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.