Tell a dream, lose a reader goes the famous writer’s admonition and yet here’s one that needs telling because in it, you will learn all you need to know about me.
It’s late morning, I’m three years old, possibly younger. My mother’s on the phone in the kitchen, the pigtail cord is stretched to its limit. A Pall Mall rests between her index and middle fingers. She cranes her neck and presses the receiver against her shoulder, freeing her hands as she makes my lunch. She’s speaking to my grandma Rose, ignoring me. My worst thing is to be ignored.
I turn. There’s a black bear with human eyes trying to get inside though the back door. A flimsy screen is all that separates us. He wants to eat me. But he’s not a hungry bear; he’s a malicious bear. The odd thing, the painful thing, is that as petrifying as being eaten by this bear will be, it’d be a whole lot worse for me to cry out for my mother and to hear her say, “Peter just a minute, can’t you see I’m on the phone?”
The lakes and the ponds have swelled with the recent rains. The air is full with the warring scents of ripening crabapples and blue-green algae. Tonight, my dad takes me and my brother Paul, my sisters, Nina and Susie, and a few kids from the neighborhood to a drive-in movie in the used pickup he brought home last week.
In the languid heat of a mid-summer Minnesota evening we climb into the back of the truck in our pajamas. And now, as the truck picks up speed, we lie down on our backs and watch the stars wax ever brighter as a reluctant sun finally tucks itself behind the gentle hills.
By the time we find a place to park and my dad comes back with the popcorn, the Hire’s Root Beer, and the Whoppers, most of us kids are fast asleep on the sleeping bags that he’d spread out in the bed of the truck. I wake up the next morning in my own bed, hardly conscious of being moved.
Like many stories, this one is about returning home. And what is returning home if not a search for a feeling that any given moment truly matters, or a quest for even the faintest hunch that any particular event or experience isn’t just a means to hurry on to the next one? As I’ve come to see it, the desire to return home is a desire to feel the exquisite and rare sensation that where one is, is where one is meant to be.
Returning home is hard, nigh on impossible. I can’t say I’ve ever really made it back. You see, there’s a constant shifting that works to prevent it, an endless backsliding as we grope for purchase on the face of a planet that never quite feels safe or solid. And how can a return home even be possible? Aren’t we spirits after all, fragile souls come down to inhabit these soft and injury-prone bodies of ours? And aren’t these bodies in a constant state of inertia, tied down by the need for the fleeting things: warmth, sustenance, shelter, intimacy, acknowledgement, and power, power which we hope will stave off our innate sense of rootlessness.
Returning home requires that we actually stop when we reach our destination. But we can’t stop can we? At the heart of it, we are no more than spirit-vagabonds, staggering souls encased in our flesh suits, trying to overcome the pull of desire, trying to bring meaning where there is none, trying constantly to unearth a sense of purpose in a world which swears up and down that there never was such a thing, and that there will never be one. The belief that there is no purpose seems especially difficult for those of us who are trying with all our might to tell the world that there is.
I could have decided how and where to start my story by pure chance, by taking all the events of my life, the large ones and the insignificant ones, (who’s to say which is which) and writing them each down on pieces of paper. I could have tacked those pieces of paper onto a giant dartboard, blindfolded myself and thrown a single dart. Where that dart landed is where I would have begun. And what’s the difference anyway? Isn’t one place is as good as any other?
Jews. Part One
I’m in Israel with my wife and four kids at my friend Doron’s kitchen table. We’re eating fried Libyan potatoes and chicken thighs beneath a massive color photograph of his wife’s rear end, barely hidden by a purple sarong. I suspect Doron would be pleased if I felt the image conjured up notions of God or beauty, but it doesn’t. To me, and excuse my cynicism, it’s just about her ass.
Doron falls into the class of friend you make after age forty. Because later-life friendships like these contain no shared experiences, ones that might help to mitigate the effects of the stupid things we all say and do, they seem to be forever resisting a slide back into strangerhood. It’s a pretty good bet that the tenuous bonds between us are already starting to fray.
