Construction Literary Magazine

June 2019

א; Or the Story of Isaac and His Mother

א; Or the Story of Isaac and His Mother

Photograph via Flickr by Calsidyrose

{1. My mother was the kind of woman who never liked to show her feelings. 2. People who knew her said she was, above all other things, kind, but that if you didn’t know her, or if you’d just met her, you’d think she was cold and distant and heartless, because she’d never touch you, would never hug you or kiss you or even shake your hand. 3. Instead, she’d just nod and look you squarely in the eye. 4. She even did this with me, her own son—especially after the death of my father. 5. My father died when I was 7 in a car wreck outside of LaGuardia. 6. His car flipped over several times and his head was crushed and his neck was broken, and I wasn’t even allowed to see his body at the funeral. 7. After his death, mom stopped talking about him completely. 8. I’d bring him up at dinner or when something reminded me of him, but mom would just sit there eating or knitting or filling in the squares of her crossword, silent. 9. I’ve never faulted mom for this; even then I understood it was just her way of dealing with the grief. 10. My own way of dealing with the grief was different. 11. At night I’d go up onto our roof and watch the planes taking off and landing at LaGuardia. 12. In the same way that I never faulted mom for her silence, she never faulted me for my plane-watching. 13. Even though she knew I probably shouldn’t have been climbing up on the roof at such a young age, she understood that this was my way of dealing with the grief, and that if she wanted to be left alone she’d better just go ahead and leave me alone as well. 14. About a year after my father died, mom started dealing with her grief in a different way: she started reading. 15. She’d read before, of course, but she hadn’t read like this. 16. This was Serious Reading—directed, purposeful, “Please leave me alone” reading. 17. She read all the great Holy Books: Confucius’ Analects; the Bhagavad Gita; the Qur’an; the Old and New Testaments; the Sefer Ha-Bahir; the Talmud; the Tao Te Ching; the Upanishads; the Vedas. 18. None of them gave her any comfort. 19. She tried reading them again—straight through from start to finish—only this time with a pencil so she could take notes. 20. Meanwhile, I was growing up. 21. I’d stopped watching planes at night and had started, in my own way, a Serious schedule of Reading. 22. Where mom read the Holy Books, I found I had an interest in math. 23. This was when I was 12 and in the 6th grade at I.S. 230 in Queens. 24. Through no fault of her own, my teacher Mrs. White had us doing math that was suddenly far too easy for me. 25. It made sense in a way that nothing had made sense before. 26. I never got below 100 on any of our tests, and one day after class Mrs. White took me aside and asked if I’d like to do something a little more challenging. 27. I said that I would. 28. She said she would enter me in something called the Continental Math League, and that starting next week I’d have a set of difficult and challenging problems to tackle, and that every couple of months or so there would be a test that students from all over the country would take, and the more problems you finished correctly, the more points you got, and at the end of the year the student with the most points won a trophy. 29. I won the trophy that year and upon winning decided, definitively, that I would become a mathematician. 30. Mrs. White was thrilled, but since our school was poor and mom and I were poor, the hardest math I’d have would be the Continental Math League, so there was little I could do but keep winning trophies and keep attending my regularly scheduled math classes at I.S. 230. 31. I would have been resigned to this if I hadn’t found myself on a train one day that got rerouted so many times I didn’t know where I was or where I was going. 32. When one is on a train that gets rerouted several times and one is 12 years old, one should get off that train as soon as possible and go look at a map. 33. I did this at the 116th St-Columbia University stop on the 1 line. 34. Since I’d never been to Columbia University, I decided I’d go aboveground and wander around. 35. I was extremely tall for my age. 36. I also had a beard already. 37. As I wandered around I realized that nobody seemed to pay any attention to the fact that here was a 12-year-old boy all by himself on the campus of a major university. 38. It was then that I realized I could use this to my advantage. 39. People thought I was a college student, so why shouldn’t I be a college student? 40. I started attending afternoon lectures in the math building after my classes let out at I.S. 230. 41. I’d get the 7 train at 74th St and Roosevelt Av and take it into Times Square, where I’d have to transfer to the 1 going uptown to Columbia. 42. When I’d get there, I could just sit down in the back of the lecture halls and take notes. 43. I did this for 5 years, and by the age of 17, I had finite math under my belt and I’d started to become terribly interested in transfinite numbers and the work of Georg Cantor. 44. If you’re not familiar with the work of Georg Cantor, I’ll give you a brief explication: Georg Ferdinand Ludwig Philipp Cantor → b. 3/3/1845, St. Petersburg, Russia → d. 1/6/1918, Halle, Germany → best known as the creator of set theory → primary contribution the establishment of the importance of 1-to-1 correspondence between sets of numbers, and that there are, in all likelihood, an infinity of infinities. 45. The specifics of Cantor’s work are neither here nor there, but what is here and there is the fact that I became obsessed with G. F. L. P. Cantor—addicted to him, you might say. 46. Now what about my mother—what was going on with her? 47. Well, there is a parallel here, of course: mom’s absorption in the Holy Books had continued all this time (it continued for the rest of her life, in fact), and it paralleled my own absorption in the work of Cantor and set theory and ∞. 