What’s In a Name?

We walked, silently, around and around the fortress-like building in which we both worked.  He wasn’t yet anything more to me than a stranger, a slightly unusual guy who sat a cube row over.  We were only walking because he’d overheard my conversation on the phone and my sobs after.  Unlike all the other men I worked with or around, he didn’t pretend he couldn’t hear them.  Unsure how to offer comfort, they’d tried to keep me focused on work.  Somehow, he knew I needed something else.

I needed to walk, in silence, in circles until I could breathe.

My brother was dying.  The cancer was spread all over.  My family were so far away and I was useless to help them.  I was so alone, a divorced mother of two adrift in the world and just trying to keep my head above the surface of the recession so many were drowning in.  I didn’t know him, but I learned his sister had died, just a few years before.  She’d been younger than him and cancer had claimed her, too.  He’d gently heaped dirt onto her coffin.  He still had his torn shirt in his closet.  His pain was also still raw and raw enough that when he heard it echoed a cube row away in my disbelieving words and sobs, he’d felt compelled to ask me to walk with him.

This was before I knew he was Jewish.  He already knew I wasn’t.  This was before he learned he wasn’t “really” Jewish, but somewhere between, lost in a paperwork mistake.  This was before we were anything to each other beyond a morning greeting if we happened to be walking inside at the same time.  After we walked a while, staccatto conversations sharing tiny bits of pain from our sibling’s death or impending death, he finally asked me my name.

“My name is Karen,” I replied.

He stopped walking, looking a little lost and maybe embarassed.  I’m guessing he wasn’t sure how to handle this coincidence or if I’d believe him.  Finally, he began walking again, having caught his breath.

“My sister’s name was Karen.”

And there it was.  A Karen who died before I met him, who’d grown up with him and now a Karen walking beside him and that dreaded, cursed disease winding connections around us all.  The summer heat began to fade to fall and there were more phone calls from home that needed walks to make sense enough to get back to work.  Over time, those walks became something more, but neither of us were quite ready or sure what to call it.  He didn’t speak of it, but he worried what his mother would say, she who worked so hard to convert to Judaism.  He, the only son and the last surviving child.

The phone call came in the morning.  It was early spring, still gray and cold back on the farm.  My brother had died.  The last time I’d seen him had been across a room, months earlier, unable to hug him lest I make him sick.  We’d waved to each other.  He was gone.  I sat, numb.  He asked me what was wrong.  I explained.

“When do we leave?”

I stared at him.  It seemed just as implausible that he would drive me across the country to my family’s farm as it had that he, a stranger, would have gotten up from his work to see if I needed to take a walk.  But, just as I’d gratefully accepted his offer of a walk without thinking of objections, it seemed just as natural to pack a bag and set it next to his in the truck.  I called ahead, telling my parents he was coming, trying to figure out what in the world we could feed a kosher keeping Jew…and how I would explain whatever this was.  Did I know what this was?  His presence was a comfort to me and for my family, a welcome something else to think about.

This was before they’d refuse to come to the wedding and threaten to disown me.  Apparently, I didn’t know it was one thing to date a Jew and quite another to marry one.  It’s always interesting that non-Jews don’t really seem to place much importance on halakhic status.  I took on his last name and felt the awkwardness of stepping into the space held by his sister’s shadow.  A google search turned up my life and her death, her life being so brief it left few marks.

Converts can choose a Hebrew name.

Over the years, I’ve collected stories of how different converts chose their names, what drew them to one name over another.  For some, it was spontaneous, just a name they blurted out or that sounded good.  For others, their name was given to them by someone who taught them or guided them.  Still others chose a name from the Tenach, a hero or heroine of scripture that they wanted to emulate or whose name they hoped would bring them strength.  And others, chose the name of a virtue or character quality they either already had or wanted.

Karen was a name chosen for me.  It was meant to be Catherine, after my paternal Grandmother, a devout Catholic who had died rather than have an abortion.  She became a martyr to her faith when my father was only 2 years old.  I grew up wondering if she’d made a selfish choice, given my father’s life hadn’t been easy after that.  I’d been born very small, premature, and such a long name didn’t seem to fit, so, on the spur of the moment, Karen it was.

And it could still be.

I could keep Karen or re-spell it Keren for the Hebrew word for crown.  It’s used in the Torah to describe the way Moses’ face glowed as he descended Mount Sinai with the stone tablets.  It’s a good name and would require little effort on my part.

And yet, it’s a name that already seems to have had more than enough of a story of its own.  Two Karen’s, one living, one passed on, both brought together by a deadly disease and a brother.

Maybe it’s time for a new name to begin a new chapter?

My husband and I often joke (in that morbid way that those whose lives have been brushed by as cancer moved past us do) that our siblings were our shadchanim, that, perhaps they are somewhere, smiling that at least some joy was found from the pain of their loss.

Perhaps it’s time to let the shadchan have her name back.

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