by Leslie Selbst

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, each mourner deposits his symbolic shovel of earth, and the living say goodbye to the dead. The grave is filled in and the mourners file back to their cars, back to their lives, back to their loved ones. The dead are once again left to their thoughts.

Round and round the clay on the potter’s wheel goes. A new life is formed while an old succumbs. Life is always one step ahead of death as we struggle to stay ahead, all the while knowing that, in the end, we cannot keep up the pace.

I am in the recreation room on the top floor of the hospital. I am cold, and I pull the terry-cloth robe a little tighter. The IV bottle is almost empty, and, soon, I must return to my room for my chemo treatment. I try to sneak away from my bed if I’m not too sick, as downstairs, it is depressing and enclosing. I’ve left a note for the nurse, but I have a few more minutes.

There is a weaving group in the corner, mostly women, for the men aren’t as sociable and tend to stay more to themselves. The women are wearing scarves on their heads. Babushkas, as my grandmother would have called them. Russian peasant dress, these babushkas, from a long-gone era. Religious Jews shopping in the open markets, hiding their hair and their femininity from all but their husbands. The women in the weaving group wear their babushkas to hide their baldness. Round and round we go.

There is a tall fish tank in the room, and the fish travel up and down in their endless motion as though death would overtake them if they stopped. At first, their movement appears unnatural, and I have to think for a moment to identify the problem. It is their direction of swimming that seems out of place. In my fish tank at home, the fish swim back and forth across the length of the tank. Here, life goes on with just a slightly different twist.

A man is swimming in a pool, just visible from my window. A sporting complex is on the fifth floor of the building across the street. He strokes across the pool, turns and pushes off again, only to repeat this at the other end. How I envy him. Just a few months ago, he might have been me. This goes on for forty minutes. He is life, one step ahead of death; he must keep going. His rhythm is easy to watch, and I begin to doze off…

I am a young boy with his grandma on Friday morning, and we are shopping for the Sabbath meal that will take place that evening. My grandparents live in a poor immigrant neighborhood in Brooklyn, and we shop in an open market of pushcarts, little wagons pushed by vendors, each hawking an essential of life in a Jewish community. Blake Avenue in East New York is awash in pushcarts.

A long line of mostly women, all wearing babushkas, poke, sniff, and inspect the various produce. A heavyset woman in a blue faded scarf picks up a chicken and sniffs under its tail. “This chicken is old,” she indignantly snaps at the vendor, who has participated in this very scenario at least six times that day. “I know, but it would make a good Shabbos soup,” he says wearily. “Not for Shabbos soup,” the woman sharply answers and tosses the carcass on the crushed ice. “Do you have anything fresher?” At this, the vendor becomes animated and brushes aside some ice chips, producing a chicken more to the woman’s liking, and the haggling over price begins.

All over the street, babushkas and vendors are engaged in different facets of the same scenario. Like some medieval ballet, the story plays itself out, the transactions are all completed, and the women in babushkas slowly fill their shopping baskets. As my grandma and I leave the chicken cart, the weary vendor readjusts the tired old chicken in the center of the ice. He props its tail up so as to entice the next babushka.

A tap on my shoulder awakens me, and a babushka-clad woman smiles an understanding smile and tells me that the nurse has called. It is time for my treatment. I reluctantly walk to the elevator…I must keep one step ahead.


Leslie Selbst is a beginning freelance writer who spent his first forty years in government work. He has coauthored Surviving The Storm, a nonfiction story about a family’s struggle within the medical system. 

Leslie Selbst