Friday morning, June 2nd
Members of the family were ready at the house when the large black mini-bus pulled up. The driver set up the steps and helped us all in, slid the door closed and then had to slide it open again, re-position the steps, close it up and open it again a few more times while we all remembered to bring along what we’d forgotten. Finally all packed in, we set off for the Funeral Home.
Inside the mini-bus, at each seat, there were bottles of mineral water and boxes of tissues. Larry sat up front with the driver to chat his way to the inevitable destination.
When we reached the Home, we were formally greeted and then ushered past the coffin with its ‘Shomer’, a guard who’d been watching over the body since Tuesday. The tradition is that someone needs to sit by the body constantly till the ceremony, at which time we’d officially thank him and take over the responsibility of guarding. When we looked at the 3-day roster, we found a few different names before the one who currently sat, wearing a keepah, and silently praying.
Our destination was an antechamber where we were to sit with the Rabbi of my parent’s Temple. He conducted a Q and A, asking us about experiences, memories, events that made Dad unique. We all had something to say. Jack, Dad’s brother, spoke how he’d always been a natural leader. How he’d led the gang of neighbourhood boys – they’d wait to see what he had in mind (stick ball or running through the Brooklyn water hydrants) and then they’d all do it. How in engineering projects, Jack was amazed to watch how he’d effortlessly organized hundreds of workers, offering respect and motivation, to guide the job being done.
My brother and sister spoke of Dad’s indication of anger – a raised eyebrow. One change in the symmetry and we’d know that there’d been a mis-direction of harmony. My nieces spoke of his openness and willingness to try new things. Ali and I had spoken about that on the way, how he’d learn from his past experience and reacted differently the next time.
After all our words, the rabbi culled a summary of Dad, which he later brought to his eulogy.
We went out to the hall, where we caught a glance of many friends, and faces I didn’t recognize. But, no time to gaze, as we were guided to our seats in the front row and the ceremony began. *I should mention here that due to Shavuot, all funerals had been put on hold till that day. The Funeral Home was overbooked and we were told that we had to keep things to 30 minutes.
Our rabbi had said that we’d have time to say what we wanted to say, but it appears that the Funeral Directors hadn’t given their okay to that.
The 30-minute Ceremony
The rabbi stood up at the podium and announced the reason that we were gathered together. Then the Cantor, a tall fellow opened his mouth and with his first tenor tone, melted the hearts of us all.
Jack went up, first to speak. He offered his love, admiration and his farewell. Then it was my turn. I’d written out what I wished to say – a haiku and a few words. Adjusting the mic, I looked out as I read my haiku and saw straight ahead of me the beautiful face of my friend, Jayne. She’d come and was smiling with empathy and I was touched. I spoke of the idea that had been shared with me by Doron, my t’ai chi teacher, that to pass away just before a holiday was considered a sacred time. With each phrase, my heart grew into my throat and just before the final few words, when it was time to officially say “Shalom” to my Dad, I couldn’t speak through the tears that were about to cascade. I turned to my sister and found a perfectly normal voice to request that she read the final paragraph.
Then it was Larry’s turn to speak. He spoke from his heart, no notes. He, too, made it most of the way through before tears flowed. Andrea took her spot at the podium whereupon she started to shake. I clambered up beside her to hold her firmly, to keep her grounded, to help her voice find its base. She spoke in flurries of memories and emotions and managed to speak through the tears. We three sat down. My mom was stoic, tissues in hand, and I held her hand.
The next generation stood up to speak. Tears, words, observations – each of them; Ali, Dania, Lea, speaking from their own point of view.
Kenny, my father’s good friend spoke of his Wild Bill, a treasure of a friend who blessed all with his divine Bill’s Dills.
Then the rabbi spoke, filling in historical gaps like my dad being in Dead End on Broadway, about his engineering career and his mission to help other engineers worldwide to make the world a better place, FIT.
