy, long before it became well-known. Jules’ friend Sophie was an art teacher and had Reva on weekends every so often. Jules forgave himself for the chaos and the absence of Lisa and finally, Reva graduated and went off to college.
Jules realized he’d been staring at the ground. He perked up and took out a banana from the bag. He peeled it. One of the capybaras sniffed it in the breeze and came over to the edge of the enclosure.
Jules looked around to see if any zoo workers were near. The coast was clear.
He pinched off an edge of banana and got up from the bench. He tossed it over the barrier. The capybara waddled over and gobbled it up, looking up for more.
Jules ate the rest of the banana and then called out “Ciao!” to the sweet furry creatures.