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“Holy Day – Photography Strictly Forbidden” The signs were everywhere, in English below the Hebrew. I paused for a breath before guiding Mel on towards the gate. I handed him his kippah. “This is holy ground Mel; we need to cover our heads.” Mel, Paul Kennedy, our travelling companion, and I had been here with Kathy at the beginning of our visit to the Holy Land, but we hadn’t been ready; now, it was our last day and last chance to fulfill the promise we’d made to his father. I recalled Ben speaking from his hospital bed, his voice becoming strong and clear, “Mel, if I die while you are away, don’t come home for my funeral. I never got to the Holy Land…. just take a picture for me in front of the Wailing Wall.”
We walked through the crowd, Mel’s hand on my arm. The Western Wall, a remnant of the second temple, is a very sacred place; you feel its power as you approach. Mel and I went up to it, and he took the small piece of paper on which we had written one word, “Ben,” and placed it in a crack in the wall, amid the thousands of other prayers there. I read an English version of the mourners Kaddish, the ancient prayer in Aramaic, that Baruch and Harold had prayed with Mel two week before, on the day of Ben’s funeral, as Mel sat Shiva at Wolverleigh house. After a long silence, I said “are you ready to take the photo for your dad now?” Mel nodded; he was ready.
We found a spot and I took his tallit, the beautiful fringed prayer shawl, and placed it over his boney shoulders. Like the kippah, it was a gift for his Bar Mitzvah just a few years earlier. In his fifties, Mel had finally been welcomed as an adult into the Jewish community. No one was prouder than Ben was for his only child. “I never imagined that this day would come true because they said that Mel could not be bar mitzvahed when he was a boy… Today, Mel has brought together three communities –his family, the Kehillah and L’Arche.”
As I finished helping Mel, I noticed a middle-aged man watching us. “Is he your father?” he asked, his voice warm and eyes inviting. “No,” I replied, “we’re just friends… though we do have the same nose.” Immediately, I recoiled. Why had I said that? Not the joke about our noses –that part was true. I regretted saying that we were “just friends.” Just friends? I was closer to Mel then I had been to my father. And we were friends though we were not peers -there were great differences between us in terms of age, ability, education and the personal power and autonomy that went with them. But what words could I use to describe the relationship that developed in the 14 years since Mel along with Janet, Karen and Greg had welcomed me to L’Arche and Toronto in 1985?
I came to L’Arche from the University of Notre Dame and Holy Cross novitiate longing to be made whole by giving my life to others. I knew something about community, and my mother had taught all her boys to cook and clean house, but I was otherwise clueless about how to be an assistant; however, Daybreak was short and in a few weeks, I was made house leader. I had great accompaniment from Mary, Sue and Beth, but it was Mel, Karen, Janet and Greg, the people I supported, who were my primary teachers. Mel took a unique role. I was 23 and he was 43, yet we bonded through my suburban “New Yawk” upbringing and knowledge of potato latkes, borscht belt comics, Broadway music and other aspects of Jewish culture. We went regularly to our local, Quinn’s, for music, laughter and a pint with his friend Steve Mosher. I loved watching Cirque du Soleil with Mel as he sat literally at the end of his seat, rubbing his hands in delight, and occasionally staring at me with that great grin of his. When I was the only assistant at Wolverleigh, I would sing silly old songs like “Whoopee” (Mel chiming in on the word whoopee) when things in the home got tense or dull.
Things could be dull, and they did get tense sometimes. Mel was often angry in those days –frustrated with his dad who had married a woman who had no place in her life for him, frustrated by the sheltered workshop that would not allow him to do manly work and move skids around the warehouse, frustrated with L’Arche that asked him to do too much sometimes. Long before I took a course with behaviour management, I learned from Mel that everything is communication: his words, his looks, his many forms of silence and even his anger. Sometimes he was angry because there was an issue that needed addressing –like the TTC when the high school kids were crowding him; sometimes because his dreams were frustrated –one of his dreams was to drive the TTC trains, which I understood to be about being a man in charge, responsible for the lives of others, and of course driving that honking great piece of metal through the tunnels; and sometimes he was angry just because he was Ben Kirzner’s son and that’s what men do. Often, I was the object of his anger sometimes because I deserved it when I harped on him to brush his teeth or change his clothes, but more often because he trusted me to listen and be there for him after the barking was over. We learned to talk things through and to forgive each other. In time, I helped him to at least begin to name some of his pain, to set goals for things he could change and to grieve things he could not. Through Mel’s not always gentle teaching, I learned not only to be a good assistant in L’Arche, but also to listen more to others and to my own heart.
In these past few days, we have heard so many stories of Mel that show what an amazing guy he was –so many qualities and also their opposite: cantankerous yet gentle and kind; generous yet cheap; knowledgeable on many topics yet the world’s greatest bull-shitter; lover of La Traviata and of One Meatball; funny and fun loving yet deeply concerned for others and the world. I was privileged to see the deepest part of Mel right from the start. Mel and I served soup a few times at the Good Shepherd Mission, and he often talked of how important it was to show the men that we cared for them. I also saw his tender heart for little ones, whether animals or people; he loved to visit with Carol or Rosie from Daybreak; he delighted in the years when two babies, Marika before me and Timmy after, lived with him at Wolverleigh. With a little support, he was the most caring man.
Then there was me. While I lived at Wolverleigh, I was preparing for the time I would move back to New Jersey to be there for my sister Jane, then 17, who was living with terminal cancer. Though I was away, I knew that I was a strong support for my mother, Jane’s primary caregiver. My support came from L’Arche especially from Karen who really meant it when she asked, “How are you?” after I called home, and from Melvin, who said, “I know cancer, my mother died of cancer.” In those simple words spoken from a place deeper than thoughts and feelings, I was held; I was comforted. It was clear that Mel was “a man familiar with suffering” who found the strength to be there for me.