Ever since we met he’s exhibited what amounts to an annoying verbal tic. He can’t help himself from cramming random comments like these into normal conversations: “I’m looking to sell my brownstone on the upper west side…” “The London apartment is in need of a complete remodel…” “We’re taking out the carpet in our suite at The Herods in Eilat, replacing it with Doug fir…” To make it worse, Doron says these things gravely, as though he were bearing the weight of some tremendous burden.
After the meal, my wife Maria and I head downstairs to start packing our suitcases. My family’s been in Israel for over a month and later this evening we’re finally leaving for home. I’ve spent much of this trip worrying about my oldest son Isaac, who suffered his first broken heart just a few days after we arrived. His girlfriend back home in LA, (bless her and her technology) snapped it in two via instant message. As a result, he’d been even more sullen and more reluctant then usual to go with the rest of the family on our daily drives. Drives which were admittedly, often no more than directionless excursions criss-crossing this hot and strange country in a rented van, in search of something I have yet to define.
I was nine when I made my first trip to Israel in June of 1968, almost exactly a year after the Six Day War. My parents had been in Italy the autumn before and while vacationing in Rome they learned that there were inexpensive flights leaving twice a week for Tel Aviv. The whole of Israel was giddy at the time, unburdened by their insecurities for the moment with the stunning success of their having just won the Six Day War and their having increased the total size of their young, besieged nation by more than two thirds.
Once in Israel my mother finally had a use for the crumpled phone numbers of distant Israeli relatives that she’d been carrying in her purse for the last several months; relatives on both her father’s and her mother’s side, Romanians all. One woman whom my mother met for the first time on that trip and whom my mother was especially fond of, was named Osnat. Osnat, a frail and shy woman – at least I thought so when I first met her – was technically my mother’s second cousin once removed. She had the misfortune of remaining in Europe while the Nazis were on the move. I found the story of her spending five entire days hiding from the Germans in the liquid filth of an outhouse and breathing through a tube when they came near, especially compelling.
Meeting scores of warm and loving relatives and having been feted by them as ‘our dear American Mispacha’ was partly why my parents were both so taken with Israel; that and the Israeli people themselves, the Sabras, so proud and brash, and the ancient beauty of land. With some talk of perhaps of making Aliyah, or at least exploring the idea of our moving to Israel, my parents, my siblings, my first cousins, and my Grandma Rose and her younger brother, Uncle Sol, gathered up a month’s worth of warm-weather clothing and flew en-masse to Tel Aviv. We were greeted at Lod airport by a crush of relations, all of them clambering to hug and kiss us. And then as the sun descended into the Mediterranean and night fell over the coastal plain, they drove us all north in a rag-tag caravan of tiny old Fiats, Renaults and Peugeots, to the beach town of Netanya where we stayed for the entire summer in a tiny flat just behind Osnat’s and her diminutive yet powerful Turkish husband, Shomo’s home.
I’m with my Dad and my brother Paul at the Wailing Wall. It’s weird to think that only a week ago I was at home watching Gilligan’s Island and looking for my Dad’s Japanese Playboys in the bottom drawer of his bedroom closet during the commercials. Now, I’m in Jerusalem, in the glaring sun beneath this gigantic wall of stone. When I’m sure no one’s looking, I put both hands on the wall, and then, I touch my forehead to it. The stones are colder than you’d think they’d be in all this heat.
For reasons I don’t understand I start to cry. I’d be embarrassed if my brother or my dad saw me like this, so I pretend that I’m praying. I wonder though, am I just crying because you’re supposed to cry here? If the Rabbis from the Talmud Torah had shown me pictures of some random bridge in Saint Paul from the time I was in nursery school, would I have cried at that too?
Sometimes, I actually cry for God. I don’t picture God as an old bearded guy or anything. I just think of Him as… I donno, maybe like a baby. A really powerful but helpless little baby who’s always lonely because he’s been left in charge of everything; every snowflake and every whale, every single drop of water in the ocean.
Who’s He got as a friend? He has all the power in the world but He can’t use it. He’s just gotta sit there and watch all the stupid stuff we do. I usually don’t think about God when I’m watching TV or eating. It happens mostly when I’m alone in my bed, with the lights out and the crickets making noise outside my window. It also happens a lot when I have a fever and all the regular stuff I think about disappears.