Then it was over. Another prayer and we were ushered back into the antechamber, quick bathroom break and then into the black mini-bus. In the parking lot, some of us managed to greet some of our guests, but Jayne? I couldn’t see her, or Randi? My cousin Ana found me and hugged me. Time was short. We went to the bus. Those of us who managed to escape the firm hand of the Funeral Directors mingled a little bit longer, noticed a few more guests like George Brady, the brother of Hana (of Inside Hana’s Suitcase) and our dear friends Sam and Murray Cass.
Eventually, they rounded us all up and we travelled to the Cemetery. Two policemen guided us over the first intersections. Finally arriving, 7 pallbearers bore the narrow, but heavy coffin over the uneven terrain. Cousin Michael K was grateful he hadn’t slipped.
Around the grave, we were told that our role was to shovel dirt over the coffin after it was lowered into position. To indicate our lack of enthusiasm, we could use the back side of the shovel. Jack refused to participate. My mother was loathe but shoveled in some earth. We each took a turn, but as time was of the essence, the Rabbi and the Funeral Director stepped up to energetically shovel the earth until the coffin was entirely covered.
Then, we were pointed back to the bus. On the way, I shook some hands, made eye-contact with several guests- the pianist Yuval Fichman who had played a concert at Bridgepoint, my Dad’s hospital, a few weeks before, and his wonderful father who back in 1985 had worked out the astrological birthchart of Iris. I saw our old neighbours, who’d come to support us, and Alexina Louie and Alex Pauk, good friends of the family and composers involved with my brother’s films.
All the while I helped my mother navigate the way back to the bus where we sat and waited till the others joined us. We were to lead the procession.
The trip back home was quiet. We shared names of those we’d been able to see and wondered why we’d been so terribly rushed. If only we’d known that we’d have no time to be with our guests.
Arriving home, the driver slid open the door, set up the steps for our elegant disembarkation, and found ourselves greeted by cousin Michael W, the doctor, who quietly informed us that Bella the dog had left a few offerings in the house.
Andrea rushed to clean up. I entered the house and was greeted with requests for serving spoons for our catered food that should have been ready on the serving table. And could I please share the secrets of how to make coffee in the three urns set up for immediate implementation. Meanwhile, I also had the task of printing out Boarding Passes for Uncle Jack and Susan, who would then be able to stay a bit longer before heading off to the airport.
And thus, life continued, as we began the process called ‘Shiva’ – the seven day period of mourning (which we would be compressing into three days).
Larry headed out to Starbucks to bring back cartons of Caffeinated and De-caf coffee for those in dire need while slowly but surely we began to work the coffee machines, and watch our guests (who knew so many could fit in Mom’s house?) help themselves to delicious bagels, cheese, lox and fruit.
Later we brought out the salads and quiches as more and more people came to fill the house with life and support.
Sara K orchestrated a few family pictures before Jack and Susan had to leave.
At seven p.m. the Shiva officially closed for the evening. Only family members stayed on: Ana and Max, Sara and Michael K, and the rest of us. Cracking open pistachios, sharing red grapes, we sat back. My mother was okay. We were okay. Bella was not okay. She’d eaten something and kept us all busy making sure that her offerings were discovered before Mom found them.
We made plans to meet the next day for brunch and with that, people dispersed. Mom went upstairs to bed. I went downstairs to unroll my bedroll on the den floor. The surreal crept into our regular schedule.
As I write about it all now, I scarcely remember my dreams that night, but the words of Jack’s wife, Susan, lingered. She told us that there would be signs of Dad; things would be moved, or would disappear and then reappear. Grain of salt situation, perhaps, but there were brief glimpses of Dad sitting in his chair, smiling, wearing his baseball cap. I’d smile to him and then feel the tears well up.
My mother didn’t want to go look at my dad
I got the text message that he’d passed. I went upstairs to be with Mom when the call came from my sister, Andrea. But as soon as I walked in the room, Mom knew.