48. In fact, most afternoons during that year I found Cantor, there was a kind of physical 1-to-1 correspondence between my mother and I: she upstairs at her desk with a Holy Book open and a pencil in hand, her back arched, her head held just above the text, her eyes focused and moving in penitent rectilinear beauty over the words of the gods as the sun shone in her window, a woman alone with her soul || me one floor below her, sitting at my own desk with my own mathematics book open, my own pencil in hand, my own back arched, my own head held just above the text, my own eyes focused and moving back and forth in a kind of ∞-like motion between Cantor’s words and symbols, my own attempts to understand the universe being scribbled in my own salt-and-pepper notebooks (the boy alone with his soul). 49. Neither of us reached an understanding of the universe by the end of that summer. 50. Mom finished her 6th go-through of the Holy Books feeling unfulfilled, and I couldn’t quite grasp what G. F. L. P. Cantor had been trying to get at in the years before he went supposedly mad and died in a sanatorium, unrecognized in his field and unfulfilled in his personal ambition to explain the universe to himself. 51. Nevertheless, I was still determined to be a mathematician, and it was with great excitement and anxiety that I packed my bags and nodded mom goodbye on the steps of our row house on 76th St in Queens, bound for Columbia University, where this time I would study math for real. 52. This excitement was short-lived, though. 53. 2 months into my 1st semester, mom got cancer and I had to come back home to watch over her. 54. She apologized every day and said that she was sorry she couldn’t give me the kind of life my father wanted for me. 55. It was the 1st time she had voluntarily spoken of him since he died when I was 7. 56. I said I understood and read to her from whatever Holy Book she wanted me to read. 57. She stayed in bed almost all the time. 58. I remember the 1st time I had to help her to the bathroom. 59. It was the 1st time she’d let me touch her I could remember. 60. Her skin felt dry and brittle and scratchy, not unlike the pages of the books I was reading to her. 61. I cried for the 1st time in my life. 62. She started to speak of my father more often. 63. I said I missed him. 64. She said she missed him more than anything in the world. 65. I asked what my father used to do because I couldn’t remember. 66. She said my father always wanted to be an architect but that he’d had to settle for teaching technology to middle-schoolers in Jackson Heights. 67. I cried for the 2nd time in my life. 68. That night I went into the basement and looked at my father’s tools and wondered where he might be if he was anywhere and about the possibilities and implications of oblivion. 69. The next morning I asked mom why she wasn’t getting any chemo. 70. She said the cancer wasn’t benign and that anyways chemo’d only draw things out, only make them more painful, and there was already enough pain in the world, wasn’t there, Isaac? 71. As she said this, I could see her hair was falling out and that earlier that morning she must’ve been crying. 72. Mom died shortly thereafter, and I cried for the 3rd time in my life. 73. After the funeral I had a very hard time readjusting to the world. 74. I sat at mom’s desk every day and thought about how long and how conscientiously she had sat there and read after the death of my father, searching for meaning in all of the cultures of the world. 75. A week passed, then another. 76. I tried to pick up my math books again but for some reason they seemed just symbols on a page rather than descriptions of a recognizable world. 77. I planted some tomatoes in the little garden behind our row house, and as I did this I thought, The sun feels like the moon, and the moon feels like the sun. 78. So, here is how I tried living for a week: sleeping during the day and living during the night. 79. I switched the order once or twice but then I realized there wasn’t really any difference. 80. That is to say: if I slept at night and lived in the day or slept during the day and lived at night, it didn’t seem to matter at all. 81. My life went on like this indefinitely. 82. In fact, it still might be. 83. At this point I don’t feel I’m at liberty to discuss what is real and what is unreal. 84. I do know, however, that there came a time when I started reading mom’s books without mom. 85. Now I saw them in a different light. 86. I’m not sure why, though, because I’d read them all before. 87. Perhaps I hadn’t been paying attention the 1st time; perhaps I’d only mouthed the words to mom as she lay dying in her bed. 88. Either way, as I read them, the words began to take on meaning. 89. Each one seemed distinct and new, and once I got through them, I immediately read them again, this time taking notes with a pencil. 90. Do I have to say what happened after this?—do I have to say how things changed and how I’m all confused again? 91. I suppose I will. 92. I suppose I will. 93. I suppose I will. 94. My 3rd time through the Holy Books was what did it. 95. I’d sit at my mother’s desk certain that I was reading one thing, thinking the whole time that this right here, this thing I’m reading right in front of me, this thing is the Qur’an. 96. But then when it was time to quit and go to bed, I’d close the book and see that it was not the Qur’an, it was the Talmud or the Old Testament or the Sefer Ha-Bahir. 97. It didn’t matter because in the end they all became the same to me. 98. And I would sit there feeling enlightened and confused, and wondering what was real. 99. And then I’d get to thinking that perhaps it didn’t matter, perhaps enlightenment and confusion were the same thing, or maybe they were something different, I didn’t know, I don’t know. 100. Either way, the only thing I’d end up doing was sitting alone asking questions to myself, thinking, What if they’re the same, what if they are different, what if they’re the same, what if they are different, what if dad had lived, what if they are different, what if mom had lived, what if they are different, what if god is Cantor, what if they are different, what if Cantor’s god, what if they are different, what if math’s religion, what if they are different, what if dad had lived, what if they are different, what if I am real, what if there’s a difference, what if I’m unreal, what if I am different, what if they’re the same, what if they are different, what if they’re the same, what if they are different? . . .}1

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1. I am not sure if I’m still doing this today.