When I look up at the wall again, I see some bird’s nests and a million pieces of paper with people’s prayers in them, all stuffed into the cracks between the stones. Everyone who comes here wants God’s attention. I’ll bet He loves all the notes. They probably make Him feel like someone gives a shit about all the cool stuff He does.
I was born a Jew in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Growing up Jewish there wasn’t a good or a bad thing anymore than growing up with snow was good or bad. It just was. Because we Jews were so few, being one made us all feel different. It wasn’t a difference we’d asked for or earned either. It too, just was. It was natural for us, that is, becoming somewhat Jew-centric. We were fond of staying close to one another, close to our causes and to our history, it was just a natural reaction to being the ‘other.’
Given that Israel’s the Jewish Homeland, discussions about this tiny dry speck of a country were a familiar part of my upbringing. Pronouns like “Masada,” “Tel Aviv,” “Moshe Dayan,” and “David Ben-Gurion” crept into my parent’s daily conversations and they were always spoken in emphatic tones.
My friends and I went to the Talmud Torah school (we all pronounced it as, Tama Torah) five days a week after public school. We all spoke at least some Hebrew, and though I can’t speak for all my Jewish friends, by some osmotic process, I found that by the time I was nine or ten, I had developed a powerful affinity for a place and a people that I hardly knew. Even though I loved (and still do love Minnesota,) once I actually visited Israel in that summer of 1968, I found it to be a place that made me understand that a sense of belonging, no matter how hard I tried, or how intently I conspired to pass, was something Minnesota could never fully provide me with.
I’m in junior high, on my way to English when I see Nelson Gomez, Stuey Nyberg and Craig Walner. They’re hip-checking kids into the tall metal lockers that line the halls and though none of the three are on the school hockey team, they seem genetically predisposed to playing the sport, and playing it well. They are the three kings of the Westwood Junior High’s dirtball dynasty, young hoodlums who regularly and without fear, skip school, smoke filter-less Marlboros, and shout “fuck you faggot” to students and staff members alike, save perhaps for Mr. Hausgren, the anti-Semitic shop teacher with whom they have forged an abiding friendship.
Now to the left and right of me, hapless students fly, body-slammed into the lockers by the three of them with alarming speed. It doesn’t escape my notice that these unfortunates have not been chosen randomly. There goes Brian Resnick. Next it’s Shelly Abramovitz and then, Alvin Fishbein. As I round the corner Stuey Nyburg grabs my second cousin Elaine Kamel by the shoulders and slams her face first into her own locker. These kids of course, are all Jews. They’re being selected for no other reason than their Jewishness.
I grab Stuey by his neck with both hands and I claw at him until my fingernails pierce his pale skin and blood spurts from his jugular. Now I take the clear plastic aquarium algae scraper that I made in Mr. Hausgren’s shop class this very morning and use it gouge out one of Nelson Gomez’s eyeballs, making sure he can see it in the palm of my hand with his remaining eye. Craig Walner tries to run but I catch him by his mullet and I shove his head into Elaine Kamel’s locker. I slam her locker door on him again and again. I don’t stop until his head is severed from his neck…
…My daydream comes to an abrupt halt when Stuey Nyburg says, “Himmelman it’s your turn to meet the lockers you fucking kike.” Without a word of warning he clouts me with a stinging jab right to my nose. It’s the first time I’ve ever been hit in the face and while it’s agonizing, the blow is also somehow euphoric. I’m super-charged with adrenaline, I feel as if I’m on fire. But of course, I don’t hit Stuey back. God no. I simply stand there glowering at the three of them, blood dripping from my large Jewish nose. And for the first time in my life I feel downright heroic. I look around me and I see that for now at least, our bitterest enemies have stopped hip-checking what feels like the entire Jewish nation.
Six months later it’s summer vacation and we Himmelman’s fly from Minneapolis to New York and connect with a non-stop to Tel Aviv. In less than two days time I’m on a towel on the beach in Netanya looking out at the cerulean blue of the Mediterranean.
As I lay on the hot sand Mirage fighter Jets with blue Jewish stars emblazoned under their wings suddenly streak so low across the water that I can smell jet fuel. As they scream overhead the whole beach seems to shake. With a strange sense of clannish pride I laugh, and stare up at the planes as they roar and finally rocket out of range.
