Certainties: a prayer, a joke, and the inevitable

מַה נִּשְׁתַּנָּה, הַלַּיְלָה הַזֶּה מִכָּל הַלֵּילוֹת

Ma nishtana, ha-laylah ha-zeh, mi-kol ha-leylot
Why is this night different from all other nights?

Two mathematicians are in a restaurant, arguing about how well the general public understands math. One says he is going to the restroom and goes instead to kitchen and talks to the waitress. He gives her a twenty-dollar bill and tells her, “When you come to my table, I’m going to ask you a question. You answer ‘x-cubed over three’. Remember that: ‘x-cubed over three’.”

The mathematician returns to his table and resumes the argument with his colleague. When the waitress brings the check, he exclaims, “Here, let me prove my point. Even this girl, a waitress at a restaurant, probably has a good grasp of math. Miss, tell me, what is the indefinite integral of x-squared?”

As instructed, the waitress responds, “X-cubed over three.” A triumphant grin spreads over the mathematicians face, until she puts the twenty back on the table and, before walking away, adds “Plus a constant.”

We forget constants. When someone asks you “How was your day?”, it would be perverse to answer that gravity continued to causes masses to attract each other; that evolution continued to winnow the quick from the dead; that your heart continued to beat.

They want to hear what is different. Ma nishtana: why is this night different?

It is early April so last night, of course, I was wrestling with my taxes. Taxes are a certainty in life, the constants I don’t actually forget, but put off to the last possible minute, perhaps subconsciously hoping that this year will be different.

My wife came into my den with some papers. She wanted me to read them. This isn’t surprising. Her spoken English has gotten better over the years but reading written English remains both laborious and unreliable.

The first paper was actually a photograph: Nkuhumia, the 8-year-old Congolese child we sponsor. Her round central-African face looked a little grim in the photo, but I guess that is not surprising either. There was a note with the photo, a suggestion from the Christian charity that arranged the sponsorship that we put the photo somewhere we would see it frequently and be reminded to pray for God to take special care of the girl. I thought cynically we should put the photo somewhere God would see it. Eliminate the middleman.

The second was hand-written letter from Nkuhumia. The spelling and penmanship would have told me, even if the postscript had not, that it was dictated by the girl and taken down by an American volunteer, but still, her charm seemed to come through. She talked about her parents’ farm and the maize, sorghum, and millet they grow.

The third was also a letter, but longer and for some reason in French. Rather than try to resurrect my semester of French from four decades ago, I put it aside for my daughter to translate.

The fourth document was an email: my wife had brought her phone and wanted me to read it aloud. It was from an local administrator of the charity. My wife explained that they had called her while she was driving and she had asked them to email her instead.

Nkuhumia, the email ran, had been admitted to the hospital with flu-like symptoms, and despite the doctor’s efforts, died in a few hours.

Too late for the photo or the prayers. Another certainty.

My wife lost both her brothers, one as an infant, the other also at eight, in ways virtually identical to this. More constants of the Third World: internecine war causes poverty and poverty causes death.

My own daughters are safe; we did what we could for Nkuhumia, not enough. Constants we try to forget.

Why is this night different?

I went back to my taxes.

Michael is an engineer, novelist, and traveler based in San Francisco.

Michael is an engineer, novelist, and traveler based in San Francisco.

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