(Continued from here.)
When I was 11, this imperfect but comfortable routine of Sunday visits came to a sudden halt. My parents decided to get divorced, a good thing--they loved me more than life itself, but couldn't stand each other. And something else happened at about the same time: my father stopped speaking to his sons. Maybe it had to do with money, or taking sides in the divorce, or other reasons I will fortunately never know. To my childhood understanding, it was far more than just silence: this was a hatred of truly biblical proportions. My mother broke off contact with them, as well (one of the few things my parents ever agreed upon). My brother S. was no longer a part of our lives, and I became even more confused about how to answer that old question. I learned to change the subject very quickly.
Even though my father was strong as an ox, he was still vulnerable to the usual illnesses of one's late 80s, which unfortunately began to strike just as my mother was dying of cancer. Big chunks of my 20s were spent in a blur, visiting them in various hospitals (once they ended up in the same place, which neither wanted the other to know) and hiring home health aides for my father, who fired every single one. (If it hadn't been so awful, it might have made a funny book some day.) Somewhat to my surprise, my father began to mellow with age. He resumed contact with his sons, and even got on a plane for the first time in his life to meet his youngest grandson.
As soon as S. and my sister-in-law realized that the burden of caring for my father had fallen on me, they stepped in and took over. I gladly ceded the responsibility, but was wary. They were supposed to be evil; how could I trust them? (I bumped into them at a shopping mall a few years earlier. I took one look and literally ran in the other direction, lest some of their badness rub off.) But S. persevered, inviting me to his house (the same little one next to the parking lot) for holiday meals, birthdays, Sunday dinners. It took a while to let my guard down; it seemed that liking him would be somehow disloyal to my parents' memories. But as I slowly became a part of their family--my family--and reconnected with my dear niece, and listened to new stories about my mother and father, I realized what brave thing S. had done. It's not easy to break a pattern of hatred, to reject old and familiar pain. (See also: conflict in the Middle East.)
We didn't have many conversations; he mostly left the talking to his wife. He was a big, strong man of few words, a Marine during the Korean war. He spent his life as a salesman, but could have been an artist; he was a wonderful photographer with a great eye, and took thousands of beautiful pictures of his many vacations around the world. (He and I went to the same arts high school, 30-something years apart.) He wasn't at all religious but had a deep love of Israel and Jewish life, and joined every Jewish cultural group and Yiddish chorus he could find. His wife, whom he had known since childhood, was the love of his life. They grew up in the same apartment building in the Bronx, although weren't really aware of each other until E. was 14 and her older sister said, hey--did you notice that cute guy who lives downstairs? She hadn't, but not for long; they married four years later.
In a few hours I'm getting on a plane to go to the funeral, where I will no doubt hear more stories and perhaps learn that some of the above, dredged out of my hazy memory, are inaccurate. S. died of cancer that he had chosen not to treat, and told his children about just a week earlier. He was ready to be with his wife once again.
Yesterday I realized, with some shock, that as a sister I'm supposed to sit shiva. I never imagined doing such a thing; I figured all the important people in my life had already died, so I was off the hook. At first the prospect seemed hypocritical: we were strangers in so many ways, and I didn't want my community to believe we were close or that I was in agonizing grief. I am very sad and upset--his death is yet another tie broken to my parents' lives, and to my own past--and he is my brother, my blood, a big loss no matter how you slice it. But I am not experiencing the unbearable pain of missing someone who was part of my daily life. After some thought, however, I decided that it was really important to mark the moment in a Jewish way, and accept the comfort of my friends and community. The cycle of Jewish mourning is a brilliant invention, and I will be in better shape if I observe it even a little bit. I can't afford to take any time off work (which will feel a little strange, since some of my work is for my synagogue), but will have a shiva minyan one evening where I can be publicly honest about my doubts, share the stories I do have (even if they don't match the heartwarming, almost saintly tone of most of the minyanim I've attended) and gain strength from the presence of friends. I'm still trying to decide if I want to take on the responsibility of saying Mourner's Kaddish for a month.
What a strange thing, life and death.