I've been to shiva minyanim only for people who died at a ripe old age. There were some others--college students killed by cars, young women by cancer--but I wasn't needed, or overlooked the emails accidently on purpose. I was afraid, it was too hard, and many other excuses.
But the ones I do mange to attend--what riches are revealed! The other night Fannie's sons told us how she always came to their rescue, no matter where they happened to be in life or the world. And how she milked every moment when it was her turn to read a paragraph of the haggadah at the Passover seder, slowly removing her glasses from her pocketbook, perching them on her nose, hunting for the page, and reciting her part of the story with Oscar-quality drama. At a shiva minyan last month Esther's in-laws praised her frequent, unbidden, and invaluable advice--always dispensed with a glass of Jack Daniels. Sophie's minyan was at her apartment in the middle of the Theater District, which seemed an odd place for an 85-year-old woman to live until I Iearned from the friends spilling out her front door that Sophie was a pioneering Broadway agent, attended in her last days by a bevy of handsome young men to whom she'd given their first breaks. I heard about Max's devotion to the labor movement from a tough-looking union organizer with tears streaming down his cheeks. I saw a photo of Sarah at 25, a few weeks before she met her husband at our synagogue over 60 years ago. Small tales of love given and received, shining like slivers of light from a door left slightly ajar.
Right now I know three people nearing the end of their long, marvelous stories. Although, thank goodness, they're not among my closest friends or relatives, they are part of my life and the lives of others I hold dear. I was too young and afraid to be fully present when my parents and aunts and uncles died. I still don't know how to do that, don't want to. But I've learned to be selfish, thanks to all these shiva minyanim: I need to hear the stories now, while I can still ask questions. I listen and honor by proxy, imagining other questions asked and answered and a nodding yes, we know, we love you, from above.