In Loving Memory

“I have some bad news” said the voice through the phone for the second time in a week.

I felt my heart race and my spirits plummet as I braced myself for the news. Had I not received a similar phone call just two days earlier, I might not have assumed the worst, but in fact the worst already happened this week. My friend of 10 years died. He was sick, had been sick for the length of our friendship. He was young. He was an addict. He was a recovering addict. His death came to me as a total shock.

As I braced myself for the news, my mind raced with the possibilities. My mother tried at all costs to spare me bad news. I often imagined, should she die suddenly during the week, she would have my step father wait till the weekend to let me know. Now she wasn’t sparing me anything. That could only mean that this was too bad a chunk of news to be spared. In just those 5 words, I have some bad news, her tone revealed a hint of her own sadness. It made me uneasy.

“Aunt Lilly died” said the voice on the phone. Then silence. I sat with the phone at my ear and said nothing. I waited as the news penetrated my mind.

“How” I asked?

“When” I asked?

These are the questions one asks as if the answers will give clarity to the news. The answers are irrelevant. I’m not really listening. I can’t concentrate on what is being said. I hear something about a funeral. I’m like a student stuck on an SAT question. Move on, a voice in my head tells me. Go to the next question.

“So when is the funeral?” I ask.

“Neil is out of the country” she says, “They can’t have the funeral until he gets in. Don’t get yourself too upset.” she says more as a warning then to comfort me.

I stay calm and hold back the tears. I try to sound indifferent.

“So when is the funeral?” I ask again

“Don’t become hysterical.” she warns and then proceeds to list the relatives that have already become hysterical at the sudden death of my aunt.

“Do I sound hysterical” I say in the most un-hysterical voice. To do this I must nearly sound dead myself.

If my mother gets even a whiff of any emotion, she will turn on me like a rabid dog. I tell her I have to go. I tell her I will call her tomorrow.

I spend most of the following day fighting the urge to return to bed. The urge wins and I surrender to my pillow. I call my mother in the afternoon.

“Where have you been all day?” she asks in an accusatory tone.

“I was busy” I tell her and ask what the latest is with the funeral arrangements.

“Maybe Sunday.” she says and then warns me again not to be hysterical.

“Randy‘s hysterical.” she adds as if this would discourage any future temptation at hysteria.

I almost take the bait and try to explain that maybe it’s just grief but any expression of emotion, other than anger will only agitate my mother more and I need the funeral information.

“Where is the funeral? I ask fearing the worst.

The funeral is in Manhattan, the burial on Long Island. After the burial, everyone goes back to Manhattan to drown their sorrows as my people have done for all of time, with platters of corn beef and pastrami.

The day of the funeral, I set my alarm clock for 7:00am and manage to get out of the house by 9:20am. The funeral starts at 11:00am and even one minor delay could cost me the funeral. At 10:58am, my mother calls me on my cell phone. I am around the corner from the temple and reassure her that I will be there in a minute.

I enter the small chapel breathless. I slide into the pew next to my uncle. My cousin, the grieving son of my aunt is giving a eulogy at the pulpit. He is sad and what he says is poignant. He has captured the essence of my aunt, his mother and my thoughts are affirmed by the audible sobs in the chapel.

The whole thing lasts less than 20 minutes and we are all directed to leave the building quickly and quietly as there are other grieving families on the first floor and they don’t want our grief to interfere with other grief in the building. Those of us that stop briefly in the lobby are hurried out by somber looking men in their gray flannel funeral director suits.

Outside, we greet one another, hug, express our shock at my aunt’s death and comment on how well one another looks.

Numerous times we are interrupted by one of the grey flannel guys who want us to go to our cars, line up behind the hearse, pull over to the left, and flash our hazards.

I break from the embrace of a cousin I haven’t seen in years to tell grey flannel for the 4th time that I am waiting for my uncle. I don’t know why I keep saying my uncle. He doesn’t know who my uncle is. The pressure from grey flannel is such that he has all but ushered our small band of grievers to the curb. I start to wonder if they double booked a funeral in the same chapel and need us to clear out so they can set up for the next party.

I am relieved to hear my mother and step father are driving to the burial with some cousins. It ensures that if I am overcome with an urge to express my grief, I won’t be chastised by my mother.

Nearly an hour more in the car and we arrive at the cemetery. It is more like a city of graves. The road is lined with cemetery after cemetery. The only businesses are a series of florists that have outdoor racks of funeral wreaths and several stores that sell monuments. The proximity to the endless sea of graves coupled with the showroom full of headstones serves as a reminder that most of the residents of this town are dead and these businesses are their convenience stores.

We follow the line of Toyotas, BMWs and Hondas down the well-worn path of the cemetery. We stop in front of the bathroom. Everyone gets out of their cars.

Bladders beckon our band of grievers and people start making their way to the restrooms. Those who don’t have to go, start for the family members they missed at the temple. More hugging, more comments about the weather, more comments about how good some people look and how bad others do.

We are directed back in our cars and drive past rows upon rows of graves. The graves read like a list of potential suitors from a Jewish singles dance. Finkelstein, Kaplan, Rubin, Rosenberg.

From the front seat my aunt says she hopes we don’t have to wait.

“Wait?” I ask

“Last time,” she continues, “we had to wait for them to finish their lunch.”

“Them?” I ask

The gravediggers.” says my aunt

“The union says they have to take their lunch” she tells me.

We are having a rash of deaths in the family this summer. Another aunt died just 5 weeks ago and already my family has become experts in the union rights of grave diggers.

