By Irwin H. Benjamin
In these days of introspection, I find myself, unfortunately, facing many things that could use a lot of improvement. I hope, b’li neder, in the coming year, to work on those deficiencies, and resolve to do better. There is one category, however, which eludes my ability to improve, because some things are simply irretrievable; for example, things that I should have done that I did not do, or should not have done that I did do, or that I should have done differently. There is no way I can change what has already been done. And the only thing we are left with is regret.
In particular, there was a time, long, long ago, when I had an opportunity to be a true friend to someone, especially in his time of need, but I was not. And every year at this time, as I think about it, I regret it.
I was 10 years old in 1945. My best school friend was William Morris. In addition to the fact that we felt comfortable with and liked each other, our lives also followed similar patterns.
Willie lived in Brownsville, an irreligious section of Brooklyn. I also suspected his family was not religious. Every day he traveled by trolley to Yeshiva Torah Vodaath in Williamsburg. Unlike the majority of the students, who wore mostly black suits and white shirts, he wore colorful modern clothing and was overly conscious about his hairstyle.
I, on the other hand, lived in Williamsburg, a very religious area, only two blocks from the yeshiva, but I, too, wore the same type of colorful clothing and was equally concerned about my hairstyle, especially the big double-tier wave on top of my head. My father was not religious, and although he deferred to my mother about sending me to yeshiva, he drew the line when it came to dressing me in black.
Although Willie was short and I was tall, we loved playing ball together and were considered the best athletes in the class.
We were also among the poorest in the yeshiva. Two weeks before each Pesach, our names, plus Heshy Bachman, another poor student, were called out to wait downstairs for a trip to Gordon’s on the Lower East Side to get new suits that apparently some generous donor had contributed.
Willie and I cringed at that time of year, because it embarrassed us to no end to be singled out as poor, unfortunate children. And even more distressing was the fact that we knew that the only color suit we were going to get would be black.
In that year, 1945, about three weeks before Pesach, Willie suddenly stopped coming to school. I missed him, wondering why he was not in school. When I asked around for his whereabouts, no one seemed to know. The Pesach lineup that year wound up with just Heshy Bachman and me. It wasn’t the same without Willy. I missed him. In those days we had no phones readily available and no easy way of communicating.
Pesach passed, Shavuos came and went, and then before I knew it, the summer was over.
Then, a few days before Rosh Hashanah, Dr. Stern, the principal, called me into his office. Dr. Stern was a major reason my father allowed me to attend yeshiva. Although a big talmid chacham, he was American-born, which could not be said for most of the rabbanim in the yeshiva at that time. He spoke perfect English and was always very kind to me.
Even though I liked Dr. Stern, he was still the principal, and I was terrified at the prospect of being called into his office.
Dr. Stern asked me to sit down. He asked me whether I’d had a nice summer. I told him that I had. He asked me whether I ever hear from William Morris. I told him that I had not.
He then proceeded to tell me a tragic and terrifying story. While playing stickball on Nostrand Avenue, the driver of a 10-ton truck, not seeing him, ran Willie over. The doctors managed to save his life, but both of his legs were amputated above his knees. He was now attending a public school in Brownsville.
That news hit me like a ton of bricks. I sighed so deeply it seemed I might empty out and disappear. Being young myself, it was difficult to process such news. For the first few minutes, I was able to keep my emotions in check–perhaps because I was in shock and couldn’t properly process a personal tragedy of that magnitude. I also suspect I didn’t want anyone seeing me acting like a baby and crying. But as the realization of this tremendous horror sunk in, I was no longer able to hold it in, and burst out crying. I was inconsolable. I put my head on the principal’s desk and loudly sobbed for about five minutes until I felt Dr. Stern’s gentle hand on my shoulder. He handed me a Kleenex and told me to wipe my face.
After allowing a few minutes to pass while I got myself together, he wrote down an address on a piece of paper, and told me it was the address of William Morris.
He told me that it would be a big mitzvah to visit him before Rosh Hashanah and that Willie would be very happy to see me. He gave me a little blue siddur to give to Willie, as well as directions for getting there and 20 cents for the fare (10 cents each way). I needed to take one trolley at the Bridge Plaza, ask for a transfer, and change at Bond Street for another trolley. Willie’s apartment building was two blocks from the trolley stop.
I left Dr. Stern’s office in shock. I ran home to my room. I lay down, staring at the white-and-black pattern made by the outside light across the ceiling. I couldn’t think. Besides the horror of hearing the great catastrophe that had befallen my best friend, I really did not want to go to Willie’s house. I was a little boy. What could I say to him? What could I talk to him about? Do you want to play ball? Do you want to go to the movies? Do you want to run around the block? I’ll race you! And then for some reason I was seized with guilt. I don’t know why, but that’s the way I felt. I think I felt guilty because I had legs and he did not. And for harboring those ugly feelings I felt guilt-ridden.
