(Written Thurs., 8/23)
We sit awkwardly on tan leather sofas in a small room adjoining the chapel, my nieces and nephew and their cousins and various partners (this generation isn’t big on marriage), and my brother and I. In the strange constellation of my family, I'm younger than all but one of these people. We've spent the past few years ping-ponging between the funerals and shivas of various parents, aunts, and uncles, although almost everyone else got together on happy occasions, too. With the exception of my dear niece, they've always been the relatives I see only after tragedy. When I was a child, my father decided his two sons from his first marriage were Amalek. So I blotted them out of my life as well, even though I had spent almost every Sunday until the age of 11 marveling at the close-up moon through the telescope my nephew set up in his back yard, or playing big sister games with my little niece.
Two decades later, my father lay dying in a nursing home. Every couple of weeks, not nearly often enough but I couldn’t stand to be around that smell, those old people, and a reminder of how freakish my family was and that I’d soon be an orphan, I got on the LIRR and prayed I wouldn’t run into my brother, sister-in-law and niece getting out of their car. But sometimes I did, and we spoke. To my surprise, they were not the devil. My brother said little, but my sister-in-law and niece, who was no longer three years old, always wanted to know what I was doing, how I was living my life.
One day my sister-in-law called, right before I was about to leave for Thanksgiving at a friend’s house. “He’s gone,” she said. We cried together on the phone, and a few weeks later I went over to their house for dinner. I felt a little like a traitor, like I was sneaking around behind my father’s back, but also sensed that he was looking down at us right that minute and musing, “Hmm, maybe my son is OK after all.”
The rabbi walks into the room and we stand up from the awkward sofas. My brother goes into the chapel, where the casket is now open. My nieces and nephew follow, and then their cousins and partners. One of them walks over and puts a hand on my arm. “No,” I say to her. I didn’t look at either of my parents after they died. I knew they were gone; I didn't want any memories of wax faces and closed eyes with no soul hidden behind them.
My brother approaches. “Come on,” he says. “I’m afraid to look,” I answer, trying to smile and make a little joke of it. “Nah, you can do it,” he says again, and I suddenly feel like a fool. He steers me through the door and then, for the first time ever, takes my hand. In all my life we've barely even hugged, and exchanged only the faintest of kisses hello. No one has held my hand quite like this, so tenderly and gently, since I was a child and my father led me across the street. We walk over to my sister-in-law, who looks beautiful and as if she's just closed her eyes for a few minutes of rest. He doesn’t let go of my hand as I stand there and say goodbye on behalf of myself as well as my mother and father, whose presence I feel hovering in the heavy sunshine right outside. Then I let go and step back, and watch him give her a little wave.
“Sleep well,” says my brother.