I look at my watch. I look around for anyone that looks like a grave digger. I am relieved to see that my aunt’s pine coffin is being lowered into the ground by some burley looking men. I wonder to myself why the grave diggers need a union. What kind of things besides a paid lunch can the union do for these guys? I’ve never seen grave diggers strike but it can’t be good for business when mourners have to cross a picket line to bury their loved one.

We get out of our cars in our fancy funeral clothes and stand among clumps of dirt as we wait for the rabbi to speak. My mother comes up from behind and tells me to move. She says she can’t see. I step forward and she tells me to move back because I am to close. Too close to the rabbi, too close to the coffin, too close to her. I walk around a cluster of family members to hear what the rabbi is saying. I can hear my mother behind me yelling at my stepfather.

I try to concentrate on the rabbi’s words. My mother whispers in my ear.

“Are you going back after?” she asks

“Yes, I whisper, I left my car in the city.”

“What’s going on here?” she says a little louder. “What is he talking about?”

“He’s saying the mourner’s prayer.” I whisper

My whispers are in vain. She responds in her too loud for a graveside voice.

“I know what he’s saying. Why is he taking so long?” I shuffle a little closer to the grave and out of the corner of my eye, I spy my uncle taking pictures of the burial. He looks like the paparazzi; except he’s using a cell phone camera and we aren’t exactly burying Michael Jackson.

The rabbi then directs the mourners to shovel the dirt onto the coffin. He begins with three shovels full of dirt.

My aunt’s two sons take their turns tossing dirt into the grave. Then, one by one, teary eyed relatives step up to the pile of dirt and take their turns filling the hole where my aunt lay, in a pine box, in the ground.

My mother warns me not to fall into the grave when my turn approaches. She then looks at my shoes and comments that she has a pair just like them at home.

“I never saw you in those,” I hear her say, what kind of heal is that?”

I approach the open grave and reach for the shovel. Behind me amidst the sniffles and sobs of family, I hear my mother saying that I’d better be careful because if I get hurt, there is nobody to take care of my children. My taking the shovel from my cousin brings with it another foreboding comment from my mother about my bad back and her being unavailable to help me watch my kids because of a Yoga class she is planning to take. I lift the small shovel full of dirt and rock about 6 inches off the ground and dump its contents onto the pine box. The sound of the rock and dirt hitting the grave has certain finality to it. It reminds me of how people describe the sound that cell bars make when they go the prison.

I turn and stick the shovel back into the mound of dirt. My 10 year old son looks at me, his eyes begging for my attention. He whispers in my ear that he is afraid. I reassure him that he does not have to take the shovel and throw dirt on Aunt Lilly’s grave. My mother steps up from behind and reproaches me for bringing my son to the funeral. Then as if in an act of defiance, my son takes the shovel and heaps three shovelfuls of dirt and rock onto my aunt’s grave. In a fit of rage, my mother lets me, the rabbi and our group of mourners know, how close my son came to falling in the grave and breaking his leg. She adds to this, the risk my cousin, uncle and stepfather have also taken by getting involved in this dirt and shovel affair. She then loudly points to the three Hispanic men that have luckily eaten their lunch before our arrival and declares loudly.

“What are they getting paid for?

I position myself between clusters of grieving family members and pretend not to hear her. In changing my position however, I am now within the sites of my uncle’s camera and begin to worry about whether I should smile for the camera. Do I really want to be in the ensuing funeral slide show smiling at my aunt’s grave side?

It seems as though everyone has had a turn with the shoveling and still the grave needs another 3 feet of dirt to finish the job. My cousin Sherman is doing double time to the rhythm of my mother’s ongoing commentary.

“How long are we supposed to stand here? I never saw anything like this before. Sherman’s going to have a heart attack. What’s going on with this Rabbi? I’m starving!”

In response to my mother’s comments, my stepfather steps forward, takes the shovel from Cousin Sherman and starts heaping dirt and rocks into the 6 foot hole in the ground that is now Aunt Lilly.

My mother, who by now has assumed the role of official commentator of the burial, upstaging even the officiating rabbi, is proclaiming her opposition to my stepfather’s dirt shoveling.

“Oh my God, what is he doing?” she says to no one in particular.

My step father, who has now taken it upon himself to bury my aunt single handedly, ignores my mother’s comments.

“Oh my God, she says, he’s going to fall in. “Then as if interrupting herself stops mid-sentence and asks rhetorically,

“What’s going on here with this grave?”

Finally it seems that even the rabbi has lost his patience with the endless shoveling and wrestles the shovel away from my stepfather. He quickly finishes off the grave. Family members start for their cars even as the rabbi is bidding his own final farewell to Aunt Lilly.

Things take a decidedly positive turn when my uncle notices one of the tires on his car is leaking air and we get a brief reprieve from the mourning as we search on a Sunday afternoon for an open garage to change the tire. After nearly an hour of searching from the southern shore to the northern, we finally find someone willing to change the tire; fortunately, his willingness to help us is rivaled only by his tenacity. He is a one man act and replaces the tire between pumping gas, giving directions and working the register. Not satisfied with simply using the spare and sending us off, he insists on checking the spare for leaks. Only then, when my uncle reassures him that he will purchase a new tire as soon as he returns to Connecticut, does the man let us go.

We finally arrive at Cousin Sherman’s apartment in time to bury our sorrow in cold cuts and coleslaw.

My mother wants to know what took us so long to get there and when I am planning to leave, she laments about how sad it is that we were supposed to get together this weekend and how the funeral spoiled all our fun.

“When am I going to see you next?” she asks and then adds, “It’s a shame I didn’t bring the other kids.”

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