That was Tuesday morning, May 30th. She didn’t want to see him. She wanted to remember him alive. We agreed that it was her choice.
I took the subway down to the hospital. My mom re-thought and decided that for closure, she should come down. Ben, my sister’s husband, and Eli, their son drove her downtown.
Meanwhile, I’d silently entered his room. Andrea and Lea, her daughter were there, both red-eyed. Larry was there and told me the story. He’d arrived shortly after 6 a.m and as he was taking off his shoes, a nurse asked him why. He’d said that he didn’t want to wake anyone. The nurse said that there was no need for caution. Larry understood.
He gently woke up Andrea and Lea, still asleep in the room, to let them know.
He was so peaceful. I lifted up the bedsheet to look at his legs, his feet. They’d told us that prior to death, we’d see mottled skin or some discolouration. None of that was apparent. His legs were pristine.
“What about rigor mortis?” I asked the nurse, who walked in. “It’s started,” she said. “Just lift his arm and you’ll notice the heaviness.” I did. There was a stiffness.
Then, Mom walked gingerly into the room, approached the bed. She kissed my dad, then sat down by his side, holding his hand, still warm.
We showed her how soft and silky his legs were. Then we covered him up.
My mom shook her head. “He looks like my father,” her voice was small in her grief. She cried by his side, looked at him, whispered some words and cried some more.
We waited as long as possible, then had to leave so that the nurse could zip my dad into a body bag. The team from the Funeral Home were on their way to pick him up.
We packed up our belongings: his clothes, a plant, sugarless halva, the wireless speaker, used for his favourite Porgy and Bess and standards by Ella. The flowers were given to the angelic nurses, then we left. My brother and I headed off in one car, and my sister drove Lea and mom. We’d meet at the funeral home about an hour later.
There was some time before that appointment, so on the way, Larry, decided that we needed to do one thing: donate my mother’s bowling ball to the alley where she’d played in her bowling league. After all, it was on the way.
We pulled up and noticed a new logo over the door – the exact same colour scheme as my Mom’s bowling bag. We went in and when we told them that we’d like to donate the bowling ball, we were met with enthusiasm and grins. Never before had anyone come in to donate a ball. In honour of the occasion, they turned on the lights of the alley and suggested that we bowl a few frames. Larry took a shot with my mom’s ball, but his fingers didn’t fit – gutter ball! I took a shot, gutter ball. He realized he’d have to take a picture of the event, so I posed, realigned my aim and bong, splank – a strike! First time I’d bowled in about 40 years. Not bad. …
We left with smiles on our faces and headed for the funeral home to go over the details of dad’s ceremony. It was Tuesday. That day at sundown, began the Jewish Holiday of Shavuot meaning that there could be no funeral till after the holiday – Friday morning. Also, Jack, my dad’s brother had told us that he was busy in court and could only be free on Thursday. Good timing.
We sat and waited in the lobby. On the wall were the founders of the Home. The place was quiet, so quiet that Larry dozed off for a few minutes, his first peaceful sleep in probably a week or so. My mom and sister pulled in. And we began what was to be a 2-hour meeting including complimentary bottles of their own mineral water, some coffee and comfortable chairs. Then homemade cookies were brought in and my mother indulged.
Detail after detail – page after page. Re-affirming the coffin, the style of guestbook and whether or not we’d want a police escort for the funeral procession.
Midway, Andrea asked me in a text if I thought the curly haired funeral director used ‘No poo’ products for his style. The question was apt, as it was all bizarre. The coffin they’d selected looked so small. “Are you sure that Dad can fit into this?” I asked.
“Yes, no problem, it’s deceptively narrow but there’s room for his shoulders.”
And then, “Oh yes, there’s the matter of a suitable shroud. “
My mother mentioned “He has a salmon coloured sports jacket that he loved.”
“Yes, but it’s traditional to dress the deceased in layers of loose robes. My question is would your prefer muslin or Israeli linen”.