No legs! I couldn’t even imagine how someone with no legs was able to live and get around. I was only 10 years old and I had never been confronted with anything like this before. I heard of crutches, but that was for one missing leg, where you would sort of hop–but not two legs! You can’t hop without at least one leg.
For several days, I agonized over the prospect of visiting Willie. I tried to harden my resolve, or else I would have had no peace. To get myself to stop feeling sorry for him–and stop myself from continuously sobbing–I began thinking different thoughts. I pretended to be hard. I had to build a shell around myself to protect my fragile emotions. I even regretted that I’d ever had a friendship with him. I wished I’d never known him! Who needed him to be my friend, anyway? Just because we liked to play ball together? Just because we lined up for those crummy suits together?
The day before Rosh Hashanah, I was off from yeshiva. Despite the fact that I dreaded making the trip, I knew it was the right thing to do, and there was no way getting around it. So, throwing all fear, emotions, and concerns to the wind, I decided to go visit Willie.
I walked to the Bridge Plaza. Although I was terrified at the prospect of going, I felt I had no choice. I wasn’t going to cry; I would show no emotion. He was just some kid I used to know who once went to yeshiva with me. That’s all. No big deal! He’s not my brother. I’ll wish him a good year, and return home. Finished. No big deal!
Then I tried to visualize how he would be dressed when he greeted me. Would he be in a wheelchair? Would he be wearing short pants or long pants? That was almost a sick joke. I couldn’t imagine what I should say to him. Should I say that I’m sorry that happened to him because now he will never ever be able to play ball with me anymore? Or play ball with anyone anymore? My heart kept beating on overtime, and my hands stayed clammy throughout the ride.
When I finally got to his building, I was a total wreck. His building was a five-story walk-up, and he lived on the fifth floor. I willed myself to keep my mind blank and not think of anything. As I felt myself finally calming down, a stray cat jumped out of the hallway, scaring the wits out of me. I could not move for a few seconds. I then shook off any other feelings I had and resolved to do what I’d come for. I looked around the dark hallway, and I couldn’t imagine how Willie would be able to get up and down those many flights of stairs with no legs.
I walked up the long, winding staircase and looked for apartment 5B. As I stood in front of the door, I panicked. I froze. I couldn’t get myself to knock. My only thought was running away and going back home. I just wanted to get out of there–fast. I started to go back down a couple of times, but then again changed my mind. Finally, I closed my eyes, rushed up to the door, and quickly rang the bell.
The door slowly opened. Mrs. Morris was a small, frail woman whose red, swollen eyes seemed to be perpetually crying. She greeted me with a half-smile and said that it was nice of me to visit Willie. The house was dark and poorly furnished. She took me to the door that was to the right of the kitchen, and knocked.
I heard Willie’s high-pitched voice say “come in.” His mother opened the door, let me in, and then closed the door behind me and left.
The room was dark. There were no lights on. The shade on the only window in the room was drawn all the way down, past the window and almost down to the floor. Willie was in bed. There were no crutches or wheelchair around. Willie had the covers pulled all the way up to his neck. His eyes were big, his face small, and his lips thin and cracked. The blanket covered his small frame, but then sagged halfway down where his legs were supposed to be. I tried not staring at that empty, flat space, but couldn’t help myself.
When I finally mustered enough courage to look at Willie’s face, I was met by his familiar irrepressible grin.
Neither of us spoke. To break the silence, I handed him the siddur. “Dr. Stern sent this to you,” I said.
His expression then changed. “I don’t need it,” he said defiantly. “I’m going to public school,” he said proudly.
I realize now I should have told him it still would be good to have a siddur anyway, just to daven from it once in a while, but I didn’t. I should have told him a lot of things. But I didn’t. I just froze. I didn’t say anything. I couldn’t think. I said nothing. I just took the Siddur back from him.
We continued looking uncomfortably at each other for a few more agonizing minutes without anyone saying anything.
When the long silence became deafening, I managed a little smile, gave him a little wave with my hand, and said, “’Bye, Willie.”
His voice cracked as he answered me. “’Bye, Benjie.”
Turning around quickly before he could see my eyes well with tears, I ran out of the house.
I remember it like it was yesterday. It was in the middle of the day, and it was in the middle of September, and it was the last time I ever saw Willie. v
Irwin H. Benjamin can be reached at Irwin.firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Irwin H. Benjamin