My Sister and I
My sister and I drove back together to New York from Washington, DC, for the funeral preparations. She drove. I listened as she talked about all of the tasks facing us on our arrival – meeting the rabbi, phone calls still to be made, selecting the coffin. I may have asked a question here or there, I’m not sure, but I remember thinking, How does she know this! I felt small, much younger, in that old, familiar, irksome way, and felt a restless irritability rising up in me that put me in a contrary, remote mood. I’m sure that my mother may have told me, too, about the preparations, but I had forgotten most of it, and lacked a sense of purposefulness. My mind felt more like one of those children’s games—a box filled with objects and covered by a curtain; you put your hand inside, grabbed hold of an object and tried to identify it by its shape: a locket? a button? a lost key, long-since forgotten?
On the Jersey turnpike, traffic was slow and building up a swell, as we approached the toll booth. It was before the days of E-Z Pass, when you still had to plot your approach, ward off encroaching cars, be ready to swerve into the lane beside you or four lanes over if the opportunity arose. My sister, in that moment, looked to her left for such an opening and said,
“Oh!” and then, after a pause, “I bet you that’s him.”
I looked up and saw the hearse that was patiently, dutifully, with dignity and distinction, waiting in the lane to the left and some feet ahead of us.
She said, “They are transporting him tonight. Really, I bet that’s him.”
She said it as though she had spotted a celebrity or the boy she had a crush on. I thought to myself vaguely, It could be anyone; then thought, But how many bodies actually get transported from D.C. to New York late on a Friday evening in a hearse! then thought once more, Is that really how they do it, transport a body in a hearse on the New Jersey Turnpike from a nursing home in Washington to a funeral home in Manhattan?
Whether it was him or not on the turnpike, it was certainly his body lying there in the Riverside Memorial Chapel, later that evening—a place I had mindlessly walked past a thousand times as a child. The person who met us there asked if we’d “like some time” with the body. We walked into the room where the coffin lay open. Chairs were lined up in rows with the coffin at the front, and at the very back of the room, sat the chanter of prayers, who according to Jewish law stayed with the body and never, ever left it alone. Until that moment I—who was raised as the secular daughter of a Holocaust survivor for whom organized religion was nothing but a crutch for the soul—had never known anything about Jewish law pertaining to death. I felt a peculiar sensation—which I now recognize as a kind of gratitude mingled with longing and sorrow—creep its way over me, as I looked curiously over at the chanter. He nodded briefly, kindly I thought, but never left off praying and chanting in a low murmur, sitting in the quiet in the back, just him and my dead father and rows of empty chairs.
My mother and sister and I, we three the survivors now, walked to the front and looked down into the coffin at my father. I noticed that there was ice packed in beneath him, and he looked like he was asleep, as I’d heard so often about corpses, except that he looked so different. His face was shrunken, fallen; his body was caving in; his skin was some unnatural color and looked like a shiny matte peel pulled taut over his features. We stood there in silence at first, and I reached out to touch him, and felt that sensation that is described so often yet never fully rendered in language: he was cool, not cold, and utterly not alive. Yet, as I touched him, I also felt in a most potent way his presence and really, in that moment, I thought he was still there, in that room with us, hovering between life and death. I was suffused by a rush of feeling that seemed to me to be the outpouring of his wild and fierce love for me. My mother spoke his name a few times, and said a few words, and my sister did too. One moment I was just standing there and the next, I erupted, awash. When my mother touched me, I think I might have screamed, “Just let me be with him for one minute, just let me be!” and my sister put her arm around her and walked away while I wept as though I had burst apart. I had something to say to him and I didn’t know until the words formed themselves and came out in heaves, “Nobody will ever love me just this way, ever again.” His love—intense and insistent, demanding and uncompromising, consuming and absolute—didn’t just bind me to him, it held us both together so we wouldn’t shatter to pieces in the world.
In the stillness that followed, this is what I knew to be utterly true: I am alone.
In the silence of that room, with the backdrop of murmured prayers, I gradually quieted. I was still holding my father’s hand, and I swear I felt like we grinned at each other. I made believe that he knew I was there, and I even pretended that he squeezed my hand back. It made me feel better. After a while, I walked back to find my mother and sister.
At the funeral in the morning, his best and oldest friend spoke. As she left the bimah, she stumbled and tripped, and leaned against the coffin lying in front of her to regain her balance.
She laughed a bit and patted the coffin, then said, “There you are, my friend, always catching me when I fall.”