“Linen wrinkles,” I said. “Cotton muslin is fine.” Agreements were made, papers were signed.
We left the place knowing we’d reconvene Friday morning, picked up by a special van and delivered on time.
Larry and I left together and on the way decided to stop at the Dollarama to pick up paper plates and plastic cutlery for the meals we’d have to serve after the funeral.”
We arrived and while selecting a blue/yellow assortment, it began to pour, torrentially. At the sign of the forked lightning, we knew that Dad had left the earthly plane.
Since his diagnosis of pancreatic cancer at the end of January, with details of treatment options given to him and some of the family in February, it’s been moment after moment of charged presence.
I showed up at the end of February to witness the Palliative Care team step into action. The social worker, the doctor, the nurses, the physiotherapists. I heard my dad go over and over his history – professional and personal. They needed to appraise him and we got to hear him conquer his innate feeling of exhaustion to elucidate his past. When the pain was great, he sometimes searched longer for the correct wording, but always the words appeared.
He’d sit on the couch slouched over, breathing heavily.
“Dad, are you in pain?”
“No,” he’d say. But the breath, the exhale and the position said something else. “Dad, from 0 (no pain) to 10 (horrible pain), what number would you give how you feel?”
When he finally admitted to something, he’d say “6 or 7”.
By then the drugs at his disposal back then were hardly enough to numb his discomfort. We’d begged him to tell us as soon as it was a “1” or “2”. He had other ideas. He’d never taken drugs for pain and I guess he was waiting for what he imagined would be the big guns.
His sister had died painfully of pancreatic cancer back in 2011. She’d gone quickly with agony. He knew it and knew it well.
One day he said, “What do you think? Should I pull the plug?”
I couldn’t deal with that. I cried, then tried to find my voice. “Dad, you’re so full of life. If you’re asking me, I’d say please no.”
Later on when I had to fly back home, I regretted my words. I felt that I should have withheld my own feelings and instead said: “Dad, it’s up to you. Do what you feel is right. It’s your decision and I’ll support whatever you decide.”
But the tears belied my ability to be logical. I was aching. My beloved father was beginning a path that could be outrageously torturous. But meanwhile, he was lucid.
My niece filmed him as she conducted interviews about his past experiences. She’d ask questions and he’d gather his forces and answer thoughtfully and energetically. When we watched the clips, we learned so many new things. He shared a fountain of experience.
There’s lots to cry about.
Trump – is he role-playing his wildest psychodrama fantasies? My heart weeps with fear.
People – promising their services, then doing nothing. Rug pulled out from under my feet.
Family – pitching in to support my parents in their hour of absolute need, while I’m far away with no real ability to be doing anything. How far, how heart-rending.
But laughter? Of course!
Bill Maher with his weekly: “What did he do now?!” segment pointing out the satirical absurdity of Trump’s doings for this past week. He manages to convert outrage to laughter of the bewildered sort.
People: When the one you count on doesn’t come through and others offer understanding, empathy. Funny how we forgive even though we’re f*cked.
Family: All the familial touches that make life worth living for my parents: bagels from the best bakery
sugarless pie from the famous St. Lawrence Market, a colourful rollator that works for all shapes, sizes, genders. It all makes me smile.
Wait a minute! What have I just admitted to? Insane USA president playing with fire. Is there anything in my power that I can do to change that fact? Helpless, I am.
People: If others forgive someone, based on liking them, no matter how little that person has actually done to fulfill their promises, then what can I do? Helpless, I am.
Family: Can I get up and leave to visit my folks? I could, but is it wise? Frustration grows as I wonder. Helpless!
yet, a day and a half and I’ll know more. The tears may slide, and then I’ll be stronger for the wait.
It all comes down to releasing emotions. Might as well laugh.
but, then again….
It stems from Expressive Therapy, the notion that through expression, we are well on the way to dealing with our past.