Because Israel’s known as the Holy Land, it often gives parents the impression that it’s a safe and even therapeutic place to send your kid for the summer. Whatever trouble a kid can get into in Minneapolis, or Chicago, or New Rochelle simply doesn’t exist in the land of Milk and Honey — or so the thinking goes.
When I was fifteen I took part in a program that was designed to get young Jews to feel ever closer to their ancestral homeland.
I just returned from a meeting with a psychologist named Dr. Raphael Ben-Ami. He’s part of the staff of an organization with the douchebag name, X-Kibble, a sort of sloppy acronym for: Experiment In Kibbutz Living. Before they let you go to Israel and live on a kibbutz, you have to be tested to see if you’re the kind of kid that can adapt to new situations and get along well with people in close working environments. Miraculously I pass the test and tonight, after I say goodbye to my girlfriend Rhoda Lewin, I’ll be flying to New York and later, to Israel to become a member of Kibbutz K’far Ruppin, which is in the north, just a ten minute hike from the — still dangerous — Jordanian Border. There are hundreds of teenagers on this program and the one I gravitate towards is a tall kid named Scott Menkin. Straight away, he and I bond over our mutual disdain for everyone and everything.
“Look at that dumbshit, he’s probably gay.”
“The food on EL AL sucks.”
“It’s so fuckin’ hot in Israel I could puke.”
When we arrive at the kibbutz some guys around our age show us to our bunks. I can’t believe how primitive everything is. You have to walk outside and use a public toilet with no door if you wanna take a crap, there’s no hot water in the showers and what sucks worst of all is that you can only eat at official meal times in this giant Soviet-era mess hall. The socialist thing here is nuts. In keeping with it, the kibbutz kids actually live apart from their parents in some kinder-gulag from the time they’re born. Develops independence and a group mindset they say. I think it’s pure fucking insanity.
Our schedule: Wake up call at 4:00 AM (the gentle alarm is the kibbutz guys laughing at us and beating spoons near our heads on tin pots) and off to the olive groves in a rusty pickup truck to gather olives. After three hours my arms are so tired they’re nearly falling off and my face is scratched bloody from the sharp branches. Then after a breakfast of plain yogurt and toast we either pick cotton, or clean out cow shit at the dairy until 11:00 or so.
After lunch the workday’s over. At 107 degrees it’s too hot even move. Not that the heat stops these kibbutz kids. They’re like animals. These tanned and supremely toned guys are playing soccer, climbing ropes, and running amok in the blazing sun just for the fun of it. Compared to them, Scott Menkin and I look like complete dorks with our white skin and our scrawny arms and legs. The girls at the kibbutz, (who by the way are foxy as hell) keep looking at us like we’re the most pathetic people they’ve ever met and they’re constantly laughing at everything we do.
I hate this place. Scott’s either smoking cigarettes or jacking off and it’s starting to bug the shit out of me. I’m also really missing Rhoda. I plan to call my parents next week and she promised she’d be there for the call. “We gotta get outta here and now,” I say to Scott. “Yeah, fuckin’ jail break,” he says.
The next morning, after breakfast, we secretly pack up all our shit. Our plan is limited in scope, it has only one detail: escape the Kibbutz and hitchhike to Tel Aviv to stay with my cousin Effie and his Mom.
“We gotta cop some hash,” Scott keeps saying. In spite of the fact that punishment for possession in this country’s probably death I think it’s a pretty good idea given we have absolutely nothing else to do. That evening after dinner we make our move. I know it’s wrong but as we head out the out the main entrance to K’far Ruppin, I can’t stop myself from imagining the words: ‘Arbeit macht frie’ spelled out in wrought iron on the gates. Newly escaped and illuminated by a nearly full moon, Scott and I walk straight ahead on the road to the bus station in the ancient city of Beit Shean.
It’s just past noon and we’re at the Wailing Wall. I really wanted to come here again. As a kid I always thought of it as a pretty special place, but now on the run with Scott Menkin and his incessant search for hash, the place has lost all its meaning. Just before dark, we decide to take a bus to Eilat, a port city on the southern tip of the Negev desert.
