Sunday, May 1, 2011
By Susan Esther Barnes
On Monday evening I got the call, “The burial will be on Thursday at 11 a.m.”
Finally, I was able to make some plans and take some action. I notified my sister, my husband, my synagogue, and the folks at work. Time, which had been moving so incredibly slowly for the past week, suddenly snapped back into a normal pace.
On Tuesday morning I spoke with the attorney’s office that will be handling my father’s estate, and made an appointment to meet with them on Wednesday afternoon. Then my husband and I packed up the car, I sent an email to my father’s widow, Chris, to tell her we were on the way, and we headed out for the approximately seven hour drive to Mammoth Lakes.
We arrived at the hotel and I checked my email, but I didn’t have a message back from Chris. I was anxious to see her and to speak with her about what would happen at the burial. I sent her an email to let her know we had arrived. We tried to call her a couple of times, but her phone was busy.
The next day, there was still no email or call from Chris, and her phone was still busy. My husband and I drove by the house to make sure everything looked okay, which it did, but we didn’t want to just knock on the door unannounced.
Instead, we drove to the cemetery. It is very small. We tried to find where my father’s grave would be, but there was no hole dug yet, and it was impossible to tell.
I called the synagogue to test the phone reception, which was good. This was important, because in order to say the Mourner’s Kaddish, the prayer for the dead, it is required to have at least ten Jews. I knew I wouldn’t be able to gather ten Jews at the cemetery, so we planned to do the next best thing. Nine of my friends were going to gather in Rabbi Lezak’s office the next day to say Kaddish with me over the phone.
We continued on the Bishop, where we had lunch and met with the attorney. He explained that because of the long processes involved, including three weeks of newspaper notices before I can be appointed officially as the executor, as well as four months for any creditors to file claims against the estate, there is no way the estate will be settled until some time next year. At least that means there isn’t anything much I need to run out and do right away.
We tried to call Chris again, got a busy signal again, and drove back to the hotel. We left a message at the hotel desk for my sister to call when she and her family arrived, made a few more unsuccessful calls to Chris, and settled in to wait.
When my sister, her husband, and her older daughter arrived (her younger daughter chose not to come), we went to her hotel room to discuss what we ought to do. Why wasn’t Chris answering her emails, and why was her phone busy? Did she just not want to deal with us? Was she okay? It seemed unlikely that she had suffered a heart attack or stroke or something, but it wasn’t completely out of the question.
Finally, we decided we would all drive over to the house to see what was up. She came to the door and welcomed us in. We told her we had been trying to get ahold of her. She looked surprised, picked up the phone, and discovered she had no dial tone. She didn’t know her phone had been out of order.
We all went out to dinner, and I sat next to Chris. I told her about my plan to say the Mourner’s Kaddish at the burial, as well as to ask her, my sister, and my niece to read something from the rabbi’s handbook. She said that was fine; she didn’t seem to care one way or the other. At least she didn’t object, as I had feared she might.
On Thursday morning, Rabbi Lezak called my cell phone just as we were arriving at the cemetery. He said some comforting and rabbinic things but I didn’t take any of it in; I was too keyed up.
The people gathered in his office introduced themselves so I would know who was there. I walked to where my father’s coffin was poised over the open grave that had been dug sometime after we had visited the previous day. The rest of the family in attendance arrayed themselves in a line to my right, and were joined by a neighbor who had unexpectedly come as well.
I said the Mourner’s Kaddish. It was hard, and I stumbled over the words in some places. Hearing the voices on the other end of the phone saying it with me was of incalculable value. I’m not sure I could have gotten through the whole prayer without them sustaining me. Afterward, they told me they loved me, and I told them I loved them too. It was a huge, huge deal.
Chris looked so alone, so I went over and I held my arm around her as the coffin was lowered into the grave. It is Jewish tradition that the next of kin be the first people to toss dirt onto the coffin. I didn’t want the first dirt to be thrown onto the coffin by strangers. At my direction, Chris tossed some dirt onto the coffin, then my sister did, and then I did. I should have asked my niece to toss some dirt in too, but I didn’t think of that at the time. I don’t know why. I regret it.
There is something final about the sound of dirt hitting the top of a coffin. I had never heard it before, and it is not a sound I will forget. It is an effective way to drive home the notion that all this is real.
Chris said she hadn’t brought her reading glasses, so I read the passage I had chosen for her, then my sister and her daughter read the passages I had chosen for them.
I know we didn’t do things in the traditional order. For instance, the Mourner’s Kaddish should have been at the end, but I didn’t want to keep the folks on the phone waiting for an unknown amount of time. I felt awkward leading the proceedings, but I was glad I did, because otherwise nobody would have. It would have been too lonely and sad to just stand there and not have any kind of service at all.
On the way out of the cemetery, I followed the tradition of ceremonially washing my hands, and Chris washed her hands as well. My sister chose not to wash her hands. She said she wanted the dirt to become part of her.
Chris thanked me for leading the service. She said she appreciated that it was short and honest. I had been so anxious that she wouldn’t want there to be any prayers or anything; it was a big relief to know she actually found it to be helpful.
Then my husband and I got into the car and we began the long drive home. The next afternoon, a group of people came over for the traditional meal of consolation. It was helpful to have the opportunity to talk some about what had happened over the last several days, and to say the Mourner’s Kaddish again with a room of people.
I was able to participate in services on Friday night to a much greater extent than I had the previous week. As happened the previous week, on both Friday and Saturday, I was flanked by members of my community who didn’t want me to sit alone.
Traditionally, when we say the Sh’ma, the central prayer asserting that God is one, we gather the fringes from the four corners of our tallit (prayer shawl) into one hand. I did not do so either last week or this week. I still acknowledge that God is one and that everything is one, but right now things are still feeling a bit too blown apart for me to gather all the fringes together.
Still, I know I am healing. It is a huge relief to know that my father’s body is buried and his spirit is free. I know that, slowly, the fringes will start to come back together.