It’s also based on NLP techniques to help de-traumatize one still trapped in the thralls of major trauma. The technique is to offer a buffer zone, a safe distancing from past events in our lives in order to view them as if we were watching a movie.
This is also psychodrama, a technique that offers us the opportunity to recreate life events as if we were directing theatre. We cast important characters in the scene, including ourselves, and we coach them in saying the sentences as we recall them being said. We position them just as they were at the time. We direct the scene, write the script, and do coaching to make sure that the events are portrayed as they need to be.
Then, if need be, we can zoom into a moment, expand it, slow it down. We can even rearrange characters, re-write the script, so that we can experience the satisfaction of closure. With understanding and often a big smile, we are free to move on.
Each of these techniques offer the storyteller a way to deal with personal history.
Everyone has a story. There’s always a history behind the present moment. How you got to where you currently sit, stand, recline. When it began. What happened before that. And then what happened…
We can recall moments filled with details and colours and sounds. Some of them may be haphazard. Some may have been predetermined and cast into our DNA by our grandparents or their grandparents. If we consider all that, that too is our story.
It seems reasonable that when asked to share your story, there must be something you could say.
But, when I was asked, I discovered something else. What story? What have I done that when examined from a bird’s eye view looks or sounds like a story? I had lived through events, but were they interesting? Did they create a story-line? I didn’t see it.
Escape route 101: I asked my partner to tell me his story. I as interviewer could happily record his beginning, middle and end. “What’s your story?” I asked him. “Tell me what makes you who you are – the events, the encounters that brought you here.”
He answered: “I have no story.”
I tried re-framing the question. His words came out the same. No. No story, here. Now, I know he has a story. He has lived a life of experiences and relationships that could fill books.
So, what makes it hard to look at our lives and pick out the moments that when lined up would ring authentic and truly represent our path. Moments that when put on a page would offer material for a professional edit and a click of the publish button.
I know that, in the past, if an interested other has asked me what brought me to this moment, I’ve had lots to talk about, things that sounded unique and interesting. Why were those times different from being asked to listen to myself, and write?
The difference was plain. Then I had an audience. I could gear what I said to the look of interest (or lack of) in the gaze of my listener/s.
An audience. I could speak to the audience. Just like on stage or in a classroom. Instinctively, I’d find the light in their eyes and be encouraged.
So, I came up with an idea. This idea isn’t new to me, in fact it was my original plan when I first came to Israel. The idea is simple: Puppet Talk. Let a puppet tell the story. Let a puppet narrate and if need be, bring on important characters to be arranged onstage. Let the puppet show the small scenes of real life, in shameless accuracy, complete with blunders and embarrassment. Let the puppet express it all to provide clarity to past events that happened in a tumult of emotion or social upheaval, but which stick out in our minds: those events that we remember as pivotal in our route through life.
Let the puppet do the talking so that you can stand back and watch the story of your life from a comfortable distance.
This is the idea.
When I ask myself leading questions like:
What made you come to Israel?
What made you stay?
I think back and offer a phrase or a sentence. ‘It was the smell of orange blossoms.’
“I didn’t feel so short here.”
Yet was it truly so simple? Had I left a life in Canada for a new life in a strange land, just because of the fragrance of orange blossoms? Or that other people were short and I felt physically at home? Or the joy in meeting artists, musicians, philosophers at every corner? In the supermarket, in the office of the real estate agent, or with the vegetable vendor who traded us big green Granny Smith apples for the luscious guava from our tree. Those apples were juiced, warmed and served with cinnamon during a cold winter when we didn’t have money for heat.
There are questions that can be answered with a sniff of cinnamon or orange blossoms. Words hardly do them justice. So, why use puppets? Because the puppet can provide the distance and the voice for an emotion that might be difficult to express. The puppet seldom cries, but often shows empathy. Puppets can deal with life’s absurdities and still radiate patience and understanding.
Puppet talk. An idea that needs pursuing. What is my story? Let’s see!