We arrive there well after midnight and it’s still nearly 100 degrees. With nowhere to stay, we lay down on the beach, each of us eating a falafel and working hard not to get sand in it. Just then, an old lady comes over to us and asks us if we’d like to stay at her apartment. “A hundred shekalim for ze boz of yous,” she says. That comes out to around twenty bucks and I figure we can swing it. As we walk inside we see her place is truly wretched. It makes K’far Ruppin look like the King David. To prevent death by heat stroke, we douse ourselves with pails of water that we sneak in from the old lady’s kitchen sink. First we soak our clothing, then the floor, and finally, our thin stained mattresses.
The heat doesn’t let up a bit and sleep is impossible. Around four in the morning Scott takes out a pack of gum, some Israeli version of Juicy Fruit and says, “Check this out,” He opens one of the sticks of gum and shows me this tiny brown speck hidden inside, no bigger than your average booger. “What the fuck is that?” I ask. “It’s hash dick brain,” Scott says. “I got it in Jerusalem for a hundred twenty bucks while you were jackin’ off at the Wailin’ Wall.”
Scott spears the hash on the tip of a safety pin and lights it with a match. It burns up almost instantly, leaving just the faintest trace of grey smoke. We each rush to seal a nostril with our index fingers and sniff in as much of the smoke as we can. Not even a little high, we creep out of the old lady’s apartment with our stuff and walk back out to the beach.
I’m sick to my stomach now and all the public bathrooms are locked. I squat over the edge of a rusty oil drum and shit my brains out. Too sick to get up, I just sit there moaning softly, waiting for the next wave of diarrhea. Now a small dog starts sniffing around. At least someone’s friendly here. When the dog gets closer and I see its tail, I realize it’s not a dog at all. It’s a huge black rat.
The results of my X-Kibble experiment: Total Fucking Failure.
I continue packing my suitcase, trying to cram in my karate gi, which I should mention is how I came to know Doron in the first place. We met last year at a karate dojo next to a Kosher Nathan’s hot dog restaurant in west LA where I used to train three or four times a week with my wife. She and I eventually got our black belts and quit within the year like most people who get their black belts. Doron, was simultaneously practicing kata and reading emails off his Blackberry the first time I saw him. I thought he looked vaguely like a tapir.
After finally getting my suitcase to close, I notice three messages on my cell phone. I sit down to listen. The first one’s from my brother in law Russell in New Jersey.
“Get a hold of me as soon as you get this.”
The next message is from him as well.
“Call me as soon as possible.”
The last message comes from someone at El Al airlines.
“Call your family dere’z been an emergency.”
Holy shit, it’s happening again. It’s another nightmare phone scenario. I’ve got this wretched feeling in my gut like when my Dad died in 1984. Moments are elongating, stretching. I feel myself receding into individual pockets of time, each one a second or a lifetime. I stare off at another of Doron’s photos. This one, of a young Bedouin girl with a clay jug of water balanced on her head. Time is moving so slowly. It feels like I’ve got all the time in the world and I’m thinking, ‘Where is this Bedouin girl going? Who needs water?’
Doron sees my expression. He’s telling me to breathe slowly and that all the answers I need at this moment are to be found in karate. But as he continues to speak his voice becomes a distant buzzing. I hear the hands of an electric clock as they move in stutter-step, and the clink of melting ice falling to the bottom of a glass.
Emergency…? Oh fuck, who now?
My Mom is getting older but she’s in good health. Shit, that would sting. Maybe it’s my Uncle Mark. He’s in his early eighties and deep into Alzheimer’s. No, it couldn’t be Uncle Mark, I mean; I love the guy, but El Al airlines leaving messages? My Brother Paul? He rides his bike to work everyday even when it’s raining. That would be worth a call from EL AL.
I dial New Jersey. It’s just after four in the morning. My sister Nina answers, “There was an accident. An old woman fell asleep at the wheel.” And then: “Susie’s dead. They tried to cut her out with the Jaws of Life.” I go into zombie-emergency mode just like I did when I heard my Dad died.
“Okay. I’ll get back to ya,” I say. I say this just like you might say: ‘I’ll get back to ya about that color for the sofa in the living room I’ll get back to ya…’ (So very Minnesotan.)