Over the years since I lived with Mel, many things changed. Mel’s relationship with his dad began to heal following a divorce. He took up riding developing beautiful relationships with the people there and with his beloved horses, gaining self-confidence as well as a new family when Jennifer, his riding instructor, introduced her mother, Shirley, to his dad, and Mel became the brother to Jennifer and Mark and uncle to their triplets. Mel became a volunteer at the Daily Bread Food Bank where he could move around skids of food without hurting anybody and go out on the big rigs with the drivers. There was some risk –he did fall off the loading dock -but it was well worth it. Mel became the Volunteer of the Year for his service and his gift for making other volunteers, many of whom were new Canadians, feel welcome. All of this growth culminated in the tremendous gift of Mel’s Bar Mitzvah. In those years, in so many ways, Mel had finally become a man.
My own journey took me away from the community for over two years as I helped with my sister’s care in her final months, took time to recover and returned to L’Arche following the death of my father. I lived for several years in Richmond Hill where I carried leadership roles but also went through a significant breakdown and process of healing. I returned to Toronto gradually being called to be Community Leader and Mel was a partner in the project of creating L’Arche Toronto and opening Greenwood House. I joined Mel’s Agape group, a group of old L’Arche friends who would share a meal and kibitz, catching up on what we had been up to since our last brunch, patching together our past, and laughing about so many stupid things. Through all these years, Mel and I sometimes saw a lot of each other and sometimes not so much, but we always could pick up our relationship where we’d dropped it.
This brings us to 1999 when Mel and I, along with many others from L’Arche Daybreak and Toronto, were chosen to be delegates to the L’Arche Federation meeting in Paray-le-Monial. With Paul, we formed a triad and began to plan our trip to L’Arche Sledziejowice, Poland, the gathering in France, then on to visit our dear friend, Kathy Baroody (the KGB) in the Holy Land. It was already a once in a lifetime voyage when Ben Kirzner began to die, and it took on even greater power. I won’t try to capture it all. Mel treasured and spoke of:
- dinner in the old Jewish Ghetto and climbing to the top of the Cathedral bell tower in Krakow;
- the horror of Auschwitz which he expressed in a painful silence (He would say, “They had all the children’s shoes” in a voice from his soul that could tear your heart.);
- the van trip with the Polish delegates and our night in “Stuttgart” (always shouted);
- Joe Egan breaking the news of his father’s death; Jean Vanier (who remembered his dad) and his secretary, Barbara (the former nun from Buffalo) consoling him;
- Dean Levitt from the Board honouring him and his father by coming to the Shiva for Ben at Wolverleigh house;
- going to Richmond Hill to finally meet Nigel the travel agent and get our return tickets;
- buying his beret in our one day at the Federation assembly;
- staying with the two elderly sisters who were Kathy’s landladies in Beit Jala;
- sitting in the Doctor’s chair at the clinic in Beit Sahour and meeting the little sister of the poor at the Oasis workshop there;
- the welcome we received from Kathy’s friends at the Malja;
- his Cheshire grin beneath that silly beret that charmed the soldiers on both sides of the border crossing;
- his climb to the top of the hill near the Kibbutz we stayed in by the Mediterranean and climbing around the top of Masada in 41 degrees of blinding sun;
- the young soldier who posed with him for a photo and gave him a break from the pain of Yad Vashem, the memorial to the victims of the holocaust in Jerusalem;
- the Shabbat dinner with his friends, Veronika and Elliot Cohen.
That Shabbat dinner was special. I remember Paul Kennedy saying the day before, “I know that Mel is a lovely guy, so interesting and funny, but you’ve said that he can be incredibly deep and I just don’t see that.” I thought of that as we were heading from the car along a dark pathway when Mel started giggling; to jolly him along through the darkness, I said, “Melvin, I know what those giggles mean -the silent but deadlies.” It might be a long night. At dinner, there were two families plus the four of us, so Mel was pretty quiet, in his observer mode, as we shared prayer, food and conversation. Then the other mother who the Cohen’s had invited said, “Mel tell us about L’Arche.” Everyone was quiet as we waited a moment for Mel to speak. He spoke simply but from that deep down place of his, “People say that I am poor, but I come from a pretty good district. I work at the food bank because I serve the poor; I love the poor.” Many of us had tears in our eyes hearing Mel name his life’s calling. On our way home, Paul said, “I understand what you mean now.”
Back in the square in front of the Western Wall, the kind man nodded with a look of understanding in his eyes; he knew that we were more than just friends. I nodded back in gratitude and said “Mel, we need to take the picture we promised your dad. We’re not supposed to take photos today, so don’t be surprised if they ask us to leave.” He was silent, serious yet calm, as I pulled out the camera, pointed and shot. Before I could advance the film, a guard came up and started yelling at us in Hebrew. It wasn’t hard to imagine what he was saying. “Okay, okay” I said hoping to calm Mel and my own racing heart as much as cooperate. I put the camera in my bag and led Mel away. We were being kicked out, but we got the photo.
Today, I think that the best name for my relationship with Mel might come from the retreat we attended together in Guelph: we were “covenant companions” helping each other to discover and grow into God’s promise and God’s commandment for our lives. I spoke about my relationship with him, but it was by no means exclusive. Mel was promiscuous with his love and friendship and he is part of the covenant journey of a whole lot of people and communities, many of you here today and countless people around the world. He found his calling as a Jewish man and member of L’Arche: to build relationships, to welcome people, to care for the poor and to pray and advocate for peace and justice in the world. Mel has changed each of our lives for the better, and we will never meet a character like him again.
by John Guido
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