Guest columnist D. Dina Friedman: Losing the light

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By D. DINA FRIEDMAN

Published: 10-25-2023 9:50 AM

Every time I go to see the 1-year-old I regularly care for, he greets me with one word: light. It’s a request, rather than an observation. I follow his pointing finger as I take him in my arms, stopping at every fixture in the house so he can bask under the bulbs and watch as I turn the switches on and off.

“Light!” he demands as we illuminate the dark breakfast nook, the hallway, the stairs, the mud room, and finally his play area, which has a hanging chandelier with four bulbs and a pull-string that changes the combination from two lights, to four, and back to darkness. He’s not satisfied until we’ve turned on all four lights, along with every other light in the house.

When I try to distract him with the view out the window, he only wants to look at the reflection of the light fixture — the miracle of seeing the same light in two places. He cranes his head back and forth in incredulity. It’s a glorious state to think of your world as one big light show.

In Gaza right now there are reports that the power is running out, tumbling toward a time with no food, no water, no light. And in Israel, babies are among those kidnapped and killed by Hamas terrorists. But this baby doesn’t know any of those things. “Light!” he insists.

I try to distract him with toys, but he stands up and rattles his playroom gate. “Light!” he orders the minute he’s noticed I’ve shut off the fixture in the adjacent kitchen in a feeble attempt to save energy and money on the electric bill. So I acquiesce and pick him up. We turn the light on again, a reassurance that all is right with his world.

My sister-in-law sends a video of her grandchildren (my grandniece and grandnephew) in Israel, ages 2½ and 5. Their father is gone, fighting in the war, not allowed to reveal his exact location, and no one has any idea when he will return.

The children are at the local playground, where a clown has spontaneously shown up with colorful sticks that they try to balance on their arms and heads. Meanwhile, a 6-year-old Palestinian American boy in Illinois is stabbed to death by his landlord, a man who used to bring him toys. “All Muslims must die!” the landlord shouted.

“How many times did he say ‘light’ today?” the baby’s father asks me. “I bet it’s been at least 400.”

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On my way over, I saw people standing by the Coolidge Bridge. “No More Genocide,” one sign said. “Ceasefire,” read another. On the car radio a speaker from Israel was claiming that everyone in Gaza, by mere association, is responsible for the Hamas attack. So many families brutally shot. I saw their pictures, read stories posted on Facebook that made me weep.

But is everyone really responsible? Even the babies? Somewhere in Gaza, there’s a 1-year-old shouting the Arabic word for light over and over again. And there may not be a light. There may not be a house, or food. The baby may be fussing in a car seat or in his mother’s arms, stuck in a jam of people trying to flee somewhere safe, only to find the borders closed.

When my daughter was 3, the U.S. invaded Iraq. We tried to shield her from newscasts, but she stumbled onto an onslaught of new words: bomb and Saddam. She saw the large fighter jets from Westover looming large and dark in the bright blue sky. “Will we get bombed?” she asked. I tried to reassure her that the bombs were far away, but for a few days she insisted on sleeping with the light on.

When I put the baby down for a nap, I make a point of turning off the lights in order to differentiate play time from chill time. “Light,” he says petulantly for the first few minutes. “Light.”

I tell him we’ll turn on the lights after he takes a nap. Then, I hold him close and bounce him on an exercise ball until he falls asleep nestled in my arms. Is he dreaming of light? And what about the babies in Israel and Gaza? What are they dreaming of? And the grown-ups?

Is there any light left on the dreamscape? On the landscape? In our hearts?

D. Dina Friedman lives in Hadley. Her newest book, “Immigrants,” is forthcoming in late November.