Zombie-emergency mode is good. It’s good because I need to be calm. I need to change the flights. Good because I need to get our family to Minneapolis instead of home in LA. Good because there will be a funeral to get to, luggage to be shipped, phone calls to be made. “What, What is it?” my wife Maria needs to know, and so I repeat what I’d just heard. “There was an accident…” she’s bracing herself on the tile floor. I look up at the Bedouin girl with the jug on her head as I’m speaking. “It was somewhere in Wisconsin,” Maria holds her breath and I say, “Susie’s dead.” And then she explodes into weeping like tissue paper bursting into flames. Again I look up at the photo of the Bedouin girl. There were some camels loping behind her I hadn’t noticed before.
My sister is gone. Susie my little sister, the one who quietly distinguished herself as the only person I’ve ever met who took no joy whatsoever in the most joy-filled of all human endeavors: the ripping to shreds of fellow human beings in their absence. She literally never said a bad word about anyone. I don’t mean to idealize her but she clearly had different wiring than the rest of my family.
Susie and I were close, close in age and close to each other, especially when my older siblings, Nina and Paul went off into the world. When we were little, maybe four and five years old Susie and I used to play a game called Unborn Duckies. I’m sure it was my invention.
The game consisted of us going under the covers of our parent’s bed and crawling down to the foot of it, where it was dark and hard to breathe. We’d stay there for long stretches in wordless communion. The game itself was just a pretense. Even as a young kid it would have been embarrassing to me to be caught trying to create the kind of intimacy one must experience by being born together, like twins. Even then, as a child, I needed to feel the confirmation of an endless, boundless fealty to another human being. Now I’m very sad to say, there is just one duck.
I won’t bore you with how difficult it was to travel by taxi to Tel Aviv in a state of compartmentalized anguish, or how hard it was to have to explain to the pretty young woman at the El AL ticket counter that I needed to change our entire family’s tickets to route from Ben Gurion airport to Minneapolis instead of LA, less than eight hours before our flight is scheduled to depart because my sister had just died.
The taxi ride back from Tel Aviv to Doron’s house was perfectly quiet. Because I’d numbly told him all about it, the Moroccan born driver I’d hired to drive me to Tel Aviv knew enough not to say a word, knew enough just to allow the silence to wash over us as the sun began to set in a hazy sky over the Mediterranean.
Twenty-five hours later our family is the last to arrive in Minneapolis. Everyone’s been waiting for us. My brother Paul and I exchange the same incredulous glances we shared the night my dad died. The kind where everything word and every action is on the edge of being the most hilarious or the most tragic.
Sometime back in November of 1984, when we were shoveling dirt on my dad’s casket and the only sound was the dull thud of earth on the drum-like pine box, I looked over at my brother and said something inane.
“I love the look of the new Hunts ketchup bottle.”
The wonder of juxtaposition at a weighty time like this is that it makes everything else, everything normal, so hilarious. That’s one of the microscopic perks of tragedy I suppose.
(A memory of the morning we buried my dad)
It’s all grey. The sky, the dirty snow. Even our skin’s turned grey. There’s a billboard advertising Coca Cola just over the cemetery fence. The red and white of Coke used to make me feel safe, comforted by the sheer power of its ordinariness. Now it’s painfully clear that shit’s nothing but sugar water and caramel coloring.
The chapel at the cemetery is overflowing with people. Most of them have to stand outside. Someone turns on a cassette deck with the song I wrote for my dad on his last Father’s Day. Everyone cries.
I heard the ground was frozen so hard this morning that the backhoe could barely dig the grave. I look up at my brother as we shovel the dirt on our father’s casket and we can’t help from laughing. What we’re doing is so absurd. So impossibly absurd.
