I lay in bed, a twin one, next to the window in the room my sister and I shared. My body curled or splayed, sick with fever and nausea, sweating, every bone and muscle ached. My Grandma Pauline tended me. She came to the room every hour with liquids and cool cloths to place on my forehead. I was eleven or twelve.
“I want to die,” I said.
She said, “Dying’s not this easy.”
She knew about dying, fleeing the pogroms of Russia – the killing of Jews.
I remember that conversation – so many years ago. This, my first memory talking about dying.
I first saw my father cry at the end of the day he learned his only living brother, younger, who served in the US Army during World War II, had died. He stood between our spooled maple twin beds - my sister, in the one by the door, me by the window. He came to hear our good night prayer. We began in unison, “Dear God, Bless Mommy and Daddy and all our family and friends.” That’s as far as we prayed that night. The sound of a simultaneous catch and loss of breath – a sob. My father bowed before us, sobbing, his body shaking, his hands shading his eyes. I was frightened and embarrassed, too young to understand the depth of his grief or how to console, old enough to capture forever that image and sound. Sensitive enough to know I must keep this, haunting, just below the surface.
What would I say, now that he is gone, and I am old? Something as simple as this, “Daddy, I remember and wish I could have helped you. Please know my remembering is a prayer in itself. A Kaddish. For both of us together to say, “Amen.”
When I wrote my first will with a lawyer, notarized and official, I felt powerful, taking charge of my life and death, not leaving matters of my heart and soul, body and belongings to someone else. This was not my first or second or third will. Those previous ones, I wrote on loose-leaf paper, handwritten - who should take care of the children should something happen to me – to us. I would do this each time before my husband and I traveled, just the two of us, no kids.
The lawyer and I discussed the administrative functions of my death. I was forty-five at the time.
“Where do you want to be buried?” he asked.
“Buried. No, I want to be cremated.”
I thought myself so avant-garde, so environmentally correct.
The lawyer asked who was to receive my jewelry (paltry as it was).
“Oh, let them fight,” I flippantly replied.
I felt very much in charge of myself, another forward step into my newly divorced state.
I bragged to my mother about having a will prepared by a lawyer.
“Where are you going to be buried? Have you bought a plot?” she asked.
She remembered how aghast I was when my now ex-husband’s father died. He came home after making funeral and burial arrangements and told me he and his brother bought a plot for six graves – his parents, his brother and wife, and him and me.
“How dare you determine where I will be buried without talking with me first!
So, I told my Mom. I’m going to be cremated.”
She gasped. “You wouldn’t do that to me.”
I waited for her to gain her composure.
“Mom,” I said, “If we play this right, you’ll never know.”
Cremation is not in the Jewish tradition.
God declares: “For dust you are, and to dust you
shall return" (Genesis 3:19).
The horror of the ovens of the Holocaust adds to the modern
She died some twenty years later, and I changed my will, bought a plot in the same cemetery where she and my Dad are buried.
I don’t believe in after-life. When you’re dead, you’re dead. This belief is consistent with my Jewish heritage. We, Jews, believe that our dead, those with whom we’ve shared our lives and loved, live on in memory. We commemorate them each year on the anniversary of their deaths with a prayer and lighting of a special candle. Yarzeit is the Hebrew word for this tradition. We pass on their memory by naming our children for them using their Hebrew names.
On the way to Bobby’s funeral, my son did the driving - from Bethesda to Baltimore to pick up my sister, and then the three of us on to Wyomissing, Pennsylvania. The day was warm and sunny, and we ruminated, as we passed the rolling countryside of the Amish country of Pennsylvania.
When we rounded the cut-off to York, Pennsylvania, my sister and I talked about Aunt Ada’s pies and Uncle Nathan’s tailor shop in York, on Market Street or was it Queen?
To my son, I said, “You haven’t eaten a real peach till you bite into a York County peach.”
And cousin Ruthie who always wore white ankle socks even as an adult.
“Remember Marie?” I asked. “She was so beautiful.”
Bobby is-was my cousin Margie’s husband. Margie is my third cousin. The distance of the blood line is of no matter when one cares, when one dies, when others live on and chat and remember. Margie keeps Bob’s voice on her telephone answering service.
My pansies, purple and yellow, sit upright in the planters on the rail of my balcony. One of the pots I planted with seeds shows sprouts of green life– chives. The rosemary, I saved indoors through the winter. The winter of what - the beginning of a new decade – snowless here in the DC area. Hints of a hideous virus in China spreading throughout Europe. An awareness began to take hold in the US. Drug stores sold out of protective masks; grocery shelves emptied. With Spring 2020 came the blossoming cherry trees, the forsythia, daffodils, and the virus, the eventual sequestration, mounting death counts, and ZOOM. Simple acts of kindness, visiting the sick - forbidden! Karen lay in bed, nurses round the clock. I could no longer visit. Her diagnosis was a death sentence. Before being forbidden, she told me she wanted no memorial service. She was to be cremated. She didn’t want her children to see her put in the ground. She said she would fight it without treatment. Soon after, she succumbed to radiation and rallied a bit. One Sunday, before the virus took its death toll and social distancing was proclaimed, I stopped for a short visit on my way to one of my writing groups. She was perched by her balcony door, sitting on one of her dining room chairs, the other chair with her leg up and extended, her ankle butterfly tattoo in full view while getting a pedicure.
After that, her door locked. No admittance. Only telephone and text messaging. One evening a few days before she died, she answered the phone. She sounded stronger before weakening. She told me she loved me.
Via ZOOM, over one hundred people attended a memorial service. There was no Shiva afterward to visit and sit with the mourners, to bring food to sustain them, to recite morning and evening prayers together. The Rabbi spoke of her devotion to family and friends, to Judaism. I saw several of her friends during the service - some not Jewish. Pat now lives in Idaho, the women with whom Karen arranged our irregular dinners were there. We all stood in our separate homes and with bowed heads, we recited the Kaddish
prayer. And then we ended separated in unison, “Amen.”
The Sinagoga Major de Barcelona is tucked deep into the Barrio Gothico or Gothic Quarter of Barcelona. Remains of the ancient synagogue still survive in the Call Jueu, or old Jewish Quarter, very near the Plaça de Sant Jaume, right in the middle of this Barcelona neighbourhood. It is the oldest synagogue in Spain and may be the older Sephardic synagogue in Europe.
Norma Tucker, native of Baltimore, Md. now living in Bethesda, retired after a thirty-year career in higher education administration and is now fulfilling her long-time desire to write, focusing on personal essay and memoir with occasional ventures into poetry. She is a member of The Writer’s Center in Bethesda and her works were published on their previous blog. She has published several “Short Takes” in the on-line journal, PERSIMMON TREE and in THE WASHINTON POST, “Free for All.”
You can read her blog: screaminandkickin.blogspot.com
Norma meets with fellow writers regularly for inspiration and to further develop her craft, and is honored to be part of SideLight.