Monday, January 19, 2009

770. Groundhog Day

From the minute I got off the plane and knew immediately which escalator to take to the baggage claim--I had a feeling in my bones of wrongness, the universe tilted off-axis, like those science fiction stories in which the hero wakes up in a new dimension where things look the same as before, but we lost WWII and it's all different. Groundhog Day without the good parts. The script didn't waver: a wrong turn in the dark as we headed back home, dining room table cleared off to await a big tray of cold cuts, carefully arranged tiny porcelain dogs in the breakfront. We got dressed the next morning, grabbed a cup of juice, and waited for an adult to say it was time. But it was only us in the house.

My brother was the last one: no more parents left, no aunts or uncles, just a bunch of old poker buddies and peroxided widows, and distant cousins telling me how much I looked like my mother. Like real grown-ups we had our own children, debt, divorce, pain, but were still the kids. "This is the beginning of the end," my sister-in-law had said a few years ago as we walked out of the cemetery after her sister's funeral. I stuttered with empty assurances, but knew she was right.

By late afternoon we made our way to the patio and shared memories of 70s TV and the genial Canadian uncle who painted all our homes. I was sad and happy at the same time, awed by the simple miracle of having family with whom to talk about nothing in particular. I wanted to stay with these people, strangers in many ways, who were trying so hard to make me forget that I usually expect to feel like a guest. This sense of belonging still comes as a surprise, like an unexpected balloon in a clear blue sky. I think both my parents lost so many loved ones that they came to feel safer out on the margins, but drew me there for company when I should have been way up front. It's taken me a long time to claim my spot, and it feels good.

A friend remarked that in my last post I sounded unnecessarily apologetic about my feelings. I hadn't meant this, but it's true. Yesterday did much to remind me that I need not believe my sadness is unwarranted because I wasn't as close to my brother as other people were. Sometimes it's more painful to lose a relationship still in formation, knowing the promise will never be fulfilled.

But despite the embrace of family, everything was wrong. The day should have remained filed away from a year and a half ago, to be dusted off in sad reminiscence some far-off future evening over a cup of hot chocolate. Instead, like a civil war reenactment but with ghosts instead of homemade uniforms, we wearily hit the same old marks. The air seemed to be tinged with dirty yellow like an old photo. All our eulogies and kisses were loving but surreal, melting away Dali-like after a second or two. We mostly sat in wordless shock and, unusual for my family, made no jokes to break the tension. (Well, except one. I couldn't imagine viewing the open casket without S. standing there to take my hand. But everyone else did so, including my niece and her new boyfriend. Afterwards her sister remarked that, considering his track record of boyfriend disapproval, this was probably the best way for him to meet her dad for the first time.)

The rabbi was a family friend, a great comfort--she knew my brother well, and her remarks were genuine and heartfelt. I sang Psalm 23 and El Maleh, which I hope brought a little consolation to my family. I tried to very hard to sing with my whole soul, since I had only half a voice, and felt my father's presence, after I said his name, telling me everything would be OK.

(I learned something very interesting about my father this weekend, as well. My last name is one of those cut in half and "Americanized" by some long-lost immigration official, which I always figured happened at the Canadian border when my father came here from Russia. But in fact the original name is on S.'s birth certificate, and S. was born in New Jersey. And the new name is on his younger brother's birth certificate. What happened during those five years that made my father want to sound less identifiably Jewish? Did he become a citizen, or was he trying to escape anti-Semitism? I'll never know.)

I offered a prayer as we waited to walk into the chapel after doing kriah (symbolic rending of garments represented by tearing a small piece of black ribbon): may we never, ever be here again.

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