My sister Susie, her husband Peter, and two of their kids had been driving home from Camp Ramah in their Toyota mini van. It was visitor’s day up in scenic Conover, Wisconsin; they’d driven up to see Michelle, Susie’s oldest. I don’t know what went on at camp that afternoon. I never asked. Maybe some skit with a Jewish theme, someone playing a guitar, the sound of young people singing Oasis covers on an acoustic guitar near a lake… I don’t know exactly what happened at the site of the accident either. I never asked. Here’s what I see in my mind’s eye based on the little I was told:
An elderly woman coming down a two lane highway in a Cadillac, trees on either side, a Barney VHS playing in the mini van, Christian radio in the Caddy, eyelids slowly slipping down over tired old-eyes, a dream of a firstborn son from long ago, hands letting go of the wheel, slipping to knees covered by a rayon dress from Wal-Mart and then an awful crash – I suppose.
Susie had spoken some words to Peter and her girls from the upside-down mini van before she died. Perhaps she said goodbye, I’m not sure. I never asked. Susie was stuck in the wreckage as the rest of her family were taken to a nearby hospital and treated for minor injuries. She bled too much on the inside before they could cut her out with the Jaws of Life.
Somehow I always knew she’d be the first of my siblings to die. I used to think it would have been breast cancer. I used to imagine all of us suffering — her suffering, just like we did with my Dad.
Susie was never strongly rooted in the world. I don’t say this as a criticism of her; it’s not a comment about weakness, not at all. She wasn’t the least bit weak. You see, if there were a criticism, I’d direct it towards God. He didn’t make her well enough. You could see right through Susie’s skin. It was like the animal part of her, the very stuff of her was too thin. It was like the shock of suddenly seeing naked flesh through a tear in a blouse, that’s how easily you could see her spirit. She seemed vulnerable too, like something more than human, or something too kind to be human. Like I said, I don’t think God made her very well.
Paul and my Mom saw Susie in the hospital on a gurney covered with blood. She was DOA. I don’t know what else they saw. I never asked. By the way, if you ever accidentally kill someone in a car accident, I suggest you study this letter we got from the elderly lady who killed Susie. It’s good.
I cannot find adequate words to express my sorrow for the loss of your mother. We lost our youngest son Vernon at the age of seventeen shortly before his high school graduation in a gun accident. I only share this with you to let you know that I have some idea of the horrible pain and loss you are going through.
I wish your mother’s life would have been spared and mine taken instead. I live with that anguish everyday. I would never intentionally hurt anyone. I simply do not know what happened the day of the accident. I will continue to ask for God’s forgiveness and ask him to watch over you and your family.
I pray that only good things happen to you. I hope that someday you will find it in your heart to forgive me. I’m truly sorry for your loss and pain.
There are already plates of food piling up on the counter in my Mom’s kitchen before the funeral. Mostly these:
Bagels, lox, dill pickles, Spanish olives stuffed with pimentos, pickled herring, whitefish, gefilte fish, red and white horseradish, red onions, cut fruit, rye bread, blintzes, banana bread (some with chocolate chips, some with walnuts) and several kinds of cream cheese.
What strikes me as odd is how these foods, present in every Ashkenazi Jewish house of mourning, are the very same foods (down to the Spanish olives and the whitefish) that you’ll find at every joyous celebration, every Bris and every baby naming. They are neither foods of joy nor of sorrow but ethnic foods that declare at times of profound change, that we are a people connected to a tradition and a past. We are the people of the unwavering Rock. The Rock of Israel and neither the deepest tragedy nor the most intoxicating happiness can wrest us from our past or our destiny. I put three pieces of gefilte fish on a paper plate, slather them in blood red horseradish and wolf them down.
A sign reads: CAUTION! Refrigeration Room. There are chemicals present which are known to the state of Minnesota to cause birth defects.
I’m sitting on a musty couch in the basement of Hodroff & Sons Mortuary listening to the low growl of the massive refrigerator’s compressor switching on and off. A month from today my younger sister Susie would be turning forty-one had she not died three days ago. I’m reading psalms as tradition dictates, within feet of her body as it cools behind a huge metal door. Some friends of mine come to sit with me and I don’t feel particularly sad. It’s as if the ‘I’ of me has gone away. The person with my face and my name, the person sitting-in for me will talk and make some wry comments until I return.
After an hour or so my friends leave and I feel an urgent sense of obligation, a need to clean something or serve food to someone. But no one’s here; its just me, Susie’s body, and that hovering spirit of hers that used to peek out from her too-thin skin. I feel like I should open the metal door and sit in the cold beside her corpse, maybe hold her hand, speak some soothing words, but I’m afraid, afraid to sit next to the dead. Afraid to see and to confirm what needs no confirmation. Instead I sit on the couch bemoaning both my loss and my lack of bravery.
The next morning at the funeral I can’t cry. I float through the service at a remove, watching as Susie’s daughters, bruised and bandaged from the accident, are led into a black Lincoln and driven to the cemetery. At Susie’s open grave the bereaved are enjoined to complete the burial ritual by shoveling dirt on the casket. It’s a mitzvah and it’s better than letting the goyishe workers finish the job with just a few clattering scoopfuls from the Caterpillar.
It’s my turn to take the shovel and though I haven’t slept in days I feel suddenly strong. I climb to the top of the dirt pile, kick the blade of the shovel with my boot heel and drop the dry soil over the top of the casket. I can hear birds taking to flight over the crosstown highway and I feel the sun on my neck and shoulders. I imagine I am covering my sister with a warm blanket, tucking her into bed one last time, as though this final act might atone for all the times I failed her.
I think about Unborn Duckies. And finally, I start to sob. The tears, which hadn’t come until now, are precious to me. I listen to the thump of each rocky clod of earth as they land on her casket. I think about rhythm and drums, history, and the missing face of God. I feel unfettered, mystic. I feel light and I feel exquisitely primitive. Suddenly, as I’m shoveling, a hand gently touches my shoulder. It’s the Rabbi from congregation Beth Emet and loud enough for everyone to hear, he stage-whispers, “Peter, why don’t you give someone else a chance?” It’s a solemn moment and yet, I can’t help wanting to raise the shovel high above my head and come down hard with the blunt edge on the Rabbi’s neck. Instead, I step away from the grave and give the shovel to another mourner.
There are people who have been made wise through grief and time. They learned through their painful lessons, the value of silence. For others, the allure of a performance is just too powerful. I look back at the Rabbi from Temple Beth Emet and smile as I see him, away off in the distance. But now, out among the throng of mourners, I see my Mother’s best friend Carolyn. Carolyn is one of the wisest people I know. Her husband, Burton died a few years ago and immediately after his funeral, at the shivah house to be precise, her twenty five year old son, Marty, dropped dead of a brain aneurism. My Mom got a call from Carolyn the day it happened. “Beverly,” she said, “Martin died”. “No Carolyn, my Mom said with real solemnity and real pity, Marty didn’t die, it was Burton.” But my mom was wrong, Marty did die, on the day of his own Father’s funeral. Trust me, this woman, Carolyn, has mastered the art of being there without ever having to say a word.
Two months after the funeral I’m back in Minneapolis and I’m sitting with my mother in her kitchen. She tells me there’s a dead muskrat in the pond at the edge of her lawn. “What should I do?” she asks.
I walk down to the pond as she waits inside. From a distance the pond looks like a putting green, the algae so thick it’s become a carpet on the surface of the water from too much fertilizer sluicing off the lawns encircling the faux lakefront. Just under a sweeping elm I saw what at first looked like a large grey-black stone. It turned out to be a muskrat that had died face down in the shallow water. All that was exposed was its huge smooth backside.
Normally I don’t do muskrat removal. Normally, I’d call a professional, but things are far from normal. As I look back from the pond at my Mother standing in front of a large picture window two troubling questions arise: Exactly what is the essential difference between me and the guys you call to haul away the stinking carcass of a rotting muskrat and why is it assumed that I’d have to call on one of them to do the job? Maybe, it’s my Mother’s intense sadness or maybe it was having recently been in Israel (where Jewish men aren’t entirely feminized) that compels me to march back through the evergreen hedges, back through the yard to grab a three pronged hoe and a snow shovel off the peg-board on the wall of her garage.
At the pond I don’t flinch as the hoe bites into the rib cage of the muskrat with a dull watery sound. I drag the bulk of it and the entrails that have mixed with the gurgling algae towards me. Then I lift the entire mess with the snow shovel into a double-thick garbage bag. I’m struck by how truly free of sin I feel at just the moment I twist the top shut with the red cord. I see my mother. She’s standing in her living room. Standing alone. Watching me from her large picture window.